[MUD-Dev] Identity and Ethics briefly touched on in Washington Post

Raph Koster rkoster at austin.rr.com
Sat Jul 15 15:30:07 New Zealand Standard Time 2000


http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A20831-2000Jun29.html

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Identity and Ethics Are Just Another Part of The Game Online

By Erik Schelzig
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, June 30, 2000; Page E13



Malecite, the Ultima Online character of 20-year-old Miami Beach native
Chris Baun, met his current real-life girlfriend after he almost killed her
character in an act of random online violence. In the last minute, he took
pity on his defenseless opponent and spared her virtual life. The two have
been dating for close to a year now.


"[I'm] glad I did not PK her," said Baun, using the abbreviation for "player
killing." To some online players--especially beginners--player killing is
the biggest blight on the online role-playing scene. But many others
consider it an appealing part of the game. Either way, the companies behind
these vast online worlds have had to deal with this and other exceedingly
human side effects of letting thousands of people meet in a place that looks
and sounds like a version of real life but has few of its usual constraints.


The two most popular "massively multiplayer" online role-playing computer
games are EverQuest, developed by Verant, and Origin Systems' Ultima Online.
Ultima Online--the first commercially successful graphics-based online
role-playing game--came first, launching to mixed reviews in 1997. Gameplay
suffered from lag, and players had yet to become accustomed to the new
incarnations of what had been predominantly text-based "multi-user
dungeons," or MUDs.


But by the time EverQuest debuted in 1999, the category had become big
business. Ultima has 200,000 subscribers and EverQuest has more than
250,000, each of whom pay for the software (usually less than $40) and then
pay a monthly fee of around $10 to play online.


In these games, players' characters can assume roles ranging from
swashbuckling adventurers to bookish shopkeepers. Virtual economies have
developed, where some players organize production and distribution
syndicates and others offer their assassin or bodyguard skills for money.
Game administrators have taken a generally hands-off approach to what
happens, preferring to let their worlds evolve as they may.


And death is not eternal in online worlds: Players can get resurrected quite
easily--albeit with a loss in possessions or experience.


Both Ultima and EverQuest have struggled to maintain the appeal of online
anarchy while simultaneously seeking to stamp out excessive anti-social
behavior. "We did catch a lot of heat for not having areas where there were
peaceful zones," says Origin's communications director, David Swofford.


Both games have moved toward imposing stricter "consensual combat" rules on
its players, except for in specially designated areas of play. For instance,
three of EverQuest's 33 servers allow more no-holds-barred combat. On the
remaining servers, combat must be agreed to in advance.


Gamers themselves don't agree on what's appropriate. Baun, for instance,
feels his player-killing ways are justified. "Anti-social behavior is just
part of our everyday lives, so it should be in the game," he said. "And
PKing is the only thing that makes the game interesting."


But another Ultima user, Oklahoma City resident G.F. Bice, sees a
distinction between wanton player killing and what he described as more
legitimate player-vs.-player combat, or PvP. He criticized player killing as
the result of games without "defined lines of good or evil," saying, "It is
easier for a player to go and kill someone else for gold (and more fun in
his eyes) than to work a skill that will earn his gold."


In PvP, he continued, opponents are more evenly matched and fight for
reasons beyond just stealing items off the losing party's corpse. He
explained: "You gain nothing but a badge of respect for your skill in
combat, or a higher rank in a combat ladder."


At the same time, Bice expressed exasperation at Origin's ongoing
alternations to the Ultima universe: "I would rather play a finished game
that has set rules rather than constantly have to 'fix' my characters and
restructure the way I play so that I can keep up with the latest 60-day
craze."


In frustration, Bice sold his Ultima account on eBay.


The sale of game-related items--tolerated by Origin but forbidden under
EverQuest's user license--is one of the odder ways these games cross back
over into real life and real money.


EverQuest's resale ban is born of customer support problems, as well as the
sense that being able to buy one's way through the game is unfair. The
attitude among players, speculated Verant Vice President Brad McQuaid, is "I
worked my butt off to earn this fiery sword, did all the quests and spent
four weeks doing it. This other guy got it just because he's rich and he
could just buy it from somebody with real cash."


Characters, loot and game money (trading at roughly 500 to the U.S. dollar)
are nevertheless available in online auctions for both games.


Origin claims that the average Ultima Online subscriber spends about 14
hours a week playing the game, while EverQuest estimates a 21-hour-per-week
average for its players. "When you think about it, that's a lot of time
spent a week on a particular thing, but there are lots of people who watch
that much TV a week and more," says Swofford.


Verant's McQuaid points out that the companies have little to gain from
excessive play. "It doesn't necessarily benefit us to have the game played
12 hours as opposed to two, as long as he's paying his $10 a month."


Bice says that his wife of 4 1/2 years has been ready to throw out the
computer on more than one occasion because of his excessive play. But he
added that he has learned to leave time for his personal obligations--online
gaming "is all just a silly way to waste an evening or three."

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