243: The Thin Red Line

Murray Chu

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The Thin Red Line

The line between a clever use of game mechanics and a blatant abuse of a programming error isn't always clear-cut. But many developers could be doing more to help police their games' communities. Murray Chu takes a closer look at how Valve has responded to exploits in Left 4 Dead and Team Fortress 2.

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mechanixis

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If there's one thing that doesn't exist in nearly every avenue of competitive online gaming, it's sportsmanship; even if they have problems with it, no one will tell you its more fun to lose fairly than win underhandedly.
 

Ed.

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I'm rarther into a mod Eternal silence and we do exactly that an exploit was discovered by a clan mate of mine (jamming remote turrets in walls making them invulnerable) this was declared an exploit and players don't do it simple as that if the exploit isn't unbalanced in any way the decision is taken to declare its not a bug its a feature (example seat hopping in a bomber)
 

dochmbi

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I don't think it should be the responsibility of the gamer to know how the game is supposed to be played, therefore I believe people shouldn't be banned for using exploits, even if they are obvious.
 

carpathic

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You know, I have never played TF2, even though I love all the marketing stuff for it. That said, it does sound like a fascinating game. I have always enjoyed the cat and mouse of exploitation - even though I am almost always on the "I don't exploit" read "losing" side in games like that.
 
Apr 28, 2008
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Halo 2's superjumping comes to mind when I read this.

People were always heavily divided by it. Either it was ok, or it wasn't, there was no in-between.
 

BobisOnlyBob

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Nov 29, 2007
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It's a simple thing. Valve essentially has an open channel to gamers via Steam, Steam updates, the Tf2 blog, and many other methods. All it takes is: "The exploit discovered to reach the RED rooftop as an Engineer on map Name should be considered an exploit. We are working on a patch to eliminate it now. In the interests of balanced gameplay and enjoyable experiences for all players, please redistribute this message on your servers and warn/remove any offending players."

That's all it takes. The gap between an exploit being discovered and closed is systematically reduced by "official stigma", enforcement by server-owners, and separation into servers that care about balance and servers that don't care. Once the exploit is patched, the servers re-mingle as they become indistinguishable again. Simple, quick, clean, effective.

Of course, notifying players that an exploit exists for class on map may cause a temporary upswing, but I think it'd balance out in the common player's favour.
 

copycatalyst

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It's not like people who had items removed for idling can really claim innocence. The only ones affected were those who used an external program to fake that they were ingame.

mechanixis said:
If there's one thing that doesn't exist in nearly every avenue of competitive online gaming, it's sportsmanship; even if they have problems with it, no one will tell you its more fun to lose fairly than win underhandedly.
I would. But only for things that are clearly exploits. Using a weapon/attack/technique that seems unbalanced doesn't count as exploiting, in my book.

My current peeve is the exploit to slide around while incapacitated in L4D2 (not sure if it was also in the first one, didn't play enough Vs to notice). It's not game breaking or anything, just annoying.
 
Jan 23, 2009
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The problem with making an announcement about an exploit is that it ensures that everyone knows about it.

Exploits are secretive things that most only learn of first-hand, because those using them don't want them to be popular, simply because the more popular is becomes the more likely the developers are going to fix it.

I know that in the case of eve online, they are constantly fixing exploits, but even when an exploit is fixed, they don't publicly say what it was that was fixed.
 

Fappy

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I agree. Developers should actually talk to their community regarding these problems. It wouldn't prevent all the problems but it would certainty help.
 

Booze Zombie

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Valve made a terrible system that randomly handed out items, annoying those who felt they had earned an item which people who "did less than them" got instead.
They then punished everyone who felt bitter about this system, those who tried to get the items they felt they had earned by playing just as much as the people who happened to get hats.

Valve didn't try to correct their broken system, it seems like they just punished everyone who dared to be insulted by chaos.
They could've talked to the players instead, made a better system, simply stop idle-programs from working and move on like nothing happened.

I think Valve have got a lot to learn in public relations.
 

Bob_Marley42

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Never got the problem with "exploits" - if you can do it without modifying the game its perfectly legitimate, because someone else can do it to you just as easily as you can do it to them.

