Thursday, March 27, 2008

More rambling on MDY v Blizzard

Okay so after that last post I've a) got more details from the MDY v Blizzard case (note the bolded update in that post), and b) heard more comments than usual from people enjoying reading some of my personal history. So I guess I'll keep sharing.

On my chopping block today is Edward Castranova, PhD (in economics). Castranova is, no doubt, a very smart man. Relevant to the topic at hand, he has published works regarding virtual economies, including the relationship between virtual and real economies (referred to as Real Money Trade or RMT) which he does not appear to discourage (I could be wrong, I'm no expert on Castranova and haven't read all of his work, but am referring to articles such as this one linked from his wikipedia entry). Castranova provides a document titled Effects of Botting on World of Warcraft (as Exhibit 7, which can be seen via the first link in this post). If I were to stop reading at the title, I would assume that Castranova intended this document to be a general overview of botting. However, the table of contents clearly indicates the document is about Glider. I'll give the benefit of the doubt and assume that the document was not simply edited to replace generic statements about botting to contain the word Glider. But here's the thing. He's an economist, charged with drawing conclusions about the economic effects of Glider (and other bots) on Blizzard. Naturally, he's a good candidate for doing so -- having published works on virtual economies and RMT, and he's at least had experience with MMOs. However, his expertise as an economist doesn't particularly help when the document he's providing is full of assertions about gameplay that are difficult, some maybe even impossible, to back up with actual data, or simply rely on fallible logic with many other explanations, which may be more logical.

I'm quite sure that there are counterpoints to my counterpoints, but where there is no definite answer, debate arises, and I would expect nothing less. I'll just go down the list of "The Harms of Glider" from Exhibit 7, which Castranova explains in his deposition that many of these statements are not a result of any particular study, but of his personal experience and hearsay.

1. Users of Glider increase their characters' level considerably faster than human players, reducing the time spent playing the game
1. As Greg Ashe (Manager of Technical Research at Blizzard) pointed out in his deposition, the difference between Glider and a human playing the same amount of time is negligible:
Q. So other than time and multiple accounts, does it give any special advantage over another player who is actually playing the game legitimately?

A. There are scenarios, I guess, where, you know, specific profiles may give an advantage over a very new player, but that's not, you know, a very practical scenario on a moderately-experienced player.
I'll just let this point ride and not bring it up again in the rest of this post, but it is important to note that the advantage Glider is providing is T-I-M-E. Again from Ashe to back that up:
A. -- time -- player time in the game is really the variable. It's how many hours per day characters are spending in the game and whether those multiple characters are spending, you know, a few hours or a few characters are spending a ton of hours, that's, you know, the variable that's really impacting.
2. This is ambiguously worded, so I can only suppose that it is meant to refer to Blizzard's subscription revenue, because I can't imagine this being construed as harm to Blizzard in another way. I can imagine ways that this is actually better for Blizzard, however. "Less time spent playing the game" could mean less bandwidth, customer service, power, and other expenses for Blizzard.
3. The same point about reducing the time played could be attributed to strategy guides, or quest path guides. Should Blizzard block the sale of strategy guides because they decrease subscription revenue, because people spend less time playing the game?
4. The game does not stop at level 70, and as the game allows several characters per account on a given server, many players will spend additional time playing an alternate character, usually a different class, to level 70. Many players play on additional servers. If subscriptions typically ended a given amount of time after reaching level 70, a profit-minded Blizzard should have designed the game to take longer to reach level 70, but they have in fact shortened the amount of time it takes to reach 70. Therefore, it cannot be assumed that a shorter amount of time spent leveling a single character to 70 translates directly into lost revenue. This means that the $105 in supposedly direct lost revenue per Glider that was calculated in the paper is also inherently flawed, regardless of whether the time estimates to level are accurate. That's not to mention the careful use of "casual" players as the basis for amount of subscription revenue lost -- the comparison should be done against the pool of players of similar play style, and in this case, I believe that would lean heavily toward the "hardcore" players, who typically invest more time per day than 2 hours.
2. Frustration and loss of game satisfaction by average players when Glider bots gain experience points more rapidly than the average user

