Sunday, September 23, 2007

Griefers of Urban Dead: Some Design Suggestions

I think Urban Dead is an impressive game. I've played it with four characters for somewhat more than a week. I played as a newbie, of course, but an unusually well-read and thoughtful one: not only did I spend hours carefully reading more than 100 pages of strategy guides and other information on the Urban Dead Wiki, I have also started reading Bartle's very interesting book, Designing Virtual Worlds.

While the game is impressive, it seems to have a unusually large problem with "griefers," people who play to annoy other people, not by struggling within the advertised worldview of the game, but by exploiting marginal niches of the rules and declaring victory when they cause harm to players who are nominally on their side. I'm not really looking for a long-term gaming habit, but even if I were, I think the level of griefing would be enough to drive me away soon. I'm really impressed with the basic design of the game, though, and I wonder whether two simple tweaks might be enough to dramatically reduce the level of griefing. Before I (probably) leave, then, I'm motivated to point out two griefing patterns, and to suggest two ways to fix them without (I think) messing up the intended dystopic fun of the game.

In Urban Dead, players are survivors or zombies in a quarantined city after a zombification plague. The main theme of the game is the usual zombie movie mythos, where survivors struggle against zombies. Since a large fraction of players are zombies, though, the mythos is seen from both sides, and a lot of design work went into giving zombies interesting things to do and interesting skills to learn by doing so. As usual in a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game, death is somehow not permanent. In Urban Dead, the impermanence is achieved by having dead survivors rise as zombies, and by providing ways for scientists among the survivors to cure zombies so that they become survivors.

Both griefing patterns I will discuss have to do with players whose characters are survivors, but whose fun as players comes from betraying the interests of other survivors. Of course that is dystopic, and I don't think it should be forbidden by the rules. Unfortunately, the rules not only permit it, but favor it by allowing it to be undetectable, and by letting any survivor easily learn things which need to be concealed from the zombies (but which the griefer sends to zombies through of out-of-game communication channels). I think the first, especially, follows from a design mistake, and that the second could be handled better. I will try to explain why these patterns are bad at all, explain what in the rules encourages them, and suggest rule tweaks that I think would help fix the problems.

Betrayal is a great dystopic theme, perfectly suitable for the zombie mythos. However, endless betrayal with no risk of detection is something else. You could make a gripping psychodrama about endless betrayal with no risk of detection: a movie where the drama comes from the thoughts and decisions of the invincible undetectable betrayer. (It's a psychodrama because there's little drama in the action. The betrayer succeeds again! What a surprise.) But whether or not the invincible betrayer psychodrama had zombies in it, it would not be "a zombie movie." It would be a movie about the corrupting temptation when the usual real-world consequences of dishonesty have been magicked away. In Kevan's virtual world where the rules eliminate important real-world constraints on betrayal, there are in effect two games, one corresponding to the zombie movie and one corresponding to the psychodrama. For the ordinary customer, trying to play a game corresponding to a zombie movie, most of the rules are cleverly set up for a fun game in a zombie movie world, but the world turns out to have so many griefers in it that in practice the griefers seem to be as much of a threat as the zombies. And unlike the carefully-crafted zombie threat, the griefer threat is no fun, just a headache. For the griefers, though, it's Christmas come early: a psychodrama where they get to star as the invincible betrayer, and again and again defeat the real live humans that they know are playing the bit parts.

How much of a headache are the griefers of Urban Dead? I see two significant headaches, and the first one is not just significant but huge. I played carefully, using all sorts of information from player guides. From time to time my characters died anyway. And how did they die?

  • Memenie the consumer: died once, killed by PKer "not l33t"
  • Olliman Thrucke the zombie: started as a zombie, was revivified by a wandering lab assistant before he even learned a single new zombie skill, and afterwards played as a human without getting killed so far
  • Visseck the medic: died once, killed by PKer "Grymlock"
  • Jadette the lab assistant: not killed so far

So I don't know what the long-run risk is, but if 2/2 of my deaths as a survivor were from randomly malicious PKers, it suggests that randomly malicious PKers are currently the biggest threat to a careful survivor: it's not a city overrun by zombies so much as a zombie game overrun by griefers. And if I'm wrong that the griefers are the biggest threat (possible, because of course a sample size of 2 is pretty small), at least they seem to be more than 30% of the threat. I'm quite confident that non-PKers are in the large majority of players, and that a large majority of them would agree that the high PK risk is not a fun feature, just an annoying bug.

