Thursday, April 27, 2006

Non-Combat Content in MMORPGs +

The thing that makes RPGs uniquely fun is that they allow us to express aspects of human nature we might not otherwise get to express.

So for a MMORPG to have full expressive potential, it's important for it to be designed to offer gameplay that reflects the most important human motivations.

That means MMORPG designers need to ask themselves: What are the most important human motivations?

Here are some questions game designers might ask themselves regarding combat content, and some suggested answers:

Q: Is a capability for destruction part of human nature?

A: Yes.

Q: Is it an important aspect of human nature?

A: Yes.

Q: Is it so fundamental that it deserves to be part of the design of a full MMORPG?

A: I would argue that yes, it probably is that important.

Q: Is destructiveness all there is to human nature?

A: No. There are also impulses toward preservation, toward creation, and toward perfection.

Q: Is destructiveness the most important human impulse?

A: Absolutely not. It's pretty basic, but that doesn't mean it is or should be treated as the primary quality of human existence.

Q: Why, then, should destruction be the key gameplay mechanic of MMORPGs?

Bad answers that can be discounted right off the bat are:

A. "Because it's fun."

That's an insufficient answer because it only tells us that you like destruction; it doesn't tell us anything about people in general.

B. "Because it's clearly the most popular kind of gameplay."

That's not a good answer because it's a tautology. People say they like destructive games because those are the kinds of games that developers currently offer... but developers offer destruction-based games because that's what people are currently playing. This tells us nothing about what games people would play if they could.

Mere popularity has never been a reliable indicator of intrinsic value. It's a clue about potential sales success, but it also blinds people to alternative sales opportunities. Chasing something just because it's currently popular has never been a successful long-term business strategy, particularly after someone else has already obtained the second-mover advantage.

So why do we need still more MMORPGs designed to put destructive gameplay above everything else?

Designers who think that preservation and creation and perfection don't deserve (at least) equal time have an obligation to explain why.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Non-Combat Content in MMORPGs

I don't know about anyone else, but speaking personally, I'm tired of playing defense on the subject of non-combat gameplay design. I'm tired of game designers treating the development of any gameplay other than killing as though it's stealing time from more commercially viable content.

Cooperative, constructive, creative gameplay has a valid role in MMORPGs. Those of us who value this kind of gameplay have repeatedly explained why we like it, why it's good for online communities, and why current and upcoming MMORPGs need more of it. We have explained multiple times that we want non-combat features not to replace combat gameplay, but to stand alongside it so that they mutually enhance each other for an entertainment experience that's more satisfying to more potential subscribers. We have bent over backwards to reassure emotive destructogamers that their preferred "kill it before it dies and take its stuff" gameplay content will not suffer from the inclusion of a few non-combat systems that are deep enough to be interesting.

Why do we keep doing this? Why do we keep allowing ourselves to be put on the defensive about the value of a style of gameplay that is at least as valid as competitive, destructive, offensive gameplay, as though refraining from killing everything in sight was somehow abnormal behavior?

Enough. It's time for game designers to justify their monomaniacal focus on combat gameplay to the near-total exclusion of other, less destructive forms of entertainment.

There's an old story of an experienced engineer who was brought in as a consultant to figure out why a multimillion-dollar pump wasn't working properly. The engineer walked around the pump for a few minutes, rapped it with his knuckles in a few places, then took out a pencil and marked a small spot about halfway up and said, "Put a pressure fitting there."

His bill: $20,000.

When the pump owners protested this fee for a few minutes' worth of his time, the engineer sent them an itemized list of charges:

Making a pencil mark: $1
Knowing where to put the mark: $19,999
They paid the bill.

The point of this story is that practical abilities -- like making pencil marks, or being really good at decapitating orcs -- don't have much value by themselves. They're mostly useful when they are thoughtfully applied based on knowledge and wisdom about a problem space.

So why in the world should being a really good killer in a MMORPG be the highest-valued ability? Why shouldn't the brawn take orders from the brains?

