Massively Overthinking: The return of ‘consequences’ to MMOs

    
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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!

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FacelessSavior
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FacelessSavior

Agreed. Also less phasing and the removal of instanced loot and areas completely.

SkyyDragonn
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SkyyDragonn

If you want a “real” consequence games need to drop the instant gratification tropes and go back to players having reputations that the server community knew them by.
EI: Less group finders and more focus on community.

mysecretid
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mysecretid

BSwanBrothers 
Hi,

For whatever it’s worth, I had a friend who quit an MMORPG game he loved playing with us because he racked so much xp debt when playing solo (he was new to MMORPGs and was trying to learn them by doing) that he quit altogether.. 
He finally decided “I will never be a good enough player to clear this amassed debt, and spending all my time trying to clear debt while gaining more instead is not fun”.
We held guild runs to get him debt-free while learning, but after the second debt-clearing run, he started to feel ashamed. He basically quit, rather than sticking with his learning curve, because he felt he was “letting down his friends”.
He never played an MMORPG with us ever again, and we did ask.

Now, I know one example doesn’t prove anything — I just wanted to mention that this case is part of the reason why I’m not big on “punishment mechanics” in games, and “xp debt” in particular.

To me, challenge in gaming is a hard battle that you really want to want to win, and you’ll keep learning and trying until you do.
Punishment mechanics are just that mechanics; meta-processes added on to the failure which effectively rub salt in the wound.
Failure is its own punishment, I think, and I think it’s enough.
I know you were just throwing out ideas, not championing xp debt in particular. I just wanted to mention my misgivings about the method as a general response.
Thanks for posting. Be well,

BSwanBrothers
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BSwanBrothers

I read almost all of the comments and saw some thought out discussion happening! Wow!
Personally I am of the mind that some choices made in game should present consequence for the player.

Faction – mess with the town folk they wont sell you stuff. This can play all the way out to the town being destroyed because you refused to help protect it, whereas you would need to complete quests to rebuild before it would function as a town again with all the goodies of buying/selling/repairing/crafting. 
You could always fight against the local townsfolk’s enemies (MOBs) in order to gain faction and get better prices.
These are choices you can make, and consequences for those choices.

Death Penalty – No Loss of XP but as it played in EQOA would cause debt that needed to be worked off before you could resume gaining XP. (You don’t lose,  just have to go a bit before you start gaining again) You would suffer a reduction in stats for a short time, not for dying, but as associated with being resurrected. This is a Take a bigger Risk for a larger reward and failing consequence.

The “other” consequences for griefing, KSing, being an Online Asshole, should be handled by the company and their TOS.

Banning, perma-banning after repeat offenses.
Granted I have played most of my gaming life in a sub environment, where banning sucked because you could lose RL money on your sub (many times pre-paid months in advance)

Which is where I think the MAIN problem lies.
FTP games. Especially No purchase FTP games.
Those Online Assholes have zero to lose.

Just my two Tunar about how I see Risk vs Reward and the consequences of your actions should play out.

Robert80
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Robert80

FacelessSavior  Life is Feudal (as mentioned by Larry) is one of them.  I forget the name of the other (it is very much more cartoonish, and I have strayed from being interested in that.)  I may have to go and see if I can remember what it was, but just at the moment the name escapes me.
Additional interest items might include Das Tal with the newbie protections and quick-arena style play and Gloria Victis with the partial loot and potential justice system additions.  There are also measure being placed for preventing issues in Otherland (although who knows how serious the new company may be about that game) and Shards Online… after all nobody wants to have their world area warped just because somebody thought it would be funny to turn it into Toilet Humor Online.
  I would not be surprised to see more games looking at allowing measures against grief based play due to how very popular that is with things like Minecraft, where some of the top mods are all about preventing people from doing things like filling your town with lava from the sky.  I honestly think the tendency toward that gameplay by a portion of the population surprised the designers when they first tried things like this, and that only recently has there been a surge of new developers interested in the idea of the sandbox, but willing to try something new with it that does not include simply allowing that style of gameplay to be the end all of things.

Robert80
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Robert80

FacelessSavior  Well, it depends on what consequences you mean.  Permadeath will always be a very niche idea.  There are several indie titles, including Life is Feudal that Larry mentioned, which are offering some permanent and temporary consequences for things (skill loss, alignment loss with permanent criminal status and stat loss at low enough levels, and a skill system that takes some grinding to actually be effective in combat against armored enemies.)  There is room for PvP activites left open (especially since knocking somebody out and looting them only takes a good day or so to recover from alignment wise) but it does force you to reroll if you really want to avoid any of those consequences.  Given that re-rolling will cost probably $5 or so, the most casual of grief based players will likely look to less restrictive environments.
This all comes after the forums fought it out over these issues, and even about how fighting requires so much recovery time for replacing the better items and restoring health (no healing magic, and potions will likely be limited in use to 1 recovery potion aiding healing from damage much like current doctor skills.)  The majority of the community there voted against making things too easy, against making PvP and fighting a constant, and against instant reward… which leaves some room for hope in the future (at least in my opinion.)
Yes, it does run counter to the majority of our cultures…but that may just be why the indie game scene is the only area where these ideas and innovations seem to be showing up and staying around.  Hopefully, if that is something you like the idea of, you will find one you like and show some measure of support.  It is only when we, the players, demand such things in sufficient numbers that there is any chance of them happening.

FacelessSavior
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FacelessSavior

Which two? Sounds like it has some promise. At least it’s a new way to tackle the issue, rather than cycling mechanics that were less than optimal the first time around.

Robert80
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Robert80

Detton BoomBiddyBye  What, are you saying BBB is a cat?  Does BBB look like a cat to you?

Robert80
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Robert80

Gylnne syberghost  Lol indeed!

Robert80
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Robert80

jaxomdad  Wildstar… did difficulty as if Raiding was what makes the majority of themepark players happy.  It isn’t.  If they had focused on a really solid world with lower level difficulty and some actual interesting mechanics beyond adding platforming memes into an MMO, things might have been different.
There exists room for both designs.  Fun casual play has a solid role in the genre as it is, and I agree that many games should continue to pursue that… especially with the adjustable designs like CoH had for players.  However, difficulty can be placed into a game without focusing solely on the end-game, and given the success of many games that are more difficult likely does have a place where it can fit into the MMO-verse.  This is what many of us want, not a bland excuse for difficulty kept only to endgame, or poor consequence design like corpse runs.  There is room for both, and I dislike seeing people blatantly disregard the possibility that not all games must fit their own desires… on both ends of this debate.