This is the fourth installment in a series of posts I’ll be making about Raph Koster‘s The Laws of Online World Design, as explained in this introductory post. I will start at the top of the list, and work my way down until I’ve poked and prodded every law in the list, not skipping any unless I really feel like it, or unless I should happen to be distracted by a pretty butterfly or something. Which is exactly what happened after I wrote Part III of this series in July 2009!
In this long awaited (right?) Part IV of the series, I’ll concentrate on the following law:
- Macroing, botting, and automation
Macroing, botting, and automation
No matter what you do, someone is going to automate the process of playing your world.
Looking at what parts of your game players tend to automate is a good way to determine which parts of the game are tedious and/or not fun.
A background lesson about automated gaming
Bots. Botting. Macroing. These terms incite a lot of emotions in both players and developers of MMORPGs. Ever since the days when MUDs were the epitome of online RPGs, there has existed software that allows someone to automate gameplay either to avoid having to do the boring parts of the games by hand, as a quick way of reaching the “end-game” or to amass piles of gold and wealth that would take a normal player days, weeks, maybe months to achieve.
This is possible because (most) human players normally have to take a break every now and then to rest, to socialize/deal with friends, family and loved ones, to sleep, to eat and so forth. A bot – essentially a computer controlled player – on the other hand, can go on and on without pause, without the need for food or drink, without having to rest. This of course makes them exceptionally well suited for tasks such as, say – killing one million boars in an MMORPG for loot, experience points and rapid character progression.
These days, most people think of gold-farmers when you mention “botting”, but my first experiences with the topic at hand took place in Ultima Online in early 1998 and wasn’t with gold farmers, or completely automated bots – but with macros. Some players would record certain activities in programs such as EZ Macros and then use those programs to replay the activities over and over again without having to sit there and actually push the buttons themselves, or even monitor the process. These activities included stuff like stealing from a pack-horse filled with worthless items over and over again, sailing a ship in circles while fishing, or mining ore from the mountainsides and depositing the ore in a packhorse or in a nearby house when the character couldn’t hold any more ore.
This was beneficial due to Ultima Online’s usage-based skillpoint-system, where you had a chance of gaining a skillpoint in a given skill every time you used that skill. So anyone who automated that process would naturally get the maximum amount of possible skillpoints in a skill in a much shorter time than those who did it by hand.
The “AFK macroing” in UO seems insignificant compared to the more advanced botting programs one can see in modern MMORPGs today, and in a way that is true. The macroing that took place in UO was more an indication of a bad/broken design than anything else, and with the exception of resource-harvesting and grinding up skills to the cap (which was relatively quick, even for non-macroers) it was somewhat limited in scope. More advanced “AI” has been added to botting programs since then, though. Bots in todays games can more or less play the games by themselves; they take predetermined paths through the game-world, react to scripted events and triggers, drop off loot at storage vaults when inventories are full, join PvP battles for the rewards those can give, and so forth – with no need for interaction from the actual human player apart from maybe being around to respond to “Are you a bot?”-like inquiries from Game-Masters.
So what? Does it matter? Why should we care?
“Does it really matter if someone automates playing parts of the game? If they just do it to bypass the boring parts of gameplay, and it doesn’t affect me directly, why should I care?”
Depending on the type of activity being automated, it can have some very negative consequences . Also, even if it does not affect any one player directly, it will affect all of them indirectly. Here are some scenarios outlined to support this theory:
- Botting promotes gold farming and destroys the virtual economy
Gold farmers are botters who automate playing games for one specific reason – to accumulate resources (wealth, resources, items) as quickly and as efficiently as possible, and to then sell these virtual goods (usually in the form of in-game currency) to other players for real money. In the process of doing so, they not only spam the in-game chats with advertisements for “cheap gold!” until regular players are swearing and cursing at them left and right, they also flood the virtual economy in the game with resources, to the point where those goods are no longer worth anything for normal players trying to make a virtual living. This is not just true for gold-farmers, but also for normal players who automate processes that let them harvest resources, produce items or bring wealth into the world faster than a normal player would otherwise be able to. Gold farming also leads to another problem, which is that players’ in-game wealth might depend on their real-life access to excess funds which they use to buy their way to the top, as it were.
