Rob knew they were coming. It was the spring of 2006 and he was immersed in the MMORPG Shadowbane. He looked at the map and saw that the infamous guild called CN, consisting of mostly Asian gamers, was only three towns away from his guild’s stronghold. Shadowbane is a game of martial PvP, with battles involving hundreds of well coordinated players. Rob saw that his ragtag guild just didn’t have the numbers to defend against CN. He was certain they would become just another notch in the sword for the group that had steamrolled continents and even switched servers when entire worlds had fallen. Rob knew that something had to change. He needed something that would multiply his guild’s forces in time to defend themselves from this new threat. How could they increase their numbers significantly in such a short time? He thought long and hard, until he had a crazy idea.

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What if he could play as 10 different characters at once?

Rob’s strategy is called “multiboxing,” i.e. one player running two or more copies of the same game on different accounts to tackle more difficult content. Before 2006, most people were hardware multiboxers and played with two separate computers, two keyboards and two quick hands. Rob, however, approached the idea with his software developer’s brain and forever changed the way multiboxers played.

Multiboxing isn’t new. Players have realized that it could be advantageous to run more than one character ever since text-based MUDs were the only online games out there. When Ultima Online and EverQuest were released, it didn’t take long for players to grab extra accounts to help them through content or protect their characters. A longtime multiboxer named Hor first noticed it when he began raiding with his guild in EQ “A lot of the tanks in the guild had heal bots,” Hor says. “They kept a cleric on a second computer and just healed themselves as necessary.” There was very little support in the game to multibox, and third-party applications were sometimes necessary. “I ran two similarly configured machines, each running two characters with a program called EQ Windows, which allowed EQ to be played in a window mode, allowing for alt-tabbing between instances of the game,” explains Clovis, who’s been playing MMOGs since he was 17. “I literally played with one keyboard on my desk and another in my lap, with two mice side by side.”

While multiboxing was common enough in older games, the immense popularity of World of Warcraft in turn increased the number of multiboxers. “WoW hit, and everything changed,” says Hor. “Suddenly it seemed like all of my friends were playing one game again.” World of Warcraft brought in so many different types of people that it was inevitable that the population of multiboxers would increase.

There are many factors which draw an individual to multiboxing, but none are more important than frustration. When multiboxers start gaming, they level on one character like everyone else. Then they’re struck by what can be the biggest drawback of any social game: other players. “What made me turn to multiboxing was the huge waste of time that other people brought to the game,” says Starbuck-Jones, a tech support rep from southern Idaho. “I would log on, start forming a group to an instance and fairly quickly get four other players. Then I would sit and wait sometimes pushing an hour for the other people to get to the dungeon.”

Even then, the group was sometimes ill-equipped to deal with the difficulty of the content. These pick-up groups, or PUGs, can be infuriating, but they are often the only way to advance your character once you reach the level cap. “With multiboxing I am playing only when I want to, and I have no one to tell me how to do things or yell at me,” says Bryan, a rare 10-boxer from NJ. “You can get so much more done when you’re not worrying about finding groups and getting into bad groups.”

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An emphasis on time efficiency is a major unifying personality trait for multiboxers. They are excited by how fast they can level, or how they can quickly tackle content normally relegated to groups. For some, real life constrains the amount of time available to play, and multiboxing gives them the opportunity to use that time to the fullest. CodeX is a 30-year-old computer science student who spends most of his time with either his girlfriend or his studies. “My available time is limited due to other interests in life, so I wanted to most efficiently play WoW. 5-boxing allows me to do this,” he says. Bryan elaborates on this idea: “A lot of people who see me running 10 or even 5 at once think that I must be some kind of extreme gaming addict, but the ironic thing is that to me, multiboxing is the path for a less hardcore gaming experience. It allows me to do it all on my own time and spend more time having a good experience in the game.” Multiboxing also allows a player to step away from the game without wasting the time of other players. As Hor puts it, “If I want to log off and catch a movie with my wife, I don’t have to feel bad for abandoning the group or even bother waiting around for a replacement. I just go. My group’s always there when I come back.”

Multiboxing isn’t easy, and the challenge of playing two, five or even ten characters at one time is a great motivator. “If it’s something that I feel no one believes I can do, or something that no one has done before, I’ll do it completely and totally,” says Nixi, an American ex-pat in China who was the first player to 10-box the raid dungeon of Karazhan. “I was relentlessly trying to accomplish something no one had ever done before, and I wanted to do it before anyone else got the hare-brained idea and did it first.” Multiboxing requires more than just a working knowledge of computers. The ability to write and work with macros is a necessity. But the days of keyboards and monitors surrounding you like some kind of prog rock keyboardist and dancing your hands between mice are over.

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Which takes us back to Rob. A software developer by trade, he wrote the first draft of an application called Keyclone in a week. The program allowed keystrokes in one instance of a game to be shared with all instances running on the machine. If you had five windows of a game signed in with different accounts, pressing one key on your keyboard would be like pressing the key for all of your characters without needing to alt-tab into each window. With macros and pre-planning, Keyclone allowed boxers to run their characters using only one computer and one set of input devices. The golden era of software multiboxing had begun.

