Tuesday 26 June 2007

Temptation's page flies out the door

(Part two of "teams, friends, guilds, other players and stuff")

OK, so we saw an MMOG version of the prisoner's dilemma in the previous post, but just to bludgeon the point home, a couple of other examples.

An armoursmith, woodworker, weaponsmith and a cook go into the Great Barrows, and the landlord says "why the long face?", and the armoursmith, says "Arrrr! It's driving me nuts!" No, wait, sorry, took a wrong turn into random jokes there...

A armoursmith, woodworker, weaponsmith and a cook go into the Great Barrows. Amidst the chests brimming with gold and loot (well, a few bits of silver and nowhere near enough chalices for the like of some bloke in Bree who must have a *serious* drink problem, as he wants fifteen of them from *each* of you) are plans for a solid iron breastplate, a barbed wooden spear, a deadly bronze sword and a recipe for lobster thermidor aux crevette with a mornay sauce served in a Provencale manner with shallots and aubergines garnished with truffle pate, brandy and a fried egg on top and spam (obviously the undead value French cuisine as highly as implements of war). Optimal scenario: each crafter only rolls "need" for the item they can actually use, everyone ends up happy. Not so optimal scenario: everyone rolls "need" for everything, the good ol' dice determine who gets what. Least optimal scenario: half the group only roll "need" for what they can use, the other half rolls "need" for everything, the former end up with more stuff at the expense of the latter, everyone starts bickering about loot, the other three ask the cook what, exactly, he's doing rustling up tasty snacks while they're crafting useful weapons and armour, and while he's trying to explain the advantages of the buffs provided by various foodstuffs a bunch of Wights come along, kill everyone, and wander off nibbling on lobster claws.

I had to think pretty hard about City of Heroes, as until about a month ago there was no loot in the game, and it features such heavy instancing that competition for wandering mobs is hardly a problem, but even there a comparable situation could arise. If you have a group of two level 25 heroes and one level 21 hero, you can easily fight level 25 mobs. The level 21 probably doesn't contribute too much to the fight, but they rake in the XP from the group defeating much higher level opponents. Now, CoH has an option that allows a higher level character to "sidekick" a lower level; one of the level 25s could sidekick the level 21 who would then effectively fight as a level 24 (one level below their mentor). More use in combat, so mobs should be defeated faster to the benefit of the group as a whole, but the sidekicked character doesn't gain so many XP because the opponents are only one level higher, rather than four. That's not technically a prisoner's dilemma, as the choice is only taken by one character; perhaps there's another name for it ("prisoner's semi-dilemma with one and a half twists and pike", maybe), but it's good enough for my basic point, which is:

There are situations in MMOGs where you can optimise your own gold/loot/XP/quest completion at the expense of others. I'm no game theorist, so I'll just flail around here for a bit and paste random words in from Wikipedia like dominant strategy, non-zero sum game, Nash Equilibrium and Pareto optimum to make myself look clever and hopefully back that up. There should probably be graphs or something. Anyway! There are ways of getting ahead, not in an evil "muahahahaha" full-on griefing way, just optimising your own reward, being a bit selfish, stuff that doesn't directly flout the rules of the game (but will spark many pages of message board discussions). And why not? Why give a damn about other members of a pick-up group, or random people you bump into while questing; on a populous server, you'll probably never meet them again, and they're probably thinking the same way, so it's just self defence.

Back to the question from part one, then: how to avoid bozos, and the propagation of bozo-ism? Well, if you arrange things so you're normally out and about with a smaller subset of the server population like, say, a "guild", there's a couple of effects. Firstly the one-off prisoner's dilemma is turned into an iterated version, you keep running the choices knowing the previous outcomes. In that situation, it's a better long term strategy to keep playing nice, even before you add further incentives (like possibly being kicked from a guild if you choose your own gain at their expense). Secondly, the matrix of results can look a bit different. A shiny piece of armour that you can't wear drops while you're in a pickup group; if you roll and win it, you could sell it. If someone else wins it, no benefit to you at all. If, on the other hand, you're in a guild group and a shiny piece of armour drops, if Geoff the tank wins it there *is* a benefit to you: Geoff can tank better, you can tag along with Geoff in harder dungeons and potentially win the shiny loot that might drop there. Win-win!

Bear in mind, this is still a gross oversimplification of... well, everything really. It is possible to find pick-up groups of kind, fun people who you never see again (not likely, I grant you, but *possible*); there are game mechanics that reward successful team play over selfishness. There's all sorts of situations with any number of motivations for players to act in any number of ways (there's some barely studied philosophy of "ethics", or something, which I don't think anybody's really written anything about over the past few thousand years... if you have a spare half hour, there's a rather interesting programme on altruism that's quite fun). Apart from anything else, I've conveniently ignored the fact that guilds do nothing to change my *original* prisoner's dilemma, of hunting the same hatstands as someone from the other faction on a PvE server, but it was such a nice example I had to lead with it anyway. (I'm afraid the best I can come up with there is trying to convey, through the medium of interpretive dance and other emotes, that you should co-operate in your hunt.) I'm rather hoping nobody will notice... look! Over there! A badger! Can you see? I think he's got a gun!

So. Guilds: good things for encouraging people not to be bozos. Everyone join one today! Simple.

Of course, it isn't quite that simple, is it? As we'll find out in the next exciting (for certain values of "exciting") episode of "teams, friends, guilds, other players and stuff".

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