This is a version of an article that first appeared in the September 2011 issue of Game Developer Magazine.


It is natural for the designer to think of himself as at odds with the player – he is, after all, the guide on the player’s journey through the game experience.  He needs to ensure the game is interesting and challenging throughout.  However, the rise of multiplayer gaming has resulted in a different strain of fun – griefing – and it has offered a new, more adversarial dimension to the designer/player relationship.

Griefing is the idea of players exerting power over other players inside of the game space, usually (but not always) in a manner that is orthogonal to the rules and goals of the game.  Beyond this, the definition gets a little tricky.  While griefers frequently cheat, a player can (and often does) grief without doing so.  While griefers often engage in direct player confrontation, oftentimes griefing can be done through backhanded channels.  In most games griefing is seen as a negative, but a precious few are actually built on it as the backbone.

Griefing is most commonly associated with massively multiplayer online games  but nearly any genre with multiplayer has the potential for grief.  Designers of shooters have to deal with spawn campers and team killers. Facebook designers have to deal with players who repeatedly kill the same opponent over and over again.  Any game with a chat room has to deal with trash talk so toxic that more mild-mannered players may be dissuaded from playing at all.

Even tabletop games run the risk of grief – the Pandemic player who insists on not helping the cause, or the D&D player who tries to burn down the town.  Most of these smaller games have a recourse – the owner of the game or server can stop inviting a jerk to play.  Designers of MMOs and other games with ‘public’ servers, on the other hand, have to come up with alternative solutions, or deputize themselves as wardens defending the peace.

The Expression of Power

Griefing is about power.  Killing a player 20 times in a row by spawn camping him is addictive fun not because you win the Deathmatch, but because he can’t stop you.  This same strain of fun can be found, albeit with a very different tone, by those who dance naked on mailboxes in Orgrimmar.  Or, for that matter, that unique friend on your Facebook roll who insists on telling the world endings of all the M. Night Shyamalan movies.

When I was working at Ubisoft, a game called Uru was being developed in a sister studio.  This game was meant to be an MMO version game of the classic puzzler Myst. I had several earnest discussions with their designers about what form griefing might take place in a game with no combat.  A top concerns was puzzle-griefing – players standing by puzzles, shouting out the answers as players came near.  And while it is amusing to imagine players wasting time shouting ‘blue triangle, green circle, red horseshoe!’ before you start moving puzzle pieces around, one can imagine the devastating effect it would have on those who loved Myst for its core gameplay.

One doesn’t have to attack or kill another player to grief.  Sometimes, not being able to be killed is the griefing tactic.  Consider Fansy the Bard.  In the early days of EverQuest, Fansy started a career on the heavy PvP, ‘no rules’ server of Sullon Zek.  He carefully kept his character below level 6, where due to the game mechanics he couldn’t be attacked.  This worked wonderfully in his favor when he led gigantic enemy creatures (i.e. ‘trained’ them) onto other players completely unable to retaliate in any way.  Due to complaints from the most hardcore of the hardcore Everquest player, the ‘no rules’ server had to make an exception to deal with Fansy.

A Cultural Thing

What is griefing is going to depend highly on the culture found within a game. The designer must identify the culture they want within the game and promoting or defending it is going to be as much part of their job as laying down levels or designing the combat math.  The cultural cues the designer puts into the game can have a huge effect – designing a testosterone-drenched game with scads of violence and/or women as sex objects (say, a Bulletstorm or a Duke Nukem Forever) is going to attract a very different audience, and have very different griefing thresholds, than online components for, say, the Settlers of Catan Xbox Live game or a more casual MMO like Maple Story or Free Realms.  In the latter, the bar for what equates griefing will be much lower, but the former will likely have a lot more players eager to test the boundaries.

Games designed for a younger market have to consider the risk of griefing to be a core component of their game, especially due to the uniquely ominous turn that sort of activity can take for that audience.  Wizard 101, and many other games, go so far as to not allow most players with each other to chat without special safeguards – most players playing the freeware version can only communicate using preset words and phrases.  It is still possible to annoy or frustrate another player, but these avenues are limited primarily to in-game mechanics.  For the most part, parents can feel at ease when their kids are playing Wizard 101 –an important consideration for that market.

