Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The unbearable darkness of online communities

Spinks has written a thoughtful post today about the end of a golden age in online gaming, an age of cooperation and consideration for others which she sees as being replaced by a more individualistic culture, perhaps for good.

I'd like to examine her points then move on to a prediction about the way group play is going.

Competition and Cooperation

Let's start by looking at competition and cooperation. Both are I think fundamental forms of play. Both, I suspect, pre-date the human species. If you throw a stick for a dog that's cooperative play, if you play tug-of-war with the stick when he brings it back that's competitive play. Animals combine both forms in their play - there are even scientific studies about the proportion of each type. As humans we've had both for a long time and we'll always have both, at least for the rest of our lifetimes.

In MMOs the balance between them has not been quite so straightforward. The ancestors of MMOs, MUDs, tended to be more freeform more sandbox. So what happens if you let players do what they want? Well in MUDs you got the Bartle types, that is, you got 4 distinct types of play: Killer, Socialiser, Explorer, and Achiever. Let's look at the two social ones - killers which is interacting with people by trying to make their game experience worse and socialiser which is interacting with people by trying to make their game experience better.

Many people who aren't killers simply can't understand the motivation. Why follow another player around killstealing their mobs or nicking their drops until they log out in frustration? My answer would be that some people are intensely competitive and want the feeling of beating someone else. In a game where pvp is limited or non-existent some people may derive more satisfaction in making another person log out in frustration than in killing them within the normal expectations of the game. Killing someone in a WoW battleground for instance is fairly meaningless as killing someone doesn't do any damage to them, it just moves them and imposes a very brief time-out.

Some people regard competitiveness as extremely unhealthy. An article from a writer on this states:

"Competition is to self-esteem as sugar is to teeth. Most people lose in most competitive encounters, and it's obvious why that causes self-doubt. But even winning doesn't build character; it just lets a child gloat temporarily."

In addition to damaging participants the competitive instincts of players can be very damaging to the businesses of the companies running games. If someone's personal playstyle is to get people to log out and never log back in that's clearly an uneconomic player.

One player describes an event in WoW that unexpectedly turned out to be a great time for griefers:

"Yesterday, I spent some of my limited game time to log into WoW, and work on a new Dwarf character I started about a week ago, so he’s still hanging around Ironforge for the moment. So I run up to Ironforge to check out a couple of vendors, and I discover a scene of griefer ecstasy in front of the auction house. Hundreds of player corpses littered the ground from high level zombies killing anything that moved, especially low level people which they seem to get a perverse joy in ganking repeatedly. They chose the auction house because that area is by far the most crowded area of the city. One of their favorite tactics is also to kill off the flightmaster NPC, so that no one can get a griffin out of the area, causing additional people to bottleneck."

Cooperation on the other hand in addition to being a playstyle a lot of people find fun is intrinisically beneficial for the people running online games. Raph Koster says:

"Community ties are the single biggest predictor of retention. And in the subscription game (really, in the microtransaction game too, though the effect is more complicated), retention = money. Therefore, community ties = money."

The direction of the last decade

So if community = extra money  and griefing = less money then one would expect designers to design for community and against griefing. But they don't always and the reasons are complex. I'll try to give a brief overview.

One of the big strengths of massive online games is emergent gameplay. Players do unexpected things that turn out to be better and more fun than what the designers had originally foreseen. This happens quite a lot and many designers deliberately encourage it. In Eve while people have achieved spectacular acts of in-game criminality people have also done amazing and benign things. One player circumnavigated the universe over a period of years, one player founded a graveyard. In fact the company has created a site specifically to archive and document the amazing and emergent stories the players have - if you have a look you'll quickly see it's not all corp theft and can flipping.

The next element is personal progression. I'll let you into a secret that many players either never knew or forget. The numbers on your character sheet, on your gear, they mean nothing. A weapon that does 200 damage is neither intrinsically good nor bad. A 10 damage weapon hits a 100 hit point monster every bit as hard as a 1,000 damage weapon hits a 10,000 hit point monster. Numbers are relational and only relational. And since they are relational, it doesn't matter how much damage your weapon says it does, what matters is if it does more than your friend's weapon. The only meaningful metrics are "Am I better than him?" and "can I kill stuff easily?"

