It’s funny to see how the old debates sometimes just don’t change — they just move from being flamewars on forums to being flamewars couched in more polite language, as in the case of the Blizzard vs WoWGlider lawsuit.
The issue of running bots or enhanced clients is very very old. MUDs originally were played via vanilla Telnet. Vanilla Telnet is extremely annoying, because there’s no separate input bar from your output. Given that writing a vanilla Telnet client is very easy, it was not long before there were dedicated clients that wrapped Telnet with additional functionality. The best known of these were TinyFugue and TinTin, and today it seems like zMud is still retaining dedicated users.
Clients weren’t just used for the sake of the input bar, of course. They offered up some interface niceties that made play easier: client-side scripting, automapping, and lots more. They could be set up with triggers to react to text sent from the server, and automatically send back a command. This allowed people to build simple scripts to “autohunt,” for example. “Hunt” was a skill which told you in which direction a given monster might be; you were supposed to manually move to the next room. With autohunt, you simply typed “autohunt fisherman” and after a few screenfuls of spam, you were at your target, with no further intervention.
Similarly, you could trap all messages that a party member was hurt, and autoheal them. You could bypass the typing and reading speed that was critical in combat and have instant reactions — getting up instantly every time you were knocked down.
The net result was a “bot.” In fact, when I first met Rick Delashmit (lead programmer of UO), he was running three separate characters at once, where two of them were simply thoroughly scripted bots. One of them was named “Mirror” because whatever you did to him, he did back to you.
This botting behavior was declared illegal by the mud we were playing. But mud clients themselves were not commonly illegal, because everyone realized that playing on vanilla Telnet was not just a handicap, but incredibly frustrating. Everyone’s advice to a newbie was “get a client,” followed by the lengthy caveat that a given mud had specific rules about what was permissible. In other words, the third-party tools were seen as something that added invaluable interface enhancements, but that also afforded a bit too much power.
Often these caveats were cultural, and not hard and fast rules. On LegendMUD, autohunt was not illegal. But we as builders made a point of having “deathtrap” rooms that had severe penalties that happened to lay on common autohunt paths. Entry into these rooms did things like eat all your equipment. Players who overused autohunt were liable to forget that some routes went through these rooms.
If the use of triggers mostly made play more convenient, then why were game admins opposed? Well, it meant, fundamentally, that players were more efficient, and the game had been tuned to a given player efficiency rate. A higher efficiency meant that the game ran out of content faster on several different axes — not only did players finish the levelling process faster, but at any given moment, there were fewer monsters left alive, and therefore less for everyone else. The social pressure for everyone to bot could get quite intense, as nobody likes being worse at something than everyone else.
The issues raised by problems like these echo through the filings in the WoWGlider case. The above paragraph could be taken verbatim from Castronova’s expert report, for example.
In addition, however, there are interesting arguments made about whether WoWGlider is effectively violating copyright by inserting itself into the network stream and client memory space (btw, this little article has resonance for the bit on copying in memory), whether it is marketed as a tool for “gold farming” which therefore violates the EULA, and so on.
And yet WoW has a UI system that permits massive efficiency improvements on the part of players. Many of the most popular mods are things that would unquestionably have been called cheating even by the most ardent TinTin++ advocates.
Botting isn’t going to go away. Even truly dynamic environments will not reduce the ultimate attraction. After all, in our real lives, we build up incredible amounts of technology for the sake of convenience and efficiency. In the end, the question is cultural.
What we can say is that each world should be able to set its own cultural boundaries. We just need to be careful what legal precedents we establish in the process, lest it cost us the virtual equivalent of answering machines and spam filters.