MMO PvP: Never fair and balanced

Comment that caught my attention over at Massively, from Jef’s excellent Soapbox piece about RP and FFA PvP:

“It isn’t PVP because it is never fair and balanced.”

A lot of layers to that one line.

For starters, what defines ‘fair and balanced’? Most would make that judgment during or directly after the actual encounter, but I think that’s selling the whole thing short. If you get ganked in a 10v1, it’s hard to argue the fight was fair or balanced, but I’d ask why it was a 10v1 to begin with. If you lost a 1v1 because someone had a major character/gear advantage, I doubt you would call that an even fight, but I’d again ask ‘why’ the other guy had such an advantage. I’d also ask how important player-skill was in the fight as well.

That, to me, is one of the core differences between an MMORPG and a FPS; characters matter, and ‘balance’ is player-driven rather than hard-coded.

In a FPS, you can’t ‘zerg’ the other side on a 16v16 server, and you can’t bring out and risk the big toys to out-gear them either. It’s just you and 15 others, all with the same HP total, the same available weapons, and on a map that starts neutral, against 16 other guys. Before the first shot is fired, everything is ‘fair and balanced’ in terms of characters/gear, and it’s a pure player-skill driven game. The better players should always win unless luck plays a major role. Which is great if that’s what you are looking to play, but 99% of the time, it’s not what I’m after.

What I am looking for is a game where character progress matters. Where who you know and who you can call upon matters. Where what you bring out, and more importantly, risk, matters. Where yesterday impacts today, and sets up tomorrow.

There is always a ‘why’ behind someone getting zerged. “Make more friends” is a legitimate argument in a MMORPG with FFA PvP. There are reasons why zergs fall apart, and why when they don’t, people remember the name.

A very memorable line from a DF dev related to all of this: “TheMercs are very good at PvE”, when we were discussing early Darkfall and the very dominant PvP clan TheMercs. It’s a simple line, but it holds a lot of weight. Perhaps the players behind the characters in TheMercs were also great PvPers, perhaps not. But it’s undeniable that in the early days, they PvE’ed (shadily) better than anyone else, and used that advantage to dominate ‘unfairly’. It also might explain why, when the rest caught up, they declared victory and left.

Many would see the above as a game flaw, but to me, that’s what an MMORPG is all about (shady PvE aside). You put in the ‘work’, you reap the rewards. And that work can be PvE grinding, playing politics, infiltrating clans, etc. Point is, you can tip the scales of balance in your favor before the fight even starts, but that in itself takes skill and determination. A FPS is just a raw display of twitch skills, while MMORPG success is a complex web of inputs that, more often than not, leaves someone on the short end of the stick.

If you are looking for a ‘fair and balanced’ fight, an MMO is not the right place to look, and that’s by design.

About SynCaine

Former hardcore raider turned casual gamer.
This entry was posted in Combat Systems, Darkfall Online, EVE Online, Mass Media, MMO design, PvP. Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to MMO PvP: Never fair and balanced

  1. xXJayeDuBXx says:

    I completely agree. Try as they might, when devs try to balance a game they inevitably un-balance something else, it’s a vicious cycle really. And let’s not forget that there will always be players who are better than everyone else. Fair and balance is a fun idea in MMO’s.

  2. Mala says:

    I agree more or less. That being said, I very much like the controlled “fair” sports-like competition of an FPS or RTS. MMO PvP is ideally more like simulated warfare, and war isn’t fair. I like both ways of playing, and its just what I’m in the mood for at the moment that decides which I’ll play, but more to the point, its when you try to cross the ways of playing that your PvP sucks and you basically please no one.

    Full disclosure: My current MMO of choice is world war 2 online (basically pure simulated war, though it does have some systems in place to prevent “the zerg”). My current competitive PvP game of choice is Starcraft 2.

  3. Scott says:

    Count me in the crowd who believes (so far) PvP and RPGs do not mix. I tend to be quite literal a lot of the time so when PvP stands for “player” vs player, RPGs do not focus on that. It isn’t you vs me; it’s your character (more to the point, your character’s gear/skill points vs mine) which makes me, the player, at least one step removed from the equation.

    People focus too much on “FPS” also. Chess is PvP. Uno is PvP. A sports game or racing game is PvP. RTS is PvP. There are so many other types of PvP out there other than shooters. But all of them put the players themselves on an even field (in terms of health:damage) and it’s the *players* experience and knowledge that *can* make the difference, but still leaving the brand-new guy plenty of opportunities. RPGs don’t really afford that when whomever has the best gear, etc. automatically wins over the new guy.