Playing creativly is playing smart - doing something the opposition doesn't expect is likley to leave them blind sided and vulnerable. If they're decent players they'll know better next time. Failing to use a tool that enhances your chance of victory is playing dumb - online gaming is inherently competitive and so that is, in its simplest form our goal - victory. Failure to do everything you can to win within the game is playing the game incorrectly in the most essential way.
 

Whispering Death

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May 24, 2009
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In left 4 dead, tanks hitting cars into survivors is a part of the game -- not an exploit.

The car (or dumptster or forklift etc.) lights up red when you're the tank, letting you know it's a hittable object. Furthermore, some cars are supposed to be hittable while others are "glued" to the ground and cannot be hit.

It's all part of the game mechanic.
 

Oyster^^

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Dec 27, 2008
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Stat padding in Bf2 is certainly pisses me off. The upgrades in that game are few and far between, so it can get a bit annoying when you really want the next gun unlock. That being said, I hate padders. Occasionally you'll see a passworded server with 1 team with 4 people at 0-17 and one guy on the other team at 68-0. That's just lame. I was in another server where 3 guys were working together, killing and then reviving one other guy over and over, getting several regular rounds worth of points in a few minutes.

I don't really care if thats technically allowed, that's just totally lame. Clearly there wasn't intended to be any "point farming" in an fps. I don't really have a good solution for something like that though. Admins need to pay more attention I guess.

In my opinion any game with consistent stats had better try hard to make sure that those stats were acquired on a fair playing field. Someone who has a k:d of 5 in bf2 from just being amazing should be recognized as better than people who don't don't actually play the damn game.
 

the_carrot

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A lot of the rationalization that anything that can be done in the game should be done in the name of winning, comes from a book by sirlin. I'm not a fan of his book, at all. It's as if he doesn't recognize the complexity of actually making a game, and that problems like that are actual problems with the coding that need to be fixed. It's not an eight by eight chessboard, where the rules are specific, the rules for the games are in the code. If the code is broken, it has a different impact than someone putting their piece down where they want it, as opposed to where it can go. The obviousness of a rule violation in chess is different than an exploit in a game, because it can go under the radar in a more substantial way. But people think this isn't a problem if it helps them win, Which is the thrust of his book. Whatever methods help you win are okay, since that's the only thing of value in games.
 

raankh

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The entire idea of me not being able to do what I want with software I have legitimately bought bothers me no end. For me it is obvious I'm allowed to use any in-game glitch I can find. Using an external tool is obviously cheating if it is an online game. I'm a computer scientist, so my area of expertise is correctness of programs. For a software developer to put the responsibility of correct programs on the customer is flat out silly.

Especially when said customers have to guess what "correct" means. All that responsibility lies with the producer, not the consumers. If gamers need to be told how to play their games, something is wrong with the games and not the gamers.

That's my opinion anyway, but I don't play online regularly. Frag mayhems or cheesy grinding doesn't attract me.
 

warrenEBB

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Nov 4, 2008
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i think the difference lies in whether you're playing the game as it was intended.

example: L4D survival mode
- if we're running around a L4D level and one guy walks through a wall - ok, funny whatever. weird. we're still playing.
- but if you tell everyone to stop fighting and climb along this pipe so we one person can jump to a window so we can all twiddle our thumbs for 10 minutes and get a gold medal: that's clearly just cheating. (i felt roped into just such a situation, and ended up leaving the server before the time was up, because i didn't want to have to explain how i'd gotten a gold medal on that map).

I don't think it's up to Valve to tell the community not to pursue that 2nd example. That's CLEARLY not how the game was meant to be played.

- i stopped playing TF2 when the medic pack came out (though my brain is saying it was really settled when the pyro flare gun came out. when was that?).

I was excited to start pursuing the unlocks, and then saw everyone already had them. I was invited to one of those cheat servers by a friend, and it just felt dirty. it was like "say, Valve guys- i see you've set this up to take a few months. well we just raped it out over night! whattaya think?!?!?" . that's not a message i want to send.

I paid for the game so that I could have fun with it, and see what treats the developer designed into it. not so that i could cheat and have all the rewards overnight.
 

