Tuesday, April 10, 2007

On Ethics

While ethics are not typically elements of a classic MMORPG, we can't forget the influence of virtues in Ultima Online. Ethics, however, are typically presented in a simplified manner, offering the player with the choice of being good, or getting a bigger reward. Never have ethics been about who to save when you can't save everyone, or whether or not two wrongs will make a right.

I believe that ethics, that is, the theory of good and evil, have the potential of creating a classic of gaming that would transcend gaming and become part of history. For that to happen, however, a great deal of attention would have to be placed on making ethics part of the game itself; simply making it an afterthought would, like many other features, only serve to weaken the general game experience.

For ethics to play a major role, two things need to happen. First and foremost, ethics have to influence the game world. That means players and NPCs should have a way to know another player or NPC's ethics, be it magic, psychology, reputation or stats display (I wouldn't recommend the last one; breaks the game immersion). Based on someone's ethics, players can decide whether they will befriend them or not; they will decide if they want to hunt them down, or maybe just ask vendors to charge more to them. This does not only apply to being Good, of course; player-run bandit cities wouldn't accept no goody-two-shoes paladin or law enforcers.

Before a system to make ethics worthwhile can be useful, you will need a way to influence ethics. PKs and griefers will go down fast, while charities and evil-slayers will be praised world-wide; even small things, like over-using a bargaining position, could influence ethics in small ways. Reputation could also be influenced by whom the player hangs with; a player performing Good acts to infiltrate an enemy organization, but who is often seen in the company of openly evil people, would have a hard time keeping his notoriety up; and don't even think of infiltrating evil cities when you can't even kick a beggar.

With that being said, it is important not to fall into easy traps of ethics; players should be able to interact with other players of widely different ethics, without there being penalties to anything but reputation (Unless the laws of the lands are specific about such dealings). There cannot be an easy way to influence ethics too much, such as making large donations, otherwise it might be easily exploitable (Unless you want to have exploitable reputation changes; donations to churches have been known throughout western history to erase all of a noble's evil deeds). Similarly, few things short of killing large numbers of innocents without a good reason would make a player look evil enough in a short amount of time.

If you have accessible ways to enable people to see other people's ethics, you could have a way to hide one's ethics. If you have magic detection, you can have magical hiding or forgery. With psychology, you have reverse-psychological poker-face feigning. Reputation can be altered with well-placed bribes or blackmail.

If ethics are to have a central role in a MMORPG, they could easily become multi-layered, letting players choose their own paths of virtues. Players could be asked to choose between the mutually exclusive loyalty, justice, freedom and happiness, with neither being the true Good choice, but still sparking conflicts within defenders of different virtues. Evil players could likewise decide to take the route of the murderer, blackmailer, burglar or public streaker. Thief guilds could instill a limit to the number of murders members can have within time periods, which would both serve to insure relative anonymity and reasonable member skills (Good thieves don't get caught).

When all is said and done, that players have chosen their factions and are waging war, you start reaping the benefits of your choices. Good players have a greater affinity to Holy magic and empathic skills, while evil ones will take their picks of a greater selection of demons and curses to unleash on their opponents. Even the balanced or undecided players could benefit, with access to both, and greater powers with certain non-aligned arts and mercantile skills.

In the end, the incorporation of a well-thought ethics system, by itself, wouldn't be enough to create a classic out of a mediocre game; taken in coordination with a well-polished game, however, it could pave the way to an era of games challenging both the minds and spirits of gamers - pave it with solid gold.

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