KTR Mythbusters: The Unpredictable PvP Player

It doesn’t exist. I’d almost go as far as to say it cannot exist.

Long being held as a staple of “what makes PvP interesting”, this player remains purely in the realm of the mythical. Of course there is evidence arguing for its existence, but it’s purely anecdotical and cannot be reproduced.

Tonight on KTR Mythbusters we examine the elusive Unpredictable PvP Player. Its humble beginnings as a post-slaughter campfire tale, its rise to legendary status and its ultimate demise at the hands of science.

Almost all of us are familiar with this figure, this legendary being shrouded in secrecy and sewn with the very threads of gaming lore itself. It remains, right up there in the collective gaming consciousness, sharing the very apex of gaming’s collection of legends with other vague – but alluring – tales like Bugs From Beta Not Present in Live, Unpolluted Chat Channels and Grind-Free Gameplay.

For too long, the existence of this being has been maintained by many PvP enthusiasts, whom see in this legend the very embodiment of their style. It is, to them, as close to a divine PvP Avatar coming down from the heavens and into gaming land as it’s going to get; a veritable Rapture of ganking. It is, as they assert, the First Mover that gives PvP its nature, the mystical cause to the PvP effect, and its mere presence is the salt in carebears’ wounds everywhere. Some of them even go as far as to establish, without a shadow of a doubt, that PvP would not be PvP without it.

But what is it?. At the very core of the legend, and its nature, we find the answer because the answer itself is the main point of contention, the main article of difference between PvP and PvE. Unlike PvE, which is basically just a dogmatic series of immutable motions to be performed, all controlled and dispensed by a cold AI which understands nothing but a binary state of life in ones and zeroes, PvP replaces the AI with a human. If, as the believers maintain, humans truly are unpredictable, then it stands to reason how since humans are the coals powering the PvP machine, this PvP machine will also end up being an unpredictable construct.

PvE is to be learned, PvP is to adapt. So the age-old mantra goes. But is it really as cut and dried?

If doubt is truly the dark clouds in the horizons of faith, there is one such cloud in the horizons of these believers. One that is rarely contemplated and rarely talked about. Dismissed by some as merely a crack in the dogma, not to be seriously considered and a nuisance at the most. It’s a simple idea, but far-reaching in its consequences: PvP is still part of the over-arching game world and, as such, subject to many of the same rules of this game world.

Why is it that such a simple idea, almost inoffensive in its obvious quality, is a thorn on the side of the Unpredictable PvP Player? The answer is just as simple, and just as terrible: Because it strips the Unpredictable PvP Player of its very defining aspect – his unpredictability. In order for a PvP player to be truly unpredictable, in order for its opponents to have no notion whatsoever of his abilities and be unable to anticipate its actions, the PvP Player must not be bound by any game world rules, which is a physical impossibility. Or, to put it in another way, as long as the game world has rules and these rules cannot be exploited or broken, you can never have true or even complete unpredictability. The PvP player is ultimately bound to the same rules as everyone else. As long as the opponents know the rules, unpredictability dissipates like cold dew under the morning sun.

The common counter to this line of thinking is, aptly enough, with another counter. That even if the PvP Player is bound by rules, there still isn’t a way to predict or anticipate what he’ll do because, unlike a PvE AI that has been coded to behave in a set number of ways and never deviate from that behavior, a human player has a much superior array of options to choose from. This counter works, in theory, but rarely in practice and there’s two very powerful reasons for that:

One : Even if humans have a larger number of options to choose from when compared to the AI, this number of options is not infinite as per game world rules. Therefore, on a long enough timeline, all possible responses can be anticipated.

Two: The very nature of the PvP mindset is, in a way, the ultimate nail in the legend of unpredictability’s coffin – that is, competitiveness. In order to remain competitive, a PvP player must be at its best. He must have the best gear possible, because his opponents would do the same. He must know as much as he can of the opponent, because his opponent will similarly study him. And finally, he must have the best possible skills, or combination of skills into a build, because his opponents will be similarly prepared. And that is the downfall of the legend, for as long as there are a finite number of skill combinations and for as long as some builds are favored or perform better than others, the number of options available to any PvP player is reduced even more, taking him further and further away from the Holy Grail of True Unpredictability.

