Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

19 October, 2005

Nightmare scenario
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 4:53 AM

At the recent State of Play III conference, I overheard someone say something to the effect of, “Within six months, we’ll see a serious legal issue crop up in virtual worlds.” Well, sadly, they were right. The twist is that it happened in Korea instead of the United States.

Reading that list makes me consider getting involved in a completely different creative industry.

Now, I’m willing to believe that some of this got lost in translation. The wording is a bit rough, and some of the exactness could be lost. I’m willing to accept that the proposal explained in the Terra Nova post might not be exactly as I understand it. But, I think it’s important to discuss some of the issues that this raises.

I’ve read some comments where American players think this is a great idea. These restrictions allow the players some measure of safety from the big, bad MMO company. I’ll argue that you really don’t want these types of restrictions on games. Although the rules might seem arbitrary, there are some good reasons for them. 95% of our players will probably never run into a problem with a game administrator. Of the other 5%, few will truly be bad seeds out to harm your game. But, those people are out there, and in the immortal words of Gordon Walton, “BAN THEM!

Now, don’t get me wrong here. I’m not just a heartless bastard out to squeeze money from my customers; I’m a heartless bastard interested in protecting my game. And the top priority is to remove people that do more harm to the game than they benefit it. Although these rules don’t explicitly state that

Of course, that’s the tricky part: when are people doing more harm than good? One of the biggest challenges we face in M59 is harassment; but, how can you define and deal with harassment? Especially in a PvP-focused game where you can commit acts of virtual violence against another person? For example, if one person tells another person “good one u fuker” after a PvP death, is that an insult or friendly banter? Obviously it depends on the intent, which code is notoriously terrible at determining. Determining intent requires a human arbiter to make a judgment and enforce punishments.

Again, defining harassment is hard. In our Rules of Play which we had a lawyer help us draft, we have the following excerpt:

F. Harassment

This is a huge topic, and simply cannot be covered in a single document such as this. This information is provided as a general guideline for people to get a feeling of what is and is not appropriate for the game.

Harassment is one of those “we know it when we see it” things. It is largely based on intent, and not just on the actual words said. Therefore, one person using a certain phrase may not be punished while another person using the same phrase in a different circumstance could find themselves talking to an NDS employee about the inappropriateness of their behavior.

If you are courteous to other people you should find that you rarely come into conflict with these harassment regulations. We recommend that if you are not familiar with etiquette that you read Miss. Manner’s Book entitled “A Citizen’s Guide to Civility”, or “Netiquette” by Virginia Shea. Both may be found on Amazon.com or ordered at most local bookstores.

One of the best ways to avoid being punished for harassment is to listen to other people. If someone asks you to stop a certain behavior, you should consider his or her request. By repeatedly doing something that upsets another person, you open yourself up for punishment under these rules of harassment.

What is NOT harassment? Again, Meridian 59 is a game that contains player vs. player (PvP) combat. Killing another player is generally not considered a violation within certain bounds. If you do not wish to be killed, it is up to you to find ways of protecting yourself, such as joining a guild of strong members to help protect you. If you are killed within the rules of the game, it is likewise up to you to find ways of getting retribution on the player and getting your items back.

Note that an action such as killing another player can easily slip into the realm of harassment with very little effort. Telling someone something like “I killed you because you are a homo” or using any other slur IS harassment and will be punished.

Please note that personal attacks based on a player’s race, national origin, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual preference, or disability will never be tolerated regardless of the reason.

We also have an excerpt from our Membership Agreement and Terms of Service:

4. MEMBERSHIP BASICS, RULES AND REGULATIONS.
E. RULES OF ONLINE CONDUCT.
c. No Harassment.
The Meridian 59 Online Game features player/character killing, violence and acts of mayhem perpetrated by in-game avatars. NDS recognizes that harassment is part of the Meridian 59 Online Game. However, harassment of NDS members will not be tolerated. It is up to You to make a distinction between a real live NDS member versus a Meridian 59 player/character/avatar. If You cannot make such a distinction, You should not play Meridian 59. Accordingly, You shall not harass, threaten, embarrass, reveal personal information, or do anything else of a personal nature to another NDS member that is unwanted. This means that You will not send them unwanted messages, verbally attack them personally, say bad things about them to third parties, or stalk them on-line. Stay in character. Do not become personal.

Sorry for the long passages, but I wanted to show my point: we’ve taken a lot of time and effort to determine what harassment is, but we still don’t have a 100% solid definition. As it says above, it’s one of those “we know it when we see it” things.

So, what about other in-game actions? For example, what about fraud? If someone comes along and cheats you out of all your money, should the law step in? Should game companies and developers be required to protect people from this type of behavior? What if fraud is part of the game? What about severity? Is cheating a newbie out of his only 10 silver pieces worse than cheating a veteran out of only half his or her wealth (worth several times more than that lowly 10 sp)? Are the rules different if the company allows me to turn around and sell that in-game wealth for offline cash? Can players agree that they are entering a game and giving up some of their “rights”? If so, how does this differ significantly from a EULA agreement saying such?

