When I was but a small boy, I never missed a neighborhood game of Capture the Flag.Every child between the ages of five and fifteen who lived on our street would turn out for these games; the 16 and 17 year olds were much too busy trying to make an impression on the pretty blonde girl who lived at the bottom of the cul-de-sac to have any time for such a children's past time.
After dinner, we would play until the sun went down and the deepening shadows made it easier to steal closer to the hidden flag or to telephone post that served as the jail where captured players waited for rescue. It was great fun.
Fifteen years later, the games of Capture the Flag took place well after sundown, as our development team took breaks from the game on which we were working and fired up the exciting new Quake mods that let us play as a squad against other teams from across the country over the Internet. It was great fun, especially after midnight when everyone was sufficiently lubricated with alchohol to lend an additional element of unpredictability to the online action. It was still great fun.
Fifteen years later, I find that I am still playing Capture the Flag. Or, as Age of Conan has it, Capture the Skull. And while I'm sure it is great fun for those who find the experience to be a relatively new one, as an increasingly jaded game designer, I find myself wondering if this is truly the best that we can do with such an incredible amount of computing horsepower and such a wealth of artistic resources at our disposal. After 25 years of increasingly sophisticated game development, how is it possible that our most expensive, most impressive electronic entertainment options still amount to little more than a virtual recreation of a simple children's game?
Initially somewhat of an afterthought in MMOs like World of Warcraft, PvP has become increasingly important to MMO developers because it is the one area that does not require incessant new content in order to keep game subscribers happily occupied. Gamers chew up content much faster than it can possibly be developed, and an effective way to keep them from getting bored traversing the same terrain and dungeons over and over again is to allow them to kill each other.
Of course, this leads to a new set of problems, as experienced veterans gank new players at will, and in their malicious boredom – or is it bored malice? – prevent those players from having the positive PvE experience that they themselves had the opportunity to enjoy.
These are real problems, but they are not insoluble. But the response to them has been indicative of the lack of forethought that has plagued PvP design from the beginning of the MMO era, as the MMO designers have taken a route that is diametrically opposed to the one that was preferred by the designers of the 3D shooter era. Led by the success of John Carmack's insightful decision to allow the gamers to greatly modify Quake, the designers of the 3D shooter era embraced the involvement of the player community and allowed them to modify their games until they were almost unrecognisablse. The result was an explosion of creativity that not only increased the enthusiasm for multiplayer action, but actually led to the development of several groundbreaking game series.
The MMO designers, on the other hand, spend an incredible amount of time and resources attempting to control the player community. While there is a great deal of lip service given to the idea of making constructive use of the players involved in the game, the reality is that it amounts to little more than an online suggestion box in the form of the game forums. New MMOs such as Age of Conan and Warhammer Online do allow the players' actions to somewhat influence their environment, but they remain devoid of mechanisms that permit players who have demonstrated their trustworthiness the ability to modify the actual PvP experience or even to influence the actions of players more interested in ruining the game experience for others instead of enhancing it.
Until mechanisms that take advantage of the creative and constructive instincts of the player community are incorporated, it is likely that MMO PvP will remain little more than a pale shadow of the multiplayer action available in other game genres. Until the concepts of strategy, tactics, and team play have genuine relevance to PvP, MMO gamers will be stuck continuing to play yet another iteration of Capture the [insert genre-appropriate item here].