A View from Atlas Park: CoH-sploitation

Coming out with I8 (due this week, most probably) are at least two fixes for exploits that occur mainly CoH-side. The first fix removes the bonus xp given within PvP zones; the second fix makes the Devices Auto Turret pet unteleportable. Neither fix was met with much enthusiasm; in fact, outright hostility appeared to be the order of the day when the devs were open about the changes that were going through. (The Cathedral of Pain also got pulled due to some sort of exploit it allowed, but I don’t know enough about that to comment.)

First off – the exploits. As far as I can tell, the PvP xp exploit involved having a low-level player sidekicked to a high-level player within a PvP zone mission and, just before the mission ended, having that low-level player unsidekick. PvP missions give a 25% bonus to xp in order to encourage more players to enter these zones, but it is from this bonus that the exploit is based. On completing the mission, the low-level player would get the normal mission xp, plus a big side-order of 25% bonus based off the higher-player’s level. Prior to I8, it appears the mission didn’t rescale the xp at the end of a mission – the reward was determined upfront for each player. If you can imagine a lvl 50 player sidekicking a lvl 30 player through a mission, only to give them lvl 50 xp reward, it would be an easy way of getting cheap xp. It’s an exploit that required fixing.

The Auto Turret fix arose from some players griefing by teleporting (through Teleport Foe) the Malta Group Auto Turrets (which don’t unspawn, making them permanent until someone destroys them) into low-level areas after they spawned off an ambush party. Given that these turrets have good range and are aggressive, they could potentially mow down low level heroes quite easily. To avoid this happening, now all Auto Turrets are unteleportable – unfortunately, this also caught the Devices Auto Turret.

Reactions to these changes were pretty damning. Players indicated that they would stop going into PvP zones… not that you’d get many players admitting they went in normally to these areas anyway. The Blaster forums exploded at the Auto Turret change, taking it as yet another sign of abandonment by the devs, despite the Auto Turret being one of the more useless and less utilised Tier 9 powers. The common threads to these arguments were that these changes impacted too harshly on non-exploiters, that more time should have been taken so that the fix was better targeted and that these changes were unnecessary.

(After this comment here, I’ll ignore the pathetic knee-jerk reaction to Positron’s comment that the PvP change was coming due to an exploit. He was called a liar by several players who claimed he was just nerfing them. It took about 5 pages for it to accepted that there actually was a PvP exploit in play. I can’t link to this thread, since it has since been deleted, but it was disappointing to see such attitudes come to the surface.)

Examining the common themes of the arguments, it is true that these changes will have some impact on non-exploiters… but not much. Either you go into PvP zones or you don’t. I doubt it is only the 25% xp bonus that is attracting the crowds, so it’s temporary removal (Positron has indicated that it will be back) isn’t a big thing. Some players might avoid the PvP missions for a while, but that’s about it. Auto Turret isn’t a power that most */Devices Blasters take, because it isn’t strong enough (either in damage or defense) to make the grade and get picked regularly. Any arguments about the principle of these changes just ignores the reality – the changes are relatively minor and have been implemented to fix a bigger problem.

The point that more time should have been taken to better tailor the fix might have some validity, but it is obvious that Cryptic didn’t have the time to do the more detailed fixes. The PvP exploit strikes at the heart of how mission completion xp is awarded, so I expect it isn’t as simple as a few lines of code to make it work ‘properly’. For the Auto Turret exploit, it is apparent to me that the few Auto Turret powers in CoH (both for heroes and villain mobs) share the same underlying properties, although they obviously read off different data for combat values. Hence, changing a flag to make them non-teleportable carried across this change across the board. Comments were made that Malta Auto Turrets should just have their teleport resistance increased, but this ignores the fact that teleport resistance is a new thing, introduced (according to my information) around I6. Previously, you could either TP or not TP based on differences in lvls, which is obviously different to what is happening with Malta Turrets. Trying to shoehorn a new system onto an old one is often a difficult thing and requires time to do – time that Cryptic couldn’t find as part of the I8 launch.

Finally, certain sections of the forums claimed that these were unnecessary changes and that Cryptic should have spent the time doing something else. First off, I doubt any low-lvl heroes who were mown down by Malta Auto Turrets would agree that the change shouldn’t occur. Secondly, exploits should be stopped from occuring as soon as possible after they are discovered. In the cases above, Cryptic have taken short-term action to stop the exploits with promises of more targeted action later on – this was the right thing to do in my opinion.

At the heart of this argument about exploits is the question “should exploiting be allowed in a PvE MMOG?”, with some players claiming that since it doesn’t impact direction on other players, they should be allowed use things like the PvP exploit. Or, such exploits should be allowed to stand because fixing them takes time away from other things they desire in-game, or because exploits make the game better in some way.

These people are wrong.

In a single-player game, it doesn’t matter if you cheat. That’s between you and the game. However, as soon as you add another player to the system / game, you can’t allow one person to cheat because it upsets the entire game. You might get the other player to agree to cheat, which then at least re-establishes some kind of balance, but if they don’t agree to cheat, or want to cheat in a different way, you are still left with things unbalanced.

This problem is magnified exponentially in a MMOG because en masse, players will seek the path of least resistance. If that involves using an exploit of some kind, then players will start to use it. At worst, the exploit can become seen as part of the normal game. Exploits (particularly griefing exploits, such as the Malta Auto Turret example) can change the basic play style of a game in ways that aren’t necessarily apparent on first view. From other MMOGs, duping exploits have ruined gameplay and economies as players get all the best equipment if they can pay the right price or know the right people. Griefing exploits see players quit and never come back. These and other exploits lead to the act of exploiting being required for basic gameplay, because if you don’t exploit, you can’t keep up.

So, as I said before, Cryptic is right to jump on these exploits sooner rather than later and with a quick fix that solves the major problem. This doesn’t get them off the hook though – the players deserve a scalpel to remove the exploit conditions rather than a chainsaw. There is that bond of expectation that Cryptic will have to live up to – if they fail to fix the original issue in a timely manner, they erode the goodwill of players for any future exploit fixes.

It is good to know that Cryptic takes exploits seriously and fixes them – it inspires confidence from me for future changes. I am still waiting for the new content for I8 to come out so that I can evaluate it first-hand, but do feel that these exploit fixes add as much to CoH/V as the rebuilt Faultline or Veteran Rewards.

[i] – UnSub (@UnknownSubject) unsub@warcry.com 27 November 2006

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