Sunday, January 15, 2017

I Say! That's Not Cricket!

There's something untoward going on in Star Wars: The Old Republic and Shintar and Ravalation both have something to say about it. I don't play SW:TOR but that hasn't stopped me chipping in with a couple of lengthy comments on Shintar's thread because the issue at hand is that universal bugbear of the genre - exploits.

The problem with pontificating on exploits in MMOs, as I rapidly found while arguing myself into a corner in the aforementioned comment thread, is that it's far too complex a topic to deal with meaningfully in anything short of a PhD thesis. Even that would be selling it short.

My attitude over the years has varied from "Ban 'Em All!" to "Who Bloody Cares?" Any time I stop and think about it my head starts to hurt so mostly I try not to think about it.

At root, an exploit depends upon the existence of a rule to break. If it isn't "not allowed" it can hardly be an exploit, can it? Except, of course, most MMOs don't have rules, or at least not in the parts where the kind of exploits I'm concerned with arise, namely the progression of your character.

There's the EULA, which we all click through and almost no-one reads. Actually, I did used to read them. I read the full EQ EULA before I decided to subscribe back in 1999. In those days and for several years I wouldn't make a character before reading the EULA in full but in those days EULAs were shorter.

The issue of the legality and enforceability of EULAs is another topic entirely. Suffice it to say that they are filled with catch-all clauses intended to provide fall-back positions for the game companies should they ever be needed. We have similar "Terms and Conditions" where I work but we are explicitly instructed not to apply some of them in normal day-to-day trading. They exist to be called upon in need, not to be rigidly followed regardless of commercial good sense.

MMOs exist in a strange hinterland between Product and Service. The game you buy and its updates are clearly Products, albeit digital ones, but the continued provision of servers on which to play them is clearly a Service. There are very different obligations on Producers and Service Providers and MMO developers need to maintain balance between them , especially when those needs conflict.

In the olden days, when the worlds were young, all players in a given MMO were obliged to share the same virtual space. Whole cultures arose within which players were socialized to varying norms. An EverQuest player would need to learn the etiquette expected - respecting camps, joining lists, refraining from kill-stealing.

When players stayed in one MMO that was manageable. It was never comfortable because, as in real life, people chafe against restraints even when those restraints are communally imposed. As the genre exploded and players moved from game to game, trailing their acquired and often conflicting social and cultural expectations behind them, however, it became harder to agree on what constituted acceptable conduct.

Over these many years, in numerous MMOs, I've observed more exploits than I could hope to remember. I can, however, very clearly remember those in which I have participated. There are two reasons for that: firstly, I very, very rarely indulge in "exploits" and secondly, when I do I always feel I've done something naughty and doing something naughty is always a memorable experience.

A strange thing has happened to me over time: I have become increasingly less likely to take advantage of a glitch in the game to accrue personal benefit at the same time as I have become less concerned about doing so. The less likely I am to do it myself, in other words, the less I care whether other people do it.

In part this derives from my increasingly convinced belief that, outside of formal PvP or organized PvE competitions, MMO design and MMO developers should in no way encourage or endorse any form of competitive activity between players. Competition and comparison with other players has and should have absolutely no role in the leveling aspect of the games, which I love so much.

With almost all character progression in almost all MMOs now being tied directly either to solo play or to group play that takes place in instances I can't see it as any valid concern of any other player what goes on in another player's or group of players' play sessions.

This, I appreciate, puts me in a minority position that derives from the solipsistic outlook on life I've had since my teens. I am, simply, not competitive at all in most aspects of my life. I don't benchmark my progress by the progress of others but by standards I set for myself. When it comes to leveling characters in MMOs it means any "Win" conditions are in my head and my head alone.

I began this piece by observing that the topic is far too extensive, nuanced and ruminative to fit a quick blog post so rather than even attempt to fit an ocean into a wine glass I'll leave things here, scarcely reviewed let alone resolved.

One thing I do know for sure. Exploits are going to be with us as long as we have MMOs and no consensus on how they should be handled is ever going to be reached.

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