A week or two ago, I found myself discussing Ultima Online by way of trying to convince our work chat that players often do the opposite of what developers expect them to do. It’s one of my favorite anecdotes from the annals of MMO history, although it was deep into the game’s life: The UO team came up with dynamic events well before other MMOs popularized them, including the Magincia demon invasion, which saw the scholarly island town overrun by demons. Players were instructed to take out the demons to save the town, which was being physically destroyed, brick by brick, by the onslaught.
But instead of saving the town, UO players – PvE carebears, mind you, not PvPers – dragged and gated the demons from their spawn point to the city to help them destroy it faster so that the players looted the city clean. It happened on every single server, too. Indeed, Magincia “rubble” became a coveted collectible and effectively a new currency for the game, which is most definitely not what the developers wanted. Fortunately, in the end, the team rebuilt the city fresh – hopefully having learned this key lesson about player psychology.
I don’t really think MOP’s writers needed any convincing, by the way, but it was storytime with Bree and they indulged me. And now I want storytime with the rest of us and you for this week’s Massively Overthinking. Tell me about the most chaotic behavior you’ve seen from MMO players. Give us an example of a time when gameplay incentives collided for hijinks or MMO gamer psychology intervened and players did something unexpected – good, evil, or somewhere in between like poor Magincia.
Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I know y’all think I’ll mention Asheron’s Call 1’s Shard of the Herald event, but the pre-event that gave the devs a lore-based options certain guild leaders opted in for means they somewhat expected it.
No, instead, despite not personally experiencing it, I’m gonna remind you all of the Elite Dangerous incident in which dev-controlled lore character Salome was killed by a player named Harry Potter. It doesn’t sound like much until you recall that Salome/Lady Kahina Tijani Loren’s adventure was to be turned into a novel at the conclusion of the event, which was to be an incentive for ED players to participate. The devs knew griefing and trolling could happen but clearly didn’t expect it from a player using a major IP’s main character name, putting the author in a bit of a pickle. Obviously that changed the novelization, as author Drew Wagar noted after the conclusion of the event.
Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): As a cap on the UO story: I didn’t participate in helping the demons, but I admit I grabbed some rubble – rare rubble, at that. It’s still tucked away on my account, though I haven’t played in a few years, and if I go back, I expect it will have appreciated in value even more. Maybe it’ll fund my next toon!
Lemme toss out a few more. UO always gave out free rewards on holidays and so forth, randomized with some characters getting more rare items than others. It was usually junk, but it accidentally spawned a massive rares economy. Instead of using the items so they’d disappear from the game, players would hoard them and indeed run extra accounts to collect and hoard them on multiple servers, which caused major problems for the game’s database. The team’s solution was to run item turn-in events with cool rewards to get people to trash their junk, but that just caused people to begin hoarding everything on the off-chance that someday they could turn it in.
Oh, UO. I remember how the devs had to scramble to fix house zoning in the early game as people would plant their houses inside the guard zones and sometimes inside dungeons. So many important lessons about what players will do if allowed.
I distinctly remember in early EverQuest fighting with everyone stacked on top of each other facing a corner. It made AOEs easier and reduced lag, but it really made no sense. Why play a graphical game you can’t see?
I suspect every MMO sandbox goes through a phase where the mechanics unwittingly incentivize everyone to run around naked to reduce the impact of death. Every sandbox. It’s a rite of sandbox passage.
There are so many spots in Lord of the Rings Online where it’s smarter to die and rez at the circle because it’ll get you to where you’re going faster than running. A lot of games with similar rez mechanics do this, actually!
New World camps. That says it all.
Gamers are very good at finding these cracks in the game design.
Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): I can’t claim to have been in any sort of major bouts of chaos that would have made ripples throughout the MMORPG genre, but I have experienced some extremely madcap moments on a personal level, and both of those moments were in City of Heroes.
First, I recall shortly after City of Villains came out when I was part of an eight player mid-level all-Mastermind mission team. Try to imagine eight players with about four pets each trying to navigate and fight our way through the narrow office building maps that game generates and you can probably put yourself in the insanity.
Secondly was the time I first joined in on a crashed Rikti ship raid. I had never been in one before and was generally doing other missions in the Rikti War Zone when I saw the call go up for the raid. This was similar to that MM team in terms of the litany of battle effects, only to the scale of a larger MMORPG world event. I only did two or three of those raids, but damn were they chaotic fun.
Colin Henry (@ChaosConstant): This reminds me of the weird market for burnt fish in RuneScape, especially noob fish. You see, depending on a player’s cooking level, there is a chance to burn food that they cook. At a certain level past the minimum, you simply don’t burn that type of food anymore. This means that burnt shrimps, which require level 1 cooking and stop burning pretty quickly, are actually something of a rare commodity. Especially because why would you keep burnt fish? You can burn fish on purpose by cooking them again, but this has to be done manually and is very time- and click-intensive. Burnt fish can be traded player-to-player but can’t be traded on the auction house, so it’s not like you can even just buy them in bulk while AFK. Players with more money than they know what to do with will sometimes stand around at banks spamming chat offering to pay noobs for their burnt fish, just so they can later show off to their friends that they have ten million blackened tunas smelling up their bank. For years I assumed this was some kind of scam, but it turns out people are just weird.
Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): Well, if I can completely steal an example from the recent Funcom 30th anniversary video. Apparently when it launched Age of Conan, player characters had collision detection. And so this one player parked a horse on a bridge with its butt to the side, and every time someone tried to pass by, the guy on the horse would back-kick those characters right off the bridge and to their death. One by one by one. Apparently the devs found this quite amusing if completely unintended for the game mechanics.
Sam Kash (@thesamkash): I’m going to be boring and a bit conceited and once again tell the story of when I effectively became the villain in a small game to a small community. I was probably the only who saw myself as such, and I’m sure I didn’t leave an impression on the other players like I wanted to, but who cares: It’s my story.
I think the game was called Dragon Sword Online. It was a little browser-based MMO with very simple gameplay. It was more akin to a MUD than a modern MMO. To move around the world, you basically clicked on a square in a grid adjacent to your character, and the page would refresh, move you to that square, and tell you if anything was there.
Well, the game had a voting system for players, so you could upvote or downvote a player. I don’t think it had any direct game functions. It was just a way to mark players as friendly and helpful or not. But I saw it as a way to get some attention.
I realized fairly quickly that Dragon Sword was a game without a level cap, so the earlier you began to play, the stronger you were. There was no way I’d ever catch up to the top players. And I wasn’t outgoing or friendly enough to get a lot of upvotes.
But down votes, those were easy to gain. Simply PK the newbies in town. So I did that, like crazy. Until I became the lowest-voted player. In the forums or whatever form of chat we had, players were arguing about whether to keep downvoting me or not since it appeared that was my goal. They asked the White Knight (the highest-voted player and way stronger than me) to hunt me down.
If he caught me in town, I’d be ruined, but in the wild gridded world, I was a needle in a haystack. Eventually, I think he caught me, but certainly creating a PKer, ganker, troll like me wasn’t the devs’ intention of making a up/down voting system.