At this point I'd like to try to address the most obvious objections to implementing the Secure Contracts system described.
This isn't a truly general contract system.
The big question, of course, is whether the list of contract types implemented is broad enough to cover not only the kinds of cooperative economic behavior players currently engage in, but also the kinds of economic activities they might want to engage in but haven't even thought of yet. In other words, this system is more general than a simple Exchange Contract system... but is it general enough?
Honestly, I'm not sure that it is. The beauty of the real-world contract system is that you can write a contract to cover almost any kind of economic transaction you can imagine; the system itself doesn't impose any limits on you. That's why the contract is such a powerful economic innovation -- it makes possible enormous opportunities for economic creativity. (There are some limits on this creativity; for example, a contract to do something illegal is not legally binding. But these aren't limits imposed by the contract system itself.)
A hard-coded system of contract types, by contrast, circumscribes what you can do according to what the programmers were able to encode. And that places extreme limits on how far economic activity can be expanded -- the full creative potential of human beings can't be harnessed because there are too many novel behaviors that a hard-coded contract system just doesn't cover.
But as I said, I just can't think of a contract system that is both general AND guaranteed. If it's not guaranteed by the system, then you need a legal system with courts and lawyers and judges (oh, my!). If it's not general, then you fail to protect significant amounts of economic activity.
So I designed this system as a middle ground. It can't be as effective as a true general contract system; it has to be limited so the game can control contract resolution. That means there'll be some kinds of economic activity not supported by contracts, which means a failure to capture all the economic activity possible. This in turn raises the question of whether the contract system described here is sufficient to create the "order of magnitude" increases in economic activity that will constitute a true new stage of productivity in MMOGs.
It’s a fair question, to which the only answer I can give is "maybe not... but getting close is still worth trying."
If unilateral contracts allow one-sided termination, what's to prevent griefing?
The most obvious result of allowing unilateral termination without penalty as an option when setting terms is that it permits "no-fault" contracts. The (apparent) downside of allowing no-fault contracts is that by reducing the pain of penalties for defaulting we risk weakening the trust in contractual agreements that this whole system is intended to promote. To this objection I would respond in two ways.
First, it's not clear that making penalties optional really does "weaken" contracts. Yes, if penalties are optional then players will sometimes make that choice, which means that there will be deals broken when one player would rather maintain them. But for every player who complains, there'll be another player who will defend this system because he benefits from it. Additionally, low-cost, no-hassle contracts are a proper tool between two individuals who already trust each other. Why should PA members, for example, be treated (by a system that insists on a penalty) as though they were strangers? Allowing "no-fault" contracts as an option actually promotes trust and cooperation by offering streamlined contracts as a choice once trust has been established.
Second, unless you force a minimum penalty (which becomes a cost of making contracts, limiting their use) even the strong penalty could be bypassed by simply specifying a monetary-only penalty of 2 credits... so why insist on making players go through the motions? Being forced to do unnecessary paperwork adds no trust to the system.
Overall, I'd say the option to provide a penalty should be there, but it shouldn't be forced on players. No-fault contracts should be available.
Won't "Assassination" contracts allow griefing?
The Assassinate contract, in particular, would have to have some very secure conditions placed on it -- one condition might be that no player character can be the target of any Assassination contracts for more than one week out of any month. I think there'd probably also have to be factional limits -- only overt characters could be targets, for example. The potential for griefage without these limits is pretty obvious.
Can the game really enforce all the terms of player contracts reliably?
Enforcement of contracts is a critical element to contracts working and being used -- if the terms and penalties of contracts can't be reliably enforced, the system won't be trusted and therefore won't be used.
So how do we achieve this? A secondary system of law enforcement could possibly be developed that can not only be used to resolve contractual disputes but might provide other gameplay opportunities as well. (Although I can already hear the cries of "We don't want to play Star Wars: The People's Court!"....)
But for now, I'm thinking it's also possible to achieve reliable enforcement through the game system itself.
