This is an article I meant to write years ago, back when Grimwell Online was just getting started. It was going to be an ongoing debate about the merits of “good” versus “evil” in online PvP gaming. Obviously I never wrote the article, but as MMOs came and went, I never stopped thinking about player conflict and how it was driven.
As I’ve mentioned before, my first online multiplayer game was Asheron’s Call. Logging in for the first time, a new player was allowed to choose one of three races – Aluvian, Sho and Gharundian, respectively based on the cultures of Western Europe, Asia and the Middle East, more or less. You then picked out a pre-made template or if you were daring, played around with stats and created your own template. A starting city was chosen for you based on your race and away you went, happily killing monsters by the dozens. Other than racial preferences (Aluvians preferred daggers, Gharus were spear and Sho used unarmed weapons), there were no real differences between the races or classes really. Picking Sho simply meant you got a +5 to your unarmed (UA) skill and your avatar looked vaguely oriental, but that’s it. Your character wasn’t classified as “good” or “evil” based on anything other than your actions in game.
When did that disappear? Or rather, why did that disappear? Why did it become necessary to pre-determine the alignment of your character before even stepping into the gaming world?
I’ve tested and played seven different MMOs since I was first pulled into gaming back in 1999: Asheron’s Call (AC), Dark Age of Camelot (DAoC), Asheron’s Call 2 (AC2), Shadowbane (SB), Lineage II (L2), World of Warcraft (WoW) and Everquest II (EQ2). All of those games were on PvP enabled servers for the sole goal of competing against other players, and four of them were in a free-for-all (FFA) environment. AC2 has since been shut down, and of the remaining three, only AC and SB have true FFA environments. L2’s PvP game, while technically FFA, is still restrictive and has certain limitations on how players engage one another. The other three games are all faction based PvP.
Faction based PvP means your side is chosen for you based on the race and/or class you choose to play. If you really like the spell set of a Shadowknight in EQ2, then you are automatically considered “evil” and start on the Freeport side. If you want to be a Paladin, you’re branded as “good” and plopped into Qeynos. Granted, it’s possible to betray your starting city and move to the other side, but why should you have to do this? Why are people forced into deciding a play style based purely on game mechanics?
In a game like EQ2 or WoW, the evil side is populated by what Western culture traditionally considers “bad” races – orcs, trolls, undead, dark elves and so on. Based on appearance alone, any player that chooses the Horde (WoW) or Freeport (EQ2) sides are automatically considered “evil” players, no matter how they chose to play. Additionally, faction based play prevents a player from attacking others that belong to the same faction. Your actions are constrained from the character selection screen.
Why does this matter though? Why should players be permitted to play without preconceived notions of “good” or “evil” formed purely on choice of race or class? Mostly because it adds more of a challenge to the game, in my opinion. One of the most exciting, challenging and sometimes tedious part of early AC was in-game politics. Relations between guilds were flexible and fluid and frequently required work to maintain. Players had to be aware of which guilds they were friends with and with they were at war with. They had to remember names of rogue players who were likely to attack without warning. They had to pay attention to their environment while hunting or moving around town. There weren’t any guards to protect their home town. In fact, home towns were nothing more than the place you logged into game for the first time. Most (smart) players chose to live at isolated lifestones to minimize the chances of someone unknown just showing up.
The bottom line for games like AC and SB though is that the player was in charge of their actions, completely and entirely. They could choose to be the friendliest person in the world one day, and a complete and utter jerk the next, depending on mood and personal preference. And choosing such randomness would have benefits and repercussions. Being nice to someone could net friendliness in return and possibly an online acquaintance to hunt with on a regular basis. Being a jerk could lead to a guild group deciding to hunt a player down and kill them repeatedly until they give up. The player learned about the drawbacks of being a jerk to everyone if that is they path they choose to take, but it was still their decision to act that way. Everyone was allowed to respond to the player’s actions in their own way. The response wasn’t dictated by the race chosen at creation or the class and skills chosen.
It seems as if these kinds of choices were taken away in order to prevent conflict at a certain level. A person could be acting like a complete idiot in town, yet if that idiot is part of your “automatic” team by virtue of choosing the same “good” or “evil” side you did, your hands are tied and any form of recourse is taken away. If no one has to worry about being punished for being an annoyance, then there is nothing to enforce polite behavior. While MMORPGs are meant to be social games, does that really mean automatic safely while standing in town rambling about nothing in open chat? It’s possible to hang around talking about nothing in a FFA environment; it’s done all the time. But again, in the FFA environment there are consequences to a player’s actions.
Listening to players today, it seems as if they just want to play in their own little sandbox with other around them, but not necessarily with those people. It’s playing solo in a group atmosphere, even if grouping is required to advance in the game. If you are forced to play with others, then they want it to be with the fewest number of other persons possible. They don’t want any risk in the game except what they choose, and many times minimum risk is the preference. Restrict death penalties, because that could cause hardship as well. Map out every possible action and reaction in game from every possible angle and then plan for it, so that there isn’t a chance the player might get their feelings hurt or have to deal with a bit of hardship. Censor bad words “for the children!” It’s a reflection of the overly politically correct society.
Games like AC and SB have more of an Old West feeling, with frontier justice, citizen’s arrest and homegrown posses. Back in the early days of AC, I decided to reroll my main character and was hunting at a perch in the desert. It was a perfect spot for newbies that could get there, and after finding a few unknowns already in the location, I made sure of their intentions before setting up house and getting to work. Things were fine for several days when out of the blue, one of the other characters slaughters everyone at the spot, loots us and takes off for parts unknown. I noted his name, gave the info to the guild I was in at the time and went about my business. The character in question had over five levels on me at the time, so I was pretty ineffective at the skill level I was at then. However, a few weeks later, I got a random tell from the character apologizing and asking me to call off my guildmates. It seems a few of them had come across this player, recognized his name and then proceeded to repeatedly kill and camp his body until he apologized to me and I accepted said apology.
That is how justice in a game should work. Something like that couldn’t have occurred in a faction based game, because normally the different factions are prevented from communication in game. You can force an apology from someone if their character can’t speak to yours. Nor is there a significant penalty if all they gain is a longer time until they can resurrect. They lose nothing but that time. As annoying as losing that time is, there’s no satisfaction to be had by those doing the punishing because they have no tangible gains either. No looting because that might upset the players. No stat reductions because that would upset the players. No chance of dropping equipment or gear because that would be upsetting. It’s all about making things nice and easy for the player, while causing the least amount of hardship possible. That’s not to say lessening penalties for PvP is bad. It is possible to go overboard with the punishment, see the L2 system as a case in point. But it shouldn’t be a meaningless event either.
I’m not sure there are any answers for “good” and “evil” in games any more. If everything is chosen for the player at the outset, is it really “good” or “evil” or is it just a name given to distinguish one side from the other with different skins put on for show. Is it even possible to play “good” and “evil” in games anymore, since those words don’t have any meaning outside of game lore? If these are just words without any meaning or reflection on game play, then do they even belong in the games anymore since the definitions have been lost?
Sorry if this seems a bit disjointed. I started it a while back and finally sat down to finish it tonight. Not sure it’s entirely coherent or if I made my point clearly enough.