Why shouldn't combat exist as one tool among many for problem-solving, rather than being the primary mode through which a gameworld's content can be experienced? Why shouldn't killing be the "alternate advancement" mode that's available for those who are too impatient to solve problems by some other means than brute force?

Why in the world should a MMORPG with serious aspirations of being a AAA title focus most or all of its character classes on combat gameplay? How is that design perspective going to attract the people who are utterly turned off by today's MMORPGs whose controlling design assumption is that "fun" == the rapid and showy extermination of all forms of life?

Why should a MMORPG designer who cares about artistic success be satisfied with making a game that is obsessed with combat to the point that the story -- the "RPG" part of the game's description -- is treated like an irritation?

Why should any game designer who cares about long-term commercial success be satisfied with making a game that appeals only to today's destruction-oriented core gamers when that group constitutes only a fraction of the total possible audience, and when its members leave a game (i.e., quit paying for it) far sooner than the more community-oriented gamers who prefer non-combat content?

Game designers -- you've got a lot of explaining to do. What will it take for you to start making online games that treat non-combat content as a success factor instead of as a necessary evil?

Monday, April 24, 2006


Some people have expressed an opinion that they should be able to powerlevel, or twink, or exploit gaps in the code preventing the collection of valuable in-game assets, or otherwise get around the rules of a massively multiplayer game as those rules were designed by the developers. Their excuse for this: they're not breaking the rules, they're "meta-gaming."

Umm... no. They're cheating.

I've heard "meta-gaming" defended as acceptable behavior by gamers unknowing using precisely the same justifications tendered by hackers for breaking into someone else's systems:

  • it's so clever that the entertainment value outweighs any ethical concerns
  • if the developers didn't want players doing some thing, they would have written code to prevent doing that thing
  • exploiting a bug is being "helpful" by exposing the bug to the developers in an impossible-to-ignore way
These are lame rationalizations for cheating offered by people who aren't good enough to win the game playing by the rules.

The point here is that massively multiplayer online games are not single-player games. If you (generic you) are playing a solo game and you want to "meta-game" (or whatever the PC term for cheating is these days), so be it -- you're only hurting yourself by depriving yourself of the entertainment experience you paid for. If you don't find the results sufficiently entertaining, don't even think about complaining to or about the developers.

But while getting around the rules can be tolerated in a single-player game, it can't be permitted in a multiplayer game because what you do as a player -- what you're allowed to do -- directly affects the entertainment experience of other paying customers.

In a massively multiplayer game, it's not just that "the player's fun comes first" -- it's that "the fun of all players in the game should be maximized." That's sometimes going to mean that what a few people find personally enjoyable has to be squelched for the good of all the other players.

And it has to be this way. The idea that it's OK if just a few players are allowed to get around the entertainment experience as designed is bogus in a mass entertainment medium. To try to insure that the most participants are getting their entertainment dollar's worth, the designer -- not players -- must control the game.

How long would Vegas last if some players could "twink" their buddies on the blackjack table with face cards, or be "powerleveled" on the roulette wheel with knowledge of where the ball will land?

For mass entertainment games, the designer has to be in control of the game, or it stops being entertaining for the masses.

Of course game designers are not always right. They're people, too, and as such are more than capable of making lousy (i.e., not-fun) design decisions. They can also write buggy code that allows unscrupulous people to exploit those bugs for personal advantage. But massively multiplayer game designers being fallible and limited does not justify players taking the law into their own hands, because:

  • Most players aren't thinking of others, but only of themselves.
  • Most players don't have as much massively multiplayer game design experience as even fallible developers.
  • Most players don't have adequate big-picture or behind-the-scenes knowledge about a specific game.
In short, most players aren't objective, they aren't experienced, and they aren't informed. The designers won't be perfect at those things, either, but they'll still be better at them than most players.

Ceding control to the very small number of entertainment consumers who are objective, experienced and informed won't work, either. All that does is create class warfare between the haves and the have-nots, and blur the lines of responsibility for providing enjoyable gameplay content.

And blurred responsibility never, ever works out well.

