Monday, 21 December 2009

MMOs: The fun of cheating

Jingle bells, jingle bells,
Jingle all the way,
Oh what fun it is
To get creative with your play.

Jingle bells, jingle bells,
Killing stuff is neat,
But it's even better when
You've worked out how to cheat.

Ever since the start of the MMO players have loved to push the game mechanics.

The Holy Trinity, so fundamental to the genre, may well have started as an exploit that got co-opted as a feature. In some primitive game a player figured out how to manage mob aggro and exploited this knowledge by stacking armour and defences on the character capable of holding aggro thereby inventing a much more efficient system than the Everyone Is Dps mechanic.

Many other standard MMO combat techniques are clearly methods of exploiting the AI which show the weaknesses of the program as a combat simulator. Kiting, circle-strafing, terrain exploiting and all manner of pulling. None of these combat techniques resemble what happens in real fights and it's unlikely that any of them were deliberately designed into games originally.

Sometimes the "exploit" is on the part of the developers: a field full of intelligent orc mobs who just stand there picking their noses while you pull and kill them one by one is designed as a bad simulation which is a fun game.

Why players love exploits

- it makes you feel clever.
- it creates a secret language of gameplay mechanics that "pro" gamers understand and "noob" gamers don't, thereby demonstrating mastery.
- it allows you to do amazing things not intended by the developers or expected by others.
- it allows you to progress faster and further than you would otherwise be able to.
- it makes the game look different and fresh.

How players show their exploits off, some examples

Example 1: Demon Lord Kazzak in Stormwind

Here is a video of Demon Lord Kazzak who has been dragged by a skilled Hunter to the city of Stormwind. The rampage this raid boss mob goes on is unstoppable by players since the boss heals when he kills someone. In an area full of low level players this makes him unkillable. When this boss was exploited in this way he had to be manually reset by a GM.

The Hunter had to do a tricky kiting job. Kiting such as this was generally managed by reverse jump shots. Your character moves forwards, then you jump, spin 180, shoot behind you while in mid-air, spin 180, then land pointing forwards. This tricks the game into thinking you had always been going forwards so you don't slow down while getting a shot off backwards. It takes a bit of practice to get right.

What is interesting is that although they moved this boss to prevent people continuing to do this they did not change the gameplay mechanic. It's on the long list of exploits which have become features.

Example 2: It's fun when the game goes wrong in interesting ways

This video shows an exploit where the player has managed to get the horses from the Arathi Basin stables to activate and attack the other side.

It's not amazingly powerful, the team exploiting lost this battle. It does however look interesting.

The good old days

This attitude is particularly prevalent in players who reminisce fondly about the early days of Ultima Online, Everquest and Star Wars; Galaxies. All of these games were designed (both on purpose and inadvertently) to encourage emergent gameplay.

When players say fondly that things were great back then what they are often remembering is they found interesting ways to beat the system that aren't readily available to most players in modern games.

The story of Fansy the Famous Bard, a player who killed other players by training mobs onto them is well-known and is an example of a player who received considerable recognition simply by exploiting over and over all day long.

Scott Hartsman agrees: his excellent blog post on emergent gameplay is called Emergent Play in MMOs - It's about the balance. Moorgard (developer Steve Danuser) comments:

"Locked encounters: saving the world from degenerates, (negative) one subscription at a time."

What he's saying is that it costs games companies subscribers to fix such problems because players love them.

Blizzard has been keenly conscious of this in policing World of Warcraft. Generally they don't ban players for exploiting - they just fix the exploit. Sometimes. Where they do ban people it's sometimes dependent on how succesful the player has been with an exploit.

When Wrath of the Lich King came out player Athene used his guild to help him level fast. He made level 79 in 13 hours. Then despite having confirmed with one GM that his levelling technique was legal another GM decided it wasn't, temporarily banned the players involved and reset the character to 70.

What they were doing was tagging mobs inside an instance, then the helpers would drop group and kill it while the power-levelled character went on to tag more mobs, then inviting everyone back before the auto-hearth mechanic for not being in the instance group kicked in.