Wait, there's more. Here's another quote from the same text to go along with this one ("Is it" typo theirs):
From the perspective of the average player, all he knows is that there are other players who somehow have gained 20 levels while he has gained only 2 or 3. Is it difficult for another user to confirm that the players gaining levels at an accelerated pace are botting, so the average player concludes that either he must be an incompetent player or the system is balanced against him
1. These quotes flatly contradict each other. One says the average player is specifically frustrated about bots, and one says the average player is frustrated about players who gained 20 levels while he has gained only 2 or 3, with no idea that he could be blaming bots the whole time.
2. This has been true in MMOs long before World of Warcraft or any complex bots existed. I played EverQuest for years, and from the time I began playing it, as a decidedly average player, I saw people who were online in the game for much longer periods of time than I was. Lo and behold, the majority of those people leveled faster than I, and got "phatter lewt." And bots for the game were all but unheard of. I concluded that these people had more time to devote to the game than I wanted to devote to it, not that they must be cheating, even though I knew as a long-time game automation programmer (I was well known for it on local BBSes, and to drop a few game names: MajorMUD, Tele-Arena, Crossroads of the Elements. Certain crowds know these) that people could be using automation tools. I also noticed that a lot of people played for shorter periods than I did and leveled faster. But I knew that my style of play at that time did not involve simply grinding out levels -- I enjoyed social interaction, exploration, and other activities that had nothing to do with experience points or currency.
3. Essentially covered by 2, but to reiterate without personal anecdote: Different players have different play styles, and different goals. Some people play at odd hours of night, some people play for 3 days straight, some people are willing to sit around for hours and hours simply for a chance at some desirable reward. What these people have over the average player is simply the ability or willingness to spend more time playing the game. I'm sorry, but outlawing botting is not going to buy the average player time, because this problem exists without botting.
4. The system in World of Warcraft is probably always going to be balanced against the player with the least amount of time. That's not because of bots, that's how the game is designed. The player with more available time per day is going to accomplish more and gain more per day. The only time this changes is when balance is shifted away from time, by placing limits on the amount of time any player is allowed to play or, at minimum, allowed to receive rewards.
3. Frustration and loss of game satisfaction by average players when Glider bots decreases the amount of gold average players can earn during ordinary play
1. Okay, the only obvious way that I can see this argument going is competition for resources. The only way this could possibly be directly attributed to Glider or any bot in particular is for the players to be in the same place at the same time, and be competing for the same resource at the same time. First of all, one of the most obvious rules of thumb for a botter is to avoid other players as much as possible, because a lot of players, including those who bot, will report bots. So the botter is already trying to hide from the other players, and does not want to be competing for the same resources, as that puts him at greater risk. Even so, the game is designed to limit the effects of any one player on an entire area -- random spawns for mobs and resource nodes, and so on. And the guy running around mining or collecting herbs has the same chance you do of getting to it first. Kill stealing is pretty difficult with the system World of Warcraft uses for "tapping" mobs. This could be a valid argument in ye olde EverQuest, where you had to specifically kill rare spawns to get phat lewt, and they were on relatively long spawn timers, and may not be seen for days... people sit around at the same rare spawn, monopolizing it and demotivating anyone from trying to take it.
2. The amount of gold average players can earn during ordinary play is bound to decrease over time even without bots. This is all making me think... The problem here is that the game is designed such that the key factor essentially boils down to time -- and indeed Blizzard makes a lot of money by selling customers that time on a subscription basis. Someone with more available time per day will eventually (that is, over a long enough period of time) surpass players with less available time per day, all else equal (the player with more available time per day is also getting a better value for his subscription fees). All that is needed to generate in-game items or gold is time -- the time you spend achieving whatever symbolic goals are on the path to generating that precious resource, be it by looting fallen foes or by practicing tradeskills to craft items. Various in-game resources have various consumption rates (by consumption, I mean effective removal of the resource from the economy, by some game mechanic e.g. soulbound items, selling to an NPC vendor, etc), which may or may not be faster than generation rates -- some may be fast, others may forever have more than will ever be consumed. For any resource where the rate of generation is faster than the rate of consumption, the value naturally decreases in relation to other resources. Currency in this type of game is the most readily available resource -- it can typically be generated in infinite amount by spending time on various infinitely available tasks. A player can kill mobs for hours on end, generating currency and items simply by the act of killing creatures, without even breaking a virtual sweat. The items, in turn, can be converted directly to currency by visiting an NPC vendor (with some exception of items that cannot be sold), for a price that will essentially never change for any given item. So in effect, this problem exists by nature of the design of the game. Any influx of time spent in the game translates to this generation of currency, regardless of whether it is from humans or bots. The supposition I am left with is that any claim of potential subscription revenue loss due to spending less time in the game (e.g. from leveling faster as claimed in the first "Harm" statement) likely conflicts with the devaluation of currency, not to mention the continual growth of World of Warcraft, with now over 10,000,000 subscribers. This growth drives an influx of additional time spent, which devalues the readily available gold. And yet Glider, the most well-known bot for World of Warcraft, claims only about 30,000 active Glider accounts according to MDY's statement of facts.

