On Cheating and Exploiting – Race To World First 90

Continuing in this series we have been looking at the grey areas of cheating and exploiting in MMO’s and how this creates difficulties in trying to place definitions on these concepts for online gaming. Previously, we looked at things more from the perspective of the players, and players encountering these grey areas. In this post, we look at how the grey areas plague the developers of the games as well.

I made a fairly halfhearted attempt to secure the realm first level 90 warlock when Mists of Pandaria launched. Halfhearted because i’d spent zero time on beta learning the quests, no time looking up optimal routes or strategies or any other kind of realistic preparation (apart from 25 dailies ready to hand in). The plan was just to play until I hit 90, and seeing as I inhabit a fairly dead realm, I thought that would probably be enough. And it could well have been, had I not made the terrible decision to sleep for a few hours somewhere between 4 and 8 a.m. Needless to say I was beaten to the finish line, but the margin of defeat was somewhat smaller than it should have been, as about half way through level 89 word of a PVP exploit reached me (note to self: always have MMOwned open).

Alterac Valley happened to be the weekend PVP battleground, and Drek’thar et al. happened to still be tuned for level 85. Cue 40 level 89’s zerging to nuke him down for an average battleground of 4 mins and 5 million XP for a win. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that this was extremely efficient leveling (even the 1 million xp for a loss was worth it). But it also didn’t take a genius to figure out that this was a fairly large oversight by Blizzard and while leveling through PVP is legitimate, zerging through battlegrounds that qucikly with such a high xp reward was not intended. As such, the battleground was hotfixed fairly quickly. Had I known about it a few hours earlier……

But such is the price for my complete lack of preparation and the fact that I was never really taking it that seriously to begin with. Other people however make genuine attempts not just at realm firsts, but world firsts. Who can get world first level 90? How quickly could it be done? To think on this scale needs a serious amount of research and preparation, and some seriously dedicated friends.

World of Warcraft is an old game, and this is reflected in a lot of the game’s mechanics. One of the most frustrating things for me in MMO’s of this type is how they handle nodes, whether they be profession nodes or quest items. They’re there to be seen for all players and the first person to click on the shiny thing, gets the reward. On paper, this sounds like a much more sensible system than say, Guild Wars 2, where anyone can gather from the same node, but in so many ways it isn’t (see future post).

Another remnant of old style mechanics is ‘mob tagging’. Again, in a more modern MMO like Guild Wars 2, other players are a welcome addition to your own playing. Quest mobs will die faster, and everyone receives experience based upon how much they’re contributing (to a degree). Not so in WoW, where again, it is first come first served. If you get the first few hits on a particular mob, and someone else finishes it off for you whilst you sit there doing nothing, you and you alone will receive the xp and loot from that mob kill. Running into other players when questing in WoW is frequently more frustrating and annoying than it is an experience you enjoy.

Mob tagging is a part of the game though, and always has been. Though its mechanics have changed somewhat in attempts to stop griefing (for example casting an area of effect spell around where quest mobs spawn so you tag them all, preventing others from doing the quest), it remains a legitimate play style, and one that has become essential is the races to max level cap. The basic stratergy is to have one person going for gold who will go around mob tagging everything he sees, while a group of friends work together in defeating all the tagged mobs. Only the person who tagged the mobs will receive all of the xp. The remaining part of the equation is to find the best location to put the theory to practice. Somewhere with lots of mobs that grant good xp with a short respawn timer so there is little to no downtime. Who will find the best spot, and who can implement the best strategy?

For the race to world first level 90, the answer to this question was (then wasn’t, and now is again) the druid Fs and his guildmates from ‘Borked’ on Ravencrest. Unlike me, Fs spent a lot of time playing the Beta for Mists of Pandaria, searching for that perfect spot that would enable him to get world first 90. And he found it. A little place in Townlong Steppes where a group of shaman mobs would spawn, and upon killing them, would grant the player a bonus damage buff that could stack up to eight times. This allowed his team mates to quickly kill off the mobs he was tagging. With a fast respawn timer for these shamans, the xp came flooding in and Fs easily took world first 90.

That is until Blizzard decided that he had been exploiting, and rolled his character back to 87.

Why did they do this? The mobs gave standard xp gains, so no exploit there. Mob tagging is completely legitimate and has been used by many people attempting to reach world first level caps in the past with no action ever having been taken, so no exploit there. Was it the buff that the shamans gave the players? This buff lasts only 30 seconds, so the group needed to maintain their killing of the shamans constantly to keep their buff with max stacks active during the entire leveling process. Was it this that the developers deemed exploiting? But if so, on what possible grounds? The shamans, with their buff, had been in the game since the beta build and granting this buff to players was fully intended. It was simply clever and optimal play to maximize the buff stacks and uptime to facilitate leveling via mob tagging.

Further confusion is added by the way in which Blizzard handled the affair. Why was Fs rolled back to 87? He and his guildmates used this method straight from 85 all the way to 90. If their method was deemed cheating then surely he should be rolled back all the way to 85.

It seems the confusion is warranted as, over six months later, Blizzard community representative Vaneras issued this statement on the official forums:

After some lengthy deliberation on this topic and evaluation of all facts, we’ve decided to overturn our decision on this matter. We will be re-instating Fs’s achievements. Our apologies to Fs for any frustration this has caused.

The length it time it took to reach this decision, or probably more accurately, the length of time it took for something to be done about it once the decision had been made, is pretty shoddy on Blizzard’s part. But the underlying message here is that the grey area between what constitutes cheating and exploiting and what counts as clever use of game mechanics is tricky to navigate. Blizzard have been consistently inconsistent in their decision making on the matter, and are even susceptible to back tracking on certain calls (though it might take over six months to admit a mistake).

Here’s a video of Athene interviewing one of Fs’ guildmates that helped him during the race:

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