There are ways in which PvP can be rightfully considered to be a more interesting avenue of play than PvE, but the legend of unpredictability is not one of them. Even casual forays into PvP will yield the same common conclusions to the clever observer: Most, if not all warriors behave the same way. Most, if not all healers behave the same way, etc… and the number of options, far from drawing its threads from the universal tapestry of randomness as its proponents suggest, are really few when effectiveness comes into play. And make no mistake, PvP demands effectiveness as much as PvE. They are no different in that regard.

In their zeal, the most venomous of PvP proponents are actually missing a huge opportunity. They hang on to a legend that does not exist, when they’re missing something that’s much closer to earth and just as effective when it comes to furthering the ends of their playstyle. That is: Humans, while not unpredictable under the bounds of unbreakable game rules, are still creative in comparison to any AI.

Bound by rules that they cannot break, humans cannot create new rules or ways to break the existing ones, but they can still do something that no AI has ever done to this day, which is to improvise over existing rules and modify behaviors and results, in an effort to get close to that divine unpredictability. Even if the Holy and True Nirvana of Absolute Unpredictability can never be reached, there are lesser states of Unpredictability to be attained, still preserving the rules intact.

However, this is hardly ever mentioned. Just being “creative’ is not enough, when you can sell the illusion of being “unpredictable”. At any rate, that’s something for PvP pundits and proponents to deal with. From here, this humble pulpit of myth busting, all I can do is to decree the death of a legend. There are very good, very effective ways to ‘sell’ PvP. Unpredictability is not one of them, and never was.

Until the next time!

12 thoughts on “KTR Mythbusters: The Unpredictable PvP Player”

  1. Game designers don’t give players enough flexibility and choice. Gameplay always breaks down into several “best strategies” (gear, buffs, sequence of attack, etc.). The best PvP players I know always do the same thing every time. The truly “unpredictable” ones are usually the noobs that don’t know what they are doing, and thus it is unpredictable when they try to attack you with a wooden spoon.

    It also doesn’t help when you can tell from looking at someone what they are likely to do. Hrm, he is level X, and he is wearing that cobalt blue armor with Y stats, and his glowing weapon is definitely the “evil axe 10” with Z effects.

    This is one of the main problems with class based systems and “balance”.

    Skill based systems, open-ended magic and crafting, and avoidance of linear gameplay, loot aggregation, “high-level content”, and “end-game” are all necessary to build the right game environment that really opens up PvP (and, incidentally, PvE) in new ways.

    Unpredictability from players and mobs is possible, but I don’t know of any game where it is truly likely to occur. Well, except for one, but that won’t be out for a few years.

  2. I play poker. The best Poker PVP’ers are the ones who don’t know what they are doing. Playing hold’em, check-raise, a guy with a 7-2 offsuit hand raises. No, he’s not bluffing, he doesn’t know the game, and lo and behold he flops a 7-2-2. A real poker player wouldn’t have bet when holding the 7-2. So there is confirmation of your “newb” comment =)

    Perhaps change the lore from “Unpredictable” to “Less-Predicatble”. I agree with the above thread, that when I am against a rogue in PVP, hes gonna chain stun me one on one (pretty much, everytime) and I have to be prepared to counter it or last through the stun itself. Yes, games do not give the freedom for truely unpredictable, but definitely less-predictability is in order =)

    One off example, I know a druid in WoW who will often switch specs in between PVP rounds if he sees he is running into the same players often. That does broaden the scope a bit, when you are dealing with a Moonkin one round, and a Resto the next, then a Feral. Of course, when not in his main “suit”, he is only hurting himself, but it does mess with the other players. I guess that example only confirms what you are saying, so, uhm, yeah – good write up.


