Disclosure: I don’t own a gun, but I fully support the Second Amendment to the U. S. Constitution. I think it’s crucial as an equalizer between citizens and a check on runaway government statist tendencies. If you want to debate that, well… this isn’t really the place, and I’ll moderate accordingly. I mention it first so you can get your prejudicial reflexive responses out of your system and move on. No, I’m not really talking politics, but there’s enough potential intersection that I wanted to get that out of the way.
I’m talking about PvP.
One of the things that bothers me most about PvP in most modern MMOs is the rather extreme power differential. It’s absurd to have level capped characters be orders of magnitude more powerful than rookies. Yes, PvP is all about exploiting imbalances and the whole Sun Tzu thing, but when you have a max level character who literally cannot be harmed by a newbie, and who can in return slaughter newbies by the score at whim, you’re not dealing with PvP any more, you’re dealing with bullying. That’s what “ganking” is, pure bullying, something corrosive to a gaming community.
I actually don’t mind class imbalances or other world-based spatial tactical advantages. That’s sort of the point of open world PvP. It seems to me that the venerable Sun Tzu would be all for taking advantage of whatever you can find. Still, I’m not convinced that he was imagining a world like we see in these fantasy games.
I’m not blaming players, either. The notion of “fair play” is a squishy one, as is “honorable combat”. Players play with what they are given. No, I’m arguing that designers really should make PvP most about player skill and minimize leveling, gear and other influences as much as possible. Or maybe, just maybe… set up equalizers.
What about guns? According to some, they are the great equalizer out here in monkeyspace. Sure, a brute like Mike Tyson should be a clear winner in a PvP bout with a waif supermodel, but what if she’s packing heat? A .22 slug to the brainpan should stop even a bull like Tyson. As the old argument goes, “an armed society is a polite society”, and that’s even possible in a merely magical world, as I noted a while back.
How might that work in a game world? It’s not like gankers would sit back and agree to let their marks have teeth. That’s against their design. Maybe it has to be reactive. Maybe outclassed victims simply get a revenge mechanic. Bullies can be haunted by players they bother, and may be “shot” into incompetence at the most inopportune times. Maybe this means a root/snare, maybe it’s a nudge off a cliff, maybe it’s a stun that makes the bully drop to level 1 for a while in hostile territory. Maybe make it automatic and persistent, but victim-defined, so that the bully can’t just log out and clear it.
Maybe players always fight at the same level, no matter what. PvP fights are always based purely on class balance, and stats are normalized. How to do that on the fly might be tricksy, true.
…or maybe, just maybe, make your power differential smaller to start with. That’s what I’d do, but that’s really a “ground up” design, not something to adapt to midstream.
So why do I care about all of this? Well, if the newest WoW expansion is going to make war between factions more personal, it may well be more relevant in that game. For better or worse, as WoW goes, so goes a significant undercurrent of the MMO genre. PvP is a niche pursuit at best, I think, but if the goal is to get more players involved, it has to make sense and not be a frustrating mess. Open world PvP has the potential to make the world of an MMO interesting and exciting… but if it’s just a cycle of bullying, it’s really not much fun for anyone but the bullies. I find that… unfortunate.
Edited to add this sweet post by Shamus over at Twenty Sided from a while back, just as a tangential bit of great writing and game design philosophy: