The Soapbox: In defense of consequence

Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I've gathered you here today to present to you a defense for a feature that has been all but forgotten in recent MMOs, and which tends to solicit uproar from entire communities if it's so much as mentioned. That feature, as you may have guessed from the title, is consequence.

One of the things that initially drew me to Massively, and inadvertently led to my writing for them, was Sera Brennan's columns, which frequently covered the topic of persistence in MMOs. I'm a die-hard, borderline militant advocate of increasing the levels of persistence in games, and I feel that implementing consequences for players' actions is a huge part of taking MMOs from generally mindless games to true persistent worlds. "But Matt," you say, "I don't want a persistent world. The one I live in is hard enough as it is! I just want to play a game and unwind, not have to master goblin economical theory as it relates to the sociopolitical climate of an imaginary universe." And that's just peachy! There are dozens of games on the market tailored to players such as yourself, but only a select handful tailored to players such as myself who desire a more immersive world to live in during their spare time. The incoming rant, obviously, is geared toward that type of player.

What are we fighting for, again?

Let's begin with a facet of MMOs in which I feel consequence is almost a necessity: PvP. Player-vs-player combat, especially that of the non-consensual variety, is a touchy subject in almost any MMO. So we're going to disregard PvP "mini-games" such as battlegrounds and arenas for the purpose of this discussion -- as they are just that, minigames segregated from the rest of the experience -- and focus on world PvP. As it stands in most MMOs right now, what is the consequence for engaging in PvP combat? Nothing. At most, you die (which also means nothing, but we'll get to that in a minute) and have to run back to your corpse. So why shouldn't you try to jump that guy over there picking flowers? If you succeed, you get a kill and probably some form of honor/favor/whatever the game decides to call it; If you don't, you waste a minute or two running back to your body. Oh, heavens no.

"What's the challenge? Is it to see how long I can stare at my computer screen without having an aneurysm?"

I feel that there should be consequences for deciding to stick your pointy sword down that guy's facehole beyond victory-equals-honor points, death-equals-nothing. If you jump that guy and he turns around and levels you with a well-placed warhammer to your sensitive bits, you should suffer for it. You should be forced to think to yourself, "Hey, maybe I shouldn't do that," or at the very least, "Okay, is it actually worth the risk?" And that's what it comes down to: risk. There once existed a concept known as risk vs. reward, but modern MMOs have done away with that concept in favor of a concept known as "here just take your frickin' rewards we didn't want them anyway." I can't speak for anyone else, but I personally
feel that the absence of that risk vs. reward dilemma is a primary reason for my constant MMO burnout. What's the point of grinding for months on end for that shiny thing I want when, really, there's nothing at stake? What's the challenge? Is it to see how long I can stare at my computer screen without having an aneurysm?

Now I'm sure a few people are asking, "Wait a sec, is he advocating permadeath?" And the answer is yes. And no. Permadeath is the harshest of punishments, and there's really no better way to get players fleeing for their lives like implementing it, but I feel that permadeath, or some variation thereof, does have its place in select MMOs. For instance, are you the kind of player who likes to gank people 20 levels below you who have no chance of ever fighting back? Then congratulations, you're a dick and I feel you should be eligible for permadeath. It's a grave (ha ha, puns) punishment that should be reserved for grave transgressions, but I feel it should be there to hover over people who decide that those transgressions are worth the risk.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there should be appropriate rewards for succeeding when you take these risks; something beyond getting a few points toward the five-thousand you need to buy something shiny. What should these rewards be? Hell if I know -- I'm not a game designer; I'm a writer blowing off some steam. But they should be juicy, and well-worth the risks taken. Superior gear, mountains of gold, stat increases, you name it, it should be in the running. In this way, defeat stings, but the victories are made that much sweeter.

Plan? Who needs a plan?

I suppose I should also touch briefly on the aspect of PvE in regard to consequence. The basic principles are the same: You should be forced to think critically about your decisions. Most PvE today is set up so that you can just charge in, spam your hotkeys like a monkey on meth, and come out relatively unscathed. And again, if you do die, what's the problem? A corpse run? A little bit of durability damage? There's no incentive to develop strategies and execute them -- no motivation to put some thought into your battle plan. What happened to games where you actually had to use your intellect to succeed?

So, game devs, here's the deal. Almost every triple-A title in recent memory has been completely devoid of any kind of consequence. And perhaps for good reason. The vast majority of players do, in fact, prefer a game without any true consequence, because it makes it easier for them to jump in and out of the game at will without having to invest too much time and energy into it, and that's perfectly understandable. But some of us want our actions to have meaning and influence. We don't want to just live in a static world where every player exists in a static state that can only be altered in minor ways, such as upgrading gear or changing to another cookie-cutter talent spec. We want real persistence, and the only way to accomplish that is to give weight to what the players do.

So that's my inaugural soapbox rant. Who's with me?

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!
This article was originally published on Massively.