Friday, May 11, 2007

Limiting Character Power in a Star Trek MMORPG

I've been thinking (uh-oh!) about the limits of power.

Specifically, I've been thinking about whether there are or should be any general rules about how the power of 25th-century treknologies will be used by us 21st-century online gamers. They may have "more evolved sensibilities" in A.D. 2370, but we hairless apes in the 2000s who still think pointed sticks are pretty cool have a long and sordid history of turning technology to selfish and destructive and trivial ends.

Scott Adams (the creator of "Dilbert") once wrote an infamous little essay on why "The Future will not be like Star Trek". Here are some of the horrible uses to which he imagined we would put Star Trek technologies if given half a chance:

Medical Technology
  • Dermal regenerators would be used to close up some of your more important bodily orifices.

  • People who can't operate a copy machine would be responsible for accurately beaming your molecules around the world.

  • People would take anything they wanted by beaming it into their house -- groceries, famous paintings, cheerleaders, etc.

  • If someone tried to arrest you for taking stuff, you could just beam them into space.

  • If there's someone you don't like, you could transport them anywhere you wanted.

  • Think your neighbor's stuff is better than yours? Just transport it into your house -- now it's your stuff.

  • The holodeck would be the last thing the human race invents. No one would ever come out of the holodeck. We'd go in, order up three Icelandic massage therapists with reasonably flexible moral codes, and that would be it -- the last humans alive would find our smiling corpses weeks later. But then they'd be history because then they'd be in the holodeck.

  • Bad service at the convenience store? Zap.

  • Annoying person in front of you at the theater? Zap.

  • Yappy dog next door wakes you up at 3 AM? Zzzzzzzzzap.

  • People would start phasering off body parts just to have them replaced with cool cybernetic implants.

  • Very handy for keeping the stuff you just beamed into your house.

  • Why would you need to be constructive or friendly when you can just say, "Shields up!" and dare the person whose yappy dog you just phasered to do anything about it?
You get the idea. Although the essay that describes these abuses is pretty funny, there's a serious point being made: given power, human beings are naturally inclined to abuse it.

Can you say, "griefing?"

In thinking about the cool technogadgets from Star Trek, we naturally think about how we'd use them, but the developers of a mass-market MMORPG based on Star Trek need to go beyond "what can be done" to "what shouldn't be done." If Star Trek Online were a sandbox or social world like Second Life, the devs could just turn people loose with transporters and phasers and watch the ensuing chaos tear the place apart. (Actually, that sounds a lot like Second Life.)

But a game is different. In a game, there have to be limits to power, otherwise some players will interfere too much with the fun of other players. So developers have to consider what limits to place on technology-assisted character abilities. That means some developer has to decide what the fundamental physical and social rules of the world should be, and then turn them into that gameworld's reality by programming them as code and data. As the saying goes, "code is law."

Which brings me to my first question: If you were a Star Trek Online developer, what limits would you place on Star Trek technologies?

We've all thought about things we'd like to do with transporters and replicators and so on. (And if the stuff from the Scott Adams essay didn't give you some ideas, you're not trying hard enough.) But what are some things that no one should be allowed to do in Star Trek Online with those technologies and the other cool Star Trek gizmos?

What kinds of technology-enabled behaviors should be off-limits by design?


While you think about that, here's a related point.

When you're designing a system that's intended to be used by people, there are actually two ways to get people not to do something with that system that you don't want them doing:

  • Don't give them a way to do it at all.

  • Let them do it, but impose negative consequences for doing it.

Both of these approaches can work, but both approaches have pros and cons.

Not letting someone use a system in a particular way (by simply not coding that feature, or by adding special-case code to prevent a type of usage) insures that people won't do what you don't want them doing. But it also infantilizes people; it relieves them of responsibility for doing the right thing by never giving them the chance.

Allowing all behaviors, but imposing negative consequences for actions that impair the play of others, grants human beings the respect that free will and responsibility are due. This also enables useful but unplanned positive behaviors to emerge. On the other hand, if the negative consequences are too weak or aren't evenly enforced, severely negative behaviors can emerge. If enough people start acting that way (like drivers in Boston), pretty soon everybody has to break the rules just to keep up.

So here's the second question: In general, which of these approaches to social engineering would work best for Star Trek Online?

Should a Star Trek MMORPG work like a very tightly moderated game by coding every technology to be used in only very specific and carefully circumscribed ways?

Or should behavior in Star Trek Online be mostly left up to the players themselves -- they can (within some necessary limits) do whatever they want as long as they're willing to endure the consequences (e.g., loss of rank, loss of one's ship, permadeath for their character)?

Or should this kind of decision be made on a case-by-case basis, even if that leads to inconsistency of gameplay and code that's harder to maintain?