Friday, May 7, 2010

Fair and unfair PvP

Last week we had several topics at Tobolds blog that got quite an attention. For one thing we were commenting on EVE Online, but mostly we were talking about fair and un-fair PvP with many commenters argueing in favor of EVE Online PvP, without even playing it.
While Tobold did a rather nice wrap-up as part of an ongoing EVE Online review, I will try to cover the more basic question of fairness in PvP computer games.
I will start by quoting a comment by David:
1. As other people have pointed out, the more strategy there is to the gameplay the more likely that tactical combat will be wildly unfair (since the whole POINT of having a strategy is to make things tactically unfair). For example if you play a Total War game, the battles are much more unfair if you play the campaign mode than if you play a single battle since that gameplay mode introduces a strategic element.

It is impossible to make all tactical combat fair without removing the strategic element to a game. People who like their games to have a strategic element don't like that.

In MMORPGs there's a sliding scale of strategy vs. tactics with Eve 0.0 warfare at one end and arena battles at the other. Different people like different places on this spectrum, neither is inherently more fun than the other and neither is "evil."

2. Playing out an unfair battle can be very fun. If there's an unfair battle then you can have goals like escape, try to take a few of them down with you, hold off the enemy until reinforcements arrive, try to kill all of the enemy without getting any loses at all, try to kill all of the enemy before reinforcements arrive etc. And if you can actually win a battle that's tilted against you, then that is very fun indeed. For some people, having every battle be exactly evenly matched gets boring. Some of the most fun I've had in MMORPGs has been doing massed (nearly) hopeless suicide charged of lowbie characters against high level gankers. Sometimes they even worked :)

Some people really like being the underdog or having other forms of unfair combat and some people don't. Neither choice is inherently more fun and neither is "evil."

3. Many people prefer PvP that simulates wars, rather PvP that simulates sports. It is simply impossible to design a PvP system that simulates a real life war in which each and every battle is tactically balanced. It would feel forced and artificial and it would ruin the whole feeling (for the people who prefer PvP that simulates war).

The benefit of Sport PvP is that it is fair and that there are more rules, but War PvP has benefits as well:
-It produces real history.
-It is much more capable of producing surprises.
-It does a better job of making the world feel "real."
-It is better for supporting player created political units.
-It allows for much deeper and long term strategy, diplomacy, etc.
-It allows for a much more varied PvP experience.

Now, for some people all those benefits trump the benefits that Sport PvP provides and for some people they don't. Neither Sport PvP nor War PvP are inherently more fun than the other and neither is "evil." It's a matter of taste.

Now going out of your way to harass people in ways that doesn't benefit you at all (like killing newbies) is a rather jerkish thing to do, but saying that every single form of combat in which both sides are not tactically balanced is unfun and "evil" is using a very broad brush.

Also how well Eve does at living up all of that is a whooooole 'nother question, but you weren't talking about Eve specifically, but instead about ANY form of PvP in which the sides aren't equal or any kind of gameplay that results in PvP between unequal sides.
This comment is illuminating in my opinion (and unfortunately there were no answers to it at Tobolds blog). But it doesn’t cover the abstract, underlying truth: That no (non-artificial) PvP-game (element) ever is perfectly fair and, no PvP game (element) ever is perfectly unfair. In fact, all (non-artificial) PvP game (elements) aspire to be perfectly fair given the correct perspective.

Take soccer as an example. Ignoring skill differences in the teams, soccer can be considered fair. Every side has exactly the same number of people and follows the same basic rules. Firstly, it is important to acknowledge that ignoring skill differences is not a given. If Bayern München challenges a team of 7-year olds, that match could hardly be described as fair.
But, ignoring skill differences still makes you wonder about fairness in soccer: Imagine two defenders attacking a striker. Is that fair? No! This singled out situation is not fair. What is fair, however, is the fact that both teams (ignoring skill differences) had the same chances to make such a situation happen.

In German this is called “Chancengleichheit” instead of “Gleichheit”. Which translates to “equality of chances” vs. “equality”. Our economic system (social market economy) is considered fair if it offers every person the same chances at the beginning of life, while ignoring skill differences. Soccer is fair by the same argument.

