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December 20, 2003

Great MMORPG Article

I was cleaning out my IE favorites today and came across a link to one of my favorite gaming articles, An essay on d00dism and the MMORPG. The article is very well written. If you've ever played an MMORPG, you know exactly where the author is coming from. The original link to the article is dead, unfortunately. But, I've copied the text here for perusal.

An essay on d00dism and the MMORPG
by Arios Truthseeker

It's Friday night. You and a group of close friends have gathered to play in your favorite MMORPG. After many deaths, false starts, and wrong turns, you and your party have finally reached the lair of the evil drog beast. You give the order to buff the group. The sound of protective spells being cast is accompanied only by the fetid sounding breath of the creature behind the door. It has taken your group 4 weeks of hard play, tons of cash outlay for equipment, countless deaths, and hours of corpse recovery to get here. Knowing this, you can barely contain the excitement you feel at reaching this goal as your casters announce their readiness one by one. This is it. This is the moment you've been waiting for. It doesn't get any better than this.

All of a sudden, from behind you, you hear the sound of running footsteps. You turn to look at what can only be yet another surprise, prepared for battle, and...

...some player character equipped in armor, you've never seen wielding a weapon you've never seen, moving faster than you thought possible, rushes through the door. This person engages the drog, kills it in 2 seconds, loots a weapon none of you have ever seen before, exclaims "This suxor!", then offers to sell it to your fighter for an outrageous amount of cash.

Congratulations. You've just met a kewl d00d.

Current evolutionary theory suggests that we evolved from voracious life forms who fed on anything that they could possibly kill, with no regard for anything other than their own hunger. Nowhere does experimental evidence support this theory more than observing the feral estrus of greed known as a "kewl d00d" inside MMORPGS.

Aside from the emotional conclusion of the above story (i.e. finding the human on the other end of the avatar and paddling it's behind until it can't scream anymore due to lack of breath), there are many reactions to this type of player. Some attempt to oppose these creatures wherever they can. Some others try to get on it's good side. A few attempt to rationalize with it, usually to no avail. Some attempt to harness them into a collection of creatures known as an "uberguild".

All these reactions are useless.

The main purpose of this essay is to explain the problems and suggest solutions about kewl d00dism in MMORPGS. Specifically, the best advice is to treat them just as you would indigenous and dangerous creatures in the MMORPG you are playing, attempt to avoid them at all costs and if you must engage do so with caution, skill, and wit.

In order to see why and how this works, we have to understand the background behind the d00d, why he exists, and what he really wants.

Let's start out with some basic concepts.

There are various levels of determinism in any human endeavors which can be briefly categorized like so:

Self-Determinism - In this, the lowest of the deterministic states, the person is little different than any random biological creature out to survive. Anything that is even remotely desired by a creature in this state is taken by force, cunning, or whatever means works. Any creature in this state will refuse to understand anything that does not relate directly to the perceived and/or actual needs of the self.

Other-Determinism - The next level up is determinism for self and others. At this point, the "creature" becomes a "person". In this state, basic caring and consideration (along with politeness) is expressed. This person determines what is best for themselves AND others, and actually attempts to understand what others need in this process. Not all others are considered in this state, merely the ones that the person knows and cares about (e.g. family, friends, lovers).

Pan-Determinism - This is the highest level of determinism known. The scope of determinism is everyone, there is no thought towards or of self. All determinations are made for the "greater good". All people are cared about relatively equally. Acts taken by such a person are generally in the best interests of the entire community.

It's not hard to see that kewl d00ds are purely self-determined. One is tempted to consider the lower end of the "other-determined" spectrum as inclusive of d00ds. Unfortunately some d00ds are good at appearing to care about someone, when in reality this appearance only serves as a tool to satisfy their immediate needs.

So why is the d00d self-determined and not other-determined?

The profile of the d00d
It's very easy to theorize a profile of the kewl d00d in real life. The typical profile is a human being in the age range of 10 to 17 with upper middle class to wealthy parents, mental intelligence from mid to extremely high, and emotional maturity in the fairly low to abysmal range.

