Backstage areas have always fascinated me. Behind the scenes in theatres, where all the glitz and glamour dies instantly the moment you step where the public isn’t meant to see – down lethal staircases and in filthy preparation rooms. The tunnels in places like Walt Disney World, where cast members travel to avoid ruining the magic, and tough security guards probably not wearing mouse ears emerge to haul off trouble-makers. And in games, especially online ones, there’s often parts that we’re just not meant to see, from developer tricks to places for the GM team to hang out.
Quite often, these include prisons. For the really naughty players to go.
Importantly, by ‘prison’, I don’t mean a location that happens to be a prison, like, say, Arkham Asylum in DC Universe Online or the Zig in the still-mourned City of Heroes. Not somewhere to escape from or break someone out of or as a punishment for in-game transgressions like stealing a loaf of bread. No. I’m talking about the kind where you as the player are taken for a time-out and possibly a whack with the ban-stick depending on the mood of the GM. These have always stood out most because they don’t really need to be designed areas at all – yet even so, it amused someone to go that little extra distance for something that literally nobody was intended to see.
Being a good player, I’ve never seen any of these in the flesh. I’m going purely by looking up forums and YouTube videos and the like, so it’s possible that some of these no longer exist or aren’t in use. The closest I’ve seen are bad-behaviour monitors in single-player games, like one of my favourite moments in Ultima Underworld 2. The plot has you trapped in Castle Britannia surrounded by NPCs, and of course you can beat them up. Rather than just killing you though, you get thrown into the only jail in Britannia without a convenient lever to pull and escape with, with Lord British telling you that he’s just going to leave you there until the end of the crisis. Which he does. (And does he then send down other heroes into the sewers to save the day, like Iolo and Dupre? Hahaha, no. But frankly if you’re expecting Lord British to do anything useful, you’re no true Ultima fan.)
The surprising thing is that while the ‘prison’ gimmick is fairly well-used, most games have tried a slightly different spin on it. The first famous one that I remember getting a wide audience outside its own game was the Second Life Cornfield- wait, one sec.
Second Life: The Cornfield
There, that’s better. The Cornfield is a strange example because it ended up becoming more famous than most of the game’s actual content. Based on the Twilight Zone episode It’s A Good Life, it was what it sounds like… more or less… a giant cornfield in perpetual night, cut off from the rest of the world. Transgressors who had been suspended could entertain themselves during their sentence by riding an incredibly slow tractor or watching a ‘boring’ black and white movie on a TV. Occasionally, Linden Labs employees would supposedly drop by to look in on the prisoners and leave without saying anything. Once the sentence was over, the condemned were returned to the real Second Life server, no doubt to find a hundred brand new porn stores.
The amount of attention the Cornfield got though made it one of Second Life’s more celebrated locations, with players creating simulations of the place for others to go visit without violating the rules. Then, back in 2014, Second Life needed a location to demonstrate a new feature called Experience Keys… and to show it off, created a shooter version of it where players hunt ‘griefers’ for cash. Weird.
World of Warcraft: The White Room
World of Warcraft has historically had many secret islands tucked off the map, supposedly inaccessible by players. GM Island, where the GMs characters stand while their actual owners use other tools to communicate. Programmer Isle and Designer Island, for obvious use. Occasionally players managed to reach them in the game proper, though it was obviously easier on player-run shards with cheat codes.
Below GM Island is the White Room, which feels like about the most ‘Disney’ punishment zone on this list. It’s literally a white room that metaphorically screams ‘you are no longer in the game and we are not playing’, with a spotlight focused on a chair. Those summoned by GMs are glued to the chair for questions and/or bollockings, unable to leave or communicate with the outside world. Still, could be worse. The penalty could be having nobody to talk to except the folks in Barrens Chat…
Everquest II: Drunder
A mere jail cell? Please. Sony/Daylight decided to go one better with Drunder, a whole prison dimension. Be caught cheating, being abusive, otherwise break the rules, and your entire account of characters gets a one-way trip to Drunder to play amongst only other disruptive influences, cheaters and scumbags. No customer support. No way back. It’s possible to request banishment to Drunder, but the same rules apply. And the result? Around a year ago, Leif Johnson did a report for Vice saying that while it was a server for assholes, in practice, the ease of signing up for a new account and the number of people banned for the likes of botting made it surprisingly quiet. Has it changed? I’d be interested to know. At any rate, it’s an intriguing experiment, especially alongside the likes of Rust and its players’ focus on building civilisation out of anarchy.