    On the other hand, I agree that if I bother to put in the time, I should have the opportunity to reap greater rewards. MMOs have yet to implement what I would consider “meaningful PvP” so it remains only an occasionally fun diversion since in the end it doesn’t really matter. And if it doesn’t matter, I see no reason to pay a monthly fee for it.

    Might be one of those cases of “can’t have your cake and eat it too?” In any case, MMO PvP will never be “fair and balanced” for the simple reason that they are RPGs.

    • Mala says:

      This is a really telling post. Basically, MMOs ARE RPGs at this point. There are almost 0 exceptions. I’d play a game like Tribes 2 (no RPG elements) just on a huge map with 1000s of players, dozens or 100s of bases, and 100s more smaller objectives. That would be an MMO, but it would not be an RPG. I agree though, I dislike RPG PvP because I don’t like for random number generators, gear differences, or whatever be the deciding factor. I’m ok with what Syncaine says about who you know and who you can bring to the fight being worthwhile, but that really has little to nothing to do with whether or not the game is an RPG.

    • Randomessa says:

      “when PvP stands for “player” vs player, RPGs do not focus on that. It isn’t you vs me; it’s your character (more to the point, your character’s gear/skill points vs mine) which makes me, the player, at least one step removed from the equation.”

      That is an excellent point and touches on the aspect of RPGs that I specifically prefer (that my character’s skill is brought to bear, not mine). I will raise the point with my PvP-loving husband (who up to this point only indulges in this via RTSes, but wants a “good PvP” MMO as well).

      For my part, I don’t mind at all if the MMO separates the PvP from the MMO part within the same game (whether in a Guild Wars way or a WAR scenario way), but obviously that’s not everyone’s bag.

      • SynCaine says:

        To this end, that’s why I have always liked TBS games; they remove all twitch skill. Atlantica Online has a great combat system IMO, because it’s basically RPG-like turn-based battles, with zero movement or ‘twitch’ factor. I’d love an MMO further expand on this (and not be a F2P Asian grinder).

        • Carson says:

          Yep I thought Atlantica paced it really well too, so there weren’t any “twitch” skills required, but there were certainly “quick thinking” skills required – you couldn’t be paralyzed by indecision when you only have 30 seconds to put five moves into action.

  4. tariqone says:

    The problem is that you need to distinguish between the two terms. Mashing them together into a Fox News buzzword wrings all meaning out of it.

    I agree that expecting “fairness” in MMO PvP is naive. I believe, rightly, that duels “never fight a fair fight.” I can’t get upset when 3v1ed, or jumped while engaged in a mob. That’s life in a PvP MMO.

    Likewise, I don’t expect perfect balance. I accept that certain realities pertain that make it hard for class X to beat class Y, and other such inherent specific inequities.

    But I also believe that it is an MMO developer’s job, for the good of the game, to consistently tweak and refine things to squeeze out balance flaws. If no one can beat a tankmage, then most people will be tankmages, and the few people who aren’t. Will have to reroll, find a new game, or learn to live with being stomped into repeated puddles by cackling droves of tankmages.

    It’s not an MMO developer’s job to enforce fairness. That’s neither possible nor advisable. But it would be incredibly dumb of a dev to refuse address obvious design imbalances and just say hey, tankmage is the best, reroll or l2p nubs.

    • tariqone says:

      Ugh. Should say: “I believe, rightly, that duels aside the first rule of MMO PvP is “never fight a fair fight.”

  5. Old Tom says:

    Among FFA PvP critics, the obsession with fair fights and balance in every situation is interesting. But I think we’re all missing part of the equation. Balance in a fight matters in direct proportion to the games’ defined victory conditions.

    An example … Being an old guy, I still play cardboard wargames. One of my favorite topics of wargames is strategic level Pacific, WWII. Now, anyone who is at least somewhat familiar with that history should be able to tell you that the Empire of Japan had no hope of winning that conflict. The U.S. had the time, space and resources to endlessly out-gun the Japanese … in fact the U.S. did exactly that. The Japanese by contrast were starved for resources and had a very shallow pool of replacements for their mounting losses.

    Now, from a gaming perspective, this conflict sounds dull. The Japanese will inevitably lose. But a good game designer assigns victory conditions not on who “wins the war” but on other conditions – speed of victory, U.S. casualties, etc. Victory conditions balance what is otherwise an unbalanced fight.