Now, of course much the fun of UD comes from dystopic challenges, so I should defend my "just an annoying bug" claim a little before I go on. So...

Is PKing a fun challenge for the PKee? No. It is an obstacle to succeeding in the game, but that doesn't make it a fun challenge. A bad Internet connection would be an obstacle to succeeding in the game, but that doesn't mean that technical problems on one's Internet connection are a fun challenge. Coping with zombie challenges by playing a hide-the-pea game and by working with barricades and by developing skills and local knowledge and associations? That is paranoid dystopic fun: bravo to Kevan. Finding a flak jacket and learning the body building skill and taking care to sleep in out-of-the-way buildings that are slightly less convenient for a free-running PKer to search, so that one can reduce one's PK risk by 30% or so? No, that is unsatisfyingly ineffective, and even if were effective it wouldn't be fun. It's about as satisfying as buying a UPS to increase the reliability of the service provided by the company to whom the local government has granted a monopoly on power distribution.

The dystopic atmosphere is fun, and uncontrolled PKing is all tangled up with the dystopic atmosphere. But as above, it screws up the zombie movie flavor of the dystopia. If you expect most of your customers to be happy playing bit parts in a movie starring a minority of invincible sociopaths, it would probably be best to advertise the game that way.:-| And even if you advertised for them, I think you'd find them scarce. It may not be normal for someone to enjoy playing a bit part in a zombie movie, hiding from zombies, building improvised defenses, and cooperating with other survivors. But it's further up on the normality scale than enjoying a bit part as someone unable to defend oneself effectively.

In my opinion, the key problem is that it's impossible to identify the characters responsible for the PKing. Does that sound absurd? Yes, of course you know who actually shot you, and groups of survivors do have well-developed PK lists. Yes, those lists are apparently effective in giving griefers a real risk of being killed by bounty hunters, and are effective at giving griefers a seriously reduced chance of being revived in the ordinary way (at "revive points") by other survivors. But it's hard for bounty hunters to keep griefers down: as usual in Urban Dead, the only really effective way to interfere with survivors is to interfere with their revives. And unfortunately, interfering with ordinary revives at revive points is not nearly enough to interfere with the revives of customers who enjoy starring in an invincible betrayer movie.

Once you remember that to really interfere with a survivor, you must interfere with revives, it follows that the characters ultimately responsible for persistent grief PKing are the secretely-griefer lab technicians who revive the openly griefer PK button men. And that's what I mean about the PKee not being able to identify the responsible character: the game provides no way for PKees ever to detect such revives, and it's almost impossible to find such secretly-griefer characters otherwise. (Anti-zerging rules mean two or more griefer players must cooperate to do this. The main ways I can see for ordinary survivors to interfere with it at all involve setting up triple agent decoys to interfere with the process of two griefers finding each other in-game to set up such cooperation. A triple agent could remain loyal to the survivors while pretending to offer such betrayal-by-backscratching arrangements, and then report on any mere double agent who takes them up on it. Clever, perhaps. Certainly devious. But I think probably only very slightly effective.)

So if survivors can't fix it, can Kevan? Without gross rule changes which would mess up Malton's atmosphere of zombie movie dystopic fun? (I.e., without changes like a "PK flag", or simply making it impossible for survivors to harm other survivors.) I bet it could be fixed simply by making revives not anonymous. I think the most natural in-mythos way would be for any lab technician's revive record to be publicly accessible at any Necrotech terminal, but other ways would work too. A really convenient way for players would be to have the history of revives performed upon a player, or by a player, to be visible in his profile. A moderately convenient way would be for the history of revives performed upon a player to be visible whenever a DNA scanner is used on him.

