In Defense of Exploiting
Edit: There was a blue post that explained the specifics of LFR, which adds to the evidence that Blizzard handled this situation better than other occurrences in the past.
Also again to clarify–LFR and similar extreme exploits are not the focus of the post–it’s about more general issues and the wider definition of an exploit.
Few events are more irritating to the experience of a competitive or semi-competitive raider than the discovery of a potential exploit in the raid game. It immediately sparks debates within guilds and across the community over the most efficient and ethical way to proceed. We want to make the case, in short, that Blizzard should be disinclined to punish all but the most stark cases of abuse, and that guilds should have fewer qualms about taking advantage of unintended techniques that arise.
While this post was prompted by the recent LFR-related ban, it’s meant to be a general comment on how to approach these irregularities. We are not looking to rehash what many other bloggers have covered already about the recent situation. Instead, we are curious to analyze how raiding culture encourages creative problem-solving, leading to ambiguity over what truly counts as an exploit, and not just at a world-first progression level. In raiding, putative exploits create a tension between a competitive instinct to do anything necessary to succeed (cf. endless farming/wiping/class-stacking with alts) and a nebulous discomfort about whether this or that particular technique violates ill-defined community expectations.
When a debate over whether some technique is an “exploit” flares up, there is always one party that has clearly made a significant mistake: Blizzard. They’ve presented their players with a situation where the rules are unclear, anathema to any gaming endeavor. Setting the limits of what’s allowed and not allowed is Blizzard’s job (in fact, conceptually as creators of the game, it’s their entire job). The players are paying for the privilege of exploring a game space where the limits are thoughtfully crafted so as to create fun challenges. Whenever players start having to make their own decisions about what techniques are valid, they are doing Blizzard’s job. In this situation, Blizzard’s only duty is to rectify the deficiency in their product as painlessly as possible for their customers. We don’t expect Blizzard’s QA to always be perfect (or even close really)–this is merely about how to handle things when it’s not.
Suspending players from WoW in some unpredictable subset of cases is not a solution; at best, it’s a short-term action that does not free Blizzard from the onus of ensuring the rules and raiding parameters are clear and bug-free. The group of players who derive enjoyment from putting in great effort and doing what it takes to conquer new content have already been denied a clean and error-free experience for a tier. (And by new content, we again aren’t thinking of LFR–if you follow our twitters, you know we have qualms about LFR existing in the first place. New content for raiders refers to appropriately challenging content for their skill level.) There are faulty player choices, but also errors on the part of Blizzard from failing to address well-publicized bugs to greyer areas that less-progressed raiders are relieved never got fixed.
By far the largest confusing point we see in all discussion of these issues is the nearly universal assumption that making use of a debated exploit is an action that carries some kind of moral gravity. They cheated. They deserve punishment. They should have known better. We say: why? What exactly is the ethical transgression here?
People who play games have encountered the word “cheating” in two contexts. Cheating in a competitive endeavor, which we’re taught not to do since childhood, denies an opponent their sought-after experience of entering into a fair contest. This is universally condemned for good reason. Cheating in single-player computer games (the ubiquitous God mode) on the other hand, is a matter of personal preference. People with a well-curated understanding of video games tend not to, because it undermines aspects of the game they appreciate, but nobody would consider it some sort of misdemeanor if they did. It seems clear to us that gaining marginal advantages in raid progression is much more akin to the latter.
“But,” you interject, “it affects the other groups trying to compete.” Somewhat. The only way a team is materially affected by the rankings is that higher placement can give increased exposure for recruitment. First of all, have some perspective: if you are (to use the parlance of our times) in the 99%, you are unlikely to have any measurable effect from this. But more importantly, raid progression ladders are a creation of the community, not a product provided and supported by Blizzard. As we discuss soon, proper resolution of these situations is best done by the community. If the only actual benefit and harm related to an exploit takes place in third-party ranking sites, not even in the actual game, then those sites are best equipped to respond.
To use an well-known example from a recent tier, since the current scenario isn’t finished playing out: Atramedes was subject to variety of unintended strategies before falling into his final form. Indeed (despite the protestations of our friends in various high-end guilds), there was no evidence of a “legit” kill until he was nerfed heavily after many weeks, while hundreds of teams with no other measurable accomplishments mysteriously logged kills on the ranking sites before then. Let’s compare multiple ways this could have played out:
1) The “Punishment” model: Knowing there was a threat of punishment, but unsure whether it would be used here, top guilds would have heated internal debates over whether to kill him and risk sanction, or fall behind. Everyone watches the charade on rankings sites as some groups claim the extra kill and others don’t. Blizzard figures out how to detect who killed him by using extra gongs, or tanking him outside the room, or any of the other various tricks discovered (assume this is possible for purposes of discussion), and gives them a suspension. Ranking sites try to figure out which kills to remove. Guilds who are suspended are angry, for all the reasons described here. Guilds who aren’t now move up the rankings while some of their competition is offline–hard to say this is a fulfilling “victory.” In short: nobody is happy.
2) What actually happened: Nothing particularly dramatic. Many guilds came out of nowhere with a fake “top x” rank that meant nothing meaningful, as Atramedes in turn was counted as a legitimate encounter on all ranking sites. Guilds that put off the encounter were hurt by rankings, while guilds that got a false rankings boost soon saw their enterprising guild-hopping recruits leave when the numbers settled down.
As there were multiple tier 11 encounters that had unintended strategies (atonement in its original state on Halfus, tanks kiting constructs across BWD on Magmaw, players RP-walking on Nefarian), the raiding community was not particularly worried that killing Atramedes in various unintended forms would lead to severe consequences. But in general, adding the threat of punishment to the mix only heightens the uncomfortable tension when deciding to take advantage of a bugged encounter or not. You’re choosing between passing up an opportunity, and being suspended. At least without the punishment, it is up to individual teams what course of action they feel best comports with their goals in this game.
