Thursday, December 7, 2006

Freedom and Responsibility

I like the idea of sandbox games. I prefer games that give me the freedom to explore. But I’m not the only one who plays these games, which means there's a social point to be made concerning freedom: for it to work in any social system, freedom must be balanced against responsibility.

One thing that is crystal-clear about online games is this: freedom will be abused. If you design a game so that players receive an in-game reward for some in-game action (the usual Achiever-oriented design), there will be players who will do anything they can -- up to and including client-side hacks -- to perform those actions as rapidly and as continuously as possible in order to obtain an advantage over other players.

So we need to be very careful how we implement "freedoms" in an online/persistent-world game. Player A may enjoy some freedom responsibly, but Player B may take that freedom as license to disrupt the game for other players (including Player A). And you can't design a game assuming that the only people who'll ever play it will be just like Player A. It can't be all about freedom; any functional social system has to be survivable against the Player Bs.

On the other hand, it can't be just rules without freedom, either, where there is no possibility for unique or novel behavior. In a game world, that's just Progress Quest.

Thus, I think a maximally inviting mass-market MMOG has to be designed from the ground up to balance freedom and responsibility. Offering freedom for free (shades of Rush!) means it will not be valued. That holds true in both the real world and virtual worlds because we're talking about how human beings organize themselves socially. But gameplay can't be all responsibility and no freedom, either; a game run like a police state will probably not attract many players -- not for very long, anyway.

So, like the real world, the freedom to do stuff in an online, massively multiplayer game should be made directly proportional to a player's demonstrated willingness and ability to behave responsibly in the game world. Proven good citizens get more power -- it's that simple.

Well, simple in concept, anyway. Execution is always trickier. But "it's hard" is no excuse not to do something that's worth doing.

As a concrete example of what I'm talking about here, I've had a feature like this in my MMORPG design for over a year now. Although my game is mostly skill-based, rather than class-based, I do offer some professions, some of which have ranks. In my game, however, you don't just get to advance in rank because you've collected 8000 zorkmids or whatever -- advancement is built on service to other players. In short, your power in the game is directly proportional to the effort you put into helping other players have fun in the game.

Freedom and responsibility. One without the other is no fun. And I believe game designers who want to maximize fun in these social spaces ought to consciously design their games so that freedom and responsibility are in balance with each other.