Yeah, I wish that thing in the back was a mount, too.[“Play Evolution” is a column by James Lantz that happens sometimes and discusses the changes that games undergo after their release, from little developer patches to huge gameplay revelations, and everything in between. This week: evolution in World of Warcraft]

You can’t beat World of Warcraft – there’s no such thing. There are no victory conditions, and you’ll never see a screen that pops up and says, “You win!” You may think that getting to the highest possible level is an obvious victory, but that’s not true for everyone. Some people are satisfied with hitting the level cap, but others want to beat every raid boss.

It’s perfectly feasible to imagine hundreds of personal goals, even ones as obscure as crossing from one capital city to another at level one, or camping an important travel NPC so no one can reach his hub. Because there’s nothing as simple as beating the game, every goal in World of Warcraft is completely arbitrary and set by each player to match his or her own desires.

With this in mind, it seems less bizarre that World of Warcraft shipped without any PvP system to speak of. The scaffolding was there – you could attack other players and enemy NPCs in PvP zones – but there were no rewards of any sort for defeating opponents, and absolutely nothing to lose. In a way, though, this was a breath of fresh air in a massively multiplayer game where every menial task was rewarded and every action had an incentive.

In a game where all the goals are ultimately arbitrary, what’s the difference between the player who PvPs with no reward and the player who levels up to level sixty? At the end of the day, neither player is closer to objective victory, because there is none.

Hell, if a player sits and dances in his hometown for twelve hours, he’s just as close to beating World of Warcraft as the level sixty is. The only difference is that one of them has a “sixty” next to his portrait, while the other one has a “one” and has been dancing for half a day.

Despite the complete lack of structure for PvP, non-instanced (or open world) PvP was popular on PvP servers, especially in places where the Horde and Alliance cities were just a stone’s throw away from one another. One such place was the small area between Tarren Mill and Southshore called the Hillsbrad Foothills; on any particular day, sixty or seventy players would be engaged in the back and forth tug-of-war that bounced between the two cities, occasionally bringing one side or the other to its knees.

This perpetual battle had no lasting impact on the game – and yet it was perpetual. Even though there were no hard numbers to support claims of victory or defeat, the battle was interesting and it was genuinely difficult and entertaining to capture the other side’s town, even when one knew that the NPCs would respawn indefinitely. After all, it was still just as much a victory as anything else in World of Warcraft. However, players clamored for a system that would allow PvP to affect the game outside of these small victories, and Blizzard ultimately answered them with the Honor System.

The old honor system. The Honor System was patched in about five months after World of Warcraft’s release. The math behind the system was complex, but the principles were simple: if you killed an enemy player close to your level, you got points, if you killed an enemy player far below your level, you got no points.

As you got points, you ranked up, and as you ranked up you gained access to better items in the PvP shops. It got more complicated as you got higher in rank, requiring you to be #1 on the server to receive the most points, but the grind was so steep that the vast majority of players never got close.

Because there were no points for assaulting random cities or killing guard NPCs, the Honor System discouraged the ragtag half high-level half low-level groups that had fought around the Hillsbrad Foothills. Most dedicated PvP players formed hunting groups in high-level zones instead, hoping to prey on other high-level players so they could get points. Although the fighting around the Hillsbrad Foothills continued, it had lost its strongest players, and it was never really the same after the Honor System.

A patch or two later, the introduction of special instanced pvp areas called Battlegrounds created another game within the Honor System. The Battlegrounds became the most effective way to farm honor points, but every time you went to the Battlegrounds you played a series of individual rounds, each of which had two teams vying for victory. After this patch, the Honor System became an overarching game where victory was determined through a number of short games in the Battlegrounds.

Through its evolution (expressed, for the most part, through Blizzard’s numerous patches) World of Warcraft has come to embrace its status as an environment for multiple games, only some of which are acknowledged and supported. Since the release of its expansion, World of Warcraft has turned the Honor System into a more gradual grind without ranks and created the Arena for competitive PvP players, so you can pick and choose.

So, as of now, open-world and Battlegrounds PvP and competitive PvP in the Arena are two completely different games. The Arena has ranks and seasons, but in the Honor System you just gain points and spend them as if you were grinding for money. And by increasing the level cap to level seventy, Blizzard created a new level to race up to; a way of extending the finish line for that particular game.

Some expansion PvP. In fact, most people play a combination of four or five games in World of Warcraft. There’s the leveling up game, which almost everyone plays. In this game, people try to optimize their ability to level up with regard to the amount of time they spend playing the game, and attempt to get to the highest level without wasting too much time due to inefficiency. Of course, most people take breaks from this game on their way to level seventy but when they’re leveling up, they’re trying to do it efficiently.

After this game, some people play the endgame game, in which they try to fill out their character with the best items, or the other endgame game, in which they try to beat all the raid bosses. Some people play the Honor System game, where they try to amass honor points, and others play the Arena game, where they get to the top rank in any given season. Then, there are the less popular games – or the one I just made up: going from one capital city to another as quickly as possible at level one.

In the end, World of Warcraft is an environment for people to create games, a web of intertwined systems that are all connected through common terrain. Some of these games rely on other games in the environment (most of them, for example, rely on leveling up) but all of them are different games. Through patches, Blizzard adapts World of Warcraft to create new games and modify old ones – so, as World of Warcraft evolves, half through Blizzard and half through the players themselves, a hundred games evolve with it.

[James Lantz is a starving writer who spends a large part of his time rebuilding regular-sized doors for exceptionally tall people. He also writes a blog, of course.]