Got back from GDC week and still trying to get back into the swing of things… and here comes a funny story straight from GDC! Go ahead and read it, it’s pretty funny.
You didn’t read it, did you. Sigh. Fine, I’ll paraphrase a bit. Ryan from Untold Entertainment went to one of those dumb GDC “rant sessions” where you hear industry bigwigs rant for a while and then leave. (You usually don’t even get to comment back to them: it’s worse than even a blog! And you pay a lot for the privilege! Ugh.)
But anyway, as people shuffled in, they were given a coin. A projector slide explained:
The person who collected the most coins from the other players in the room by the halfway point of the session would be invited to the front to do a “guest rant” on social games.
So what did Ryan do? He went back to the entrance, lied to the volunteer giving out coins, and took the entire coin bag. Most people didn’t even get coins, and had no idea what the overhead projector was talking about.
So when the voting was tallied, he was the winner… by, uh, a very large margin. The panel vetoed his win. (But the moderator let him do a mini-rant later anyway, which he overstepped the bounds of also.)
It’s a funny story, and I’m leaving out the funniest bits, so if you haven’t read it, you won’t understand why I was laughing at the end of it. When (top-tier indie developer) Evan Miller commented that the panel should be ashamed of disallowing his win, I nodded along.
But the next day I read it again, and realized I’d been duped by his funny writing into not seeing the full picture. Ryan presented his story as one of sticking it to the big guys, breaking the rules that the industry giants arbitrarily made. It’s a good David and Goliath story. But it’s a terrible story to read much into.
Griefers are Griefers
Ryan was a griefer. The definition of a griefer is someone who keeps a significant number of other people from enjoying your game, and does so intentionally. Griefers are griefers regardless of whether they are “playing within the rules” or not. When you have a griefer, you have to take stock of your game: is your game designed for griefers?
Sometimes it is. EVE is a griefing hellhole whose other fun mechanics cannot redeem it. (Yes, that’s just my opinion. But guys, I sure would like to play a non-hellhole space-trading game like we had on BBSes… won’t somebody make that MMO?)
Even World of Warcraft had features that were intentionally designed to let you grief others. (Killing NPCs of other factions.) But this is widely seen as a mistake by the players I game with — and you can tell even WoW is backing away from the design in the newer expansions.
In general, if your game is about griefing, then your game is full of adolescents (and mental adolescents) who are happy to harm others in order to be clever, funny, or sadistic. There’s an audience for that. But sadly, griefers aren’t satisfied to stay in those sorts of games: the competition is too high. Griefers need suckers, because griefing other griefers is hard. So griefers show up everywhere. As a developer, they are a significant threat to your game’s lifespan. Unless your game is designed specifically for griefing (in which case, ugh!), you need to wipe them out.
Don’t Let Griefers Hide Behind Rules
Griefers mustn’t be allowed to profit from their behavior, or they’ll multiply. It doesn’t matter if they found a loophole in your game’s rules or not: if they are intentionally ruining the game for others, and they broke an implicit rule that your target audience should already know, then kick them out.
Don’t make the newb mistake of thinking you can say “ha ha, very cute, never do that again.” That never works. Even if the original person doesn’t do it again, others will. And you’ve set a precedent. You’re just making things worse by letting even one obvious manipulation of your game go by.
Just kick them out and never look back. It sounds draconian, because it is: it is also the only policy that works. You are a small team (at best) — your chances of writing a perfect set of rules for your game are pretty much nil, especially when a vast number of people are actively looking for loopholes. So unless you fancy being a lawyer instead of a game developer (or if you’re running money-based games where the other guy might be a lawyer), you simply have to kick the people out when they are obviously abusing the spirit of the game.
And not just games: any social system. These days I adamantly refuse to put up long lists of exact rules for forums or chatrooms or whatever. “Thou shalt not call people names or spit on them or make them feel uncomfortable or…” for chrissakes, if I have to spell this stuff out to you, I know you’re immature and I don’t want you around. And the only thing that happens if I list all those rules? People revel in finding where I failed to specify things exactly. “I said he should take the sticks out of his mangina. That’s not on the swear list and it’s not ‘making fun of gays’ because I was making fun of hermaphrodites, which are not listed in the rules! You can’t punish me!” Augh! Get out of here, griefer! (Admittedly, I’ve successfully avoided ever making or running games for 13 year old boys. Some audiences are going to be more miserable than others.)
Obvious versus Not-So-Obvious Rules
On the FGL forums, the discussion of this story boiled down to the key distinction of whether Ryan broke the “rules” or broke the “obvious social conventions” of the game. Most people said that he didn’t break the rules. (Although personally I think he did: the rules were to get as many coins as possible from other players; he didn’t do this. The coin-giver was not a player.) But for the sake of argument, let’s say he didn’t break the rules: he just broke the implicit conventions that anybody at the conference would have made.
But the thing is, you shouldn’t have to list every possible social norm that your game rules operate under. If you’re a big company, your lawyers will handle the key ones. Trust me, though: you do not want lawyers writing all the rules for your game. Players don’t want this, either. They just want to be asshats and get away with it.
But sometimes you do need to write out some rules. If your game has a lot of PvP, then it can be confusing what “griefing” is, exactly, and you’ll need to give some guidelines. The worst case scenario is when players who aren’t griefing are afraid of doing anything new because they don’t understand what is bannable or not. But in practice, this is not a hard line to find. (Normally when it seems like a gray area, it’s because the live team is intentionally muddying the line to keep people scared. I don’t think that’s a good long-term policy.) If your target demographic really won’t understand the rules you want them to abide by, you have to give them guidelines.
I also want to distinguish between banning “griefers” and banning people who cheat in a non-griefing way. Personally I’m much more lenient on the latter, because they don’t make other people’s experience miserable. You can patch things up, spank the player if they were obviously being jerks, and go on with life. I don’t want to give the impression that I think all things should be bannable offenses. Just the ones that affect other players significantly.
They’re Always There
No matter what sort of game it is, there’s always rules lawyers. There’s always griefers. These groups often overlap, and cause much misery. So Ryan’s behavior is a very useful lesson to developers: you will have these sorts of players and they will abuse your system and they will act holier-than-thou when you ban their ass, and lots of people will take their side because “he didn’t break the rules!”
That doesn’t mean you should let him get away with it: you just have to take the PR hit for banning him. It’s the less-expensive evil.
Indies are Bad Seeds?
In this story, the “social game” was pretty un-fun. (A popularity contest among nerdy game developers? Oh boy oh boy, sign me up!) So it can be hard to see Ryan’s activity as wrong. But the fact is he committed several misdemeanor crimes. If he’d stolen, say, coins for an arcade game, or something else the audience valued even a little bit, there would be a lot less sympathy for him. But in this case, yeah, who cares, stupid game, funny story. (Is it even griefing if the people you grief didn’t know they were playing the game?)
I think his behavior is eminently “indie”, and I don’t begrudge him being a jerk in order to try to get ahead in a game with stakes this low. But I also don’t begrudge the panel for disallowing his behavior.
In the end, I don’t care about the game per se, I’m just wary of Ryan’s takeaway lesson, which is “in short: break the rules, get the coins.”
Ryan is saying that as a small developer, you need to break existing conventions in order to make room for yourself: a lot of those conventions are there to make it harder for you to succeed. I completely agree with that. But if the end result means that everybody has to be a griefer, we’re setting ourselves up for an even worse industry than we have now: when everybody griefs, nobody wins.