- 1 Introduction
- 2 Anarchy of All Against All
- 3 The Race for Hegemony
- 4 Co-operation in a World of Anarchy
- 5 Node/City Mechanics & Nationhood
- 6 Hard Power, Soft Power & the Effects of Player Morale
- 7 Considerations of Player Morale
- 8 Hegemonic Dominion Forever? Not Really.
- 9 Evolution in Player Interpretation of Election Mechanics in Nodes
- 10 Game Mechanics Required for the Facilitation of Great Power Politics
- 11 Conclusion and Final Remarks
It is early days yet in the development of Ashes of Creation. After all, there is not even a playable alpha for any tangible experiences. I am a longtime gamer who has run the gamut of many MMORPG titles. As a player of EVE Online of more than 10 years where I have actively participated in and observed the political developments within player-sovereign space, having earned a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations and wandered the halls of power in Capitol Hill and Westminster Palace alike, there is much of those experiences which may very well be applied effectively to Ashes of Creation. For a time, I was a volunteer in an MMO where I wrote and produced GM events, acted them out in-game with player participation with dynamic consequences at the end In Ashes of Creation, I intend to participate heavily in player government as a policy advisor. The introduction of a node system in which nodes expand and contract from the outcomes of player activity and interaction leads to the possibility of a new and exciting simulator of human nature, and below is a brief scribbling to my thoughts on how players may organize themselves for The Great Game of geopolitics.
Anarchy of All Against All
“… [it] is portrayed as a brutal arena where states look for opportunities to take
advantage of each other, and therefore have little reason to trust each other.”
– John J. Mearsheimer
As players emerge into this new world with no prior established government or city – a tabula rasa (a clean slate) – to start with, it is every player for themselves. Thomas Hobbes published his book, The Leviathan, to describe humans in a state of nature where all are relatively equal in their ability to harm and injure the other, and all persons are vulnerable to attack by another person. This is a world without a government to enforce order, and that is what is bound to happen in the beginnings of Ashes of Creation. It will force players into a constant state of war of all against all, where there is no ruler or judge who can resolve disputes or establish security, and that is defined as anarchy. In this anarchic new world, Hobbes argued that our lives must revolve around survival, leaving us with little or no time for farming, sciences or the arts.
The answer to this is the establishment of some kind of government which replaces the state of nature with an order, and this is where player guilds come in with a pre-established agreement to work towards the same goal. Larger guilds may have the objective of staking claims to several nodes at once in order to secure an advantage. This new world in Ashes of Creation will be divided into small political communities – states or nations, if you will – which pursue their own goals. This theme of anarchy and having individual entities constantly striving for their own security in this environment of anarchy will most likely set the tone in relationships among player groups, be they guilds or alliances between guilds.
The Race for Hegemony
“Daily life is essentially a struggle for power, where each state strives not only to be the most powerful actor in the system, but also to ensure that no other state achieves that lofty position.”
– John J. Mearsheimer
Whenever an alpha or beta phase begins in an MMO, there is a mad initial scramble among guilds for the earliest advantage. This has been observed in past experiences in Lineage II, World of Warcraft, Guild Wars 2, Warhammer Online and Archeage. The most prominent and obviously observable long-term effects of first-place advantage is seen in EVE Online, where old players who have been playing for 10 years or more have accrued most of the earliest and most valuable blueprints and items. These valuable items easily become sources of passive income which entrenches their owners’ wealth and political significance within the game.
In the first few days and weeks of Ashes of Creation, it would not be surprising to see this same pattern in prior MMOs rearing its head. As various guilds and player organizations scramble for the greatest early advantage, this race for hegemony is driven by each organization’s need for greater security be it in resource gathering, relatively safe spaces to level up in and secure routes towards dungeons for loot.
