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A Frequency of Failure...

Tim Dale

Our Guild Wars guild likes to try a bit of everything in that game, and each alternate week, we focus on team PvP. This is typically a good-natured affair and primarily conducted in the privacy of our guild hall, strictly among friends. This week we decided to try some of the more open competitive public PvP on offer, in the form of the Team Arenas, short matches of pre-organised teams of four players in a variety of settings.

As is often the case, it turned out that I'd severely underestimated the prowess of the pool of competing teams and we lost a fair few matches before I stepped back from the team and suggested someone else have a go in my place. They went on to qualify for the Heroes' Ascent outpost, winning five matches that night, while I muttered and grumbled more than is seemly, and it was then I realised that I am a very bad loser indeed. An unpleasant realisation, I began to wonder; was it simply a disorder of my own personality, or was this something my MMO gaming had trained me to be?

Very few gamers approach a game with the intention of losing, and while 'the taking part' may indeed the important bit, the very act of competing is core to the nature of most games. We aim to win, whatever that may mean in a particular game. In the simpler kinds of game, such as chess, backgammon or snakes and ladders, we compete in the full knowledge that only one player can be the victor, but such games tend to have little lasting consequence beyond the match itself. There is always next time, and practice can improve the prospects of a win in future.

With computer games, things become more cloudy. While a game of chess is a relatively short battle, computer games typically demand far more time and effort to win. The more a player invests in a game, the more is lost if they do prove not to be successful, and the less likely they might be to want to start all over again.

"We simply re-roll the dice until we get a result we like."

These games still have victory, but defeat becomes more and more difficult to truly encounter. In off-line gaming, the save game removes much of the sting of loss. By regularly mashing function keys or manipulating menus, previously game-ending death-blows now become mere minor inconveniences, and instead of dozens of lost hours and restarting from scratch, we lose only minutes by literally rewinding time to the point where the critical mistake was made, and choosing a different path. We simply re-roll the dice until we get a result we like. In many cases, the game even saves these reusable pasts on a regular basis, automatically. So provided we remember to keep a relevant bookmark in recent history, updated behind us as we progress, it is very difficult to really lose an off-line game in any meaningful sense.

Once online and into the MMO world, such trickery with time becomes difficult at best, but expectations remain. While the idea sometimes resurfaces in speculation and idle musing, no current MMO offers 'permadeath' as a core gameplay mechanic, just as no off-line game would ship with no save-game system. Even the most avowedly hardcore of titles - such as EVE Online or Darkfall, where PvP rules the day and the costs of defeat can be high - still do not impose the ultimate sanction for failure; the game over scenario of irreversible character death, and with enough grit and determination, anyone can bounce back and get back into play, perhaps even turning the tables in time. From a purely commercial standpoint, it is in no game's interest to drive players away with unrecoverable losses, especially when the business plan demands that a player participate for many months. There is always a way back.

But with no quick-save and quick-load, the respawn steps in. A character might 'die', but is never down and out for long, and in the event of sudden mortal mishap any number of magical or divine forces save the day, often leaving us with nothing more lasting than a minor and short-lived hangover, and a lengthy walk back to the scene of our demise, to carry on regardless. Inconvenience is the watchword, rather than annihilation, and this is not necessarily a bad thing as such; these are games, played for fun after all.

But while true defeat might be a rare thing, or at least a decreasingly disruptive and noticeable one, victory is generally available by the bucket-load. In a typical multi-hour session, a given hero might vanquish hundreds of enemies in mortal combat, and think nothing particularly special of it. In MMOs, we are heroes, and have come to expect no less. With careful use of extensive 'con' tools, fights can be carefully chosen for difficulty before engaging and with a basic understanding of how a class works, it is not only likely, but expected that a typical MMO player in the mid to end levels of their game will simply not lose at all in an average gaming session.

Death and failure in the PvE world have very much become things of bad judgment or bad luck; we've mistimed the pull, or hadn't recovered fully from the previous fight, or got hit by an unlucky wandering monster from behind. Against a blue difficulty enemy, with level appropriate equipment and abilities, and no unforeseen factors, we will win, and can even come to rely on that fact.

"As long as I don't try anything stupid, I can expect success as a matter of course."

All of the above means that I seem to have forgotten what losing is actually like, not through any specific superior skill on my own part, but simply because the majority of modern PvE MMO gameplay just isn't set up for player defeat. In matters of gaming, I have probably become too comfortable, too self-assured, too used to getting my own way most of the time; I am well and truly entrenched in a comfort zone created by my own willingness to succeed, and the canny game designer's willingness to accommodate me wishes as a paying customer. As long as I don't try anything stupid, I can expect success as a matter of course.

Which makes PvP all such an unexpected and unpleasant shock to the dabbler. PvP cannot happen without at least one player not getting their way, and much of the generic animosity that arises in discussions of all things PvP, can be traced back to this unfortunate fact. It makes PvP very difficult for the new or infrequent player to even get into; we so-called 'carebears' encounter a sudden culture shock, and more accustomed to computer-generated opponents falling before us in their thousands, coming up against a practiced and generally more capable single opponent is unexpected, and not generally how gaming is supposed to go. Little wonder I get annoyed at the ensuing beat-down.

I can't rule out basic, good old-fashioned bitter pride and resentment, of course, but I suspect that a significant part of why I take being beaten at games and sports so badly is that I've spent a very long time being taught that victory is something I deserve and should expect, which simply isn't the case when it comes to PvP dabblings. In matters PvP, victory is something that must be practiced for, and ultimately, earned, and even then, the skilled cannot expect to win every match; there will always be someone better out there, if not today, then one day soon.

The cure to my ungentlemanly bitterness is a simple enough thing, of course; I just need to swallow that pride, adjust my expectations accordingly and get stuck in. Perhaps by learning how to lose again, I might just rediscover a fundamental truth I seem to have mislaid somewhere along the way; that at the end of the day, it is just a game...

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