A week to open day! I’m very excited, and if you’re excited too you should express your excitement on our pre-open poll, which you can find at http://epitaphonline.co.uk/secure/polling.c. If you’ve got an epitaph online account, you can log in and vote. If you don’t, well – go get one. You can say you knew us before we were cool. Haha, only kidding – we’ve always been cool. It’s all shaping up real nice – the todo list is more of a todo post-it, and we’ve even found time to add in some of the extra content we wanted – mainly new items and schematics and such. Next week on open day I’ll take the chance to do a little expectation management (as I always do) and write up our ‘self evaluated’ Epitaph report card as to what I think about just how well we did.

But on to the topic of the post.

One of the things I’ve wanted to do with Epitaph is look for opportunities to simplify the relationship between players and creators. It’s kind of an ‘old school’ view on the power dynamics between the two groups that creators are the bosses and players just have to sit back and take whatever they’re given. Back when MUDs were new and cool and the Internet was young and virginal, that kind of attitude might fly. It doesn’t any more.

One area where the power dynamics are traditionally demonstrated is in rules enforcement. I’ll be honest, I have close to zero interest in policing a community, and only a little more in structuring rules generally. I also think that creating domains of ‘police officers’ such as the liaison domain on Discworld is a bad solution. Such domains, regardless of their intentions, end up solidifying around a core of people who get off on the powers and responsibilities. In the process, you set up a barrier between developers and players, creating bottlenecks and frictions.

On Epitaph, we have neither the staff nor the inclination to organise something like this. Instead, we’ve looked to a more innovative solution – that of ‘community policing’. In short, I want the community of players we have to be responsible for setting the parameters of what is tolerable within the community. There are some large, sweeping rules on subjects such as cheating, harassment and such and those will still be handled, in the main, by creators. But, for everything else, I want to see it handled within the playerbase.

To that end, I introduced a new[1] system to the game to allow it – community motions. Every player of a certain standing gets to introduce a ‘motion’ on which the community as a whole can vote. Players above a certain age get to then vote on that motion. If enough votes in favour are recorded, the motion is passed and the ‘payload’ is applied.

To determine if enough votes have been cast, a pair of metrics are used. The first is simple – the number of people voting in a motion. The severity of the motion being advanced determines how many people must vote for it to be ‘quorate’. The second metric is ‘voter score’, which is a more flexible value. Not all votes are equal – the older a player is and the more responsibility they have accumulated, the more weight their voting has. For a motion to pass, it needs enough of the right kind of people to vote for it.

People can also vote against motions if they don’t like the sound of them, and this counts *against* the voter score (but towards the motion being quorate). Each motion has a certain amount of time during which people can vote – if it reaches the threshold for passing at any time during the window, it’s passed. Otherwise, it will auto fail if the time period ends.

Tied in to this is a new system of ‘points’ for players. Experience points, achievement points and quest points are all ‘ludological’ reward systems, but for a while we’ve also had ‘role playing’ points as a measure of community reward. To go along with the community policing system, I’ve added ‘community’ points which are awarded (and docked, where needed) by the community as a whole. These are awarded in two ways – when certain standard criteria are met (you get one for each age/login achievement you get) and when the community votes for you to get one. Community points at the moment are only used within the system – the number of points you have determines, in part, the strength of your vote. They’re also spent to advance motions in a way much like challenges in a game of tennis – you spend the points to advance a motion, and if it’s successful you get the points back. Later, community points might be spent to do things like gain equipment, add lives and such – I’m not averse to them having tangible in game rewards, they’re just not part of Community Policing 1.0.

Choosing to award a player with a point is one way in which people can show favour to someone they have collaboratively decided to be a worthwhile member of the community. The other is in the application of badges[2]. Previously these have been things largely set aside for creators to consider and award, but now I want to see as many as possible available for a community vote. Many of them are community awards after all[3]. These will still be available to hand out by creators, but I’d very much like to see the community as a whole taking the initiative here.

At the moment there’s only a handful of motions – you can gag for various lengths of time and you can suspend for various lengths of time. You can award and dock community points, and award and remove badges. It doesn’t take the place of creator enforcement when troublesome behaviour is encountered, but it will hopefully serve as a powerful complement. It’s an experimental system, and experimental for two reasons. One is that I don’t know of many games that have used this kind of community policing and so I don’t have a benchmark (other than maybe the the darker elements of social psychological theory) about how it may go wrong. The other is that I will be keeping a very close eye on how it’s used, how often, and what impact it has on the game and I reserve the right to remove and modify it as required.

There are of course a number of ways in which a system like this might end up being abused, but I’ve never been on the mindset that just because a thing might be difficult to do properly it’s not worth doing at all. The emergence of cliques, voting blocs and retributory motions is all possible, perhaps even inevitable, in a system like this. But that’s okay because in many ways if you provide the right combination of of tools you will find that it largely becomes self-correcting. If the community don’t like voting blocs then, well, they can act to fix them. These kind of problems stem partially from attempts to thwart a particular system[4], but also from disinterest and disengagement. A small clique of people can sow havoc within a system if left unchecked, but there’s little they can do to work against a fully sized community all engaged within the process. The act of forming a bloc in itself can be disincentivised. The community can regulate itself, and where that can’t be done we can incorporate new tools to give the flexibility required.

We’ll see – the general rule of devolving power as far down the hierarchy as it reasonably can is important to me, and I’m willing to take some risks to ensure that’s supported. Even if in the end it only allows for a proportion of things that would be ‘creator issues’ to be handled internally, it’s still a proportion that we as developers don’t need to worry about. Being able to deal with sudden emergent issues like spamming or bullying without an awake creator means as well that we don’t need to worry about timezone coverage. It’s unlikely that version 1.0 of the system will free us completely to work on the codebase, but successive improvements will hopefully bring us closer each time to that goal.

It’s a system that will perhaps raise some eyebrows, perhaps even raise some alarm. Rest assured it’s not a fire and forget system – it’s one I will be constantly moderating and I won’t hesitate to withdraw it if I think it’s having an adverse effect. I do however think it’s both original and innovative and tracking how it is used and (perhaps) abused may even serve as the basis for an academic paper on the subject. It wouldn’t be the first time Epitaph has been mentioned in an academic journal[5], or the first time that players and developers of the MUD have written on the subject of text games[6], but there’s no reason why we should stop at one or two. What we do here matters. Text games still matter. Text games can still innovate in ways that the rest of the world should know about. Maybe this system will be one of those ways.

[1] And highly experimental.
[2] http://epitaphonline.co.uk/help/concepts/player/badge.html
[3] For example, http://epitaphonline.co.uk/badges.c?badge=wiki%20wizard
[4] Humans as a rule are cost/benefit optimsiers, and all fixed systems can be gamed.
[5] http://www.scribd.com/doc/134002484/M-Heron-Likely-to-be-eaten-by-a-Grue-the-relevance-of-text-games-in-the-modern-era
[6] http://tinyurl.com/mk6v3k2