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Archive for July 14th, 2011

Long Arm of the Law

I’m generally a law-abiding sort of person.  I’m a careful driver.

…so when the officer pulled me over on my way to work, I wasn’t quite sure what he was thinking.

It turns out that my annual emission and safety inspection was past due, so, naturally, since (even petty) law is important to enforce (unless you’re politically connected, of course… laws are only for the little people), the officer pulled me over and cited me for it.  In the process, he found that my driver’s license was expired.  Naturally, I got cited for that as well.  I’m pretty sure he was grumpy about that, since he had that sort of stern, constipated look that officers seem to wear so well.

Yes, I’m a terrible, terrible criminal.  It’s a good thing I don’t have much dignity or I’d have been annoyed about being pulled over with the flashing lights for a paperwork infraction.

If the news radio is to be believed, he should probably have been out taking care of a homicide or something, since those happen almost every day or so.  I suppose that I should be grateful in the abstract that he didn’t have anything better to do than pull me over for a paperwork violation.  On the other hand, I kinda wish he had something more important to do.  I could give him a list.

As Denninger notes, it only takes one bad experience with officers to start to see all law officers with a jaundiced eye, no matter the real facts of a case.  (I was undeniably past due on my registration and licensing, but those are victimless and far from criminal offenses, and perhaps not even worth worrying about.  I guess the office was low on revenue, and taxing property just doesn’t pay the bills.)  The same principle works on judicial officers, politicians and…

wait for it…

game developers

As my boss suggested to our programmers, game developers are the gods of our little game worlds.  We wield absolute power over permissions, presentation and, er… Putress.  (Yes, that’s an oblique reference to over-reliance on cut scenes to tell a dev-controlled story instead of letting players tell the story.  Sometimes alliteration is a bit of a stretch.)  We build the systems that make a game function.  If players want to pick up an apple in Stormwind, they have to have a shopping list for permission.  Otherwise, there is an absolute, unbreakable ban on picking apples.

We don’t even have to rely on bored police officers to enforce things for us (though Game Masters are useful to moderate grey areas), we just have to make actions we don’t want absolutely impossible.  We are the petty tyrants and dictators of our products, we can do that.  Arguably, we should do that and not let players get full of themselves (coughEVEmonaclecough) and think they own the game.  Customers aren’t always right, though they are usually worth listening to, or at least, for the more cynical, giving them impression that they are listened to.

Of course, there’s always human error to deal with, as evidenced when Lord British famously forgot about his own immortality flag and died as a natural result, but even that was something a developer messed up.  Now, it’s true that hackers might break your game world, modders might mod, and hex editors might coopt your code, but for the most part, players have no choice but to exist and abide by a game’s rules.

All the more important, then, to get those laws right.

Petty and pithy laws, like those the officer bothered me for, might have a place in a nanny state hellbent on spending other people’s money on bad deals, but they serve little purpose in game worlds.  You think the ten dollar horse and sparklepony were something to fuss about?  How about a “right to run” tax?  Microtransaction tollbooths?  Maybe a “Random GM doesn’t like your name” surcharge?

That sort of thing really can get onerous.  Games need rules to exist and function, it’s true… but dumb rules only annoy players for little benefit in gameplay.  What exactly constitutes “dumb” is certainly contextual, and in a game with a huge, elaborate ruleset and a big playerbase, you’ll almost certainly run into differing opinions on which rules are dumb and why.  You might not even know until you do a lot of playtesting, or after the game is in the wild and you get a bunch of hate emails.  Still, as the ultimate arbiter of your game, as a designer, you have to own those rules and not be afraid of hardcoding them, enforcing them, and when necessary, changing them.

It might be good to be a minor deity, creating a pocket universe for a game, but the position comes with responsibility.  At the end of the day, though, the devs must be the “adults in the room” and lay down the law for their game.  Devs can’t afford to be squishy on the rules.  Even Magic the Gathering, a game famous for cards that break the core game’s rules, only works because those core rules are clarified as well as possible and enforced strictly so that the quirky cards work well with them.  At least, in official sanctioned play.

Playing with house rules, well… that’s another thing entirely.

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