Series Info...Storms on Cloud 9 #30:

Law and Order

by Scott Holliday

In the last few columns I discussed methods that I've seen (and seen proposed) that are useful for keeping a varied population working together and interacting with each other. Unfortunately, there is also the other side of the coin. A common detractor, especially in PvP-oriented games, is the player-killer or grief player. I imagine most of my readers have the general idea, though I would like to elaborate.

From my own observations, players don't usually mind being "killed" by the AI. Most MMORPGs are built so that the possibility of failure is built in. Without a chance for failure, what is the point of success? You don't always win... in fact, most players enjoy riding the edge of what their character is capable of. Naturally, once in a while, they will go over the edge and end up dead. In fact, many players that I know (including myself) enjoy the hard-reality style of game - you die, you are dead.

However, there is an easily recognized level of shame and anger associated with being beaten by another player. While a hundred deaths due to the AI wouldn't bother most players, one single PK event will often give them a really bad feeling. I've tried for a long time to analyze the difference, but I haven't really figured it out. Part of it is probably due to the fact that player killers often find ways to maximize their odds, which seems much like cheating to players accustomed to the AI's tactics. Examples include attacking with overwhelming odds, striking when you are already badly damaged, or simply using the game's features in ways that aren't expected. Worse, griefers will often taunt their victims or try to maximize the effect by repeat offenses against the same target. Naturally, this would be grounds for anger, but even in fair PvP fights, many players feel an increased level of competition (and failure) when they are beaten.

Although these sorts of behavior aren't as easily recognized in PvE style games, they do still come up. Many of you will probably recognize phrases such as, "kill stealer", "loot thief", "spawn hog", and the ever-feared "train!" Of course, there are probably a lot of newer idioms that I'm not as familiar with. My point is, even in environments where PvP isn't allowed, players will still find ways to take advantage or harm other players.

In either case, many solutions are so common that they are almost becoming universal. Prevent higher level characters from picking on those of lower levels. Hand out penalties or infamy for PvP activity. Split rewards between players based on damage done. Automatically distribute loot (without picking it up). Randomize spawn points (or prevent spawning when players are anywhere nearby). Or even post rules of behavior to be enforced by the developers or live-team.

Many of these systems can do wonders toward preventing unwanted competition between players. For instance, I'm very pleased with a game that I've been playing that automatically splits all rewards (xp, loot, fame, quests) between all players involved based on how much they did. With this sort of scenario, if another player tries to steal your kill, you laugh as you get a fair share of how much you did. In fact, kill-stealing or "assists" is actually encouraged by the system - which makes for a great sense of camaraderie between players and helps you stay immersed in the heroic feel of the world.

The main problem arises in that players WILL find ways to get around or cheat the system. An early discovery in some games was that you can beat down another player and then let a monster finish them off to avoid penalties. Likewise, many PvE grief behaviors are almost unenforceable. How do you detect and penalize a player who enjoys training monsters onto others? Even direct intervention doesn't provide a way to handle this sort of thing since it is impossible to tell whether it was intentional (and repetitive).

Likewise, many of these fixes often detract from the immersion of the game. Probably the best example, preventing players of differing levels from conflict (a side-effect of using a level-based system) often feels much like a weird jury-rig. Are they protected by the gods? If the gods can do this, why don't they go handle those monsters? Even the automatic reward distribution I mentioned feels a little strange since items just "pop" into your inventory (whether you want them or not). In the same way, fame/infamy systems are often broken from the first design, mainly because it is so difficult to teach a computer exactly how to interpret human interactions.

A system that I've seen that works in some games is a form of player-recommendation, such as I mentioned back in SoC9#4. Players are much better at giving feedback on each other. If the penalties associated with consistently bad feedback are painful enough, one hopes that grief players will be sufficiently crippled to discourage their behavior.

In fact, I'm looking forward to someone taking this sort of idea to the next level. It seems like the majority of current MMORPGs are fantasy or feudal based societies. Yet, none of them seem to have any of the organizational hallmarks! It would be very interesting to see a game in which your rank (or level) was directly determined by other players. In the long term, a guild leader could eventually become king (or queen), and distribute his power down through his vassals in successive feudal order such that each vassal has a group of people that they are responsible for and that they are able to reward/punish. Grief play would be automatically discouraged, because the only way to rise in rank (and power) would be to impress those who are above you in rank. If you wanted to make the system easier, you might even include some record of deeds for each player. For instance, if I was a duke considering giving a title to one of my knights - I could just look and see how many PKs he was involved in (and who they were). And if I had questions, I could ask. The human brain is still much superior to the computer at dealing with human interactions.

Naturally, you might even end up with multiple, feuding societies that have separate power structures - which might make an interesting

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