And players have become very attracted to personal progression. WoW beat EQ, SWG and UO for market share because it was more fun. Fun mainly being a matter of my character feels cooler. It did this by much faster gear upgrades than earlier games.

Personal progression is always competitive rather than cooperative. The only way to tell if you have a good sword is to see if it kills things faster than the guys with you. So the shift from the earlier model of highly challenging encounters where you cared more about doing everything you could to help the group win to relatively easy encounters where people care more about topping the meter is a shift from cooperation to competition.

What does the future hold?

I think two things are going to happen in the MMO gaming space. In fact they already are happening, in the future they will just get more obvious.

Firstly we have been getting and will get more types of games. Case in point, SWTOR is a highly directed theme park space PvE MMO. Launching in the same quarter against it is Prime BFD, a sandbox old school PvP MMO developed mainly by guys who loved Dark Age of Camelot and wish to re-create that experience in the modern market. Years ago you simply didn't see that diversity - a MMO was what it was and if the style didn't suit you then tough. You need to liberate yourself from being swept up by whatever is the most hyped game but if you can do so then you can play just about any type of game you like.

Second, there's a rubber banding effect. Games are very often a reaction to what was bad about the games before them. WoW was an immensely liberating experience after the forced grouping of EQ and the sandboxy aimlessness of SWG and UO. The horrible aspects of WoW are going to drive game development over the next decade. Expect to see games designed to address the problems of tank shortages, horrible rude pugs, gearscore epeen measurers and people who always stand in fires.


  1. Nice post. One thing I would take issue with - griefing isn't exactly competitiveness, it's more about domination and control. You can be competitive and at the same time want all participants in the contest to enjoy themselves - that's the basis of most competitive sports, it's why for example in fencing you ALWAYS salute your opponent before a bout and shake hands afterwards. The lack of this approach in PvP culture is why PvP games and servers suffer so much from the "Mordred problem" - because being an asshole to other players and ruining their day drives subscribers away from a game. Griefing really isn't anything other than bullying, and I suspect that most dedicated griefers are or were bullied as kids and are trying to rebuild their self-esteem by picking on someone else now they've found a virtual world where they aren't the wimpy kid who's bad at sports.

    The upshot of all of that is that a good gamew should ENCOURAGE both competitiveness and cooperation. but DISCOURAGE griefing. The most effective game to do that so far has been DAoC, which built up realm pride so everyone had an "us" to cooperate with and a "them" to compete against, and channeled its PvP into a form that maximised competition and minimised griefing. The closer Prime can get to recreating that atmosphere, the happier I'll be.

  2. Loving your blog :) I especially like the articles you've done on Diablo 3. Long, well thought out, and very interesting.

    Just added you to the blogroll at www.diablo3goldguide.net , hopefully I can send you some well earned readers!

    Have a good one,


  3. Kind words, thank you both.

    @ Tremayne. The Bartle types are extremes that no person really fits. If you take the Bartle test you will get a score like Aeks, showing (in this example) that you're mostly an achiever with lesser elements of the other types.

    The Fencing example I'd say is Ks. It's about killing, the aim of the sport is to play-kill the opponent and it's a sport based closely upon the real martial skill of sticking swords into people to kill them. Because it's hugely dangerous to let two hot-headed people simulate trying to kill each other in play the sport has evolved social mechanisms to mitigate the intrinsic violence of the activity.

    Competition (and this is why I quoted the educationalist who's very anti competition) is a Killer type activity. You show yourself as better by showing that someone else is worse. Now personally I think this is very healthy and if you avoid competition when raising children you end up with a generation of entitled little pricks who help themselves to tellies out of burning shops.

    But be that as it may the act of winning is a Killer activity. And fencing of all things shows this absolutely clearly. You win by touching your opponent with a sword, simulating killing him. He has to lose in order for you to win.

    Please note this is an intellectual definition of Killing, not in any way a moral one.

    Now griefing is a subset of Killing. You can beat an opponent without griefing but I don't think you can grief without being a Killer Bartle type. So for the purpose of talking about Killing griefing is a reasonable example to use.

    I didn't mean to imply that all competition is evil griefing.

