The Soapbox: Sandboxes and the cop-out of FFA PvP

Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

Last week, our own Jef Reahard mounted the Massively Soapbox with an article titled Sandboxes and the fear of FFA PvP. In it, he argued that open PvP was a natural and necessary part of any solid sandbox MMO. He also made waves by suggesting that FFA PvP is crucial to the roleplaying experience and that roleplayers should really face their "fears" and give it a try.

I'm a sandbox gamer and a PvPer at heart. I played the early years of Ultima Online and lived the adrenaline rush of full and brutal PvP and thievery. Dark Age of Camelot's RvR sucked up another year of my life. Star Wars Galaxies remains my sandbox of choice, and I've braved a World of Warcraft PvP server since launch. I know this territory very well. I'll knock it, because I have more than tried it -- in several tasty flavors.

And even though I'm an unabashed Jef-fangirl, I think there are a few debatable issues with his article. Hit the jump for some good old-fashioned counterpoints!

Social miscreants are not roleplayers

The first thing I need to counter is the idea that "corporate thieves, spies [and] gankers" are roleplayers. Roleplaying is a conscious separation of yourself from your character. When I'm playing a wicked character, I usually strike up a private OOC conversation to make sure my "victim" is comfortable with whatever antisocial act my character has planned. If my victim isn't happy OOC, then neither am I. By contrast, a griefer is only happy when his victim is miserable. He might make a show of roleplaying to try to legitimize his behavior, but at the end of the day, Bad Bobby isn't kicking back with his victims in Ventrilo, drinking to the Good Times they all had in their RP session when he robbed them of billions of ISK. Consequently, it's no wonder that serious roleplayers, even the kind who enjoy PvP, avoid game worlds populated by griefers who justify any action that pops to mind as "roleplaying."

Not all PvPers are also griefers, of course, but the types of PvPers who PvP for the challenge rather than the gank tend to 1) metagame their builds and gear such that 2) they don't even pretend to be roleplaying while they fight, and that's if they 3) bother with a sandbox at all instead of a FPS game that pits skill against skill and dispenses with gear and level inequities. For similar reasons, roleplayers are drawn to non-sandbox games and servers that have factional or battleground PvP, which allows them to engage on their own terms, not on someone else's.

"Grin and bear it" is not the answer

Jef argued that "putting up with PvP instead of avoiding it altogether could do wonders both for your personal immersion goals as well as the future of sandbox games." I can't agree with either statement. First, spending your money on a game that isn't really what you want and that has major dysfunctions sends exactly the wrong message to the developers. Unless you're playing a freemium a la carte game in which you can purchase one system at a time (thus deliberately shunning a poorly drawn PvP system), your sub fee is the only vote you get. Don't waste it on crappy games.

Second, it's a rare roleplayer who has not already tried open-world PvP and found it wanting -- these opinions aren't being formed in a vacuum. If a roleplayer has decided that being gang-ganked by a pack of thugs and robbed of a week's worth of loot isn't immersive, then doing it more isn't going to change his mind, especially when there are dozens (hundreds!) of other games out there with plenty of roleplay-friendly elements. I know Jef was making an honest suggestion here; he doesn't consider himself a good PvPer, but he was willing to give it a go in Darkfall and found it fun. I found it fun too... 13 years ago. After years of sandbox FFA PvP in Ultima Online, I got tired of it, plain and simple. It requires a different playstyle, a different mindset, a different type of guild -- and an extreme level of paranoia. At some stage, veteran players feel they've been there and done that; they have so much more to lose and less time than ever, so they start expecting their games to provide more entertainment than stress.

My husband, for example, can tell you exactly how much it cost his old UO tank-mage to re-gear after a gank. Another bag of reagents. Another sword. Another suit of platemail. If he was lucky, he'd break even. Players are only willing to suffer that so many times before they start to discern futility. Even though we played years beyond that in an anti-PK guild (one that actively hunted PKs), he still cites repeated ganks as his strongest memory of the pre-Trammel sandbox that was UO. All these years later, it still leaves a bad taste in his mouth. In fact, we lost guildies when we opted for a PvP WoW server at launch for the same reason; even though WoW reduced PvP losses to a few seconds of a corpse run, some players simply refuse to put themselves in those situations ever again, immersion be damned. The memory of that frustration is still too near.

Is this really about immersion anyway?

And if it is, how does open-world PvP add to it? For me, immersion is about making my in-game experience more realistic -- avoiding meta-shortcuts, doing things a real person would, like eating and camping out or having a drink in a tavern. It's not particularly realistic to wander outside and be murdered repeatedly by a population apparently composed primarily of brigands and sociopaths and serial-killers. Forget the eternal RP issue of how to handle repeat deaths and resurrections -- it's the fact that everyone around me is encouraged to be a nonchalant murderer that makes me direct my RP and PvP energies elsewhere.