4. Frustration and loss of game satisfaction when the in-game economy is hyper-inflated, resulting in significantly decreased buying power for normal users

1. See my #2 to previous statement. The in-game economy would be "hyper-inflated" over time without bots. I'm not sure it's a valid conclusion that because bots can cause hyper-inflation, and that the economy seems hyper-inflated, means that bots are a major, let alone the primary, cause. It's asserted repeatedly in this paper that players simply do not understand that the problem is likely bots, even though, again, these assertions have not been based on any statistically significant amount of data.
2. The primary destroyer of any MMO's economy has historically been, to my knowledge and belief, dupe exploits. Dupes allow items or currency to be duplicated at will, which may generate far more currency than average humans, hardcore players, or botters ever dream of making, at a much faster rate. A dupe that goes undetected for any period of time may severely damage the game's economy, even beyond repair.

5. Increase cost to play when average players feel they must pay real world money for in-game gold in order to play the game as intended by Blizzard

(italic emphasis theirs)
I don't even know what to say to this one, other than this has nothing to do with Glider or bots in general, and I've already made any counterpoints I would have made to this.
6. Increased cost of providing the game when Blizzard's customer service representatives must respond to hundreds of thousands of complaints about bots, and millions of complaints about in-game problems caused by bots
1. This statement claims millions of complaints about in-game problems caused by bots, while at the same time the paper says this:

To date, Blizzard has received over 300,000 complaints about botting from customers. Millions of additional complaints have been received in connection with issues of inflation, resource-hogging, farming and other issues that are likely tied directly to the existence of bots, but that players do not understand, or do not acknowledge, are connected to botting.
And this:
The more than 300,000 botting complaints that Blizzard has received does not include complaints lodged by the many current and former players whose game experience was adversely impacted by bots, but did not know the reason for their less-than-perfect gaming experience. Unfortunately, there is no way to ascertain this number, or to quantify these damages.
And this:
Do players even realize that botting is behind the distorted economy? The 300,000 user complaints evidences that many do. Given that over 10 million WoW accounts have been created, however, it is reasonable to conclude that many more do not. Players only see ridiculously high prices for items they need, and ridiculously low returns for hours of game play that would otherwise provide more than enough resources for them to enjoy the game as designed. The ultimate root of these problems -- Glider bots -- is difficult to see.
What I'm seeing is a lot of repetition and pointing out bots, or even Glider, as the "ultimate root of these problems", meanwhile acknowledging that it is difficult to see, that most players do not understand it as such, and so on. If one were to not consider the rest of the possible sources, then it would be reasonable to come to the conclusion that it's all Glider's fault. But the vast majority of the players, clearly, do not blame Glider. What else could players possibly blame the problem on? Something logical? Like players who have more time to spend playing the game than they do? Doesn't the stereotype involve people living in their parents basement with nothing better to do than play the game all day? Or during certain times of year (etc), students with time away from school that have plenty of extra time to play? And one reason for people to use these bots in the first place is to keep up with those sorts of people who can invest more of their own time, to cut out the advantage! If people are really sick of having the disadvantage in the game, they can quit their jobs and spend all day playing too.

7. Cost of resources devoted to detecting Glider bots, and the cost of ongoing programming efforts to overcome Glider's constant development and improvement of its anti-detection software

... I saw a number for this, being something like $900,000 (either per year or total), and now I've spent so much time rambling that I don't know where I saw it. So I apologize if I'm inaccurate here, but I'm going to go with that number. I don't believe that anywhere near $900,000 is devoted specifically to Glider, but I don't think that's important, and here's why. At ~$15 per month, any Glider pays up to ~$180 per year to play a single WoW account. If there are 30,000 active Gliders each with only 1 WoW account, that's ~$450,000 in subscription revenue per month for Blizzard, and ~$5,400,000 per year. Even ignoring the purchase of the account itself, the revenue from Glider users alone is likely more than enough to cover that specific cost, given that the $900k cost would presumably not exist without the $5.4m revenue.

8. Loss of game satisfaction by average players when the presence of Glider bots destroys the immersive fantasy aspect of the game, which is the essence of the product
I can only speak for myself really, but I think "Barrens chat" says enough. I can't imagine the presence of a bot here and there being any worse than reading typical in-game chat.

So basically what I'm getting out of Castranova's exhibit is:
  • The monetary damage amounts provided are based upon flawed assumptions, such as shorter level time = less revenue, and that the average player who uses Glider would have spent 8 months getting level 70.
  • He really, really wants to assert that Glider is the root of WoW's problems and great cause for concern to a player base that would not come to the same conclusion themselves, though there is no attempt to prove the any substantial connection. I can only assume the intended audience does not play World of Warcraft and is unlikely to be aware of differences between types of players, or that other likely causes of these problems exist, and would not be able to make their own logical conclusion, choosing instead to rely on information from such an expert.
Once again it's getting late and I'm getting tired, so this may not be as polished as I'd like, but hopefully I've gotten at least a few good points across to ... anyone at all. Some of my points might be just as bad as I'm saying anyone else's are, but I know there's some diamonds in the rough here ;)

Update: I just got a note that Mercury was actually the developer of one of the now-retro games I automated in the past, Crossroads of the Elements. I didn't realize that, how cool. And I've been Master of Elements on my old local BBS for probably over 10 years.