But, what is hegemony? Hegemony is the ability of an actor – be it guild or alliance – to have the overwhelming capability to shape the global system through coercive or non-coercive means. The leader of this hegemonic organization may use coercive means by compelling a neighboring organization to bend the knee by threatening to raze its node to the ground. Another hegemonic organization may take the non-coercive path by convincing a neighboring organization to co-operate and share resources in return for a security guarantee from other player-run organizations like bandits, pirates or mercenaries. Within this anarchic system of Ashes of Creation, it is out of the question that all organizations, when given the chance, will seek to become the hegemonic power of their respective regions in order to best guarantee its own security.
Co-operation in a World of Anarchy
Another way for player organizations to come together and pool their resources together is through cooperation as equal partners. As player organizations are governments of their own fiefdoms, there is no higher government which is there to enforce contracts or terms of agreements. Co-operation can be enforced through mechanisms, norms, and rules which are set amongst organizations which are modeled upon the stag hunt game theory (see: Nash equilibrium). To borrow an example from David Hume, it is modeled upon two individuals who must row a boat. If both choose to row, they can successfully move the boat. However, if one does not, the other wastes his effort. If both do not, the boat is not going anywhere. Cooperation is rewarded with mutual benefit, and yet non-contributing members will have to be punished based on rules which all parties have already consented to in the first place.
Node/City Mechanics & Nationhood
As there are going to be 4 different node types (Scientific, Economic, Militaristic, Divine), each with unique benefits which contribute to all other nodes in their zones of influence. Because these benefits provide such a substantial advantage (fast travel, long-distance cross-border trade) in a world where speed and reach of communications are limited, it stands to reason that it is in the interest of every hegemonic organization to want all four types of metropolises under their influence. Given how these particular metropolis nodes and other ancillary nodes behave like states or provinces in their own right, it will not stretch the imagination to expect player organizations – be they guilds or alliances made up of guilds – to decide to form a nation or kingdom unto themselves, with a hegemonic organization at the helm. It is also entirely possible for opposing nations/kingdoms to contemplate removing the opposition’s Scientific metropolis out of play as a strategic move to remove the fast travel benefit, thus hampering their logistical capability.
Beyond mere marriages of convenience for sharing of resources, it is likely to see groupings like nations/kingdoms to be a completely different animal. A savvy operator of soft power will be able to establish a unique identity or idea which other players can rally around, or identify themselves with. Examples of this are the Imperium coalition in EVE Online, which is headed by the Goonswarm Federation alliance. Under this Imperium, umbrellas are smaller alliances who identify themselves as Imperium such as The Initiative, Tactical Narcotics Team, Bastion and so on. Another example coalition is named PanFam, headed by the Pandemic Legion alliance, with other alliances of Northern Coalition. and Pandemic Horde under its influence. Both Imperium and PanFam are competing for power blocs with their individual identities and culture whose players are frequently at odds with, and for a player to move from either one coalition to the other is widely considered a heinous act of betrayal.
Players who have experienced the old days of Dark Age of Camelot, where there was plenty of loyalty and sense of identity revolving around the factions of Albion, Hibernia and Midgard may welcome the organic formation of such an identity in Ashes of Creation. Some may even feel inspired enough to create art, or propaganda to rally the troops in times of conflict. A quick Google search on “World War Bee propaganda” will serve up more than enough examples of how it has been done in prior MMOs.
Hard Power, Soft Power & the Effects of Player Morale
“Mass mobilization, inciting peasants to take up their scythes, straighten them – where’s the art in that? Much harder to build a strong state with healthy commerce, manufacturing, solid alliances, progressive science, and fair, independent courts that hand down just judgments. [King] Vizimir and I managed to do just that – through years of fucking hard work.”