Lets face it, our culture has a dismal environment for raising children. Most kids share a televised reality which distorts the nature of beauty until it fits a narrow category most people do not fit in. This reality presents materialism as good and rewarding, and threatens to cast you out of "cool" if you do not wear the latest styles, listen to the trendy depthless music, or talk with the latest confusing lingo.

Most bright kids are aware of this at some level. Some have the courage to attempt independence, some are so much smarter than others that others have a hard time dealing with them, still others simply don't watch TV at all. For this, and other reasons, bright kids tend to be ostracized by the average intelligence peer, and this ostracization prevents the normal development of other-determinism.

In simpler terms, when everyone is calling you uncool and teasing you, it's really really hard to care about anyone other than yourself.

The end result of these pressures are not good:

Self-worth is taken from outside stimulus (forget d00ds, most humans have this one)
A desperate need to be accepted by others, so as to influence and reinforce one's self-worth
A desperate need to gratify the ego, i.e. be perceived as "better than", in hopes that this will achieve the acceptance they need
MMORPGs are an alternate reality. They are literally another world, where the mistakes and memories of the real world can be rendered a distant memory. This alternate world has different rules, a different social structure, and most importantly a method to determine rank (levels and/or possession of rare items). This ranking system, regardless of whether meaningless or inaccurate, serves to distinguish players from the others. High level players wearing cool stuff stand out from the crowd, are looked up to, are accepted, and are considered "better-than" others.

The d00d is overjoyed upon seeing this alternate world. At last he has a clear method to achieve this acceptance and ego-gratification. If only he can get some levels and phat l3wt...

In this way, levels and/or equipment are seen as "needs" for the avatar. It's something to prove, respect to be earned, and acceptance to be gained. This is what the d00d perceives as real, never mind that this is not really how things work. Remember that self-determined creatures will refuse to understand anything that does not relate directly to the perceived needs of the self.

Thus the d00d logs into the MMORPG, and the battle to regain his lost self-worth begins.

Digression on Genetic Algorithms
(If you are familiar with these concepts, you can skip to the next section.)

Most people are familiar with genetic evolution. In any biosystem, hundreds of random species exist in an environment where they all compete with each other for food. The strongest and fastest creatures are able to get the most food and survive to reproduce more of their kind. (Aside: Humans still exhibit this behavior today. If you doubt this, spend a day on wall street.)

In computer science, a genetic algorithm is used to solve a problem by introducing hundreds of randomly generated creatures into an environment where they can all compete with each other for "food". This "food" is designed to be obtained by solving the desired problem. The "strongest" and "fastest" creatures will survive and reproduce, in this case producing quicker and more efficient algorithms to solve the desired problem. Eventually you end up with a population of organisms that are all good at solving the problem so you can pick the best one and use it in your program.

Genetic algorithms are sometimes explained in terms of solution search spaces, and in fact this will serve us well for the coming analogy.

The idea is to search the entire "space" of solutions. Consider the set of all solutions. Each element of this set must be tested, benchmarked, and measured for efficiency. For certain types of problems, the number of elements can be in the billions. Searching these kinds of spaces by hand (i.e. trying all possible methods of solution) is prohibitively expensive in terms of man-years. It simply can't be practically done.

However, using a genetic approach to solving the problem can work to search the entire solution space, for some problems. Allowing creatures to reproduce and slightly alter their method of solving some problem creates diversity, diversity allows different ways of solving the problem to be evolved, and this may find unique and solutions not previously considered.

The creatures have to be given the time to evolve and compete, which works as the search engine. You need many of them to be efficient. The bottom line is that one million creatures trying the same problem (as if their life depended on it, and...it does) is much more thorough than a handful of researchers.

Ok. So what does all this have to do with the d00d in an MMORPG?

D00dz as Genetic Algorithms
MMORPGs, in their current state, create levels of power. Higher level characters can do more, kill more, and be more than lower level characters. It takes time, smarts, and sometimes even luck to reach these higher levels. So the only perceivable "winning" goal in an MMORPG to a self-determined organism is the highest level with the most material wealth (whether that be the cash of the realm or the most powerful artifacts in the land). Even if the MMORPG designers did not intend people to be the highest level, and get all the artifacts on one character, this is the only real goal that will be perceived by the d00d (given current game systems).