It comes down to this: I need to have one important ability in order to run my game — I need the ability to ban anyone from my service at any time for any reason. As soon as we start getting into details about “valid reasons” you start treading into gray areas, and a lot of the bad seeds are experts at weaseling their way out of punishment by working the rules. “Protecting the players” means you have to protect *all* the players, including the person stealing your kills, insulting your family in yells, or broadcasting your home phone number over public channels. I’m just as eager to get rid of them as most people are, but if I have to define harassment and dot my ‘i’s and cross all my ‘t’s, I (and, by extension, my company) cannot efficiently do my job.

Further, this is a restriction that not even physical business have to put up with; the McDonalds down the street from me has a common sign: “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.” Obviously, it’s in their best interest to accept as many customers as possible, but they need the right to get rid of anybody disrupting the other patrons’ enjoyment of the store.

Now, recognize that these are extreme cases here. Meridian 59‘s excellent CS staff have a set of policies we follow:

  1. First, you are given a warning, usually for first infractions. Even for something like harassment, we’ll tell you to stop it before we do worse.
  2. Second, we OOG a character for 24 hours or so. OOG is a small room with no exits where you cannot interact with anyone except for administrators and other characters in OOG. You can still play the other character on your account.
  3. Third, we suspend the account for some time. This means you can’t even log on.
  4. Finally, in extreme circumstances, we will ban the account. We also ban any other accounts we can link to the first via billing information.

We record punishments, and repeat offenses by the same individual have more strict punishments. If you look at the Korean proposal in one light, I guess we fit because we do give warnings before we ban people. I mean, really, we want to keep as many people as possible as customers; but, once again, if someone is doing more harm than good we have to get rid of them as efficiently as possible. This means that if someone is doing something so damaging to the game that we cannot let them continue, we need to be able to ban them immediately, without giving them a warning (and an opportunity to violate the rules again).

The other issues discussed in the article are really just as damaging. Can’t suspend accounts for operational needs? Does this include patches, or the occasional reboots server machines need? One of of the most interesting features of Meridian 59 is our “Reign of the Blood Frenzy”, where players can kill each other without care because the world will be reset to the state it was before the Frenzy. This requires a reboot of the server to reload the old saved game. Would we be unable to do that in Korea? That would be a shame, in my opinion, since Frenzies are some of my favorite events.

Finally, let me touch on the topic of lag. In my experience, 90% of the time lag is caused by neither the player nor the game developers/administrators. Most of the time it’s some machine between having trouble relaying packets. And while Simutronics’ Elonka Dunin has an entertaining story about how her techs helped “fixed the internet” after one person complained about lag caused by a bad router on a backbone provider, few of us companies are blessed with people quite so intelligent and motivated. And, for the most part, third parties don’t want a call at 10 PM on Friday night from some overworked administrator saying, “Could you fix your router? Someone’s trying to play a game here!” Sadly, lag is a fact of the internet, and sometimes no one you can point at is to blame. Players trying to blame the company or vice versa is not going to be fruitful.

I’ll leave the other points for other people to discuss. I think I’ve said enough about this for now. :P


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2 Comments »

  1. What it takes to do online RPG customer service

    One thing I don’t think people really understand is what a typical CS representative goes through. People are quick to damn game administrators for not caring about customers, but we often take a lot of steps to make sure we do our jobs to the best …

    Trackback by Psychochild's Blog — 21 October, 2005 @ 8:46 PM

  2. I think that the thing that really bugs me about the Korean rules is that it feels like they’re trying to clamp down on MMO companies abusing their players and making unreasonable demands of them. I don’t know how it is in Korea, but I have never witnessed in the US (or Australia) the sort of rampant consumer abuse and fraud that would justify these sorts of heavy-handed measures.

    The market does a very good job of ensuring that the companies behave:

    1.) There is plenty of healthy competition from other games.

    2.) It is never in the company’s best interest to ban a player without any reasonable justification. Why would you throw away revenue?

    3.) If players don’t like your network reliability, your customer service policies, or ANYTHING ELSE about your game, they have an excellent recourse: They can stop giving you money. They’re not obligated to keep playing your game. They always have the right to walk away.

    No, I’m not blind to the investment that people make in these games — both in time and friendship. If you’ve been going to the same bar for a decade, and the owner changes it to make it more appealing to frat boys, you’re going to be unhappy about it. You’re going to complain. However, in the end, you’re either going to suck it up, or move on to a new place. Why does the government need to be involved?

    Comment by Tess — 23 October, 2005 @ 11:26 PM

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