Even with such a change, it would still be possible for griefers to set up revives bypassing the revive points. The obvious way to do it would be for a group of griefers to continuously generate disposable alts who begin as Necrotech employees, are quickly trained up to learn the skill of reviving zombies, then discarded once they get a reputation for reviving known griefers. If it were sufficiently easy to make such disposable alts, then despite nonanonymous revives, possibly griefers would remain so common that newbies like me would still encounter 2/2 deaths from them. But I doubt it. I'm no expert on human psychology, but I'd guess that part of the reason there are so many highly active PKers in the current system is that the activity required to prop up the openly-PK character isn't considered work, but in fact is part of the fun for a griefer type. Maintaining a betraying alt takes a little time, but it's time spent on constant invincible betrayal. To a certain type of mind, this is winning. Winning! All the time! Creating and levelling new alts might take only five times more time (or whatever). But I think the time spent on that would probably be just tedious, not malicious fun and reminders of what a winner one is. I bet that would make a big difference.

(So much for my ideas about the first problem.)

The second problem I see is probably less severe, and it hasn't bitten me even once. But I'll mention it anyway, partly because judging from the Wiki it seems to be a real problem, partly because it seems to be another perverse riff on the same invincible-anonymity theme, and partly because my proposed solution interacts with the PK griefing problem.

The basic mechanics of the game depend heavily on survivors hiding from zombies in barricaded buildings which survivors can get into easily, but which which zombies can't see into, and which take work for the zombies to break into. It doesn't take all that much work for a group of zombies to break into any given building, though. And if a group of zombies knows that a group of survivors is in a building, the game mechanics basically favor a zombie group breaking in and chowing down. Effectively fighting zombies is pretty hard for survivors, and much of the protection for survivors is derived not from protecting a given building, but from hiding in several buildings, trying to make the zombies waste much of their effort on breaking into buildings which turn out to be empty. However, this protection goes away almost completely when zombie groups ally themselves with survivor alts whose role is to betray the other survivors by scooting through buildings looking for other survivors for zombies to eat, and telling the zombies by out-of-game channels. Again, the zerg rules stop a single player from using a survivor betraying alt to help his own zombie character. But again, it's trivial for multiple players to cooperate to achieve it by using their betraying alts to aid each other. Is there any reasonable rule change that would reduce this problem?

The game won't work unless survivors can get into buildings quickly, so it's hard to stop zombie-aligned survivor alt spies from getting into buildings quickly. But is there any need for survivors to notice other survivors quickly? How about making it possible for humans in buildings to hide from other survivors? It could even be the default, but my proposal would be instead to make it require an explicit action costing an action point. Then after you hide, other survivors entering the building won't automatically see you. This needn't unbalance the game much at all; in particular, if a zombie is able to enter the building, then hiding needn't be any defense against it, because a zombie can smell harman brahnz so it instantly knows who is in the building with it. Hiding doesn't need to be absolute concealment from other survivors, either: perhaps for every action point spent searching, a survivor can find one survivor who is hiding. But I think even such a weak hiding system (require action point, can't hide from zombies, revealed to other humans by search) would demote free-running zombie scouts from their starring role in their own personal elite unstoppable sociopath betrayal movie: they'd be back in the same zombie movie as the ordinary customers.

I think neither of these two rule tweaks (nonanonymous revives, survivors hiding from other survivors) would be enough to interfere with the main, advertised zombie movie theme of the game, but I hope that they would be enough to screw up these two popular griefer strategies. As far as I can see, the main downside risk of the tweaks is that the second tweak (hiding) could change survivor social interactions in various ways, many of them impossible to predict. It could change shallow interactions like looking someone who needs healing, and it could also change deeper ones like noticing who hangs out in an area and who thus might be worth developing long-term relationships with. It would also interact with the PK griefing problem in various ways which I can't fully analyze: e.g., it would make it slightly harder for the griefer to find victims, but also make it substantially harder for bounty hunters to hunt PKers.