Series Info...Biting The Hand #21:

Pre-GDC Rants and Scandals

by Jessica Mulligan
March 19, 2002

I’m a tad rushed, trying to get out the door to the Game Developer’s Conference. I’m actually looking forward to this year’s over-priced extravaganza of corporate profit-taking, mainly because I’m going to get a chance to see some people I haven’t seen in years, including Chris Crawford, industry legend, friend and the founder of the GDC back in the Stone Age (circa 1988).

There are a couple issues worthy of address before I hit the Convention Center, however: the inevitable broadband rant and the ever-widening scandal involving Black Snow Interactive.

Use Me, Baby!

For years, I and others been trying to explain to people that broadband, while a nice concept and nifty technology, isn’t the end-all and be-all of the industry. Every time somebody starts to wax lyrical about the potential of broadband access to "completely transform how we do things on the Internet!" I first want to throw up and then start to preach, intensely red-faced and no doubt with foam flying from the corners of my mouth. Okay, so I have issues with interpersonal communications.

What these enthusiastic people want to do is clog the lines with more pretty pictures, streamed video and music and other high-volume downloads. I’ve been saying for five years that aiming content solely at broadband access volumes was just going to eat up what bandwidth existed and that damn fast. If the number of broadband connections grew at even a modest pace (as compared with the totally unrealistic projections of analysts, who have been wrong by an order of magnitude every step of the way since 1997), I figured we’d start to hear the great sucking sound right about… now.

Comes now a March 5th article on entitled "High-speed Internet usage soars." The article notes that for the first time, broadband users in the US ate more time on the Internet than US dial-up users, 1.19 billion hours to 1.14 billion for January, 2002. Not all of 2001, mind you, but for one, measly month. Quite aside from a twisted curiosity as to just what the heck all those hours were spent doing — it can’t all be from viewing porn, after all — it did tend to prove what I’ve been railing about in the wilderness all these years.

How, you ask? Simple: Out of about 69 million US Internet users, as of the last census by Telecommunications Report Daily, only about 10 million of them had broadband connections. In other words, about 15% of the users ate up 51% of the bandwidth used in January.

Can you see where this is going? If the trend continues apace, by the time 30% of households in the US are using broadband, they’ll eat up the great bulk of bandwidth used in any one month. We already have a dearth of available bandwidth in this country, regardless of all the cheer notes about dark fiber, which fiber will be eaten up faster than car space on a newly-opened highway lane when they do light it up. Most Web sites, although still bloated with far too much art, dancing animals and bad music, haven’t even begun to be ‘maximized’ for broadband use, which simply means more streaming video, music, downloads and other bit hogs.

As more people subscribe to DSL and cable access, more sites are going to try to attract those eyeballs by hanging rotating disco balls and flaming swans, no doubt in the mistaken impression that the advertising boom will reappear and save us all, or that people will actually pay for that content. In the words of the immortal Jim Bouton: Yeah, right. Very quickly, I think, the Internet traffic jams of today will seem a picnic compared to what is coming.

The ‘what’ that is coming is obvious; we all know what happens when available bandwidth doesn’t match up to the number of people trying to use it: Latency. If you think you have delays reaching Web pages now, just wait. The backbone providers and major metropolitan hubs such as MAE are about to be worked harder than a monkey owned by an organ grinder on crack. I suppose we can all console ourselves with the thought that the disco balls and flaming swans are pretty, even if they stream like a slide show.

I never thought I’d say it, but: broadband providers, please don’t grow faster. I don’t want my DSL connection to end up reacting with the throughput of a 2400-baud modem.

I’ll See Your Account Bannings And Raise You $7,000

When Black Snow Interactive is involved, the fun just never seems to stop.

For those of you not in the know, BSI is the company that basically does nothing except acquire objects and characters in Dark Age of Camelot and Anarchy Online and sell them to other players. They are suing Mythic Entertainment for getting Ebay to pull BSI’s auctions of DAoC characters, gold, etc... as previously discussed in this column.

Last week, Funcom announced they, too, had been contacted by BSI’s lawyers with a demand that their 22 Anarchy Online accounts be re-opened, with a threat of legal action if this wasn’t done immediately. According to Funcom, they had no clue who BSI was or what they did as a business when the accounts were banned from the game. Apparently, the accounts were caught in an investigation of exploiters and shut down in the regular course of banning players who cheat and they have no intention of reopening the accounts. (Disclaimer: The company I work with, The Themis Group, just finished a consulting contract with Funcom).

