Systems vs Story, and PvP

I’ve put a bunch of time into Archeage over the last week, and it’s been interesting to see what that game is doing systemically vs narratively. Archeage is, at the meta level, a sandbox within which you can forge your own path. What this means is that there are massive systems in place to give you things to do. By necessity, this means that the narrative takes something of a back seat. There’s limited time to make a game, so you lose some fidelity in the process.

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Archeage quests fall into a handful of categories: “main story”, “local area”, “travel”, and “busywork”. These are in descending order of quality– the main story quests have voiced cutscenes, a focus on story, and (generally speaking) interesting mechanics at work. The “local area” quests are the side stories, the location-based “what’s going on in this specific area” quests that you’re used to from WoW’s hub-and-spoke model. Travel quests are just that– an excuse to move you from one place to another. Often referred to as FedEx quests, these are used to guide people to the next bit of relevant content, so you aren’t lost and wondering where it might be worthwhile to go next. The last set of quests, the busywork quests, are the straight “kill X” quests– go here, fight mobs, done.

I mentioned that Archeage is a systems game, and you can see it in how their quests are delivered. The “busywork” quests, where you just go out and kill mobs, tend to come from bounty boards or are “hidden” quests– you hit the bounty board (which is a daily) and go do your fighting, and as soon as you kill your last mob, you get the rewards and can move on, no going back to a questgiver and unnecessarily chatting about how you’ve “done us all a great service by thinning the [monsters] in this area”. The game doesn’t waste time with unnecessary storytelling, focusing those efforts instead on the stories it wants to tell. These aren’t always amazing, but they tend to be worth reading. I’m legitimately curious where my main story is going, and I’ve had a few quests in areas that make me want to know more about the world.

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That having been said, in terms of pure quest content, Archeage is lighter than many games– by cutting out unnecessary storytelling, it also removes a lot of story content that would be in other games. This is where the sandbox comes in. A game with a lot of interlocking systems that are all working in tandem becomes a story engine; your experiences with the systems become stories you write yourself. It’s also where the PvP comes in, and why it’s important. Almost everyone I’ve talked to that has avoided the game cites “open-world PvP” as their reason not to play. Given the kinds of PvP experiences you get in games that aren’t systemically driven, this is wholly understandable. A lot of people hear “open-world PvP” and imagine wandering around flagged in Stranglethorn Vale, where they’re at risk of being killed at random for some other player’s jollies, and possibly camped and griefed as well, because it provokes a reaction (and given WoW’s mechanism for rezzing, is very easy to do).

Here’s why good systems matter: In WoW, when you die, you have to run back to your body as a ghost and resurrect at low health and mana, then spend some time recovering, or you resurrect at a graveyard at a severe “convenience” penalty. If someone kills you in PvP, in the open world, they are almost certainly assured a second kill if they simply wait around for a bit– the death system and the PvP system are aligned such that this is not only possible, but easy and rewarding. This is systemically rather bad. Compare to a game like Archeage: You die, you are returned (whole!) to a graveyard, and given a significant (10%) stat boost as a pick-me-up after death. Graveyards have a “safe zone” around them, so you can resurrect and restore yourself even if your killer(s) are standing around. You can teleport out of the area and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Rather than death and PvP being disconnected systems, they interlock in such a way as to minimize grief.

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To tie this into the storytelling, we can look at those FedEx quests. One extremely popular activity in Archeage is running trade routes. You create a bundle of trade goods and carry them to a different location than you made them in to sell. Some areas want different trade goods than others, and the farther you travel to deliver the goods, the better the reward is. Furthermore, there are significant systems built up around this mechanic– multiple types of vehicles exist to help you cart around goods, and simply carrying goods around slows you immensely, so while you’re carrying a trade pack, you’re vulnerable. You can put down a trade pack at any time, anywhere in the world, but other players can steal it if you do so. As a result, there are different kinds of trade runs: reliable but low-paying ones that run through safe territory and lucrative but dangerous ones that deliver across long distances through contested zones. These are FedEx quests, delivered to you without even quest text for context, and in a game like WoW or FFXIV, they would be incredibly boring. You’d autorun from one location to the next and resent the game every step of the way.

In Archeage, there are decision points to be made. There’s risk in a simple delivery, which makes the event more interesting. The systems in place in the game turn a boring delivery quest into an event that’s both repeatable and potentially interesting every single time. They also bring players together: some groups run trade caravans, bringing large groups of armed players to defend a big group of traders, often covering very long distances for maximum rewards. Smaller groups of players may travel in groups, one or two traders with an armed escort.

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This also builds a reason to PvP, rather than just for jollies. It *can* happen anywhere, but because there are good reasons to do it, it’s pretty rare for it to actually happen anywhere. To put it another way, in 25 levels, I have seen precisely zero PvP. There’s no one griefing newbies, there’s no one waiting on the road to gank someone twenty levels below them, nothing. There’s no reason to do so, not when you could be getting real rewards elsewhere.

I’ve often commented that I feel like WoW has poisoned the well on a number of gameplay mechanics– certainly the latest difficulty with flying mounts should say something about how you need to come up with a system for things, rather than just “hit a button, fly wherever you like”. Flight in WoW has serious problems; it’s essentially a GM cheat code that every player gets to use. There’re no systems governing its use, no skills to pick up or decisions to make: just hit button, fly effortlessly. Now they’ve realized how much of a problem that is but can’t throttle it back; their playerbase is raging over the suggestion that they might not be able to have GM cheat codes anymore.

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It may seem frustrating to put friction in a system, but it’s that friction that makes the environment that much more compelling, and makes even little things meaningful and interesting. PvP is just a system, it’s effectively that wandering Devilsaur that you didn’t see that aggros you and kills you. The difference between good PvP and bad PvP is what happens next. What do you lose, besides time? What can you do to prevent it happening again? If, as in WoW, the answer is a catch-22 between “take a 10min break with an awful debuff” or “get corpse camped”, that’s a bad decision. If you can more easily wipe your hands clean and move on, it’s that Devilsaur– just say “welp” and move on. You might run into another one again, but it’s unlikely to become a permanent fixture in your playtime.



Source: Digital Initiative
Systems vs Story, and PvP

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