Hell Is Other People: Challenges to the Future of the MMORPG

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by Robert de los Reyes, Esq.

Hell is other people, said French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Having endured the long-haul flights connecting Los Angeles and New York for the trip to E3, it's easy enough to agree, at least, that Hell is other people in airports. Why people insist on carrying 8 lbs of metal on their person, each ounce of which must be separately removed and inspected by airport security, is beyond my understanding. I have just one word for travelers: plastics. I have also (nearly) resolved to declare bedroom slippers as my travel footwear of choice in light of how frequently security requires me to remove my shoes.

Sartre's famous epigram popped into my head while listening to IDSA president Doug Lowenstein's opening comments to the media on Wednesday morning. Among many other subjects, Lowenstein discussed massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs). In particular, Lowenstein hinted at the contrast between the sizeable push into online gaming of both PC and console game makers and the relatively small portion of the gaming community that participates in online gaming, persistent world gaming especially. The chief culprit for this low uptake is, to Lowenstein's way of thinking, the failure of internet service providers (ISPs) to deliver us to the promised land of a chicken in every pot and broadband connectivity in every computer room. And he's probably right about that. North American broadband penetration is embarrassingly low, and growth, while palpable, remains slow. Broadband connections are not required to play most online games, but they enhance the experience immeasurably. Still, thinking of Sartre, broadband penetration isn't the only problem online gaming, and persistent world gaming in particular, must resolve.

Too often, Hell is gaming with strangers. And the only thing worse than gaming with strangers is reading their whiny, entitlement-laden, sometimes offensive and rude forum posts. The problem of forum posts is avoided easily enough, even if dodging the forum eats away at the sense of "community" so heavily sought after. The problem of gaming with strangers is, however, a puzzle yet to be solved in its entirety. The problem of strangers is both formal and informal.

The formal complaints, such as random player-killing (PKing), kill-stealing (KSing) and other "griefing" behaviors, are largely a matter of rulemaking. Dark Age of Camelot, for example, attacked one such formal problem by dividing its game world into three Realms. The Realms are, roughly speaking, overlapping circles, and where they intersect players are allowed to fight one another. In non-connecting areas, no player combat is allowed, and, no matter where you are, you may never attack your own realmmates. Camelot's is a more elegant solution to the problem of wanton player-killing than simply designating PK and non-PK servers. The rulemaking is organic, integrated, and, most importantly, preserves player choice. Fight or don't fight; fight now or fight a little later. The player need not decide in advance.

Living with Random Acts of Violence: Shadowbane and Dragon Empires

This year's E3 demonstrates, however, that not everyone is satisfied with this solution, or, at any rate, that there is more than one ruleset to be had. Two forthcoming MMORPGs, Wolfpack's Shadowbane and Codemasters' Dragon Empires, tackle the player-killing issue head-on. Both take a nod from no less a teacher than capitalism itself. The power of capitalism lies in creating a ruleset that accepts and even encourages self-serving behavior and channels it to produce a social outcome. Shadowbane and Dragon Empires start with the premise that at least some people will always be looking to attack other players. Rather than sequestering such activity, these two games have opted to build a world around it. Each features small newbie safe areas that quickly give way to free-fire zones. Each game also includes traditional monster killing, but the real show is player combat.

Shadowbane and Dragon Empires both channel the one-against-the-world instinct by letting players control and/or build cities. These cities are sources of the goods and services for sale that are required for the adventuring life. Those who run cities may also profit from the commerce, so like real world businesses, such leaders serve themselves by maintaining popular and well-run cities – which in turn serves the common good. Ambition, then, is organically integrated into the ruleset. Lest the world devolve into utopian communities, both games provide incentives to fight. Dragon Empires openly encourages a bit of despotism, if players so choose, and my impression is that this is to ensure that there's always some jerk worth attacking. Shadowbane uses visible territory maps, among other goodies, as an incentive to stage city attacks.

Where the two games diverge slightly is on the relationship of random player-killing to the action of the world. Shadowbane is betting that if player-killing can be given a rich story basis (e.g. a historical enmity between dwindling elves and ascendant men) and the costs of player death kept to a level just high enough to ward off certain moral hazard problems, that it can teach the shy gamer to enjoy the world of player combat. Dragon EmpiresShadowbane also permits self-policing by ensuring that you always know who killed you and by enabling you to set up guild-wide kill-on-sight lists. If an out-and-out griefer irritates everyone in sight, he will soon find his cost of living unbearably high.

