author image by maxjam | 0 Comments | 23rd March 2017


SWG Temporary Enemy Flagging


I was sent this list of Star Wars: Galaxies questions by Jason Yates; he had seen this video interview, and didn’t know enough Spanish to be able to follow the answers. I posted up an English translation of the transcript here, but really, the interview didn’t much overlap with the questions he had.


Is there the possibility of you ever giving a question/answer session in relation to SWG, your views on the game development and direction, aspects of the game you felt worked, worked well, didn’t work at all? Like many, I have so many questions about your involvement with SWG and will likely never get all the answers I would enjoy hearing, but it never hurts to ask. ^_^


Well, honestly, for me it has been fifteen years since I started work on SWG, and twelve since I stopped. So a lot of these questions have either been answered before, or I outright don’t know or remember the answers! So I will give it a try. But the first answer turned out to be so damn long that it’s all I have time for today.


The TEF system and how it was thought up and designed.



TEF stands for Temporary Enemy Flagging. We knew when doing a Star Wars game that we needed to be able to account for the scenarios in the movies. This makes for a tricky problem: after all, we saw Luke clearly pick sides, Han only sort of do so at first, both of them ended up wearing Stormtrooper armor to hide, someone like Lando actually switched sides kinda, and all sorts of other ambiguous situations that don’t lend themselves well to a straightforward system where you declared for one side or the other at the start and were done.


On top of that, we knew that PvP was, well, fatiguing. Given that we were limiting each account to having a single character (for lots of reasons, including PvP, actually), making players have to pick a side, never change, and be always vulnerable, felt like a big ask. The spirit of the game was all about changing your character up over time, and trying new things, so a system of permanent choice for PvP felt wrong.


Lastly, something that I think people have forgotten, in these days of DayZ, Rust, and H1Z1, is how much there was a general aversion to PvP. Ultima Online had had a big issue with playerkillers marauding around, and had famously cloned the map and simply made a non-PvP “dimension.” EverQuest was philosophically opposed to it — it was a feature, but really barely present in terms of the game consciousness.


When we were sharing design thoughts on SWG (something which we did extensively, to a degree that even games today rarely do), I posted up a very clear statement on the forums that runaway PKing was simply not going to be a feature of Galaxies.


I still believe many things. I still believe that we can find ways to allow players to police their environment. I still believe that this can open up the way to many extremely cool features new to these sorts of games. And I am continuing to work towards having these many features: real battles of territory. Player governments with actual importance and consequence. Player communities that are refined and defined via conflict and struggle so that their battles MEAN something. Real emotions–yes, even including fear and shame, because this is a medium like any other art medium, and its expressive (and impositional!) power is amazing and worthy of exploration. I believe that virtually every player can try PvP and enjoy it, if it is designed correctly, and that it adds great richness to the online gaming experience.

But I do not want to ever disappoint people in that way again. People will come to SWG for those things, and I do not want them to discover that they cannot stay and enjoy them because the very freedoms which allow those cool, innovative, exciting features, also allow d00dspeaking giggly jerks to dance roughshod jigs on their virtual corpses.

So am I willing to make compromises in “realism” (a radically overvalued thing in game design, frankly) to make sure that SWG remains someplace where most everybody can feel welcome?

You betcha.


Some Antecedents

In Ultima Online we had tried a number of systems to deal with open player versus player combat while still providing safety. All of them were systems based on the idea of “you can attack, but you’ll get flagged somehow as a result.” This is as opposed to what were commonly termed “PK switch” systems, where you flipped a flag on yourself in advance, and could only fight other players who had also made that choice. The general consensus, I think, is that blocking in advance was better for the peaceful player; no punishments for flagging ever seemed to really deter a playerkiller. The third major system in use was realm versus realm combat, best exemplified by Dark Age of Camelot — basically, dividing the map into territory in advance, and saying you were always safe from your side, but the sides simply didn’t interact except at the boundaries. When they did interact, they weren’t even allowed to communicate, in order to minimize channels for griefing.