Maple Story 2
One big difference between Maple Story 2’s player jail and others is that it’s one of the few where other players can show up and see their incarcerated playmates stuck on the business end of a game of Prison Architect. Such unpleasant surroundings. When you arrive, are you given a choice between a toilet or a bed? That’s potentially inhumane! At least it could offer the facilities from…
ArcheAge – Nuian / Haranian Prison
While I gather it wasn’t super effective, ArcheAge wanted to make justice more of a community handled thing. This doesn’t include the likes of botting or outright cheating, just stealing crops or player-killing. The gist is that crimes leave behind evidence that other characters can report, leading to a trial run by other players, and a mandatory sentence within one of the two prisons. Weirdly though, it’s possible to escape if you have a few items like spoons to dig out. Otherwise, you’re stuck killing rats and playing soccer until the timer expires, and the timer only progresses while you’re logged in. I do quite like the idea of forcing players to serve their sentence though, especially if we can make illiterate waffle into a crime punished by a few hours with Kingdom of Loathing’s Ghost of the English Language. That’d help clean the chat channels a bit…
Conquer Online – Bot Jail
So, here’s an interesting one. The jail part isn’t all that exciting – essentially, there’s two of them. One takes in extreme PKers who finally fall in battle. The other is reserved for those who cheat and bot their way to glory. In PK Jail, you have to buy your way out using Silver, which you can mine without fear of losing. In Bot Jail however, you have to pay ‘CP’ – the premium currency – and literally buy your way to freedom. No other characters are allowed to show up to help. You can’t trade anything. The fee goes from 2000 for a first offence to 10,000 for a third, with any further infractions being an instant ban. And how much is 2000CP in real money? About $30. 10,000CP? That’ll be a little over $100. Not an impossible amount to pay – but still, ouch.
Guild Wars 2 – Rata Sum
And finally, something a little different again. Rata Sum is the home city of the Asura, a race of genius gnome creatures with no regard for safety and therefore even less for safety railings. Their city is a huge cube stretching out into the sky. It’s not that hard to fall off the sides, and come to a squishy death. With care and the right equipment though, it’s possible to survive the fall and end up in an uncharted underworld beneath the city that you’re not actually meant to be able to drop down and visit.
Now, traditionally developers look down on this. If you’re the first to find an exploit, you’ll hopefully be let off if you can get away with saying that you just stumbled across it. After that though, suspensions and bans are quite common until the hole can be fixed – either sealing up a hole in the geometry or adding a death field or something like that. In Guild Wars 2’s case, explorers underneath Rata Sum promptly found themselves taken to jail… specifically, Rata Sum’s own peacekeeping cells. Later updates made it even easier to be zapped there. However, unlike most jail-worthy acts, Arenanet isn’t actually that serious. Sure, other players can come and stare at you… but you can beam out whenever you like using the standard Waypoint teleportation system, and there’s even a Trophy for having served some time in a cell.
When they are serious? You’ll know. You’ll know…
And there are of course many other MMO jails in other games, though most of the others I could find were just fairly stock rooms, like Lord of the Rings Online, or not that interesting. Final Fantasy XIV has a particularly disappointing one for a game. At least pipe in the Chocobo theme until the player goes insane! And then of course, there’s the Ultima Online one. Again, no obvious lever to pull to let you out, and no sense of ceremony. At least there could have been a stern lecture from LB himself…
That’s how you handle cheaters and malefactors.
Before banning them, obviously.