Friday, September 16, 2016

My MMManifesto - Illegality (with EVE as negative example)

"Perdido en el corazon
De la grande Babylon
Me dicen el clandestino
Por no llevar papel"

Manu Chao - Clandestino

While they dutifully kiss Blizzard's ass as everyone in the game industry feels obligated to do, old-school game designers will sometimes guardedly admit some of the central flaws of World of Warcraft and the endless hordes of copycats it's spawned. For instance, no player choice in profession. Not enough roles to play; everyone's a fighter, punching ten to the tenth rats into submission. Theme-park MMO's are not the engrossing virtual worlds they should be, complete with homesteads, trading, player-controlled economy and politics, etc. Instead, the "kill ten rats" paradigm has completely dominated the online scene for the past fifteen years, allowing no other roles to grow around it. Some are of course promising to fix all that and everything else to boot, like Richard Garriott and Mark Jacobs, whose respective ersatz holy grails we will assuredly soon be able to peruse at fine gaming retailers everywhere.

Of course, such promises have been made since before World of Warcraft cemented the pattern. The year before WoW came out for example, EVE-Online stumbled onto the market promising, as virtual worlds once did, to be "like reality, only better" and touted a slew of virtual lifestyle choices at its customers' fingertips. I've gone into some of the goods and bads in my previous EVE posts here but this time I'd like to focus on the issue of illegality with regards to NPC factions.

Every such world has NPC factions. They ensure the bottom doesn't fall out of the game, in various ways. Using WoW as a recognizable reference point, ignore here the issue of opposing factions like that of WoW because they render legality moot. A Horde player is never expected to maintain the status of a law-abiding citizen with respect to the Alliance and vice-versa. Ignore also faction grinds, in which the player is only expected to gain reputation, with no flip-side available. To create a relevant choice, illegality must be a valid alternative to legality, attained through purposeful player action.

For instance, EVE offered the option to attack NPC cargo ships. Convoys occasionally leave NPC space stations. Destroying them hurts the player's reputation with those NPCs. Purposeful action? Yes. Valid alternative? No, because the value of the loot was never competitive with that attained by attacking designated enemy NPCs. The reward in such a case would need to compensate for the detrimental consequences, or better yet be unattainable otherwise, allowing player market demand to foster criminality.

On the topic of attainability, EVE also included smuggling. Each major NPC faction had its list of no-nos ranging the usual gamut of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll. My own proud, traditionalist Amarrian people, for instance, jealously upheld their divine right to enslave lesser races, while foolish foreigners considered human cargo illegal. Fancy that. As with pillaging convoys, smuggling was never properly incentivized. Had it been, I'm willing to bet it would still have been done the wrong way, through NPC merchants. The right way would be to prompt player demand for some illegal good which would have to be moved through NPC territory. Spell reagents, construction materials for player housing, sweet-sweet magic potions, some marijuana ilegal, that sort of thing.

No matter the offense, the proof is in the pudding. Or rather the proof is in how quickly the town guards pound you into pudding. A world in which you want to foster a certain degree of nominal rebellion as both desirable an risky begs the question of punishment. Here's where you simply cannot leave things to players. While I wholeheartedly support implementing official blacklists for player clans to govern as they wish, according to whatever criteria they wish, if you as a game developer want something spanked right you gotta spank it yourself.

EVE allowed players to place bounties on each other. Presumably this would be motivated by unwarranted aggression. Piracy. You kill me without what I'd consider just pretext, I put money on your head and some hard-bitten, cigarette butt chewing stubbly macho antihero chases you down and brings your head to the authorities. Of course the real outcome was a quick and easy exploit for the biggest cretins on the server to make some money off their random acts of aggression. Piss off enough people to build up a bounty that surpasses whatever you might lose while dying, remove all gear, meet one of your buddies in a secluded place, have him kill you and split the bounty. Double your victims' losses, all through the magic of free-market economics. Respawn, rinse, repeat. As easy as billionaires declaring "bankruptcy" in the real world.

