Tuesday, December 16, 2008

How I Would Do the WoW Torture Quest

The World of Warcraft torture quest, The Art of Persuasion, keeps popping up on news sites, so I thought I would finally throw my two cents in.

Here is Richard Bartle's original post that started the debate,and his follow-up post to the responses it got.

In the quest, Librarian Normantis wants you to torture an Imprisoned Beryl Sorcerer so that he reveals the location of Lady Evanor who has been abducted. He says that he can’t do it himself because the Kirin Tor code of conduct frowns upon it. He gives you the Neural Needler and you have to stick the guy a few times with it while he; at first taunts you, then says that he knows nothing, begs you to stop and then finally tells you where Lady Evanor is being held, though hedging that by saying that trying to save her is folly. If you are so inclined you can keep poking him while he tells you he doesn’t know anything else.

Bartle was saying that Blizzard failed with the torture quest because it was nothing, it didn’t mean anything, and it was just another couple of mouse clicks in a quest chain. It wasn’t just that you torture the Sorcerer that is the problem; it was the actual quest design that failed because it didn’t take advantage of the torture concept. A lot of people seem to miss this point. And comparing it to hundreds of non-player characters (NPCs) you actually kill isn’t valid; because it is not the same thing.

The textbook way this should be done is to offer the player a choice with a reward for torturing the NPC but also a negative consequence. Is the reward worth the negative consequence?

Let’s look at a perfect example already in WoW, raising your reputation with the Blood Sail Buccaneers by killing citizens of Booty Bay. Which you can read about here.

The reward for doing so is the Bloodsail Admiral’s Hat (item level 60, 63 honor, +25 stamina and right click summons a Bloodsail Parrot non-combat pet) and the title “Bloodsail Admiral.” It is basically just a cosmetic reward, albeit a rare one that you aren’t going to see a lot of people doing. Let’s not forget that prestige is also a big reward in these types of games.

The negative consequence is ruined faction with Booty Bay, and even damage to your reputation with other goblin factions. Basically, you can no longer get quests or buy items from NPCs in those towns. I should also note that if you are trying to cash in an in-game reward from the WoW trading card game, it’s very difficult because the NPC you use to enter the trading card code is in Booty Bay.

Is it worth it? Not for me to say, that is for each player to decide. The point is there is a choice with both a reward and consequence.

Now let’s take that basic example apply it to the torture quest. We will make it a choice.

Same setup, Lady Evanor, an important leader of the Kirin Tor, has been abducted. Librariam Normantis had captured a Beryl Sorcerer who may know where she is being held. He is unwilling to torture the captive himself and presents that option to the player.

The player has two response options with Librariam Normantis; one where you agree to torture the prisoner and one where you don’t. Both cases offer you a quest – one quest to torture the guy which has some nice item rewards to choose from and the other quest where you don’t torture him and get no reward, but go off to complete a bunch of other quests to kill the bad guys without the aid of Lady Evanor. Both quest lines can come back together in the end or not, it’s just you have to decide if you will torture the guy and get the item reward.

Problem is that is a cowardly way out. 99.9% of the players will poke the guy till he squeals and then take the reward. 0.0099% will do the same and just tell everybody they didn’t and only 0.001 will take the moral high road and say no. In the end it doesn’t mean anything because not getting the item reward isn’t enough of a choice.

We have to make the consequence something real. We also want to put the weight on the torture, making it the negative choice that the player deliberately does. So let’s say there is no torture quest offered in the chain.

Instead Librariam Normantis tells the player that Lady Evanor has been abducted and they have captured a Beryl Sorcerer who may know where she is being held, but he isn’t talking. He mentions that they found the Neural Needler on the Sorcerer when they captured him but that the Kirin Tor does not condone torture. The life of one person, even Lady Evanor, isn’t worth the loss of the moral high ground. He stressed that the Kirin Tor will not stand by anybody who performs or condones such torture. He then gives you another quest, based on some clue he has devised from the Sorcerer, a Sherlock Homes based “rare mud on his shoes” thing, and is sending you off to investigate. I would make this a Nexus dungeon quest that shows a decent reward.

However the Neural Needler is right there on the table next to the captured Beryl Sorcerer, it is even giving off a little pulsing spark. If you click on it, you get the option to use it on the prisoner to get him to talk. The text makes it clear this goes against the wishes of Librariam Normantis and the Kirin Tor and that you will not be able to deal with them afterwards. That’s it. No reward is shown for using the Needler, but still the temptation is there.