– Sigismund Dijkstra, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
The uses and effects of hard power between player groups are very clear and straightforward: whoever has the larger, better-organized and –equipped, or more dedicated force will prevail in any conflict. The definition and application of soft power is a completely different animal. Coined by Harvard scholar Joseph Nye, soft power describes the ability to attract and co-opt rather than the use of hard power as the means of persuasion. The defining feature of soft power is that it does not seek to coerce, for the currency of soft power lies in: culture, political values, propaganda, and credibility. The interplay of hard and soft power can be described in several scenarios:
Tryhard Alliance has the most number of active players among all other organizations, possessing some of the best equipment in the game, and have decent leadership in the field. However, their top leadership have the tact and fluency in the English language of 10 year-olds, causing public opinion in the server to sour against them. Eventually, the rest of the alliances and guilds of the server have had enough of Tryhard Alliance and decide to form a coalition against
them, even if it harms their economic and trading circumstances in the short term. This scenario demonstrates how having the overwhelming hard power alone is not sufficient if it causes all other opponents to form a united front against Tryhard Alliance.
During the campaign against Tryhard Alliance [TA], one of TA’s top political leaders resides in one of their many castles while overseeing the war effort. Unbeknownst to this leader, a spy within TA’s ranks tips off a party of the opposing coalition’s assassins. They manage to infiltrate the castle and kill this leader while live streaming it on Twitch and get to escape scot free before NPC and player guards get to respond. An hour later, an edited YouTube video portraying TA in a very unflattering light is posted in the server’s forums and remains on top of the board for a day or two. In strictly objective and material considerations, TA did not lose much. Players still respawn, and the gear whom the assassinated leader dropped can be easily replaced. However, this is a huge blow in terms of soft power, as it is a demonstration of perceived incompetence when one of TA’s most important players was killed even when they were supposed to be in the safest place possible. Even more so, it was recorded live on Twitch for the rest of the server to gawk at. Incidents like this may be shrugged off on the first time. Or even the second. But if it happens regularly, line members of TA may question the competence of their leadership and may consider joining some other guild.
Considerations of Player Morale
When a game involving open world, and player-run organizations running all political events, leaders will need to take the player interest, engagement and morale into account if they wish to take territory and hold it. It is not very difficult to recruit members en-masse or even have an alliance of huge member counts with low recruitment standards, but it is far more difficult to ensure these players will keep on logging in to serve the interest of their guilds/alliances. The challenge is even greater when member numbers swell into the thousands, and TEST Squadron of Star Citizen is the gold standard of keeping the member base engaged through a series of YouTube videos where their leader is constantly talking to them and communicating short- and medium-term goals to work towards.
Hegemonic Dominion Forever? Not Really.
A common concern has been repeated across the forums and the Discord server chats. Eventually, a large and powerful guild/alliance will dominate the server, corner everything for themselves and cause the server/game to die. On the contrary, things do not simply end this way. Prior experience in various titles such as Dark Age of Camelot, Planetside, Guild Wars 2, EVE Online and The Elder Scrolls Online have indicated servers and communities which continue to endure and prevail, for the domination of a hegemonic organization is only temporary. The reasons are as follows:
- Stagnation with one big player dominating everything is boring.
- This is, after all, a video game, and players will want to find ways to generate content.
- Smaller groups will inevitably join together and figure out a way to topple the hegemony. This effect is known in International Relations theory as the principle of balance of power.
- Members of the hegemonic bloc may grow bored of having no one willing to fight them and may either leave for something more interesting or stop logging in. If the leadership of said hegemonic bloc is incapable of generating continued interest, they may weaken over time, which presents opportunities for smaller, active organizations.
- If the hegemonic bloc takes too much territory at too fast a pace, it may struggle to pay the upkeep of the many nodes it controls, or have trouble having enough players to secure the borders. Recruiting more players at too fast a pace to make up for this shortfall can result in poor coordination or the influx of spies which can destabilize the bloc.
Evolution in Player Interpretation of Election Mechanics in Nodes
The developers at Intrepid Studios have given some details in how the leaders of different node types may be chosen. A Scientific node may allow its citizens to vote for its leader in democratic elections, a Military node may have an arena tournament to choose its leaders, a trade node may have its leader chosen by their highest net worth and so on. However, once players come into contact with these mechanics – especially when it concerns how they organize themselves – things will not be so clear cut.
