Massively Overthinking: Doing crimes and getting punished in MMORPGs


A couple of weeks before Dual Universe’s snafu banning beta players for taking advantage of a developer’s poorly permissioned structure, I saw the game’s founder, J.C. Baillie, posting on Twitter about thievery in MMOs.

“Regarding theft in @dualuniverse: the vision is that players should be given ways to retaliate within the game, with player-driven police emerging. For that, we need: bounty system (+override safezone), pervasive PvP (on planet + AvA). This will come, we just need more time #beta. […] Bounty systems are notoriously hard to do right, indeed. In the real world, you have a court of law to judge people before condemning them. Here we need either automatic offence detection, and/or some form of player-driven tribunal (also hard to do right!)”

The irony of the timing for DU aside, it’s been a long time since we talked about bounty and crime and jail systems around here, and we almost never talk about actually stealing in MMOs, largely because most MMOs simply don’t bother with either. It’s far easier to just turn off negative actions for all players, or to shunt such activities off into special “don’t say we didn’t warn you” zones, and not even try to craft a full crime-and-punishment system. So let’s tackle it for this week’s Massively Overthinking. Should stealing exist in MMOs? What about bounty systems? How would you go about implementing a proper justice system in an MMO that wants to allow malicious activity – without letting it dominate the game?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): Let me first remind the court that I am a convicted criminal. I stole strawberries en masse during ArcheAge’s… beta? I played so many alphas, betas, and early releases for that game; it’s gotten fuzzy. But I’ve also been the one to organize town raids for RP political purposes, so the community knew when and/or why I was doing what I did.

To be honest, it was fun. I was looking to join the pirate faction and see the prison system. Escape took time but wasn’t that bad, but I’m also more of an explorer type than achievement type. Strife is often how and why I remember most MMO experiences.

But I also know I don’t have the time for that stuff or social circles like I used to. I tend to play smaller games for that thrill (Sea of Thieves!). I don’t think you can easily allow theft and justice systems into an MMO without letting it dominate the game unless you also include at least permadeath and childhood. Sea of Thieves is very much a good example of this, but Mortal Online, Darkfall (1 and 2), Wizardy Online, the survival game genre… so many games have shown that if you have nothing to lose and everything to gain, the people who have nothing will just assault those who have, and the power difference often isn’t enough to prevent respawn rushers from getting you.

This is why I feel there would need to be other deep systems paired with a justice system. Real-world punishments are non-reversible. There’s no respawning. Even before DNA samples, strangers were not always to be trusted. If there’s a family system, where people can share resources, communications, and names, a player who problematic brings trouble for the whole group. If said player leaves the group, they should lose all those benefits: storage, communication, property access, etc. Think less guild and more faction, if factions also had localized banking.

I think ArcheAge, Elyria (in concept), Wizardry, and Crowfall had some good ideas I'm borrowing from here.
 If there’s a childhood stage, the player has a period of time (preferably two days minimum) where their stats are greatly reduced. I’m talking bunny stats: one shot, one kill. The player then needs to be protected by family, even while offline, so yes, this would be a Mature game. But childhood also would lead to larger stat gains when they reach adulthood. They’d be a huge food/money sink until they’re old enough to become a family NPC, but at that point, they’d no longer be a resource vessel, they’d be like a shop keeper or guard for the family. Kids would have access to minigames, or even mobile options (maybe set offline study-courses to learn a craft to study a language) might be fun. It needs to be a time of investment for everyone so that player life feels like something you can’t just throw away. After childhood, there’d be adulthood, but potential criminals probably shouldn’t start killing now that they have full stats: They need to reproduce.

If people die without having a child, they lose everything. Permadeath, full drop, but more importantly, none of their stats should carry over. To start playing, they’d have to request potential parents, who would get access to all of the players’ criminal data with the acts’ date, plus past names, including family names and a short statement (you can claim you were hacked, but if someone sees you were a criminal for weeks or across multiple lives, he might not buy it). Giant game world like No Man’s Sky. One character per account, no paying to wipe the slate clean, one request to respawn. No respawning as an orphan; that would only be for new players first spawn, and the ability to adopt would require high social standing and in-game costs. They’d have to find a family member or friend with a spare kid. MMOs are supposed to be social games, right?

