Friday, May 18, 2007

Corruption, Insider Trading and Abuse of Power in MMOs: Ethics Thrown to the Winds

So I'm a little late on the whole CCP dev-scandal in Eve Online, but I saw a recent interview with Raph Warner where he mentions that this sort of thing has always gone on, specifically referencing GM Darwin from the old days of UO (I cant find a decent link but apparently he would create castles and sell them on Ebay).

And it got me thinking about developers playing their own games, and then a sudden repressed memmory came back to me from my times as QA on Ultima Online. I was brought in a few months before they released Age of Shadows and there were a couple of specific incidents that I thought were totally out of line.

The first one was relatively minor. As we opened up our beta servers with the new code a few days prior to release, I was walking around in invisible, GM mode, watching what the players were doing and looking for potential problems, when I found one of the real GMs, decked out in all artifacts (artifacts were being introduced with the expansion), killing as many players as he could near the Britain moongate! UO being a semi-balanced game PvP-wise, he ended up eventually dying to the swarms of players that went after him, even with his uber-gear. They, of course, quickly looted his body, and he was forced to use his GM powers to freeze them and search their packs for all the artifacts that he shouldnt have parading around to begin with. My astonishment at this breach of conduct was was slightly ameliorated when he had to repeatedly ask the players, 'OK. Who has my pants?'

As he was regathering the items, he noticed me standing there, still invisible, and soon after, physically came upstairs to explain that he was 'testing' the artifacts to make sure they weren't too powerful. Uh-huh. That's why you're in QA... oh wait... you're not QA! He wasn't looking to test anything. He just wanted to show off, make himself feel powerful and get some attention, which he did as there were several threads about his escapades on the boards soon afterwards. And the fact that he went out of his way to make excuses to me just proves that he knew he was behaving inappropriately.

A relatively minor incident, but nonetheless, he was abusing the powers he had been granted in a very open and public manner.

The second incident actually occured earlier, and was much more egregious. With the advent of the expansion, came new lands, on which housing could be built. Now anyone who is familiar with UO back in the day knows how precious and scarce open land was. So, of course, it was expected that there would be a land rush on opening day to place houses in convenient, valuable and interesting spots. A couple of weeks before this went live, it came to the attention of one of our QA people, that there were 'secret' areas that could only be accessed via hidden runestones. Somehow, the devs had neglected to inform QA about this little feature, claiming that it wasn't worth testing. We at QA, of course, disagreed. So we got the details, wrote up a test plan and tested it. Well, after release, it turned out that several of the devs and GMs went and placed houses in these secret spots as soon as they could, which I would equate to insider trading.

They made these secret spots that players wouldnt know of immediately, conveniently decided not to inform QA about their existence, and then, as soon as the code was live, they quickly placed houses for themselves in what would become coveted locations!

So should MMO devs play their own games? It's quite different than playing a non-persistent game, for characters and items have real-world value in most MMOs. And the persistence factor means that any abuses have a ripple effect across the entire server. But even if they arent using GM-enabled accounts to create valuable items out of thin air, their knowledge of the inner workings on the game and their access to the code itself can present problems. Is there a real solution beyond trying to educate those inside the company on ethics? It's definitely a promising sign when the devs enjoy playing their own game. But at what point does playing the game for fun and enjoyment cross the line into abuse of power?

I let the artifact incident with the GM slide, as I was still the new guy, he stopped as soon as he was caught and it was on the test server which was brought down and wiped a couple of days later anyway. The issue with the dev-team coding in secret areas that they would be able to 'discover' first just sort of evaporated as well. I know some complaints were sent up the chain of command from QA, but I don't know if any reprimands or talks ever came of it. I'm not even sure what would be done considering that the entire dev team was in on it.

In summary, I would hope that people would have enough personal ethics to not ever get involved in scandals such as these, but, obviously, there are a number who either just don't care, or are too dumb and self-centered to consider the implications of their actions. I'm not sure why I expect those involved in creating and running MMOs to be any different from the rest of the world. It is a business after all, and I've seen plenty of ethics breaches in other jobs I've been in whether they've been retail, manufacturing or technical. I guess that since I have such an affection for well-crafted computer games, I expect others with similar sentiments to be similar to myself. A bit of a naive attitude when I stop and think about it. But I can say, that if I were in charge, such abuses wouldn't be tolerated!

Side Note: Interestingly enough, when I was at Origin, out of the dozen or so QA we had, only 3 of them actually played UO outside of work.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Economy and Inflation in MMOs: Part II

I had originally tried to post this as a reponse to Tobold's article, 'The Link Between Level and Gold' but my response never appeared so I decided to just make it into my own blog entry.

I have written previously about economies in MMOs, and it's a subject that comes up frequently among players... mainly because any semblance of an economy is usually quickly destroyed by incredible amounts of inflation that the devs try to crudely bandage via various gold sinks.