The original proposal for a PvP system in SWG was actually something called Outcasting. It was based on the idea that players were going to own pieces of territory in the world, and be able to set laws within that territory. The key to the system was the idea that players basically all had a “license to kill,” but it could be taken away, almost like inverting the traditional PK switch. If you committed a murder in a territory, the decision on whether to take away your ability to PK fell to the leadership in the territory. Any PK incident would automatically send a log of the events to the local government, so they could make a decision. This would allow a player government to always forgive their “police force,” for example. Or to allow a PK incident if it was well roleplayed, etc. Removal of the ability to PK would then be tied to that territory. Go into no man’s land, and you could still kill anyone.


Some of this was inspired by how the late Jeff Freeman had run his UO gray shard — in that game, as you killed citizens of one town or another, you became an instakill target in that town. So going on a crime spree meant that eventually, you’d be denied all the basic services and more or less be unable to play, obliged to live “out in the woods” as an outlaw.


I don’t remember exactly why this didn’t get implemented. We talked about it some on the forums and in dev chats. But it wasn’t all that Star Warsy, clearly, and depended heavily on a territory system that was inevitably going to slip out of the initial release. It was set up much more around player towns than around Rebellion and Empire factions. It had challenges around the logging, related to privacy issues and storage. All in all, it was a bit of a pain.


The birth of TEFs

So it was abandoned in favor of a new system, what came to be known as Temporary Enemy Flags, which I ended up designing myself relatively late in the development cycle. The main goal, as I mentioned, was to try to mimic the events in the movies as much as possible. But artificial stuff like grouping and housing rules and the like quickly got in the way.


Basically, what I did was try to take scenarios from the movies and come up with a ruleset that would allow them to happen in the game. But of course, the game offered far more scenarios than the movies did!

The core of the system was these ideas:


•that a lot of players would probably like to join the Rebels or the Empire without being forced into PvP. This part turned out to be completely true.

•that many players might well like to jump into PvP temporarily, as long as it wasn’t a permanent commitment. This also turned out to be correct.

•that players would find it really confusing and non-Star Warsy if you were an Imperial and saw players killing NPC Stormtroopers willy nilly and couldn’t do anything about it. This, it turned out, was not really the case.


We were pursuing Star Warsy fictional consistency with this bullet point, basically, and it turned out to be an aspect where eventually gamey-ness won out.


Basically, you started out as a civilian. Either side would leave you alone, but you had to opt out of attacking NPCs from either side, too. So no fighting Stormtroopers or Rebels.


You could go sign up as a covert member of a side. This meant you were secretly on that side, but it didn’t really show. So if you were a covert Rebel, Stormtroopers wouldn’t kill you on sight. But if you attacked one, then you were visibly a Rebel for something like fifteen minutes after the last blow or shot because we applied a temporary enemy flag to you. After that, you were safe again. But in the meantime, you were completely vulnerable to the other side — which included players from the other side.


Lastly, you could be overt, which meant you were visibly on a side at all times — basically, this was like a PK switch being flipped. This meant you could be attacked by the other side at any moment, whether it was by NPCs or other players. But it also meant you could use all sorts of cool perks since you were effectively “in the army.” You could wear Stormtrooper armor, you could command an AT-ST, call in an airstrike even. There was a whole ladder of worth of faction perks, up to the ability to build entire bases with laser cannons and everything so you could try to re-enact the Battle of Hoth. Coverts had more limited access to this stuff — I think they were only usable when you were flagged? Or maybe using them flagged you. I don’t remember.


You could drop back from Overt to Covert again, with some effort and loss of capabilities. You could even drop out of Covert and go back to being a civilian, and then switch sides.


All that seems pretty straightforward. But that’s not where the problems arose.


What the heck is a helpful action?

The problem is, what’s the list of stuff that can trigger the flag? Attacking a Stormtrooper seems like an obvious candidate. But what about healing a Stormtrooper? What about handing fresh ammo to a Stormtropper who is almost out? What about inviting that Stormtrooper to hide inside your house while denying a Rebel entry?