3) What we propose (the community handles it): Those who feel like killing Atramedes do so. Soon knowledge of the fight’s problems is well-known, and it’s accepted that killing him represents no accomplishment. Ranking sites choose a solution reflecting the common understanding (for example, by simply making him worth 0 points to everyone). Super-competitive guilds can kill him for their 3 pieces of loot, those who wish to “save” the fight for when it’s fixed are free to do so at no detriment. The result reflects the reality of the situation: 1 of the 13 encounters is wasted for progression purposes because Blizzard put it live in broken form.
We believe the latter is better for everyone involved. It’s not perfect, but given that the mistake was already made by Blizzard (putting faulty content live), the situation is mostly salvaged.
But in order to make the second option work, the raiding community would need to become more openly analytical of their progression. Currently, the raiding community tries to find unintended efficient ways to progress–but on the sly, disguised as “cleverness.” Time and time again, someone will post a recruitment add referencing top kills, later revealed to be the product of an unintended encounter. And even when encounters are not specifically cheesed–the community likes to cut corners and obfuscate the facts. A 13/13 Tier 11 guild could be farming all encounters every week, skipping boss, never repeating anything, or achieving Al’akir hardmode on 10. And all that–on a personal level–is fine. Raiding is a business and there’s a dwindling number of interested and qualified players able to put in the time commitment. You need to do what it takes to keep your guild afloat–whether it’s taking a week off to skip an encounter or downsize to 10s to secure a realm first Heroic Rag. You’re simply trying to operate within the constraints and unintended challenges Blizzard has set up.
When interacting in the general community, people like to feel that they are operating under the punishment/prestige binary–that they’re not in a top-world guild, so the temptation to exploit or find clever ways of completing encounters doesn’t apply to their realm of raiding. That’s not true. By constantly gloating over mid-level ranks on encounters like Atramedes, no progress will be achieved. A rank is what the community makes of it. If the community would critically view the progression system they’ve invented in the first place, then accomplishments would be weighed accurately. And if it turns out a rank is particularly hollow, then it would be stripped of meaning instead of falsely praised.
We want to just flag one other reason, which you may not have thought of, to go and do things that are arguable exploits: it’s fun. You may remember a theme in our last essay about how the little chinks in a game’s smooth perfection that can give it a lot of added life. People who play games a lot know the feeling of reading about a hilarious bug in their favorite game and simply wanting to go check it out (Skyrim players: don’t you dare try to deny it). Players in vanilla liked wall-jumping into Old Hyjal, the dancing troll village, and the Ironforge airport, even though they were technically off-limits, because the scenery was quirky and completely different from anything else in game (down to the cute “under construction” signs in Hyjal). There were safe spots from which to dps Heigen and Prince Malchezzar, as well as unintended bizarre strats like mindcontrolling UBRS trash to provide entire raids with fire resist debuffs on Ragnaros, or enslaving an imp from the Edge of Madness to nuke Jindo’s adds in old Zul’Gurub. While these additions trivialized the encounter, they were also novel, weird, and amusing to discover. For each of the above bosses, killing them once or twice the unintended way is a memory of WoW that adds some spice to our memory of killing them 50 times each the normal way.
To be clear, no part of this essay is arguing that Blizzard shouldn’t fix errors. The sole issue is whether players should get punishments (e.g. suspensions) that go beyond merely rectifying bugs. Everyone has been talking about last week’s heirloom transmogrification bug–you could send heirlooms to your main, transmogrify them into elite tier, and mail them to another character. Transmogrification has strict requirements–players can only transmogrify gear they currently own on a specific toon, but for one week, transmog fans got to run around with their low-level alts decked like level 85 raiders. Blizzard fixed this, but people got to have unintended fun in the interim–and nobody suggested they should be punished for it.
All of this said, we’re not proposing some kind of anarchy where players have free rein to whatever they want. When Overrated was banned for hacking the AQ environment models, we were right on-board with that. And we don’t purport to give a clear rule in this one article on what should be punished as an exploit and what shouldn’t–just to encourage far more leeway in situations where Blizzard has failed to provide clear guidance. The ambiguity in the boundary of what’s okay and what’s not is the whole point, in fact. People hardly ever agree on whether a particular irregular behavior was an exploit or not. And for that reason, selectively applied post-hoc punishments are very unlikely to produce satisfying results.
One simple guideline would be that anything Blizzard has publicly commented on is fair game. Back at Chromaggus, they were clear that meleeing a mob which can’t melee you back due to geometry is never correct. At Yogg-Saron, they were clear that evading adds so they attacked nobody during an encounter was also incorrect. All players now have a clear warning going forward that these activities will never be acceptable, and there’s no ambiguity as to whether they will be punished. It’s unclear why Blizzard couldn’t do this more often. [Edit: In the case of LFR, they publicly “ruled against” the exploit as soon as it became well-known, and those who continued to ignore it faced consequences. Statements like this leave no justifiable reason for people to continue doing it, and no grounds for complaint when they get suspended. But there are many other situations, both large and small, that have gone unchecked.]
There’s a very wide sliding scale between acceptable and abusive behavior, and the exploits people argue about always fall in that grey middle. Players will have quite different preferences as to how far along the scale to go, to maximize their enjoyment of the game. Even we don’t propose any particular boundary line that we feel is more correct than any other. We merely say that everyone shouldn’t be so quick to condemn players for how they handle situations that are by their nature unideal. The community at large is free to choose how impressed or nonplussed to be with anyone’s raiding accomplishments. So analyze the full situation, play how you want, and let others do the same. There’s a whole world of game mechanics awaiting our creative use.