Some games, however, have a much more expanded version of what is reasonable behavior vs. what is griefing.  Many MMOs in particular, have attempted to embrace a libertarian ideal for the genre, encouraging players to do whatever the game allows, and then allowing players to use the threat of force to correct problems on their own.  While this ideal often captures the imagination of the playerbase, the reality of griefing often catches up with them.  A couple of months before Ultima Online came out, there was an article on the game’s website giving the helpful hint that if you had one player lead the guards out of town, his friends could go on a player-killing rampage throughout the city.  After the game launched, the development team would actually spend a lot of time trying to quell these sorts of strategies.

Enter Eve

This is not to say that design of a more permissive game is not possible.  EVE Online initially launched with a permissive attitude, and has not wavered much from that design stance ever since.  It has been rewarded amply, both in the press as well as in the marketplace.

One  of many examples is the player Cally, who was an entrepreneur who started the EVE Intergalactic Bank.  He took player’s money for safekeeping, offering it out to other players as loans, complete with interest rates and payment plans.  At some point, he got bored, stole all of the money (by some estimates, worth more than a hundred thousand real dollars), spent it all on a souped up capital ship, and then proceeded to spend his time mocking those who formally trusted him across the web.

In most games, this would be perceived as an enormous example of catastrophic griefing, and countless customer service house would be spent trying to correct it.  But CCP, the makers of EVE, decided that in their vision of the game, such activities are fair game, so long as the money was earned through non-exploitative means (i.e. through legitimate game mechanics).  Their attitude: buyer beware.

The history of EVE is a rich tapestry of such scams and acts of personal betrayal, and they succeed in keeping the game on the front page of Wired.  Such events keep the idea of the game fresh and exciting.  EVE Online is a game where anything can happen, but it is also a wild frontier.  The game is, in many ways, defined by where it draws the line on griefing.

Ending the Grief

Griefing  can be hard to define and stop, largely because different players (and sometimes designers) can vary wildly on what actually is griefing inside of the same playspace.  Roleplayers in Ultima Online considered the guild of players who roleplayed Elves to be griefers – because everyone should know that there are no elves in the canonical Ultima!  Note in this case, the elves were only griefing accidentally.

When considering griefer activities inside your game, some simple rules of thumb are:

  • Be clear and consistent. Be sure that players understand what is expected of them, be sure that game mechanics support your decision, and be sure your designers, community personnel and customer service all have the same idea of what is permissible or not permissible inside of a game environment.  Note: this is usually very hard the first day a potential griefing tactic is found.
  • If you don’t want it, block it. Designers should catch themselves and say ‘oh, players will never do that’, especially if what you’re talking about is a way for one player to negatively impact another player’s experience.  Players can be extremely clever when it comes to finding ways to annoy and frustrate other players.
  • You get the behavior you incentivize. If you give players achievements or other rewards for grieftastic behavior, you will teach players that this sort of activity is permissible and encouraged!  Be sure you’re not giving rewards for spawncamping or killing the same player 20 times in a row – unless that’s really the culture you want to encourage.
  • Anonymity breeds grief. The less attached that players are to their character and reputation, the more likely they will engage in grief tactics.  This is one place where subscription-based MMOs have an advantage over free-play games and public server FPSes – but even then the designer needs to be wary that the player who griefs is typically far less attached to his character than his victim.

Griefing cannot be stopped in any multiplayer game, but it can be managed to the degree that it is an occasional distraction.  Failure to take griefing seriously, however, can result in your game getting a negative reputation, and can result in a community where ‘good’ customers flee, leaving a more unruly customer base to manage.

A wise producer once described a griefer as ‘a customer who costs me more money than he gives me’.  This simple description is an incredibly effective way for designers to think about griefers and their potential impact on the community as a whole.  It is also a useful reminder to designers that designing a multiplayer game is not just about laying out maps and designing weapons, but also about shaping the culture and permissiveness of their game.