For one, developers should anticipate that players will always find a way to exceed expectations and circumvent established rules in order to gain an advantage or achieve their goals. Assuming citizens of each node will be in the minority, they may find themselves being lobbied by player groups which come calling with gifts of coin’s and other enticements to vote for their preferred candidates. Some organizations which “own” nodes of their own may eschew democracy altogether and all citizens which are part of the same organization will vote for a tyrant (or philosopher king) anyway. There can even be Communism in action, where a player who joins the organization hands over all of his/her personal assets, and in turn will be given whatever he/she may need for the rest of their career.
Furthermore, there may be times of crisis when having such a strict set of rules in player government may not be feasible. For example, a Mayor of a node who suddenly encounters challenges in real life may not carry out their duties anymore, and needs to hand over responsibilities to another person. Allowing for such a scenario needs to be taken into consideration. There may come a time in a Trade node where the best negotiator and diplomat needs to be put in charge, but he/she neither a citizen nor very wealthy. Organizations who choose to run themselves as a technocracy with no regard for citizenship also need to be accounted for. If players are going to exercise their maximum amount of agency in Ashes of Creation as advertised, the tools of agency need to be provided to facilitate this important part of the world.
Game Mechanics Required for the Facilitation of Great Power Politics
Apart from taking domestic elections and special interest groups, there needs to be careful consideration of how to facilitate politics among player organizations, “nations” and coalitions. Having a simple General Discussion forum section is not going to work. Mere server specific sections for general discussion will not either. If coherent discussion with high signal-to-noise ratio is to be had, there needs to be some kind of Global Politics forum section provided for each server, where only elected leaders i.e. Mayors and their elected/appointed officials are able to post on it while everyone is free to read their discussions. This will help to keep spam to a minimum, and to judge each node’s performance on their merits of discourse.
Secondly, because there needs to be a clear public record of attacks, kills, and aggression, there needs to be a public killboard very much similar to what EVE Online’s community has built for itself over the years. It serves as a public record of aggression and useful intelligence gathering tool which lists down who killed whom, where it happened, when it happened, and the number of participants on each side of the conflict. This will reduce the amount of useless bluster which will inevitably arise when the results of conflict are unverifiable, and the matter of public record is there for all to see. Additionally, Mayors need to have the agency to select how disputes between players and their respective guilds/alliances settle disputes within their territory. They may allow for open warfare in the streets which may result in collateral
Additionally, Mayors need to have the agency to select how disputes between players and their respective guilds/alliances settle disputes within their territory. They may allow for open warfare in the streets which may result in collateral damage or demand players to settle their disputes in the arena or risk permanent expulsion. There also needs to be a system of how players may be able to infiltrate enemy territory in order to execute assassination attempts as I earlier described. Setting the rules and institutions of warfare may also be required. Lastly, if players are to be publicly identified by player names, guild names and alliance names floating above their heads, there can also be the possibility of allowing player organizations to differentiate between friend and foe. A standing system, where Mayors or bloc leaders are able to determine if allies are in good standing, or bandits are in poor standing will allow for friendly players to have a blue square next to their
Conclusion and Final Remarks
I had intended for this to not be too lengthy, but in my endeavor to start a discussion in how politics between players and their organizations may play out among each other in a new MMO like Ashes of Creation, I ended up writing far more than I intended. I wrote a long-form post in order to lay down my ideas in a comprehensive manner, because the rapidfire pace and Snapchat-like ephemeral nature of discussion in Discord has not been the most conducive. Of course, I hope that the crew of Intrepid Studios will take a gander at my suggestions on what to look out for, as players can be very fond of defying expectations in even the most comprehensive of design documents. To those who are new to the concept of unhindered player freedom to do what they wish in a MMO, I hope what I wrote has been informative of what to expect going forward. To those who aspire to try their hand in player government, I wish you good luck.