Friday, October 23, 2009

Accountability is the Currency of Dynamic Worlds

Theme-park MMOs are consequence-free zones—unless you get into the kind of behavior that is against the TOS, but even then the worst punishment is being kicked off the game.  It’s not a problem that theme-parks don’t have serious consequences for player character actions within the game mechanics because no character has an impact on the world. Regardless of what you do (barring some very rare GM-run events) the same mobs will continue to spawn in the same places and the same quests will be done by different people without interruption.

As soon as you give the player the ability to take actions that have far-reaching impact on the experiences of other players, you need to instill a conception of consequence in the player’s mind or face a blight of sociopaths actively ruining the game.

The basic building blocks of dynamic worlds are the actions of the players as they interact with one another and the environment. These actions have meaning in that they change the behaviors or capabilities the environment—both the simulated world and the players that inhabit it. Players need to have feedback from the environment as they interact so that they can learn the rules of interaction and the extent of their own capabilities.

Feedback can be supplied in two ways: in that the players sees what effect his actions have on the world, and in that the player sees how he should feel about that effect.

All games give feedback in the first form. You push on a crate and it moves in the direction you pushed. Simple feedback like this teaches you how to interact with your environment and helps you construct a mental image of tools you can use in further problem-solving endeavors. These rules tend to be too simple in MMOs and this feedback is too minimal, but this feedback’s existence provides the underpinnings for the second kind of feedback.

The second kind of feedback is less common in MMOs. Usually single-player games have NPCs that will react to the player’s actions by interacting with the player differently. The way NPCs react to the player suggests how the player should feel about what they are doing in the world. If the player is behaving badly (in a particular social context), NPCs react with shock, horror, and derision towards the player—the player is supposed to feel this about his actions and adjust them. Because NPCs in MMOs are generally worthless cardboard cutout quest-givers, their reactions have no importance to the player—even though through executing the quest-givers will, the player has interacted with the world in the only way possible in the game, the player doesn’t care about the NPC and skips through quest text. NPCs are just tools used to move forward, to get to the endgame and do the real business the game brags about, be it raiding or PvP.

When the player interacts with other players as his main means of playing the game, either through direct interaction or through effecting a cohabitated world, the tools required to show the player how he should feel about his actions are altered beyond recognition. No longer are NPCs the central focus of the game—players have to make moral judgments about other players. The quality of those judgments has an impact on how much fun each player has.

Through making moral judgments, players establish de facto tribal societies. Once in the context of a society, players behave in regimented, sensible ways while relating to others in their society. The player who acts out will be stripped of his status within the society and will not be able to take advantage of the facilities that society provides, so players are incentivized to conform and contribute. The relations built through this socialization keep players hooked into the game world and happy. PvP is contextualized into society versus society warfare, not meaningless and random killing.

Accountability is at the center of the social and moral systems that form the backbone of player-driven, dynamic worlds. Developers have to provide tools to allow players to hold one another accountable for their actions. Developers need to build tools to track the behaviors of players and reveal important details to other players in appropriate places, building a framework for players to establish crucial trust relationships. By giving players the power to avoid untrustworthy or uncooperative agents, developers can give their players a world where actions have meaningful consequence without the world falling apart into a chaotic mass of criminality and complexity.

Accountability is the social currency of dynamic world MMOs. In order for a player-driven dynamic world to succeed, mechanics must facilitate accountability.


Marty Runyon said...

I'm at a loss for words. Having trouble saying anything more than "Hell yeah!" But your post deserves a little more than that.

Accountability has to be the keystone any open-world game rests on or there is no chance the players can grow beyond bands of roving thugs. So long as the developers put enough tools in the hands of the players to enforce societal norms in game (even if it's just blowing up their space ship), then we have a chance to see something bigger and better occur in out online spaces.

Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

I don't think any serious game developer will disagree with you. In fact, one developer I respect highly is doing a book and website based solely on reputation. Before you cross-pollinate your ideas with his, here is your next task: give an example system that accomplishes this. Keep in mind that griefers will look to actively abuse the system for their own gain or personal pleasure.

I'm interested to see what you consider a reasonable system to accomplish this. I'll link to the site after you do the followup task.

evizaer said...


Do you remember my post about in-game historians? That would be the basis of the system. It'd mostly be a system that records the actions of PCs in a neutral fashion and allows annotation by people with sufficient credibility (i.e. High-ranking faction members or GMs who participate in the world as PCs), almost like a wiki that's pre-populated with raw facts.

If people know that there actions will be cataloged, that alone cuts down a significant amount of bad behavior.

derek said...

1. There's a book by Cory Doctorow of BoingBoing that discusses a post-cash accountability system. It's called Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. Fun quick read. Essentially they replace money with a system of accountability, or respect, called "Whuffie".

