In a lecture at GDC China, NetEase's design director Yunfeng Lin discussed the fascinating gold farming bot-related issues in the company's massively popular Westward Journey
Chinese online game series, and how it fixed them.
Lin started by noting: "We are very firm about bot programs.. we will spare no effort to crack down on them." With NetEase's games in this series
having hundreds of thousands or even millions of simultaneous users, it's a major problem.
He explained that the company -- which now also runs World Of Warcraft
in China -- started out by detecting bots -- which try to accumulate in-game wealth to sell it to other payers for financial gain -- by looking at their behavior.
The company's game began by using a number of basic 'check' devices before in-game fights, including a visual test ('Which character is facing left, when all the others are facing right?', as well as slightly more complex mathematical questions.
Sneaky Bot Shenanigans
The bots were then coded to try to log off and quit the game when they are presented with a 'check' -- to avoid detection. But NetEase adapted their code so that the game automatically flags them as a potential bot and does not allow them to continue without checking.
However, after around 6 months, the bots adapted. When the checkbox popped up, the bot programs would default back to a real person whose sole job is to bypass manual checks. In this way, 2 or 3 people may operate hundreds of accounts simultaneously.
NetEase then increased the security, so you have to type Chinese city names or idioms, and the player has to key in Chinese characters. In addition, players have to key in English words and say what position one particular letter is in, and also complete simple mathematical questions. Over time, even more detailed, complex captcha-like events were put in front of potential bots.
Bot Harm, Fixes Through Gameplay
Why are bots harmful, though? Lin stressed the lack of co-operation and social interaction that having masses of bots in your online game implies. This can lead to regular players leaving your game through frustration -- and then when your bots leave, you'll have nobody left at all.
How is NetEase fixing the issues beyond mechanical or captcha-related fixed? Interestingly, by making the gameplay more complex -- something that will naturally make players happier anyhow. Lin explained that the company put different monsters in the game with different powers. In this way, actual tactics are important -- grinding through by just attacking everything won't work, so bots will need to be a lot more complex.
Other ways that NetEase developers actually changed the game design to thwart the bots include forcing a new monster-finding task -- which takes one to two minutes -- before players can collect particular pieces of treasure map loot in one of the games. This adds complexity and a particular task that's difficult for a bot to reproduce.
Solutions Through Sidequests, Complexity
In other cases, the monsters in the Westward
series have special skills which are difficult to overcome unless the player bands with others, another issue that bots have difficulty overcoming. Adding social aspects to the games make regular players happier, too.
So NetEase has made it difficult for bot programs to rack up money because they've changed the game to add co-operation. It's also possible to track players that are "experiencing the game in a leisurely manner", and it's quite easy to tell which players are simply grinding to make in-game money.
In the quest to make their games more fun and more bot-proof, NetEase's developers have added a lot of sub-games like fishing, card playing, and Go, and this way, it's even easier to see if players are bots.
(The company does admit that it may misidentify aggressively money-hungry players as bots on occasion, but this is in the minority. As Lin noted: "Generation of money is really boring... it's not fun".)
Conclusion: Bots For Never
What's the future for guarding against bots in online games? Lin noted: "Personally, I don't think we can totally eliminate them... this will be an ongoing process." But NetEase does "aim for constant improvement" to eliminate harm caused by bots, and feels strongly that "if the design of the game matures... then the bot program will disappear."
In other words, Lin did wonder whether games that have a lot of bots aren't interesting or complex enough. Thus, "if the design is too simple" then the bots may take over and the human players may leave.
But one of the trump cards He said that "the player hate this kind of bot program", and players try to 'label' bot programs online by calling them out in-game and making sure that other players don't partner with them to complete quests. What the developers can't block, the players help to identify, and in this way, NetEase seems to be succeeding in its fight against online game bots.