Thus I conclude that both the right and the responsibility for controlling a mass gameplay experience must reside with the developers, not the players, and that position should be stated clearly to everyone and enforced. Ceding either the right or responsibility will make any mass entertainment product less entertaining than it should and could be. And that ultimately hurts us all, producers and consumers alike.

Game designers are by no means perfect, but it's still their job to determine how a massively multiplayer game should work -- not the players'.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Unconventional MMORPGs

[Updated 2006/05/10]

Looking at the MMORPGs that have been tried to date, and considering the announced features of the numerous MMORPGs currently under development, there appear to be certain assumptions being made by a lot of them. When these assumptions are questioned, they're usually defended with comments like, "But we're just giving players what they say they want."

Maybe it's just me, but when I see that, what I actually hear is "But WoW is grossing $80 million a month."

Well, that's nice, but Blizzard/Vivendi have already locked up the second-mover advantage with WoW. If it's that popular, why would anyone leave it to play a game designed to be just like it?

I'd rather see some well-funded designers deliberately question the conventional wisdom. Why be satisfied with a fragment of the WoW market when you have a chance to define a new market for yourself?

If that makes any sense, then the next step is to identify the most common design assumptions. Some of them might need to be retained because they still offer value, while others can be flipped, but you can't make such analytical decisions without actually trying to identify a list of such assumptions.

So here are what I see as some of the most common assumptions currently being made by online game designers (feel free to suggest others):

  • online games must be massively multiplayer
  • design focus on play mechanics instead of on play styles
  • gameplay emphasized over depth and breadth of world
  • fantasy genre
  • hyperfocus on competitive gameplay
  • characters must "grow"
  • characters cannot die (permadeath can be avoided or isn't even possible)
  • characters must choose a class/profession
  • characters grow through increasing levels within a class
  • levels are gained by repeatedly performing simple actions ("grinding")
  • classes defined by AD&D-inspired combat roles (warrior, mage, healer, rogue)
  • gameplay designed around supporting those combat roles
  • grouping is required to access high-level "end game" content
  • non-player combatants drop loot when killed
  • value of loot drops keyed to non-player combatant level
  • NPCs don't need to be more than standalone loot bags or quest dispensers
  • gameplay takes place on a few relatively small, static land areas
  • areas are divided into even smaller "zones"
There have been MMORPGs that challenge one or two of these assumptions. Pre-NGE Star Wars Galaxies allowed you to spend 250 skill points on individual abilities within some 30+ professions (instead of limiting you to one class out of just a few). Dark Age of Camelot allowed more focus on "realm vs. realm" combat than simple one-on-one PvP dueling. A Tale in the Desert emphasizes crafting and commerce over combat. Seed, although highly competitive, was non-combat. Hero's Journey will allow dual-classing. And WoW lets you solo your way to level 60 (but turns very group-oriented at that point). In most other ways, however, these MMORPGs follow many of the conventional assumptions.

EVE Online is often cited as particularly innovative because it challenges several of the standard assumptions: it's not a fantasy world; characters progress by learning skills, not by picking a class and increasing one's level in that class; skills are learned in real time, not advanced by grinding; commerce is relatively well-developed; and with some 5000 star systems, the playing field is somewhat larger than in most MMORPGs.

But while I applaud these design decisions, even EVE embraces some of the most common assumptions: it's intensely competitive (full-time PvP everywhere, and even commerce is cutthroat); only a few hundred star systems can actually be accessed by most players; star systems are relatively small zones; characters must grow by learning new skills to be able to compete with other players; and while solo play is possible, it's not rewarded.

Where's the designer who's willing to really bust out of these chains?

OK -- if this list adequately identifies some of the most common assumptions, what should we do about them? Here are some suggestions for how to rectify some (but, thankfully, not all!) of those assumptions.

Basic Gameplay:

I'd like to see gameplay designed to satisfy the different personality styles of gamers, rather than just rushing to implement the favorite gameplay mechanics of the designer. Instead of yet another game aimed at one particular personality type, we need games that respect and welcome all kinds of players.

