Last week, I finished off movie games, examining a
few reasons why
they're predisposed to sucking.
Time to move on a bit - relax, and cover
something different. This week, I'm going to take a look at something
that popped up inside of F13.net's attempt to update
the laws of gaming.
Empirically, we've seen plenty of MMORPG titles
taken down by exploits and bot behavior. In their tenure with Microsoft,
Turbine's Asheron's Call
title (and the sequel, Asheron's Call 2) earned an unfortunate
reputation as a haven for people who would exploit and 'bot. Whole
guilds, especially on the PvP servers, would dedicate built accounts
inside their own claimed zones/guild housing to running these bots,
which would then throw a variety of character-improvement
("Buffing") spells on other players who showed up and knew the
right code phrase to send it.
Needless to say, the 'bot situation on AC and
AC2 is unfortunate, because it led to characters who had those same
abilities becoming severely undervalued, and players who did not have
access to those bots seeing the game get harder and harder as developers
began to assume, during playtesting and balancing, that those buffs
would pretty much always be in effect.
We've also seen the results of 'bots and
exploit behavior in Everquest and Ultima Online, as well as in the more
recent game Final Fantasy XI. They caused the economies to change, such
that certain items became more expensive (because the botters / players
who bought ingame money from the botters could spend more to acquire
them. Great for the few people selling the item, possibly, but lousy for
the rest of players who then could not afford the same item due to the
outside-the-rules actions of the botters. Ultima Online had its economy
likewise ruined by guilds who liberally exploited "duping"
bugs, bugs which could be used to duplicate salable items; simply
duplicate a properly high-priced item, sell it to shopkeep, rinse,
repeat, and you're minting in-game cash; the only limit is how fast you
could execute the bug each time.
So again, empirically, it's obvious that 'botting
is a bad thing. Why, then, does it get let go on? In the case of
Asheron's Call 2, the designers were in a pinch. Microsoft had forced
the game out the door WAY before it was ready, the player base was
jumping to FFXI and Star Wars left and right, and a large portion of the
dedicated playerbase WERE the botters. Players having 2-3 accounts, so
as to be able to log in to their main character and 'bot character at
the same time, were commonplace. In short, in order to keep revenues
coming in as much as possible, Turbine had legitimized the behavior
despite its destructive aspect on many character classes. Of course,
Turbine had also caused the game's in-game currency to become nearly
worthless with constant changes to item drops, loot from chests, and the
crafting system, so there wasn't a whole lot of point at that time to 'botting
for cash. 'Botting was simply a way for players/guilds to try to gain an
edge by acquiring a constant supply of buffs to their characters.
In the end, the debate on 'botting ought to be
a lot more straightforward than it is, due mostly to one legitimate form
provided in both Everquest and Final Fantasy XI: the shopkeeper 'bot.
These are in-game creations that allow characters to set prices on items
in their possession and then walk away, hoping that another player will
check out their shop and perhaps buy something from it. The reason they
don't disrupt game balance, of course, is that their moving of funds is
(a) entirely between players and (b) does not generate anything NEW in
the game while the player is away from the keyboard.
So why DO players 'bot? There are really four
possible reasons; for starters, it's an attempt to gain in-game cash.
This is the aim of both the shopkeeper bot and certain farming bots, to
gain either cash or something that can be sold in-game for cash, and
thus have resources to buy equipment later. Next, it can be an attempt
to improve the character itself, gaining experience or advancement
points while not paying attention. These 'bots, too, gained prominence
in the Asheron's Call environment as they make it much easier to level
up a 'bot character to become a buffing bot, quickly. Third, they're an
attempt to make the game more fun, by circumventing something in the
game that was designed to be (quite literally) mindless tedium. The best
example here would be the fishing 'bots that plagued FFXI during its
American release, and which caused the designers to implement a rather
annoying "fix" to the fishing system that won't allow players
to fish for very long in one area before the results turn bad.
The last reason is the most problematic; it's
the reason sites like Gaming
Open Market (and lots of shadier sites that sell subscriptions for
"access" to the latest 'bot code, skr1pt k1dd13z style) exist.
To be fair, GOM does have at least ONE legitimate reason to exist -
unlike most of the titles formerly traded there, Second
Life actually does sanction the selling of in-game items and cash
with real-world money. Unfortunately for them, that didn't stop a
less-than-licit transaction on Star Wars Online recently from coming
back to bite them in the ass when a gamer, after receiving his cash
the charges with Paypal claiming delivery never happened.
In terms of what the companies should
sanction, debate is mixed. Almost nobody will claim that
developer-provided shopkeeper scripts are unwanted; indeed, they're one
of the biggest boons modern MMORPGs have gained in the past two years.