After Athene and his friends were banned a player called Nymh made the world first level 80 also, and this time legally, with outside help.

Raid guild Exodus were temporarily suspended after a world first defeat of Yogg-Saron. Their take on the matter is very revealing. While they admitted that they exploited they said they'd do the same thing again and pointed fingers at many other world firsts which had been achieved using exploits and allowed to stand.

The whole issue of cheating has become such a grey area nowadays because some level of game mechanics abuse is an integral part of almost every player's arsenal and in many cases is designed back into the game as a "feature" by developers who like the way the emergent play changes the fundamental gameplay. The Ancient Gaming Noob found that only 12% of players surveyed thought that exploiting game mechanics was cheating and only 13% considered illicit real money transactions cheating.

Like it or not (and most players love it) exploiting is here to stay.

For designers the goal is a game where some exploiting is possible so that players are entertained but not so much that the game appears broken. When Darkfall released I didn't buy it because of reports of rampant afk macroing. A system that skilled you up for swinging your sword and supported macros was tailor-made for botting. Even a strict policy failed to prevent widespread abuse and I really didn't fancy a game which is played by leaving your computer on all day and overnight and levelling while you work and sleep. I hated it in SWG and didn't fancy dealing with it again in a game where it appeared to be mandatory. (They've since softened the skill curve to allow new players more chance to be competitive with veterans without exploiting).

So it's a fine line for developers - too little scope for player creativity and you follow in the footsteps of Warhammer Online. That game with its comparitively simple systems didn't allow the average player to seek advantage except through flavour of the month builds. What's worse they co-opted fotm as a design mechanic, deliberately overpowering Bright Wizards and Warrior Priests to balance the factions as Destruction was too strong. So not only was the only way to cheese the game (apart from certain keep exploits) playing a fotm build but the developers had decided which fotm build you would cheese with. This total lack of player control over their ability to cheese made the game less fun than its rivals.


  1. Just as an aside, jump shotting was never, ever an "exploit". It was totally intended and part of WoW's mechanics from the start. In fact, it was one of the few ways hunters could defeat warriors, rogues and such back in the the early days of WoW.

    The Kazzak kite was, however, an exploit or at least an abuse of Blizz's code and the fact that Kazzak was not leashed. Many mobs in early WoW had long leashes or no leashes at all. It was something that Blizzard missed in the original coding of mobs and one that they have since fixed.

  2. I'm using the word exploit a little widely.

    Most games and particularly their combat systems start out as simulators.

    The basic combat engine does not support rearwards shooting while moving full speed, just as real combat does not allow infantry to shoot accurately behind themselves while sprinting.

    The jump shot mechanic, like many combat features, is something that probably started out as an exploit then got co-opted as a feature.

    My reasoning is that if Blizzard had intended Hunters to shoot in all directions while moving the functionality would have been more integral to the combat engine, like for instance a crosshair attached to mouselook mode.

    My purpose here is not to point fingers but to discuss how fundamental broken and unintentional game mechanics are to players' enjoyment of these games.

  3. Blizzard intended that as a feature and implemented it the way it was done to allow for a bit of skill in kiting. I knew many hunters who could not jump shot. Matter of fact, there was once a UI "mod" that jump shotted for you automatically. It lasted one patch before blizzard shot it down.

    The way jumping works in WoW is that momentum continues in a forward direction even if you turn your character in another. That is the way it was designed. Jump shotting was just a natural extension of this.

    Anyway, I enjoy your blog and this was a good read! I will add you to my blog roll and hope to continue reading interesting things from ya!

    Take care!

  4. Sure, but I'll bet there was some game before Blizzard which had similar controls including no in-built "shoot backwards" mechanicism where players figured out they could shoot backwards while going forward doing the jump shots.

    So in that game it was an exploit, devs thought about it and thought "hey, this actually makes our game better" and let it stand and now it's in WoW as a feature.

    Thanks for adding me to your blog roll. I've had a look at your blog and it looks great. I've added you to my blog roll too.