Richard Bartle's four player types -- Killers, Achievers, Explorers, and Socializers (from his "Players Who Suit MUDs" essay) -- would be a great place to start in designing a truly inclusive game. Or you could craft your gameplay around David Keirsey's four temperaments -- Artisans, Guardians, Rationals, and Idealists (which I believe are the larger-scale version of Bartle's player types). Or you could use the Myers-Briggs model, or the Big Five model, or Dr. John M. Oldham's fourteen styles derived from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual used by psychiatrists, or some other model of personality. But it's time for games to be designed based on the real-world differences between people (which eliminates scientifically bogus "models" of personality such as astrology, enneagrams, and blood type) instead of targeting only one type of gamer. Why ignore other potential paying customers?

One goal of designing for playstyle must be to achieve an equal balance between competitive and cooperative gameplay. Currently "cooperative" means "group combat," but that's only cooperation to achieve a competitive end. Cooperative play is worthwhile in and of itself, and game designers ought to create features that reward it accordingly.

As a concrete suggestion for how to accomplish this, I advocate designing features that are balanced equally between combat, commerce, exploration, and social gameplay.

By all means, design a great combat game... but be determined to create an equally great commercial game, and consciously design both of these systems to please gamers who enjoy full-tilt-boogie competition.

At the same time, cooperation as found in exploratory and social gameplay should also be rewarded in equal measure. Let the explorers enjoy discovering new places, as well as the hidden rules that govern how the game world works. (But don't offer accumulatable rewards for doing so, or you'll just turn exploration into another Achiever system.) And take the time to welcome social gamers with lots of story-driven content that lets them imagine themselves to be the people they'd like to be.

Build great gameplay for competitive people who want to "play in" online games. And build richly detailed worlds for cooperative people who want to "live in" online games. And let your gameplay and world designs build on one another to the advantage of both.

In short, every system in the game should be consciously designed to support one or more of the four major gameplay modes. And all four modes should be consciously designed as mutually supporting pillars of the entire game, working together to form a single coherent structure.

I believe that's how you wind up with a product that's both distinctly memorable and commercially successful.

Gameplay Specifics:

  • hybrid ability system
Stop forcing everyone into a rigid class system. Instead, key in-game abilities to both individual skills and skill groups (careers/professions/classes), and allow players to decide which approach is right for their character.

Any skills can be chosen, and any career track (or none) can be chosen, but it's OK if some skills are more useful in certain careers. Let players choose the skills they want, then let the skills they've picked define their careers... or not. If I enjoy playing a cowboy whose skills are all taken from the "diplomacy" column, why force me to take cowboy skills or shove me into a Diplomat class?

(Concerning minmaxing, you're never going to get away from that entirely. Achievers and some the Explorers will always go for optimal efficiency. But you don't minimize this by abstracting abilities into rigid classes -- that just concentrates the problem. Instead, the goal should be to make sure every ability has both an advantage and a cost. If abilities only have advantages, many players will load up on the "most" advantageous abilities. But if abilities also carry costs, then because different players will count costs differently, they'll choose different abilities. As long as abilities are balanced for power -- and combinations of abilities are carefully tested! -- there should be less tendency to cluster around a few skills.)

  • no character levels
Stop thinking that characters have to "grow." When I've asked people why they say they like character growth as a feature, most have replied with something like, "Because gamers expect it." But that's not an answer; that's a rationalization, and it deserves to be challenged.

Give players lots of options when creating characters... and then let them play those characters. You should be fully ready to play as soon as you're done creating a character. With complete characters, there's no need to spend days or weeks or months grinding to get to the high-end content -- it's all high-end content. Some of it might be harder than others, but that's an opportunity to reward ingenuity and promote cooperative play.

(An alternative approach might be to offer more character levels to those players who care most about public markers of accomplishment -- the Achievers -- and fewer or no levels to players who are less concerned with "being the best" or "having the most". The Achievers will still wind up with grinding, but at least your other players won't be wedged into that gameplay as well.)

  • permadeath
Player characters are hard to kill, but if your character dies you just create a new character and jump right back into the action. (Allowing possessions to be "willed" to the next incarnation is an obvious response to the objection that uber loot would take the place of levels in a no-advancement game.)

