Massively Overthinking: The return of ‘consequences’ to MMOs


This week’s Massively Overthinking topic comes to us from Kickstarter donor Antonia “Toni” Phillips aka ToniLyran, who’s hit on a sore point with our writers, it seems:

In indie game development, we are seeing a resurgence of games with “real consequences.” With the coming of Crowfall, do you think that we will start to see a trend back to MMO’s with real consequences once again?

What exactly constitute real consequences? Are games like Crowfall actually creating real consequences? Are we trending that way in general? And if we are, should we be? I pitched these questions to the team and got an earful.

Brendan Drain (@nyphur): There’s a definite trend toward more PvP-based sandboxes recently, but I don’t think MMOs will ever go back to being as punishing as they used to be. MMOs have been systematically stripping away anything resembling difficulty and negative consequences for the better part of a decade in order to make the genre more accessible, and so far it’s proven to be a successful strategy. Even with WoW’s financials clearly dropping and new games aiming for long-term retention in smaller niche markets, I can’t see any developer shooting itself in the foot by intentionally making its game less accessible or more punishing than it needs to be. With games like Crowfall, I think we’ll get the absolute minimum consequences necessary to get people emotionally invested in territorial warfare and sandbox PvP because then the players themselves are essentially content generators.

That said, I don’t think real consequences are even possible to enforce in any meaningful way inside an online game. No matter how serious the punishment is for stealing from or murdering another player, it can always be bypassed by having multiple accounts or being very wealthy. EVE Online has the best set of consequences I’ve seen in a sandbox MMO yet, and it’s still highly prone to abuse. Attacking players in high-security space will get your ship blown up by the police, for example, but people are still happy to pour ISK down the toilet ganking unsuspecting players during events like Burn Jita even if there’s no profit to be had. And don’t even get me started on consequences for griefing and harassment, which are essentially impossible to implement as long as players can be anonymous. With Crowfall, I think we’ll hear a lot of bluster about harsh consequences, but frequent griefing will still happen.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): This is a hard one to answer because consequences take so many forms. Are we talking about player-imposed consequences? Ninja-loot and we’ll boot you? Corpse-camp us and we’ll KOS you? Pay our toll or we’ll wreck your RP event? Or are we talking about dev-imposed consequences? Die and we’ll take your levels? Pick the wrong skill and we won’t let you respec? Miss the boat and we’ll make you wait 30 minutes because, by god, you need to learn to be on time and patience builds character? And where do fake and “real” consequences begin and end, exactly? Is being looted by a player who defeats you a real consequence? Is the walk-of-shame back to your body and a fee paid for repairs any less a real consequence?

It’s weird that MMO players are so completely obsessed with building in consequences for unintentional mistakes in play but usually unconcerned with consequences for intentional asshattery (not saying our OP is doing that, just musing). And when games like ArcheAge do come up with an in-game “legal system” intended to assign consequences to wilfully bad behavior, players abuse the systems. It’s almost as if they want consequences for everyone but themselves.

But I do think we’ve seen the end of gratuitous time-wasters in virtual worlds (though not in gankboxes). In a way, that’s partly born of free-to-play: It’s not enough for developers to keep you subbed by wasting your time anymore; now they have to convince you to spend your time before you’ll even consider spending your money. Meaningful choices, meaningful gameplay, and meaningful consequences are how they’re doing it, but those consequences don’t have to be dire and punitive to be compelling. As for Crowfall, it seems to be instancing and MOBAing the gankbox, paying lipservice to both sides. We’ll see.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): To sort of side-quote a Dave Chapelle routine: What are real consequences, really? Usually, when a game talks about having “real” consequences, what it means is that every loss is backed up by a longer march to get back to where you were before. To use an obvious and somewhat tired example, the consequences for death in EverQuest at launch weren’t any more “real” than the consequences for death in World of Warcraft; more severe, certainly, but not any more real. Once you’re talking about something wherein you die but don’t stay dead, you’re bypassing “real” handily. It just meant that each death cost you a lot more than it did in WoW, and as a result players were more reluctant to take risks that might lead to character death.