And that's why I take issue with Jef's claim that in "Darkfall, EVE, and their ilk, your character is living in a world with a whole range of choices (and consequences) . . . a world that you can actually affect in certain ways." In fact, these are attributes of all sandbox games and many hybrid sandpark games, not just PvP sandbox games. PvP sandboxes merely add one more option to the mix, and it's not a particularly interesting one. Every one of these games has a ruleset; no sandbox is truly free from the restrictions placed upon it by the designers. A sandbox that lacks open PvP is no less a sandbox for that than, say, a sci-fi game that lacks ambulatory characters, a space opera that launches without space ships, or a skill-based fantasy MMO whose strained servers auto-teleport players away from high-pop roleplaying events.

This leads me to conclude not only that FFA PvP is an unnecessary element of a sandbox, but that it's a cop-out through and through. It's lazy game design. It's the developers' way of saying, "Yeah you know, we don't really have anything interesting to add to this part of gameplay, so just go ahead and do whatever, because anarchy is like so hardcore." And that's not to say I'm opposed to anarchy, but rather that I resent being robbed of a massive spectrum of interesting interactions and consequences, all of which would be far more rewarding than the yes/no option of kill/don't kill. Kidnapping? Torture? Imprisonment? Trials? Fines? Bounties? Piracy? Espionage? Public executions? So very few games even bother with these elements, preferring instead to just turn us loose on each other like rabid dogs. The designers allow us to be criminals and vigilantes, but we can't fill any of the other roles a realistic justice system would have -- police, justices, gaolers, lawyers, privateers, bounty hunters. The last-resort option of murder should be exactly that -- a last resort, rife with serious in-game consequences and dozens of strong and creative alternatives that provide roleplay experiences for all parties involved.

In this way, sandboxes get under my skin. The developers are always happy to provide elaborate and even draconian rulesets for skill gain and housing and travel and crafting -- EVE even employs an economist to interfere in the player market (itself a form of PvP) -- but when it comes time for the creation of a system of logical consequences for the seedy underbelly of the game (the PvPers, griefers, gankers, scammers, etc.), game companies shrug and declare "free for all," all while refusing players any sort of system to make their own justice beyond "if someone tries to kill you, you kill him right back." It's nice advice, but it's hardly viable for newcomers to a game who lack the skills, gear, and social networking necessary to survive in such a world. This in turn ensures that the thugs who rule the sandbox keep right on ruling it, hogging all the toys until all their victims are driven away and the game slowly but surely shrivels.

FFA PvP isn't even a useful RP tool

Now why would roleplayers -- or any players -- want to come play victims in a game like that? The pay-off for having the freedom to murder is just too rarely worth the cost. In fact, my own experiences tell me that the lack of FFA PvP makes roleplayers more creative than they otherwise would be. My best and most interesting roleplaying experiences all happened in Star Wars Galaxies, a sandbox in which PvP was conducted through duels and Rebel-vs.-Imperial factional warfare only. Because we could not just murder our enemies in cold blood, we were forced to invent more interesting solutions on our own -- key citizens were kidnapped, guild leaders were imprisoned, bugs were planted, poisons were imbibed, and a force-sensitive even agreed to her own murder and perma-death, arranged ahead of time for maximum story impact. When we later joined a roleplaying coalition with full PvP via guild warring, we found that because we (and our frenemies) had the option of killing each other, that's exactly what happened. Cooperative roleplay died overnight; all conflicts were solved with a fight to the death. One of our rivals even recruited non-roleplaying PvPers to its side temporarily, just to get an edge over our city. FFA didn't add depth to our roleplaying; it took depth away.

If even top roleplayers couldn't avoid that temptation, how can we ask for better from unapologetic sandbox gankers?

Lessons from Trammel

At the end of the day, we should heed the grandfather of all MMOs and the first instance of a FFA PvP RPG. As much as certain players cling fast to the idea that Trammel killed UO, the reverse is true -- the introduction of a safe mirror-image of the existing lands actually correlated to an up-spike in subscriptions. Back then, there were only a few games on the market; the pickings were slim, so it was easy to see the market respond to incentives like Trammel. Nowadays, players have hundreds of choices of games in which to spend time. It's no surprise that the staggering majority of them go to games in which violent gangs can't ruin their day, games that offer entertainment value rather than terror or frustration in return for a ganking option they may never even use, roleplayer or not.

I'm all for a fresh take on a PvP sandbox, but FFA PvP is just another cop-out. When I need an adrenaline rush, there are far better places to get it than jockeying with the player warlords of the two or three tiny open-PvP sandboxes still in operation. And you know what? I'm glad those games still exist. They remind me how much less fun I could be having.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!
This article was originally published on Massively.