In terms of the rest... using 'bots is a tricky
business. Let's look at reasons one at a time.
To gain in-game cash:
This is, ultimately, the goal to which many
players set out on various days. If you have an item or new spell you
need, there's usually cash spent at a shopkeeper or the Auction Hall in
order to acquire it. It's also as mentioned earlier, the goal of
shopkeeper scripts legitimately provided by game developers.
The problem comes in when a script is using
these, not to collect money by selling items to other players, but to
cause the game to generate new items (loot) or cash while the player is
not around. Fishing 'bots in FFXI sit around and catch (most commonly)
Moat Carp; Hunting 'bots kill either a specific spawn (such as NM bots
in FFXI again) or just anything in an area, wandering around, as many
did in Everquest and the Asheron's Call line of games.
Why is it imbalancing? Because it's giving an
advantage to certain players who leave their computer running,
generating new items, while they're gone. Often, it is executed in an
area that is low risk to the character in question as well, which winds
up inhibiting areas that lower-level characters might need to hunt in.
The flip side argument, which some of these
players will make, is that they are using the 'bot to try to keep up
(speed-wise) with players who literally spend 18 hours a day in front of
the keyboard. It's a small argument, but it's one of the reasons that
Blizzard's upcoming title World
of Warcraft will implement a forced-downtime system; after a certain
number of hours spent in-game, experience yields will decrease until the
player logs off for an equivalent amount of time.
To improve the character:
This is usually tied into the flipside argument
from above, or else is part of #4 in systems like Asheron's Call or
Everquest, where selling a character means selling the entire account to
another player. In terms of sold accounts, most games have strict
policies against it, but it does happen anyways.
The bigger problem here is when these get into
the hands of casual gamers, who then either go hunting in the style of
the previous problem, or else continually get themselves killed -
wasting all the effort, not to mention possibly losing bodies in
high-death-penalty titles like Everquest - by setting up the 'bot script
in areas that aren't safe to hunt in.
This behavior also sees a boost in PvP-based
worlds, due merely to the mad rush to reaching a high enough level where
a character feels reasonably safe traversing the world without fear of
being nothing more than swordfodder for RPK (Random Player Killing)
guilds. This speaks either to (a) the fact that RPK are jerks (most
are), (b) the fact that the rewards for PK are disproportionate to the
challenge of killing someone well below your level even when the
"reward" is simply the knowledge that another player's goals
have been hampered, or (c) again, the fact that RPK tend to be jerks.
To circumvent tedium in the game:
This one's a mixed bag; IF your players are
doing this, developers, then there's something messed up in your system
wherein something that the players are being required to do a lot of (FFXI's
fishing and farming systems come to mind) simply isn't fun. And
when something isn't fun, people wind up leaving... or botting.
Heroes gets around this by not having any mindless tedium... or, for
that matter, side tasks, currency, or anything else. It's all about
getting to the point and kicking bad-guy ass. Obviously this setup
doesn't work if your game is designed as a faux-medieval or steampunk
setting, or requires the use of consumable items that players would have
Alternatively, makers of games need to make
their side-items interesting; unfortunately, this still won't stop those
out to make real-world money from trying to automate the system. And,
inevitably, that leaves the solution to this being either to (a)
aggressively patch and reengineer and monitor servers to root out
scripts or (b) deny you're supporting it, but tacitly allow it to
To make real-world money:
This inevitably uses the same scripts as the
first two - they're either selling in-game gear that was 'botted for, or
they're selling in-game cash acquired the same way. Ultimately, these
guy will be claimed by some to be providing a service, but by others to
be the scum of the earth depending on which side of the debate and what
the developers say on the matter.
Guys at sites like Gaming
Online Market will claim to be providing a service, helping people
meet up so that all concerned enjoy their game more fully. To a point,
they're right - and that point is where they are enabling people to do
something against the game's Terms of Service, which (if they're caught)
can result in accounts being banned by the game's administrators.
Guys at other sites, where access to scripts
and script utilities is sold by subscription, don't even deny they're
ignoring the TOS; indeed, they thrive on being the underground, living
large when both professionals (or wannabe professionals) come to get
updates for something or to sell their newly developed updates, and when
casual gamers wander by after searching for a way to automate out some
of the tedium in their game.
Ultimately, it's not a debate likely to go away
anytime soon, nor is it likely to get better. We've seen what happened
to the Asheron's Call and Ultima Online worlds when this behavior was
allowed to run rampant, however, we're not likely to see tacit
acceptance anytime soon. The danger these days is that the fixes, like
the fishing patch that ruined Fishing (except for already-established
crafters) in Final Fantasy XI, may be seen by the casual community as
worse than the disease.