  • more power carries more responsibility
If making a character more powerful is an end unto itself, your competitive game will always devolve into a sad, Hobbesian, looking-out-for-number-one ProgressQuest.

Power should never come for free. Tactical-level players should be responsible only for themselves and their own pleasure, but the price of this should be having to take orders from other players. Strategic-level players should give orders and be rewarded according to how fun they make the game for other players.

  • progression through careers not mandatory
Players should be free to choose whether they want to advance to higher levels of power and responsibility. If you enjoy strategic gameplay, you should be able to do the things that are necessary to advance to that role. But if you prefer tactical gameplay, you shouldn't be penalized for wanting to continue playing in that role. A reward that forces you to change the kind of game you enjoy playing isn't a reward at all.

  • mix of solo careers and grouping careers
Some careers, such as combat, reward grouping and offer specific roles. Other careers, such as prospecting or scouting, reward independent play and place less emphasis (or none at all) on career advancement.

  • less emphasis on loot
Equating "rewards" with "loot" turns a game into an Achiever-specific game. Achievers care about accumulating things, so some amount of loot is worth offering. But it can't be allowed to take over the game or you'll drive away other kinds of players.

If you really want to attract other kinds of players, you'll expend some effort to think about what those other players want and how to give it to them for doing what they enjoy.

  • less emphasis on combat
Combat is a major feature of most MMORPGs, and for that reason alone it can't be ignored. It can also be fun for almost any kind of player, if implemented well. Combat is a reasonable thing to have in a MMORPG, and it should be included and done well.

But it shouldn't take over! Making an entire game revolve around how fast and how often players can kill every living thing in sight sharply limits that game's value -- I believe there are a lot of potential gamers who are turned off by the way so many MMORPGs exclusively reward constant destruction.

Give combat its place in the game. But give commerce and exploration and socialization their places as well, and don't turn those gameplay modes into mere support classes for combat. Balanced gameplay is more fun.

  • content
No single developer will ever win the content race. Because a game will have vastly more players than developers (you hope!), players will always consume content faster than you can provide it.

So trying to crank out enough content by yourself is a losing proposition. Instead, consider some or all of the following ways to provide content:

Each of these approaches has plusses and minuses, but a game that uses all of them to best advantage will be able to earn a reputation as always having the freshest content... and in a consumer world that values constant novelty, that's a big deal.

  • massively single-player?
Finally, and most way-out of all, why do we assume that massively multiplayer game worlds have to have other people in them all the time?

Spore (now pushed back to April [September] of 2007) is said to be not so much massively multi-player as "massively single-player." Interaction with other players will exist, but it will be much less direct than in traditional MMORPGs. Your game universe still be in contact with others, but you won't be seeing avatars of other gamers inside your game world while you're playing.

That's got both good and bad consequences. For players who really like interacting (constructively or destructively) with other human beings, something useful is lost when other people aren't in the game. On the other hand, players who are less social or who hate having to put up with griefers can limit and control their interactions. On the gripping hand, other players are what make virtual worlds dynamic; without them changing and defining the character of the game world, it's really hard to make the world feel alive. Oblivion has done so to some degree, but only to the point of entering the "uncanny valley" where behavior seems bizarre because it's almost-but-not-quite-plausible.

Maybe it's time for an online game to push on this assumption and see what gives.

Obviously not all of these suggestions will be palatable to everyone. I believe that if you designed a game that implemented many of them together, the resulting mixture would be not only distinctive in a field full of WoW-clones, but highly satisfying to a lot of gamers. (Read: financially successful.)

Some reasonably well-heeled developer needs to take up the challenge of questioning these assumptions and do something different. It doesn't have to be radically different (although that would be interesting). It just needs to be different enough to prove that trying to copy WoW isn't the only path to commercial and artistic success. A healthy MMORPG industry needs someone to take a few risks.

Or am I wrong, and making another conventional class-based fantasy combat game is good enough?

Monday, April 10, 2006

MMORPGs Unfair!

Are MMORPGs unfair to some players?

