Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Accountability System for Dynamic World MMOGs

Let’s think about how society holds people accountable for their actions and why. We’re not going to be able to directly model this in a game, but understanding how morality and social structures maintain themselves in real life can provide us with a basis for the mechanical social structure in a game world.

What (most likely) separates human beings from other animals is that we can calculate consciously the affects our actions will have on others. We can conceive of systems to judge actions on a scale beyond our own self-interest. These conceptions are institutionalized through religion and law. Societies dynamically generate and modify moral codes that their members tacitly understand. When there are enough people in the society, institutions arise to enforce moral codes and perpetuate, beyond the scope of the family, certain moral standards.

Accountability and moral agency are tightly bound. If we can be held accountable for our actions, we have the capacity to make moral decisions and be held to moral standards. We want the morality of actions to make a difference in what a player chooses to do when he interacts with others.

Societies in online games take on much of the morality of the real-world society in which the game is played. The effect of morality is deadened significantly in online games, though, leading to plenty of negative, uncooperative behavior that leads to undue pain and suffering.

Active morality promotes social order and cooperation, which, in general, leads to a much better social experience and a more enjoyable gameplay experience. In order for morality to matter in the game world, though, there needs to be accountability. Actions taken against (or with) other players need to have consequences, positive or negative, in order for the morality of those actions to matter to the player. Consequences cannot be enforced by players without knowledge of the precedent action.

Accountability in MMO dynamic worlds is deadened by several factors. Dynamic world games have to mitigate these factors significantly to make accountability work.

  1. There’s no way to teach the morals of the game’s society to newbies without them experiencing it. Newbies are given a character that should have a solid understanding of the moral framework, but it’s impossible for the newbie to have that level of understanding.
  2. There’s no ultimate punishment in the game world because death has little meaning. This has far-reaching consequences and cannot be overlooked.
  3. The cost of abandoning a character and creating a new one isn’t prohibitive. Griefers only lose time when they are forced to make a new character, and those griefers usually have more free time than those who are being griefed.
  4. Players don’t play every waking hour, so decisions that may need to be made have to work around when a player is online. The player’s perceptions and actions are limited by how long they spend online—there’s no analog for this in real life.
  5. Survival is not a motivator for belonging to social groups. I-game groups are much more ephemeral and the bonds between players are much looser because there aren’t many pressing needs, and no need is as pressing as survival.
  6. Membership churns in social organizations. As a result of weaker bonds between players in social groups, a player can jump from group to group at little penalty.

An accountability framework for a dynamic world needs to have several parts:

  1. Event capturing and fact collection. The game engine can provide plenty of information about what characters have done. This information can be factually perfect—which is actually better than the general imperfection of information in real life. Collecting data can be difficult in games that have a lot of ambiguous actions available to players, but if players’ actions are relatively well defined, event capturing can lead to a significant increase in accountability.
  2. Player aggregation and contextualization of information. Trusted players should be able to take the bare-bones fact sheets generated by the game engine and write histories around them that can be read by other players within the game.
  3. Limited information availability. People don’t immediately know all of one anothers’ deeds and misdeeds. A game shouldn’t model this directly, but some gradual information spread depending on player contact and faction contact is necessary.
  4. Account-wide activity memory. Because we cannot assume any degree of roleplaying, the moral actor should not be considered the character, but the player. All characters played on the same account should be connected. Activity histories should appear the same for all characters on one account (though there should be some reorganization of the view to allow the activity of the current character to be at the top or highlighted).
  5. Give in-game social groups facilities for communicating at all times within the game. This means much more than guild chat. Social groups should have message boards accessible from within the game. There should be something like a wiki that the group can put up to hold important data about itself that its members need to know for the social order to be maintained. Organizational tools are crucial for the promotion of moral and cooperative behavior.
  6. Allow social group membership to have a dramatic effect on how a player plays the game. More than simply giving the player a tag beneath their name and a chat channel, guilds should open up a whole new world of coordinated and uncoordinated group activity. When a player joins a new group, she should notice a difference in the way she plays the game every single time she logs on. In this way, group membership can have significance and membership churn can be reduced. Survival can be replaced with raw utility as a motivator for social behavior.

