Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Mercenaries in MMORPGs

mercenary - one that serves merely for wages; especially; a soldier hired into foreign service

Mercenaries have existed throughout history. From the Greeks who served Xerxes at Thermopylae to the bands that ravaged Europe during the Thirty Years War to the thwarted coup in Equatorial Guinea in 2004, people in power have always found men willing to fight for nations and causes not their own as long as the pay is good. That fact is reflected in all genre of literature as well. In fantasy, I’ve read Elizabeth Moon’s The Deed of Paksenarrion and Glen Cook’s Black Company series. In regular literature, Fredrick Forsythe’s The Dogs of War comes to mind. Science fiction is chock-full of mercenary tales, with Jerry Pournelle’s Falkenberg’s Legion and David Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers series being two notable examples.

Can today’s MMORPGs tap into that fascination with mercenaries? CCP's Eve Online already has, with players forming mercenary corporations, some of which have altered the course of the game. While the Guiding Hand Social Club's 2005 assassination of Ubiqua Seraph CEO Miral and stripping of the corporation of $16,500 in virtual goods may be the most famous mercenary exploit outside the game, Mercenary Coalition's "The North Reloaded" operation in 2007 changed the face of the game as it paved the way for the Band of Brothers alliance to move against the corporations of the North. Mercenaries are so integrated into the game that player guides exist for how to hire them.

Darkfall has the potential to create mercenary clans if it turns into the fantasy version of Eve. I only say potential because usually in order to have mercenaries you must have a large population that doesn’t fight in organized combat but instead sustains the economy. Eve has a large population of players eagerly playing the economic game, allowing those who want to play in 0.0 space the freedom to engage in some truly epic combat and political maneuvering. In Eve’s case, the small percentage of players and corps who specialize in battle or covert operations are special and sought after. I could be wrong, but I don’t see the economy becoming a main focus of activity for the majority of players in Darkfall. What I can see happening is something akin to what happens in the world of John Christian Falkenberg with small elite forces willing to fight for the highest bidder emerging from a large pool of cannon fodder.

What about the theme park games like World of Warcraft? I would argue that Sony Online Entertainment (SOE) has managed to tap into the mercenary meme. In EverQuest, the game developers faced a situation in which the 10-year old game has the vast majority of players at the level cap. In a group-focused game like EverQuest, not having groups hinders play, so the devs instituted a feature called, you guessed it, mercenaries. Players can hire mercenaries to form a group in order to do the lower level content. Mercenaries usually do not perform as well other players, but they get the job done.

In SOE’s EverQuest sequal EverQuest 2, the players themselves introduced mercenaries into the game. Basically some raiding guilds have turned themselves into mercenary units. The trend in EQ2 towards raiding guilds becoming mercenaries isn’t new. The first step in the road was a game mechanic called “loot rights.” Considered by many (including me) an exploit because it allows a player who had no part in defeating an encounter and was not even a part of a group/raid the ability to buy raid/epic quality no-trade/bind on pick up items. Who are the players usually selling the loot rights? Your friendly neighborhood raid guild. The loot rights mechanic introduces players to the concept of fighting for someone else in the game, as the buyer actually shows up at the scene of battle and takes the prize (usually for a large fee) from the raiders. Given the number of players looking to buy loot rights for specific items I’ve seen in world chat, I would not be surprised if some guilds have gone into a raid zone with an employer camped just outside the instance in case specific loot dropped.

Some of the most elite raiding guilds in EQ2 fully embraced the mercenary role with GU 42 with the introduction of mythical weapons. SOE’s game devs fully intended for the mythical weapon to be the ultimate weapon a player could obtain in the game. In fact, the weapons are so superior to anything else available that a player must visit four different raid instances and be part of a raid that defeats one of the boss mobs in each of the instances. The devs did not allow for the selling of “loot rights” for an update of the mythical weapon quest. So what did some of the most cutting edge raid guilds do? They started selling spots on raids whose sole purpose was to get the quest updates, naturally. On my server, when the first guild started selling its services, the going rate for hiring the guild was 1000 platinum (100,000 gold) pieces for all four updates. A year later, the same guild was advertising for 400 platinum (40,000 gold) pieces in the world chat channels. Times are starting to get tough for EQ2’s top mercenary guilds. But that doesn’t mean the end of mercenary guilds in EQ2 anytime soon. With the closure of the exploit that allowed players to sell void shards for 500 gold each, I’m sure that some guild out there has decided to follow the path of the mercenary and is selling spots in groups running TSO instances.

So will mercenaries play a role in MMORPGs? Our current games already have player mercenaries, whether the title is a sandbox game like Eve Online or a theme park game like EverQuest 2. As long as game developers provide a world in which players have an incentive to hire others to fight for them, mercenaries will be a part of our game landscape.

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