A player who cannot find a family to repawn to would become a Shade. Shades would display your account name and only be able to spawn when a criminal activity has been detected. While I’d imagine a reasonable justice system would be like ArcheAge’s – leaving clues at the crime that need to be studied or potentially lost so there’s a bit of freedom to do your crimes – Shades would act as a kind of “snitch,” except they’d have no access to chat, no combat options, and two flash settings: simple and urgent. If a player adds a Shade to her ignore list, the Shade will no longer appear in their game, further alienating the Shade player. If a shade were to lead someone to a crime or clue, nearby players not from one the shades’ past families or the criminal would have the option to grant her a Redemption Point, which would be turned in for a second chance at applying for a new family. We’ll say 5 Redemption Points are needed for the first one, with each subsequent rejection resulting in the Shade player needing twice as many points to try again.

Now, let’s pretend someone wanted to abuse this system. Gankers can play together as a family, but few are builders, crafters, people who really want to have a society. They’d soon find other families banding against them, wiping out their developing families, and once there’s no family children left to spawn into, be scattered to the winds, most likely forced into Shadehood.

While families could potentially commit crimes against each other to more easily help Shades respawn into full characters again, the whole reason these people would become Shades would be because there’s a lack of kids. Unless a crime family suddenly had the means to massively reproduce and fund those kids, this would largely only be used to slowly rebuild a family that’s already on the losing side of a reputation war.

This may sound like it could dominate the whole game, but if most NPCs only knock out players, and if there’s a “downed state” to let people crawl away from encounters to try again, it’ll work in my opinion. Heck, you can also have special events where named bosses or even GMs will actually kill people (in specific locations so everyone has to opt in before risking their lives), which would bring a heightened sense of risk vs. reward while also giving people the chance to plan for their potential deaths. A family system helps bind people, and the Shades actually help prevent/solve crime. Children carrying stat boosts based on parents also gives people reasons to “reroll” and help keep various areas of the game populated.

Now, all of this probably sounds a bit tedious. It is. Because that’s life, and that’s what most criminal systems in video games fail to understand: punishments mean more in real life because of the various systems the crime harms. When you steal something, it’s not just from a single person or item, it’s what it took to get that item. The cost, the effort, the resources, the psychological damage of feeling unsafe or suspecting people you know of doing this. Our lives aren’t a respawn button. Being alive has very real costs, and someone has to pay them. It’s one thing to die in a lobby shooter when you have nothing to lose or even really gain, but MMOs are not supposed to be that simple. They’re virtual worlds. If you ask us to build societies, improve character stats, upgrade items, and work together to achieve something larger than any of the single involved individuals, you can’t just place criminal players in a island fort and tell them they gotta swim back. You need a system in place so players can feel their crimes. I won’t lie, I know some people might read this and still think it’s fun. I certainly could see myself enjoying such a system, but I’m also not a random ganker. I’m a strawberry thief and politician.

Andy McAdams: I love the idea of Justice Systems in games and I absolutely think it’s something we need to have more often. In a very loose sense, the commendation system in FFXIV is a kind of justice system, and of course ArcheAge has one, and Age of Wushu when it was a thing had a justice system.

Now, the challenge comes in how to implement a justice system, and to do that a developer has to have a clear understanding of why the justice system exists. Is it there to protect players? is it there to punish asshats? Is it there to protect the gameworld? Typically we talk about a justice system as a way to “punish the asshats” wherein the developers are faced with the question of how exactly do you punish someone’s bad behavior in a game in such a way that doesn’t actually drive that person away? If you want the system to protect players, developers are faced with the dilemma of how to create a justice system that protects just enough to be impactful, but not so much that it makes the rest of the system meaningless. If you want the system to protect the gameworld, what does that mean for you?

These aren’t binary decisions, either. Developers could say they aim to achieve all three, and that’s fine. I only highlight this because most justice systems we talk about aren’t actually there to protect players. They are there to lightly punish players to try and make the “do I steal/gank/etc this person” an honest-to-Cthulu decision with real consequences. Most of the time now, the decision point is, “Do I have the money to pay for a fine? Or am I strong enough to beat the guards? Or do I have the time to just run around the wilds until my heat wears off?” None of those consequences is super impactful, and so the decision is largely symbolic and intrinsically driven than any sort of actual consequence to actions.

