Lum the Mad

This is the second in a five part discussion on current problems and proposed solutions in massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMRPGs).

Part One: Who's Here, Anyway?

We began part one of this essay with an exposition of the members of the community of online gamers. The next step is to see what happens when those members interact with one another. Predictably enough, they decided to kill each other.

The trailblazer in managing the expectations of many disparate "pressure groups" has been Ultima Online, which has been operating continuously since the summer of 1997. An outside observer could draw out the stages in UO's maturity by what its participants have complained about.

In the first few months of UO's release, the complaints were related to infrastructure - a bug-infested program and game-crippling lag. These problems were eventually, if not resolved (lag and bugs are still with us to a much lesser extent), reduced to the point where they no longer dominated the game.

At this point the main complaint became rampant player-killing (PKing). After some false starts, the Reputation system brought PKing down to a manageable level (it, like infrastructure issues, continues to be tweaked).

We can mark the point in UO's timeline that PKing was brought under control as when UO began to flourish as a community environment. The player archetypes that I described in part I began to develop, and conflicts developed between the two. Before the Reputation system, for example, there was no conflict between Roleplayers and PKers, because the PKers would simply annihilate the Roleplayers on sight. (Some make the case that there were two player archetypes before this - PKers and "Antis", or Anti-PKers, but many, including myself, hold that they were simply two sides of the same coin and there was no appreciable difference between the two groups.)

Once the other groups could survive and develop, their communities grew. Player-built towns developed for Roleplayers, the T2A expansion was introduced for Hunters, PKers and Lewters learned the intricacies of "blue PKing". Guilds became more important,  and coalesced around the player archetypes that they supported. Another defining point in this process was the Housing patch, which made property have value again as houses became securable, and guilds sought out what property they could possess as bases of operation and status symbols.

As the development team continued to stamp out game-unbalancing bugs rapidly, "Xsploiter" web sites either died out, went into remission (, or shifted into more of a commentary on the UO community (, These sites helped (or, if you prefer, caused) the development of the next point in the UO community's timeline - serious dissatisfaction with "law enforcement" - the various UO support organizations - gamemasters (GMs) and counselors (Cs, or "smurfs").

This dissatisfaction was borne out when an Ultima Online GM was discovered to be creating virtual properties (first houses and castles, and then UO gold in huge quantities) and selling them on eBay for personal profit. (The entire story is reported in exhaustive detail here.) No one was really surprised (and in fact, the writer actually predicted some months back that this exact event would eventually occur.)

Everquest, by contrast, began only this past spring. The developers of Everquest had more than enough feedback from the UO community as to exactly what was wrong with online enforcement, and it was made clear that the order of the day would be zero tolerance.

Unfortunately, this lasted only a few weeks. The quality of online support rapidly deteriorated, and, like Ultima Online, the level of support personnel was kept dangerously low  - currently around 1 GM per 1500 players. However, this has not yet resulted in the level of dissatisfaction as it has in Ultima Online. Why is this?

Perception has been managed. Many Everquest players are veterans of Ultima Online, and they switched to Everquest, in many cases, after being burned by UO Support. They expect better, and since support is usually invisible, they believe that it is better until proven otherwise.

The level of support is higher in Everquest. While Everquest also usually has one GM per server, there are fewer players per server in Everquest (1200-2000).

GMs in Everquest are percieved as being more accountable. A GM never appears invisibly in Everquest: they appear as characters within the game (GM Dunnik, Veeshan's head GM, appears as a 50th level dwarf cleric in blue platemail.) They can be targeted with all the usual communication tools available to players such as /tell and /who. The 'ivory tower' perception is lessened (even though GMs will almost always ignore direct /tells).

However, Everquest is still at the dealing-with-bugs stage of its development, and the reaction of the support staff as more bugs are discovered that directly impact players is not encouraging. As the EQ support staff become more overwhelmed with these calls, player-vs-player victimization (harassment, etc) is often ignored. While early in Everquest support staff blanketed the few servers online and were known to boot players for such "crimes" as not acting in character, today the UO support staff actually has superior coverage of their areas of responsibility. This is due mainly to creative server programming - players who file harassment complaints, for example, also invisibly send a non-alterable record of their recent past, so it can be quickly verified.