Now, by this standard our economic system isn’t perfectly fair, nor is soccer or any MMO. The experienced guy who started with release started among equals, while the newbie starts among experienced players. It is important to differentiate between a game being perfectly fair and the level at which a game aspires to be perfectly fair, but usually isn’t. Even in soccer different conditions of the ground cannot be eliminated, nor can the fact that the audience is unfair. Players might have a hard time because their wife is ill or because their feet are injured. These are conditions that cannot be made equal within practical approaches, thus we accept them.
In MMOs some kind of character progression (horizontal and vertical) happens by definition of the genre and thus a latecomer cannot be offered the same experience as a player who plays since release. Considering the lack of practical alternatives, we (ought to) accept that.

EVE Online isn’t fair on a player basis, but it tries to be fair on a corporation basis (ignoring differences in the number of members). Of course, some old corporations can still have an advantage compared to new ones, but we can probably agree that the corp vs. corp or Alliance vs. Alliance game of EVE is quite fair. At least as fair as WoW battlegrounds with players wearing different item sets, having different experience levels and even playing for different amounts of time per week.

Nobody is in favor of unfair PvP. But most people agree that the activity itself is allowed to define the perspective from which to judge!

In a single soccer match we judge at a team vs. team basis and ignore skill differences. In a soccer league we judge from the perspective of the season and even sometimes allow advantages for the winner of the last season. We do not consider it unfair if one party loses a match 0:1 and still makes it to the next round, while the opponent doesn't, if they have won an earlier match with a high score of 3:0.

The level at which a game aspires to be fair is different between WoW-Arena PvP, WoW battleground PvP, chess and almost any game. Every game defines a different perspective from which you judge fairness. No (non-artificial) game aspires to be completely fair at every level and no (non-artificial) game aspires to be perfectly unfair at every level. It all comes down to the perspective, and this perspective is part of the rules of the game. Each game defines its own rules and part of the rules, usually mentioned between the lines, is the level at which the game aspires to be fair.

If players consider a game unfair it is sometimes, because they reject the perspective from which to judge. They disagree with the level at which the game should be fair. This is their fault. If you consider soccer unfair, because two or even four defenders are allowed to tackle one striker, quit playing soccer, but don't call soccer unfair! Every (non-artificial) game is unfair at some level; actually at all conceivable levels below one.

As David points out, the level at which a game aspires to be fair has massive influence on the game. If a game wants to incorporate strategy between battles it cannot forcefully equalize each battle. If it did, there were little point in strategizing in the first place. Thus, if you want to play a game that incorporates strategy (like soccer), you also need to allow for unfair situations at a lower level.

Finally: Fairness isn’t as important as people might think. Sure, players scream and shout all the time, but what really determines if they play your game is the actual gameplay. The GUI, the accessibility, the flow. This is the secret behind World of Warcraft; a game that I abhor for the level at which it aspires to be fair, but still play and enjoy. Playing a battleground in WoW is fun although it doesn’t have any consequence whatsoever. That fun of battle itself is enough for me to keep playing and paying. This is where EVE Online considerably lacks behind. The battles itself can be very tedious, even boring. EVE scores only at the next level: Strategy.
And this is why I say that WoW and EVE Online can learn a lot from each other: WoW can learn that fairness at every level isn’t actually important (they, of all companies should know) and that allowing for strategy has the advantages that David listed. And EVE online can learn that the GUI and the flow of gameplay is one of the very most important aspects of any game.

Thanks to David for the comment.


  1. As a sidenote, what Tobold did was cut a bunch of bits and pieces from comments that he figured reflected Eve as he saw it, i.e. bad and evil. A well made "sure showed them, haha" blog entry considering his previous ones, but not what I'd characterize as a "nice wrap-up of a review".

    The problem with Sport-pvp, or Fair-pvp if you prefer, is that it needs to be either quite complex or take a high degree of skill to master, to have lasting appeal. Neither of which is present in any MMO I've ever seen.

    For fair "PvP" with long term appeal I have to go to flight sims (IL2) and racing simulations (IRacing, GTR2/GTL/GPL), as only these types of games allow a wider and deeper skillset to be used, allowing you to hone your skills and see clear improvement over years, instead of just weeks/months. No MMO offers this. Closest at least somewhat MMO-like game is Battleground Europe, or WW2Online as it used to be called.

