Showing posts with label guilds. Show all posts
Showing posts with label guilds. Show all posts

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.

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.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Fostering Community Growth

The last two MMORPGs I have tried were Darkfall and (currently) EVE Online. I was on the roller coasters for quite a few years and wanted to see what the other side of the genre was like.

I've made observations about sandbox games, particularly in the newbie areas since I haven't played either game for more than a few weeks. I will say that as complicated as EVE is, it does a much better job than Darkfall at weening the rookie off the training wheels and getting players doing at least something. Maybe it's because EVE has been around for 6 times as long as Darkfall. Or maybe not.

But there is a major fault in both these games that I want to address--namely how the player goes about becoming part of a community. Finding a joining a guild in a sandbox is very much a chore and takes initiative on the players' part (like all things in a sandbox). There are in-game and out-of-game recruitment channels, but there are no accidental recruitment channels. In theme-park MMOs, you put together a questing or experience party, you are meeting potential members for your guild. You think "hey, this guy is fun and knows how to play; I'll invite him to my guild." Done. Easy for the recruitment officers. Easy for the potential members.

In EVE and Darkfall, there is no native trial-run environment. Although there were a few spontaneous parties created around the goblin camps in Darkfall, everyone in the party was still seen as a potential enemy, not a potential comrade.

The solution is pretty simple: create co-operative environments where both guildless and guilded players can come to let their guards down long enough to get to know other players. Where players see others as potential friends and companions rather than potential backstabbers.

I know this sounds very artificial and against the open-world, anything-goes mentality of sandboxes. But with a subgenre so heavily focused on communities and relying on those communities to generate the fun ships for the players, you'd think that it would be less of a chore to get into one of these guilds.