This is where we are today. Out of the email that I receive as a result of editing the site (not including "Lum You Rock" or the more occasional "Lum You Suck"), I'd say upwards of 9 out of 10 emails are complaints about UO Support. Of course, this is a self-selecting sample (the web site is a professed "rant" site, after all), but other mailing lists and message boards also exhibit an extremely high ratio of complaints about UO Support versus other game/community issues.

Law enforcement - and the selective application of it - is an issue in our world as well, and we can derive lessons from one to bring to the other.

Let's take New York City. (I'm sure many New Yorkers reading this will flame me unmercifully for bastardizing the politics of their city, but oh well.) I recently visited the city on business, and the difference between today and the early 80's when I last visited was as night and day. Literally - I could walk around Manhattan and Times Square at night, and ride the subway, and not feel as if I was taking my life into my own hands. The city felt much safer. The streets weren't clogged with homeless people and panhandlers, police were numerous and very visible, and Times Square, where I was staying, had been cleansed of its various X-rated peepshows and parlors. I only saw one hooker, and she looked pretty harried. (Not that I was looking, mind you.)

New York was cleaned up of crime by the principle of "broken windows" - if a building has a broken window, it is a sign of lawlessness, and real lawlessness follows. Cleaning the broken windows - the panhandlers, the homeless, the prostitutes - creates an atmosphere of intolerance to lawlessness, and fosters an atmosphere by which a community - the business community of Times Square, in our example, can grow and flourish.

Unfortunately, the application of force is often messy. Ask Abner Louima. Or Amadou Diallo, if a strike force of storm troopers hadn't pumped 41 bullets into him, eliminating this unarmed immigrant's threat to the common welfare.

Unfortunately, justice in New York is applied selectively. A white businessman from out of town wandering aimlessly around Manhattan (say, me) is unmolested. If I were black, or Latino, I suspect those friendly police officers would have been somewhat more suspicious of me. Even if they don't consider themselves racist, they've been trained that members of minority groups are more prone to commit crimes. Which of course they are, since have-nots tend to have a proportion of those who prey on the haves, and thanks to our wonderfully egalitarian society, there seem to be a great many nonwhite have-nots. Form follows function, and bullets follow assumptions.

This isn't just a New York problem - my home of Little Rock is one of the most racially polarized and crime-prone cities in the nation, and the two are undoubtedly related. I certainly wouldn't wander around downtown Little Rock at night; the police aren't as efficient as those in New York.

Right about this time (or actually, probably 4 paragraphs ago, I'd guess) you're asking what the hell this has to do with Ultima Online. UO is at a point in its community development where the enforcement of its justice system is significant. (No one cared what the GMs did when lag and bugs prevented one from even playing, for example.) And its justice, to correct very real problems within the community, is being applied selectively and with overwhelming, capricious force.

The question the community faces is the same question New York, and by extension all of us face - is the cleaning up of crime - the cleansing of the broken windows - worth the cost? Was my safety in Manhattan worth the rape of Abner Louima? The murder of Amadou Diallo? At what point is the spending of this coin worth the cost?

Let's look at how justice is applied in Ultima Online.

Whenever outside intervention is deemed warranted, the player files a complaint/makes a request via UO's help menu. Depending on how the player files that request, the help request is routed either to the Counselor queue or the GM queue. At any given time there may be 5 to 50 Counselors and Senior Counselors responding to requests in their queue per shard; there is almost always only 1 GM per shard responding to request, and sometimes 1 GM spread out among 2 shards.

A Counselor responding to a request in the queue has very little power of resolution. Until recently, they could only penalty-box ("jail") the person actually calling them, which while avoiding abuse of power didn't make a whole lot of sense from the application of justice standpoint. They may now jail or teleport anyone present in a limited fashion (rumor has it this has already been abused as well); however most of the time if a situation cannot be resolved amicably the problem is referred to a GM.

