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Thinking Virtually

#41: The Competition Conundrum

by Shannon Appelcline
January 28, 2002

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Problem #3: The Competition Conundrum

This is one of the problems that is fairly unique to MCRPGs and mostly absent from their tabletop RPG brethren. The basic question is: how do you support competition without angering players?

At core, this comes down to the issues of Player versus Player (PvP) gameplay and Player Killing (PK). But, there are other variables too: what other competitive means do you allow players, and how do you support them, and what affect does this all have on your community?

From Thinking Virtually #32, Five Things I Hate About You: Engineering Problems

Welcome, ladles and jellybeans, to the set of articles that's going to get us halfway through my current topic on Thinking Virtually: engineering problems. For those of you who came in late, I'll offer a quick refresher.

Engineering is one of the four major phases in the designing of a multiplayer computer roleplaying game (MCRPG). It's the bit where you've already figured out what your game is, and are now trying to make that design reality by creating systems that players will interact with in-game. As you'd expect, the MCRPG medium has its own unique problems. And those problems affect how your game systems need to be engineered. Thus far, I've covered the two broadest engineering issues: engineering systems that are fun and ones that are realistic. Now it's time to start moving toward systems that are slightly more specific to the multiplayer part of the MCRPG equation ... and the first of those is competition.

What is this Competition Thing?

Competition is probably something that you don't think about too much in the world of tabletop RPGs. When you have a couple of friends sitting about your dinner table you don't really want to create antipathies that could last for weeks, months, or even years. But in the world of the Internet, where the other characters are faceless names floating through the ether ... well, there's a lot more urge to unleash your natural competitive urge, and wipe the floor with that poor fellow on the other side of your broadband connection.

To really discuss the issue of competition requires a definition, and fortunately that's pretty easy to come by. Competition, quite simply, is some sort of trial where you prove whether you're better than someone else (or worse).

When you talk about competition, most people immediately leap to the issue of Player Killing (PKing). It's the most obvious form, probably, because it gets so much press. And, yeah, it's definitely a form of competition.

But as a MCRPG design you need to think a lot more broadly, because there are lots of other possibilities. The trial could be a non-mortal duel. Or it could be a barter. Or it could simply be a test to see who is better in an area of expertise. Just about every MCRPG player is familiar with the concept of leveling--raising your character up to the next tier of power. That, in itself, is a type of competition. You're comparing your character to others, and showing whether you're better than them or worse. It's competition, honest to Gygax.

So, with that said, I'm going to be talking about a wide variety of competition types this week. But I've got a few detours first.

Why Do We Need Competition Anyway?

The first detour is this question: is competition actually required in MCRPGs? I'm going to offer an answer here that I know is going to sound sexist and stereotypical. The real fact is, it's statistical. Here we go: men like competition; women don't.

No, that's not all men, nor is it all women either. But, because of genetics, hormones, and god knows what else makes up our amazing human bodies, the average guy tends to like to smash the other average guy into the ground while the average gal is more likely to appreciate socialization. As it happens, I love winning at Wiz War, while my wife really enjoyed the cooperative game of Lord of the Rings she recently played. Not the case for every gal or every guy, but true for us in these specific cases, and true on average, statistically.

Now, as it happens, the traditional players of MCRPGs have been male. That ratio is tipping, a little bit on socialization-enabling games like Ultima Online, a lot on socialization-centered games like Skotos' own Castle Marrach. But, traditionally it's been guys all the way. And that means typical gameplay--and the typical systems that have been engineered--are all about what the typical guy likes.


So, when you ask the question, "does my game need to be competitive?", the answer should be, "absolutely not." If you make a non-competitive game, it'll probably appeal to just as many people as a competitive game does. Though, the fact that there are two distinct interest groups should lead you to a fairly obvious conclusion: engineering for both competitive and non-competitive players will introduce you to the largest player base of all.

The Inevitable Detour to PK

OK, I know I said that competition really wasn't just PK, but I do have to admit that it's a strong issue in the competition arena, and thus it's worth taking a look at how it works and how it fails.

The concept of PKing (or, to use it's alternative name, Player versus Player, or PvP) has been around for quite some time on the Internet. It sprouted up in MUDs here and there more than a decade back. But, it didn't really take center stage until Ultima Online, the first of the really popular massively-multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs). And, in all honesty, it was a total disaster.

As was often the case, handfuls of PKers built up their levels, then preceded to ruin the game for anyone new. The Ultima Online experiment showed the failure of PK in numerous ways, most notably:

  • Domination. The competition was jammed in a player's face so hard that he didn't have a chance to do anything else.
  • Inequal Contests. Massively inequal people were allowed or forced to compete.
  • Inequal Costs. The cost to a new player was high (he died); the cost to an old player was low (they were in no real danger).
  • Non-consent. Players didn't have any option as to whether to enter into a competition or not.

