Kiss of War, Part III - The World According to Hobbes

I've been trying to learn the game by quietly taking on cities smaller than me. I scout them out, check to see if they are affiliated to a powerful guild, and observe them over a period of time to see when they are active. I probe them to see if I can get a response before attacking, and if they're not online, I pounce.

If this sounds cowardly and unsporting I have two answers for that. Firstly, this is not a symmetrical PvP game where players begin with identical resources and abilities. In such games the starting conditions are as equal as possible in order to maximize a skill-based result. The reasoning goes that all things being equal it will be skill that decides the outcome. Real world examples include combat sports like boxing or judo, or any other sport that groups participants into weight classes. My favorite boxer is Roberto Duran, a lightweight like myself. Unlike myself Duran is regarded as perhaps the greatest lightweight of all time, and he even made a name for himself by enjoying success in higher weight classes against welterweight and middleweight champions like Sugar Ray Leonard, Carlos Palomino, Davey Moore and Iran Barkley. Despite his greatness Duran would get annihilated by a top 20 heavyweight of any era, however, simply because he is too small. The purpose of weight classes is to remove the advantage of weight so that the result is primarily determined by skill, grit and tenacity, not by size. KoW is not that kind of game. While you can argue that skill exists in optimizing the various builds and logistical aspects of the game such a skill set would do nothing against a player who has paid thousands of dollars in building up their army and city. I would bet that a 300,000 player who knew all the ins and outs of the game would get rolled by a 2,000,000 newbie. The best thing the 300,000 player could do would be just to pop a shield, teleport away, or attempt to negotiate. Fighting would be suicidal.

Two of the greatest of all time - Roberto Duran, the greatest lightweight of all time, versus Sugar Ray Leonard, one of the greatest welterweights of all time.

My second point is an adjunct to the first. Games like these are fundamentally asymmetrical, with the biggest factors being time and money. Cities develop at a cost of time and resources, but can be sped up through the injection of real life money. Pay to win proponents argue that such mechanics are justified because money simply offsets the advantage of players who have a lot of time. Players are either money-rich or time-rich, so the argument goes, and both confer an advantage in the game. Paying money offsets the time differential and allows time-poor players, or those who started late, a way to quickly bring themselves up to parity. The problem with this is that players who are neither money-rich or time-rich start at a major disadvantage. Theoretically the end point is the same – everyone will upgrade their town hall to level 25 and have access to T5 troops eventually. This is the biggest argument used by pay to win developers – roughly paraphrased it states that everyone has access to the highest tiers of the game, and paying only speeds up the journey. Money confers no advantages, only speed of access.

This is horseshit of course. If you stretch out the power curve long enough the money-rich players (meaning people who are willing to pay real money, not necessarily rich people in real life) will enjoy huge advantages during the march to the top, even if everyone gets to the summit eventually. If the rise to maximum tier takes six months, and whales can get there in a day by paying money, then those whales can enjoy six months of beating on other people and feeling awesome about themselves. Persistent worlds, by their very nature, automatically create asymmetry and inequality. Symmetrical games like chess, boxing or StarCraft are equal and finite. Matches have a fixed period, the players start with identical resources, and the game is over once time has elapsed. Persistent worlds, however, are ongoing. They are finite in the sense that the company that runs this game will one day pack up and shutter its doors, but in terms of gameplay it is a single, ongoing match of indeterminable duration in which players can drop in and out at any time. Even if pay to win didn't exist, the player who started on Day 1 would still have a qualitative and quantitative advantage over a player who started on Day 60. Add to that the other inequalities imposed by time zones, levels of readiness, guild sizes and individual skill disparity between individuals, and there is no way you can argue that this game is fair, at least in the way “balanced” games are.

Thomas Hobbes. He would definitely teabag you if he could.

If you accept the game is fundamentally asymmetric then you should try to maximize every advantage you have, and minimize your weaknesses. Therefore you should not pick fights with anyone bigger than you until you are ready. Or unless you can bring friends. In asymmetrical PvP the words fair and equal don't matter. Only winning does. Or living to fight another day. Diplomacy trumps fighting, because it can circumvent conflict, or bring in allies that can help you win. It's a world where big guilds prey on little ones, and you need friends. No one survives alone in this Hobbesian world made manifest. In his 1651 book LeviathanThomas Hobbes laid down on paper his vision of a world without a strong central authority to govern it. He posited that such a world would be in a constant state of "war of all against all" - bellum omnium contra omnes, because humans by their very nature are selfish, greedy and brutish creatures. Perhaps you object to this dim view of human nature, but I point to the moral wasteland that is the Internet as a compelling piece of evidence to support this. If that is not convincing enough there are numerous examples throughout history of how the social contract breaks down in periods of scarcity. There is a saying by Vladimir Lenin, roughly paraphrased, that every society is three meals away from anarchy.

Why would people play such a game? I can only answer for myself of course, but for me there are two reasons. One is the vicarious thrill of living in such a perilous world without the hefty consequences. If things go really bad I can just quit and uninstall. The second is the road to power offered in such games. If you play KoW you will have to accept that you are starting as a nobody, and will have to navigate your way to the top of the server by being in turns clever, strategic and diplomatic. You will have to make friends, fight enemies, face good times or bad times. You will be forced to surrender, or flee on occasion. You will have to lie, bluff, beg, bluster and trust. You will have to find a guild of like-minded individuals and share in their story. Going back to self-determination theory, I satisfy my need for competence by becoming better at the game and learning how to play it well. I satisfy my need for relatedness by finding a guild of good people, and sharing in their highs and lows as we try to advance our status on the server. Finally, I satisfy my need for autonomy by feeling like I am the hero of my story within the game – I believe that despite the obstacles and all the inequalities in front of us, my guild and I will carve out a little place of our own in this virtual world. Real life has more in common with asymmetrical, persistent games like these than in controlled, balanced and finite matches that characterize balanced games. Perhaps that's the attraction for me. We all know that life is unfair. But maybe, just like in life, if we are clever, stubborn and tenacious enough, we can get the things we want.