2. The difficulty with accountability in games is that player-player interactions are difficult to regulate with rules-based systems. Witness: law school. I've been playing a lot of EVE, and it frustrates me endlessly that there are no authoritative or trusted player run organizations. There have been several attempts at banks, but they aren't trusted due to massive fraud by executives. Not squirreling away a nest egg, we're talking 50% of the assets of the company. If there were a legal system that provided structures for confiscating the assets and limiting the mobility of convicted criminals, you would start to see more reasonable behavior. On the other hand, these provisions need to be limited - if you run a perfect heist, run off to mexico, and then are magically teleported to US jail, that's just not fair.

Sorry for the ramble, but I'd love to see a real system for an effective society in an MMO.

Matt said...

I read your post about in-game historians with a different mindset. It mostly made me think about writing as the basis for a profession in a game, which I found intriguing.

In any case, my question becomes how do you assign credibility in the first place? It strikes me as a chicken before the egg problem. I want to trust you, but I'd like some evidence of your credibility. To get credibility, your trustworthiness needs to be tested. Are there other aspects within the game that could be used as a gatekeeper for selecting those players? Or, is it as simple as having a GM supervise the initial historians and progressively assigning greater privilege?

evizaer said...

The system would be designed to collect facts and let the players make decisions based on those facts. The facts are not biased--they are merely accurate. (There'd have to be some way of gating the release of information; I'm sure it can be done in a reasonable way that makes it useful without its omniscience crippling banditry and risk-taking.)

For example:
"Bob (Faction1) killed Joe (Faction2) at TownA at TimeA; Faction1 and 2 were at war. Bob took nothing of value.

Marty (Faction1) killed Jane (Faction3) at TownB at TimeB; Faction1 and 3 were not at war. Marty was seen in the possession of Jane's heirloom sword, valued at 1,000,000 gold pieces. Jane has issued a contract for its safe return."

There are no judgments built into the writing of these auto-generated reports, but players can make moral judgments based on what they see. Player historians would add meat to the bones that these factual reports represent.

Longasc said...

I think the main issue is that not many are going to disagree with you on the theory, but how the hell are the makers/devs going to implementate something like that.

You have already given some examples, but the baby still has not left the fuzzy and warm theoryspace so far.

Dblade said...

Bounty points.

Each guild gets a certain amount of points that accrue slowly. What they can do is spend the points to put "bounties" on people which reward people for killing them in PvP. The total is low enough that to put a bounty is not a common thing, and you also get perks for not using them, like buying guild-specific items. You also can only put a bounty on a character so often, serverwide, but additional bounty requests are marked with flags and add a bonus. They spend the full amount of points though, so it's best not to use them unless a person really has pissed someone off. Only guilds with 10+ members can use bounties.

You can see at town a list of bounties with a short text description added to it, per character. Both active and fulfilled ones show, but only in town. This way you can research someone's past, but in the field you can't tell if someone is dangerous or not.

You can also set conditions to "buy off" the bounty to let people wipe it clean and reconcile. Maybe even give a mechanism to contest it, like a formal duel.

I think Evi's idea is very good, and I tried to think of a concrete way to do it.

Tesh said...

"fuzzy and warm theoryspace"...

I must appropriate that lovely bit of wordsmithing at some point.

As to the topic at hand, how does this work with internet anonymity? One thing that Puzzle Pirates does well is the dreaded IP ban. Players that have abused the trust of the devs don't just have their account destroyed, their IP is banned and their computer is considered "tainted", unable to make new accounts. (I'm not sure of the mechanics of this, but digital "fingerprints" come with dang near everything these days, so it's probably nothing more malignant than a database entry on the Three Rings servers indicating the computer's structure or some such.) In my mind, this sort of significant Banhammer usage is integral to accountability.

There is no accountability without consequences for bad behavior.

Of course, that's for the real bad apples. For those who are just jerks, not real villains, a social database would be an interesting tool to indicate behavior. Again, though, what of alts and other ID dodging tools in cyberspace?

Eugene Conniff said...

This goes beyond accountability in the form of TOS violations, though. Breaking dev rules is not the same as breaking player or guild rules. If I'm a player and I steal from you in-game, without the help of some outside program, the devs can't touch me. I used the game to its fullest potential.

Bounties are a nice idea, and I've also seen identification flags tossed around, flags that mark you as "enemy" or "criminal" to a certain guild if you troll their town too often. Those are all well and good, and they add to the game by actually playing along with my trolling instead of putting me in the corner...where I'll just think of new annoying things to do.

The problem is the whole logging off thing. It may be a society, but it's an absent society. What if I live in the UK and your guild members are mostly on the west coast? That's a HUGE window where I can run around and do whatever I damn well please, with whatever bounties or flags on my head that you want to place, and have no fear of any consequences. Even if you add NPC guards to the mix, it doesn't help much. Outsmarting an NPC is a cakewalk for many players. Even if they're sophisticated, the minute one player figures out how, a thousand players know.

An absent society is a society with little hope of self-generated accountability. It needs to be built into the game mechanics or it will never work.

Wurm online uses something called "deeds", which allow you to whitelist certain structures for use by only people of your choosing. I think they're unwieldy, awkward, and don't go far enough (or in some cases go too far), but it's a step in the right direction.

The point is, don't rely on players to uphold accountability. It's a game. You have the ability to insert accountability into the ruleset. Use it!