Exploit Week 2013
New games and new content patches for older games sometimes come with unexpected surprises. Stuff that was intended to work a specific way may seem to function perfectly fine during the beta stage of the game, but when it is put in the hands of crafty, devious players on live servers, it may reveal some unpredicted results. When these results serve to "break" the game by trivializing certain content or, in more severe cases, upsetting the in-game economy, you have yourself a potential exploit.
When an exploit is revealed, players have a choice to make - either use the exploit or do not. Sadly, many players choose to take advantage of these glitches in order to benefit their characters. Some will even encourage other players to do the same thing, knowing that what they are doing is in violation of pretty much any Terms of Service for any game.
Over the past few weeks, there have been two sterling examples of new-content glitches that have had unexpected, account-suspension-worthy results. The two companies behind these games took different actions to remedy the situations.
Neverwinter had a small but major issue with the code in its in-game Auction House. Someone at Cryptic/PWE forgot to put in one line of code that prevented players from bidding negative amounts for posted items using their excellent Gateway tool. Unscrupulous players were using the out-of-game Gateway web application to place negative-amount bids for items on the auction house, which returned Astral Diamonds to the bidder. Players were using this cheat to earn millions and millions of Astral Diamonds, which some of them traded for outrageous amounts of Zen, which was then traded for the top-tier stuff in the Zen Shop.
In this case, the cheat should be plainly obvious to anyone who has even the most rudimentary understanding of how an economy works. Currency is exchanged for goods and/or services, and buying these goods and services causes the buyer to have less currency, not more. Players who entered negative bids knew exactly what they were doing, and that it was not okay.
As a result of this exploit, the in-game economy suffered. Players who earned their Astral Diamonds or Zen through legitimate channels suddenly found that the items they had worked for (or paid legitimate cash for) were quite common and of greatly-diminished value. Overnight billionaires flaunted their ill-gotten wealth.
Cryptic/PWE responded fairly quickly, issuing a "State of the Game" letter from Lead Producer, Andy Velasquez.. The Auction House was taken down for several days, several players got their accounts suspended, and the servers got rolled back seven hours to undo the majority of the damage to the in-game economy. Additionally, anyone who didn't get caught abusing the system received an awesome goodie-bag with XP boosters, health stones, a "Caturday Survivor" cloak and some other stuff.
Positive reinforcement is nice sometimes. We got rewarded for not being unscrupulous douchebags, which encourages players to continue not being unscrupulous douchebags. Personally, I feel it was a little over the top - I don't need to be rewarded for not cheating - but I appreciate the gesture and the stuff.
A different sort of problem occurred in Star Wars: The Old Republic. The new Collections system, introduced to SWTOR through the last content patch, was put into place, allowing players to "spawn" colour crystals they had already unlocked by finding them in Cartel packs and send them to alts. Spawning the crystals normally costs a fistful of Cartel Coins per crystal, but some players figured out how use the existing Legacy system to bypass the unlock fee and give themselves massive amounts of crystals, which they reverse-engineered to sell the materials for essentially unlimited profit.
BioWare responded by patching the problem and ban-hammering the offending players, but SWTOR's exploit tracker team got a little over-zealous and ended up slapping suspensions on players who obtained their crystals by legitimate means, and who weren't RE'ing them in bulk. This lead to a lot of confusion in the community - players weren't sure whether or not it was acceptable to send their alts legitimately-obtained colour crystals using the Collections and Legacy system. BioWare had to issue a number of statements to clear the matter up - yes, it is perfectly fine to unlock a crystal you paid for with the Collections system and to send it to an alt using the Legacy system. It's only a problem when you're tricking the system and giving yourself a bunch of stuff for free. They also issued an apology to the players who got hit by the ban hammer despite having done nothing wrong.
Again, the exploiters knew what they were doing. They were getting something for free by using a loophole in a newly-implemented system. They did this intentionally and flagrantly, and theirs are the actions that got a bunch of innocent players suspended.
I've seen a number of arguments on message boards and such by people defending their decisions to steal and cheat. Some of them are actually pretty hilarious:
"It's the developer's fault because they put it in the game that way." - Sure, pal. Clearly, the developers intended for players to find a very narrow loophole left behind in the code by accident, and then use it to steal stuff. And it's the ginger's fault that you tease him about his freckles and red hair, because he doesn't use freckle cream or hair dye.
The fact is, the developers came out with a flawed system, and the flaws weren't found in time to prevent a number of players from exploiting the weakness. Mistakes happen, and perhaps the developers share some culpability for not finding and fixing the mistakes earlier. But the "fault" lies squarely with the players who chose to abuse that mistake. They earned their bans and suspensions.
"Everyone else was doing it." - Tell it to Mr. Raditch.
If Degrassi has taught us anything, it's that the kids who give in to peer pressure are always the ones who end up dealing with the worst consequences. Every time.
"I didn't know it was wrong." - Hogwash. Yes you did. If a thing has a price tag and you're getting it without paying, that's stealing. Children know that. If you've found a tiny, nearly-inaccessible ledge to stand on that makes you unreachable, thereby making an otherwise-difficult fight trivial, you were never supposed to be able to reach that ledge, and you know it.
You don't need to read every single word of the End-User License Agreement and Terms of Service to know when you are cheating and using illegal exploits. But if you're going to try to plead ignorance of the law as an excuse for breaking it, you probably should read it.
"Who cares? I'm not hurting anyone else." - Incorrect. Your actions have caused a number of other players, who haven't done anything unseemly, to get suspended or banned from the game. You can try to deflect that back at the company if you want, blaming the exploit trackers for being over-zealous, but it was your behaviour that prompted that hard-line response.
Players are still dealing with the fallout from these exploits. Neverwinter is still technically in "open beta" and therefore subject to some strange and sudden shifts in direction, so it should come as little surprise that the actions of the few continue to have unfortunate consequences for the many. Players are still finding themselves slapped with sudden, mysterious suspensions, and exploiters who escaped the net the first time continue to leak their ill-gotten goods into the auction house.
Our sympathies go out to the innocent casualties of these events, and we hope that these messes are cleaned up soon.