So, if you're going to allow PK in your game, you need to figure out how to resolve these issues. Here's how some of the big boys of done it so far:

  • Ultima Online & Player Justice. The folks at Origins have tried just about everything to resolve their PK issues. One of their first experiments involved simply tagging PKers as murderers, and thus making it OK to PK them without getting a murderer tag yourself. A nice try at creating player justice systems, but it sure doesn't change the experience for a new player who didn't have fun because he was getting scragged. Skotos' The Eternal City takes a similar tact slightly more successfully because it has a smaller, and thus more policeable, community.
  • Ultima Online & Safe Areas. Origins pretty quickly caught on and started marking areas as protected from PKing, starting with the towns. This didn't necessarily help a lot, however, as people would just wait outside town, and would even take advantage of boundary conditions to turn innocent players into murderers. Eventually Origins had to think bigger, and turn entire continents into safe areas.
  • Microsoft & Bad Shards. Some games, such as Asheron's Call, have side-stepped the whole issue by making individual shards either PK or no-PK. Thus you actually have an environment that's all about PK or where it's impossible. Of course that means you totally lose the advantages that well-managed PK could introduce in most situations.
  • Mythic & PK Areas. In many ways, Mythic uses the old Ultima Online model in Dark Ages of Camelot. Except, it sort of turns it on its head--PK areas are the minority, specially marked as such, rather than safe areas being such. And, theoretically, players don't have to ever play in the Realm vs. Realm (PK) parts of Camelot if they don't want to.

All of the PK experiments in these games have been varyingly successful. In general, they can work if the PK avoids the issues I set out above: it's not dominant, it's consensual, and contests, risks, and rewards are more equal.

And, in general, those are good rules for any type of competition ...

So, How do I Engineer this Competition Thing Anyways? For whatever reason, you've decided to engineer competition into your game. The question is: how do you do it? For a starter, you'll want to avoid those deadly sins that tend to crop up in PK, as they could make any competitive system unattractive to your players. Don't make the competition in-your-face or you'll turn off people looking for a non-competitive game, whatever their sex. Don't make it required, but rather have it be mutually consensual. And finally, Do consider what happens when you have unequal participants, both in how the contest is determined and what the costs are (though, this last advice is less important if your competition is truly consensual, by the old "you get what you asked for" philosophy).

Once you've got those basic rules down, you can apply them to a wide variety of possible types of competition. A lot of us like competition in our game, so go wild, and introduce as much as you're willing to engineer.

  • Physical Competition. This is the type of competition which most often leads to PKing. Two characters run at each other and through some type of direct competition, be it combat, bartering, rock-scissors-paper, try to defeat each other.
  • Statistical Competition. Typically the most harmless form of competition (though the stakes could be anything), most often epitomized by leveling. You compare your level, characteristics, statistics, magic items, or whatever else with those of another character in the game, and discover who's better, and who's not.
  • Economic Competition. The heart of capitalism: the competition for scarce resources. Competitors don't necessarily directly interact, but by taking resources out of a system, they inately make life harder for other characters in that same system.
  • Mental Competition. The competition of ideas, where different people express different views. If I say the king is good, and you say the king is evil, we'll likely try and influence other people, and our entirely philosophical competition will be fought within the souls of every person we encounter.

When you're engineering competition, you also need to decide what the stakes are. Some of the most popular possibilities include:

  • Mortal Stakes. Someone lives, someone dies. PKing.
  • Ego Stakes. Someone is embarrassed, someone isn't.
  • Minor Stakes. Someone loses something, some gains it.

And that is competition is a nutshell. If I'd offered any advice this week, I hope it's this: competition in MCRPGs is far more than just PKing. By deciding your stakes and deciding your form of competition you can open a whole array of possibilities. And, by putting certain limits on the competition, you can ensure that all of your players have a good time. Easy.

Alternative Views

Once more, I've got a few alternative views planned--thoughts that other people have on competition. It probably won't be surprising that a lot of them are about PKing itself. Here's what I have lined up for the next four weeks:

  • Measuring Hate. by Sam Witt. Whether to include competition in your games, and why hate is good.
  • Dirty Words: PK, Part One. by Travis Casey. Defining PK and looking at solutions to date.
  • That Darned PvP Stuff Again. by Jessica Mulligan. The myths of PvP play.
  • Dirty Words: PK, Part Two. by Travis Casey. More on PK, and the problem of grief players.

And after that, as March descends upon us, and Spring draws ever nearer, we'll be on to balance, engineering problem #4. TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

What do you think?

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