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Bots: It's not Me, it's You.
by Jonathan Jou on 12/15/10 09:02:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


People love playing MMOs. People despise bots. So why do people use them? Getting caught using a computer program to do all your dirty work for you can and in many cases will cost you your account. Yet somehow, there are always people to whom the risks are apparently worth it. Following is a personal theory on how botters view the game, and why bots may not need to be eradicated, but instead rendered obsolete.

Would you let a program beat God of War for you? Or maybe write a program to go on Counterstrike and score headshots in your name. Let Luigi kill Bowser on your behalf? I know of very few gamers who are interested in letting someone else do fun part for them. And if the game happens to revolve around something you don't enjoy, say, matching three objects of the same color, or dropping formations of four squares in lines to make them disappear, I know of even few gamers who are interested in having someone else play on their behalf. If the activity has no inherent value, and no expected reward, people are smart enough to recognize that it's a waste of time. We get paid to do things we don't want to do, and paid *more* to tell other people to do things we don't want to do. How is it MMORPGs stray so far from reality?

To interpret this, I make a few assumptions, and a few exceptions:

Assumption 1. Players do not take part in activities in which they perceive neither immediate nor potential future value. This should be a simple one but there are people whose value systems make this a difficult one to prove. If we disregard people who play games that they  claim to hate, for no visible reward, some clear observations can be made.

Assumption 2. In most games, rules are not in fact made to be broken. Players abide by the rules set upon them when the rules do not inconvenience them in reaching their goals.

Exception 1. Griefers. People who derive their pleasure in a game from the displeasure of their peers. Rules are a way to aggravate players in this case, and finding loopholes, exploits, and using them against other players is a game in and of itself for them.

Assumption 3. The reverse of assumption one, and also the crux of this proposition: given sufficiently valuable rewards, even activities without entertainment value become desirable. Players will engage in activities with little or no short-term benefit if the perceived reward is valuable enough to them. 

Starting with these three assumptions we can quickly conclude that, for people who condone or engage in the act of botting (their own characters, of course), the activities bots perform are not any of these things:

1. Innately fun. While it is entirely possible to make a bot to play tetris or take headshots for us, these activities have innate value to the players who enjoy them and allowing an external agent to perform the tasks on our behalf is seen as reducing the value of the activity. It follows from assumption 1 that killing monsters for experience or loot is an activity these players can and do skip in favor of getting the rewards directly.

2. Perceived as fair. Players are unlikely to resort to illegal means to obtain what they want, unless they believe that the rules are a hindrance, and not an aid in achieving their goals. At some level they are justifying their activities by asserting that the rules are making their in game experience less valuable than if they were to break the rules, which bolsters their decision to do so.

3. Worthless. Players are breaking the rules and going out of their way to attain something they would otherwise not be willing to achieve, and to some extent botting can be understood as the evolution of grinding; humanity is regularly attempting to automate tasks which were once accomplished by hand, and farming or grinding are no exception to this.

So this is where it gets interesting. Is it the fault of botters that they don't want to kill x monsters for y hours until a little bar fills up five times and they can finally get that skill they've been itching to try? Is it the fault of game designers that they've created worlds in which repetitive tasks are the easiest path to success? The argument can go either way, but it seems pretty clear that there are three ways to eliminate any value in botting.

1. Make the tasks fun. If killing 300 wolves was an enjoyable task, then it's unlikely that players would find the risks and costs of setting up a bot to do the task for them worthwhile.

2. Make the tasks fair. The often vicious cycle of grinders forcing a steeper experience curve forcing more grinding often drives players into a scenario where botting seems like the more righteous activity. If the perceived effort matched the perceived reward, this wouldn't be an issue; while things like experience over time is a linear curve, perceived effort over time is a significantly steeper curve. WoW includes a "rested" status boost which increases XP gain, while Guild Wars introduces a level cap so low that "max level" is obtained early on and without much, if any, grinding. Loot farming, however, is an area where most MMOs appear to fail to offer solutions.

3. Makes the tasks useless. It doesn't make sense anyway that killing the same monster repeatedly makes you better at fighting other monsters, even though said monster barely puts up a fight. Nor does it make sense that killing the same monster the exact same way, at the exact same place repeatedly has a chance of dropping an incredibly rare, useful item that is completely nondeterministic. Instead of giving every monster a 10% chance of dropping something amazing, make one out of ever ten monsters amazing and always drop that item. 

There are a wide variety of approaches that combine these three options, of which I will list the ones that I've thought of as I've been writing this.

1. User-defined difficulty. Why force players who want to die repeatedly in difficult fights to churn through a slew of uninteresting, unchallenging fights before letting them get to the good stuff? Why hide a piece of rare loot among 100 creatures when you could allow them to identify the one which has what they're looking for, if they can beat it? Having a dynamic, sliding scale which users could access to make the game harder or easier regardless of how far into the game they've progressed solves botting by combining options one and two, as it divorces character level from access to higher difficulty. Having some sort of Hunting Vision which would identify a creature with 100% chance of dropping rare loot, but also causes all creatures in the area to attack you would make killing all the other creatures useless (3) and add some level of engagement to the hunt (1).

2. Passive development. This is the other side of the table, letting everyone play the game without actually being in front of their computer. There's very little reason that a player can't decide that, while they're asleep, they would like their character to engage in combat training and gain experience so that when the player returns, they will be stronger and more capable in battle. The key difference here would be that these sorts of "passive activities" would NOT take place in the game world in a visible fashion, but merely work like Progress Quest, reducing server load and also removing the jarring experience of players seeing areas suffering the ravages of a bot farmer. Bots frequently steal kills, loot, and engage in other disruptive behavior as a matter of pragmatism, and their doing this in MMO limbo would make the game experience better for everyone.

3. Greater interaction. Age of Conan aspired to this, but fell short. When technology allows for real-time interaction over the wire for all, the mechanics that drive games like God of War can be integrated into current MMORPG designs, and it's very likely that this alone can eliminate any existence of bots, as it has the added benefit of including tasks which may be beyond the capability of modern AI, such as image recognition.

As a result, while I understand how the current conventions are easier to implement, I posit that botting indicates more than illegal behavior--it presents also an opportunity to make the game more enjoyable. I hope you enjoyed this read.

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Christer Kaitila
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You make a great point: people only use bots to do things that are NOT FUN.

Make these activities fun, and bots will no longer be a problem.

Bernard Badger
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I'm not sure it's quite that simple. Certainly in-game activities should be fun if at all feasible, and making them so will reduce botting, but there will always be those who'll place a higher priority on advancement than the fun afforded along the way. If, say, advancement required playing a hundred games of Tetris, that could be fun to do, even something a player might do for its own sake, but knowing that they HAVE to do this a hundred times would make a lot of people impatient.

Bot-eliminating option number 3--make the (simple, bottable) tasks useless--seems like the most air-tight solution to me. (Un?)fortunately, it goes against one of the main business goals of a typical MMO, which is to keep players online and paying the subscription month after month. Or at least, it forces developers to find different, probably more difficult means of accomplishing that goal.

Stephen Chin
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One thing to realize as well is that, eventually, everything in large doses will be unfun. Sure, eating chocolate every meal seems cool at first... but if you do it for 6 months, you're just going to be sick. Same with gameplay - you do the same task over and over and it will eventually become stale for all but the hardcore. CS may be a great game but only the hardcore keep playing. TF2 has only remained a powerhouse because Valve has kept changing the game.

Tim Carter
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Any screenwriter could tell you this. If there is some scene in the film that doesn't advance the plot, cut it.

Likewise, if there is menial dull gameplay - aka grind - cut it.

Peter Kjaer
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I like some of your points, and especially the point Chris also points out.

But, I do think you are forgetting one important thing in this discussion.

Real life money.

I believe one of the biggest problems with botters is the fact that they can sell the gold and virtual items they get for real money. Then they dont care if an encounter is fun or not, they just make their bots do them enough times so they can control the item flow.

Atleast this was very much the problem in Lineage 2. The severe Botting in this game destroyed the economy of the game.

But I do agree with you, I would much rather like to see some proactive design choices that renders bots absolete, rather than just to react by banning people againg and again.

Chances are anyway that those who gets banned already made enough sales in virtual goods to afford a new account and start botting againg.

Thats my thougts :)


Jonathan Jou
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One interesting facet of this is that the same ideology applies to the people who *buy* in-game content as it does to the people who run bots. Certainly there may be people trying to sell accounts even if the game was fun, but it's not unforeseeable that the market would actually be unable to support the sort of rampant botting behavior seen today. After all, I'd like to think that if hunting down a challenging boss was fun or dropped the loot I wanted on the first try, I wouldn't be out looking for someone who could get me those things for any sort of cost whatsoever. The barrier of entry to botting isn't trivial, after all, and hunting down illegitimate sources of digital prowess could ideally be so much less worthwhile than just playing the game itself.

Nick Green
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Solution 2 is an interesting one and it's becoming more popular. My two cents...

I think a good example of 2 is SWTOR's crew members are effectively a form of sanctioned botting for certain activities (particularly harvesting/crafting) that some players find a bit grindy. Players can still go out and do it themselves but if they don't want to then they can leave it entirely to their crew.

There's still some advantage to players actively engaging in harvesting but they can get by leaving it to crew.

