Sunday, March 15

My Perfect MMO part 5: Moral ambiguity

My last piece in this series got an interesting reaction by Phèdre that I'd like to start this topic with. She objected to the Organ Harvesting subset of the Gathering Sphere of My Perfect MMO.
I can fully agree with that sentiment. I'd probably not parttake of that part of my Perfect MMO myself. So why put it in there? Because I'm not 'designing' this just for me. My Perfect MMO is one that ideally appeals to a wider audience than us Nomads. Geek wasn't so phased by the idea and mentioned Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines. Which incidentally is one of the best Single Player RPG's out there and has one of the highest replay values as well.

Much like Shadowrun the Masquerade is all about morality and humanity and losing them. In the Masquerade you've all but lost your humanity when you became a Vampire and in Shadowrun you're constantly at risk of losing it to Cybernetics, which reduce humanity making you more like Arnold Schwarzenegger, or to the mutation that turned you into an Elf, an Orc, A troll or worse... But above all the struggle for humanity revolves around the inhumanity of the corporate world and the way they try to squash your very soul.
As a result, I very much think morally questionable things fit in with the world of Shadowrun. It's not simply because you're a criminal.
The Pen & Paper versions of both Shadowrun and Vampire allow you to focus deeply upon this aspect. Not that fun can't be had, like accidentally summoning an Anima in your partner's appartment then locking him out (also by accident) of his appartment where you spend the night having sex with the summoned anima only to (once again accidentally) burn down the place the following morning when you try to make a light using your magic, only to discover your "Candle Light" spell is about a 100 times stronger than before due to your congress with a certain Anima.
I think the GM got a bit jealous or something.
Or as we did once in Vampire: Dark Ages; burn of all the wings of the Heavenly Host in a moment of pique, not realising what the book you toss into the fire to keep it from the local prince you're flipping the birdie to is actually for.

Yes deep brooding moral ambiguity, that's what the two backgrounds are about.

But how to put that into an MMO?
I'm immediately reminded of all the so-called good characters in Vanguard choosing en masse to slaughter 30 villagers to get a vampiric float ability (handy for jumping off cliffs) rather than take the good path and kill the vampires which would get you a bugged fairy fluff pet. A lot of gamers will go for that which works best stats-wise rather than stay in character unless this is somehow enforced.

Bloodlines had a Humanity stat which you didn't want to see reach zero. Or you'd become a raving beast. Having it high would have people react friendlier to you. Doing good deeds built it up, being bad lowered it. The lack of Humanity really isn't Evil, but Bestiality. A total loss of morals. (much like your average MMO player in that regard) Evil isn't lack of morals, it's a concious choice if anything. It may still sound like a run of the mill good-evil scale that Bioware is plumbing for all it's got, but it isn't. Nor is it the cartoonish overdrive Fable II uses. Bloodlines somehow does it so much better, it's really integrated into the storyline and Evil doesn't equate to petty or childish as it does with those other titles.

Peter Molyneux made a nice game with Fable II, but of all his so called "new concepts and ideas" only that dog is truly original. Bread crumbs? EverQuest II has had a similar feature for years and pretty much for the same reason. it's generally called the Quest Umbilical. It doesn't snake across the ground like the bread crumb trail. It floats a bit higher and looks a bit like a transparent, well you get the idea.
Renown as a requirement for accessing quests? Sorry, but that's been used often enough. Call it faction, or keep it integrated with Experience, but the basic premise that of a treshold statistic that unlocks additional content is anything but new. The idea of sucking up to any number of NPC's isn't new either to anyone who's played the Diplomacy Sphere in Vanguard. Nor is wearing the right clothes for the right social group. I'm not entirely sure if the whole being good/evil affecting your appearance thing was done before the first Fable game. But it sure isn't the first game to blatantly associate being Good with blond blue-eyed Germanic appearance. Still, I'm not complaining. I much like Renown as a concept and the whole sucking up to the locals too. It's something I'd like to see adopted into My Perfect MMO. Not the good means blonde approach though.

In fact, I think there's room for Renown, Reputation, Faction, and even Social Status.
To start with the latter, Social Status is something I see as purely gear based. In Part 3: Thoughts on Gear I mentioned a scale for your kit and how you'd be received in uptown zones and downtown zones as a result. This is of course skin deep and superficial. Almost like real life in fact, accept it'll be a measurable statistic. It determines the basic reaction of the people around you to you. Full combat armor amongst the shoppers at Tiffany's will naturally draw armed authorities, but walking around in urban (Cyber) Punk kit will also have you stick out. Similarly a three-piece suit in the down town Sprawls will not be shiny long.

