I’m not a fan of PvP (Player vs. Player combat) as found in most MMOs. The prevailing DIKU DNA, manifested in levels, gear and ganking, just doesn’t provide the level playing field that I prefer when it comes to pitting my playing skills against those of another human.
I loved Street Fighter and other assorted fighters when I was in high school. SF2 really hooked me, and I thoroughly enjoyed several derivative games like Marvel vs. Capcom 2, SFAlpha, Killer Instinct, King of Fighters, Samurai Shodown, Darkstalkers, Soul Edge, and their variants. Mortal Kombat is too exhibitive for my taste, but for a while there, there were a lot of good fighter games floating around, so there was no dearth of options. The most expensive game I ever purchased was the SNES cartridge of SF2Turbo ($70 at the time, stupidly expensive, but still a ton of fun). My friends and I spent a lot of time and money in arcades and at home with fighting games, a not uncommon thing for teens of the 90s.
My skills were never such that I could play in a tournament, but I did hold my own against most arcade players, and won far more often than I lost. It was very satisfying to play in a hard-fought match and come out on top. Steamrolling new players wasn’t much fun, and I’d often take it easy on them reflexively. I like to win, but I like it to be an honest win that requires good play on my part. Perhaps I was doing a Darwinian disservice to those noobs by taking it easy on them, but I tried to always have fun and try to let the other player have fun too. It seemed to me to be a better way to spend my time. Constantly losing to a better player is only fun if you’re learning something (and if they aren’t a jerk). Frustration isn’t fun.
The best part of these fighting games was the intricate balancing jobs they did, working with disparate characters and playstyles. Some games were better balanced than others, to be sure, but on the whole, success in fighting games when playing against other players usually boiled down to player skill. This made successes sweeter and failures more instructive. It was also a lot of fun.
Dave Sirlin has made a bit of a career out of writing about SF games and fighting games in general, and he wrote a great article some time ago about how World of Warcraft teaches the wrong lessons. Everything Sirlin writes is filtered through his SF background and his “Play to Win” ethos, so it’s not going to be a set of assertions that works for everyone, but it’s a solid read, and really strikes at the heart of what I don’t like in MMO PvP.
One of his memorable quips is the suggestion of a “level 60 Chun-li” and the absurdity that such an image presents. It’s silly to think that player time investment in building a character would outweigh player skill in the fighting game scene, yet it’s precisely that paradigm that drives PvP in most MMOs. This is why open world PvP inevitably degenerates into a cycle of bullying and “ganking“; players aren’t looking for a fair fight, they are looking to win, or worse, to give grief to other players. A game system where time investment brings more powerful characters in the form of higher levels and/or better gear doesn’t offer much in the way of a fair fight. (Notably, it also causes problems even when you’re not playing against other players… there are problems playing with other players against the computer. Levels do weird things sometimes.)
I might note that a very narrow power band might make for tolerable PvP, of course. Guild Wars gets close to this. World of Warcraft, with its endgame characters being orders of magnitude more powerful than new characters, is a bit different. It shouldn’t take 300 characters to kill one foe. (Sadly, the video has been lost on that one, and the 300 weren’t even enough, but still… the power of a end game character is absurd compared to a new character.) Maybe that makes for good fantasy power trips if you’re the powerful one (and that was a Player vs. Environment contest), but it’s awful for PvP. Puzzle Pirates has a very narrow power band, and the vast bulk of the game is based on player skill. This is a big part of why I still consider it to be my MMO home. It just feels more like my skill matters, rather than my time investment.
I want a level playing field for PvP contests. If I fail, it should be because I wasn’t good enough. If I win, it should be because I played well. It’s all about player skill.
I don’t see that in most MMOs, which is one of the reasons I’m a dedicated solo Explorer who occasionally indulges in dungeon prowling with other players. I don’t mind an imbalanced contest against the computer’s monsters (though it’s nice to have a spectrum of challenge), but when I’m playing with other players, I want to know that the contest is one of skill, strategy and tactics, not a barely disguised measurement of time investment.