Category Archives: Social / Cultural

Designing an MMORPG Feedback Rating System

As promised, I wrote an article about designing an MMORPG feedback rating system, which Gamasutra was kind enough to publish. You can read the full article here.

I’ve already received a few thoughtful emails about the article, some of which I’d like to address here. One person asked how my proposed design might relate to previous designs that took PVP activity into account. The answer is: it does not, and should not. My design is intended to help ensure that people enjoy group play (which, in many MMORPGs, is 90% of the fun at later levels). PVP is extraneous and should have its own control mechanism(s). After all, someone who mercilessly hunts you down in a PVP setting may still be an excellent group member.

Another person asked how my system might compare to the feedback system in EVE-Online. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet had the opportunity to try EVE; I’ve been meaning to for weeks. That said, the EVE system sounds interesting, if somewhat more complex than what I’ve proposed. It also appears to dictate some NPC behavior, which I’ve left open in my proposed system. It isn’t clear to me that a user feedback system necessarily has to influence NPCs, since that could intensify user desire to try to game the system, and it could (in general) amplify any unanticipated negative side-effects of the system.

Thanks to everyone for all your feedback thus far.  :)

Feedback Firestorm

Thanks to unexpected attention from digg.com, my brief news post on accusations of discrimination in World of Warcraft has drawn thousands of visitors to this site. Had I known that would happen, I would have spent more time on the post! I don’t normally bother to write about the same subject twice in one week, but this situation seems to merit some followup.

First: many visitors appear to have assumed that I was accusing all language-selective WoW players of racism. I would never make such a blanket accusation, news-based or otherwise. That would be as foolish as, oh… assuming that all foreign players are gold farmers. To anyone who felt unfairly accused, my apologies.

Second: It’s worth quickly glancing at the comments on my post, and on the digg entry leading to it. You can draw your own conclusions about them.

Third: My thoughts on encouraging diversity were idle speculation… intended to start a dialogue, not dictate hard and fast changes to MMORPGs. Multiplayer video games have tremendous potential to bring people together, no matter where they live or what they look like. For years, the video game industry has itself trumpeted this as one of the most promising aspects of games; a worthy rebuttal (among many others!) to the accusation that games offer nothing of social value. All the sadder, then, to see several people make comments like (and I’m paraphrasing, here): “foreigners should stick to their OWN servers!”

Fourth: the most common objection to my post was that players have legitimate reason to reject poor English speakers, since they might not understand directions, might ruin the raid, etc. I readily admit (as I did in an earlier comment) that I would not personally accept someone into my group if they spoke almost no English … it would unnecessarily complicate gameplay. But there’s a wide gulf between “perfect, unbroken English” and “almost no” English. I’ve got friends in Europe and South America who may not be able to spell perfectly, but they understand enough to avoid trouble, play their part, and generally contribute to the cause. It doesn’t take fluency to understand the less-than-Shakespearean instructions I generally hear being barked out during any given raid.

There are many ways to address legitimate player fear of potentially bad group members. One possible solution is an in-game reputation / feedback system (ala eBay), which could be used by players to ding other players who behave poorly or dishonerably while in a group. I’ll attempt to describe my idea of a functioning, relatively low-maintenance rep system in a future post.

*Update: there’s an interesting comment on this post that explains why Singaporeans (among other people) legitimately wind up in English-speaking servers, aside from immigration to the US. It’s 2nd from the top in the list.

*2nd Update: strangely, some people seem to be assuming that I “support” gold farming because I’m concerned about the cultural divide. Not that it should require clarification, but these two things are not automatically correlated…

Discrimination in World of Warcraft

Apparently, discrimination is becoming a problem in World of Warcraft. Some players are refusing to accept other players into their group unless they can chat in perfect, unbroken English. This phenomenon is being blamed on a widespread backlash against the practice of gold farming, which is unfairly associated with all non-English speakers in general.

There is nothing new to this. The particulars might be unique, but the basis for this behavior has always been there, lying just under the surface of all multiplayer video games. I will never forget the first time I logged onto a multiplayer server and saw one game session entitled “NO JEWS”. I joined the session, of course (in addition to all our other faults, we Jews can’t follow directions.) I thought I might learn something from the experience, but after 20 very sad minutes, all I’d discovered was a strong correlation between bigotry and the use of foul language.

