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Online Justice Systems

March 21, 2000 Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next

In order to build a successful online game, you must build a sense of community among your players. One of the biggest challenges to successful community building in online role-playing games is tempering the problems caused by players killing or stealing from other players. Such problems are known more generally as player-vs.-player conflict (PvP). Over the course of time, different games developed by different companies have sought to control this problem through a variety of methods. This article touches upon PvP control strategies used by Simutronics Corp., where I am currently employed, as well as strategies used by Origin Systems in Ultima Online and by 989 Studios in its game Everquest. While there is no single correct way to maintain order in an online game, by examining these companies’ strategies for restraining nonconsensual PvP, I have created a set of general guidelines that should be considered when designing an online justice system.

The Current Methods

While existing systems for controlling PvP show some very creative design solutions, each of the following strategies nonetheless suffers from certain flaws that arise from the different priorities assigned to game play elements.

Administrative Control (Simutronics’ Gemstone and Dragonrealms) Simutronics gives its players wide leeway in resolving conflicts among themselves, and generally limits its hard-coded restrictions on attacking other characters. New players may not be attacked and are not strong enough to harm one another. Stealing from a person’s inventory is limited to coins and small gems, and corpse looting is either not possible (as in Gemstone III) or has safeguards that allow careful players to prevent it from happening (as is the case in Dragonrealms). The leeway afforded the players allows the responsible players a great degree of freedom in how they play their characters. To balance out this freedom, though, Simutronics strictly polices its player base. Its players’ terms and conditions agreement, for example, states, “What is not acceptable is to initiate combat against unsuspecting victims. Anyone exhibiting such behavior, especially one who chooses to prey upon weaker players for his or her own enjoyment, may be in violation of…policy.”

Dragonrealms’ rogues’ gallery.

“Unsuspecting victims” can be a difficult standard to enforce. It’s fairly obvious when someone is on a mass-murder spree, and we remove such characters from our games immediately. If the offender is an experienced player who knows better, we generally penalize the account with official warnings and restrictions from playing for a period of time. If the player is new to our game, we explain our policies. If any player is unwilling to abide by the rules, Simutronics usually recommends that he or she try a product better suited to his or her tastes.

Simutronics’ methods are effective for controlling those players who understand the rules and deliberately choose to violate them. The system’s main weakness, however, is in handling conflicts in which the two parties disagree over whether consent to violence was given. For example, if player A makes a few choice comments about Player B’s suspected lineage, and Player B attacks, is the conflict consensual? Some Simutronics staffers would say consent was implicit in the insult, but others consider consent to be something that must be explicitly stated by the victim prior to any attack. When staff tread such nebulous ground, they’re fighting a battle that is impossible to win. No matter how they handle the conflict, their intervention often creates hard feelings among the players. Resolving these squabbles also uses staff time that could be spent on game development, requiring a higher developer-to-player ratio than would otherwise be necessary. Simutronics has made the choice to incur these higher costs in order to maintain games in which our customers may play in relative safety from arbitrary attacks. Whether such a solution would be viable in another game depends on the developers’ goals and budget.

Player Policing (Origin Systems’ Ultima Online) Ultima Online’s developers decided to forgo administrative policing and leave its justice system entirely in the hands of the players. Raph Koster, Ultima Online’s lead designer, said Origin designed the game this way in the hopes that, “given the tools to police their own environment, [players] would do so…. Our experience was that every method of administratively imposed policing either failed or led to intense resentment of the administrators of the game. We were particularly concerned because traditional models on MUDs for enforcing social mores were very administrator-intensive, requiring a large number of skilled administrators willing to devote a lot of time to soothing ruffled feathers on the part of players who felt wronged. In a commercial venture of a large scale, we didn’t think this was sustainable.”

Allowing your customers to police themselves is a noble goal, but one that is difficult to implement. The most infamous result of the Ultima Online hands-off policy was the gangs of player killers (PKs) that formed. Such gangs would station themselves at key locations in the game and ambush any poor soul foolish enough to travel with a group smaller than a mob. “I just got PK’d,” was a refrain commonly heard outside the game’s banks, where naked adventurers would come to beg for money to re-equip themselves. Some players formed anti-PK militias, but, as Raph says, they were “inadequate for handling the problem of player killing. The actions of the few police were both insufficient in quantity and inadequate in severity to curb the activity of the player killers and the player thieves.”