Remember that we established that d00ds are in a fight to regain this lost self-worth and establish their superiority. Most of them fight this fight as if their life depended on it. There are many d00ds on the net, disproportionately so. We also established that d00ds are self-determined creatures. They exist only to "feed" on "superiority".

So we have a biosystem (an MMORPG with levels and items), and we have many self-determined organisms (d00ds who need to prove to the world that they are the best)...and what do you know? This looks remarkably like a genetic algorithm in the making. The problem to be solved, in this case, is how to be the best in the game. The solution space to this problem will be searched by the mass numbers of d00ds who come to the game. The d00ds serve as the genetic algorithm in the MMORPG biosphere to solve the problem of being the highest and best level.

What happens to the MMORPG biosphere
Now we can talk about a few issues that consistently arise in MMORPGs.

Cheating - Cheating will happen and no one cannot stop it. Period. Any other viewpoint is, in the opinion of this writer, quite naive. Any bug that can be found will be found and exploited by a d00d. Remember, genetic algorithms search the entire space. Restriction of the search space is not possible once you turn the creatures loose, and the search space includes anything that is possible within the framework of the game. This includes rogue clients, packet sniffing, pathing errors, and spell effect bugs. Expect any unencrypted protocol to be quickly hacked and specs published on the net. Expect a proliferation of client add-ons, database programs listing monsters and locations, macroing programs, or even hacked clients. These things are going to happen and there isn't a damn thing anyone can do once they do happen or to prevent them from happening. You can slow the charge, that's about all.

Imbalance - These are game balance problems that designers will have a hell of a time finding until too late. Sadly, this catches many designers by surprise every time. Consider a small example, some mis-designed dungeon that gives out way too much experience or loot for the level of the mob there. Immediately there will be some small subset of d00ds who find it. These first d00ds are quite incentivized to keep it secret, while they level past most people in the game. Inevitably, others will find it, and it will become one of the most overcrowded areas in the game...just like dropping honey near an ant hive will soon have half the colony all over that one spot. This is about the point where the game designers discover their mistake.

Imbalance is not limited to this, this is one example. Included with this are class balance (some mega powerful class compared to everyone else which makes everyone play that class), quest completion, skill balance, mob location, economy leaks, any anything which allows people who know the trick to pass intended time/power limits created by the designers.

Anti-social behavior - This is a wide topic. Some examples are kill stealing, loot stealing, in-game con artists, training, PK in a non PvP environment, and area hogs. This can all be summarized into one consistent fact: D00ds do not care about you. Repeat that several times, and you'll begin to see where these behaviors come from. The only thing that matters to a d00d is the next level or the next rare item. If you are perceived as standing in their way, they will use whatever tactic they can to get rid of you quickly and ruthlessly. Sometimes this is simply stealing all your kills and loot in the hopes that since you are getting nothing you will leave the area. Other times it is getting you killed so you have to run back to your corpse.

How to handle the d00d: Basics
Now that we have some basis in understanding of d00ds and how they effect the gaming environment due to their own psycho-spiritual handicaps, we can suggest some solutions to the problems. Lets start with basic attitudes needed. If you are off-balance, handling anyone (especially a d00d) is going to be extremely difficult.

First and foremost, for all people. Remember that this is only a game. What happens in the game is not as permanent or important as real life issues. When you log out of that game, real life is still there. Keep perspective in mind; one off switch is all it takes.

Probably just as important, keep your ego out of the picture. You are not there to teach the d00d how to behave (and even if you did the d00d will probably not learn anyway). You are not there to get even. You are not going to be successful at showing the d00d "who they are messing with". These attitudes usually induce failure of an embarrassing kind, ultimately do not help the situation, and are all related to your own ego.

It is very important to realize that nothing you do directly is ever going to change the d00d. As many zen masters say, change must come from within.

D00d handling 101: For Players
Consider the d00d. A voracious, greedy, needy life form with intelligence and speed. Groups of them are concentrated wherever there are good things to be had, whether that be experience or loot.

The way to avoid this creature is just the same way you'd avoid jackals in the wilderness: Identify them from a distance and attempt to be where they are not. If you come to a good place to hunt, and see one or more PCs there hunting, sit back for a bit and ponder.