  4. Fantastic post. I wanted to comment on a few specific things...

    "The upshot of all of that is that a good gamew should ENCOURAGE both competitiveness and cooperation. but DISCOURAGE griefing."

    Trem, I think this is an interesting point. Recently the trend in MMO's towards individualism has thrown this dynamic off. Let's say DAoC was the perfect example of this. If we have the same model, with both cooperative and competitive options available, yet the game encourages an individualistic attitude, then there is no "us". There is only "them" and "them" includes both teammates and enemies. You only cooperate in the loosest sense of the word, when you are really competing against them for gear or just working adjacent to one another, rather than with each other. Jump into any random dungeon or BG and you can see this dynamic taking place.

    As for the competition remarks, Stabs, I really wish I could make an argument here for friendly competition, but the reality is that this is the internet. Even LoL has some choice words its players will throw at you, teammate or enemy.

    That being said, I 100% agree with you on the future of MMO's. I will add, however, that I don't think this reaction will come from any company we would expect to be putting out a smash hit MMO project. Just like Blizzard came out of nowhere, the next big hit will blindside us just the same.

  5. Straw Fellow - I think there's always an "us" and "them" in people's thinking, it seems to me a basic part of human psychology - but what varies is how inclusive "us" is. In WoW, "us" means at most "my guild" and not necessarily even that - there are plenty of players who define "us" as "me" and treat even their guild as something to be exploited. You mentioned random dungeons, which is interesting - I remember when WoW launched then putting together a group and running through a dungeon was a big deal - by the end of the evening, at the final boss and after multiple wipes (even with a good group) then the entire group was "us". Now it has become click, gogogo, loot, and votekick any of "them" who seem to be slowing down my loot.

    @Stabs - I know you didn't intend to imply all competition is evil griefing - as a PvPer you're going to be familiar with the idea of conflict as a social activity to be enjoyed by all consenting participants, win or lose :) The Alfie Kohn article you link pretty much DOES define all competition as evil griefing, which is why I don't have much truck with it. At best, it's an argument against competition with sportsmanship - maybe the solution we need is to find some way of introducing that peculiarly English concept to the rest of the world? :)

  6. Great post. I do find it bemusing that on RP-PVE servers (WoW and Rift from personal experience) where the chance of large scale or reliable PVP is lower than a dedicated the PVP servers you still have people who flag for PVP in open world content to try and catch someone autoflagging so they can be ganked.

    This happens a lot in public events (like the recent Thrall quest chain in WoW and invasions in Rift). It's all too easy to accidentally flag you and the speed with which you are attacked means those individuals are waiting for it to happen. I've even seen corpse-camping as a result of this type of behaviour.

    I guess they're the extreme sort of PVP player that wants easy targets - those inexperienced with PVP combat?

  7. Clearly within the Killer type of gameplay there's a spectrum with sportsmanship at one end and griefing at the other. (And I certainly don't agree that the English have a monopoly on sportsmanship, see Indian cricket captain Dhoni's class act in a recent test match).

    I do think designers can design to encourage behaviour along this spectrum. EQ was a game where people were notably classy and considerate, Eve is a game where griefing is encouraged. I also think as players we can make a huge difference. The classiness with which we treat people can create a reciprocal behaviour in others.

  8. I've always thought that leveling and gear progression are naturally opposed to cooperation. I'd like to see devs find ways to make cooperation the heart of play, not progression, and concurrently, make the journey and the act of play the point of retention, not progression and *stuff*.

  9. I think historically leveling and gear progression have not always been opposed. In AD&D and similar table tops as well as in games like EQ and DDO if you want exp/gear you find people to group with.

    What is fascinating is that what should perhaps logically be a very solid playstyle has succumbed to the rather Darwinian process of game development. I do think there may be light at the end of the tunnel but it's very interesting intellectually that a playstyle that is so fun has fallen by the way side temporarily.

  10. A formidable analyzis. and predictions I believe you may be spot on for the future.

    I guess the only depressing thought is that there's no such thing as perfect - at best new MMOs can improve where the old ones went wrong, creating their own new old issues, until the next generation ends up where there grandfathers have been.

  11. I think there are perfect moments. For me SWG in 2003 was an utter delight.