Friday 14 January 2011

I've got two legs from my hips to the ground

I just picked up via Slashdot an interesting piece from Moving Pixels on irreversible consequences in games, which ties in with something I’d been meaning to write about in Pirates of the Burning Sea.

As the author notes, in the majority of single player games there’s some sort of save or checkpoint mechanism such that a player’s first instinct on encountering in-game disaster is to reload and try again, much like many of us computer-y types are conditioned to hit Ctrl-Z for Undo when faced with possible calamity (“Aaaargh, I didn’t mean to delete that, I meant the bit below, Ctrl-Z Ctrl-Z Ctrl-Z Ctrl-Z Ctrl-Z… wait, too far, Ctrl-Y Ctrl-Y[1]“) She also considers styles of game with more final consequences:

The first is the MMO, where the real-time environment should prevent the player from undermining causality. Not being an online gamer, this sounds viable to me in theory, but I’ve watched a little too much Final Fantasy XIV and World of Warcraft over friends’ shoulders to believe that there is a great deal of consequence to those games that cannot be overcome with patience and diligence.

It’s certainly true for WoW, and to a greater or lesser extent for most MMOGs I can think of. You can’t reload if something goes wrong, or pause to go and make a cup of tea, the world moves on regardless. Probably in no small part because of this, though, very few actions have great consequence. You “die”, it’s a bit of setback while you wait to be resurrected or pop back up in some camp or graveyard; even back in the Good/Bad Old Days, when MMOGs were Proper And Not Dumbed Down /Even More Horrific Timesinks Than They Are Now, and you had to run back to your corpse, uphill both ways, naked, in the snow, *and* you lost XP (and were thankful!), it was mostly a question of how much time was needed to get back to your previous state. In some games, generally involving “impact” PvP, your opponents might get to destroy or take your weapons/armour/spaceship/hand towels, making defeat more painful (or victory sweeter), but it’s seldom of massive consequence in the grand scheme of things.

Players can add their own consequences; I don’t believe any major MMOG operates with an official permadeath rulset (i.e. if your character dies, that’s it, they really are bereft of life, resting in peace, have run down the curtain and joined the choir bleedin’ invisible etc.), but players can elect to do so themselves, deleting a character upon death. It certainly sounds like an interesting way of playing, and an antidote to the lackadaisical attitude that can set in when you know it doesn’t *really* matter what you do, but I’m not sure it’s something I’d like to do a lot of. You really have to trust the rest of your party when your life is in their hands (and vice versa)…

Course the sandboxiness-or-otherwise of virtual worlds, and the impact players can have upon them, is a well-worn theme, so it’s not much of a shock that in most MMOGs your character’s actions don’t have massive consequences for the world at large, but it’s perhaps more surprising that there are so few actions that have irreversible consequences for your character after you’ve picked your class, race, sex, name and appearance (and most MMOGs allow you to edit some or all of those later, for an in- or out-of-game cost). The Winter-home festival in Lord of the Rings Online is perhaps a good case study, there is a stage where you can choose to help either the rich or poor, and the game points out in no uncertain terms that you really, truly have to choose one, you won’t be able to return and do the other quest later, underlining how out of the ordinary it is, even though the only result is a different title and set of cosmetic clothing.

Pirates of the Burning Sea gave me an idea of how comparatively trivial consequences can have an impact when they’re irreversible, perhaps demonstrating why they’re so rare in MMOGs. When you buy a ship in PotBS it has a Durability rating, effectively “lives”, the number of times it can be sunk. You can also lose equipment and certain types of cargo each time you’re sunk, so there’s a more tangible risk to combat than in many games, albeit not right up there with something like EVE, you don’t take to a row-boat after your ship is sunk, at the tender mercy of your attackers. The other night a small group of us got a bit too adventurous, taking on a high level NPC in a PvP area, enabling a pair of level 50 Pirate players to sneak in and attack. We had no chance of defeating them and ran away with all speed, and thanks to a couple of heroic sacrifices I managed to get clean away and sail to a safe harbour. I felt a bit guilty until slightly later, when undocking to head back to a less perilous area it turned out they were still lurking and jumped me. I lost the ship, and it’s enhanced sails and guns.

Didn’t bother me at all. Well, all right, there might have been brief cursing (like a sailor, you could say), but the ship still had three or four durability points, and the fittings were commonly sold on the auction house for a few hundred doubloons a time. If you sail into a warzone, you can’t always expect to come out. No, the most devastating thing that happened was in a PvE mission. (Warning: the following paragraphs contains spoilers for the mission “Falling to Pieces”)

A previous evening nobody else from the society was around, so I flipped through my mission journal and found something around the right level, with a little “solo” icon next to it. That suggested it might have a bit of a fun story associated with it, so I toddled along, and sure enough there was much adventure on the high seas chasing down an evil brigand who turned out to have loaded his ship down with gunpowder; flung clear of the blast, I ended up on an island, and had to gather components to construct a rudimentary raft to escape. Very derring-do. Rendezvousing my ship again, I collapsed on its deck, exhausted, sunburnt, wounded but ultimately victorious. Waking up, though, the barber-surgeon had some bad news. My leg had become infected. He’d had to lop it off. Sure enough, my character had a peg leg.

Opening up the character customisation screen, I checked the options. Feet: high top boots (with peg leg), folded boots (with peg leg), fine shoes (with peg leg)… I was stuck with it. I was outraged! It didn’t effect performance as far as I could tell, I was no less effective at sailing or fencing, but my lovely character that I’d taken so much care over the design of! Ruined! Spluttering, I put a long skirt on so at least it wasn’t so obvious, and headed straight for the wiki to see how this monstrous injustice could be righted. Sure enough a reward from the following mission is a wooden leg carved so finely nobody could tell it’s not real (i.e. you get the normal leg/feet options available in character customisation again), so it’s not really an irreversible change, more a way of unlocking additional customisation options, if you ever want to go back to the peg leg.

I’m sure there is more scope for deep consequences, but it’s a tricky balance when you might not like the results. And as the first Slashdot comment points out, “Look, if I wanted my actions to have consequences, I’d be living real life, not playing video games!”

[1] One text editor I used had Ctrl-Y for the possibly-more-traditional “delete line” instead of “redo”, which meant the above scenario went horribly wrong more than once…

No comments: