This week, Star Wars: the Old Republic put in a patch that had a fairly large number of tweaks to the game, mostly a lot of bugfixes and updates to various group activities such as changing which comms drop and rebalancing certain encounters. Sadly, however, much of these things were not the topic of many conversations about the game the past few weeks. A singular sentence early on in the patch notes addressed that topic in an unassuming manner, quietly announcing a bugfix that closed a rather large exploit that had been discovered in the game in Game Update 3.0.
Firstly, here are the actual patch notes if you haven't read them already. As you can readily see, they announce things like the removal of the anniversary discounts and vendors and the like. In and amongst these notes is a single sentence that, had you been unaware, refers to the exploit that was nuked from orbit on Tuesday.
- It is no longer possible to loot or complete the Weekly Mission for the final boss of The Ravagers without completing the Operation.
Seems pretty innocuous, doesn't it? However, what was happening was that someone found out that you could summon your buddies and/or their alts in to loot the final boss and not have to actually have them go through the Operation. Get some epic loot on all of your alts every week and not have to work for it? Sweet!
As is usual, only BioWare knows who utilized the exploit and who didn't and how extensively, regardless of what percentage of players Reddit threads claim has done so. Community Manager Eric Musco took to the forums twice to discuss the matter, and this is fairly significant, as most game studios want to limit or deflect commentary about exploits while they're investigating, and he even acknowledges this fact in his first post on the matter. It's worthwhile to simply repeat what he said they prefer players do when encountering an exploit:
If you believe you have discovered an exploit, or you hear of an exploit taking place, this is the best course of action to take:
- Do not “test” the exploit yourself. Even a single occurrence of using an exploit can lead to action being taken against your account.
- Report the exploit immediately and privately. First, use the /bug command in-game to send in a ticket about the issue. Secondly, please send the details to any member of our community team via a private message, here on the forums. Rest assured, even if we do not respond, we read all of our messages and will escalate exploits accordingly.
- Do not post on the forums with any reference to, or explanation of an exploit. These posts are against the forum rules and will be removed. We also highly recommend you don’t post on other forums or social media channels explaining any aspect of the exploit.
His followup post openly acknowledges more about the actual exploit, naming which Operation it was as the patch notes did as well. He goes on to detail what BioWare's next steps on the matter are. There of course weren't any specifics listed as to what actions would be taken, but he laid out their plan. Typically, however, we're not going to see any public shaming going on through official channels. I fully expect that once accounts start getting actioned, Reddit will light up like a Christmas tree. However, I made the mistake of losing an hour of my life reading the comments on Eric's post on the official forums. There were a few folks thanking BioWare for doing something, but it was mostly a bunch of armchair game devs excusing or rationalizing their behavior because they believed it was BioWare's fault for not fixing the exploit sooner versus a bunch of armchair witch hunters raging that everyone who did the exploit needed to be burned at the stake or something. There was also plenty of growling about how BioWare's track record with dealing with previous (and still ongoing) exploit situations has not been stellar and that they either didn't expect BioWare to actually do anything, or they expected BioWare to shoot themselves in the foot with a mass banning of accounts and thus depriving themselves of all of that subscriber income. I will give swtor.com forum user Grayseven a shout-out for repeatedly pointing out in that thread the key legal distinction in this matter: knowing use of exploits is against the game's Terms of Service. It's the legally-binding agreement all players have to acknowledge before we get to play. It's solid enough to stand up in court.
Thus, we come to the crux of the matter. What are the ethics in this situation and what's in BioWare's best interests to resolve it and move on? The forums were rife with all kinds of analogies to explain the right and wrong of the matter, while others banging on about the fact that since BioWare didn't openly state up front it was an exploit and where (their messaging is on par with many other AAA developers when dealing with exploits), then that magically absolves everyone who participated in one or more exploits. There were some pretty interesting if grasping at straws sorts of commentary about how widespread the issue is, or how far into this mess BioWare should dig for accounts to action. Do they just nail the known exploiter who ran twenty alts through every week and got all the crafting schematics, the person selling lockouts on Fleet, or go so far as to penalize the unwitting buyer on the GTN who purchased a hilt or barrel that came from an exploited crafting schematic? Do they just action the hardcore exploiters or everyone across the board? How hard will those consequences be for lesser-actioned people? How will this affect BioWare's income if they ban a number of accounts? At this point, do we even know if BioWare wants money from proven cheaters? In my service industry, it's not unheard of for a company to go to an extreme of denying service to a customer due to poor behavior on that customer's part. Yes, there are companies out there that will turn down someone's money because that person is worse for business than having them around being disruptive.
It's not likely we're ever going to properly know the true facts of who gets actioned due to standard 'punish in private' policies many game studios have, all Reddit/social media explosions aside. Sadly, even normally honest players knowingly took advantage of the bug to get themselves one or two pieces of gear or whatever, really minor stuff compared to the stories of people selling runs or whatnot, but yet I don't really have much sympathy. Based on the description of the bug, it seems awfully unlikely that someone just accidentally waltzed into a completed Operation and looted the end boss. Negligence in enforcement of past exploits should never be assumed to be permission to continue or participate in future exploits. Just because you didn't get pulled over for speeding the last time doesn't mean you should speed now. Telling the officer that 'but everybody else is doing it too!' isn't likely to get you out of that speeding ticket.
Every game has exploits, and many of them go unresolved for far too long. I'm unsurprised at each game's community's reactions because they're pretty much the same, it's actually quite an interesting psychological study to see people go from rage to bargaining to acceptance. I saw the same furor on WildStar's forums recently when Community Manager Tony Rey gave warning that exploiters were about to become very unhappy if they didn't fess up to a specific incident. The same thing happened when Lord of the Rings Online's Community Manager Andy Cataldo posted about an exploit and Turbine's stance on them. World of Warcraft perma-banned a couple of guys for not only breaking ToS but livestreaming it and admitting to it. In each case, the game's community had a fit, some people left, others cheered, and it was a big old mess. However, the common thread in all of them is the simple fact of the Terms of Service in each one is more or less the same: exploiters and cheaters are not welcome. None of these studios paid their lawyers stupid amounts of money to write the ToS just for anyone's health, they did it so they have in writing their power to police their community and game as they see fit. The ToS applies at all times, and it's simply up to the games themselves to enforce those rules. Unfortunately, something some people tend to often forget is that just because Blizzard can hotfix something pretty quickly, that doesn't mean that other studios have the same amount of manpower on-hand to do it as well.
In SWTOR's case, we'll have to see what happens once accounts begin to be actioned. I would hope that minor exploiters are dealt with less harshly than major exploiters, because that's only fair in my opinion. Yes, there should be some penalty for everyone who knowingly profited in some fashion from this exploit, but it should match the severity of their actions. I don't believe folks who unwittingly purchased mods from the GTN from an exploiter should be punished, however.
What do you all think?