MMOG designers concerned with griefing and other antisocial activity by players have tried a variety of strategies to cope with such practices. One of the subtle things that has impressed me about World of Warcraft's endgame, besides the fact that it's relatively easy to get to that point, is that reputation alone at that stage exerts an enormous weight on players. Reading a recent slew of outraged threads on the official forums (and elsewhere), I'm not entirely sure that Blizzard itself understands this aspect of their gameworld. Nor do they seem to understand to fully grasp the ways that reputation capital is accumulated--and lost--in the larger relationship between designers and players.
WoW's endgame mimics Everquest's: the tempo of the game changes to long play sessions that require enormous organization and considerable commitment by players to guilds. Small guilds or guilds without the proper balance of characters find it difficult to sustain effort in the endgame. There's an unofficial "political" minigame where large guilds continually circle each other warily, trying to headhunt precious healers away from each other. It's not as onerous as Everquest in that the in-flow of players from the friendly levelling treadmill is fairly continuous and most of the endgame raids are instanced, keeping uberguilds from blockading and dominating whole servers.
Reputation really matters, however. Players who behave poorly on a regular basis, primarily by trying to grab items that they can't use for the purposes of selling them on the Auction House, often find themselves effectively blacklisted. In one or two cases on my server, there are characters who have been mothballed or deleted by their owners due to the fact that no significant guild will tolerate their presence after the character gained a reputation for greedy or griefing behaviors. In many cases, at best, a level 60 griefer (or even simple incompetent) will be consigned to gnawing at the margins of the endgame, unless they're a healer, in which case many transgressions may be forgiven due to the urgency of demand for their services.
This is one reason I think the murky debate circling around the transfer of a whole guild of World of Warcraft players from one server to another may concern a legitimately important question. Here's a collection of some of the relevant threads. Most other attempts to discuss the issue have been locked on the official forums and some players have been banned from posting as a result.
As always with these matters, it's pretty hard to sort out exactly what's going on and exactly what the issue is--and as always, many of the players complaining are being drama queens or troublemakers, griping for the sake of griping. The official replies aren't making matters much clearer, other than it is evident that this move was not part of the ordinary server transfer program. But the one legitimate issue in my view--which raises a legitimate gripe about whether a GM has intervened to help friends or has otherwise shown favoritism--is that if a player or even guild has established a bad reputation which is having a major impact on their ability to function economically and poltiically in the endgame, then this is a good thing from a design viewpoint. It's evidence that a given server, and maybe the larger game, has achieved a kind of sustained social structure. It's a good thing for a server if the actions of players have consequences, if the culture of a server has a continuous memory and sense of history. It's a bad thing if players cannot only escape from those consequences with their own power and accumulated wealth intact, but in fact retain social power by having their entire group moved in toto to a new world. Given the public disgruntlement on their new server, it's clear that this guild's negative reputation will now follow them, but without the outcry, that might not have happened.
Long-term players are also inclined to view any suggestion of insider connections or GM bias of this kind with generic alarm--and that's because many players have seen it before. Venerable MUDders may not only have seen it as players, but possibly have been involved on the wizardly side of such problems. Any given incident of this kind may seem trivial, but anyone who's been around the MMOG block a few times knows that a single controversy can come to exemplify the entirety of a relationship between a developer and its customers, especially if community representatives mishandle or dismiss the general concern, or appear to be supressing information. These incidents stay in the mind of players for a long, long time, all the more so if a perceived lack of transparency fuels the flames.
It's true that diminished reputation capital doesn't keep players away entirely from virtual worlds. There is probably no development team with a worse long-term reputation with the general community of MMOG players than the core executive staff of what was formerly Verant and is now Sony Online Entertainment, and this has hardly kept players from playing Star Wars: Galaxies or Everquest 2 outright. However, among the reasons for Blizzard's general success is their reputation for quality and craft in game development: players were willing to put their trust in World of Warcraft in a way that they were not willing to trust SOE. That gets you to the publication date, but not much beyond it. After that point, it depends on the service you provide and the quality of your relationship to your players. Enough players in MMOGs have seen what happens when GMs behave unprofessionally to potential incidents of such behavior with alarm. Keeping the reputation bank with a positive balance may require addressing larger questions of professionalism openly and honestly.
Reputation capital-- in-game and out-of-game--matters. It's hard to accumulate but easy to lose.