Worse, some of the things you could do as a helpful action were even sort of passive. If you were an entertainer in a bar, and someone chose to watch you, you were healing them of battle fatigue. You couldn’t say no… do you get flagged, because you are now helping an Imperial?



The many tentacles of “helpful activity” quickly made the ruleset a morass of edge cases. We had to account for bounty hunters, for example. We had to worry about the case where you were grouped with someone who performed a helpful action on someone. What if the group was mixed coverts from both sides, and then one of them went overt? Should they suddenly be vulnerable to their own group members, or is the group bond sacrosanct? What about bounty hunters, who effectively had an orthogonal PvP system layered on top?


These things quickly turned what had been a fairly clean system into a nightmare.


The thing is, the system did do a good job of capturing the Star Warsy moments. I was able to walk through the entirety of Episode IV’s plot with the TEF system, and literally every example worked (except that I think we didn’t allow Rebels to secretly wear Stormtrooper armor). Even well after the system was removed there were plenty of people who felt that it never should have gone away. People who favored it enjoyed the fact that sudden battles could erupt out of nowhere, that you could have that tension of committing a sudden attack, becoming vulnerable, and the adrenaline rush of trying to stay alive until the timer expired. It brought that rush of free-for-all into the game in a way that was temporary.


Ultimately, SWG’s pre-NGE PvP was a customizable system that catered to everyone. Well, everyone except griefers, basically, because unless you remained willfully ignorant of the mechanics and made mistakes with your flagging, it was impossible to be griefed even though you were playing a game that featured open-world FFA PvP. It wasn’t a perfect system, though. For my money, there could’ve been some harsher consequences for aggressors. There were no real penalties for instigating a fight, and basically the only punishment for dying — aside from gear decay — was a set of temporary debuffs and a timer that made you wait a few minutes before re-engaging.



On the other hand, “making mistakes with your flagging” as this quote puts it, happened all the time. Saying it was “impossible to be griefed” is just not correct. To quote one player who was on the receiving end of it far too often,


TEF, in itself, is not all that bad of a system but it’s what players do with it. Greifing seems to be the norm and quite looked forward to via a very small group of some players. And that very small group can easily ruin gameplay for almost everyone else. Imagine a group of 20 rebs sitting outside the Emp’s Retreat waiting for some unsuspecting new player to try and get a mission returned. Or another group of imps doing the same outside Coro, Lok, Dant, of Yavin. The themeparks would be unused and un-doable content, pure and simple. The same could be said for the load in areas from the vette along with many other instances of regular PVE gameplay and the tears will most certainly flow along with the Galaxy Chat screams. Want to overwork your CSRs and GMs by nothing more than making them referees? Put back in TEF. Want to make Galaxy Chat unreadable by any1 who doesn’t want to see long rants of obscenities? Put back in TEF.



Why was the TEF system removed?

Too many edge cases, basically. Helpful actions got to be very… subtle. Is it a helpful action if you are grouped with someone from one side and trade an item with them while in the home of someone from the opposite side? That event triggered a temporary flag on you and since you were in an enemy’s home, you got automatically ejected; there might be an ambush waiting outside for you that you can’t even see while you load from a sudden teleport.


In short, the edge cases made it very griefable. And grief, while not the same thing as PvP, often runs in parallel. Trash talking, gloating, bad language, entrapment… all these things were happening with the TEF system. And why was it that people kept making the mistake of flagging themselves?


The biggest reason? Players who just wanted to treat Stormtroopers as, well, orcs. Monsters in a videogame that they could mow down without getting dragged into PvP. Having been trained through decades of games set in Star Wars to kill Stormtroopers when they saw them. Often, simply not even seeing the little icon indicating that this dude wearing some weird uniform was actually an Imperial informant, or something. Worse, not knowing whether a given other player might come after you the second you made a mistake.


For the cautious and savvy player, this wasn’t that big a deal. But cautious and savvy players aren’t at risk of subscription cancellation. They are already bought in. It’s less sophisticated players you need to worry about, and who will make the mistake, and get burned by it and quit.