- Notion of a level playing-field destroyed
Being able to buy one’s way to the top with real life money aside, botting/macroing that automates the processes through which a player-character advances in a game will in general give unfair advantages to those players who do this, and will destroy any notion of there being a level playing-field for all players. If a small subset of players have these advantages over other players in a game with a very competitive setting, this might in turn lead to players losing their motivation to play the game, as they might feel (and rightly so) that continuing to play is an exercise in futility – they can never keep up with or compete with the botters.
- Unbalanced Player vs Player battles
Consider an online game that pits two teams of 50 players against one another in a large battlefield. One team consists of 50 active players – the other team consists of 30 active players and 20 players who are running botting software in an attempt to farm whatever currency or reward that this player vs player activity will produce. At best these bots are just about smart enough to follow very specific predetermined patterns of movement/actions, but are unable to react to the unpredictable nature of the players on the other team – or even to support their own team in the event of something happening that is not covered by their scripting. At worst they join the game and are stuck running against an obstacle for the duration of the match, contributing nothing to the team and taking up a slot that could otherwise have gone to a legitimate player.
- Botting is disruptive to player/developer relations
In any game where bots are allowed to run rampant, unnecessary tension is generated between players and the developers of said game – especially if the developers appear to be ignoring the problem through inaction. The longer this inaction (perceived or not) is maintained, the stronger the tension between the players and the developers becomes, until it reaches a point where the players feel that the developers no longer care.
Is bad design to blame for botting, or is this a problem that cannot be fixed?
“The law at the top of this article states that players automating the process of playing the game is inevitable. Does that mean that no matter what we do the outcome is the same, that there is no point in trying to address these problems?”
Botting and macro usage is inevitable, yes. Would players still do it if the game in question had been designed so all aspects of the game was equally entertaining and/or interesting? Probably not to the same extent.
However, while there are certainly players who will only use these kinds of methods to avoid being afflicted with/already suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome, or to just get past all the boring bits, there will always be players who will seek to gain any advantage they can over the competition. If they can automate processes in the game (whether fun or not!) by using botting/macroing software to become more efficient, advance faster and in general out-pace the other players, they will.
Online games/worlds have tried a variety of methods to combat the problem, either through mechanics that try to directly detect bots, indirectly hamper/create problems for non-human players or through systems that attempt to level the playing-field – for instance by introducing caps on just how efficient a player can become, or by giving players tools they can use to keep up with other players.
Examples of the former includes automatically detecting and flagging players as bots based on analyzed data, random mob spawns during resource-harvesting (probably more frustrating for normal players than for bots) and mechanisms for reporting suspected bots (relies on players actually reporting and on the administrators of the world actively responding to those reports).
Examples of the latter includes offline systems for training skills, feats and/or levels, rested bonuses that increase your character’s efficiency when you return to the game after having been offline for a while and dynamically adjusting the frequency at which loot drops from mobs based on how fast (or how regularly) they are being killed.
As these systems are put into place and evolve, though, so do players and developers of botting softwares!
Whether to combat non-fun bits of games, to gain the upper-hand against the competition or to make a living through selling gold to other players – there will always be people who will attempt to automate parts of the games they play through botting software and macro programs.
Developers can put roadblocks in their paths, can go on banning sprees, can publicly proclaim that the game will shut down unless botting comes to an end – yet botting will still happen. Ultimately this is
because people are broken an arms-race between the developers of the game and the developers of the botting software, and only sustained efforts by the developers can keep the amount of botting going on in their games to a minimum.
Finally, remember the following, kids:
- Every time you bot or macro your way to perceived victory, Sid Meier kills another game design with dinosaurs in it! :(