Tobold's Blog
Thursday, November 17, 2011
Spoilers and virtual evil

One of my readers yesterday had an interesting theory, where he thought that the reason for the NDA being upheld for Star Wars: The Old Republic so long was that Bioware didn't want story spoilers all over the internet spoiling people's fun at release. Whether you believe that or not, it appears obvious that this plan is deeply flawed, because it breaks down on release day. We will have the first database sites with spoilers for many quests before the year is over.

Story spoilers might be a particular problem for Star Wars: The Old Republic because of the moral story choices. The typical MMORPG gamer is a person who when given the choice between saving a virtual princess or raping and robbing her bases his choice on which option gives the better reward, after looking up the spoilers on the internet. Previous Bioware single-player games with moral choices were appreciated not because players thought that making moral choices in a game counted for anything, but because it enabled them to play through the game twice and get to see different things.

Many players believe that good and evil doesn't exist in games. Apart from all of us playing mass-murderers whose kill count makes Anders Behring Breivik look like an amateur, we also don't hesitate to torture virtual victims if a quest demands it from us. Theft and armed robbery are so commonplace in MMORPGs that they are hardly worth mentioning. While many of these crimes are committed against unfeeling NPC characters, there are also new player ganking events in PvP games. The general thinking is that games are just games, and thus moral choices in games are just about exploring options, and your actions in a game don't say anything about you as a person in the real world.

That makes games with moral choices a no-win proposition: Either my moral choices in the game count for something, at which point I would be bound by my real world morality to behave nicely in the virtual world. Or my moral choices in the game don't count for anything, and then I might as well base my choice on whether to torture the prisoner on a spoiler database telling me that torturing him gives me the +3 blaster, while letting him free rewards me with the cloak of agility. Hey, I could use that blaster, lets apply the electrodes!

Apart from the moral choices, it appears clear to me that very quickly we will see the most dramatic events of Star Wars: The Old Republic as videos on YouTube. That is what happened to the epic Wrathgate cinematic of Wrath of the Lich King. Forums, blogs, and all sorts of other websites will be full of spoilers of SWTOR very quickly. Every time I mention that I would like to have more puzzles and intellectual challenges in my MMORPGs, somebody comments that this is impossible, because of spoilers. But that would mean we also can't have any epic, interesting or surprising stories in MMORPGs. Personally I will try to avoid all spoilers, but that isn't going to be all that easy. Especially with group content, where your fellow players tend to brand you a slacker if you haven't watched the video on YouTube before trying it for the first time.

Well, morality really can't count for anything in video games, because the entities you're doing it to have less consciousness than bacteria.

I have absolutely no doubt that in my gaming career I have killed literally trillions of video game entities (I played a lot of Master of Orion back in the day). All of them had no more moral content than changing an entry in a spreadsheet from 1 to 0.

I mean, at least ganking is being done to real people, but even then at worst it's equivalent of talking too loudly in the movie theater.
The typical MMORPG gamer is a person who [...] looking up the spoilers on the internet.

Considering how the "typical" player cannot be trusted to spec/gem/talent themselves in a manner remotely conducive to optimal play, I am not sure that particular argument follows. I'm not trying to make any comment on whether the typical gamer should look up their rotation (etc) on the internet, merely pointing out that the typical gamer doesn't so we should not expect them to look up spoilers online either.

Choices, including moral story choices, can still have meaning even if you know their outcomes in certainty. And I somehow doubt that the difference between the +3 blaster and the agility cloak will be too pronounced considering most of the quests you do are tailored to your class anyway.
The phenomenon of web sites having every shred of information got worse and worse as games became more quest heavy.

Quests are basically annoying and boring, but tons of people somehow thing the broken up painful "structure" of them is better than mob grinding.

So they just use add ons and cheat sites to blast their way through them as efficiently as possible. They also need to know every bit of info about the rewards, because there's usually no recourse if you pick the wrong way.

The flaw of super quest heavy game design is a major part of this getting out of control.
@ Michael

"Quests are basically annoying and boring, but tons of people somehow thing the broken up painful "structure" of them is better than mob grinding. "

Are you joking here? Or are you really implying that someone how everyone is misled by quests and what we need is a return to grinding the same mob to level?

Goodness gracious...
@Michael, people think so because grinding is annoying and boring as well and disputably more so. Anyway, the web sites existed for grinding based games as well, which inform players what areas are good from grinding for class X or groups composed of classes X, Y and Z.
I have never previewed a quest line or an encounter, I always try at least once before I head for the spoilers. I can remember "finding" the wrath gate, that was awesome. I am so happy that I was not prepared for that, it was pretty great.

I love the sons of hodir quests that start with "they took our men" at k3, but every time I take an alt through Northrend I have to look it up on wowhead and confirm what level I can start it at(77 iirc).

So I love the spoilers, but only after I have seen it at least once.