    Now what does this have to do with MMO’s and PvP? Sandbox MMO’s have no predefined victory conditions. Balance is impossible to define because no one is required to play the same game. Even better, in a sandbox, you can’t force me to play your game .. to accept your victory conditions preciely because there are no universal victory conditions.

    You make your own game .. and if that’s not an RPG, I don’t know what is.

    • SynCaine says:

      A very good point.

      Not that long ago one alliance in Darkfall was pushed out of all its cities by a much more powerful alliance, but instead of folding, they continued the war out of NPC cities instead. Eventually their ‘gurilla war’ tactics were enough to frustrate the other side, and they were able to recover some holdings and put an end to what initially was a horribly one-sided contest.

      They survived and ultimately ‘won’ because, as they put it, the enemy could never take their characters away, and that was enough to keep them going.

  6. Letrange says:

    “The only reason for a fair fight is because someone made a mistake”. It all depends on whether your point of view of PvP is “Warfare” or “e-sports”. If it’s the former – there is no such thing as a fair fight. If it’s the later then yes you want to arrange as much of a “fair” fight as possible. The problem is that PvP is a loose definition that encompasses both styles of PvP. EVE and Darkfall are “Warfare” PvP, WoW and most FPS are “e-sports” PvP. Let’s be clear on which one we’re bitching about at any particular time could we?

    • SynCaine says:

      Title of the post says MMO PvP…

    • Old Tom says:


      No matter the mindset of the player, I believe the point is that the mechanics of an MMO preclude the e-sports understanding of PvP from really working.

      The best e-sports example are FPS games where gear and in-game skills do not determine damage. But in MMO’s these factors are unavoidable. Some MMO’s like WoW attempt to mitigate these factors by placing level-limits on PvP arenas or battlegrounds. But these do not completely solve the problem. Going further, in FFA PvP these MMO factors are completely unavoidable. Thus it doesn’t matter what your view is, except in understanding the context of someone’s bitching about PvP … “Aah, I see. You did not understand the game you were actually playing.”

      • Carson says:

        The problem is when people who understand the game perfectly well, and express the opinion that they simply don’t like it, generally get accused of “bitching” and “not understanding the game”. And this happens pretty much all the time.

        • Old Tom says:

          You’re right .. that is a problem … for those who keep doing the same thing and expecting different outcomes … otherwise known as insanity.

          If I keep playing the same game and discover the same results which aren’t to my liking, why on earth would I keep playing?!

  7. Dblade says:

    Problem though is that the progression/numerical advantages kill the fun of the fights. Fights are the most fun where they are the closest balance between opposing sides and skill comes into play.

    PvPers admit this. In fights when you have a great mismatch, you don’t get much enjoyment from the fight itself. You might from ruining a person’s day, but nothing is more boring than a 10 to 1 fight.

    Nothing also drives PvPers from games faster. Aion was a good example. Tremendously unfair fights due to PvE rift twinks drove a lot of people from the game and led to a savage nerfing of it into oblivion.

    I’ve heard a lot about fair and unfair fights, but what I have seen, and you have too I bet, is that the more unfair, the harder it is for PvPers to remain engaged in the game.

    • SynCaine says:

      This actually balances itself, as top-tier clans will intentionally keep their numbers low so that they don’t get into too many overwhelming victories. When such clans get too big, their best members get bored, and either break off or call for the clan to trim down.

  8. Steve says:

    Things like ‘MMOs are where PvPers (as in FPS) go to retire’ or ‘real PvP is FPS’ repeated fairly often, frankly I think they are largely true.

    The level of skill required in most MMOs is far less than a FPS requires. PvP in most MMOs is hugely unbalanced, to the point I ask why bother doing it, going up against some guy who basically doesn’t stand a chance (whether that be down to gear/skill points/level or simply numbers of players) is about as exciting as farming skins from a mob 20 levels lower.

    I find it particular bizzare when people actively seek out these easy situations and little else, I used to play Eve (a very overrated game by some, but I guess that is why barely anyone plays it, nor is it a real soapbox, but I digress). The point being there were some corps whose “PvP” exclusively consisted of ganking miners, really what is the point?

    The only MMO (PvP wise) that I’m even going to bother with now is GW2 as they seem to have worked real PvPers don’t want to faceroll people that don’t stand a chance due to gear/level/skill points, etc, thus have allegedly created a balanced system of PvP.

Comments are closed.