The carrot should be privatized. The stick, not so much.

Unfortunately, online game developers undercut any drawbacks to player actions by promoting alternate characters and multiple accounts, as EVE once again so aptly demonstrates. Who cares if you're no longer allowed to shop in such-and-such faction's cities when you can just switch to your crafter alt, buy everything you need and give it to yourself? Even if we foster black markets properly by creating tradeable rewards attainable only by criminal action against NPC factions, the repercussions for "criminal" faction standing cannot be anything avoidable by switching characters. Assuming that players will have multiple characters either via alting or multiple accounts and it is thus impossible to punish players, games should at least do a thorough job of creating real repercussions for any character which decides to live the life of the outlaw.

Just as the rewards for illegal action should be difficult or impossible to attain by other means in order to create demand for those rewards, negative consequences should also be unique to that faction. In EVE, and presumably the other few games which allow for "negative" consequences, you don't particularly have to care whether your character can no longer run missions in one area of space. Every other major area of space offers duplicate missions with roughly duplicate rewards. So how could NPC faction retribution sting a bit more?

First of all, if the punishment is exclusion from that faction's territory, then there should be something in there which the player can't easily get somewhere else. Denying access to playable content (dungeons, etc.) is not really an option, as this would undercut the value of the game. However, character skill training or other bonuses could easily be linked to faction reputations. Maybe the city of pirates is the only place where you can get training in your rapier skill. Maybe the temple where you need to get curses removed exists in only one city in the game world. Maybe the space station where you steal your highly lucrative melange is also the only one where you can get a missile targeting cyber implant installed.

Maybe any NPC faction you've pissed off just outright curses your character or installs a virus on your ship's systems, debuffing you with no saving throw. Hey, the money's good enough to take that hit, do that time for your crime, isn't it? Isn't it? You be the judge - you and that free player market. On a more subtle note, interweaving (gerrymandered, if you will) faction territories could pose literal barriers to players attempting to move to and fro in the game world, though that assumes a lack of game-breaking teleportation.

Of course, the main aesthetic component of an imaginary life of crime consists of sneaking through / around the territory of your enemies... or maybe speeding through it while yelling "ya'll never get me alive, coppers!" but hey, diffr'nt jukes f'r diffr'nt crooks. EVE, once again, handled the issue of town guards very poorly, although this was largely due to its larger overall problem with the antiquated zone line mechanic. EVE's version of town guards was to instantly teleport an unbeatable army on top of you. In terms of the aforementioned half-implemented smuggling system, you merely had a percentage chance of getting caught with illegal goods in your cargo hold at choke points - an untamed randomizer with no player agency whatsoever.

NPC faction defenses should be semi-permeable, observable and to some extent combatable or avoidable, ramping gradually up in difficulty. Patrols should path in semi-predictable patterns. (I cannot believe I'm saying this, but vanilla WoW actually got a lot of this right.) Further, randomly spawning assassins could begin to harass players as they more seriously piss off one or more of the powers that be. Interloping should not be merely a class ability (rogues, bleagh) but also achievable through forgery of documents/identity or disguises (crafting skills maybe?) Use direct negative impact on a player's character (i.e. stat debuffs and lack of access to irreplaceable NPC services) as hard drawbacks and make those difficult to remedy. Leave direct physical confrontation as a softer measure, a playable part of the game.

One last thing.
The image of the poor, low-class artful dodger has to be thrown out to some extent. If actions by which a player can profit from illegal activities are attainable with a low (or no) time investment in character development, then everyone will just create hordes of low-level alts to supply themselves with illegal goods. To lend negative repercussions some sting, they must apply to characters in which the player has sunk significant effort, meaning that negative faction reputations (and the benefits/drawbacks which come with such status) must be for lack of a better term an "end-game" pursuit. It should be only characters with a heavy time investment which are allowed to indulge in such activity in the first place, so that punishments for it actually matter.

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