As for morality in MMO's...
You know, we can't have interesting movies, because we have the internet.

If the incentive to optimize is weak enough, players absolutely make use of the choice to not spoil their fun. Which leads us more and more towards MMOs with weak or no character power progression (and only style-based character development).
SWTOR is not WoW though and it's quests aren't WoW. As far as I can tell, there is no right or wrong choice on moral decisions, you complete the mission whether you kill the 10 guys or let them leave the area quietly. You just gain points in a different moral direction.

On quest grinding vs. mob grinding,
I find quests far more boring than killing mobs because with mob grinding in EQ you at least got to talk to someone. WoW is nothing more than clicking on what the WoW-Pro guide tells me to and that is it self a big improvement on trying to figure out where the 10 rats are I have to kill from the very vague original WoW descriptions (hey devs, 359' is not "west.")

However, WoW missed the best option for leveling I've seen which was group missions a la Anarchy Online or City of Heroes. Get a group and plow through randomized dungeons wtfpwn'ing everything. Repeat. WoW kind of stumbled on this with the dungeon finder for lower levels, but trust me, after a few hundred runs through, you appreciate the randomness even if it's all taken from the same tile sets and monster selection.
we can't have interesting movies, because we have the internet

Movie-goers don't suffer from the same debilitating fear as MMORPG-players of making the "wrong" decision. Not many people look up the ending of a movie, but many people looked up the rewards of Aldor vs. Scryer in WoW TBC so as not to make a sub-optimal choice.
The most annoying thing, ironically, is the only way to discuss this properly would involve breaking the NDA.

I agree with you for the most part, of course, but at the same time, any spoiler that can be avoided for as long as possible is probably for the best.
The problem with any "morality based choice" in any game is that what the devs say is morally right might not be what you think is morally right. To use SWTOR as an example, you may get into a situation where you choose a conversation option that to you sounds morally right and be rewarded with Dark Side points.

A semi-famous leaked thing that was also discussed in some dev interviews is that the Jedi are expected to not fall in love (a la the hideous prequel movies) so a quest has you snitching on some Jedi lovebirds. You apparently get Light Side points if you snitch, and Dark Side points if you ignore or encourage the relationship. My morality says that falling in love is a good thing and so common as to be unremarkable. As a result my opinion is that neither of those options should reward LS or DS points at all.

But that's not how the game goes. So yeah, there will be guides out there which tell you what all the LS vs DS options are for each class story so that people don't have to guess what the devs think is moral or right in the Star Wars Expanded Universe but can simply tailor their character to be all LS, all DS, or something in between completely under their control, not at a guess. Heck, I wouldn't be surprised if "long-term testers" already have them written and are just waiting for the early-access date to come in order to publish them.

Unless Bioware adds neutral loot equivalent to the Light and Dark loot, the only choice most players are going to make is whether to go full Light Side or full Dark Side in all of their quests.
I am a lot more complacent since (IIRC, could be wrong) I read that unlike some of their other games, the moral choices are not going to have any "stats" benefits. Perhaps it is the best outcome; the minmaxer is calm since "they don't mean anything" The RP and/or Bioware segment can focus on the choices. It seems a decent design when some care a lot and the people who don't care aren't impacted.

The women on the Correllian Run Radio podcast have a weekly segment where they give you a real life question and three choices and the keep a running total of your light/dark points.
I think the light/dark side will add some flavor to the game.

I also sort of like the old-fashioned absolutism of "good" versus "evil" rather than the modern day relativism where Alliance vs Horde, East vs West, X vs Y tend to be about they all think they are good in their eyes.


I think good and evil exist in games; just not in your interaction with NPCs. Whether you nurture or kill one or a million NPCs is irrelevant. However, if you are rude in game to another player, that is a character flaw, just like being rude on the phone or to a stranger in line. If you tell another player "let's do X and we'll roll on whatever drops" and you ninja the loot, then that is dishonest. It's not a RL crime; it is not a big deal; "evil" is probably hyperbole. But if I were hiring someone for a position as a financial accountant, I think that insight into their character would give me pause.

And the guy who stole over $10,000 worth of in game currency in EVE Online might be considered more than rude.
It's pretty clear that innately we have a dual morality as an artefact of our evolutionary heritage, as members of small tribes or communities: There's one set of rules for "us" and another set for "them".

People become "us" when we cooperate with them meaningfully (or with the illusion of meaning) and "them" when interactions are not useful or meaningful.

This is the main reason, I think, for the downward spiral from the early days of MMOs such as vanilla WoW where interactions at least seemed meaningful. Unfortunately, noe the illusion has been dispelled, you can't easily put the genie back into the bottle and future games are going to need to try a lot harder to enable meaningful, cooperative interactions between players; that's the only way to leverage our innate morality.

The internet and particularly internet games make it easy for us to depersonalise others
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