Gold farming has simply become a handy excuse for some people to indulge in their darker impulses. So what can MMORPG developers do about it? 1) Don’t add fuel to the fire by publishing scathing remarks about the practice of gold farming. If you don’t like it, just deal with it quietly, fairly, and efficiently. 2) Reward diversity. Perhaps groups that are comprised of players from different countries could be rewarded with an experience point bonus? Or perhaps diverse guilds could be rewarded in some way? These are just idle thoughts, but I think the idea is at least worth considering. Bringing people together is one of the most socially-beneficial things an MMOG could ever do. And hey, you might even be able to get some decent PR out of it.

PS. If you haven’t read always_black’s famous short story, Bow Nigger, you really should.

*Update: in response to the unexpected controversy this has generated, I’ve posted a followup for clarification’s sake.

*Update 2: as promised, in response to all the controversy, I’ve written an article for Gamasutra about designing an MMORPG user feedback system, which is meant to address legitimate player concerns about bad teamwork, loot theft, etc.

User-Generated Content: Not Without Obligations

The 2005 Second Life Game Developer Contest, intended to generate positive PR and fun new in-game content, appears to have generated some serious controversy as well. Jeffrey Gomez, the contest winner, recently discovered that a system-wide software patch had rendered his 1st place entry non-functional.

Linden Lab has argued that Gomez could have used their test servers to identify and troubleshoot the problem before it was too late. Gomez has responded that he (and other users) shouldn’t be forced to adopt a patch before they are good and ready.

I chatted with my friend Sameer Ajmani, PhD graduate of MIT’s computer science program (and a systems specialist) about this debate. His words:

It can be very difficult to enable users running different versions to coexist in a game. But even if they could coexist, this would force users to choose between features of the different versions. Most MMOGs require that users upgrade to the latest version specifically to avoid this problem. However, since Second Life depends on its users for content, Linden Labs ought to make every effort to make API changes backwards-compatible. If users have no guarantee that their content will work after the next upgrade, then they will be demotivated to create new things.

Someone who makes content for Second Life doesn’t necessarily want to maintain it for the rest of their (real) lives. Users don’t have the same persistent (and/or consistent) committment to a game that the game’s developers do. If users can’t be certain that their efforts will retain value for a significant period of time, without significant upkeep, their motivation to produce will diminish. A business that is reliant upon user-generated content cannot afford this.

PS. While we’re on the subject, check out this cool business simulation Second Life competition. The Apprentice meets MMOG. :)

Fighting Piracy with Goodwill: More Carrot, Less Stick

Yesterday’s post got me thinking about creative solutions to the problem of piracy. If you take for granted that engineering solutions are insufficient impediments to piracy on their own, then what? Legal solutions are band-aids; at best slowing the phenomenon, at worst enraging consumers… how do you fight the collective will of humanity with a bunch of lawyers?

So, aside from accepting that piracy is a given (and perhaps less-than-horrific) part of life, what can you do? How about give consumers more reasons to pay for the product? Many people choose to purchase multiplayer games (rather than pirate them) because they want to participate in sanctioned and/or ranked online matches with the bulk of the player community. Blizzard has used its Battle.net service as an effective enticement for years. But why limit social solutions to multiplayer games?

Imagine the following single-player experience: you’re a soldier tasked with sneaking behind enemy lines. Your character is captured and thrown into an empty jail cell. Some of your comrades are held in nearby cells; you can hear them tapping on the walls, and you can tap back. What if the game connected to a sanctioned server and broadcasted your taps to other real people playing this part of the game? Perhaps the players could be encouraged to solve some problem together under real time pressure? (AI could kick in when not enough players are online). This could enrich gameplay and encourage users to purchase games instead of pirate them.

In Grand Theft Auto, you can spray graffiti on the walls. What if players were enabled to customize their graffiti in great detail? The game could automatically upload player-generated graffiti to a server, where it would be randomly downloaded by other game instances. The virtual cityscape would quickly fill up with graffiti, creating a sense of real authenticity. Perhaps players could be enabled to “vote” on other players graffiti, or add to it, or overwrite it?

Implementation aside, my point is: games can tap social forces and user-creativity to enrich play and encourage purchase. Company-sanctioned servers can act as the greatly preferred (if not only) clearinghouse via which access to extra content is obtained.

I’m not advocating for piracy, here. I think that IP protection is vital to a healthy economy, and government/industry should work together to fight infringement. That said, ubiquitious access to the Internet is clearly a double-edged boon to the entertainment business. The question is: can businesspeople and designers take advantage of the opportunity, or will they be left behind by it?