If you use the Needler you automatically fail the previously offered quest and can’t get it again. You also lose a large amount of Kirin Tor faction preventing you from getting any more quests from them. However you do get a quest to go rescue Lady Evanor based on the information you gain from the torture.

I would leverage this in several more quests later on, playing up on the “one life isn’t worth sacrificing your morals” line from Librariam Normantis. What about two lives, a dozen lives, or the lives of all the Kirin Tor?

10 comments:

BugHunter said...

That last bit emphasizes my issue with Bartle's take on the whole thing. As high and mighty as he thinks he is, would his view on torture change if it was his daughters being held captive? I bet it would, as would mine. Who's life has to be at stake before torture becomes a real option?

Joseph B. Hewitt IV said...

BAH! Not you too! It isn't about his view on torture! Where does he even go on about his view on torture?

Its about them having a torture quest done so poorly, with no meaning, no emotion.

Its about BAD quest design/writing!

BugHunter said...

I can see that your talking about the piss-poor cookie cutter quest generation. The problem is that he chooses this quest other than the tons of other equally bad (some worse) ones to flip out about.

When I read his post originally it left a very heavy "anti-torture uphold the Geneva convention" taste in my mouth, and this was the day he posted, not after all the ridiculous reaction to his words. As I reread it again, I still see it in his last 2 paragraphs. His politics (which aren't a secret) bleed heavily into that post, and I don't think that kind of crap belongs in my video games.

He wouldn't have gotten nearly the negative response if he used one of the poop quests as an example of meaningful consequences. Like NPCs won't sell to you because you stink or something. Instead he wanted to make a political statement more than a design statement.

Anonymous said...

BugHunter>The problem is that he chooses this quest other than the tons of other equally bad (some worse) ones to flip out about.

Like I wouldn't have had people jumping on my back if I'd complained about having to kill level 1 wolves straight out of the gate in Northshire Abbey?

I complained about this particular quest because it changed what the game was "about". No longer was I operating within the ethical universe I thought I was operating in: things had changed. Now if I knew from the start that torture was something I'd be expected to do, fine, I'd know I was playing a dark, morally dubious character. I didn't, though: the ground shifted beneath my feet two years later.

>When I read his post originally it left a very heavy "anti-torture uphold the Geneva convention" taste in my mouth

Yes, but as you say, my politics aren't a secret (although I'd classify this as a moral issue, not a political one). You expect to see this kind of thing on my blog from time to time. If it's too much for you, you don't read it. You can't claim it came as a surprise, though - it's par for the course.

Likewise, with the WoW torture case, if it was something I expected then fine, it may leave a nasty taste but hey, I knew I could see that sort of thing when I signed up. Except, I didn't. It has crossed a line for no good reason.

>He wouldn't have gotten nearly the negative response if he used one of the poop quests as an example of meaningful consequences.

I wasn't arguing about meaningful consequences (and yes, the poop quests do miss a trick there). I was arguing about marking a quest that's been added to make a political or artistic point, so you know that it's there for that reason. Meaningful consequences is one (reasonably good) way of flagging this kind of quest, but there are others.

>would his view on torture change if it was his daughters being held captive?

Would yours change if it were you who was being tortured for capturing them?

Richard

Richard Bartle said...

Oh, that previous post wasn't supposed to be anonymous, sorry.

Richard

Joseph B. Hewitt IV said...

I remember when I first heard about torture when I was pretty young, 6-8ish years old. It didn't occur to me that it would be immoral or unethical, I just assumed that if the bad guys got you and thought you had important information they would do what ever it takes to get it out of you. I wondered if I could withstand torture, I think I was pretty fixated on bamboo under the fingernails. I remember that I also realized that it was really going to suck and there was no way to get out of it even if you talked because they would have to be sure that I told them the truth and told them everything. If you gave in too early anything you said was suspect.

Oh and Richard if you're still reading. We meet a few years ago when you guys flew out to Australia to review our game documents for Hwrang at Auran Games in Brisbane. Hwrang which became Guardian's Online which became Fury which was handled poorly and released way to early. It was closed down a few months ago.

I was the guy who asked you to sign your book. You were good enough to act sufficiently embarrassed and humbled by the request. :-)

BugHunter said...