1. Talking about "fairness" requires asking the question: fairness to whom?

Around whose idea of fairness should a MMORPG be designed? Should the game be structured to be fair to (i.e., to provide rewards to) the smart, persistent, socially connected player? Or should it be designed to be fair to the average, casual, independent player?

Political conservatives often feel that their liberal friends misunderstand the concept of fairness. Conservative theorists like to point out that there's a difference between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. From their perspective, defining fairness as equality of opportunity is preferable because rewarding effort yields positive results for a society; defining fairness as equality of outcome damages a society because it devalues effort.

Following this philosophy, the optimal MMORPG environment would have equality of opportunity for all players, but would not try to guarantee equality of outcome. Every player would have the same chances to create a "good" character, to fully explore the game's content, to construct high-value items, and to join a guild. And from those voluntary actions, players are free to reap the benefits of smart, persistent, and organized action. "Fairness" means that those who put in the most effort get the most rewards.

Isn't this the situation we have now in most MMORPGs?

I think a good argument could be made that it is. Unfortunately that means MMORPGs also share some of the same pathologies as unrestricted free markets. The Pareto effect, for example, shows up in many MMORPGs with strong player economies because these game economies are designed in part around the conservative "equality of opportunity" philosophy of fairness.

While this works well in the real world (or, at least, as well as any human social effect can work in the real world), MMORPGs don't allow players to circumvent someone else's approach to success by creating their own new approach. Players of a MMORPG can only create whatever kind of wealth the developers allow to be created. So as soon as someone corners the market in a game, it stays cornered until the player either gets bored and leaves the game willingly or gets forced out by divine intervention.

So MMORPGs that embrace the conservative assumption that effort should be rewarded but fail to equally embrace the policy of allowing creative individuals to generate new forms of capital wind up with power law distributions of economic assets. Such game economies are only fair to the first hard-working and highly social people to show up; they are not fair to creative or independent people who show up later.

Posted by Michael Chui:
I think we should elect game developers into positions of political leadership. Especially over the economy.
Oh, dear God, no. I'm hoping this was a joking or sarcastic comment.

The reason we have questions of fairness coming up with respect to MMORPGs is because the efforts at social engineering that constitute MMORPG design are surprisingly short-sighted. The whole idea of MMORPGs is that they're "massively multiplayer," but where's the testing that would reveal how a few smart, hard-working, and organized players can so quickly dominate an entire server's economy?

If a game's economy isn't consciously designed to produce equality of outcome, why should anyone be surprised when a relatively small number of players is able to dominate that economy? If there aren't features imposed that "punish" the hard-working players in order to flatten out the power curve, why be surprised that the average, casual, solo player complains that the game is "unfair?"

Those who practice social engineering in politics (whether from the Left or the Right) are very bad at it. But they're still demonstrably more effective than MMORPG designers, who always seem startled when a few players take over a server.

3. How much of the dramatic shape of the power curve in MMORPG economies is due primarily to their laser-like focus on Achiever gameplay?

When you design a game in which the most prevalent form of reward by far is accumulable "stuff" of one kind or another (XP, skill level or character level, money, loot, rank, badges, etc., etc.), you dramatically sharpen the shape of the power distribution curve.

If you build an accumulation game, the Achievers will come. And they will bring with them their certainty that fairness means rewarding effort and effort alone, and you will get the Pareto effect in spades.

4. Well, what about actively trying to flatten the curve?

If designers placed caps on how much and how quickly rewards could accrue from effort, or defied convention by consciously offering social and exploratory gameplay comparable in power to commercial and combat gameplay, or offered few accumulable rewards, would it work? Would it be a fun game?

Would it be a commercially successful game? Would hardcore players want to play a game where the "weak" and "lazy" and "anti-social" are rewarded?

To what degree should a game's designers stick their thumbs on the scales of justice to enforce their personal beliefs about who should win?

Thursday, April 6, 2006

On the Persistence of Corpses

As I was playing The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion the other night, I got to wondering: What if corpses didn't vanish in MMORPGs?