  3. Well, chess is defined by a simple and very limited set of rules, but the mechanics allow for plenty of unpredictability between humans.

    There’s nothing wrong with rules, but if say, you could only take a bishop with a rook within ten turns, it would limit things much like games do. The point is not removing all physical rules, but making them allow for unpredictability AND strategy at the same time, like chess.

  4. I don’t think I buy the argument as strongly as it has been put here.

    Football has a fixed set of rules. Quarterbacks always behave like quarterbacks, linemen like linemen, and so on.

    Is football thus always predictable merely because the players have roles and must work within a set of artificial rules?

    If so, why aren’t you making a mint on sports gambling in Vegas?

  5. I don’t have a ton of experience with PvP, i personally prefer PvE as i use it to relax and escape, but something i see and constantly agree with you here is what i have seen. I played a lot of Alterac Valley in WoW, like several hours a day, then took a several month break, and just recently started doing them again. Not one thing has changed. The people do the same things and get mad when you vary it, complain about the same things, and seem unable to alter the way things happen even though it does happen. The funniest thing is when PvPers use that argument that real people are more creative than AI, but refuse to do new things. I’ll give a perfect example if you know AV. Alliance rushes Galv, horde gets SHgy. If horde defend Galv, people flip out, no idea what to do and start complaining that it’s going to take forever and just lose already, when they could go around, or try something new. Horde always sneaks a couple under the bridge and over on the road to the cave, and if they can that one hill that overlooks the SPgy. Same thing every game. There are usually ten afk on each side at least, just waiting for the rewards. The most fun i have in those is being the odd one, trying new things to see what can be done, against other players it seems more “rock-paper-scissors” where gear, class, racials determine who wins, at least to me.

    Watching the tournaments on Gameplay HD for the various FPS games i have seen it is about the same there, who has the better gear tends to win, armor, mega-health, weapons, etc. Skill does play a part, but often it seems that if they wanted it all about skill, there would be no powerups and everyone would have the same stats/gear.

    Sorry this got long, i guess i am just saying people need to take pvp less seriously, stop using “carebear”, and just have fun.

  6. Replying to Wilhelm, I have to say that there are actually more similarities between PvP and football in this scenario that it appears at first glance. Maybe each game doesn’t follow along specifically predictable lines, but for the most part, there are only a certain amount of plays in each team’s playbooks, and mostly, that’s because they tend to go with the plays that are effective, just like a lot of players will only go with the builds that are effective, because their objective is to win.

    If it was discovered that the quarterback would get first down on every play by backflipping ten feet into the air over the defensive line, well, I’d be willing to bet big bucks that most teams would recruit acrobats into their team’s builds.

  7. Hrm, I dont think football or chess are good analogies here.

    PvP is more like rock paper scissors. Sure you can pick any of the three, but rock always beats scissors always beats paper.

    The unpredictability comes in when the player A) has a lot of options and B) tactics and strategy, combined with variation on options is possible.

    If the wizard always casts armor buff, stun, root, fireball and his other 6 spells are pretty useless like open lock, teleport, create food, whatever, then sure, your unpredictability will end up being about the wizard changing when he casts what. Big deal.

    Now, if the wizard could change the fireball into an iceball or maybe a sphere of electricity, or have some variety in the type of armor buff he is casting, you suddenly add a lot of different elements and definitely unpredictability.

    Part of the problem is certainly the players sticking to sequences they like, but the bulk of the problem is a lack of variety and flexibility. How often have you seen a spell system that had stuff like fireball I, fireball II, fireball III? You might as well play chess with just pawns.

  8. >”And that is the downfall of the legend, for as long as there are a finite number of skill combinations and for as long as some builds are favored or perform better than others, the number of options available to any PvP player is reduced even more, taking him further and further away from the Holy Grail of True Unpredictability.”

    That’s why I constantly look for atypical talent builds. Not to min/max, but to be unpredicatable, because when something unexpected happens, the typical player has difficulty responding.