The death of TEFs

The result was a change whereby the game went over to something more like a switch. (You can read the original forum description of the change on this archive page). I was off the team at that point, but basically, it was more or less changing all the TEF situations to be opt-in in advance. Everything else remained pretty much intact. Covertness went away, and instead of having


•Civilian who can’t affect even NPC aspects of the Galactic Civil War.

•Covert who can, but thereby enters PvP and can only use faction perks when at PvP risk.

•Overt who are 24/7 PvPers and get constant use of faction perks in exchange.


It became


•Civilian who can’t affect even NPC aspects of the Galactic Civil War (e.g., unchanged)

•PvP disabled faction members, who can attack NPCs all day long but aren’t vulnerable to PvP. They get all the faction perks, too!

•PvP enabled faction members, basically just like Overt was.



In other words, the pillar of “actually match the Star Wars universe” was what fell by the wayside. You could now have a bunch of PvP disabled Imperial players massacring a Rebel base with their AT-STs, and if you were a Rebel, you stood by and watched. PvP became a separate, parallel game.


In the process, the tangle of helpful actions was also simplified. Trading and healing via entertainment and giving buffs were all removed from the list. Yes, this created a whole new set of exploits — particularly buffs, which were ridiculously overpowered and the result of a design error, but that’s another story for another day.


It’s important to understand that even this huge simplification wasn’t really simple.


Here is a simple diagram that shows the interaction of how the “healing” actions will work across PvP enabled and disabled players:

---------> Healing Actions --------> <------- Healing Actions <---------
Imperial                                                           Rebel
[PvP Enabled]  [PvP Disabled]  [Civilian]  [PvP Disabled]  [PvP Enabled]
|                                                                      |
|_________________________________  Attack  ___________________________|


Imperial Special Forces can heal Imperial Special Forces, Imperial Combatants and Civilians.

Imperial Special Forces can NOT heal Rebel Combatants or Rebel Special Forces

Imperial Combatants can heal Imperial Combatants and Civilians.

Imperial combatants can NOT heal Imperial Special Forces, Rebel Combatants, or Rebel Special Forces

Civilians can heal other Civilians.

Civilians can NOT heal Rebel Special forces, Rebel Combatants, Imperial Special Forces, or Imperial Combatants.

Rebel combatants can heal Rebel Combatants and Civilians

Rebel combatants can NOT heal Rebel Special Forces, Imperial Combatants, or Imperial Special Forces

Rebel Special Forces can heal Rebel Special Forces, Rebel Combatants and civilians.

Rebel Special Forces can NOT heal Imperial Combatants or Imperial Special Forces


Got that?


I didn’t actually like these changes. I argued that cleaning up the edge cases would probably be enough. Go ahead, remove items from the helpful actions list, make it so that people can’t ever “do it by mistake.” Cut out the grouping rules which were the source of so many problems.


But the core sticking point was “non-PvPers want to kill Stormtroopers and get faction perks.” It was part of the core fantasy for them.


The upshot

What the changes did was say to players “you can now participate in all aspects of the Galactic Civil War without engaging in any form of player versus player combat.” So it met that wish-fulfillment admirably for that playstyle. It just did so at the cost of fictional consistency with the setting. And the response at the time was glee:


Did I say exciting? I meant OMFG! Wow!!! This is awesome! You mean I don’t have to hide my AT-ST for fear of loosing it to some uber faction farming jerk?! Fantastic!

— ZalTaur on the SWG forums, 2/2/2005


It’s a compromise quite similar to giving everyone Jedi, come to think of it.


But you’re always caught there in the tangled question of audience and audience size versus fidelity. Is it wrong to give the largest possible audience access to a fantasy that is somewhat watered down? Or do you instead try to make the fantasy as true to the source as possible, knowing it will alienate players?


After all the controversy for so many years, World of Warcraft came out. At launch, how did its PvP system work?