I think a bad example of 2 is Eve - just my personal opinion. It is nice to be able to just go and do whatever I like without needing to worry about xp etc. but on the other hand, whenever I've been subscribed most of the time I haven't felt motivated enough to actually play. I just log in to queue skills. Then I realise I'm not getting my money's worth and cancel my sub....

And I'll add an extra solution to your list.

Make combat mechanics less bot-tastic. Much of the problem lies in the simplistic and repetitive nature of actual gameplay. The fact that a bot can be programmed to play is an insult to the sophisticated human machine.

Games like eg. WOW, with its cooldown driven combat, are mostly a matter of UI whack-a-mole. And I find them incredibly dull.

It's too early yet to be sure but I have hopes of SWTOR breaking this trend. A healthy collection of abilities and almost none of them with cooldowns. Players will have to look at what's going on around them to decide which is the best ability to use and on whom. In theory that should make combat more interesting and less bottable but.... we'll have to wait and see.

Jason Chen
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Like all games, gaining experience and level is the most boring part of all games. I am not saying that games aren't fun. Spending hours or days just to gain level up in order to be able to proceed to the next world/map/quest is pain, and that is something not all people enjoys. Also, level up means more advantage. if there is way to make this phase more FUN. perhaps less people will use bots?

another thoughts. maybe people are thinking, since I am already paying for the game why not get the most of out my time since I still needs to work/school/sleep ...etc. Make this time count and gain as much advantage as I can before I take control of the game. my point is, I am sure most gamers are not using bots to beat other players in pvp. They just want to make the time count.

PS. I am play console games, I gave the long ever lasting, time consuming game online long long time ago.

Darren Tomlyn
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This is, unfortunately, another area where the understanding and recognition of what the developers/publishers/industry wants, unfortunately conflicts with what games actually are - assuming that such a thing is recognised to begin with (which it is not, and for a good reason - which I'm currently working on)).

The problem we have is one of conflicting aims, based on misunderstandings or misrepresentations of what games actually are.

Games are all ABOUT the process of a person doing something for themselves - about TRYING to reach a goal, regardless of the goal itself. The problem today, is that so many people think that its the goals themselves that actually matter, rather than such a process. This has led to the current state of the MMORPG market especially which this post describes - one where the GOAL becomes the reason FOR the process, rather than the other way round! In other words - the game itself, becomes secondary, and almost, and sometimes does, merely turns into a competition instead.

Can we do better? Most decidedly - but it will take a much better, much more consistent understanding of games in order to be able to design and build such a thing from scratch to it's full potential. The funny thing is, is that if it's done properly - nearly all of the problems found in current MMO's - (RMT/Botting etc.) will no longer have any place or function to fulfil - as the post said, they will be obsolete/obsolescent.

Most of the ingredients for being able to achieve such thing exist, but are generally, (though not always), only seen or used in isolation so far, and it's taken/taking a long time for any of them to become widely accepted and used - which is why a lot of games keep making the same mistakes/repeating the same things over and over - (though, thankfully some progress is happening, just not as fast as it could, (or should?), if people fully understood what they were doing). I've been talking and commenting on all this now for over a decade - and yet a lot (but not all, thankfully) of the problems I saw then still exist in games being made today!

Hayden Dawson
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For the bright and shinys, my old group had long discussed some ideas.

-- Make the special items untradeable and unique (i.e. FFXIs rare/ex) where only the person who gets the item can use it, they can only find one EVER, and unless they use the item, it has no resale value either in game or through a RTT.

-- Make the mobs that drop said shinys a force spawn without some kind of one hour, one day or one week cooldown. If everyone on the server wants to fight Lucius K Lootdrop at the same time, let em; just keep each mob unique to the spawning character/party.

-- Dabble more with quests UNIQUE to a single player (again keeping the rare/ex). Make the item that drops from a particular mob randomly generated ala Borderlands.

Darren Tomlyn
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So, according to you - the best thing to do in creating a game, is to take power away from the player and give it to the game itself - and then have the game decide FOR the player exactly what and why they should be competing (for), maybe even how and WHEN?

If you do not fully recognise and understand WHY such a suggestion is not fully consistent with what games ARE, then I'm afraid you'll have to wait for what I'm currently working on to find out why that is the case...

(Hint: what you're talking about is better described as a competition, rather than a game - the question, is whether or not you fully understand why that would be the case?).

Matthew Dorry
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As is addressed in the blog, botting is a symptom of poor game design. I don't bot and only know one person who does. That said, however, I think the question really is, why does it matter? It matters insofar as the developers should implement much better design models, but as far as I can see, in no way does one player's propensity to bot have a negative impact on another player's hard work. Is it unfair that they obtained a desired piece of gear much faster? One could say so, but it's not really because the game world isn't dictated by the law of 'first come, first serve'. Every single person, by whichever means they use, will eventually obtain what they desire. And that's all that should matter.