MMOs should make playing with others as smooth and rewarding as possible. In a game world where players can have significant effects on each others’ gameplay, it’s critical that social groups have the tools to invent and maintain morality frameworks to ease cooperation and promote social stability. Without tools to aid tracking and managing accountability, dynamic worlds will continue to breed a disproportionate number of psychopathic characters—such games will always be alluring but, ultimately, socially unstable, exploitable, and brutish.

13 comments:

Bronte said...

I agree with most of what you say. But I think the real life parallels are a little more complex than that. Aside from being governed by law and religion, but also social norms and fear of retaliation.

Social norms, more often than not, dictate a person's response in a social situation. In an argument, you inner animal may need to shout an expletive to satiate the curious need for human beings to be consciously mean. But social norms, especially the much-hated 'Political Correctness' rules keep them from doing so.

More importantly perhaps is the fear of retaliation. You may want to call that chunky 300-pound kid a meathead, but you worry what the inside of your colon looks like when he shoves your own head up your ass.

In a virtual environment, social norms and fear of retaliation is no longer a significant factor. Religious devotion and an unsaid oath to be a good person may keep you from being a jerk to everyone. Laws within the game world (as dictated by the developers) may keep you from indulging in name-calling, ninja-looting or other activities with the intention of ruining another player's experience. However, a virtual world practically guarantees against retaliation and adherence to social norms is a purely optional.

Maybe they should design a game where any unwarranted cursing reveals your home address and IP information to the wronged party?

evizaer said...

Did you read the post carefully? I'm not talking about developers writing laws into the game. I'm talking about tools games should provide players to allow them to hold one another accountable for their actions. This doesn't mean that in-game societies will behave just like real-world societies, but it does raise them above weak tribal systems that can barely endure for a few months when under stress.

I directly addressed fear of retaliation and social norms, and listed a few ways developers can help to work around the lack of the former and facilitate the development of the latter.

Bertie said...

>> 3. Limited information availability

Difficult thanks to the Internet, since players can and do circumvent any in-game restrictions on information availability by posting that information online.

>> 4. Account-wide activity memory

Can be circumvented by use of multiple accounts, which is something that cannot be prevented by the game developer. This is not a theoretical concern; multiple accounts are standard practice, for example, in EVE Online and circumventing accountability is one of their primary uses there.

As a practical matter, I'd say the experience of EVE Online -- which basically has everything in the proposed accountability framework except for account-wide memory, which wouldn't help anyway, as I explained above -- leaves doubt as to whether accountability mechanisms would decrease psychopathic behavior to the extent desired here. Not when psychopathic behavior is the accepted morality of the game community in the first place.

evizaer said...

"Difficult thanks to the Internet, since players can and do circumvent any in-game restrictions on information availability by posting that information online."

Sure, someone could put up a site that aggregates all the information about players that the game gathers, but I doubt more than 10% of the playerbase will find it and use it. Chances are that the game can do a better job of presenting and aggregating the data than a third-party site can.

"Can be circumvented by use of multiple accounts, which is something that cannot be prevented by the game developer. This is not a theoretical concern; multiple accounts are standard practice, for example, in EVE Online and circumventing accountability is one of their primary uses there."

EVE actively rewards having multiple accounts. There is almost no reason whatsoever to have multiple characters on the same account if you can afford to pay for multiple accounts. In a world where accountability information is available and reliable, I doubt that guilds will pick wildcard characters with no background over someone who has proven themselves. The risks of taking unknown characters aboard will be pretty obvious and will play a role in how guilds are operated.

EVE online does not have what I'm suggesting. I've played it and tried to find a feature like what I'm suggesting to no avail. Where does the game collect information about each players actions that is readily visible by others? Where are player historians aggregating historical data that is easily viewable within the game? They do have a web-browser built into the game engine, but I never found real-time resources provided by CCP that accomplished these goals.

foolsage said...

There's much I agree with here but some that I don't.

First, you're limiting the discussion to dynamic world MMOs. None such exist right now to my knowledge (every MMO that I know of is static to a greater or lesser degree, but none have persistence outside of character state), so by extension the rules for such worlds are yet to be decided. It's thus unsafe to make assumptions such as "permadeath cannot exist", "nobody roleplays", and "people don't need groups to survive".

