Category Archives: Roleplaying

Implementing alignment in MMORPGs

While levels, roles, dice rolls and many other features have all been successfully transferred from traditional roleplaying games to their massively multiplayer online counterparts, some features remain unimplemented to this day. One of those is alignment.

Most gamers are probably at least to some extent familiar with a form of the D&D-type alignment system. Even if one has never played a roleplaying game in their life, the good-neutral-evil, lawful-neutral-chaotic table should be a familiar sight from viral images if nothing else.

The purpose of D&D style alignment is to provide a moral framework for one’s character to base their decisions on. The character is to act accordingly to their own alignment. An evil character does evil things, and vice versa for a good character, to put it simply.

Ever wanted to play a chaotic evil character and have the game mechanics actually support that choice? That’s what alignment is about. Making choices against your alignment could change it, and should it change too much in one direction or another, you may get penalized. Maybe you are a cleric and some of your spells stop working because your deity disapproves your actions, or maybe you gain an experience penalty as an assassin because you are becoming too good to be one of your profession. Or maybe you, as an evil character, just gradually become good through a series of life changing events, and spells like Detect Evil will no longer return the same results when being used on you as they did before.

Indeed it isn’t just a character’s decisions that their alignment has an effect on – alignment is to play directly into the game’s mechanics. Alignment isn’t to be something that you simply pick and then act as you like, maybe sometimes completely contradicting your original choice.

But the consequences of changes in alignment, or of actions opposing one’s alignment, are not necessarily what’s on the way of implementation of the feature into MMORPGs – it is the decisions themselves.

We can philosophize all we want, but essentially what branch of alignment an action represents is subjective. Normally it would be the Dungeon Master that decides whether an action is good or evil or whatever, but you don’t have the luxury of having one of those deciding things for you in a massive online multiplayer game. Instead you have developers who have to hardcode these things into the game.

The developer can introduce dialogue and other options to quests that represent different values of life. They can make robbing an ancient grave move the looter’s alignment to towards evil, and they can make giving money to a beggar NPC do the opposite. But the one thing they cannot do is easily tell whether an action of a player character towards another player character is good or evil or something else.

Some situations may seem easy to solve. Should a player for example kill another player, the action could be regarded as evil. But what would be a good action towards another player? How would you tell whether a thing a player said to another was full of malice or goodwill? How about this: if greed was regarded as an evil trait, would manipulating an in-game Auction House system for profit be regarded as evil? How would you track it?

There are so many obstacles in the way. Not even the killing of another player is as simple as it may seem. What if the victim had murdered a friend of their killer earlier? That would make the deed revenge, and in some societies that could well be regarded as a lawful act.

Maybe some sort of a voting mechanism could fix the issue. One where players could vote whether this or that action by a player was within their alignment or not. But systems of this sort are prone to abuse, and require a very specific type of game, likely one with an extreme focus on in-character roleplay.

All that considered, its no wonder why just about no MMORPG supports an alignment system. SWTOR had it’s light and dark system, but frankly the game was a very singleplayer experience. The system itself was only ever a part of NPC quests, which felt very awkward, seeing as an MMORPG by definition is about interacting with other players.

Maybe in the next couple hundred years artificial intelligence will have advanced enough to analyze player characters’ actions towards each other and modify their alignments accordingly. With the issue being as complex as it is, I don’t see that happening very soon.

Pretending its not there

While currently it may feel like the MMORPG is a stagnating genre, a couple of years back it was still heavily evolving. It turned out not to evolve in the way many of us had expected however: instead of creating more and more immersive and complex virtual worlds, developers started taking a more game-y approach to these online spaces, focusing on bite-sized and instanced gameplay rather than world simulation. Partly thanks to the influence of the lobby based MOBA games, features such as Battlegrounds and the Dungeon Finder became standard features of modern MMORPGs – at least the themepark subtype of them.

Many of the new features introduced to MMORPGs in the past couple of years divide opinions. Already before the Dungeon Finder instancing itself was frowned upon by a large part of the community. Everybody has those features they dislike in their game of choice – no game is ever perfect. The question is: how do you deal with features you strongly dislike?

I mentioned the Dungeon Finder right at the top of this post. That’s because one of my biggest personal gripes is with this feature. Of course, as with any opinion, I am not saying my opinion is the only right one – that being said I tend to make my opinion heard on the fact I dislike this particular feature. I also tend to stay away form games that implement it. On the internet I’ve had many a discussion about the feature, and time and time again the same argument has come up:

Why don’t you just ignore it?

Turns out the Dungeon Finder is a particularly good example of why this argument does not work. In the case of this particular feature, if a game utilizes it, it is a near-impossibility for a player to play the game without it. Not only are many games nowadays designed all around the use of this feature from the get-go, even if it is introduced into a game post-release (which is what happened to WoW), it will be the optimal way to do things and hence everyone will expect you to use it. Often it even introduces extra rewards as opposed to the method of running dungeons in the “normal” way. Good luck finding a like-minded group of people to run dungeons with without using the tool.

Finding that group of like-minded players isn’t the only problem making it difficult to enjoy a game if you despise the Dungeon Finder of course. You aren’t alone in the virtual world – that’s what persistent MMO worlds are about after all. Even if you and a couple of friends refuse to use the feature, most others will not and this will affect your gameplay one way or another. You will see people getting equipment faster and easier than you. Other players will be capable of getting around the world quicker than you thanks to the non-class dependant teleportation system of the feature (which is a particularly unimmersive thing by the way). And most of all, everyone outside your group of friends will expect you to use the feature, and if you don’t, they will be confused. They will think you are stupid. You are being inefficient as a player, a burden to others.

But this post isn’t just about the Dungeon Finder. The suggestion of ignoring the existence of a feature to enjoy a game is an ignorant one almost no matter what the feature is, be it instancing, the DF, localized banking or there being no penalty to dying. If somebody wanted an MMORPG to have harsher death penalties, would you really go ahead and suggest they could just destroy their own property on death and that would solve the problem?

When players have to make up artificial rules to enjoy a game, the situation becomes comparable to that of a couple of children playing cops and robbers. No written-down rules exist and what ends up happening is neither side can agree on who shot first and whether or not the bullet hit. Now, to some extent that approach can work – see roleplaying servers of some themepark games for example – but that requires a very specific mindset. Literally going down to the level of childlike play for the sake of enjoying a game isn’t a satisfying solution – games, by definition, have rules. We shouldn’t have to pretend something does not exist, period.