What advantages does the aware player have over the d00d? Notable ones are:

Common sense
So if you see a PC or two hunting in a spot you want to hunt in, sit back and observe them from a good distance. Make yourself invisible to detection if you can, otherwise find a safe spot and watch for a while. Telltale signs of a d00d at work are easy to see.

Are the PC's killing everything in sight?

Are there arguments going on over any of the communication channels which the observed PCs are the subject of?

Do these PCs speak and/or type proper English? Are their arguments or communications clear and literate?

Do th3y uze ch@r@ct3rz i/\/ 0dd w3yz?

Are they polite in their selection of targets? Do they attack targets already under attack by other PCs?

If you notice any of these signs, you can almost be sure this is a d00d. To make absolutely sure, engage the person in a conversation and politely ask about the hunting in their spot. A few interchanges is usually sufficient to establish d00dism. Under no circumstances reveal your intentions, whatever they may be, until you are sure that is not a d00d.

Once you have identified a d00d at work, do NOT hunt there anyway. Either pick another location to hunt in, or logout of the game for a while. (Note that if the same d00d is still there after 6 or more hours, it's likely you will have to wait until they reach a level where it's slow to hunt there or they drop from exhaustion...find another spot.) Picking another location is preferred.

In this way, treating the d00d as a dangerous form of wildlife that does not respond to communication, you cannot go wrong. "I'm not hunting there, the dreaded d00d spawns there."

D00d handling 102: For Game Designers
Ok game designers. Lets get real.

Eventually, no matter how well intentioned you are, or how good a designer you are, your game will have bugs. These can and will be exploited by a d00d, possibly ruining the game for others.

There is not a damn thing you can do about this. If you can't understand that now, you are doomed.

Long beta test phases work to get rid of more and more, but remember that you have to incentivize the discovery of bugs so that it is worth more than the gain you will see in-game from the exploitation of the bug. About the only thing that works for a d00d in this regard is cash, although creativity will possibly find other things.

The real problem that occurs when game designers forget that they are essentially powerless to stop the onslaught of d00dism from finding these problems is the inevitable war that occurs. Game designers, frustrated at the d00ds "ruining the game for others" (and not about to be out-done in that endeavor....EQ was a classic example of this) consider themselves at war with the d00d. They begin nerfing the game or putting draconian rules into the game and banning people, and this is all done in the name of the non-d00d. In reality, this hurts the non-d00d even worse. The d00d does not care, he will simply adapt. The non-d00d who has learned to use what is now nerfed, experiences the most frustration, and eventually leaves...beset by d00ds on one side and game designers on the other. No one wins here.

Getting rid of d00ds is not possible either. Given any cool game, and you want your game to be cool, you can expect d00ds to be there. It's a fact of life, like when you spill sugar on the ground and don't clean it up, ants will appear to clean it for you.

So what to do? You can't get rid of them, they are going to find and exploit all your bugs, and they aren't going to tell you what they are. These d00ds drive away certain types of players who you'd dearly like to see play, and all they do is finish the game in some small amount of time

Wake up Designers! What you need is a paradigm shift. You have a gold mine on your hands and you don't even know it. Try considering d00ds as a genetic algorithm with the express purpose of solving the problem of finding bugs. Once loosed on your world, they will find all of them...of that you can be sure. What a deal! Now you have literally thousands of d00ds debugging your game for you, and they are paying you for the privilege. This kind of economics is rarely a losing proposition.

So how do you find out that they've found them? Simple. You log everything that happens. Now I can hear you scream "that's far too much data to keep". I'm sorry, if you have a large complex world, good software design principles demand that you log everything that happens. You cannot accurately debug the world without logging, even cooperative avatars are likely to miss important details which could be valuable clues to the problem. The only reliable way you are going to find problems is to log events. A side benefit to this logging is solving the common problem of "how do you know someone died to a bug or died to a legitimate game event". A per player log of where they go and what happens to them, with 48 hour retention should be good enough.

However, that is not the only thing you log. You also need to log experience/loot/etc. rates per unit time. Why? Well, you take the fastest 5% of those and review their logs. Just who is leveling that fast? How? Oh look, a bug! See?