Crowfall in particular is at once offering bigger and smaller consequences for everything: You can have a bigger impact on a given campaign world because a lot of parts therein can be permanently broken, but it also explicitly resets and starts over after a time. You can’t ever really lose, just suffer a setback for a given go-round. I think that the illusion of real consequences is certainly a popular thing to hang games on now, the idea that harsher penalties make for more rewarding gameplay, but I think a lot of that also ties into memories of the stakes and the victories rather than the failures. I certainly remember how fun it was to creep through dangerous territory in Final Fantasy XI, to really feel like that danger was omnipresent… but I also remember how ungodly annoying it was to have that dangerous expedition cut short and then have to spend another two hours leveling to get back a lost level.

Jef Reahard (@jefreahard): I don’t know of any MMO, indie or otherwise, that is creating meaningful consequences. Though it’s probably worth asking “consequences for what?” Anti-social behavior and/or griefing, I’m assuming? Consequences for that are a pipe dream in an age where new accounts cost nothing and most “sandbox” devs can’t be bothered to implement in-game societal mechanics like laws, harsh punishments for random violence and repeat offenders, active GMs, etc.

It’s subjective, too, because clearly the majority of gamers and developers find it fun to make every sandbox into Asshole Online instead of attempting a plausible/civilized virtual world where the villains are punished for their behavior instead of rewarded for it.

This is a pretty complex question that deserves more of an answer than I can give here, but basically no, we’re not trending toward MMOs with consequences at all, particularly if Crowfall with its resetting campaigns and its combat-centric design are being pointed to as the model.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): We need to define what “real consequences” are because that term can mean something different to everyone. Our OP is probably referring to a stronger cause-and-effect reaction, in which player actions have a more lasting and meaningful effect on themselves, others, and the game world. Permadeath, corpse looting, NPC killing, town burning, and other concepts are often bandied about when this topic arises.

I think players talk a big talk about wanting “real consequences” but then balk en masse when faced with them in games. Especially when those consequences are results of choices that cannot be walked back and will forever impact that player. It’s easier to have “real consequences” in a single-player title than a multiplayer because of the more complex interactions and competition (directly or indirectly) with each other. There’s a real fear of choosing “wrong” in MMOs and being forever marked by a bad decision, even if it was spur-of-the-moment.

So we’re going to see MMOs talking this big talk, but at the end of the day there will be safeguards put into place to guard devs against the backlash that will arise from players actually dealing with all that realness.

Larry Everett (@Shaddoe, blog): Most of the time, when people say “real consequences,” they mean some sort of permadeath or item loss on death. But I question if that should be the litmus test for “real consequences.” Honestly, I think that there bigger consequences in some games, and some consequences that are bigger than any kind of permadeath. EVE Online is a great example of this — not in its death system but in its corporation system and the economy of the game in general. There are real consequences based on whom you ally with, whom you trade with, and even which part of space you hang out in. Unfortunately, I am not sure if those mechanics are actually making a comeback on the whole. And I can’t say that Crowfall will have those consequences, either. Don’t get me wrong; I think Crowfall will be a great game if team stays on target, but if you’re looking for “real” consequences, you’ll probably have to turn to an extremely indie game like Life is Feudal or go play EVE Online.

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): It seems to me that whenever games have tried to go back to consequences, devs end up eventually caving and removing them again because “players just don’t find it fun.” Granted, it was the players whining for real consequences in the first place, but once they are actually instilled in games, then players suddenly backtrack on that deep desire. I do not think it will catch on in the mainstream, but a little undercurrent of games with these features is certainly possible. Not only would the general gaming populace need to be retrained away from instant gratification tendencies, but devs really would have to embrace the value of smaller, niche games before consequences could really be a trend — even a small one — because right now,everyone wants the big payout, and consequences don’t seem to pay off for games. Personally, I would like to see consequences become more prevalent that they are, especially in the case of punishing rotten behavior.

Your turn!

Previous articleHere’s how you build your airship in Worlds Adrift
Next articleThe Stream Team: Breaking into a Secret World safehouse

No posts to display

oldest most liked
Inline Feedback
View all comments