The PvP Files: Death and Consequences

Posted today over at Grimwell Online.
Why death penalties are necessary for PvP.

Death penalties should be seen as a necessary part to both PvE and PvP, providing a sense of consequence to ingame actions. Granted, dying is not always the result of bad player decisions; mob respawn, runners bringing adds, overpulling, etc. can all lead to player deaths. Without any penalty, players would simply be able to suicide run their way through content. Having at least a minimal penalty helps teach the player to be a bit more careful in the future. Yet, games that have little or no penalty for dying are generally seen by a majority of players as more “fun” or “better” to play. Why is this? 

More casual players (either PvP- or PvE-oriented) and those new to the genre generally view penalties of any sort purely as a negative and tend to prefer gaining rewards instead. They feel that giving out a reward such as realm points (DAoC) or titles (WoW) leads to a more positive PvP experience overall. No one is penalized so no one suffers any more hardship than returning to their body or hunting location. But even this scenario has a penalty that everyone seems to accept without question – the loss of time.

For both PvE and PvP, the ideal death penalty is one that makes sense within the mechanics of the game (obviously). If equipment is costly (in time, money or effort) to acquire, then losing all items on death is overly harsh. The player is truly being penalized and this has a direct effect on how the player plays the game. They tend to take fewer chances in order to minimize any risks. Yet losing all items on death isn’t much of a penalty if replacement involves nothing more complicated than heading to the nearest NPC vendor. This can promote a more reckless style of play where players frequently get in over their heads and it doesn’t matter in the long run. They’ll just buy new gear and go on their way. The middle ground would seem to be a temporary penalty that is allowed to accumulate over time before becoming significant such as equipment damage, experience loss, stats loss or a combination of these factors.

A death penalty should never be a deterrent to game play. For example, taking some degree of equipment damage doesn’t handicap the player, especially when the damage is only a small percentage of the equipment’s overall durability. The player has the option to delay repairs for a period of time before they are forced to repair in most cases. At the other extreme, losing all equipped items becomes a severe detriment to game play, especially when those items are difficult or time consuming to replace. What is a good balance point between having no consequences (no penalty) and having too harsh a consequence (losing all items) and how does this specifically affect PvP?

Penalties are more important in PvP than PvE because of the reasons for engaging in PvP in the first place  – the desire to pit your skills against another person instead of just computer AI. It’s a way to “win” online and garner e-bragging rights. Yet if the losing player suffers no long or short term effects from battle, why bother to compete? Bragging rights can not provide the sole reward for the winner for long, because unless a player is completely incompetent, even the constant loser will eventually win and get to take part in the same (or similar) rewards the winner receives. This premise doesn’t take into account the pure griefer type of PvP player, those who are only in it for the amount of disruption they can bring to another players game time.

When speaking of penalties though, there seems to be the automatic correlation that a reward is also part of the equation, as well it should be. You can’t have a system based purely on punishment; just as having a system based only on rewarding players doesn’t make much sense either. Neither provides a balanced system to the player base.

Balancing the amount of penalty versus reward within the game can be difficult. Why does there even need to be a mix of the two in the first place though? While just providing rewards to the players for winning sounds like the best path to follow, this will eventually lead to the worst form of inconsequential PvP – the endless “zerg rush.” Most know what this is, an endless series of large scale back and forth battles that never seem to end and have no real purpose other than trying to kill someone else before you get killed. Little or any skill is involved in these battles because losing means nothing due to death having no effect at all and winning becomes equally meaningless. Sure you might get a nice title/rank out of it, and maybe be able to pick up some special skills or gear, but then retaining those items is dependant on maintaining said title/rank which means more endless back-and-forth battles, lather, rinse, repeat. Boring.

There needs to be a counter to a player’s ability to immediately return to battle after death. With no consequences, eventually no one really cares about the outcome of battle since there is no true end to the fight. Gaining the reward becomes just another meaningless treadmill of achievement to grind out, and the real reason for PvP – pitting your skills against that of another player – is lost.

As already stated, balancing the mix of reward versus penalty is difficult. Where does the game draw the line between providing players a consequence to their actions and a detriment to their game play? The penalty must be temporary, one that can be removed by the player (repair costs) or that lasts a certain period of time (such as a non-PvP timer). Both methods are appealing because they help to control other aspects of game play without causing serious interruptions. If equipment is given a set durability that is affected by death, then the player has the option to put off repairs for a period of time until either the equipment breaks entirely or no longer provides any protection.

