[Check out the introductory primer for this mini-series as well as the first few chapters if you haven't had the opportunity to read them just yet. They provide a lot of context to the current topic, though it isn't absolutely necessary.]

Over the first few chapters of this series, I've been talking about facets of MMOs that significantly alter what type of an overall experience a given game will reflect. From the Linear Narrative (themeparks) to Multiplayer Sandboxes and even Real World Emulation - all of these topics have discussed the type and style of environment players will be immersed in. Those chapters were talking about meta-systems that largely govern every other system to some degree in a typical MMO.

In today's chapter we're going to address a subcomponent of most MMOs that should actually be considered a meta-theme or core play-style that can (and should) influence every other system of an MMO:

Competitive Arenas

It is important to note immediately that competitive arenas are not restricted purely to combat alone, but can include diplomacy, trade, and also crafting (which were a few elements of emergent MEOWs I discussed last time). A competitive arena can be defined as any organized MMO system that pits players against one another competitively (or even against NPCs in the event of a MEOW where NPCs operate in the same capacity as a player would).

Competitive Combat

While keeping in mind the above expanded realm of competitive arenas, I'd still like to address combat primarily - as that is really the most common expression of competitive gaming that we experience in MMORPGs. In just about any MMORPG ever made, players compete with one another for resources of varies types, for "camps" that are farmed for items, experience, and other valuable goods. Quite often, games even allow for direct conflict via instanced or even open-world combat.

There are dozens of ways that MMOs have addressed the issue of competitive play, but much like the static MMO landscapes they were born in - competitive combat in MMOs feels entirely too lacking. A lot of the underwhelming aspects of MMO combat can be linked directly to its minimal impact on the game at large, as well as the typically static and predictable instanced battlegrounds that don't offer much variety of play at all.

As a competitive gamer myself, I long for an unpredictable battlefield that constantly pushes me to my limits and forces me to think and act on the fly and hone my combat skills to peak efficiency. There is simply no greater challenge than facing off against another human player and pitting your mind and skills against their own in an epic battle of wits and willpower. Considering the social nature of MMOs, cooperative team play should also be a primary aspect of any competitive arena in these massively multiplayer games.

All In, or Not At All

While most games have offered some of this gameplay, it's always been a side-component of a grander experience, rather than contributing meaningfully to the core gameplay - which at that point I begin to question whether it should even be in the game at all, as it's usually just a diversion from the core game and tends to segregate the player-base (and at times, a game's entire community). For the perfect MMO, I think competitive game elements are absolutely essential. Not only that, but the competitive gaming elements should tie directly into the deepest and most central elements of the greater game - making competitive players as equally impactful to the direction of the narrative as any other play-style.

I would love to see an MMO embrace competitive arenas and incentivize players to participate by rewarding them with items, reputation, or other valuable commodities that can begin to push and pull on the game's other primary systems like: trade, politics, crafting, and so forth. To date, most MMO's provision for competitive play feels very "bolted-on" and offers little to no influence at all on the larger game - often enough it even feels like an entirely separate and different game all together, rather than an equal, but separate experience within the core game.

If MMO's could at least get that bit right, then they'd be on the right path; however, they'd still have a long road ahead of them.

Leaning on the Innovation of other Genres

Designing exceptional competitive gameplay also requires an evolving landscape that can keep pace with the rest of the dynamic world and environment it's taking place in.

I've always looked favorable at trading card games as excellent templates and inspiration to draw from in designing a good competitive arena for a large number of players with varying levels of skill and ability. Magic the Gathering is a great example of a highly complex game that is very simple and easy to learn, where new players are not necessarily at a serious disadvantage to experienced veteran players (depending on the game type).

Horizontal Progression - which I've mentioned in a previous chapter - is a key ingredient to maintaining a challenging and dynamic competitive landscape that is both intuitive enough for a new player to embrace and also deep enough to keep veteran players interested. There are games and genres that have been experimenting heavily with TCG philosophies, and none more strongly than MOBAs (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena).

Games like DotA, League of Legends, and Smite (among others), have embraced horizontal progression while simultaneously not abandoning vertical progression entirely. Their strong blend of vertical growth (levels, gold, items) and horizontal customization (champion/hero selection, talents/runes, items) have created a very elegant landscape of tactical strategy that is always kept fresh when new elements are added to the game (like adding a new mechanic in Magic the Gathering).

For successful competitive arenas in an MMO, particularly a dynamic one that evolves and changes over time, having combat that also evolves and changes the longer you hang around and play can only be good for a persistent world that is seeking to keep gamers perpetually engaged.

Some Blending Required

Again, these concepts aren't limited to just combat.

Diplomacy, trade, crafting, and more can all benefit from a proper blend of horizontal and vertical elements that together combined with the nuances of each particular system to provide and evolving landscape that doesn't grow predictable or stale. Changing prices and resource availability are a great way to continue driving and evolving an in-game economy and trade network, for example. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Once you start imagining the potential for any game system this way, you can start to see how competitive gaming can fit quite comfortably into the core gameplay of an MMO and provide a wealth of potential for any and all systems.

The only thing left is ensuring that those not comfortable with the competition, have ways to stay out of the conflict if they wish. There's nothing worse than being shoved into a bad situation or a gameplay experience you didn't sign up for (which is a huge reason that we see games strictly segregate their PvE and PvP rulesets). It's a surprising trend of present-day MMOs, considering how many mechanical variations there are of "opt-in" competitive play.

Also, when you consider the concept of advanced AI where a game's NPCs have player-like goals and capacities, the lines between PvE and PvP will be significantly more blurred than they are today. Developers currently have an uphill battle combating the stigma and segregation players have become entrenched in between PvE and PvP rulesets.

The reality is, PvP players aren't the ferocious, insatiable killing machines that non PvP players suspect. Nor are PvE players a bunch of hapless and incompetent buffoons that can't be trusted to hold their own when things get dicey.

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Last Updated: Mar 20, 2016

About The Author

Alex has been playing online games and RPGs for quite some time, starting all the way back with Daggerfall, EverQuest, and Ultima Online. He's staying current with the latest games, picking up various titles and playing during his weekly streams on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings with both MMOs and MOBAs being feature plays. Hit him up on Twitter if you have a stream request for Freeplay Friday! Two future games he's got a keen eye on are Daybreak's EverQuest Next and Illfonic's Revival.