A mismatch of visions

2013-08-08 17:15

I’ve been, historically, a pretty big fan of Rift. I like the game. I like the developers. And throughout most of the last two and a half years, I have felt that the Rift team have earned a certain amount of trust. They make mistakes, but they fix them. In general.

But throughout that time, the Rift team has tended to disregard problems with the player community. And as long as this was merely not taking action, or taking action too slowly, I could mostly handwave it away, although I’ve posted my share of complaints about it. But this week, it moved past into new territory: Taking action which actively rewards griefers and punishes legitimate players. And that is a thing I am not able to handwave away.

The problems, as I see it, are:

  1. Trion tends to keep actions taken about community problems secret, so players in general cannot know whether there is any enforcement.
  2. The enforcement we do see is visibly ineffectual in most cases.
  3. These states persist despite many players pointing them out, and raising concerns about them.
  4. There is no discussion of this from Trion employees, so we can’t even tell whether they’re happy with things as they are, or don’t know how to fix them, or have ideas but not the resources to fix them. There’s essentially no feedback at all.

So throughout the last couple of years, the one recurring sore spot has been that in general, griefers and harassers get to do whatever they want. Trion might occasionally issue temporary bans. It may even be that they issue permanent bans. But for the most part, if you identify a troll or griefer in the game, you can be confident that they will continue making life unpleasant for other players for as long as they want, with no visible consequences.

If it were just a few trolls, that wouldn’t be such a big deal. The problem is the side-effects. This becomes a broken-windows problem. Users see that the game clearly tolerates a fair amount of trollish and abusive behavior. The users who might or might not be trollish or abusive tend to become more trollish and abusive. The users who don’t like abusive behavior tend to leave. So over time, players who would prefer a more friendly community tend to be driven out, and players who think the point of online interaction is to get a rise out of people tend to congregate.

This results in what appears to be a fairly high turnover rate, because the usual barrier to hopping around from one game to another is community engagement, and Rift is not an environment conducive to such engagement. It could be, quite easily. There’s a lot of really nice folks there. But as long as they are being driven out of the public channels by aggressive trolls, it’s not going to really work that well.

Up until this week, though, at least I could say that the game itself stayed good. Rules and policies were set in ways that were clearly considered and based around what made for a good game experience.

Since Rift launched, Trion’s official stance on playing multiple accounts at once (multiboxing) has been that multiboxing is allowed. There have, of course, always been complaints; any time anyone does anything unusual, there will be complaints. By and large, the complaints are mostly highly emotive, and unfounded. Here’s a sample of complaints (one an exact quote from something a player said):

  • Multiboxers are unstoppable and other players can’t beat them.
  • Multiboxers are weak and guarantee a loss for their team.
  • Multiboxers are using multiboxing to send spam.
  • Multiboxers are used by gold farmers to farm resources.
  • Multiboxers are using the report-AFK feature to kick people out of matches.
  • “The thing is, multiboxing mentality is literally 2 degrees from a rapist’s mentality. The only difference is that the victims are virtual and it’s not illegal. Technically.”

You might notice that two of these complaints directly contradict each other. The others don’t fare much better; fundamentally, these complaints don’t make sense when evaluated as claims about the actual impact of multiboxing on the game. What these complaints show is that people are outraged and not quite sure why, so they make up whatever sounds like it would be bad and say it about multiboxing.

So, Trion did the obvious thing: They suddenly disabled a key game feature, without which multiboxing is no longer practical for users who want to obey the game’s other rules. No warning, and no explanation or rationale, just an announcement that this has been done and maybe players could give feedback. The problem I have with this is that the people complaining have, as a general rule, been offering complaints which were incoherent at best, and frequently simply dishonest. So, Trion has just sent a clear new message about policy: As of now, personal animosity and outright lies are a winning argument. If you want to hurt other players badly enough, we’ll help.

This isn’t to say there might not be good arguments that would lead to that conclusion. I’ve even advanced one, although I personally don’t think it’s strong enough to justify a change. A post explaining the reasons for the decision, and the tradeoff, and acknowledging the harm to legitimate players, might well be acceptable. But without that, the message is that either the arguments already presented are compelling, or the arguments are irrelevant. And since the arguments presented are, by and large, mutually exclusive or incoherent, that’s a bad thing in either case.

It might seem strange that I am simultaneously unhappy that Trion took action on some complaints, and unhappy that they are slow to take action, or just don’t take action, on others. The key distinction is that I think it matters whether things are true. In the case of griefers and harassers, there is solid supporting evidence and argumentation for the claim that ignoring this problem has made the game substantially worse for large numbers of people. In the multiboxing case, the vast majority of arguments presented aren’t even arguments, they’re just expressions of personal contempt.

I’ve known a few of the active multiboxers in Rift. (I personally occasionally dual-box, but I don’t PvP, so these changes have no direct impact at all on anything I do.) I have consistently found them to be friendly and supportive players, who are competent at the game and always happy to help others. And Trion has just said that those users are unwelcome, but the people who were telling lies and name-calling to try to win a point are welcome. Which comes back to my basic complaint: Trion shows no signs of having any preference at all between players who try to make the community better, and players who try to make it worse.

What do I think Trion should do? A few things:

  1. Acknowledge that griefing is a problem, and that the solution to systematic harassment or griefing is not “oh, just ignore them”.
  2. Develop some kind of protocol for dealing with the tiny handful of highly persistent trolls.
  3. Come up with some way to act more quickly on trolls. Yes, it is expensive to deal with things quickly. It may be more expensive to deal with all the secondary effects and fallout from not dealing with them. Certainly, it is more disruptive to the players waiting for something to happen.
  4. Find a way to give users real feedback on what’s being done. There is no obvious need for a policy of never discussing policy-related actions, and there’s a lot of very obvious downsides to it.
  5. If there’s a lot of really hostile and dishonest behavior coming from a group of users, and you come to think that you really should do what those users want, clearly distance that outcome from their behavior.
  6. More generally, talk more about the community, not just the game rules. Acknowledge that the player base is an important part of what makes people play an MMO or leave it, and talk about what you want to see in the community.

I think that last one may be the most important. All I know is that I don’t like the changes I see. I can’t say whether I would like what the Trion devs intend or want for their community, because they never talk about that.

Either way, it’s harder to get confidence back than to build it in the first place.

Peter Seebach

---

Comment

  1. This isn’t quite on topic, but just wanted to give you a heads up to this v good article at Gamasutra. It is oriented towards exploitation from a dev perspective, but could also be applied to recent discussion we had of ppl exploiting others in Rift (exploiting uninformed and newbie players to buy valuable items for a small amount and resell) http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/EMcNeill/20130809/197958/Exploitative_Game_Design_Beyond_the_F2P_Debate.php

    — Friar · 2013-08-11 11:14 · #

 
---