I was reading an article by Ernest Adams about “Implementing God”* to punish griefers (or player-killers, as he called them). It reminded me that griefers, like many other emergent features of MMORPGs, are generally thought of as an inevitable but strictly negative part of the game that can only be handled through liberal use of the ban-hammer. Also on this list are gold farmers, players who use macros, and chat spammers. The MMO team simply sighs and assumes that it’s only recourse is to be reactive, trying to find and eliminate all such annoyances.
It seems to me that developers who take this approach (and that’s about everyone right now) missed something – that the real value of an MMO is the emergent features that come through player interaction. There’s a reason that people are spawn-camping, chat spamming, and using macros. The reason is very simple: the player wants something that the game isn’t providing, and so using “illegitimate” means to try and get it.
A post that tackles all these issues at once would be epic in proportions, so I’m going to stick to just one of these topics for now: outlaws. I find it interesting (or, if you prefer, appalling) that although “rogue”-like classes exist in a variety of MMORPGs, they don’t get to do many roguish things. Take as a particularly sad example the assassin class in Guild Wars: Factions. What does an assassin do in this game? They wield two-daggers…and they charge at monsters and hit them a lot. Really, the assassin is just a different flavor of melee-fighter, who is defined by wielding two daggers instead of one sword. How exciting.
Other games may do a better job of making rogues distinctive, but they still don’t provide any chance for a rogue to have non-combat gameplay, and they certainly don’t have any room for rogue role-playing. In theory, a rogue is an outlaw, someone who lives outside the normally bounds of behavior for his society. Sometimes that’s what a player wants – not to be a noble hero but to defy the arbitrary rules that confine him and rebel against the society he’s in. Unfortunately, most games don’t really have much of a society to speak of, so the only thing for the player to rebel against is the game itself. That is, griefing is the only outlet available for someone who is bored of being a cookie-cutter anonymous hero. Simply declaring that griefers are immature, even if true, ignores the fact that the game is failing to provide them with a “legitimate” experience that engages them. In other words, the game is demanding that the player behave according to an arbitrary norm, and many times the experience gotten by adhering to that norm really is boring.
The problem is that this isn't a "legitimate" outlet. The system doesn't support or recognize outlaw activities, even though the actions are permitted by the mechanics. The griefer will get a brief feeling of empowerment the first time they pick on another PC, but won't be satisfied, and in their desperation to get that rush again will resort to crueler and crueler behavior. Players may form vigilante groups to counter-grief, and it's possible that the player could be banned, but there is no immediate reaction from the system when you break the law. Ultimately, actions on all sides are emotionally heated and everyone involved just ends up being frustrated.
So what's the solution? Formalize their outlaw status. Provide in-game mechanisms for them to act outside the "law" while still playing within the greater game system, and what was previously a frustration becomes flavor instead. You can give the lawbreaker an "outlaw" status, restrict from them certain rights of proper citizens (they can't freely come and go in cities, for example), and make them fair game for anyone with the "police" profession (and if they've violated enough laws, fair game for anyone to take down). You might give them some benefits in return (like access to outlaw society, if it exists), but you don't need to, because recognition is their reward, and it's all they wanted really wanted to begin with. Some hardcore players will covet the right to be called infamous, because that status will actually mean something in a system that makes being outlaw difficult, but possible and a legitimate choice of play style. While the outlaws feel more satisfied, the vigilantes also receive a recognized status, and get the sense that they're not just righting individual wrongs, but protecting society as a whole. The entire psychological outlook on law breaking changes, and quite possibly for the better.
Of course, in order for this to work properly, there needs to be a society that outlaws can meaningfully be outside of (since that's what it means to be an outlaw). Creating a genuine sense of a complex in-game society is a topic far larger than the one I set out to discuss in this post, but having formal outlaws is one of the things that helps to shape it - for it implies laws, which are real and meaningful.
Perhaps later I'll talk about how I think similar ideas apply to the other "inevitable but annoying" features of MMORPGs.
*Yes, I know it's pretty old, but the same ideas are still prevalent. Just look at how people at Mythic brag about banning gold-sellers. It's the exact same mentality.