An innocent is attacked in Ultima Online

In response to the problem, Origin instituted a variety of tools to allow the players even greater control over their environment. Under the current system, all characters begin the game flagged as “innocent,” with their names highlighted in a bright, happy blue. Steal from, attack, or loot the dead body of an innocent — including an NPC — and your character’s name will be highlight gray, branded a criminal and open to attack by anyone. Kill an innocent player character, and that person is given the option to report you as a murderer and place a bounty on your head. Kill five or more innocents in a short period of time, and your character is flagged a “murderer,” unable to use shops or access your bank account, and subject to being slain on sight by other adventurers who wish to collect the bounty on your head.

Ultima Online’s facility for reporting crimes.

Ultima Online’s greatest strength is that it places administration of PvP entirely in the hands of its players, giving them an unrivaled sense that they, and not the Origin staff, control their world. The benefit of this feeling among players shouldn’t be underestimated; it’s a powerful contributor to a sense of immersion in the game environment. The system is weak, however, in controlling random aggression. Only after five reported kills does PvP activity have any real repercussions for the aggressor, and the game does little to track long-term aggressive behavior. If a player waits just eight hours of online time between murders, he can kill one player a day without ever reaching the murderer threshold. No penalty exists (other than being flagged a “criminal” for a short period of time) for attacking someone unless that person dies as a result of his or her injuries. Harassment attacks that fall short of a murder are still extremely common in Ultima Online. I was, for example, attacked by total strangers an average of once a day over three weeks of playing while writing this article, and killed three times. (Note to game designers: other game designers get really grumpy when your players kill them, especially when their colleagues make fun of their poor fighting skills.)

Player-toggled Flags (989 Studios’ Everquest) The developers of 989 Studio’s Everquest implemented a flagging system that will mark characters either as able to attack and be attacked by other players (+PK), or completely unable to engage in such activities (-PK). The method is a common one for controlling violence in small text-based MUDs, but my experience suggests that in a large-scale game, where the community is of sufficient size to allow true anonymity, the use of “throwaway” (also known as “mule”) troublemaker characters with -PK flags will abound. Such characters, immune from physical harm, can do many nonviolent but extremely annoying things to other players, such as following another character around wherever he goes, blocking entries to important areas, attacking monsters other players are already fighting, engaging in verbal harassment, holding goods stolen by +PK characters, running cons and scams, refusing to leave someone’s home, and more.

Brad McQuaid, Everquest’s producer, says his team is aware of the PK flag’s potential abuses and is prepared to combat them. The game will have a squelch command to combat verbal harassment, and out-of-context (non-role–played) harassment will result in punitive measures against the offender’s account. As for killing the creature another person is fighting, Brad says, “…the player or group that does the most damage to an NPC gets to loot it and receives the experience for the kill. This stops the jerk who comes along and gives the killing blow to a creature even though another person or group had engaged the NPC long before. He’s welcome to deliver the killing blow, but he will receive no experience for doing so.”

In Everquest, players who wish to attack other players must be flagged +PK and even then
can only attack other +PK characters.

The general principle behind the Everquest kill-stealing prevention is sound, but what does one do about the high-level, -PK player who goes to a low-level hunting ground and steals kills repeatedly, doing more damage to creatures than the new players fighting them by virtue of an incredible advantage in skill? Does one block entry to such areas for high-level players? Does one prevent high-level players from attacking low-level monsters? Does one simply warn the player for disruption? The number of ways to get around the game design illustrates the greatest danger to the PK flag solution, namely that it creates an invulnerable subclass of character that players will be unable to police, thus shifting the burden (read: increasing staffing costs) to the game administrators. However, I suspect the flagging solution will be popular with a significant portion of Everquest’s customer base, because it allows responsible players who don’t enjoy PvP to play without interference from their more aggressive cohorts.

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