This topic never used to interest me; it seemed silly and pointless to discuss. It was sort of like the general kvetching that went on about loser D&D players that wouldn't let characters stay dead; these wussies would actually save the character sheet and play the character again, reasoning that they'd spent "all that time on him/her/it."

People like that ruined the game. There was no reason...ah, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Fast-forward several years. The first and second crop of MMORPGs has come out - Gemstone, Ultima Online, Anarchy Online, Dark age of Camelot*, etc. etc. These have several characteristics in common, to wit they:

  • Are pay-to-play
  • Involve and require interacting with other humans (behind the characters) more than with NPCs
  • Are persistent-world and large enough to develop social traditions, codes, etiquette, what-have-you
  • Are all profit-making ventures.
Now, if you were one of those RPG players who scoffed at the losers with immortal characters, you will see the problem. There is a basic tension here; the problem is that on one hand, the game environment is striving to create a world with actual role-playing; on the other hand, they don't want complete chaos (note: not anarchy, chaos) and on the gripping hand, they are marketed to the General Public(tm) rather than just hardcore gamers.

See, if you think carefully about your everyday life (that is, the life in The Room With The Big Blue Ceiling, which these games are trying to offer you a 'customized' version of) you will find that your behavior is constantly affected, modified and informed by the desire to a) gain rewards (this isn't a problem) and b) avoid negative consequences. And in b) lies the rub.

Social patterns, you see, and behaviors and codes and mores and the like, are all (at some level) survival or comfort mechanisms. The reason most of us don't pull pistols at random on the street and start firing is at least partially because (again, at some level) we have no wish to face the consequences of such an afternoon's entertainment. On a more prosaic note, the reason most of us don't decide to suddenly block a subway turnstile at rush hour in order to laugh at peoples' reactions is that we have no desire to be punched in the face repeatedly.

In MMORPGs, however, it is very very difficult to create a system of penalties that players will actually work to avoid. This is because IRL, people have paid money to play this game; ergo, being told they can't do something is anathema. At worst, they'll sue; at best, they'll stop playing (and paying) and the game dies.

So, as a result, we have an explosion of online cretins of a myriad of types: spammers, spawnkillers, campers, rolebreakers, doorblockers, teamkillers, exploiters, scripters and more. If not carefully handled, these types can and will swiftly ruin a game for those who wish to play it the way it was meant to be played.

They're only the most visible manifestation of the problem, though. The day-to-day players (and even hardcore players) are not unaffected. As an example, let's take Anarchy Online (because I have lots of experience with it). Anarchy Online had great, great promise; one of the most exciting things about it (for me) was that it had a solid, hard science fiction setting, with an overarching situational plot. Sure, the plot was a retread, but it worked well; an oppressive corporate structure and a loosely organized rebellion against it - against such a background, a nearly infinite number of foreground vignettes could be placed. Even more exciting was the fact that most of the movers and shakers in this online world weren't NPCs - they were players. Most of the 'News' on the website covered events that players had planned, executed, or just plain spontaneously done, no 'corporate' help involved.

I was present for an assassination. It was fantastically well-done; a character who was attempting to retain a corporate post was up for 'election' and as such was giving as speech. There were perhaps fifty 'toons in the plaza listening; I knew at least fifteen of them personally as players, so the odds are that most of us were players. The speaker had a security element; high-level guards surrounding the podium and even (in one or two cases) in the crowds.

In the middle of his speech, our status bars suddenly flashed: "(player x) hits (the speaker) for 1,100 points of damage!" An Agent character, utilizing sneak, had gotten within range and gotten off a stealthy aimed rifle shot - and killed the speaker. The security went nuts, running around the crowd, looking for the shooter, as all of us in the audience looked around too, enjoying ourselves immensely.