Erana

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This reminds me of an MMORPG, Perfect World. Character customization is a significant selling point for the game, and works by one using the in-game program to create a Notepad text document, which is uploaded into the game server upon character creation or editing.
This leaves users with an opportunity to play around with the clearly labeled integers, and make the character's features significantly more or less than what is available by the in-game program. (Surprisingly, large heads are more common than digital macromastomy) The official stance is that any editing of these files is considered altering the game's files- which is against the Terms of Service, and thus a bannable offense.
On one hand, I can understand not wanting hideously proportioned visual monstrosities, but what I would consider more reasonable illegal character editing itself does occur. The Werefox class, for example, has mandatory animal appendages, and for some reason the color of the standard-issue bushy fox tail can be edited by this method. Simply a color change- no size hacks, no texture changes, nothing else. If one moves the hairstyle files from one race's files to another, an elf or human could have the hair of the tideborn, which is far more intricate and rendered with more care than those for the other races.
There is a cash-shop item that allows you to access certain features normally unavailable in the character creation, but a blue tail and an elf with a seashell headdress are not, and have not been available (without exploits) in the half-decade of the game's availability, and after all this fuss, I doubt it never will. I still do not see why it is considered a bannable offence- it is purely a cosmetic matter; if done in good taste, should it be so harshly condemned?
Yes, I played around with this feature myself for a while, but I did not want to make a move that would get me banned thirty or so levels down the road. No seashell hair for my elf. I must admit, however, that all my characters boast physiques larger than what the sliders have to offer- though not a single person has yet to notice the fact that my characters have a healthy BMI, rather than the otherwise mandatory fashion-doll physique.
 

De Ronneman

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warrenEBB said:
i think the difference lies in whether you're playing the game as it was intended.

example: L4D survival mode
- if we're running around a L4D level and one guy walks through a wall - ok, funny whatever. weird. we're still playing.
- but if you tell everyone to stop fighting and climb along this pipe so we one person can jump to a window so we can all twiddle our thumbs for 10 minutes and get a gold medal: that's clearly just cheating. (i felt roped into just such a situation, and ended up leaving the server before the time was up, because i didn't want to have to explain how i'd gotten a gold medal on that map).

I don't think it's up to Valve to tell the community not to pursue that 2nd example. That's CLEARLY not how the game was meant to be played.

- i stopped playing TF2 when the medic pack came out (though my brain is saying it was really settled when the pyro flare gun came out. when was that?).

I was excited to start pursuing the unlocks, and then saw everyone already had them. I was invited to one of those cheat servers by a friend, and it just felt dirty. it was like "say, Valve guys- i see you've set this up to take a few months. well we just raped it out over night! whattaya think?!?!?" . that's not a message i want to send.

I paid for the game so that I could have fun with it, and see what treats the developer designed into it. not so that i could cheat and have all the rewards overnight.
Pretty much ohw I feel. If it's something that doesn't damage gameplay, it's not bad, but as soon as people take advantage of it, the fun dribbles away, and it should be fixed. Good article.
 

Chasmodius

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Jan 13, 2010
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Absolutely developers need to have a rapport with players about the proper use of game mechanics. Valve's example is a good one for how more discussion would have solved the problems earlier, or at least made most players less angry about it. If you want to see the best example I know of where developers are working hand-in-hand with players, check out EVE's system, whereby an elected group of players is in constant communication with the developers about events in their world. Since they have only one instance of the game-world, and everything in it relies on the proper functioning of their fairly realistic economy, it is crucial that bugs and exploits be discovered and eliminated early, but it is also important that the players understand what they are and why the changes are being made.

Case in point: a few years ago a small number of corporations figured out an exploit for item creation which allowed them to manufacture high-end materials at zero cost. They kept this quiet for months, but the devs finally caught on. They fixed the problem, destroyed any factories that had been using the exploit, and permabanned the involved players. Then they produced a report [http://www.eveonline.com/devblog.asp?a=blog&bid=626] which they first discussed with the Council for Stellar Management (the aforementioned group of elected players) before refining and releasing to the general user-base. As you can see if you look through it, this report is highly detailed, and discusses the economic impact of the exploit (charts upon charts!), why it was obvious that these players knew what they were doing was wrong, and their justifications for the actions they took. Furthermore, the devs discussed why they missed the exploit for so long, and what they were doing to refine their bug-reporting system in order to catch future such occurrences long before they become systemic problems.

This is the kind of model that other online games, especially those which tout themselves as "massively multi-player" should adopt for community management. It may require more time, effort, and staff, but it makes for a stronger community, and thus a stronger game.