How Arma 3's Altis Life mod brought PvP and roleplaying together

This is the second in our series about how developers are figuring out the future of PvP. Find the first part, on Destiny 2's Gambit mode, here.

Roleplaying is as old as gaming itself. After all, one of the attractions of playing is getting to do things that you can't in real life. And where better to live a separate life than in an online game? And thus from MUDs to Second Life to World of Warcraft, roleplaying is a fundamental part of online gaming culture. 

But RP has generally existed in parallel with online PvP games. That's exactly what you'd expect, right? RP is about freedom of expression, of open environments in which you can choose how to act, while PvP is about conforming to tight rules in the name of competition. 

And yet over the past few years RP and PvP have been growing closer together, with elements from each being pulled from one into the other, particularly in games made in Garry's Mod and Bohemia's Arma series.

"I played a lot of first-person shooters, Call of Duty, Counter-Strike, stuff like that, and then I got into Arma 2, which was focused on military simulation," says TAWTonic, creator of Altis Life, a leading RP mod for Arma 3. He liked Arma for its modding capability, and having played an Arma 2 RP mod, he figured he could make a better one for Arma 3.

Altis Life uses Arma 3's huge Altis map as the stage for a cops and robbers game. If you choose to play as a civilian, you get a job, buy a car, and decide if you're going to toe the line or not. As police, you'll enforce the law, which extends to every aspect of the game, from licences to drive cars, fly helicopters and pilot boats, to parking tickets, to homicides.

"We always found that newcomers to the game focused very much on the roleplaying aspect," says John VanderZwet, who worked in ‘friendly competition' with TAWTonic on a second branch of Altis Life called Asylum. "There's just something fun and interesting about being tossed into a world with a hundred other players with the freedom to do what you like." 

In that meeting of online worlds, of RP and PvP, come more opportunities which could point towards new expressions of pure competitive play.

"It's not restrictive like, say, battle royale where you jump out of a plane, fly down, get a gun, you run and kill people," says TAWTonic. "PUBG has a fixed objective, and that's the same for a lot of games, and what draws people into RP games is that you can play them however you want."

But there are rules. "People look for freedom but they still need the boundaries to set them in place so they have an idea of what they can do," says TAWTonic. Some of those rules are naturally posed by the theme, so as a civilian you'll decide whether you're going to break the law. 

Asylum features more of a PvP focus than vanilla Altis Life, with gang wars, cartels and territory control, and VanderZwet noticed how new players would work their way into crime and PvP aspects as they became more comfortable, particularly as most servers restricted access to playing as police to veterans.

Over the past few years, some of the most popular games have given players open-ended worlds. Minecraft and DayZ are obvious examples, but it's also expressed in the free-roam nature of Fortnite and PUBG, the fight for survival in Rust and Ark: Survival Evolved, and in the breadth of GTA Online, which features many opportunities for RP. 

And in that meeting of online worlds, of RP and PvP, come more opportunities which could point towards new expressions of pure competitive play. 

As CEO of Asylum Entertainment, VanderZeet is currently working on Identity, a large-scale reimagining of Altis Life (see above). It features a player-driven economy, a cartel system which encourages gang warfare, and persistent items which mean that when you die you'll lose your gear. 

And it's that concept of loss within an open environment that he believes has lots to offer PvP games. 

"If there's one thing that can make PvP exciting, it's consequence," VanderZeet explains. "You need to lose something when you're bested in PvP. That doesn't mean you need to lose in-game possessions, even time matters. It's a tough pill to swallow for some people, but the fear of loss will get your adrenaline pumping like nothing else can in gaming."