PK or NPK

The first widely popular MMORPG, Ultima Online, had no PK switch when it was released.  Players could freely attack each other outside of designated guard zones.  This single fact and its consequences caused more player complaints and indignation than any other.  The two that followed, Everquest and Asheron’s Call, had a sort of kludgey system for generally disallowing PvP combat unless one consented to it.  Even UO eventually set up a xerox copy of their continent with no PvP allowed, and it became very popular.  Does this mean that PvP is inherently destructive to the gaming experience?  I don’t believe so.

The disallowing of PvP combat in games is implemented for one simple reason:  to try and control people’s tendencies to act like dickheads.  This is the intent of PK switch, and it fails miserably.  An immutable law of the universe is that dickheads will be dickheads, using whatever tools are granted them.  Another law that applies to online gaming is that anonymity makes one foolhardy, and therefore more likely to be a dickhead.  If they cannot kill other players, they will try and nab their loot, or spam them with harassing messages, or lead monsters into them when they aren’t ready, or whatever else is conceivably possible.  If there is an NPK switch, there’s not much you can do about this except reply in kind, squelch disagreeable messages, or allow the offender to force you from the area (if he doesn’t follow you).

An open PK system (no switch, PvP allowed) has some very big advantages:

  • Realism
  • An incentive for polite interaction
  • Player-driven subplots

It has another advantage too, namely the possibility of implementing the thief as a viable character option.  A thief in a world of non-PK’s is stupid, as thievery is almost exclusively a PvP activity.

The question is, do these advantages outweigh the tendencies of players to want to kill each other whenever possible?  You cannot answer this question until you’ve resolved some other aspects of your game system:

  • Player power scope
  • Justice system
  • Keeping players interested with activities other than murdering each other

Player power scope is covered elsewhere, but to paraphrase, you cannot have a realistic and meaningful PvP system in a game where the potential difference in power between two player characters is too great.  If the scope of player power is limited sufficiently, then a more experienced player character may have a great advantage over an inexperienced player character, but it’s within the scope of reason.  Without this limitation, conflicts tend to be analogous to a fight between Godzilla and a houseplant.  This is another good reason to avoid a level-based system, by the way.  Level based systems are very difficult to control in terms of player character potential, and inevitably some chowderhead down the road is going to raise your maximum level attainable, if you’ve even implemented one in the first place, worsening the problem.

A working justice system is missing from any of the big three MMORPG’s, and the UO version, the most detailed, doesn’t work.  The fact that it doesn’t work is made more reprehensible by the fact that they flouted realism to implement it.  The goal of your justice system has to be the preventing of wanton violent crimes with appropriate sanctions, while not utterly destroying the game of the person who chooses to follow a life of crime.  The justice system proposed elsewhere attempts to accomplish this with the added benefit of believability:  commit a crime serious enough, and riders come out to apprehend you, whom you can avoid, fight, or submit to.  It’s a reasonable expectation of any intelligent person playing a criminal that some day the cops will be after him, and thus this system is (hopefully) more palatable than something artificial and arbitrary like stat loss.

Maintaining player interest is, of course, probably the single most important aspect of your entire design philosophy.  If nobody is interested, why should they play?  The content design team must work extremely hard to give the players an expansive range of interesting activities to pursue.  One common reason that people become PK in the first place is that one day they looked at the options offered them by the game and said, "I’m bored."  Prevent this occurrance at all costs.

Of course, for some players the only thing that is interesting is killing other players.  You can either deny this avenue of action for them with an NPK policy (losing these customers and giving up the advantages of a PK switch), allow it to happen (entailing hours on hours of work to make sure the game environment is not dictated by this faction for everyone else), or try some kludgey middle ground with a PK switch.  I think the PK switch is a horrible artifice.  You still give up the realism, politeness factor, and player subplots you do with a strict NPK policy, while at the same time making your balance and creative decisions 50 times more difficult.  It’s almost impossible to do something radical to alter the play of the NPK faction without utterly destroying something for the PK faction, and vice versa.  Assume you are one or the other and go from there.

4 Responses to “PK or NPK”
  1. Here’s my answer – give an experience penalty for killing another player of lower level than yourself. Make PvP an entertaining and challenging part of the game while punishing those who use it as a way to ruin the gaming experience for everyon else.

  2. The idea that PvP encourages politeness is absurb and completely false. In ten+ years of playing MMO’s I have never once seen any incident where people where polited regarding PvP.

    The obvious answers are
    1) Have areas of the map that are open to PvP and ones that are not. But make sure there is no exclusive benefit found only in one land
    2) Divide the servers.

    The second is what most games do these days and if you check the numbers you will realize something very fast – only about 10% of players even want open PvP. The numbers simply do not lie. With that in mind it I would say the second is the best solution and its no wonder most MMO developers are using it

    You do suggest so interesting stuff though, which I find you generally do

  3. Apparently you never played on early Darktide, on some versions of Three Towns, or on PvP+ UO emulators that did not advertise themselves as “hardcore.” It encourages politeness as far as it is counterbalanced by the “players are assholes” axiom.

  4. Great post.

    Back in the MUD days I used to play Dragonrealms, a game where PvP was completely open. However the justice system was extremely strict. The game was well policed by automatic guards with small jail time (a few minutes 5-10) and fines (could get quite steep) If a player continuously killed other players for no reason, a god figure would pop down and destroy them. This was potentially permanent. If I remember correctly this was done via an on-duty GM. I only saw this a few times and it was usually for something other than PK, such as some breach of the Terms. Consented PvP resulted in no penalty and there were situations for auto-consent, such as grave robbing or thievery. There were brash and evil players. You would get stolen from and scammed. However I never once was attacked by another player without consent despite the freedom. People in the game simply did not do this without good reason.

    This brings up an important factor in controlling troll PKs: Culture.

    It’s extremely important for the game to encourage the culture that they are looking for. Dragonrealms did this well. EVE is another game I would argue does this well. Sure EVE can be a killing frenzy but it’s built to be a killing frenzy. It’s important for the ingame mechanics as well as metagame mechanics to keep open PvP realistic by encouraging a self-policing and polite culture within the game. Auto policing is a great start, especially if the punishment is strict. Auto-consent helps too, while this can be abused as it is in EVE. In my opinion, open PvP games also need a way to encourage and validate community policing. GMs worked well in Dragonrealms but the player base was small (3000 online at a peak). With large games self-policing becomes ever more important. This also generates a valuable asset in enabling player storytelling.

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