Massively Overthinking: How should MMOs handle in-game criming?


A week or so ago, I fell down a rabbit hole when writing up an ArcheAge post. Kakao was handing out joke titles for absurd achievements like racking up the longest jail sentence, and I went wiki-diving to refresh my memory on how it all worked.

ArcheAge’s justice system essentially scores players with ‘crime points’ as they murder and pillage across the game, and other players can report crimes when there’s ‘physical’ evidence (like footprints and blood pools),” I noted. “Criminals with enough crime points are then offered the chance to plead guilty for a short jail sentence or stand trial – with other players as jury – and potentially be sentenced for several days of prison time.” I could’ve kept going because there’s a whole system for breaking out of prison and jury selection, and it’s pretty wild. If you’ve played MMOs long enough, you can see the kernels of Ultima Online’s original forensic ID skill and notoriety system in there, but XLGAMES built it out and up into the stratosphere.

But that doesn’t mean it works any better than UO’s 25-year-old system, does it. Indeed, players apparently have it all worked out; they take the plea bargain and then just bust themselves out of prison, and it has limited deterrence for the next time anyway. And Kakao seems to be nodding to that fact with this cheeky event, as if this is supposed to be fun gameplay instead of a punishment for griefing.

So that’s what we’re doing for this week’s Massively Overthinking. Are systems like this ever useful to deter things like thievery and ganking? How should MMOs handle in-game criming?

Andy McAdams: I love the idea of in-game justice systems, but we haven’t seen a good implementation yet. Like some others, in the brief time I played ArcheAge I enjoyed watching the jury chat. The problem I see with these is the systems always seem to be wildly one-sided in favor of the “criminals.” Developers are afraid of making in-game punishments too punitive because ultimately players don’t want to play a game where they stare at a jail cell for 12 hours, meaning punishments tend to be little more than a slap on the virtual wrist.

So then you get someone who ganks and ruins someone else’s play time, and then gets five minutes in the timeout chair and they go off and play their Sega Nomad while in timeout. Couple that light punishment with off-balanced rewards (i.e., it’s almost more lucrative to be the ganker than trying to help others not get ganked), and it’s like… why even bother?

If developers are going to try to do in-game justice, they have to balance the risk and the reward. Being a tool in a game is more or less all reward; there’s no downside. But what might a game be like where ganking had real in-game consequences? Maybe ever-growing NPC groups seeking your bounty where if you die, you lose 50% of your gold. Or get evicted from your housing plot. Or vendors won’t interact with you. I think there’s a whole world of opportunities here punish in-gaming crime that’s not “drop them in a cell for 12 hours.”

Or maybe the opposite: Vendors give you discounts if you haven’t done bad stuff in game. You get discount on your housing plot tax or auction house fees. Actually reward good behavior as much as bad.

But for that to happen, developers have to actually care about making a balance between a life of crime and upstanding citizens. Right now, they don’t care to do that, and being a tool is almost always more lucrative.

Ben Griggs (@braxwolf): I guess I’ve never seen in-game justice systems as actual punishment, but that might be because I’ve never played a game that treated them as such. To be honest, I’ve not heard much about ArcheAge’s system, but it sounds pretty cool! Not that it’ll actually deter bad behavior, but at least it’s an interesting mechanic.

The most recent MMO I’ve played (EVE Online) simply embraces most kinds of griefing as a part of the culture, and as long as players are onboard with that, there’s no real issue. That does occasionally cause disagreements within the community regarding the acceptable level of griefing, but it also takes some of the pressure off of CCP.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I love the idea of a self-regulating, player-determined, developer-initiated criminal system that isn’t just dependent on might makes right (“we have more dudes than you have dudes, so we control what justice means,” etc.). But like Andy said, I’ve never actually seen one that functions properly. I think it can be done, but MMOs are big and unwieldly, and the developers who are most motivated to actually build a justice system are also the type least trustworthy at the job; this is because the devs who legitimately want to reduce or eliminate toxicity and griefing just delete the obvious types of player interactions out of the game entirely, while the devs who spend resources building justice systems are usually just angling for ways to support and monetize griefers while maintaining plausible deniability long enough to rope in everyone else. This is mutually exclusive game design – go read Raph Koster on the topic if you really want to see how early experimentation in justice systems wore down the souls of the devs who naively insisted on trying it.

I am certainly willing and eager to be proven wrong. But I grew up in might makes right MMOs, and I don’t have that kind of faith in the players – or the studios.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): Giving players access to rules just makes them capable of molding and twisting those rules into an entirely redefined – and often over-refined – version of itself. So, no, I don’t think this idea holds water.

Hire a moderation team. That’s it. That’s the solution. Keep enforcement out of player hands and freaking hire people to manage your damn community.

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): I certainly like the idea behind the system. I recall enjoying reading the jury discussing the players transgression back when I played ArcheAge. I remember the chat window being populated with the discussion – although the fact that it’s that simple, and perhaps even encouraged, to skirt the punishment and rig the system isn’t great.

Now I’ve written my thoughts on ganking before, and I’m not a fan. So punishment is good, but I find it hard to discourage it when it’s allowed gameplay. Likely the best a game can do is allowing players a flag to PvP. But there has to be a way to seriously discourage players from ganking, otherwise even a flag system is pointless because no one will turn it on – as in New World.

Tyler Edwards (blog): I don’t think player-run justice systems for the purposes of actually deterring griefing are ever going to be a good idea. There’s way too much potential for abuse. As a gameplay element as some sort of “cops and robbers” factional PvP system, it might be fun. I could see a Grand Theft Auto-style game where the law enforcement players try to arrest the criminals, and the criminals have tools to infiltrate and subvert the justice process.

But as an actual tool of moderation? No thanks. Like Chris said, just hire some damn moderators.

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!
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