GMs are trained to "triage" calls; calls regarding abusive players have a high priority so that they can be caught in the act. A GM will then, if they take the call, appear invisibly in the area and observe the situation. If necessary, they can then effect any solution up to and including blocking of the offender's account. If deemed necessary, a player can be banned from UO after internal review of the offender's record.

That's the theory. It's a nice theory, isn't it? Problem is, it doesn't work. Here's why.

    The policing ratio in UO is 1 per 5000 (rough estimate). The result is predictable - overworked and rushed GMs, and a move to "deputize" unpaid volunteers, opening up the system to further abuse.
    Again, I won't rehash the various GM horror stories, save one below that summarizes everything I've discussed. Suffice it to say that the GM staff has been proven to be less then professional in conduct and demeanor. There are a few exceptions, but only a few.
    One constant in the many complaints about GMs has been their attitude. The few GMs who have not exhibited a poor attitude have emerged from the UO community itself, and have more motivation to police the community. Most GMs see the job as just that - a job, and have an ill-disguised scorn for those they supposedly protect.

The following is an illustrative tale that recaps all three of these points, and is one that I can confirm personally.

A player had a problem with their house on Great Lakes. I believe it was a two-story, and that the door was bugged (this was when doors occasionally acted oddly). That player put in a page to a GM to see what could be done about it. Note that these pages are only one line in length and a true explanation of any problem via this medium is fairly impossible.

The GM appeared, invisible to the player, and without any discussion or consultation with the player deeded the house. "Here's your house deed. Good luck!", the player recieved via a "/tell/index.html" (a one-way form of communication between GMs and players).

The player was infuriated. She only wanted to know if something could be done about the door. Now she was stuck with her personal belongings littering the forest floor, and a house deed she had zero chance of re-placing (this was after the Housing patch, and the house was placed before, so it could not be simply placed again.) She paged the GM again, trying to explain in one line exactly how her playing experience had been totally destroyed in 30 seconds, and, um, could she have her house back, please?

The response - can we all say it together, class? - "Sorry, I cannot help you with that."

"Sorry, you cannot help me with that? YOU DID THIS!"

"Sorry, I cannot help you with that."

The player cancelled her account. Can you blame her? And this was in essence a victimless interaction. Imagine this sort of interaction in the midst of personal conflict.

A large part of the problem is that GMs often appear invisible when they do their job, out of fear that the players will descend upon them en masse. Even though they are almost always on screen when talking to a player (it's much easier to target a player onscreen then typing in their location numbers) the player often feels as if God had shouted to them from the mountaintop and then left - leaving their own cries unheeded. It's pretty dehumanizing, and serves to reinforce the image of UO Support as a heedless, blind entity.

Contrast that with the other folks at OSI. The main authority figures in UO - Designer Dragon, the programming team, the project managers - are pretty well liked and respected. In part, this can be explained by their accessibility. It's hard to escape Designer Dragon. He's everywhere. The programmers often post on development bulletin boards, responding to ideas presented even in the place of withering abuse from the few malcontents targeting anyone affiliated with OSI. The GMs, in contrast, rarely appear, and when they do their responses are almost always "corp-drone-speak", which only helps in their dehumanization.

Every police officer is also a public relations officer; and GMs are no different. Their actions shape their perception. Every time they fail, it will be made public, and they will be held accountable. This is a fact of life, in reality and within the game.

Part Three: What Everquest Got Right, What Everquest Got Wrong

Return, you, to the Rantings of Lum the Mad you will

All original copyright © 1999 Lum the Mad, LLC. Investors are invited to watch for our IPO. Trademarked content on this site owned by its original trademark owners. Stuff I made up still is mine. What's yours is mine. What's mine is mine. In 1999. Hunh. WAR! What is it good for? Absolutely NUTHIN. (Say it again!)