An alternate form of repair is when player statistics are affected by death. When stats are affected, this also affects viability in combat until the player either works off the penalty by earning more experience (such as AC’s vitae system) or speaks to an NPC to be healed (as in DAoC). In both situations though, players are free to continue engaging in combat until they feel the penalty warrants correction. There will eventually be a point when the player has no choice but to repair their items/stats because they are no longer effective, but that decision is controlled by the player. This affects overall PvP by taking the player out of combat for a period of time, no matter how long or short it may be. It’s a counter to the “zerg rush” where players just come back time and time and time and time again, with no thought of strategy or planning.

The non-PvP timer is good because again, it takes the player out of combat for a certain period of time but this is not under the player’s control. This type is usually only used in PvP situations though, and is especially best in free-for-all (FFA) environments for preventing endless killings by much higher level characters or larger groups of players. It’s a getaway card for when you are being corpse-camped. When battles take place near resurrection locations (graveyards, lifestones, bindpoints, etc.) this also prevents players from resurrecting and immediately rejoining the battle. Again, a counter to the never-ending battle.

All penalties and no reward make for a boring PvP game though. So what type of reward is best? One that won’t become another part of the achievement treadmill, obviously, but is that type wrong to have? Not if it’s paired with another reward. Gaining something tangible from the defeated player gives the winner an immediate reward. Sometimes it can be as simple as knowing you caused them damage (equipment, stats, time), but even that isn’t enough after a while, because nothing tangible is gained in return. For example, in DAoC, players would drop money on death. This was not taken from the dying player’s bank; it came from the game itself. Winners were rewarded without penalizing the losers.

A system where players drop inventory items can have it’s drawbacks as well if the players have no control over what drops. In AC, there was a set amount of items which could be lost, based on a formula that was known and eventually well understood by everyone. The players could manipulate the system by carrying other items meant to drop in place of something they wished to keep. Dying in PvP meant that whoever killed a player was permitted to loot those items from the body – the reward. The penalty side was if the losing player did not make it back to his body in time to loot it first, they then had to replace those dropped items or risk losing what they were meant to cover.

In SB, players dropped everything in their inventory at death. This could prove to be a large penalty if a player had been out hunting for a long period of time, but again, it was a known and controllable consequence of dying in that game. Players could take the chance on dropping a large amount of items and gold on death or they could clear their inventories periodically and prevent loss. Similar to AC, the grave was lootable by others if the player did not return to it first.

In the examples given for both systems of reward or penalty, none exist solely on their own. They are all combinations of reward and penalty to different degrees. AC has vitae/stats loss and a non-PvP timer (penalties) along with dropped items/money (both reward and penalty). DAoC has realm points/titles and money (rewards) along with stats loss (penalty). SB has equipment damage and non-PvP timer (penalties) and dropped money/items (both reward and penalty). These rewards and penalties (except for the non-PvP timer and PvP specific titles) apply equally to PvE and PvP, meaning that the system doesn’t change going between the two areas. Players are almost considered mobs in terms of the loot reward system.

For WoW, there is nothing to balance between PvE and PvP. The rules change from killing a mob to killing a player. If you kill a mob, you (almost always) receive items and/or money. If you die to a mob, you receive equipment damage that builds up over time. The rules are known and accepted in play. In PvP, those rules are completely thrown out the window and any sense of consequence is lost. The system of reward and penalty is ignored and since there is nothing to achieve besides a title, nothing matters except trying to achieve said title. Again, boring.

In the most recent patch, WoW has attempted to prevent the endless back-and-forth fights that occur by implementing Battlegrounds (BGs), yet even these have drawbacks. Again, the primary justification for participation is reward. There is a lack of control on player actions after dying inside the BGs; you simply wait for 30 seconds for an automatic resurrection and run right back into the action. For example, in the smaller 10v10 BG where the goal is capture the flag, this means players are far less likely to use any strategy and are more likely to return to the mini-zerg as soon as possible. This method of play is enforced by the difficulty in forming an organized group ahead of time and joining the same BG without waiting multiple hours.

It seems clear that a balanced system of rewards and penalties is best for any game that provides PvP. There is nothing wrong with having consequences to dying in PvE, so why is it considered a bad thing for similar penalties to be in place for PvP? Despite the “more fun” view some have towards no-penalty PvP, in the long run, it ends up being even more empty and “un-fun” for the players.

Am I insane? Tell me about it here.


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