Earlier this year I did quite possibly my most controversial piece of work - tackling a subject that is prone to inciting empathy (rarely) or seething hatred (more likely). This topic is, of course, botting, specifically in MMO's like World of Warcraft. My attempts to appease the audience with cute pictures of robots while simultaneously praising the possibilities of botting provoked mixed reactions, and my inbox piled full of notes of love, hate, something in between and even a curious one involving a surprise ninja kick to my curiously represented virtual testicles.
Funny enough, since then, some of my old readers have contacted me to see what I've been up to, assuming that Blizzard killed me or that I was in prison somewhere. No, alas, that's not the case, as with the closing of WoW Glider (as it will forever be known to me and the community) meant that some of us actually had to go play WoW for real, which was pretty damn boring. Most people either quit (as I did) or moved on to other bots, which in the absence of Glider, have had a large customer base ready to try them out.
With the MMO genre, I'm prone to using drug analogies, and one here is too fitting to pass up. Blizzard and the legal team that took down Glider are analogous to the DEA / Narcotics police. Glider, being a WoW bot, was akin to the largest weed (drug not chosen randomly) supplier in the area. Glider had people on every corner and anyone that wanted a spliff or a sack of mary-j could go down to the corner and buy it. Some other small time dealers were around, but nothing on the scale of Glider's spread and customer base.
So, the DEA (Blizzard) hit the supplier (let's call him Tron) Glider with a court case. Tron had to stop selling weed to get the DEA off his back. However, the need for weed was still present in downtown Azeroth - people just don't stop getting high overnight. With the po-po's sweating Tron's sack, he had to go into hiding for a while until the shit blew over. Tron still had a lot of connections, and people on the street want to get their weed from Tron and his crew, but they can't. Now some smaller dealers have hit the streets to fill the market gap that is now present. Overall, the weed market is still as healthy as ever, but instead of one supplier to deal with (Tron) the DEA now has to worry about 10 small time operators.
As in any open market economy, this has led for different competitors to try different things. New growing techniques are being used now for the new suppliers to get more of their market share - as there is no longer a monopoly, there's room for everyone to make a name for themselves. What's most surprising is the unity the suppliers and customers have shown together, with the end goal of getting high (and not getting caught) prioritizing over petty marketing games. Word on the street is that even Tron has been keeping busy by letting these 'competitors' use some of his suppliers while he waits out the future court date.
Here's the kicker: people that want to buy the 'weed' here do it mainly to not have to smoke as much crack that the DEA has been selling them for years. Yeah, the DEA is corrupt, selling addictive crack to everyone that takes A LOT of time to smoke. Some people don't have time to smoke crack all the time, or they'd rather be doing something else rather than smoke crack. Sure, they're still addicted to it, but when Tron came in with this magical weed that let them get a crack-like high in a fraction of the time, it was like a huge burden had been lifted off of the crackhead community. Crackheads could now enjoy crack on their own terms and on their own time, instead of being forced into smoking crack six hours a day just to feed their addiction.
It's amazing the amount of money that Blizzard has spent just getting Glider (and some other smaller bots) to shut down, only to have them be replaced by other ones at amazing speed. In fact, though no official demographics are available, the amount of actual bots being used has more than likely grown in the past year since Glider has been shut down. Fortunately for these new bots, they're located outside of the US, often in Asian countries, where the long arm of Activision and it's douchebag lawyers can't reach. This might be bad news for Glider, though them ultimately losing their court battle bodes poorly for gaming in general, as clicking "I agree" to a MMO's EULA might in the future might give them your first born child.
Botting is still bad!
While I covered my personal opinion on what I thought about botting (or 'cheating') in MMO's, I still recognize that the majority of normal players still don't look too highly on it. I can empathize with this, as it does seem that if a player can have a bot do things like earn money / grind honor for them, it's not fair for a non-bot user that has to spend time doing it.
This brings up an interesting point, though, that I'm sure will alienate me even more from people. I have to ask a question:
Is playing the game in question fun?
Put this 'botting' business in perspective of any other game. Team Fortress 2, or Left 4 Dead, or something like Dragon Age: Origins. These aren't MMO's, sure - but having a bot for these games would make no sense. Why? Because you're missing out on gameplay. The only reason to really play these games is for fun - that is, battling out a TF2 match with people or trying Expert mode in L4D or running through Dragon Age with a new character. It's almost unthinkable that you'd want your computer playing it without you, because you're missing the fun. Of course, things like TF2 achievement idle maps exist (or did), but this is because the only requirement for certain items was sheer time.
Enter the realm of MMO's, where to have 'fun' you have to do boring shit. Grinding honor (which, as PVP, should have a similar fun factor to a FPS) is not fun for most people, especially the enormous amount you're required to do to stay competitive in something like WoW Arenas. Or making money. Some people might enjoy doing the same exact quest every day for money, but some don't. It's unfortunate that the gameplay itself isn't fun. It's more unfortunate the vast amount of people that spend time doing 'unfun' stuff just to be able to to do fun stuff. Think of a FPS where in order to kill people you had to do some mundane puzzle, crossword or cleaning task to 'unlock' the action.
Botting helps alleviate some of these 'unfun' tasks so that the player can enjoy the fun parts of the game, making the overall gaming experience more 'fun' and less 'i want to rip my eyes out these daily quests are so boring'. Oh, did I just blow your mind? No, probably not.
Let's use WoW as an example. Most people would agree that the 'fun' part of the game for them is:
1. End game raiding
2. PVP, including Arenas.
3. Making other characters to do 1 and 2. (altitis)
Now, to be competitive and do one of these three things (usually a combination of 3 and either 1 or 2), a lot of time is required. An estimated 150 hours of battleground / honor grinding (offset by other things like Wintergrasp / Heroic's) is required to purchase latest season PVP gear. That's per character, per season. Add in money needed for enchanting, gemming your gear, and there is also a serious monetary investment. Earning this virtual currency takes time - add everything up and you're looking at time investment that's easily a second job, especially adding in any other characters you might want to play.
I know it's a bit apples and oranges here, but it's still the core of the problem - the large amount of time and repetitive tasks to enjoy the game is ridiculous. Some people can handle it. Some people can't. A third set of people don't want to handle it so they create something else to do it for them. This doesn't really make it fair for the people who can't or don't want to automate the process or spend real money on stuff, but it's their choice not to do these things. This is probably the origin of the seething hate that a lot of people have for 'botters' - as they see them as rule-breakers, cheating around the in-place system imposed by the Blizzard overlords for no other reason than retaining a monthly subscription fee.
I guess that's why I defend botting. I empathize more with individual people either saving time or earning money rather than the greedy corporate entity here. I'll agree that the marketingmodel is good, especially due to the high addictiveness of the game, but that doesn't make it something that is good. In fact, the amount of their customer's time that Blizzard has effectively wasted in order to try and keep the hooked in and paying a monthly fee could almost be considered extortion. If a company makes a product with the clear intent of getting players addicted, introducing repetitive, time consuming tasks in order to 'succeed' in the game, with the end goal of keeping the customer paying a monthly fee - then I'm loathe to defend those practices.
In closing, I suppose this is just an attempt at a rational counter-point to most rational players thoughts on the matter, which will more than likely portray me as the Internet White Knight for botting yet again. That's fine by me though, as I've missed the love and hate mail.
So, what's everyone else think? Five years now we've had WoW - and which is the greater evil - the cheaters or the game itself?