Account-wide information tracking would be very useful in a world with no roleplaying, but it's also quite obviously completely incompatible with any level of roleplaying. If a player has two characters, one a law-abiding charitable healer who lives to serve, and one a backstabbing mugger and pickpocket, it's not reasonable or fair to tar the former with the latter's actions. If all that matters is the metagame, then surely, ignore the difference between characters. That makes the most sense in terms of how GMs or admins view and monitor activity; in terms of what players learn about other players though, it makes more sense to limit this entirely to what a given character has done - unless, again, absolutely no roleplaying exists and none is to be supported.

The more dynamic a world becomes though, the more roleplaying becomes feasible and arguably desirable. I'm unconvinced that it's best to discard all possibility of immersion and deal only with the metagame realities, but then my bias is to prefer immersion in character, even if only a little.

I strongly agree that guild membership should change one's playing experience much more than is currently done. I think the more dynamic a world becomes, the more this matters, since groups can impact and change the world, so membership becomes meaningful.

My sentiments here are of course tempered by my experiences as a designer and GM of a roleplay-heavy NWN persistent world, so your mileage may vary.

As for Bertie's comment about how it's difficult to limit what information is shared, this is both true and untrue. Clearly anything that's shared with players can be posted on the internet, and almost certainly will be in time. On the other hand, there's no requirement that the game share detailed information about player activities with other players. E.g. if in a given game session my character completes quest X, kills 44 bandits, and attacks another player character unprovoked, the game might publish to other players the last of these facts but not share the first two. Contrariwise, the game might share the fact of my quest completion with other players but tell them nothing about my bandit slaying or PvP activities. What information ends up being available is thus to a certain extend controllable; players can only accumulate and share the data that are available to them after all.

Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

A lot of accountability is wrapped up in reputation. People interested in this topic might find Reputation Wednesdays over at Building Web Reputation Systems interesting; the site deals with a book on that topic co-authored by Lessons of Habitat co-author Randy Farmer.

evizaer said...

"It's thus unsafe to make assumptions such as "permadeath cannot exist", "nobody roleplays", and "people don't need groups to survive"."

I maintain it IS safe to make those assumptions.

"permadeath cannot exist" because even if a character does permanently die and is deleted, the player can make a new character that is exactly the same and, with some time spent, can build it the exact same way. There is no way to attach the same significance to death in an MMO that is attached in real life. So, in this way, permadeath is an impossibility.

"nobody roleplays" is true for almost every MMO on the market today. The number of people who roleplay in a game is an almost entirely missable minority. As I said in my player-character gap article, roleplaying cannot be assumed in game societies that are clearly set against it.

"people don't need groups to survive" is very true. First, survival has no meaning in MMOs because death cannot have the meaning it has in real life. Second, the character's default state is solo. In almost every MMO there are classes and players who can and will play solo. Most MMO players today play solo. Clearly, groups are not needed to survive. Even if you architect a game specifically to make groups necessary, characters would fail to survive simply because they had trouble finding a group--a person's play experience would simply be crappy.

(I may write a post about my assumptions and why I feel they are valid. I started writing it before you posted your comment, Foolsage, and it now seems to be somewhat needed.)

foolsage said...

I posit that there is a difference, even a profound difference, between "what MMOs are like now" and "what MMOs will always be like". I agree that roleplaying is rare in modern MMOs, but it's not nonexistent. It's also possible and perhaps desirable that *some* MMOs in the future will allow for and support more roleplaying that current MMOs do.

""permadeath cannot exist" because even if a character does permanently die and is deleted, the player can make a new character that is exactly the same and, with some time spent, can build it the exact same way."

This is simply untrue. :) A game CAN be designed that allows for only one character per person, or only one character of a given type. A game CAN be designed, as well, such that every character's experience is different from all other characters - this requires dynamic content but it's surely conceivable. If every character experiences different things and has a different narrative path and different options for development, then it's also conceivable that a given player could never completely recreate a permadead character.

Note that I'm not arguing that permadeath is desirable, only that it is quite possible.