Richard, I read your blog every day (I'm the guy with the physical therapist for a wife). I know darn good and well that our views differ on many things, but that doesn't mean it's not worth reading. I still don't think a discussion on ethics and morality is something I want in my video games. I don't want characters getting struck by lightening when they engage in cybering either.

BugHunter: would his view on torture change if it was his daughters being held captive? I bet it would, as would mine.

Richard: Would yours change if it were you who was being tortured for capturing them?

I'm not much of a fan of torture actually. I thought it very telling that we got so much information out of Hussein by having one of the guards become a trusted close friend. On the other hand I might be first in line to hold the whip if my son's life were at stake. I don't think anyone can be honest about this until they find themselves in the position to make the tough choice.

That's the funny thing about bad guys (which you are if you are playing WoW, no matter which race and which faction you chose...your also the hero.), they don't think of themselves as bad.

I was thinking about the quest this morning again. What if the consequence for not torturing is that a random character is permanently deleted from the server?

Joseph B. Hewitt IV said...

That reminds me of a Twilight Zone (or one of the Twilight Zone clones of the time) episode where a couple is given a button and told that if they push it they would be given a million dollars but somebody they didn't know would die.

They are tortured by the choice and see that the button isn't even hooked up to anything, how would they even know if they pushed it?

Eventually they give in and wind up pushing the button. The guy who first gave it to them shows back up and gives them the money and takes the button away. They ask about what happens next and he tells them they will offer the choice to somebody else... somebody they don't know.

Richard Bartle said...

Bughunter>I read your blog every day

The reason I mentioned this was that you may disagree with what I say, but at least you know to expect it. I read blogs where I know I'm going to disagree with the authors, too. If, though, I read a blog that I always agreed with and then it said something that was jarringly different, well that would ring alarm bells.

Likewise, if I don't like torture but play a game that I know will ask me to do it, or that it's within the fiction that I might be asked to do it, OK, that's fine. I've decided to take the rough with the smooth. It's when I haven't been expecting something like it to feature that I'd complain. This is what happened with WoW.

It's only because it's WoW that I got any flak for this, by the way. I laid into Oblivion much more for its distasteful and tedious vampire quest line, but nobody raised an eyebrow. Throw a grain of sand at WoW, though, and suddenly I'm seven kinds of idiot.

>I'm the guy with the physical therapist for a wife

Would that I could get her to examine me... My new physiotherapist is convinced that I have a frozen shoulder and given me a bunch of exercise to unfreeze it, but they hurt like crazy...

>On the other hand I might be first in line to hold the whip if my son's life were at stake.

So let's say you were the one being whipped because someone else's son's life were at stake. You didn't abduct his son, you have no idea where his son is, but you're being tortured to provide the information. That torture is going to continue indefinitely, until new information reveals that you're innocent.

Assuming you survived, would this alter your views were your own son to be kidnapped? Or would you just go whipping someone who may not know the information you want anyway?

This is all beside the point, of course. I wasn't actually complaining about torture per se, just how it was handled in this one quest.

In any case, even if you don't find torture a problem morally, the fact is that it just doesn't work. You don't generally get good information from it, you can't tell when the information you get IS good, you do psychological damage to the person doing the torture, and if you're at all serious about it you usually end up killing the prisoner anyway.

>That's the funny thing about bad guys (which you are if you are playing WoW, no matter which race and which faction you chose...your also the hero.)

I don't accept that. I've managed to get this far in WoW by playing as a "good guy", which is why it came as such a jolt to see the "bad guy" quest. Of course, if you believe in original sin then everyone is a "bad guy" by definition. I don't, though.

>What if the consequence for not torturing is that a random character is permanently deleted from the server?

Then griefers would deliberately not torture, just so a random person loses a random character.

Richard

Richard Bartle said...

Joseph B. Hewitt IV>We meet a few years ago when you guys flew out to Australia to review our game documents for Hwrang at Auran Games in Brisbane.

Ah, Hwarang ... As I recall, it had a lot of potential but the publishers seemed to want a different game to the one you started writing.

>was handled poorly and released way to early.

Yes, I heard. So many MMOs have suffered from premature releases that it should be well understood now that in the long term it's better to hang on. People still seem to do it, though...

It was a shame that Fury closed, but worse that it took Auran with it. You had a good team there.

Richard