I think it’s absolutely a solvable problem and it’s one (along with political systems) I’d love to see way more often in games. To achieve it, I don’t think there’s a perfect solution and it would require a combination of programmatic systems, player interaction, and gamemaster interaction on occasion (all within the fantasy of the world, mind you). The weirdest part of this is that I think for the justice system to be impactful, players need to be able to exploit it, albeit with a lot of effort. It shouldn’t be trivial to exploit, but it also shouldn’t be impossible. Because honestly, that’s how real justice systems work.

A (virtual) world where ganking or stealing has some kind of in-game meaningful repercussion would be awesome.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): Most of my colleagues are going to talk about crime-and-punishment, and I doubt I will disagree with them – it can be done, but it seldom is because it’s hard, but if it were, it would be neat.

So I want to talk about stealing specifically because it’s something that is rarely an option even in MMORPGs that have open ganking or corpse looting or house pilfering. Look, sneaking around in video games stealing from the rich and the awful is amusing. I want this to be in virtual world MMOs to round out the types of content and interactions we have available to us, just as I want diplomacy skills and in-game book-writing and underwater basketweaving. A justice system to stop everyone from becoming a burglar all the time is an obvious next step.

In reality, most MMOs present only a basic dichotomy of interaction: You are either allies or enemies. You’re either on the same faction/guild/race or you’re kill-on-sight. You red you dead. It’s tedious and boring and unrealistic and anti-immersive. A properly implemented thievery system not only begets a justice system and the tension gankers claim they like but also demands what I see as a necessary re-evaluation of the role of loot and gear in MMOs. Above all else, it offers ways to affect other players negatively in a way that isn’t chat trolling or wanton murder. That’s why I want it.

Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX), YouTube): Sure! Throw it in! People complain about how stagnant the MMO genre has become but then complain when they hear of some new idea. One’s got to give and when given a choice between something that might fail because they tried it versus something that did fail because it was never tried in the first place, I’d pick the former. We should start innovating the crime system in games anyway. MMOs are weird in that the death penalty is probably not the worst thing that can happen. There’s so much space for creativity but if folks just listen to a vocal minority of grumpy grumps then we’ll just be stuck in this never ending cycle of the MMO genre never improving because developers “ran out of ideas.” It’s a worthwhile venture. It’s high time we see more experimentation with this kind of stuff.

Mia DeSanzo (@neschria): ArcheAge has a judicial system that I find entertaining to watch play out in open channels. Maybe I am just weird like that. I liked jury duty in real life too. I don’t know how much it deters anyone from anything, but I think it adds something unique to the community aspect of the game.

Crime and punishment can be game mechanics too. I’d rather see experimentation with different systems than the same old stale flagging or banning.

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): I don’t think it’s worth it, and I don’t think it could be implemented in a way that is even-handed and isn’t full of its own abuse. I haven’t played any games that attempted a real crime system, so to be fair I don’t have a positive or negative experience with them. However, I have played MMOs and gamers are always looking for ways to abuse and troll.

With stealing specifically, I don’t think it could really work well. These games just can’t punish someone to the level people are punished in real life. And since they can’t be, the cost of going out and stealing the best stuff from a player who spent a long time gaining it will never be too high.

Tyler Edwards (blog): When I think about it, I don’t really understand why this is a thing. The purpose of punishing criminals in the real world is to A: provide a deterrent to discourage criminal action in the first place, and B: to separate potentially dangerous individuals from the general populace until such time as they are rehabilitated (if they can be). Basically, the idea is harm reduction.

We use imperfect systems like that in the real world because those are the best options we have. But in a game world, the developers have much greater ability to prevent harmful actions. They can just make those actions impossible in the first place. Let’s use ganking as an example. Why create these elaborate justice and bounty systems to discourage ganking when you can just not allow non-consensual PvP in the first place?

I realize I’m simplifying a complex topic quite a bit, and there will always be some potential for players to grief or otherwise break the rules, but I hope I’m getting my point across here. Why create the opportunity for bad behavior and then tie yourself in knots trying to limit its impacts? It seems… inefficient, at best.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
Previous articleClosers goes down for maintenance until November 5, TERA Console announces work on a DPS meter
Next articleThe Stream Team: A night of Dungeons and Dragons Online Night Revels

No posts to display

oldest most liked
Inline Feedback
View all comments