The same principle applies for anti-social behavior. Logging everything that was said and done exposes you to the problem from an objective perspective. Why hire GMs to hide and play thought police? You have logs. Someone is training mobs to newbies? You can see from where, and this may suggest how to fix it without banning the d00d. Remember, ban one d00d and another will figure out the same thing.

This suggests a general principle for d00d handling. Never ever put a behavioral rule in place when you can fix the real problem in your game. If you have to put such a rule in place, people are going to violate it. If you instead make it difficult or impossible for the behavior to cause problems, people are not going to behave in the way you don't like. Again, a paradigm shift, but one that works.

D00d handling 102: Advanced anti-d00d design strategies
There are many other good design principles which serve to mitigate the effect d00dism has on your world.

-- NEVER ever design with any naive idea that "it will take them no less X amount of time to get to Y level". D00ds are genetic algorithms. They will find any flaws in your implementation of this, and in any complex system there are going to be flaws. Once they find these flaws, everyone else will find out and want to level this fast too. Then you will fix this bug and be the "evil nerfing game designer". Nip this in the bud and don't adopt this mindset. If you are trying to keep people playing, slowing their leveling is by far the worst implementation of this goal. Keep this mindset out of your head when you are designing your game.

-- Refrain from designing closed ended games. It's not hard to design a system where people can climb to any level of power they choose, Asheron's Call did it fairly well if you want an example. Let the d00ds far outstrip the average players, it will keep them out of the mid-range levels so the real role-players can have fun there. Set it up so mob power scales with player level. This will give the d00ds something to fight.

-- Unless it is a bug or you are in beta, NEVER nerf abilities. Buffing monsters is just as balancing, and prevents common player objections. If a player has been used to an ability, nothing causes them to want to leave your game more then losing an ability they previously had. The time to nerf is in beta. Once beta is over, nerfing must be done with extreme discretion. Avoiding the nerf is not always possible, but 99% of the time it is really unnecessary.

-- Do not force people to camp to get necessary items. Bilbo did not have to camp for the One Ring, and neither should our heros.

First off, the mindset that "not everyone will have this item" does not really work if the item is essential to efficient fighting. You may question "essential", but if the item gives significant advantage enough to power the wielder through several levels or allow them to kill certain previously high risk mobs easier, it will be considered as "essential" by the d00ds. Camping for something considered "necessary" is just like those ants, if something is good enough d00ds will sit there until the monster drops it.

If you must have rare uber drops, one solution is to make loot drops entirely random, i.e. do not make the same mob at the same spawn drop something rarely or even each time. If it can be farmed, it will be. Another solution works if you are going to put a rare drop on a class of monster: scatter the spawn points of this monster around the world and make many of them but not close together. This will at least spread the camping around.

In the opinion of this writer, rare uber items are bad news. While many game designers see rare uber items as fun, they are the death of any game with d00ds in it. A rare item that someone has means that most of the other d00ds do not, and that makes them envious. Envy drives d00ds to camp, kill steal, and generally be anti-social until they get what they desire. Don't do it! The only time you can get away with that is if there is one and exactly one of that item in your game universe. Rare items are status and allows the ego of the d00d gratification when everyone sees them with it. If you are putting this kind of status in the game, expect the worst infighting to be over this item.

You might ask what is a substitute for rare uber items? You don't need them! Base 90% of your effectiveness on character skill development, or good gameplay, and you have a different form of status.

- If you are going to force people to group, make ye no level or skill restrictions on the grouping, so that all people of all levels and/or skills can group without penalty (or bonus). This is tough to do but worth it. Forced groups tends to work against the d00d, but you can't achieve the kind of peer pressure necessary if friends cannot group because their playtimes are different.

This is also good business too. Friends like to group together, but if one has been playing for a month and the others haven't, it's likely that the first friend will be much higher level than the others. They have all got to be able to group and make progress commensurate with their level.

In conclusion
D00ds are a fact of MMORPG life. They aren't going away, you can't spank them when they need it, and they can make game life hell for you and/or your game unless you learn to handle them. It is hoped that the topics touched upon in this essay will assist the intrepid adventurer and the overworked game designer in handling this genetic phenomenon.