Online-game companies seek new ways to confront antisocial players who drive customers away. Images: Grief-free games
Social miscreants can do more than ruin the game for better-behaved competitors. They can hurt game companies' bottom line by driving away customers and burning up support lines. Problems related to grief players often account for 25 percent or more of customer service calls, according to game publishers.
Now an increasing number of companies are fighting back, using a combination of technology, sociology and psychology to limit griefer damage. Success could be important to the industry's growth, as companies seek to expand beyond the audience of hard-core players to more casual customers, many of whom are unlikely to tolerate bad experiences for long.
As game companies seek to expand beyond hard-core players to more casual customers, stopping troublemakers could have a marked impact on their bottom line.
"A couple of people causing problems can really wreck the game for everybody else," said David Cole, president of research company DFC Intelligence. "I think it's one of the biggest business concerns you have running an online game."
The stakes are big. According to research firm Yankee Group, multiplayer online games had 2.4 million U.S. subscribers and generated $209 million in revenue last year. That's expected to grow to 5.2 million subscribers and $556 million in revenue by 2008.
Standing in the way of such growth are players such as "Evangeline," a "Sims Online" player who became an emblem of the griefer mentality when she described her techniques and motivation in an interview published late last year by online forum The Second Life Herald, formerly known as Alphaville Herald.
Evangeline said she liked to torture new players ("newbies") by luring them into a house specifically designed to trap and torture them. "Newbies are so disgusting...they're the bane of my Sim life," she said. "I'll cage (you) like an animal and have people laugh at (you)."
Ganging up on newbies is typical griefer behavior in games with large multiplayer universes, such as "Sims Online" or "EverQuest."
In games such as "EverQuest" that include player-vs.-player combat, griefers typically lure new players into hidden areas, then kill them and loot their corpses for valuable in-game goods. One of the most common griefer tactics is to camp out at "spawn spots"--locations where characters enter the game world after dying or logging off--and attack arriving players the second they materialize.
Dissecting griefer dysfunction
Such behavior may not be strictly against the rules of the game, but it violates the social contract between players and can quickly send new players packing for the real world.
"You never get a second chance to make a first impression," said Cameron Ferroni, general manager for Microsoft's Xbox Live online-game service, recalling old Head & Shoulders commercials.
John Suler, a psychologist at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J., has studied deviant behavior in online game communities and found that griefers fall into two basic camps.
"Some of them are kind of antisocial types, where their cause is to fight the authority figure," Suler said. "They take more pleasure in the grief they cause for the company that runs the game. That may stem back to difficult relations with parents and authority figures."
For the other basic type of griefer, it's personal.
"Sometimes it's just a matter of wanting to hurt other people, cause grief for them," Suler said. "It might be a form of displacement for people who have been victimized in other areas of their life. They cope by turning the passive into the active: 'Now I'm the person who victimizes other people.'"
Dealing with both types may start with mom's advice about bullies: Ignore them, and they'll go away. "They want attention," Suler said, "so if you ignore them, they may give up."
Sony Online Entertainment, publisher of "EverQuest" and the newer "Star Wars Galaxies," relies heavily on social structures to mitigate griefer damage, said George Scotto, vice president of customer service.
With tens of thousands of players involved in each game daily, Sony can't police everything, Scotto said. Thus, he added, much of the work of keeping gamesclean and fun falls to fellow players. "EverQuest" players usually join "guilds," in-game communities where failure to play nice will get you booted out.
"With 'EverQuest,' you have six-year span where the player base has built up a community," Scotto said. "Players know each other and watch out for each other. The guilds have a good neighborhood-watch effect."
"Star Wars Galaxies," which recently marked its one-year anniversary, has been more of a challenge, Scotto said, with Sony having to do more to educate players about the best way to have the kind of game experience they want.
"When 'Galaxies' launched, we had a lot of people who were new to MMOGs (massively multiplayer online games) and didn't really understand how they worked, so there was a learning curve," he said. "We try to teach players how to work out issues on their own. We have to encourage our players to do that. Our worlds are so big; we can't be everywhere all the time."
Game developer Cryptic Studios took a more hard-line approach to troublemakers in designing the hit online superhero game "City of Heroes," which pulled in nearly 200,000 subscribers in its first fourth months on the market. The game had to be accessible to casual players and newcomers to online games, said Jack Emmert, lead designer for the game. That meant limiting interactions between players solely to chat. An upcoming expansion will include an online arena for player-vs.-player battles, but the outcomes won't affect character development or assets.
"The entire game design is about getting somebody who isn't an insider into the MMOG genre and having fun as quickly as possible, and griefing would just ruin that," Emmert said. "We just eliminated that possibility. If one player can't harm another player in a game, you can't really have griefing."
Behave or get the boot
The advent of online capabilities for video game consoles has opened new frontiers in griefing. While online PC games have a preponderance of complex fantasy role-playing games such as "EverQuest," online games for the Xbox and PlayStation 2 are dominated by shooters and sports titles, including the smash football franchise "Madden NFL."
Most Madden players want a clean, realistic game of football, said Danny "Coach Dee" Palmieri, founder of the New York Ballers Club, a "Madden" fan club. Conflicts happen when straight-up players encounter punks who will exploit any glitch to squeeze out a victory.
"There are glitches in the game, so that if you position guys in certain ways, it's almost impossible to get the ball off," Palmieri said. "Most guys want to play real-life football, like they see every Sunday, so they're not going to use those glitches. Other people just manipulate it any way they can to get the win."
Publisher Electronic Arts has implemented a "fair play" system to discourage such play. But the surest way to have a clean game is to join a group such as the Ballers Club, Palmieri said.
"We have certain criteria people have to play by," he said. "If we catch you doing something cheesy, we ban you. People need to know they're going to get a fair shot."
Microsoft has employed a combination of social and technical approaches to try to keep its Xbox Live online-game service grief-free, said Microsoft's Ferroni.
The service's "friends list" feature is used extensively by most players, he said, allowing them to play only against people they know and trust. "If you don't play with strangers, you don't really have to worry about bad behavior," Ferroni said.
Microsoft has instituted a number of avenues for players to leave feedback on one other, meaning that a person can check someone's reputation before playing them. If a player gets a critical mass of bad feedback, Microsoft will ban the person from Xbox Live, a measure the company has resorted to in a few thousand cases--enough to serve as a potent deterrent.
"They're banned from the entire service--they can't just jump over to another game," Ferroni said. "These people love games, so that's the last thing they want to happen."
The upshot is that Microsoft hardly receives any support calls anymore about unfair play on Xbox Live, Ferroni said. "It's not in our top 20 issues," he said. "It really doesn't make it on our radar."