Renown I'd like to be something you need to build up and then dissipates relatively fast over time. Doing a highly visible mission that benefits the locals will get you a huge boost in Renown and people will like you better for it, shops might give you discounts, tramps will offer freebies and Fixers may set you up with hitherto unavailable jobs. To let this reflect real life a bit, people soon forget you in favor of The New Blue. Additionally I think it'd be fun to be able to build up your Renown in a Civic Diplomacy like fashion, with tresholds to reach. Except without the city-wide pulse that causes everyone to hitch like in Vanguard. Renown is something you build by doing nice things. Renown unlocks Quests/Missions, so you want to be able to build it up.
Renown unlocks will be tougher missions with higher rewards. So it pays off to work as a team and run a few missions together then do the tough ones. The equivalent of overland Quests and Dungeon crawls in EverQuest II. They smartly put Dungeon entrances well within hostile zones so that you had to learn to fight as a team before actually entering. Allowing you to find out the Tank's a noob or the healer attention-deficit before you're deep inside the bowels of the earth.
In effect people'd all run individually to the entrance, some would die along the way, some would complain and leave e.t.c.

Backtrack a bit back to Morality and Mechanics.
I mentioned Bioware with their rather arbitrary Good vs Evil scale. They first adopted this for their Star Wars: Knights of The Old Republic which of course epxlains the rather stark Black & White element to it and we can savely blame George Lucas' limited philosophical sophistication for that. No, I still haven't forgiven him for Episode II. But the mechanic has its roots in older Bioware games and a more complex three-way axis. The first two Bioware games were set in the Forgotten Realms background of Dungeons & Dragons (Baldur's Gate I and II) and those used the Good - Evil axis combined with a Lawful - Chaotic axis resulting in 9 alignments ranging from Lawful-Good Palladins to Chaotic Evil villains. For reference, a Chaotic Good character would be a bit of a vigilante. Sergeant Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon is a Chaotic Good character. While Danny Glover's character Sergeant Roger Murtaugh is of a Lawful Good alignment, slowly being pulled into Neutral Good by his association with Mel Gibson's character. Superman is Lawful Good, Batman is Chaotic Good. Lex Luthor is Neutral Evil while the Hobgoblin is Chaotic Evil. Druids who seek balance in all things are True Neutral. Some classes had a fixed alignment and the mechanic in the game was that if your alignment shifted too far from your classes moral centre, you'd lose abilities of that class.

A dual axis also allows for more interesting choices in conversations. Bioware's dialogues, as good as they are especially in latter games like KoToR, Jade Empire and Mass Effect, all tend to have one blatantly Good, one blatantly Evil and one non-commital but I'll do it anyway option. Mass Effect goes so far as often highlighting these Blue and Red, but these are linked to charm and intimidate game skills too. Mass Effect really could have used a second axis though, one for Xenophobic - Alien lover. As it is they lugged Alien lover on top of Goody two-shoes and Xenophobic onto Mercanary/Evil. There wasn't really an Evil choice.

Anyway, I'd like to use axes for Good - Evil but also Humanity - Lack thereof to make it just a bit more sophisticated, liek D&D did. Lawful / Chaotic doesn't really apply as nearly every MMO player I've met is intrinsically Chaotic/Self-centered.
The latter axis would work a bit different depending on your class. For instance a Street Samurai (cyber-buffed melee class) loses Humanity the more he puts cybernetic enhancements into himself. More or less the same for a Rigger (mind-chip using vehicle/robot controller. A Pet Class if ever there was one) or a Decker (the Hackers of Shadowrun, which I'll probably end up delegating to NPC status for practical reasons). But the mage classes have their mana focus to content with. More power means corruption means less humanity. I'm walking away from Shadowrun dogma now. In the original game, Cybernetics reduce a Mage's Humanity and thereby his Mana Focus, but I'd like both classes to have to choose between types of powerups and Humanity.

There need to be a choice, and little humanity should have consequences, otherwise you'll end up with tweaked to heck 0.0001 humanity left cyborgs. One use is that your Humanity rating directly affects your Renown in a modifier kind of way. A 0.0001 humanity Cyborg will get very little in the way of Renown and can forget about grinding Civic Renown altogether.
One of the mage classes, the Shaman has another problem. Much like the D&D alignment system, they need to stay true to their totem's traits or lose their abilities. I'm thinking about a map similar like the nine points of the D&D alignment with a totem for each. But rather than have you completely lose your abilities, a Shaman will be allowed to shift totems as his alignment shifts. I.e. if Wolf loses faith in you, you pick up Coyote's interest, or Raven's. I'll get back to these points in a Classes post.

