A Philosophical Statement on Playerkilling

I wrote this as the playerkilling and PvP system debates started to heat up on the Star Wars Galaxies boards. I have always felt like my position on playerkilling has been misunderstood, oversimplified, or wilfully ignored by anyone who wanted to argue their agenda in the issue. After all, I’ve gone from being the peaceful side’s hero one day (with the publication of A Story About a Tree) to their villain and saint of the playerkillers ( all because I said “Thank heavens for the playerkillers!” –see what quoting out of context will get ya?). So this was an attempt to clear the air.



A Philosophical Statement on Playerkilling

I came into the game industry from muds. You know, the old-fashioned text ones. You already saw in my Comments from the Team letter the story of how I first discovered online worlds. But you didn’t hear the story of how eventually I rose to run a guild, the Golden Pyramids, which helped newbies as they arrived in that mud. There was one catch to running a guild in this mud–being in a guild meant that you were PvP-enabled. It meant that other guilded players could attack you (within level ranges and the like, of course). And I, as the leader of the guild, was allowed to attack any of my members.

I did it once; I attacked Breton, whose description said he was some sort of soda cracker. (Apparently, he got the name, and then the entire personality, from a brand of soda crackers that showed a little cracker with a sword and knight’s uniform). And I crumbled him; wasn’t hard–he was many levels below me. It was all in good fun, though. It was a roleplayed killing over some perceived slight, and we all laughed about it, and I helped him recover his lost experience points afterwards. Breton peeks in on these boards from time to time–he lives in Maine now and recently had a second child, and he writes to me from time to time excited about how SWG is going. Hi, Breton.

Fast forward a few years. Now I’m running a different mud, and my character is a sharp-tongued bard, a member of the Order of the Scroll. I’m chatting out messages about a rival clan, the Servants of the Dark Lord, who worshipped some sort of astral fish. I called the Dark Lord a guppy–a name which has stuck to this very day, almost 7 years later, though I haven’t actively played in years now–and I got killed for my trouble. I didn’t last very long, it being only my second PvP fight ever, and my opponent being experienced at PvP. But I went down a martyr.

Some time later, same mud, my last PvP fight ever. It was again a roleplayed affair–my assassin sister Kiera had taken my character’s sweater and gone on a PvP spree while wearing it. And she got blood on it. My character, Dusty, was not one to tolerate damage to her wardrobe. So she killed Kiera over it. This was in the nature of a joke, as Kiera was one of the deadliest playerkillers on the mud, and I was known as probably the most ineffectual since I’d had only the one fight, and lost egregiously. When the message “Kiera killed by Dusty” went out across the Info channel, there were screens and screens worth of flabbergasted gasps. Boy, it was worth it.

So, as I player, am I carebear? Oh, yah, almost certainly. Three PvP battles over the course of ten years in online game development does not a Killer make. Online, I enjoy roleplay, and some hack n slash, and I love craft skills.

Now, if you poke around in the MMORPG industry, you’ll find me tarred with the brush of being the most bloodthirsty of all the developers out there (well, until the advent of Shadowbane, at any rate. ). It doesn’t matter that I’m the guy who pushed for tailoring skills to be added to MMORPGs, or player housing, or pets. You see, I’m the one who permitted the massacre of countless innocents on Ultima Online by insisting that we shouldn’t go to a PK switch system, that players should be able to police themselves. I’m the one who kept trying systems like notoriety and reputation, who kept saying that the idea of separate servers for PvP and nonPvP was a financial boondoggle. Why?

Well, I still dislike playerkilling switches. At the time, I believed that they would cost too much to have in a game of large scale; EverQuest has proven me wrong on that front. My reasons were simple–in the text muds, the PK switches were constantly circumvented by clever players out to do harm to one another. They’d heal the enemy a player was fighting. They’d cast area effect spells that caused a player to lose the advantage in fights somehow. They’d casually drop healing potions next to their friends who were fighting. And so on down the line; the switch seemed a never-ending source of loud and painful disputes which ended up taking a bunch of admin time. The switch basically means having two completely different games co-existing on the same map, after all.

But there were other reasons. There were things we wanted to do with UO, things that we thought would advance the state of the art in online worlds, and we couldn’t do those things with an artificial mechanic like a PK switch. If you like, you can go to my website and read about those times, and some of the rather passionate opinions I held about these things.

Here’s the thing though: I searched up and down for a means that would allow players to police their environment in a game of large scale. And I didn’t find such a way. It wasn’t until many months after leaving UO and the company that made it that I realized, “Hey–if the punishment was taking away the ability to kill, I bet players could have policed the game…” (Heh, well, now you know where THAT idea came from…!)

And the primary lessons I learned in all this were these: There are many people out there who really don’t care how their victims feel. There are many perfectly nice people out there who turn insensitive when they are online. They may make great companions, they might serve as stellar leaders for online communities–but they have this desire to exercise power over others, and for them that is what the game is about. And people given power and no accountability have a way of turning griefer on you. Lastly–no matter how good a game, how good a WORLD you put together, people will leave if they feel they cannot exist in it, if they feel that they just aren’t welcome. And I learned the lesson that if I had to choose between two players, I’d choose the one who was going about their own business and enjoying the game, rather than the one who forced others to play THEIR game.

Kind of like Kiera, who played my sister online; in real life, a guy and a lawyer. A truly deadly PKer, and one who eventually left the mud over disputes over PK, among other things. And considered by many on the mud to be not a benefit to the mud as a whole, but one of the people tearing the social fabric of it apart. A good player? Certainly. Destructive? Also true. Just as they say there’s a fine line between love and hate, there’s a fine line between someone who adds spice to the game and someone who just adds sorrow.

I still believe many things. I still believe that we can find ways to allow players to police their environment. I still believe that this can open up the way to many extremely cool features new to these sorts of games. And I am continuing to work towards having these many features: real battles of territory. Player governments with actual importance and consequence. Player communities that are refined and defined via conflict and struggle so that their battles MEAN something. Real emotions–yes, even including fear and shame, because this is a medium like any other art medium, and its expressive (and impositional!) power is amazing and worthy of exploration. I believe that virtually every player can try PvP and enjoy it, if it is designed correctly, and that it adds great richness to the online gaming experience.

But I do not want to ever disappoint people in that way again. People will come to SWG for those things, and I do not want them to discover that they cannot stay and enjoy them because the very freedoms which allow those cool, innovative, exciting features, also allow d00dspeaking giggly jerks to dance roughshod jigs on their virtual corpses.

So am I willing to make compromises in “realism” (a radically overvalued thing in game design, frankly) to make sure that SWG remains someplace where most everybody can feel welcome?

You betcha.




Of course, the debates continue. The SWG PvP system is mostly a very conservative and thorough implementation of a PK switch. But there’s a portion of the map set aside for an experiment called Outcasting, which I hope can serve as a better foundation for expanding the dynamic nature of online worlds.