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Bots: It's not Me, it's You.

What do bots tell us about MMORPG design? Are they really the problem, or a symptom?

Jonathan Jou, Blogger

December 15, 2010

8 Min Read

People love playing MMOs. People despise bots. So why do people use them? Getting caught using a computer program to do all your dirty work for you can and in many cases will cost you your account. Yet somehow, there are always people to whom the risks are apparently worth it. Following is a personal theory on how botters view the game, and why bots may not need to be eradicated, but instead rendered obsolete.

Would you let a program beat God of War for you? Or maybe write a program to go on Counterstrike and score headshots in your name. Let Luigi kill Bowser on your behalf? I know of very few gamers who are interested in letting someone else do fun part for them. And if the game happens to revolve around something you don't enjoy, say, matching three objects of the same color, or dropping formations of four squares in lines to make them disappear, I know of even few gamers who are interested in having someone else play on their behalf. If the activity has no inherent value, and no expected reward, people are smart enough to recognize that it's a waste of time. We get paid to do things we don't want to do, and paid *more* to tell other people to do things we don't want to do. How is it MMORPGs stray so far from reality?

To interpret this, I make a few assumptions, and a few exceptions:

Assumption 1. Players do not take part in activities in which they perceive neither immediate nor potential future value. This should be a simple one but there are people whose value systems make this a difficult one to prove. If we disregard people who play games that they  claim to hate, for no visible reward, some clear observations can be made.

Assumption 2. In most games, rules are not in fact made to be broken. Players abide by the rules set upon them when the rules do not inconvenience them in reaching their goals.

Exception 1. Griefers. People who derive their pleasure in a game from the displeasure of their peers. Rules are a way to aggravate players in this case, and finding loopholes, exploits, and using them against other players is a game in and of itself for them.

Assumption 3. The reverse of assumption one, and also the crux of this proposition: given sufficiently valuable rewards, even activities without entertainment value become desirable. Players will engage in activities with little or no short-term benefit if the perceived reward is valuable enough to them. 

Starting with these three assumptions we can quickly conclude that, for people who condone or engage in the act of botting (their own characters, of course), the activities bots perform are not any of these things:

1. Innately fun. While it is entirely possible to make a bot to play tetris or take headshots for us, these activities have innate value to the players who enjoy them and allowing an external agent to perform the tasks on our behalf is seen as reducing the value of the activity. It follows from assumption 1 that killing monsters for experience or loot is an activity these players can and do skip in favor of getting the rewards directly.

2. Perceived as fair. Players are unlikely to resort to illegal means to obtain what they want, unless they believe that the rules are a hindrance, and not an aid in achieving their goals. At some level they are justifying their activities by asserting that the rules are making their in game experience less valuable than if they were to break the rules, which bolsters their decision to do so.

3. Worthless. Players are breaking the rules and going out of their way to attain something they would otherwise not be willing to achieve, and to some extent botting can be understood as the evolution of grinding; humanity is regularly attempting to automate tasks which were once accomplished by hand, and farming or grinding are no exception to this.

So this is where it gets interesting. Is it the fault of botters that they don't want to kill x monsters for y hours until a little bar fills up five times and they can finally get that skill they've been itching to try? Is it the fault of game designers that they've created worlds in which repetitive tasks are the easiest path to success? The argument can go either way, but it seems pretty clear that there are three ways to eliminate any value in botting.

1. Make the tasks fun. If killing 300 wolves was an enjoyable task, then it's unlikely that players would find the risks and costs of setting up a bot to do the task for them worthwhile.

2. Make the tasks fair. The often vicious cycle of grinders forcing a steeper experience curve forcing more grinding often drives players into a scenario where botting seems like the more righteous activity. If the perceived effort matched the perceived reward, this wouldn't be an issue; while things like experience over time is a linear curve, perceived effort over time is a significantly steeper curve. WoW includes a "rested" status boost which increases XP gain, while Guild Wars introduces a level cap so low that "max level" is obtained early on and without much, if any, grinding. Loot farming, however, is an area where most MMOs appear to fail to offer solutions.

3. Makes the tasks useless. It doesn't make sense anyway that killing the same monster repeatedly makes you better at fighting other monsters, even though said monster barely puts up a fight. Nor does it make sense that killing the same monster the exact same way, at the exact same place repeatedly has a chance of dropping an incredibly rare, useful item that is completely nondeterministic. Instead of giving every monster a 10% chance of dropping something amazing, make one out of ever ten monsters amazing and always drop that item. 

There are a wide variety of approaches that combine these three options, of which I will list the ones that I've thought of as I've been writing this.

1. User-defined difficulty. Why force players who want to die repeatedly in difficult fights to churn through a slew of uninteresting, unchallenging fights before letting them get to the good stuff? Why hide a piece of rare loot among 100 creatures when you could allow them to identify the one which has what they're looking for, if they can beat it? Having a dynamic, sliding scale which users could access to make the game harder or easier regardless of how far into the game they've progressed solves botting by combining options one and two, as it divorces character level from access to higher difficulty. Having some sort of Hunting Vision which would identify a creature with 100% chance of dropping rare loot, but also causes all creatures in the area to attack you would make killing all the other creatures useless (3) and add some level of engagement to the hunt (1).

2. Passive development. This is the other side of the table, letting everyone play the game without actually being in front of their computer. There's very little reason that a player can't decide that, while they're asleep, they would like their character to engage in combat training and gain experience so that when the player returns, they will be stronger and more capable in battle. The key difference here would be that these sorts of "passive activities" would NOT take place in the game world in a visible fashion, but merely work like Progress Quest, reducing server load and also removing the jarring experience of players seeing areas suffering the ravages of a bot farmer. Bots frequently steal kills, loot, and engage in other disruptive behavior as a matter of pragmatism, and their doing this in MMO limbo would make the game experience better for everyone.

3. Greater interaction. Age of Conan aspired to this, but fell short. When technology allows for real-time interaction over the wire for all, the mechanics that drive games like God of War can be integrated into current MMORPG designs, and it's very likely that this alone can eliminate any existence of bots, as it has the added benefit of including tasks which may be beyond the capability of modern AI, such as image recognition.

As a result, while I understand how the current conventions are easier to implement, I posit that botting indicates more than illegal behavior--it presents also an opportunity to make the game more enjoyable. I hope you enjoyed this read.

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