Rob made Keyclone publicly available for the nominal price of $20. He has since revised and added features to the program, including auto-resizing of game windows and an FPS throttler to improve performance. He provides support himself, often guiding one or two new boxers a night on how to set up their system, and he’s also an admin at dual-boxing.com. Founded in December 2006 by longtime multiboxer Ellay, dual-boxing.com has become the knowledge repository and help center for anyone interested in multiboxing. “I got all my help from dual-boxing.com,” says Nixi. “Keyclone really empowered me to take it seriously and push the limits of the play style. I never considered myself a multiboxer, or even heard of the term before I discovered it.” There are other software options out there, including some freeware, but a recent unscientific poll at dual-boxing.com shows that over 75 percent of its members use Keyclone for its feature set and accessible interface.

Hardware boxing isn’t dead, though. There are a few stalwarts, and their setups provide the most high-tech pictures. “Visitors have dubbed my set up ‘the NASA Control Room’ because I have 10 monitors with 10 keyboards and 10 mice,” says Paul Howell, an engineer from Houston. Paul uses a sort of jury-rigged keyclone: one wireless keyboard sending commands to 10 USB receivers plugged into 10 computers. So much hardware belies a major drawback to multiboxing: It costs real money. “At around $400 per [computer], $100 per monitor, $10 per wireless receiver, that’s about $5500 for the hardware alone. The game itself runs about $65, so that’s $650 more right there. So that would be $6,150 to start up, give or take,” Paul says. With the cost of keeping 10 account subscriptions active and electricity costs, Paul estimates he spends about $200/month in order to 10-box. Even multiboxing on one computer requires an investment, as running multiple windows requires an above-average graphics card and CPU – and the monthly subscriptions add up.

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It’s important for multiboxers to distinguish themselves from botters, farmers and anyone else who cheats when gaming. “I am very much against cheating at any game. It can have a very large impact on MMOGs,” says Heffner, a scientist at a biotech firm that develops molecular diagnostics. A boxer from Belgium named Steph states the sentiment of many multiboxers: “I would never overstep the rules set by Blizzard and risk jeopardizing my accounts.” Since boxing requires so much investment, they have more to lose. “I am paranoid about violations. I put a ton of work into my accounts and the thought of losing them over something stupid … no thanks, the cost is way too great,” explains Kate, a “domestic goddess” from southern Florida. For now, Blizzard is on their side. Syndri, an official community administrator, or “blue” poster, stated back in 2007 that “multi-boxing is not a violation of the Terms of Use. On the contrary, it’s a fairly common practice and extremely fun to watch.” But not every game developer is as lenient.

After Rob wrote Keyclone in 2006, he rolled up a group of six mage assassins, the proverbial glass cannons of Shadowbane. He came upon a player who was mining and dealt so much damage to him in so short a time that the warrior was unable to close the distance. Keyclone worked, and Rob quickly distributed it to some in his guild so that they could roll multiple characters to fight against the incoming CN hordes. The gambit was a huge success: CN’s bid was defeated, and Rob’s town was never taken while he was an active player.

But there were repercussions. Not six months after Rob debuted Keyclone, Wolfpack Studios changed some of the code in Shadowbane so that it was more difficult to multibox. Some players contend that Blizzard should ban multiboxers in WoW, especially in arenas, WoW‘s competitive PvP ladder system. But boxers contend that they are no different than five well coordinated players. “I would say that that the boxer would be at a disadvantage. Movement is more sluggish because of having to use the /follow command, and targets needs to be in front of you,” says David from Philadelphia. Bryan agrees that “multiboxing puts you at a huge disadvantage in most PvP situations, as long as your opponent is playing as a team and not trying to be solo heroes.” Kate offers the best strategy against multiboxers in PvP: “Just kill the leader [character], and 90 percent of them stand there like drooling fools.” The limitations of multiboxing far outweigh any advantage in focusing fire or coordinating strategy.

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Multiboxing is a specialized way of playing MMOGs. The boxer needs to be good with computers and proficient enough to be able to plan out complicated macros and spell rotations for more than one character. Some are achievers who want to be the first to accomplish five-man or 10-man content, while others do so to maximize their efficiency and therefore their enjoyment of the game. But aren’t multiplayer games meant to be played with other people? It’s a legitimate concern when multiboxers can effectively play without any need to interact with other players at all. Many boxers agree that they sometimes miss positive contact with other people, and they counteract this by grouping with 4 of their characters and one other player or just soloing once in a while.

But Bryan doesn’t see it that way. “I don’t think you should do anything you don’t want to do just to make other people happy,” he says. “Most games I’ve played in my life were single player, and I see nothing wrong with that style of play. I get plenty of interaction with other people throughout the day and on forums.” Perhaps that is why dual-boxing.com and other multiboxing communities are so vibrant. It is there that they are able to share stories, commiserate and even engage in occasional disagreements or flame wars. They save their gaming time for just having fun.

Greg Tito is a playwright and standup comic residing in Brooklyn, NY. He is currently splitting time between World of Warcraft, a new D&D 3rd Edition campaign and finishing one of his many uncompleted writing projects. He also blogs semi-regularly at onlyzuul.blogspot.com.

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