""people don't need groups to survive" is very true. First, survival has no meaning in MMOs because death cannot have the meaning it has in real life. "

Whether failure to survive leads to character permadeath, and how you define character permadeath, has nothing to do with whether grouping is needed to survive in the first place. Modern games tend to avoid necessary grouping for most content, but require it for some content. You can't complete a raid encounter solo at the designed level; groups are needed to survive there.

And again, we're butting up against the difference between what MMOs do now, and the possible theoretical design of what MMOs might do in the future. I don't see the two as identical at all, or even roughly comparable. The DikuMUD model with no world persistence and completely static content won't last forever.

evizaer said...

Anything CAN happen, certainly. But if I act on that and make no assumptions, I am rendered incapable of making any practical statements.

The point of making the post was to outline ways to increase accountability in games where accountability matters most within the MMO space. I make this post in the context of the MMORPG genre as it is today. I can't make the post in reference to everything the MMORPG genre was and could possibly be in the future, because I can't conceive of every possible permutation of game mechanics. You're asking me to assume so little that I can't actually offer anything constructive. I would seem to be stuck simpering about how I don't like what currently exists, because I cannot make statements abstract enough to please your "all conceivable mechanics".

It is conceivable that just about every single mechanic in MMORPGs today could be entirely changed and completely unrecognizable in a new game. Does that mean all of our design discussions need to apply to all games with any set of mechanics? You quickly force the discussion to become so abstract as to be meaningless.

There are some very basic assumptions at the core of this proposal. I thought they went without saying, but I'll say them now:

1.) This accountability framework should be feasible to implement as per the current or near-future state of dynamic world games.

2.) The games to which this framework applies aim to have enough players that policing roleplaying would be impossible--there cannot be a safe assumption that anyone will roleplay. This thinking is completely in line with the state of MMOs now and in the near future. (I'm not talking mass-market only, but instead games that aim to be open to the public and >10,000 active accounts)

3.) I limit the framework to dynamic world games because it is only in dynamic world games that it matters enough for this work to be done.

4.) The framework won't apply (or will need to be modified) to games that have radically non-typical mechanics in the areas I outlined as being problems for accountability in typical MMOs.

foolsage said...

While I agree that opening up discussion to all possible design spaces does limit one, I don't think it's necessarily too hard to overcome. That's of course a matter of personal preference. Player reputation systems (i.e. between players, not between characters and NPCs) could be approached in the abstract without limiting discussion to MMOs as they exist now. But again, there's nothing wrong with your approach.

I will say though that there's a difference between "we cannot assume that anyone will roleplay" (which I agree is true for any given player) and "we can safely assume that nobody ever roleplays" (which is demonstrably false). Does the average player RP? Of course not. Is it however a valid playstyle that would be adversely affected by ignoring the differences between player and character? Yes. That's limited to today's games, not even the near-future ones.

One possible approach is to add some granularity to the player rep system, such that players can readily view reputation information about a specific character, OR about a given player. That allows people who want to base judgements on how a single character acts to do so, without limiting the people who ignore in-character information and care only about the metagame.

I'm puzzled by this: "I limit the framework to dynamic world games," which seems to contradict your desire to speak only of current and short-term future games. No dynamic world MMOs exist to my knowledge; all are static. If you kill an NPC, he respawns. If you drop an item on the ground, it disappears within minutes. If you fire off a fireball and see a "scorched earth" VFX, it doesn't persist. Players cannot change the state of the world except minimally through phasing, which isn't truly dynamic in that other players don't share that reality.

The proposition that we were discussing dynamic worlds was what led me to think you were speaking in the abstract about possible future states of the industry, and not what exists here and now.

evizaer said...

"[RPing is] however a valid playstyle that would be adversely affected by ignoring the differences between player and character? Yes. That's limited to today's games, not even the near-future ones."

The game doesn't necessarily have to ignore the difference between players and characters. For instance, if every account represented a family, the family history could be relevant to each character on the account. Each individual's history would be distinct and easily searchable, but they would also carry with them the reputation and history of their siblings, parents, and ancestors to some extent.

This safely fits within the framework I've outlined.

