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Weekly Musings #3 - MMORPG Botting, And Why It's Bad.
Author: Michael Ahlf
Date: June 27th 2004
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'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 in-game, reversed 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.

City of 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 to buy.

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 happen.

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.

Weekly Musings #3: MMORPG Botting, And Why It's Bad.

Added:  Sunday, June 27, 2004
Reviewer:  Michael Ahlf


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