Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Do MMORPGs Need Killers?

My idea of a great MMORPG is one where Achievers, Explorers, and Socializers are all consciously given features that are fun for them and that indirectly support the gameplay of players with different playstyles.

But what about the Killers?

They've been called many things -- Killers, Manipulators, Dominators (as well as things I can't print here) -- but the common thread is that they get their kicks by messing with the gameplay of other players. This makes them distinct from the other three main types of gamer in my four-fold model of play styles.

A quick refresher on this model for those who just can't get enough theory:






external freedom



external structure



internal structure



internal freedom

Achievers, Explorers, and Socializers all bring something positive to a game. Killers? Not so much. If there's a "griefer" type, it's the Killer. (That doesn't mean other types can't be griefers; it's just considerably less likely.)

If there's any hope of integrating Killers into a MMOG, it may come from stepping back from gaming and thinking of Killers in terms of their larger personality context. In my model, the Killer is a MMOG-specific subset of the Artisan temperament. Although Artisans can have their problems, there are aspects of this temperament that are valuable to individuals and society. Maybe if games were designed to elicit these positive aspects of the Artisan temperament instead of the negative, we could include all four of the major playstyles.

The reason I prefer to call Killers "Manipulators" is because the latter term does a better job of capturing the spirit of what these folks really enjoy doing: they are the masters of manipulating things and people.

We see them manipulating the developers when they test the boundary conditions of the game world and every thing in that world. And we see them manipulating people in MMOGs because that's what MMOGs are designed to allow. MMOGs that offer 24x7 non-consensual PvP in particular attract the negative type of Manipulator. What if MMOGs catered less to the dark side of human endeavor? What if games found ways to get your adrenaline pumping that didn't involve the wholesale slaughter of living things?
For some possibilities, let's step back and consider the more general case of the Artisan. There are four areas where Artisans excel, and in which we might find something positive around which useful Manipulator gameplay could be designed: manipulating things, manipulating people, taking risks, and taking action.

1. Artisans naturally enjoy manipulating things. Because they are able to perceive the finest details of the physical world, they make extraordinary crafters and users of solid things, real things. Even more so than Guardians (with whom Artisans share a focus on externalities), Artisans are the consummate tool-users. This emphasis on perceiving the real puts them at a disadvantage in a computer game. In the first place, society says computer games are just childish diversions; they aren't "real" at all. And in the second place, there's no tactile information available about things in a game -- it's all just mouse and keyboard and bits on a screen. But if there were a game that was highly realistic in its visual and functional representation in-game objects, and that allowed players with strong perceptiveness of that reality to feel and modify the properties of specific objects, then you might see this more positive side of Manipulators emerge.

(Note: Explorers/Rationals can become good at using tools, too. But there's a big difference between "becoming good at" and "being good at." Artisans are naturally talented; Rationals have to study and practice and study more and practice more. It drives Rationals nuts to see an Artisan pick up a guitar or a miter saw for the first time and do more with it in ten minutes than the Rational has figured out how to do in ten years. But that's just how things are.)

2. The most gifted people in sales or politics are often Artisans; they raise the manipulation of people to an art form. (The same may be said of con men.) Again, it's a matter of perception; in this case, perceiving the reactions of people. Social Artisans get a thrill out of watching other people and figuring out how to persuade them to some end. They're not allowed to kill you, so taking your money or your support -- and making you like it -- is the next best thing. Although Achievers like collecting money and are willing to compete hard for it, the most hardcore merchants with the most money are likely to be Manipulators who are "making a killing" in a different venue. Similarly, although extroverted Socializers can make good politicians, the ones with the most followers (and probably the most rabid, take-no-prisoners followers) are likely to be Manipulators. Their charisma and energy and apparent focus on other people make them natural leaders... but you'd better keep an eye on the family silverware.

3. Although it's not as positive, Artisans are also attracted to risk. Most serious gamblers are Artisans. If a MMOG offers opportunities to take big risks to win big payoffs, Manipulators will be there. (Artisans find it easy to attract people, but can have trouble maintaining relationships. This need for risk is a big reason why.)

4. Finally, Artisans love motion, movement, action. Fighter jet pilots, test pilots, race car drivers, speedboat racers -- if it flies high or goes fast, they're interested. Artisans love these activities and excel at them because their perceptions are so complete and so fast. This aspect also includes some risk, which is why someone who enjoys jumping out of a perfectly good airplane is likely to be an Artisan. A MMOG that offers heart-pumping, real-time action in conjunction with some form of manipulating people or things in the game world is highly likely to attract Manipulators.

Overall, I believe there might be ways to safely attract Manipulators to a MMOG and retain them without driving off all your other players. The question is whether it would be worth the design, coding, and testing effort to do so.

I'm inclined to think "yes" because I know that there are worthwhile things Artisans offer to the rest of us. But I don't think it will be easy. As long as MMOGs insist that "people will only pay to play combat-focused games," and content is mostly about exterminating every form of life in the game, those games will attract mainly the sociopathic Killers.

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