"I'm puzzled by this: "I limit the framework to dynamic world games," which seems to contradict your desire to speak only of current and short-term future games. No dynamic world MMOs exist to my knowledge; all are static. If you kill an NPC, he respawns. If you drop an item on the ground, it disappears within minutes. If you fire off a fireball and see a "scorched earth" VFX, it doesn't persist. Players cannot change the state of the world except minimally through phasing, which isn't truly dynamic in that other players don't share that reality."

There are nascent dynamic world games. UO and Shadowbane were. Mortal Online will be. Darkfall, EVE, and Wurm Online (along with several other small games whose names escape me) are. They don't take the dynamic world philosophy as far as I'd like them to (though Wurm Online takes it further than I'd like to, honestly), but that doesn't mean they aren't dynamic world games.

Nathan said...

Accountability as you describe it is the antithesis of another prevalent feature in MMO's: Anonymity. Whenever I meet a new player I might make judgements on them based on class and equipment, but their persona is well concealed.

If a characters actions could be linked to an in game reputation, players would play a lot differently. So why not have a system that tracks player reputation based on series of choices and gameplay styles?

If a character's reputation preceded their greeting it would cause interesting social dynamic. It could also be implemented as a game mechanic. For example, a high ranking cleric would never give tasks to someone with a reputation for being a theif, and perhaps, for using foul language.

Rhygar said...

You guys might be talking on a more abstract level than I am capable of but this is my opinion...

The "dynamic" MMOs such as Darkfall and Mortal Online have so completely neglected the clan/society management tools and a reputation systems that they end up as FPS battlefields.

As has been stated the two main issues are (1) no repercussions for negative behaviour (2) anonymity - and they are of course related.

(1) Repercussions
Currently an anti-PK ("PK" being used loosely to refer to players that play solely for the conflict and have little interest in building a sensical society with the RPG as background - i.e. they play for the PvP and nothing else) can do nothing to police territory they control because they have to respond to individual disturbances. It becomes a matter of timing for the PK in a never-ending tug-of-war, completely stifling any coherent society in-game, since he can come back every day whenever HE chooses. This forces the non-PKs to constantly be playing the PKs game because he can never solve the root of the problem.

If you want a online RPG experience you need to input social tools such as "laws" that can be defined by players that control a particular territory. Reputation penalties incurred for transgressing such "laws" should work on multiple levels. Achieving the higher level rewards such as certain clan buildings, personal housing, additional characters etc should be linked to an "honour" score. Your honour increases while you have positive reputation. Negative reputation and you don't generate honour, and no honour means no access to higher level perks. You can even throw in the murder count/stat loss mechanics by reducing a player's murder count limit the lower his reputation is. I.e. a player that has habitually been griefing for a month or two will only require 1 offence to see him flagged as a rogue character and vulnerable to whatever penalties the game places on such players.

This reputation system should then be extended to any political entities in the game such as clans or alliances. If you suddenly attack your allies from 10 minutes ago each and every member in the clan will suffer severe reputation penalties - effecting their honour gain. Clans should need certain reputation levels to access certain functions and buildings.

Negative behaviour of individual members should in turn effect the clan average, and thus other members - kicking a player within 24 hours should be a way of avioding such penalties.

Needless to say the system will be complex with many, many little loopholes having to be considered.

Reputation becomes a measure of your behaviour over a period of time, whereas honour is your current access to rewards for past good behaviour.

Players that have negative reputation (i.e. the equivalent of your real life criminals) would live without access to grand housing and other rewards - thus simulating a "fear". The lesson being if you want to enjoy the game fully then please play by societies standards.

(2) Anonymity
I agree that past behavioural data needs to be collect because as a clan leader I want to be able to see what a clan/player/alliance has done to others in the past. If it is a blank sheet you will be much more cautious.

A public viewable account history is absolutely essential. All characters on an account need to share penalties so as to prevent "gaming" of the system with multiple characters.

You trade with an unreputable character? Then you get a reputation penalty. So on and so forth.

**Please note I write this from the perspective that a more stable simulated experience is desirable. The problem MIGHT be that the majority that flock to games such as Darkfall and Mortal do not wish stability and in fact WANT a battlefield - in which case I am still waiting on a developer to tackle the type of genre I am talking about.