Wednesday, October 3, 2007

State of the Warden

It's been a few months now since Warden has been updated. What's Blizzard up to exactly? And how is ISXWarden holding up lately? Here's a few short answers.

First, ISXWarden. I'm still pretty confident that the issue was solved by fixing the data corruption issue. Within a week or so of that fix, the bans and suspensions essentially stopped. It's been relatively quiet since then, with no updates needed other than for the game patches (though there were some other minor changes to ISXWarden to protect against other potential scenarios during that week or so after said fix, those do not appear significant yet). Other than that, there's not much to discuss about ISXWarden since it seems to be in good health. So until there's more problems with it, that subject is covered for now.

Now to Blizzard and their current activities. From what I'm hearing and reading on various forums, the latest ban/suspension craze is Exploitation of Economy, as well as intended exploitation, and other reasons connected to the purchase or sale of accounts or virtual goods (e.g. "Involvement in online trading activities"). A few patches ago, for example, Blizzard added a 1 hour delay when sending currency via in-game mail to other accounts (the same delay that has pretty much always been there for items). It's no secret that they have used this to their advantage in their quest to hinder the World of Warcraft gold industry. I have to commend them for this non-invasive approach, and of course no client side tools can protect against their use of risk management in blocking gold sales. Various people have reported that some of their own legitimate gold transfers (between two accounts that they own, for example, or to a guildmate) have been held for review, and later released to the destination. So cheers to Blizzard on this, a moral victory for them if nothing else.

Additionally, hardcore botters are finding that Blizzard has been keeping tabs on their activities. Bans and suspensions are apparently being handed out for being online too much of the time, presumably with other requirements on top of that, like not responding when a GM sends a message or such. Again, a non-invasive approach, and you have to respect that. Even Greg Hoglund couldn't spin that one into an invasion of privacy.

Speaking of Hoglund, I read the recent Associated Press article involving him and his associate McGraw. I don't know if it was the journalist's interpretation or what, but this really got my goat:

"One problem is that these observer programs are invasive, since they must access the underlying operating system in a player's PC in order to sniff nefarious code. McGraw believes the Warden might even violate California's anti-spyware law." - link
What the hell does "access[ing] the underlying operating system" have to do with anything? World of Warcraft has to "access the underlying operating system" just to load in the first place. Is it going to become illegal for software to open other processes? Or read files from your hard drive? Where do you draw the line exactly? It's not damaging your computer, it's not sending back any information that could be used to steal your identity, so what's the deal? Is this going to mean that anti-virus software also can't report back to base about what viruses it discovered on your system?

That's literally the same process, with only a slightly different usage of the data. Anti-virus publishers aren't going to cut you off for having contracted a virus from opening a malicious email, they would just want to know what viruses are active in the wild, much like keeping track of how many of a given animal species remain on our planet. Information received by Warden, on the other hand, is specifically for enforcing account holder policies. They find a malicious "virus" (hack or cheat, in this case) on your system, and they're going to take action against your account. Keep in mind, once again, that Warden is very much like anti-virus software. It doesn't care what web sites you have open, what goat porn you have stored on your hard drive, or anything like that. It essentially has a list of viruses, and it is looking for each one. When it finds one that it is specifically looking for, it will send back an indication that it was found, nothing more.
"Sometimes, there appears to be financial incentive for the game makers to be good — but not terrific — at stopping cheating. Consider this: Cheaters who get banned from games often immediately sign back up under a different user name, paying money for a new account in hopes of trying again. If cheating protections were significantly stronger, fewer perpetrators would continue to buy accounts." - same article
This notion is nothing new of course, and people have been saying it ever since they started getting banned and buying new accounts. The point made in the article is that Blizzard has financial incentives to make sure cheating continues to occur, and periodically purging it. But here's some food for thought: Is it extortion? Is Blizzard merely slapping people with commercial interest in having accounts with a wet noodle, only to absorb the money made from the account key and subscription fees, knowing that the process is just going to repeat? Are these people essentially paying Blizzard protection money? "Hey, you haven't paid your protection recently, so I'm banning your accounts and keeping the money." Unlike information gleaned from Warden, Blizzard has financial incentives, likely lawful, to bully certain types of people and reap the benefits. One key point in Blizzard's favor is that these people don't have to keep coming back. They can leave any time, and not worry about paying another dime to Blizzard... unless of course, Blizzard then decides to sue them for some reason or another after they give up, which it would then have the financial incentive to do, since the perpetrators are no longer paying protection! Scary thought, that. I may be giving them too many ideas. Maybe these companies should be paying me protection to not give Blizzard these ideas, I'm mostly broke and Blizzard doesn't need the extra money (neither does Vivendi), what with over a billion dollars a year in revenue from World of Warcraft alone. I'm kidding about paying me guys, but you can if you want. But the point is, is this video game extortion?

