Monday, August 22, 2011

Morality, SW:TOR

Ten days ago Scrusi managed to kick off a debate about morality and gear in games, more specifically in SW:TOR.

It is a hard problem to solve in an MMORPG. On the one hand side you want the player's choices to matter. That means that there needs to be some kind of consequence that has an emotional impact on him. On the other hand, you don't want players to game the system in a way, that they make their decision based on that consequence alone instead of morality.

Let's have a look at how it works in real life. In real life most of us feel a strong emotional impact if we decide to do or support something that is immoral. But that's because there are no resets. If I could destroy my neighbor's car and a minute later it respawned, it wouldn't have much of an emotional impact. Furthermore, if my neighbor were a MMO-like NPC there would probably be no emotional impact at all.

So, the first problem is that the emotional impact is extremely hard to achieve with frequent resets of the consequences of the player's choice. The second problem is that all the player's choices are about NPCs. The resets are the bigger problem of the two.

A morally wrong action is one thing. But the choice isn't really a choice without a temptation. Destroying or not destroying my neighbor's car isn't really a choice, because I have no reason to do it.

For the choice not being a no-brainer, the temptation needs to be about as strong as the emotional impact of the wrong moral choice. And, for the reasons just outlined, this emotional impact is extremely weak in SW:TOR.

In MMOs the overarching goal is usually to create a strong character. This kind of temptation is much too strong compared to the weak emotional impact of the moral choice. Thus, gameplay goals as temptations don't work.

A comparatively good implementation is via moral dilemma. Would you kill two children to prevent somebody else from killing four children? Moral dilemma still suffer from the very low emotional impact of moral choices (resets, NPCs), but are automatically balanced.

Summing up, for a moral choice to be anything but a no-brainer, the emotional impact of the consequence of a player's choice needs to be balanced against the temptation to do the wrong thing.

Since the emotional impact of doing the wrong thing is very weak in MMORPGs (resets, NPCs), the temptations needs to be equally weak. Since moral dilemma are automatically balanced, they are natural candidates. Implementation of a good moral dilemma is, however, not always easy from a story-telling point of view.

Biowares tries to solve the problem by carefully designing temptations. They create mini games, like collecting light/dark points or story points which have no or little impact on the player's performance.

Problem is that if those points have no effect at all, a lot of players ignore them. And as soon as they have some kind of effect, like slightly changing the character's appearance, they may already be too strong a temptation.

Will Bioware succeed? I doubt it. They may find some not completely terrible way to implement moral choices into a MMORPG, but I don't see how even a mildly satisfactory implementation is possible without moral choices affecting players, instead of NPCs, or having consequences that are not frequently reset. Resets and NPCs make the choices just not meaningful enough, to matter to our moral decision making.

Maybe Bioware should not try to actually implement moral choices, but rather encourage us to select some kind of moral alignment in the beginning and then incentivise us to maximize the corresponding points. This is the "embrace your enemy, if you cannot defeat him" - kind of solution.
It would work comparatively well, I think. But the reason is not that the 'choices' would actually be choices or even 'interesting decisions'. Rather, it would work well, because mindlessly succeeding at playing a good/bad guy is pleasing from a narrative point of view.
Of course, this doesn't work once the engame is reached and the narrative has ended. But SW:TOR's endgame will be a completely different game, anyway.

Finally, there's still the awkward problem of random players of different moral alignments playing together. For as far as I know, it's going to be like that: I meet a random stranger, we do an instance. We can either slaughter the innocents or save them. I select 'save them', he wants to slaughter them. We roll a dice. He wins. We slaughter the innocents. I get light side point. Yeah, right.

This never-inconvenience-the-player attitude creates a game that tastes like a worn-out chewing gum.


  1. I have grave concerns over this mechanic as well. I think it'll push anyone who cares about story/lore/RP into long bouts of solo play.

    The rolling system + time limit means you can't even have an in-character RP debate over the decision. It's like playing a quiz-show with the timer ticking down.

    I've only ever seen meaningful morale dilemmas in single player games before, and there you would normally have save games to undo any damage from a bad choice.

    I do like the idea of an MMO presenting such choices and the simple lack of an undo button making those choices mean something. But of course SW:TOR won't probably be the MMO to deliver that (e.g. removal of possibility of companion death).

  2. "But the choice isn't really a choice without a temptation. Destroying or not destroying my neighbor's car isn't really a choice, because I have no reason to do it."

    EVE Online shows that there are a few hundred thousand players who don't need a reason to destroy their neighbor's vehicle.

  3. Sally, most of the Eve players have a reason to do that. Be it resources, fame, protection of gates, .. you name it.

    I agree that a few do it for the fun of it. But that's because they feel that that is what the game is about. It's the same reason for which I try to remove the enemy king in a match of chess: I feel that that's what the game is about.