    However, I propose a new definition to what makes pvp “superior” and as perhaps a better definition of the difference between pvp and pve: PvP is like Chess, whereas PvE is like a puzzle. Once you finish the puzzle, it’s solved, there is no longer mystery. Furthermore, you can predict almost EXACTLY what the mobs are going to do, even in a raid situation. Look at all the mods that keep numbers on threat, aggro, dps, hps, etc. The entire encounter is a giant 25 figure formula. Regardless of whether pvp is TRULY unpredictable, you still don’t know with the same precision what the other player is going to do, you know know the most likely possibilities.

    Which leads to chess. High level chess games are not predictable per se, but the best players know the most likely moves that their opponent will do. What makes Chess good isn’t it being literally unpredictable; what makes it good is it’s complexity and the fact that no two games are EXACTLY the same. If you want to get to true unpredictability, you’re starting to tread in philosophical realms, imo.

    It comes down to whether you want to solve a puzzle, or play chess. I personally enjoy both from time to time, though I generally get bored sooner with the puzzle.

  9. I think it comes down to people using the wrong phrase to describe what they’re looking for. What most of them are referring to is “more variety”. We don’t need to get into combinatorial mathematics to show that, in having rules, every outcome can be forecasted. Semantics.

    In a game like WoW, variety is seeing someone play their class in a way you haven’t seen before that completely circumvents your normal fightplan. It’s going into an arena match, seeing one dot short on track humanoids, expecting a rogue, and finding a resto druid popping out of stealth and into tree after the combat starts. It’s finding yourself face-to-face with an engineer going full-out. I used to sac a voidwalker, chug an invis potion, and start hellfiring in the middle of a graveyard, or take two rogues around and summon half the raid just outside the fence by the Frostwolf Relief Hut. Just as in PvE, there’s a safe method to deal with any situation, but it’s more exciting and more fun to try to overcome difficult situations by whatever means necessary.

    So I guess my argument is that what these people are looking for is the unexpected.

    PS: One must be careful not to clump the honor-grinders and grief-lovers in with the variety-seekers. The former are looking for cookie-cutter targets, and the latter are usually looking for a tactical challenge (read: not “Aaargh! Your gear is lightyears beyond mine! Stop camping my corpse!”). It’s like comparing rep-farming to attempting to solo a high-level instance or a 3-player kite-immune encounter.

  10. As Nicodemus mentioned, the problem is that in most games, there’s only ONE way of doing something. There’s ONE set of armor and ONE specific way of spec-ing your char to be ‘uber’.

    In some cases, the above is clearcut, there’s only one path: armor set X and skill set Y. All the other options are a joke that the devs probably put it in there to have a good laugh at anyone that chooses otherwise.

    While in others, people are afraid to experiment. Every new player goes to the forums, look for the magic formula, copy it, resulting in about 313849235 duplicate builds. That’s how human nature is, people love to jump on a successfully proven strategy, not just in gaming and class builds, but also in business. This is what kills the dynamism in PvP.

    Something probably worth mentioning is that in plenty of the games, the PvP is so class specific and sissors-paper-stone like. Not going to run up to that mage because he’ll definitely destroy my bard without even batting an eyelid.

  11. There are always a couple of things noone expects, and they can be used to great effect sometimes. Some examples I saw in Warcraft:

    – Wanna gank someone from your faction for a change? Get a priest from the other side, have him mindcontrol some poor victim, watch it turn red and close in for the kill
    – I think they (sadly!) patched it by now, but it was possible to dismount flying enemies by using a “Discombulator Ray”, a craftable, low-level item. Combine that with a parachute cloak or slowfall – and watch your enemies fall (pun intended!)
    – When they introduced Alterac Valley (WAY back), you could mindcontrol one of the NPCs near the entrance to the Battleground from a hidden spot and have him kill pretty much everyone around; that vendor did a ridiculous amount of damage

    And the list goes on. There are always things you can do that other players won’t expect. I guess that doesn’t quite contradict the OP, but in my book, it’s close enough.

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