Bloody Ethics

Can a Game That Poses Moral Questions About Murder Survive Its Own Success?

Murder and corpse looting are not the only malfeasance in Ultima. The real profits are in white-collar crime. The architects of the game worked long and hard to supply Britannia with a working economy, and like any other monetary system, it's based on circulating currency. Its success can be measured in the number of players who give up adventuring to spend their lives in urban centers as blacksmiths, fishermen, tinkers, or tailors. But the number of clever scams, grifts, and cons that have sprung up to separate these law-abiding Britannians from their hard-earned gold pieces would make David Mamet proud.

One particularly nasty con involves real estate. Most transactions in Britannia are managed by a special interface designed to prevent false advertising and other classic hustles, but when players purchase buildings there is no such barrier. House scams involve someone taking the money and running, or even faking another player's identity. It's a serious problem when you consider how important houses are in Britannia: They're expensive, and land is rare. Says veteran player Stuart Kovinsky, "The house scam is the most painful to the victim, since it often results in the loss of the victim's life savings." And it's not just play money at stake. Online auction sites do a brisk trade in Britannian gold pieces, which people buy with real dollars. Also for sale are real estate and high-level characters, both of which can take years to develop. Price tags run past $1000.

Players who get conned sometimes beg the gamemasters to intervene, but the folks at Origin have thus far refused to help. As Britannia's chief designer Raph Koster puts it, "We're trying to build a world, not a game." Jason Bell, Ultima's senior producer, agrees. "Part of the wonder of the medium, and also the difficulty, is that we in essence have to act as local, state, and federal government, and God," he says. "From our years of experience, our ethic has really evolved to a light hand."

illustration by Jeff Crosby

The hand is so light it doesn't even come down on organized crime. Like most countries, Britannia has its own mafia. Early on in the game's history, players discovered a programming bug that allowed them to manufacture counterfeit gold pieces, and the scam became so widespread that Britannia's economy almost collapsed from hyperinflation. Later, a group of players attempted to corner the market on reagents, a valuable magic ingredient. In the past year, a guild calling itself SiNister, under the leadership of one Bone Dancer, attempted to extort protection money from local businesses.

"I guess a society is mature when organized crime shows up." explains Koster, who is 28 years old and has an M.F.A. in creative writing. "As long as it's not impossible to resist them, it's an interesting dynamic." Koster's goal is to provide an accurate simulation of a mythological world, complete with lasting consequences and random outcomes. He shares the belief of some of Ultima's fanatic devotees that the ability to execute another player makes the game vital, exciting, and more like real life.

"Philosophically, what we wished for, and didn't get, was to leave it in the hands of the people to shape the society," Koster says. "As it turned out, a virtual society doesn't give you enough tools." But one tool the designers did introduce was the Reputation System, which color codes characters who commit crimes. Players start out blue, but if they attack another citizen they become gray. Anyone who kills five times is branded red. While the system has made it easier to avoid serial killers, as Bell readily admits, "anybody who plays a lot of Ultima has had unpleasant things happen to them."

Players have taken matters into their own hands by forming in-game consumer protection agencies to guard against fraud. Of course, criminals are never far behind. Last fall, the Ultima Online Players Association Bank was forced to post warning notices about a scammer who heisted more than a million gold pieces. "It's impossible to predict everything that tens of thousands of people will do," Koster explains. "Cumulatively, they're smarter than you. It's a chaotic system."

Like Jurassic Park, the world Origin created is so complicated that designers have to be careful that their modifications don't destroy the integrity of the original vision. But that may soon be lost, as corporations rebuild the game for mainstream audiences.

For Sony and Microsoft, the underworld needs to be sanitized if it's going to turn a profit. In the new versions of the game, sport killing is no longer an option. Sony's EverQuest only allows one player to murder another if both have formally declared themselves player-killers. "We believe that most people want to play in a cooperative environment," says John Smedley, president of Verant Interactive, which developed EverQuest for Sony. "An environment that is free from player-killers and people who want to ruin the gameplay of others."

Next to the rough-and-tumble world of Ultima, EverQuest looks as plastic and contrived as Disneyland. But even Britannia is dumbing down its act in a bid for broader success. In the next release, Origin has decided to set up a separate area where player-killing is impossible.

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