Dragon Empires integrates many of the same city-based functions and benefits, which adds some reason to be nice to at least a few people. But the truth is that Dragon Empires' solution to the random player-killing problem is simply to say, "Player-killers, this game is for you." The game takes a sort of don't-be-a-sissy approach to player combat. Though there are a number of player roles in Dragon Empires, in terms of player combat, the only real question is: Which are you, an outlaw or a bounty hunter? Just to make things interesting, outlaw or bounty hunter status is not a one-off choice, but can change as the player travels from empire to empire. Here again, then, player-killing is story-based and intentional rather than an accidental sideshow. Whether such a system is your cup of tea is up to you, but the Dragon Empires solution is to openly court those players spoiling for a fight.

You Ain't No Friend of Mine: City of Heroes and the Garriott Paradigm

Player-killing is but one example of what some would consider the kind of griefing behavior that keeps most gamers away from persistent world gaming. ShadowbaneBut Shadowbane and Dragon Empires demonstrate that that such formal problems have rule-based solutions. I certainly don't mean to dismiss these formal problems as easily solvable, but there are even more difficult issues out there – the ones I'll characterize as "informal" problems.

Simply put, the heart of informal problems is that... well... strangers often turn out to be annoying. Some of the problem is that gaming's success partially works against it. There are 30-year-olds who have gamed their entire lives and have no intention of stopping. Gaming also continues to draw in children of all ages. The internet has often been touted as a great equalizer, where ideas must be judged on their merits rather than on the identity of the idea's originator. I express no opinion on the success of that view, but I will say this. I wouldn't start up a poker night with a pack of 12-year-olds and, by and large, I wish I had as much control over my online gaming experience.

But in a persistent world, no matter where you go, there they are. Begging for gifts. Trying to make avatar models simulate sex. Accusing you of being "ghey." Generally acting like... children. Let it be said, the genuine children have plenty of adult company in their behavior, and it's often far more unpleasant. The point is that annoying strangers can't be avoided. You all share the same dungeon, you all have to learn to get along. And you fail. At this year's D.I.C.E. convention, Richard Garriott, creator of the Ultima world among other things, suggested to us a vision of a world that shared certain communal spaces, but that permitted groups to undertake quests and adventures in a sort of bubble world inaccessible to those not in the group. His concept would eliminate camping, and, at a minimum, reduce your dealings with annoying people. City of HeroesSure, the first time you group up with someone, he might turn out to be a selfish loot stealer, but you need not ever encounter that fellow in one of "your" dungeons again. Anarchy Online comes close to this sort of mechanism with its random private missions, but it doesn't reach the deep, customized story quests that Garriott envisions.

It's far too preliminary to say whether City of Heroes will fulfill this vision in the way Garriott imagines, but something along those lines is clearly in the works. City of Heroes offers shared common spaces as well as pocket universes into which a group or an individual may venture free of interference from non-group members. It is possible that several groups could all be undertaking the same mission at the same time, but they would never share the same game space. Whether these pocket universes achieve the depth of experience Garriott describes remains to be seen. City of Heroes also orients the players to a certain extent by requiring players to play as heroes rather than villains. Nevertheless, City of Heroes promises to deliver the all-important element of player choice – take a chance on making a new friend or make a dungeon just for you and your known pals.

So Bright, You Gotta Wear Shades

There are other components contributing to the low uptake of online gaming, such as content. Most present MMORPGs are firmly rooted in a Tolkienesque fantasy world. There are good reasons for this, but the choice has left many players uninterested. Forthcoming MMORPGs like Eve, Earth and Beyond, or Neocron break firmly away from the elf/knight fantasy in favor of sci-fi settings and non-traditional gameplay. World War II Online bungled its attempt to break away from the elf/knight pack, and Anarchy Online, to a certain extent, is really just a elf/knight MMORPG with a sci-fi setting.

Still another stumbling block on the road to broad acceptance of online gaming is the need to train gamers to accept a subscription fee price structure. Should MMOGs start to give away (or nearly give away) their client software, as I expect most will in the future, this transition may not be too difficult since the math of 3 months at $15/month = $45 single player game is not challenging. Still, we're not there yet.

Finally, of course, is the problem of competition. As should be readily apparent, MMORPGs are breeding at a swift pace. Whether there is room for them all is an open question. Richard Garriott thinks there is. When asked why NCsoft was publishing City of Heroes and EverQuest (in parts of Asia), both seeming competitors of NCsoft's Lineage and Lineage II, Garriott replied that the MMORPG market wasn't even close to saturated. He described a great deal of cooperation and encouragement between a number of the MMORPG shops, all attempting to push the genre into the mainstream. As Doug Lowenstein pointed out, there is, in fact, a fair amount of room left in the online market. But that empty space can't all be blamed on the lack of broadband penetration.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on May 27, 2002 9:38 AM.

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