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.