Consider the Guard contract. Let's say you and I sign a contract with the following terms:
I agree to prevent you from being killed.Following the rules of general contracts and specific terms of this contract, if you get killed for any reason within the specified time period, all the money in the penalty account (8000 credits) is immediately transferred to your bank account by the game itself. If I delete the contract, again, all the money in the penalty account is transferred to your bank account. If you delete the contract, I get all the penalty money. If you make it through the specified time period without getting killed, then at the moment the time period is up the game transfers all the money specified in the payment account from your bank account to mine, and the game transfers back to each of us the original amount of penalty money we put up.
You agree to pay me 10,000 credits, which you put into a payment account.
This is a one-time contract with a period of five game days.
Each of us puts up 4000 credits as a bond into a penalty account.
We agree that this is a bilateral contract.
Logging out forever won't help you. (If you never come back, you can't play.) For that matter, if you default, I get the penalty money whether you're online or not, so running to another planet won't help you, either. If you make the deal, you're stuck with the consequences because the game enforces the results.
So I can't see any technical reason why this couldn't work. And I think the other types of contracts would work similarly.
But what about possible social reasons why this wouldn't work? Any obvious opportunities for grief play?
I suppose it's technically possible for someone to agree to a contract and then break the contract... but why? What would a griefer get out of this, since the only thing that could happen -- beyond the terms to which both parties agreed -- would be to make the other player richer by giving him the penalty money? No new money is being created by contracts (they only transfer money), so there's no opportunity for two players to collude to create new wealth that they can split between them.
As for "rich griefers," who theoretically might break contracts simply to be annoying, just how many of these folks are there? Aren't the terms "rich" and "griefer" usually (not always, but usually) mutually exclusive? Most griefers are too childish to have enough patience to be crafters or to run enough missions to make money; they just want to duel you... and you don't get rich that way. (It's not like medieval jousts, where the winner got to keep the loser's horse and weapons... although allowing player-looting as a totally optional feature might make PvP a bit more interesting, wouldn't you say? Maybe I should add "Duel" as a possible contract type to my list....)
One possibility in this particular case might be if I guard you for some amount of time right up to the limit... and just before the time expires, you break the contract. I get the penalty money, but you got virtually all of my time that you were (apparently) willing to pay even more money for. So, Mr. Smartypants Flatfingers, what about that, huh?
Well, I'd respond by saying that there are two ways my contract system allows players to prevent this kind of griefage. First, players -- because this contract system lets them specify penalty amounts -- can always make the total penalty value equal to (or greater than, if they like) the payment amount. That way breaking a contract will always be more painful than honoring it. Second, players can minimize their exposure on timed agreements by using shorter periods. In this case, instead of writing the deal as a one-time payment after three days, it could have been written as a recurring contract with a one-day period -- that is, every 24 hours in which the contract remains in force, X credits are transferred from the guarded player's account to the guarding player's account. (If the guarded player doesn't have the cash, the deal ends and the penalty money goes to the guarding player.) The advantage of this option is to minimize the exposure of the player who's investing his time in the deal by minimizing the period required for successfully fulfilling the deal's terms.
Finally, I note that a game system that "enforces" contracts (by insuring payments and applying penalties) is actually better than what we have in the real world! In the real world you can always litigate; no such option exists in existing MMORPGs. (Though I suppose one of the "Ace Attorney" games might get turned into an MMORPG some day, we're not there yet.) The game system is judge and jury -- if you can't do the time, you'd better not do the crime because no CSR will compensate you for a contract you voluntarily signed. If anything, this should actually induce more trust in a player contract system than in real world contracts! (And people certainly do trust computers to be perfectly fair -- you may have heard the story of an infamous program called ELIZA....)
So I think the system as I've currently described it is sufficiently mighty to address the most obvious forms of griefology, but if I'm still missing something I'm definitely listening.
At any rate, let me conclude by saying that I agree that "law enforcement" of contracts is critical; that's why I've described it as a non-negotiable feature of a contract system and discussed it at length. I think it's doable through a system of game-monitored conditions and outcomes, which if properly implemented (I know; big "if") would inspire sufficient trust to allow a vast amount of new economic activity.