PvP. One subject that is frequently discussed and argued about in the MMO world. It makes developers nervous, sends victms into fits, is associated with 'grief-play', and even gets an article about it in a print magazine.
But I'm here to discuss someplace even darker, where few companies dare tread... open PvP. Basically, this means that anyone can be attacked anywhere. No artifical limitations that magically prevent combat in certain areas. No PvP 'flags' to turn on and off. Once you enter the gameworld, you have the potential to be killed anywhere at anytime.
Many, if not a large majority, of the MMO playerbase cringes at the thought of an open PvP system. And rightfully so. Griefers have made their presence felt in all games that support any form of PvP, and even in games that don't. The life of a griefer knows no bounds. And therein lies the rub! Griefers aren't an outgrowth of the PvP systems. They're there all the time, lurking in the shadows, just waiting to steal your kill or resource, block a doorway, cover the ground with profane drawings, on any of a myriad of creative harassment they can come up with. But players mistakenly associate these pariahs of online gaming with PvP.
The problem isn't in the PvP concept itself. Rather the problem stems from that group of players who enjoy having power over others at any cost, and the PvP systems that dont prepare for this sort of playstyle (or focus on it exclusively, to the detriment of everyone else).
Open PvP doesn't have to be the death-knell for an MMO (I think Eve Online has proved that already). I've actually found that players tend to be a lot more polite and respectful in open PvP enviroments. In general terms at least. You'll have the jerks who always find their way into these open, online enviroments, no matter what the system. But when there are potential, immediate reprecussions for being a jerk, people tend to be on better behaviour.
It is also an excellent tool for promoting strong communities. Nothing brings people closer together better than a strong external threat.
I think there are a few key features that would be vitally important to supporting a fun, open PvP enviroment.
1) No 'con' system for players. If you don't instantly know how strong another player is, you're much less likely to attack them without reason.
2) No levels. At least not as they are currently implemented in MMOs. Levels inherently create huge imbalances between players and are a very arbitrary and non-intuitive system.
3) Territorial control.
a)Bind players to an area. If a player has to travel far to grief someone outside their guild or circle of friends, they're less likely to make the effort. Especially if they get sent back home after they are defeated.
b) Give players the ability to control order in their towns via guards, banishment, black marks etc.
4) Relatively quick power gain. And once you hit that diminishing returns curve, power gains come more from adding new tricks to your arsenal rather than making your old tricks uber.
5) Create opportunities for meaningful PvP. The more reasons players have for engaging in PvP over useful objectives, the less likely it is that they will be preying on the new and weak.
Certainly, it's not an feature you can just throw in. It takes a lot of careful forethought and balancing. But it also opens up a lot of vistas that are currently locked behind instance portals or shuffled off into an obscure region of the world.