And hey, it's pretty simple, at least conceptually. All a dev team needs to do is iterate on Star Wars: Galaxies' pre-NGE PvP system.
I say pre-NGE not because I'm one of those NGE bashers. On the contrary, I thought the game as a whole improved significantly post-NGE. That's subjective, of course, but there's no denying that it a) lasted for two years in its pre-NGE form as opposed to six years after the NGE, and b) had dozens more features and much more sandbox functionality after October 2005.
One thing the NGE didn't do well, though, was PvP. It eventually gave us Restuss, which was a sort of open world battleground hybrid centered on an NPC city and at best was an exercise in endless repetition. The NGE also gave us the ill-conceived base system that never amounted to anything other than an easily exploited faction reward grind. This spawned the phenomenon known as base-busting, where it was entirely possible for PvP-averse players to travel in huge AFK herds from one opposing factional base to the next while a couple of players took turns blowing stuff up with their alts and granting everyone in the vicinity some substantial rewards.
I'm not exaggerating, either, because I did this on several alts. At one point I was running around with General-rank characters who had no PvP kills, but dammit they did have that spiffy Barc speeder and lots of slick factional armor!
Have you ever wondered why no subsequent dev team has riffed on pre-NGE PvP, though? And no, it's not because SWG "failed"; plenty of MMOs would love to be profitable for nine years while implementing a quarter of SWG's unique gameplay systems.
Maybe no one's looked at pre-NGE PvP because the devs making FFA PvP sandboxes nowadays didn't play SWG prior to 2005. Or if they did play it, maybe they've forgotten how the PvP worked. Because it did work. Quite well in fact, and even exceedingly well given that it was attached to a game that was largely a PvE sandbox and shackled with an IP that harmed game mechanics much more than it helped (i.e., player Jedi).
SWG's PvP managed to offer something for both hardcore all-PvP-all-the-time people as well as those who either dabble in PvP or avoid it altogether. Sure, there were problems, and I don't mean to suggest that there were no disagreements or balance issues. But given the bland, consequence-free design that's dominated the MMO space and PvP in particular in recent years, SWG's solution was clearly the best possible compromise.
The system's lynchpin was the TEF, which stood for temporary enemy flag. This was an opt in/opt out mechanic that allowed anyone and everyone wandering through SWG's huge open world to flag for factional PvP.
Or not, if you preferred.
The catch was that certain actions would flag a player for PvP even if he'd rather PvE, so players had to at least be aware of the mechanics and what specific goals they were looking to accomplish. If I, as a Rebel-aligned avatar, ventured into the Dune Sea to take down an NPC stormtrooper squad after receiving the requisite mission terminal assignment, I would be flagged -- temporarily -- as an enemy combatant and therefore be freely attackable to any Imperial-aligned players I came across.
Once I'd disposed of the stormtroopers and waited for a bit (if I remember correctly, the cooldown was no longer than 10 or 15 minutes), my flag would reset to non-combatant status and I could go about my business without looking over my shoulder for potential PK threats.
Because of the huge size of SWG's planets, it was entirely possible to run these sorts of factional missions in a secluded area and thereby minimize the risk of PvP while still partaking of the Galactic Civil War and faction point reward systems. But the possibility for PvP was there, and the smarter PvPers did prowl for these types of PvEers on occasion, which in my opinion added a nice cat-and-mouse feeling to what was otherwise a pretty standard MMO mission grind.
And of course dedicated PvPers would turn their flags on before they even set out on a mission, and many of them walked around freely attackable to the opposing faction 24/7. This was where SWG's pre-NGE PvP really excelled. It didn't separate the PvPers into battlegrounds or other instances. It kept everything in the open world, which was more fun for the combatants and for the players who simply wanted to watch.
Sure, you can enter spectator mode in Guild Wars or lobby shooter #1,138, but it's not the same world-vs.-game feeling you get when you run across a huge player battle taking place in Anchorhead.
SWG's other notable pre-NGE PvP feature was actually a core component of SWG itself rather than a specific PvP mechanic. I'm talking about item decay, and it was crucial because it meant that PvP equipment -- like most everything else in the game -- wore out. This could obviously affect fights rather dramatically, but more importantly it gave PvPers incentive to plan ahead and seek out crafters, and therefore it gave crafters a reason to, you know, craft.
To me, that sort of system is infinitely preferable to the self-sufficiency crapfest that typifies most of today's MMOs. Not only that, but unless you're playing a twitch- or skill-based game with no grind -- i.e., not an MMORPG -- you are basically forced to PvE for a time until you acquire the loot drops or whatever is necessary to be competitive in PvP. With pre-NGE SWG, PvPers could simply buy the necessary supplies and get on with what they enjoyed, provided they met the profession requirements for various pieces of equipment.
Ultimately, SWG's pre-NGE PvP was a customizable system that catered to everyone. Well, everyone except griefers, basically, because unless you remained willfully ignorant of the mechanics and made mistakes with your flagging, it was impossible to be griefed even though you were playing a game that featured open-world FFA PvP. It wasn't a perfect system, though. For my money, there could've been some harsher consequences for aggressors. There were no real penalties for instigating a fight, and basically the only punishment for dying -- aside from gear decay -- was a set of temporary debuffs and a timer that made you wait a few minutes before re-engaging.
SWG was also ripe for a third player faction to oppose the Alliance and the Empire. Some sort of underworld alignment choice, perhaps controlled by the Hutt cartels or any number of other canonical criminal groups, likely would have made large-group PvP even more interesting.
In any case, open world FFA PvP can be done well, and it can even be done well as part of a PvE sandbox game. Star Wars Galaxies is a blueprint that more indie sandbox dev teams should consider, and while it would surely need some tweaks and a few concessions to what has become modern MMO gameplay, the basics are worth revisiting.
Every two weeks, Jef Reahard and MJ Guthrie take a break from their themepark day jobs to delve into the world of sandboxes and player-generated content. Comments, suggestions, and coverage ideas are welcome, and Some Assembly Required is always looking for players who'd like to show off their MMO creativity. Contact us!