This brings me to something else that could be interesting. What if, in order to reduce or remove the financial incentives, Blizzard took action that did not involve cutting off the account? Clearly, banning accounts is not going to stop the virtual market. Ban one, and it gets replaced. Those companies run through accounts like crazy. Sure, it puts some out of business, but has anything changed in the years that Warden has been in use? Absolutely not, other than prices going down. There's still hordes (pun intended) of bots, gold farmers, you name it. Probably far more now than there originally were.

All Blizzard is managing to do is keep the status quo, reducing the effects these activities have on the game's economy. The main draw may actually be that these banned accounts take items and gold out of circulation, keeping the in game prices relatively high. The gold would still exist -- much of the gold sales are not from bots or farmers, but from average players selling the extra that they have and don't have anything to do with. Hell, I did that in EverQuest. Eventually I was paying my rent by farming Wyrmslayers, Idols of the Thorned or Frostbringers (that should tip EQers off as to when this was), not exactly a major enterprise, but just enough that I was self sufficient. Is that really a problem? Is it the guy who takes some time off from real life to play video games or supplement their other income that they are after? Unfortunately, it's the average players that the current processes are harming, not the bots or farmers (keep reading).

Recent lawsuits (and Hubert Thieblot of Curse according to that article) allege that the practice of selling virtual currency for real money hurts the average player's ability to play the game, because people farming for this purpose will leave nothing in their wake for other players to fight or loot. Have you even played the game? Do you have any idea what casual players have to do to get gold? Anyone who wants to get gold, for any reason, say they want to purchase a tradeable item that would otherwise require a full raid party to get. This person is not like you, he doesn't care about hardcore endgame raiding, he enjoys playing with a small group of friends or family. How is he supposed to get gold, if it's not by finding what he deems to be the best repeatable way to get gold, and repeating it? There's no difference in having to make 1000 gold to sell in the real world, from having to make 1000 gold to buy something in the game. These people are doing the same thing. They're going to exhaust the resources that they find to be good. Your friend who is supposedly farming gold to buy that new mount? How do you know he's not selling gold on the side and using the mount as a front? Does that make him a cheater if he is? Should he be working a second job instead of playing the game at all? There's a whole lot of goodness in making money while having fun.

My father in law has no idea how he's supposed to get 5000 gold for some silly flying thing. And even then, if he got 5000 gold, what if he was told that he could, instead of spending it on a silly flying thing, he could get a few hundred dollars that he could put toward paying off his debts? If it weren't for fear of getting banned for something so menial, he could probably already have paid off his debts. Or what if he wanted to buy a nice gift for someone, but couldn't quite afford it? Is it really killing the game experience?

But here's the real point. It's the average person who just wants a few extra dollars that is taking the real hit. The companies that do this on a massive scale are still doing it on a massive scale, just maybe with a small bite out of their side. But the player who needed a few extra dollars, and had some extra gold, he's the one getting hurt. He's the one that feels the loss of his level 70 Hunter. The player who works 2 jobs and doesn't have time to grind out 20 levels to play with his friends who have no jobs and live in their parents basement, but has a few extra dollars and wants to pay someone to level him, he's the one getting hurt. The player who works too much and just wants that new item without farming for days or dealing with guild politics and raids, he's the one getting hurt.

Granted, it's not for everyone. If you think it's wrong to buy or sell gold, then, well, don't. But don't ruin it for everyone else, and quit your damn whining if someone has more money than you in real life so they want to buy something to get ahead in the game. Guess what, they do it in real life too, they buy things like jets, and they land them at NASA. Let's make having money illegal, so that rich people don't try to buy things. Clearly, it is better for them to hand-make their jet after getting all of the raw materials, and they have to know how to make each individual part, and .... wait, did you build your own car? So you have something that the kid on his bike doesn't have? You bought it with money?

Alright, I got off topic. But what I was heading toward is this. It would be interesting to see alternative forms of punishment. Instead of banning the account (and I'm strictly speaking of things like online trading, exploitation of economy, etc; not hacks or bots), what if they just made it more difficult for that account? Abilities could be less effective, or characters on the account move slower, restrict the amount of gold that it can transfer in a given period of time, and so on. Each offense could further restrict the account, reducing the likelihood that the practice will continue. After some period of good behavior, restrictions could even be lifted, essentially putting the account back into play. This could allow the casual player to partake in activities shunned by others, still at some potential cost, and the restrictions could inflict essentially the same pain on the presumed real target, the companies doing these things on a large scale. Done right, this could remove the perception that the game publisher prefers the activities continue in order to make more money. Of course, it might not be a good idea in the end and it may never be attempted, but I must repeat that it would be interesting to see. Maybe we'll find out the day I produce an MMO. :)