Right then, though, I realized how empty the whole thing was. The speaker would simply respawn a few moments later back at a 'respawn point', wait a few minutes and reclaim their inventory items at a reclaim terminal, and essentially be good to go. Sure, there was a bit of propaganda value in the successful hit, but not much. Why? Because in a world with no consequences, anyone can be a kamikaze; it's worth it just to 'see what happens.'

Roleplaying in this world is therefore almost impossible. There's no reason to worry about traps - hell, open the chest to see how they've coded your death in this week. Shoot the guy across the street just to see who runs. Hog a critical location in the game just because you can.

Enough repetition. You get the point. What's mine? My point is that until someone can work out a solution that effectively balances the two forces at work - on one hand, the requirement for effective consequences and on the other, the entitlement of paying customers to 'enjoy themselves' - there's no way these things can survive the hordes of disinterested losers who can and will show up. Sure, you can have massive numbers of game admins, rules, etc. - but spoilers can simply start a dummy account, or complain about their payments, or what-have-you.

Some popular schemes for attempting to handle this problem include one or more of the following:

  • Attribute loss. In other words, death means your character loses (semi-permanently) attributes that took you the player time and effort to gain. Perhaps you lose 'experience points' and hence levels/abilities; perhaps you lose reputation, perhaps you lose ranking, etc. etc. The point here is to punish the player using the only resource available that might be scarce - their game time and effort.
  • Inventory loss. A specialized form of attribute loss, this simply deprives the character of all their possessions, which usually represent effort and time. The worst offender here was Anarchy Online, which simply made you visit an ATM-like machine that gave you back everything you owned at your last 'save point' which could be done at a myriad of locations throughout the game. So, simple precaution minimized loss.
  • Character Death. The ultimate penalty of time and effort, the problem here is that there's always a learning curve in games plus, as we've noted, the presence of malicious (and more experienced/powerful) players. Thus, use of this method results in the potential of a 'game elite' who, by virtue of being there first, can keep all other players from advancing.
  • Real-Life penalty. This would involve monetary fines or some such action when characters die - usually done by linking character attributes with real money (that +10 Bong Pipe of Thwacking you paid $15 US to get? Gone!). However, this typically causes games to run afoul of laws designed to regulate online gambling - and more perniciously, it skews the game in favor of those who have more money in real life - an enormous nono, since the presumption of equal opportunity (within limits) is one of the biggest draws of these games.
  • Time-out period. In these systems, such as the 'ghost' status characters have in Ultima Online after being gamekilled, are a slightly different take on the attribute loss. In such cases, the character must perform some (usually slightly time-consuming or perhaps stochastically delayed) task before being allowed back into game.
The problem is, none of these really offers any serious deterrent to someone feeling like ruining everyone else's teaparty. When you get kicks out of pissing off large groups of people, these games offer you the ability to do so with no consequences that you could care about!

So what to do?

I don't know. Do you folks have any ideas? I would personally prefer to see game death be a much more momentous event; I would like to see a system where relative newbies to the game were protected from this fate, but once you'd reached a certain level of game experience, you were open to the Big Sleep. The problem here is to regulate events such that the huge disparities in abilities between veteran and relatively young players do not render the whole experience pointless for the newbie.

Anyhow, I've rambled on about this enough. My point is, really, that while virtual reality offers an enormous potential benefit to the study and practice of human interaction, in some sense and in some arenas we may be forced to bring The Serpent (real death and pain) into Paradise (fantasy worlds online) ourselves in order to make paradise palatable.

As Agent Smith (sort of) said, "A world without pain...It was a disaster. People rejected the whole paradigm. Whole crops were lost."


* Zeolite and Mighty Mooquack have both pointed out that I was talking out of my fundament; Neverwinter Nights is neither pay-for-play nor a MMORPG. Quite correct; this computer-borne version of AD&D is, in fact, a multiplayer game, but in small groups, the way its 'parent' game was. Thank you both.

** If you've read this far, you now know why those that know me won't let me start talking when I'm tired and it's late. Cheers.

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