    War-PvP, or Un-fair PvP on the other hand, can get away with simplistic MMO style gameplay (where as Yahtzee put it, "you take turns kicking each other on the shins, and the one with the bigger boots wins) because of the multi-faceted combat and strategy, where that shin kicking is only a short part of it, and still generate interest year after year.

    Eve can make your heart pound like no other game I've played, because of the context you mention, because of the risk. But you have to work for it, you have to put in the time and effort, to create something you care about, and then risk losing it. If you don't, even Eve becomes just another "kick the opponents shins" game, like most other MMO's. This part of the game can only start once you're past the newb period, once you have a decent grasp of game mechanics and of available income streams.

    As an avid three year vet to get that adrenaline rush I've recently started putting assets (ships+imps) on the front line that are worth upwards of 20 months of game time (roughly 300eur if you pay by month). Sometimes more.

    (You can buy game-time both with RL currency and In Game currency (ISK). I do the latter, i.e. I don't put real money into the game.)

    Someday I'll lose that to good opponents or a stupid mistake, and that day I will be angry (if due to own mistake) and sad, but until then I will get that excitement from risking them and hopefully coming out ahead.

    Adrenaline rushes to the point of shaking hands from computer games? Who'd have thunk it? Certainly not I, in fact I sneered with some contempt at folks who said they got them, how silly of them to take a simplistic MMO so seriously.... Yet after some time in Eve I discovered it's possible :D

    Obviously not everyone agrees with me, given the popularity of simplistic shoebox fps's and the big name MMO's. Yet I'm fairly sure they don't get the shakes from their game to the extent many Eve players do. Maybe they don't know it's possible, or maybe they don't want the excitement.

    .....Oh dear, meant to briefly comment on general pvp, but, Eve crept in and took over. I hope it's not too out of place, as that's where this discussion started.

  2. "the more strategy there is to the gameplay the more likely that tactical combat will be wildly unfair."

    I think that sentence right there pretty much says it all. PvP in games is not a sport where the two sides match up but rather like a war where numbers, technology, and strategy all play a part in winning or losing.

  3. "The battles itself can be very tedious, even boring."

    I have to take issue with this. I have been in a lot of battles in my days and they are anything but tedious. Perhaps the actual mechanics of clicking fire or activating a module is rather tedious but I don't see how this is different from any other game. Clicking a button is clicking a button. However watching angular velocity, capacitor charge, weapon ranges, enemy ranges, enemy locations, Ewar, range to other objects, session timers, speed, distance to gates, friendly's armor/shields, broadcasts, local spikes, module overheat status, etc. keep one pretty busy during the 30-180 seconds a fight usually lasts.

  4. It probably depends on the complexity of the battle and the available skills. For me, who doesn't even has 1mio SP battles are quite tedious. I hope it becomes much better later on ;)

  5. From CCP Hammerhead's livechat on strategy informer earlier this week:

    Question: "The players of eve would like a better idea of what is on the short list [for the winter expansion]."

    HH: "Incarna work, an iteration of PI, NPC and mission improvements, EVE Gate improvements, new and better effects, treaties... those are things on the Winter short list. I'd really like to see a revamp/improvement to the combat UI but it's a bigger project that wouldn't fit in Winter with the other things we're doing. "

    There are people in CCP who see the need for UI change - and plenty of players... ;) Corporate priorities are a pain.

    I suspect a substantial proportion of EVE's player would sell their grandmother's clone for Engine Trails and a worth substitute for the old cyno/jumpdrive effect, if that's what "new and better effects" might mean. ;)

  6. Your observations are very correct.
    I would just want to emphasize one nuance:

    Right now EvE and WoW are 2 extreme example of "fairness" level. EvE is almost like real world in terms on consequences, thus the actual combat in EvE is skewed every possible way , much too serious for a game imho.
    Real wars are about destroying your opponent. EvE is very much way too hardcore in this direction
    Dropping atomic bomb on Japan was "unfair" , so was stealing billions in ISK and destroying a titan trough lies and deceit

    WoW on the other hand is like kindergarten game of dodgeball. Carefully monitored by nannies and is more concerned with no one being hurt than the fun

    I d think somewhere in the middle -when the stakes are not too high h so that combat itself is more fun and important that it consequences, while at same time having some impact and effect on the world (as opposed to 0 from wow arenas and instanced BGs)