“WHAT’S A VIRTUE?” [Author: lum]

And maybe, just maybe, if someone at a first-rate company with a first-rate budget could create a RPG that gave you rewards for doing something other than killing and stealing, we’d see the birth of a whole new type of online game. Nah, never happen.

This article set me to thinking (always a dangerous process, even in the best of times).

We’ve seen now the first generation of ORPGs. (Well, really, the 3rd or 4th if you count MUDs, which most developers do.) It’s time to start thinking about what will go into the next generation.

I think we’ll start seeing some serious balkanization, as ORPGs quit trying to be everything to everyone and concentrate on what they do best. For example, there’s really no reason for Everquest to have a PvP system, since everyone, even the designers, admit that the PvP system in EQ is broken. What EQ does well is level-based monster bashing and linear character development. UO’s strengths lie in its persistent world simulation and its ability to handle large-scale PvP. UO does not do monster bashing well at all; its monsters are few, stupid, and easily defeated by AI exploitation. Yet UO continues to offer monster bashing, and EQ continues to offer PvP. Go figure. 

The next generation, which we’re beginning to see glimpses of in products like Shadowbane and UO2, seem somewhat more focused, at least in the case of Shadowbane. (Not much is known of UO2 save that it will probably offer AI-dead monsters and rampaging PKs in a shiny new 3D engine. Everything else is just scurrilous unproven rumor and EA has the lawyers to prove it.) Shadowbane’s developers know that their game will offer PvP, and they plan to concentrate on that – no persistent world, no flashy monsters, just "I want to Crush". It’s not a bad concept, and for a game that has only a few screenshots to show for it, it’s already attracted a loyal fan base. Lots of folks just want to Crush.

Let’s examine the other side of that coin for a second – the people who would be turned off by Shadowbane’s concept. What sort of game would you design for them?

Richard Garriott’s been thinking about it. There’s been more than one interview lately about X, his newest project. From what he describes, X will be a multiplayer game shell wrapped around smaller, micro-adventures. Sort of like the Neverwinter Nights concept, actually, although I assume Origin won’t force people to write their own. He’s also been asking around, in more than one venue, how to design a game to attract two previously somewhat untapped markets, women and adults. (The two are not always one and the same, despite what my wife may tell you.)

Refer back to the quote I posted to begin this article. One sure way to attract the people turned off by previous attempts at an online world would be, oh, I don’t know, a different sort of online world. One which wasn’t Fragfest Online.

Now for some specifics. I know this is probably heresy, but consider for a moment a virtuous Ultima – one that actually rewards moral behavior. (I know, paradigm shattering. Work with me here.) We’ll use a theoretical reworking of UO as our model. Call it UO 1.5.

Now, UO has tried to model measurements of moral behavior – fame, karma, reputation, et cetera. They’ve all failed. They’ve all failed badly. One of my first glimpses of Ultima Online was watching a friend set up EZ-Macro to laboriously feed a beggar that he had trapped in his house one fish steak at a time, to goose his "Karma". Frankly, keeping prisoners in your home and force feeding them fish is not my personal idea of something we want to encourage.

The reason they’ve failed, of course, is that the game depended on easily manipulated program code to try to measure moral behavior. UO’s server couldn’t tell the difference between someone committing a random act of kindness to a beggar on Britain’s docks, and some sadistic gimp who kept small children in his home, forcing fish steaks into them hour after hour. All it knew was NPCGivenSmallWorthlessItem ++. 

I don’t think the answer here lies in better code – there will always be ways to exploit program code, and five minutes later they will be posted on the net. Call it TwisTer’s Law. 

I believe the answer here lies in that often maligned (hell often maligned by me) Volunteer Program.

Volunteers may be many things, but they are all human beings. By being human beings, even the most craven, idiotic wastes of otherwise perfectly good chemicals that can somehow feign the ability to turn on a PC unassisted are in simple cognitive ability worlds past any program code that can ever be written. This can be leveraged, if done wisely.

Think of the "I Honor Thee" karma grant. It’s a reasonably good idea, unless you’re trying to make Dread Lord. Now, picture that concept reworked as a system of positive reinforcement.

Assume that we have a working political system in UO. (I know, another hysterical conjecture. Remember, this is UO 1.5.) The player’s natural desire to progress in "rank" in his or her world would, ideally, be channeled to work within this structure. (Picture for example Joshua Rowan’s nobility proposal, used not only as a money sink but as a measure of online achievement. Or some variant of Asheron’s Call’s excellent allegiance system.) The point being, there is a structure behind the game, that players can both interact with, and, if they devote enough time and effort to, become a part of. Sort of like the Counselor program, but actually in game, and as part of the game’s story.

Now, here’s where it gets interesting. This is Ultima Online, right? Those of you struggling through Ultima 9 are going through a crash course in Garriott Codes The Virtues right now. While imperfect, the Virtue system is heads above any previous attempt to add a moral code to gaming. Hell, no one else tries to add morality to gaming; most game designers are young males, barely out of college/high school, and the last thing they want is for someone to lecture them on morality. But remember, they are not our target audience. We’re looking for the adults here, those who aren’t overdosed on testosterone and anxiety. So, while imperfect, the Virtue system is a good point at which to start.

But, as we’ve already seen, you can’t code the Virtues. Even Ultima 4 was a joke in its supposed measurement of moral behavior (it was revolutionary not because it succeeded, but because it actually dared to try). However… we have human beings. The Volunteer program.

Picture Counselors and Seers, empowered not to punish macroers and rescue the clueless, but empowered to reward goodness. Tacky as that sounds. If, say, one witnessed an act of Sacrifice — a healer that gave his or her life to keep the rest of the party alive, to take a rather mundane example — that could be rewarded with a Sacrifice point. These points would be rare – there are only so many Volunteers, after all – but they would be in the system. And once in the system, they could be coded around. Picture quests available only to the honorable, or to the humble.

This could have repercussions beyond the original intent. Imagine someone trying to powergame this system. They would have to be virtuous. Um. This is what we want. The system worked.

Points could be lost, as well, possibly replacing the reputation system now in place. For example, looting someone else’s corpse is a somewhat unvirtuous act. While not penalized in other game mechanics, that person would have
ess and less claim to being a virtuous person. And they wouldn’t be eligible to be part of the unfolding political/quest system; further marginalized from where the actual game takes place.

Now, this system would be easily exploited — as easy as one corrupt person with the power to grant points. Of course, every system has this weakness. Any GM could, right now, make you 7X GM should they so choose. Oversight prevents that. Some oversight would need to be in place here as well.

Or, you could crush. Choose your game… and choose your audience.