The ESO debacle made me look back on many other exploit-induced messes, such as The Lord of the Rings Online stacking buff exploit, the Everquest AA point exploit, and Guild Wars 2's Snowflake jewelry exploit. All of these caused a bevy of problems by giving some players an unfair advantage, but reading through old online forum posts, I was struck how often players were angry at publishers for stopping and/or punishing illegal behavior. They blamed publishers for “creating” these issues and QA for not catching them. More incredibly, they refused to take responsibility for doing things they knew were wrong, and claimed it was the publisher's responsibility to keep player behavior in check.
One of the arguments repeatedly put forth was that players “didn't know” they were cheating. In a handful of cases, that could be true. If a player innocently buys something—say, a crafting component—that's priced far cheaper than it should be, it's hard to say that player is knowingly cheating. But when players (sometimes entire guilds) do things like farm buggy boss fights for heaps of high end gear, the “we didn't know it was wrong” excuse just doesn't wash. Players then try to fall back on the “Who decides what's cheating?” argument. To that I'd say cheating's a lot like porn—people say it's impossible to define, but most of us know it when we see it.
Beyond the discussion about what is and isn't an exploit, the debate rages regarding how publishers deal with players who avail themselves of exploits. In the past, publishers have employed a range of damage-control strategies, from rolling games back a few hours for everyone, to singling out individual players. While there's no comfortable catch-all for handling all exploit situations, I'm frankly amazed at players getting pissed when the hammer eventually comes down. One post I saw actually referred to finding and dealing with exploiters as a “witch hunt.” The melodrama of that is eye-rollingly absurd. The only thing sillier were the scads of forum remarks that expressed the sentiment, “It's just a game.”
Yup, playing MMOs isn't as serious as solving unemployment or finding an answer to world hunger, but players seem to forget that they're called “massively multiplayer” for a reason. They're not created to cater to one person's experience—they're about the collective experience of many. That means if you say things like,“What difference does it make if I work the system,” you're being willfully ignorant. Now I don't believe there are people out there who don't understand why working the system is wrong, but on the off chance there are, I'll explain. The difference is, players who illegally augment their own experiences diminish the experiences of others and that's not OK. Easy, right?
I imagine most exploiters would sing a different tune if people worked other systems to the exploiters' disadvantage. Would exploiters admire the cleverness of people who managed to use vulnerable ATM technology to siphon money from their bank accounts? Would they mind if their favorite baseball team was constantly beaten by opponents who used unfair loopholes? I mean, what's the big deal? It's just a game.
Now, from what I've seen on umpteen forums, it's easy for players to forget that making MMOs costs money—lots and lots of money. They don't magically appear one day fully-formed; they're created by large teams of hard-working professionals who deserve to be paid. Contrary to popular belief, those professionals know it's in their best interest to create the best gameplay experience possible. A successful game means prestige, job stability, and better compensation, whereas failure can mean unemployment, lengthy job hunts, and debt. Meanwhile, for players failure means no more than moving on to another MMO.
To be fair, it's hard to tell who the players are who express the worst of the stupidly selfish and short-sighted forum remarks. They could be twelve year old kids. (In fact, I hope they are.) What's unreal though, are the commentaries by industry “experts” who echo their entitlement-laden sentiments. In my opinion, gamers these days have it easier than ever. Free-to-play has made it possible for them to “try before they buy” and risk virtually nothing to try new games. They can stop and start, spend or not spend, contribute meaningfully to a community, add nothing, or actively seek to destroy it. What do they have to lose? Meanwhile MMO publishers have it harder than ever, investing millions of dollars and endless man hours to make games that are then willfully derailed by people who think using exploits isn't really a problem.
What we've seen in the last week from ESO (and in many games over years past), exploits negatively affect the gameplay experience of thousands of non-exploiting players, cause publishers to waste precious development time policing the community, drastically affect the lifespan of games, and even bring down entire companies. So really, at this point, can any thinking person seriously ask,“What's the harm?”