MMOs and the potential for real choices
May 11th, 2010 by AlexWeldon

While working on a much larger piece about subversive game design, a thought occurred to me that I felt didn’t quite fit in to that argument, but that’s worth its own blog post.

There’s been a lot of talk recently about adding ethical dilemmas to games. Many games endeavor to do so, but the results are almost always disappointing. Non-linearity and branching plots are a constant problem in game design; for games with a story, such as RPGs, it’s important for the player to feel like his character is a real part of the game world, and that his actions have consequences. However, since standard game design techniques require everything to be planned out and scripted at least to some extent by the designer, any decision allowed to the player that has real consequences, results in a multiplication of effort on the part of the developer.

Thus, most games handle ethical choices in one of two ways – in the first version, the game world itself diverges only briefly from the core storyline, so that in the long run, the player’s actions do not really have consequences (except perhaps on the player herself, such as gaining different skills depending on whether she decides to be “good” or “evil”). In the second, the consequences of decisions are deferred until the ending of the game, whereupon the player is given a different final challenge and/or victory cut-scene depending on her choices.

Both of these design strategies lead to very shallow, heavy-handed A or B choices with predictable and/or trivial consequences. As a result, rather than teaching the player anything about real-world ethics, these games only help perpetuate the childish notion that morality is generally self-evident. Furthermore, since the consequences tend to be immediate, obvious and reversible, players are not really encouraged to think carefully about these decisions before making them.

It seems to me, though, that there is an interesting game design opportunity presented by the popularity of MMOs. In MMOs, new content is added on a regular basis – additionally, old content is sometimes, though more rarely, phased out or modified, usually for reasons of balance. Here, then, is a real opportunity to periodically present players with opportunities to make real choices, and make the consequences of those choices both significant and permanent; perhaps not on the individual level, since it would be impossible to customize an add-on for each individual user’s decisions, but rather in the aggregate. If each add-on features one or more quests that each have multiple possible resolutions, then the developer could consider the proportion of players choosing each option when deciding what to do in the next add-on.

As an example, imagine there is a quest involving three conflicting parties; an iron-fisted King, a tribe of orcish barbarians in the mountains, and a rebel Duke. The King has stolen a religious artifact from the orcs in order to harness its power to put down the Duke’s rebellion. As a result, the orcs have been raiding villages, looking for their artifact.

Players might choose to “solve” the quest by going into the mountains and killing the leader of the orcs, or they might instead break into the king’s castle to steal back the artifact and return it to the orcs, thus convincing them to stop their attacks.

If the majority of the players choose to kill the orcish leader, the next expansion might have the orc area removed (as they have fled), and martial law instituted in the cities, as the King has put down the rebellion. Meanwhile, the Duke has fled into the forest with his men, and continues the fight as a band of outlaws. There is a new “outlaw camp” area, and a new “brigand” player class. The next quest might involve the abduction of the princess by the outlaws, or some such thing.

If the majority choose to return the artifact to the orcs, then the Duke’s rebellion is a success, and an uneasy peace is made with the orcs. The orcs in the mountains are no longer automatically hostile to players, and their stronghold has shops available to the players. Orc becomes a player-character race, and orcish citizens begin to be seen in the human cities. On the downside, racial tensions ensue, and a new prison opens up (a new area to explore), where many of the prisoners are orcs, who tend to get themselves in trouble due to their short tempers and the hostility of some humans towards them. Perhaps the quest for this add-on involves a prison riot or jailbreak.

In this way, because only the branch chosen needs to be created by the developers, players’ choices can have realistic consequences – realistic in the sense that they are both permanent and not completely foreseeable by the players. Once the players have collectively chosen which option they prefer, the game world will change based on that choice. Several years and many choices later, the mood of the game may have changed dramatically, and players would only be able to speculate what their game might look like if they had, for instance, opted to help the humans’ lumbering operation instead of siding with the elves in protecting their forest.

It’s not a perfect solution, as the players who make the less popular choice will find themselves in a future they are not responsible for… but many real-world decisions, such as voting, and environmental responsibility have their effects felt in the aggregate, rather than on an individual basis. Indeed, if an MMO were to implement such a system, we might even see player-vs.-player conflict resulting, as players who have already made their choice might attempt to influence others, either through argument, or physical means, such as coming to the defense of the orcish leader. It’s impossible to know how well it would work without trying it, but I think it would be an interesting experiment, at least.

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