Random PvP – Whenever a player character comes across another player character of the opposing faction whose PvP flag is turned on (on PvP realms this flag will switch on whenever you go outside the low-level zones that your faction controls, although it can still be activated in these zones, or Sanctuary areas) that player can attack the other. This was often called “World PvP” before the introduction of zone-specific PvP combat goals, and often still is called by this name.


Oh, and how does this flag get turned on?


Your flag will be put up in any of these situations:

•YouputyourPvP flag up permanently. This is done by the /pvp slash command or from player’s portrait menu (right click on portrait, select PvP | Enable). Typing /pvp while flagged will disable PvP.

•You engage another player of an opposing faction in combat other than dueling. Many consider it an honorable act to put up your PvP flag before engaging another player, to give him or her a fair chance to react. To attack someone before you put your own flag up is known as bluewalling. While Bluewalling is not against any official rules and is used by some as part of their PvP strategy, many others consider it to be very cowardly. It does not preclude getting yourself killed, however, and there are stories on the official Blizzard forums of some getting bluewalled and coming out on top.

•You cast a spell on a player whose flag is up. If you cast a buff (for example, Power Word: Fortitude) on your friend who has his PvP flag up, yours will also go up. If you cast a healing spell or resurrect a flagged player, your flag will go up.

•You attack an NPC marked by a PvP flag, like most quest givers, guards, and vendors. This usually applies to NPCs of the opposite faction, but also to neutral factions if you are at war with them, and in rare cases, your own faction. Certain quests require you to kill these type of NPCs. You may also be flagged without attacking aforementioned NPCs, but instead they striking you, this is considered to largely be a bug that has existed throughout the history of the game, be wary about getting attacked by guards.

•You are in proximity to certain NPCs marked by a PvP flag. These NPCs are often found near settlements of an opposing faction, such as Goldshire and Razor Hill.

•You accept some of the PvP quests. You will remain flagged as long as that quest is in your quest log.

•You enter a specific territory. The scheme for flagging by zoning-in is shown in the table below: (etc)


In other words — WoW uses TEFs. Why do they work in WoW without all the anguish and strife? Well, because a) WoW is a hundred times more polished than SWG ever was; b) because in SWG, Rebels and Imperials were bumping against each other from the moment of character creation, whereas WoW used widely separated realms that channeled you through a PvE experience for quite some time before this was even a factor; c) WoW led you narratively through the game, so that the moments of finally jumping into PvP could be dramatically more guided experiences; d) WoW doesn’t have quite the entrainment of “of course you kill Stormtroopers” that the Star Wars setting does; e) death is pretty damn painless in WoW, whereas we had item decay and battle fatigue and the like in SWG… it goes to show that all sorts of external factors can impact a system very dramatically.


The world has changed a lot. WoW is effectively a “free for all PvP world” that no one sees as such. Instead, the hot thing these days is the total gankage model of the survival game, basically very glitzy versions of Ultima Online’s Felucca or original ruleset, even before rep systems or flags. The audience is now large enough that you can make a business out of a game like that, and can feel free to alienate hundreds of thousands of players. But when we were designing SWG, we were thinking that there were only a million MMORPG players in the entire Western world. We couldn’t target a niche that way.


Long long ago, I stated that “the future of MMOs is ‘PvP’” and I think I was absolutely right. But my point was that there are many ways of putting players into competition. One of the critiques of Galaxies was that in fact, the economic level of gankage ended up having the same sort of winner-takes-all issues that PKing does — but it was far more palatable to players in the context of supply chains than it was when getting a blaster bolt in the face or a sword in the guts. I didn’t like the TEF changes, but I have to admit that they did fit with the philosophy I expressed in that statement of playerkilling I posted to the forums:


So am I willing to make compromises in “realism” (a radically overvalued thing in game design, frankly) to make sure that SWG remains someplace where most everybody can feel welcome?

You betcha.


That’s pretty much exactly what the team chose to do. What’s changed over time is that everybody feeling welcome isn’t what games have to do anymore.




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