Your current Good - Evil / Humanity - Lack thereof rating is your Reputation.
Not really a good term, but the alternative was a voting system in the style of Steam's proposed server rating system. Which wouldn't work for an MMO anyway. Your current Reputation, maybe Karma is a better term, can be of influence on grouping which had me thinking of Reputation first. I'm mixing too much things into this post maybe. I should've done one about morals in MMO's and one about the other slides. Then again, they all relate and I ramble either way.

These stats so far determine what kind of Quests/Jobs/Missions you'll be able to pick up from and from whom. But missions affect your axes as well. that's how they change as well as through things like implanting cybernetics. A very Low-Humanity & High Evil Mission might mean deliberately dumping toxic waste at a spot where it would clear out a neighbourhood wanted for a corporate building site. But completeing a few Lowish Humanity but neutrally Good/Evil mission to dump some toxic waste for a corporation at some out of the way location will open up doors that will eventually lead to the first-mentioned mission.

The Mission selcect stats affect only you when soloing and the choices of your Team Leader (i.e. what kind of missions he accepts) will not affect you as a member. This'll be a toggle you can turn on though, for RP purposes or to allow you to have that content unlocked for you for later.

Faction, you thought I'd forgotten that eh?
Well, faction works like and yet unlike faction in games like EverQuest II and Vanguard.
If you kill a security guard of Corporation X in some back-alley there will not be some ubiquitous yet ephemeral order of auditors giving you a -1 to your Corporation X Faction. Lucky you.
Doing a mission for a Mr Johnson (or Ms Smith) and succeeding with that, possibly with secondary objectives too will alter your Faction with that corporation. I say alter, not boost. This is because you're only taking Mr Johnson's word for it that Corporation X will be pleased. yes, paranoia is a way of living in my Perfect MMO. But if Mr Johnson is on the up and up, you'll get a nice little Corp X Faction boost.
But if your mission negatively affects Corporation Y, there's a chance of them finding out. And how you perform your mission may influence the chances. if this occurs you'll take a hefty hit to your Faction rating with that corporation and worst case even a strike force. Yes you can get royally screwed this way, that's life for the SINless. The Strike Force would be part of an ongoing story-arc though. Doing it at random might be a little harsh. Your Faction rating with corporations will determine whether or not they will consider you elligible to do jobs for them.

So we have Renown unlocking missions. We have your Humanity/Moral compass unlocking missions and we have Faction unlocking missions. All this has as a result that people have access to different missions and mission types. I.e. the idea is not to have inhumane ultra-evil diabolical missions turn out to be rescue missions, as often happens in City of Villains. And the result of that is that you can use this to either have Heroes & Villains in one game, or it encourages grouping to get access to content your own character isn't elligible for. The idea is not to exclude anyone from getting content, but story-arcs will be alignment based. So within each level tier you'll have x amount of story-arcs (quest chains) for your alignment. When those dry up, you can play generated missions or join with others to do their arcs. Maybe arcs should be repeatable if done in team-form?

In closing, playing the organ harvesting mini-game in the Gathering Sphere would have two drawbacks.
One, it will lower your humanity and /or make you more evil.
Two, the hunter can at anytime become the hunted. There's things out there that look human but aren't.
And again I didn't get round to the Fixer, an archetype suited to Humanity raising Diplomacy-like Gathering Sphere gameplay. We need activities that slowly raises or lowers each stat.


  1. Another Nightshift, another Wall of Text by Lani :-)

  2. My head hurts! My head hurts! I need a picture. A kingdom for a picture.

    In two sessions I manged to get half way and scrolled twice through the rest thinking blah, blah. It has some nice ideas hidden in between, but this time you really went too far. Even for me. I'll try to comment something constructive later. (sorry for being snarky.)

  3. I read it all now. It has some really nice concepts. But to have morality have a true impact it should involve everything you do. Joining an evil team that goes lay an entire neighourhood to waste can't be pushed into 'they told me to do it'. If you run along you will burn your standings as hard as when you did it solo.

    Of course these are idea are just dreams, but having all these different standings means an enormous amount of quests and story arcs. And most quests might never be played since the average player will either go fully good or fully evil since that will give the best loot. As you had already pointed out most players really don't care for this too much as long at it gives xp and loot.

    What is also a bit of a problem is that being evil has much better divident. Unless you get unrealistic high rewards for being a nice guy, being bad is the way to go. Especially since concepts of being stuck in jail for 10 years or real death don't come into play. And being a little bit bad (or good) gets you nowhere.