Now comes the Unknown Player web site with an incredible scoop about the situation. UP has posted ICQ chat logs and email from both sides of the tale, and they are replete with threats, cajoling, offers of $7,000 per month bribes to Funcom, its employees or to their the relatives for the right to exploit the game, wink-wink, nod-nod, demonstrations of scripts and bugs used to exploit the game mechanics and gain experience levels instantaneously, the subsequent selling of those characters and inventory items to the tune of $60,000 per month (while they are asking for donations from game players to their legal fund to sue Mythic and, presumably, Funcom), little-boy chuckles and braggadocio about how they have such a stranglehold on AO’s economy that they control the game credit market and some apparent implications that the big pockets at Verant are next in line for BSI’s soon-to-be litigated Funcom Treatment.

If any one incident can be used as an example of why supporting this activity is a bad thing, this is that one incident. Players using exploits and bugs to build characters is bad enough; companies using 3rd party programs to do it, for the sole purpose of selling the ill-gotten gains, has the ability to so completely unbalance a game as to make it impossible for the legitimate player to compete effectively and fairly. And in a game that features Player versus Player combat, as does Anarchy Online, being able to buy your way into a superior position pretty much kills that aspect of the game for people who follow the rules.

It is so sordid, if somewhat amusing. The perpetrators involved in the current situation read like Snidely Whiplash contemplating how to kidnap Nell from Dudley Do-right of the Mounties and tie her to the railroad tracks, including the high comic relief of having the supposedly naïve Funcom trick the sophisticated and "we don’t do things half ass" BSI into revealing two of the exploits they used to violate the EULA. I guess when you’re making $60,000 per month by cheating, you tend to lose perspective of the fact that some people won’t do anything for a buck.

Seriously, though, it points to a problem that needs to be fixed, and the problem doesn’t begin with shadowy folks willing to suborn fraud on an employer to make a buck. As developers in this industry are starting to learn, making an online game bulletproof to this kind of chicanery is not just hard, it is probably impossible. The temptation to cheat and exploit bugs when cash is on the line is a powerful one, indeed. The forty or fifty minds that a developer of a major persistent world can bring to bear on the problem just can’t match the collective intelligence and man-hours of tens of thousands of players. There will always be one or more bugs or exploits that someone will find; they’ve got plenty of time to investigate and you have relatively little. Someone will always be finding, and using, another one. Even if you persuade Ebay to nix auctions involving your game, other sites like BSI’s will spring up and you can’t possibly find them all, not without a prohibitive amount of work, time and trouble.

So what is the industry to do, if it is bound and determined to find and eradicate these people and their exploiting ways from the games? Well, one painfully obvious answer would be: build the right tools from the start, dammit. Most games have only the most rudimentary security tools at launch, if any at all, mainly amounting to human eyeballs trying to catch the bad guys in mid-exploit. Quit launching games without the proper monitoring and logging tools running in the background to make it easier to catch these bums, instead of trying to play catch-up after the game is live. Track activity in the game, who does what and when, and how long it takes them to do it, and have logs created when something violates the basic parameters of expected time vs. achievement. That information is golden; your security teams can use to track unusual activity, determine if it is a bug or exploit and stop it. It certainly worked in this case.

And it is an obvious answer, but, as with the old question about why it’s called ‘common sense’ when there seems to be so little of it around, the obvious seems to sometimes escape the industry. I chalk it up to inexperience and an unwillingness to learn from the mistakes of others; people entering the industry have a hard time believing just how low some people will sink to gain a momentary advantage in a game for the sole purpose of trash-talking some anonymous stranger, much less what they are willing to do when wheelbarrows full of dead presidents are on the line.

What worries me is that this incident may just be the tip of the iceberg. BSI appears to imply in the ICQ logs that part of their business planning is to take Verant to court, too. If they end up filing suit on them and Funcom, that would be three lawsuits, with all the time and cash-sucking it implies. If true, how will that affect companies thinking about entering the market and building their own persistent worlds? Who wants to spend literally millions of dollars developing the most expensive type of computer game entertainment there is, just so guys like this can waste your time in court, tie up your resources and generally give you heartburn? In the extreme, this sort of litigation could easily have the affect of limiting the player’s choice by limiting the number of competing games in this space. That doesn’t sound like "players’ rights" to me.

Most interesting in the incident, I think, is that a group of guilds from Mythic’s Dark Age of Camelot is forming a committee and threatening to have a lawyer contact BSI. They want BSI either gone from DAoC or any character sold by, or holding inventory items acquired and sold by BSI to be visibly tagged, so other players know who bought their way to the top. They feel that if legitimate players know who the purchasers are, other players will shun them. They may well be right.

Why do I suspect that their legal fund would get more donations than BSI’s?

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