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9:34am on Tuesday, 23rd July, 2013:

Evil Player Characters


Many MMO players seem to enjoy playing "evil" characters. They like the idea of being able to torment non-player characters or, better yet, player characters. They like being able to take things that belong to other characters and claim them as their own. They especially like being able to kill other player characters.

Now this is fair enough. If you're playing a role-playing game, then part of the rationale is that you try on other personalities in order to understand your real self better. Modulo the designer's morals, there's nothing intrinsically problematic in allowing players to play as evil characters.

Well ... except they don't. I put the word "evil" in quotes in the first sentence there because players generally don't play evil characters: they play naughty characters. Evil works through fear: the NPCs do what you say because they're afraid of what you'll do to them if they don't. It's not that they obey you simply because they agree with what you're doing — that would merely mean they have a warped philosophy. Warped philosophies can (and often do) go hand in hand with evil, but not necessarily: the Nazi party attracted many evil people, but the Flat Earth Society didn't.

Back in the early days of text MUDs, when player-killing and permadeath were standard, we had player characters who were (from the point of view of other players) evil. They ruled by fear. If one was around then you played far more cautiously, always watching your back, always trying to track where they were so they wouldn't catch you unawares. If they did attack, you were prepared and the combat was exciting — even if you lost. You were frightened of them, but they added something to the game.

In small-scale virtual worlds — those with player numbers measured in the hundreds — this sort of set-up is possible. It's also self-correcting to some degree: what happens is that when the evil characters start to assert themselves, the other players gang up on them, or at least call in help when they're attacked. The evil characters can bully some players into doing what they want (generally handing over their stuff, ie. being mugged) but they're outnumbered. It transpires that there are more good people than there are evil ones (or good ones role-playing evil ones).

With larger-population worlds, though, this doesn't scale. What happens is that players who want to hurt other players group together themselves, as there's enough of a critical mass that they can do so. They then gank the merry hell out of innocents. They defend themselves from complaints by saying that they're only role-playing being evil, and point out that the game mechanics do allow them to behave that way.

Except, they're not fully role-playing being evil. If they were, then they would turn on each other. One person in the group would be ruling by fear and the rest would be obeying either because they hoped to usurp the leader or because they were afraid of what would happen to them or their loved ones if they didn't comply with orders. Evil people use fear and manipulation to get other people to do unpalatable things, but they go along with it because they're scared of what would happen if they didn't.

Roaming gangs of bandits in MMOs are made up of players who know that what they're doing is transgressive and annoys others (it's why they're doing it), but could you really call them evil? Evilness is a property of individuals, not of actions or groups: the collective effect of a lot of naughtiness may be to imbue in the players who are being abused a sense that the group is evil, but it's a phenomenon that emerges from the actions of 40 people being naughty together. The player characters in the group aren't being evil.

Now when MMOs scaled up and we first saw roving groups of people whose aim was to attack other players, the first response (in Ultima Online) was to flag them as evil then have town guards attack them. Unfortunately, this meant that when confronted by a group of charging enemies, offence-is-the-best-defence often led to the flagging of "good" characters as being evil. Eventually, MMO designers gave up and abandoned first permadeath and then non-consensual PvP. The best we have nowadays is "evil" as an alignment in MMOs such as SW:TOR; it's a nice idea, but gives very little sense of what being evil actually means except for clicking on the option that increases your dark side rating or whatever.

Overall, this soft-play padding has led to a diminishment of the experience of playing MMOs. There's an edge that has gone. It makes sense, though: people who are playing solo can't be expected to stay for long if they're attacked by gangs the whole time in combat so one-sided that they stand no chance. OK, so there are plenty of players who don't want to be attacked by other players ever for any reason, and they're well-served by today's MMOs. I'm wondering about players hankering after more of an anarchic old style of play, though. The people who liked that kind of frisson to their play have nowhere to go (well, except some ancient text MUDs, but they're never going to try those).

It's actually not all that hard to give them this experience in a large-scale world, as it happens.

First, you have a flagging system. If you attack a non-evil opponent, your evilness rating increases. If they attack you, it doesn't. The rating will go down if you don't attack non-evil people for a while. NPCs will treat you according to your evilness rating. Once it rises above a threshold, you're flagged as being formally evil. That's harder to shake off than merely playing on an alt for a few days while it wears off: perhaps you have to kill evil player characters to remove it.

As it stands, this system won't work. Evil-flagged players will wear their flag as a badge of honour and gang up to beat the life out of unflagged players, just as they did in UO. The design idea to stop them is quite simple: instead of calling them evil when they're naughty, abstract the quality of evil and apply it to them so they really are evil. Basically, you debuff them if they're within shooting distance of another evil character. The explanation is that they're so busy watching their backs that they can't direct as much attention towards other targets. Make it stack. If 40 evil-flagged characters only perform with the same collective effectiveness as 4 characters, suddenly it's not so much fun wandering around in groups attacking innocents who could quite easily get away and leave you lootless. A pair of over-strength NPC caravan guards could massacre a party of 10. Also, if you managed to trick a "good" player into attacking you and picking up the evil flag, it would reduce your effectiveness further as there'd be another evil person in range. The good-flagged-as-evil character will still be able to play with their buddies later as they'll be the only evil character in the group so won't be debuffed — except when an evil character attacks, which would also debuff them. There are actual gameplay possibilities here.

In summary: the main problem with PvP in a PvE world is roaming gangs of PKers. The main problem with a flagging solution is that you still get roaming gangs of PKers. The answer is therefore to stop them from ganging up by debuffing them punitively when they do. You'll still get PKers, but they'll be lone wolves — enough to add spice, but not enough to overpower the recipe.

Given the ever-more casual way that today's MMOs are heading, though, I don't expect we'll see this any time soon. Maybe come the MMO reboot...

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Copyright © 2013 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).