    Jumping to the organ harvesting and car trashing for a second, I was thinking for a less evil collection method. You could start (or join) a waste collection company. All broken down cars and death bodies from the allies are brought to your facility where you can plunder them some more. It will have some half crafting half harvesting system where you can your harvest loot. But this is directly related to how much rampaging happens in the zone. No evil guys trashing for loot, no waste to destruct either. So maybe you can convince your buddies to go evil so you can keep your hands clean. Or even do t yourself if you have no issues with it.

    There! I do it myself. Being evil just pays. It is really hard to make the moraly right choices and still get ahead.

    Maybe games are just evil. Let me go get me a gun and visit my old high school.

  4. I know I know.
    I should have broken this up in one or more posts. It's just that bits like the Fable II "rant" have been floating around in my brain for a while and for some reason I crammed everything in there.

    it's also really not a good written Article, it's simply the poring out as I was thinking about it. No editing at all. So your criticism on that score is well received and agreed with :-)

    I disagree with your assumption that being evil pays much better dividend, at least as far as my MMO goes. One of the underlying intentions, which I forgot to mention properly in between the superfluous ramblings, was to prevent that. By putting all content, along with its rewards in alignment sections, optimal dividend is achieved by playing with people on different moral paths.
    Maybe that's not enough though.
    And yes, that means a lot of content, a lot of quests that will not be played, unless people start to make conscious choices to adjust their alignment. Not because being evil pays more, but because it doesn't. Neither does being purely good. Your moral compass must swing wildly in order to see all that can be seen. Again grouping with other people makes this easier.

    In between the lines I try to convey that extreme evil/good choices don't lead to better loot.
    That's thinking along the single axis, which I was trying to step away from, but got muddied in my rambling. Maybe it should though. Maybe evil should lead to better gear and good to buffs to your innate stats? That'd be a choice. Might become interesting if we introduce item decay. Taking the moral low-ground gets you better gear but it needs to be replenished. Being good gives you stat buffs that can't be taken away, but you have to stay disciplined or you may yet loose them.

    Make more sense now?

  5. Aye, I like that. But I still think all your actions must have consequences. One character doesn't have to see all content. In fact, it shouldn't. Otherwise it is all a rush to top level and crying about lack of endgame content. So joining an evil team for one mission for that spiffy helmet of uberness is destroying a lot of buffs.

    I really dig the buffs vs gear idea, though. But it will still be hard to stay in the middle ground.

    While typing this I also got reminded on Zorg's speech in the 5th element how chaos by destroying a glass of water brought about so much life and activity. (Another movie that belongs on my top 10 list.) There is no use being good if there is no evil.

  6. Try not to choke on that last argument :-)
    But yes, I agree. Good and Evil need each other. Incidentally, True Neutral in D&D is probably the hardest to RP as well.

    I didn't go down the road of "Being Good isn't its own reward, you get buffs from a benevolent deity" last night, mainly because I don't want to have that deity in my MMO. It'd become to Roman Catholic that way. But you probably need to. Another option would be to go the road of Fable II again and have people give you discounts and access to the better stuff because they like the golden aureole (sp?) above your head. That also doesn't sit well with me as A)I'm already doing that with Renown, and B) I don't believe in your innate Goodness just shining through either. I did have Goodness affect your ability to build Renown in there I recall.

    Here's a though, how about a system as follows: Good vs Evil axis and a deteriorating Humanity that form three points of a down pointed triangle with three equal sides.
    Good vs Evil axis is the top line of the triangle and the point at the bottom. The less humanity you have, the further you 'sink' to that bottom point. A side effect of this is you become more and more morally neutral. You just don't have the empathy anymore for it. That might be a lot better system. Hmmmm.....

  7. That is probably very real life. But it will be hard to convert that into game play. Some of such coices in real life are irreversable. And given the change I think everybody will slide into the abyss. The reason we don't do that is because we are happy where we are in life and don't take those risks. But in an MMO everybody is working to some ultimate goal. Humanity has no place in it. I am afraid it will either feel very fabricated, or rather meaningless. I will think some more.

  8. I didn't say making my Perfect MMO would be easy :-)

    But the more I think about it, the more I come to think of this downwards Triangle as a good representation of the essence of Shadowrun, the struggle to maintain your humanity while the world and everything seems to try and take it away from you.

    There should be benefits to having a higher humanity, and there should be several points in the game at which you can redeem some. Either by doing some really good deeds, or really heinous ones.
    Those who wish to stand on the divide, the balance seekers, the neutrals will have the hardest job of all, but maybe those should get the most benefits for it.
    Expect more Walls of Text next weekend :-)

    I'll try not to throw in too many inconsequential explanations and random thoughts :-)