I think the real root of the problem starts at the beginning of the game. The main issues are:

1) Gold and items dropping like candy from a pinata every time a player kills any mob. Even if the items are 'trash', they can almost always be sold to some perverted NPC who apparently enjoys collecting Glistening Ooze and Frayed Rat Tails. Or, even worse, every NPC will be more than happy to buy this junk and will have an unlimited number of funds with which to do so!

2) Permanent items.

The way to move towards this is twofold:

1) Stop putting spendable coins on 90% of the mobs. Why on earth are demons carrying around gold!? Do they stop in the pub after a hard days work of hanging out at the local demon portal? Very few mobs should drop coins. Instead there should be various armor and trade goods that can be turned into useful things by craters. Gold and money should not just appear out of thin air.

1a) NPCs shouldnt buy anything and everything players shove in their faces. NPC vendors should have things that they are interested in, and flatout refuse to buy anything else. Move the economy towards a barter system rather than relying so much on a never-ending supply of gold that falls from the sky and fills everyone's pockets.

2) Equipment should wear out or be lost in other ways, requiring replacement. As long as 90% of the items in the world never deteriorate, you will always have mudflation issues. Until we move beyond this weird item-permanence concept, any attempt at a real economy is futile.

Players should be poor for the most part. Maybe a few gold saved up to be spent at a bar one evening, but not these ridiculous hoards of 1000s of gold. The only ones with that much gold should be powerful merchants and kings.


Trade routes develop. Perhaps there is an excess number of swords being produced in one town, so the local smiths and merchants have no interest in buying any. But another town down the road doesn't have a smithy, so they're more than willing to buy the swords. Some enterprising player could come along, set up a trade route and make some money while stimulating an actual economy.

Crafting becomes not only an important job, but it also promotes community and interaction as well.

You've taken the first steps towards creating a sustainable, closed economy that can be fun in of itself.

"But how is being poor fun", you say, "I eat Ramen every day and pawned my guitar to pay rent! I don't want to experience that in an MMO!"

Well, to put it simply, you don't have those same requirements in an MMO. You dont have to eat, you can sleep just as easily on top of a mountain as you can in the most luxurious bed, and noone is sending you bills for supplying you with water. There really are very few activities that require money, and that's where the mudflation begins.

As usual, these concepts can't exist in a vacuum. You would need a dev team that takes a long, hard look at the in-game economy at all stages of development. But given the fact that most of the popular MMOs suffer from some form of mudflation to varying degrees, I don't see that as a bad thing.

Friday, May 04, 2007

MMO Core Concept #3: Leaders and Champions

Kind of similar to the upcoming Gods and Heroes squad concept, but taken a step farther. Basically, this is meant to bring an epic feel to MMOs, particularly PvP, while still allowing players to be individually powerful, though there are now differing types of power beyond just the abilities of your character.

Basically, there would be two different lifepaths for players to take: They can follow the path of a Leader, gaining the ability to command several NPCs and access to skills that would facilitate that. Or they can follow the path of the Champion, which would be more akin to the standard character archetypes we see in MMOs today. Players would be allowed to switch back and forth between the paths with some limitations, but there would be significant differences between the skill sets, forcing the players who seek to have it all to spend time, effort and money acquiring the other skills and losing access to some of their previous skills, though the skills wouldn't vanish, they would just be dormant.

And it would be balanced in such a way that a Leader-type character who devotes their skills and studies towards the art of combat and hires combat-oriented NPCs could be just as effective (though in a different manner) as a Champion who has also devoted themselves to combat.

I would even extend this concept beyond just combat. It would encompass city-building as well. Champions may be great for keeping monsters and bandits at bay, but when it comes to actually building a running a functioning town, you would need leaders to command and control all the NPCs in the town.

Some of the basic skills would overlap. Everyone would be able to fight, cast magic, learn tracking, etc. But only Champions would have access to the Fireball of Mass Destruction or the Blade Dance of Doom, while only Leaders would be able to control squads of NPCs or run a store.

This method of dividing character progression into two distinct camps not only opens up interesting avenues of interaction, but also provides a variety of outlets for different types of players. Those who enjoy the sense of power that comes from personal gain would likely lead the lives of Champions, while those who enjoy crafting, socialization and other non-combat activities would lean towards the life of a leader, forming communities with like-minded individuals. Of course, there's no reason the different player-types couldn't have some crossover. Perhaps a Champion decides to ally themselves with a town, providing protection for outlying areas and functioning as a part-time sheriff. Or maybe a Leader could make a name for themselves by commanding a squad of elite soldiers that seeks out the most dangerous foes in unexplored areas.

Envision a city siege. Small organized squads of soldiers manning the siege engines, battering rams and walls, with others waiting in the wings for a breakthrough. Meanwhile larger than life heroes run about, attempting to turn the tide in either direction and engaging each other in awesome displays of power and abilities. Sounds great to me!