Early on in the game, I was circling Imperial City to map out dungeons to explore later. One night, I came across several NPCs on horseback on a bridge to the south of the city. OK, mildly interesting, chat briefly with Herminia Cinna and someone else, no big deal, move on.

The next night, while searching the waterline for Nirnroot plants, I happened to walk underneath that same bridge... and there, sprawled out under the bridge, was the dead body of Herminia Cinna. Apparently she'd hung around the bridge too long and been cut down by a bandit without being able to escape in time.

For several reasons, I felt bad about this. For one thing, in the game world, a presumably "good" (or at least weak) NPC had died. Because Oblivion is a single-player game, that meant this NPC was gone for good. Someone who'd probably been an innocent had been cut down forever.

For a less noble reason, I felt bad because Herminia Cinna could have wound up being a quest-giver. Now that she's dead, I'll never know whether she had a quest for me or not, and if she did, I'll never be able to experience that game content. (Not in my current incarnation, anyway.)

And then there was the least noble reason of all... I wanted her stuff. I stripped her body of belongings from head to foot -- it's not like she's going to need her things any more -- including a very nice magical ring and a key to her house (which, once I find it, I'm going to plunder). And I left her unclothed corpse lying beneath the bridge.

From a pure gameplay advantage point of view, there's no reason why I shouldn't have done this. As far as I can see, there'll be zip-point-zero negative consequences; in fact, at a minimum I got a nice magic item out of it. I'd have been crazy not to exploit the situation.

And yet... it bothers me. At the time, I didn't know I could move bodies. As far as I knew, I couldn't do anything with the corpse -- I couldn't bury it, or cremate it, or even dump it in deep water out of sight. I couldn't even build a cairn to cover her mortal remains and mark her final resting place.

So there's nothing respectful I can do toward Herminia Cinna's body to rationalize to myself the acceptability of looting all her stuff even down to the shoes on her feet. And I feel strangely uncomfortable about that.

Is it silly/odd of me to have this reaction?

More to the larger point, is there a lesson here for MMORPGs? Suppose for a moment that when you kill a character -- either an NPC or a player character -- the body doesn't magically and mysteriously vanish. Suppose instead that bodies hang around as objects until/unless they're disposed of (by carrion-eaters in the field, or by undertakers in a city, whatever). Would this affect your in-game behavior?

Even more pointedly, what if there were meaningful in-game consequences for how you treat bodies? Imagine a multiplayer game with the following features:

  • There's a special magical skill that can be used (by players or NPCs) to "see" who killed a character.
  • NPCs can remember which player characters they've recently seen with other NPCs.
  • NPCs can (but may need to be convinced to) describe their memory of player characters talking to a particular NPC.
  • The more time that passes between a character's death and the discovery of that character's body, the lower the percentage chance of being able to identify the killer.
  • You lose faction points with whatever faction the dead character belonged to if someone is able to identify you as the killer of that character (or if a character belonging to the same or closely allied faction actually sees you in the act of killing that character).
  • You can move bodies.
  • Bodies float after three days (game time).
  • Bodies decompose after a week (game time).
Setting aside for a moment the issue of frame rates dropping as more high-poly bodies start piling up, consider instead the effects on gameplay of these features. How would gameplay change if dead bodies didn't mysteriously vanish, and if your character could be linked to corpses?

For example, I can imagine this leading to the creation of an "inspector" NPC type -- based in the larger cities, they travel around examining any dead bodies that are discovered and talking to other NPCs to try to identify who the killer was. (For that matter, why not let player characters do this, too?)

Slightly more macabre, the persistence of corpses might even lead to a new in-game profession: undertaker. Given the kind of non-stop carnage we see in most MMORPGs, clearing the bodies off the streets might be a full-time job for some characters, and even a necessity in big cities if sanitation means anything. And what about the social consequences -- do dead characters need funeral rites? Do they have families who will miss them?

So how about all this? Would features like these make a game world more interesting/fun? Are there particular kinds of game worlds for which rules like these would be most suitable? Or would such rules always annoy too many players who just want to kill any/all NPCs and PCs indiscriminately with no consequences?