2 comments:

UnblockMyspace said...

What a great read!! I notice major holes and what not in regards to the info published in the paper and quoted here.

I personally started on a trial account with a hunter, in
Nov 2007. I then purchased the game in December and started a warlock on a completely differen't server. I took less than 2 mo's from the entry of the CD key until I reached 70. With this being my first account and first time past level 20 on any character, It CANNOT be argued that I was nothing more than a beginner.

The introduction of the new daily's and Isle zone with patch2.4, ave had far more impact on (at least my realms) in game economy. In the weeks since the patch, I have seen every in game item skyrocket in price. By skyrocket I'm not citing the normal market conditions and variance, but instead speaking of a doubling of prices across all level ranges.

If anything, I'd appreciate Blizz permission to bot over the 2.4 patch. The 2.4 patch hindered my game play experience, almost to the point I wanted to just quit.
( I say that even though I can personally bring in over 1000g a day on bad days... Nope not crafted epics, primals bring this in)

Jeffrey said...

On the notion that Blizzard received over 300,000 bot complaints and 'millions' of related complaints, I would be interested in seeing them qualify and quantify those complaints by:

1. Leveling bots, versus
2. Gold, loot, & mats farming bots, versus
3. Battleground rep/xp farming bots, versus
4. msg channel & in-game mail spam bots.

Frankly, in the two years that I have played WoW, I have never detected anyone using a bot to level a toon, only suspected one individual of using a bot or power leveling service to level his toons, and frankly could care less one way or the other.

I have run into bots being used to farm gold and such. It's fairly easy and amusing to tag their targets and let their bots do the work. And while it is sometimes annoying to have to wait for dead mobs to respawn in order to complete a quest or to manually farm drops, it has never killed my desire to play the game.

Items 3 and 4 I find especially egregious. I have no tolerance for dead beats who benefit off of the backs of active players who enter battlegrounds (bg's) with the intention of winning to progress in their reputation/xp/and daily bg questing especially when their inactivity tips the balance between a win and a loss. And I have no loss of love for in-game spammers and hope that they all rot in hell (but I'm not opinionated.)

In short, I could care less about 1 and 2 but have no issues seeing 3 and 4 lose their accounts.

But I digress, because where I started going with the above was to suggest that if you parse out 1 and 2 from the 'massive' amount of 'complaints' that Blizzard claims, I would not be surprised to see that 300,000 number drop so significantly that the percentage of lost revenue would be insignificant.

Here is another consideration: What is the difference between using a bot to level a toon and paying a service to level your toon for you? If there is relatively little time difference between using a bot and using a service, and Blizzard is not suffering lost revenues, it can hardly complain of damages. Consequently it can be argued that their application of Warden is overly broad and ruled that Warden (or for that matter, Blizzards account termination policies) should only be used in specific instances where damages can be established.

The economics issues are a bit trickier, but I would suggest researching whether or not the PhD economist referenced is an academic or someone with actual and extensive business experience. Where an academic may be able to theorize, they often overlook the practicalities that a seasoned business economist would consider.

As a player I often wonder why certain items carry premium price tags in the auction house, some well beyond what I can reasonably afford. At the end of the day economics boils down to supply and demand. If the chinese gold farmers are using bots to farm epic drops, and because they are using bots to camp zones they are able to farm greater quantities of salable epic loot, then wouldn't the higher supply lower the prices on the AH and make those items somewhat more affordable; and is that really a 'bad' thing?

The fact is that Blizzard's economics do not reflect real world economics. In the real world, there are no unlimited supplies of salable drops and materials, nor are there any unlimited supplies of money. Real world economics trades limited resources and effort against perceived value. The economics of the real world is a "displacement" model whereas in the Blizzard's imaginary world there are unlimited supplies of both money and goods.

Imagine what the game would be like if Blizzard applied a real world constraints that would actually deplete drops over time with commensurate with player effort. Subscribers would be quitting the game left and right out of frustration from not being able to obtain the items that they needed to progress in the game. In fact, I personally believe that obstacles to progression are far more harmful to subscribership than progressing too quickly.

In short, Blizzard appears to be concerned that botters are going to pervert Blizzards already perverted economy. If that were true, then why would millions of subscribers continue to play WoW in ignorant bliss? Their logic is flawed.

I say nuke the spam and battleground botters and leave the rest alone.