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Rape by any other name

The online game equivalent to rape is a hot debate topic again.

Yes, it's player killing (PK) and perma-death (PD) time again. On message boards and in email lists that focus on this sort of thing, there has been quite a lot of debate the past two weeks on PK and PD in massive multiplayer games. Since MMOGs started making money, this has been a perennial subject on player message forums and 'pro' design and developer lists, with plenty of verbal slap downs and posts that begin with such left-handed politeness as "With all due respect, you're f--king nuts." Whenever it crops up, it is quite intense for a period of time, as the partisans for and against PK and PD grapple vocally with the ASCII equivalent of rusty knives, chains, and a two-by-four with a railroad spike through one end. Then it dies down again as the participants retreat to their strongholds to heal from the battle and prepare to charge in again.

This is not a topic that is likely to ever go away. If you've followed the discussions on these topics in the past, you know the current debate has been lively, to say the least. What brought about this latest iteration was an article written for UK magazine Edge Online by pioneering online game designer and developer Dr. Richard Bartle, co-creator of the original MUD that started this whole online-only game industry. In the article, Dr. Bartle proposes that games without PD cannot provide a sense of achievement in the long term, because they eventually max out their characters, get bored, and leave. He compares it to a race in which the players are attached to a long bungee cord; the last few steps can be tough to make, but you eventually get there. Once you do, what then? He also brings up an old argument, that PK and PD add conflict to a game, and that conflict is a necessary part of any drama. Or, in his words, "A game without loss is no game."

Before I go on, let me state that I've known Richard for about nine years, having been first introduced to him through Bridgette Patrovsky, who brought MUD II to the States when she was president of the Access 24 online service. The man is truly a pioneer and, despite all of the the Johnny-come-latelys who send arrows his way, he is still one of the masters.

And shoot arrows they do, because it's easier to hit a target willing to stand on an outcropping and take a risk. It's ironic that many of the professionals taking exception with Dr. Bartle's views do it only in the safe confines of closed mailing lists, not on public boards where they, too, might have to dodge multiple castings of the Oaken Shaft of Piercing (+5).h Whether you consider him right or wrong, The good doctor has never been shy about his views on PD and PK, and they have influenced (and continue to influence) a number of designers. Including a couple of those responsible for the first iteration of Ultima Online, which in the early days resembled a newbie decimation factory more than a game.

Beyond all that, we should also remember that it is people like Bartle who have pushed the envelope and made these games possible, period. We don't have to agree, but it certainly pays to listen when they are attempting to push the envelope again.

I disagree with Richard on the pure need for PD and PK when it comes to commercial games, i.e. for-pay MMOGs; a sufficiently robust design can handle conflict without them. The needs of commercial games that must support hundreds of thousands of subscribers, each of whom feels that their $10 a month should give them a significant voice in the game and most of whom don't rank themselves as player killers, are far different than those of free MUDs aimed at a limited number of players. In a free MUD, you can get away with anything, because the objectives of the implementers are learning the ropes and trying to create art; in the final analysis, they don't really care if they have 100 players or 10,000.

In a for-pay game, the objectives have to be entertainment and making money. You can sometimes create art that entertains, but not often, and much less often in a medium that is participatory, not just sitting in a chair and watching. You can bet the people who shell out $8 to $12 million for development of a commercial MMOG damn well want a chance at getting their money back. Nonconsensual violence doesn't fit that bill. Just as people tend to avoid crime-ridden sections of a city, they tend to avoid crime-ridden online games as well.

You can still work PD and PK into a game, as long as it is consensual. To me, this debate all boils down to one point for commercial MMOGs, which Bartle edged around in his article with mentions of badlands where PK and PD could take place:

If it isn't consensual, it's rape.

In other words, if it isn't the player's choice to place the character's life and possessions in harm's way, he has no real control of the situation and when you're paying money, you want some control. Nothing like leaving the confines of a town and getting ganked multiple times by one or more players waiting to do just that. Most people don't find that entertaining, as UO showed; it is no coincidence that the retention level of that game stalled until changes were made to slow down the efficacy of PKs, nor that there was a leap in retention after they were implemented.

All the other issues pertaining to keeping the player entertained--achievement, growth of character, 'badlands' with more challenge and reward, what have you--are design issues. If your MMOG has interesting beginning and middle games, but nothing for the high-level character, of course they will eventually leave, whether PK and PD is there or not.

So, really, it comes down to a lack of interesting design elements throughout the game for all levels of players, not some visceral need for PK and PD. Conflict doesn't have to be life-threatening to be interesting, nor does loss have to be loss of life, limb, and property. Conflict has to have a greater meaning or it is just useless, tiresome slaughter. In other words, just plain PK and PD, in and of themselves, lack the ability to create meaningful context.

What do I mean? Well, were the bad guys in North by Northwest trying to kill Cary Grant just to sell his clothes on eBay? Of course not; he knew something about them, and they wanted that knowledge to die with him. Plus, he didn't know what it was he knew. Nor did Humphrey Bogart kill to acquire the travel papers in Casablanca or try to auction them off to the highest bidder. When the time came, as the vultures began to close in and the temptation to use them for his personal gain was strong, he gave them away to promote a higher good.

That is context. It gives actions a meaning beyond "I rOxXoR U, d00d!" What would give more excitement to a game session: dodging PKs just because they exist, or dodging them because you have volunteered to deliver food to a starving village down the road? One conflict is chosen for you, without your consent; the other you have chosen because it gives meaningful context to your action. One is dangerous as hell and entertaining; the other is dangerous as hell and a pain in the butt.

Which sounds more fun to you?

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