Monday, July 23, 2012

Eve Online's Hostile Environment for Illicit RMT

I have thought for a long time that the way a game is designed can go a long way toward fighting botting and illicit real money transfers.  Eve Online's Captain's Quarters, with menu options only displaying when a mouse passes over an object could make life difficult for botters, expecially since the transparent background for the words would make optical character recognition (OCR) vastly more difficult.  Unfortunately unacceptable loading speeds combined with the feature melting some computers relegated the possibilities to the scrapheap for the foreseeable future.

I also wonder about the ability of game developers to put in anti-botting measures into existing games.   In addition to the fact that players do not like change, our virtual worlds contain a natural constituency opposed to anti-botting measures: botters and those who wish to purchase in-game currency dishonestly instead of using regular game mechanics.  One memorable example was the introduction of a new font for the Eve user interface.  While the old font looked futuristic, the new font is much easier to read.  So why the uproar over the font?  One reason was that the new custom font created by CCP broke all the bots that required OCR to function.  Bot users cried out for the ability to use the old font until the bot developers were able to make their bots read the new font.

That said, CCP did make some game design choices 10 years ago that made CCP Sreegs' strategy of making New Eden an unprofitable place for the illicit RMT trade and its associated fleet of bots achievable.  The first of those design decisions is having all players play on a single shard.  In all other major MMORPGs the fact that the games utilize multiple shards leads the illicit RMT companies to naturally form cell systems in order to conduct business.  This leads to game companies playing whack-a-mole, discovering a network here and a network there, but only rolling up a fraction of an illicit RMT company's operations unless the company gathers up enough information to conduct a mass banning.

Eve Online presents a much more manageable environment to monitor.  While policing 5,201 visitable k-space systems and 64 regional markets is challenging, CCP only needs a small 4-man team to wreck havoc on New Eden's botters and illicit ISK sellers.  Imagine how much manpower is required to police a game that has 20, 50, or in the case of World of Warcraft, hundreds of shards.  Those other games either have to divert resources to police the illicit activity or, as happened with Runescape, allow the bots to run wild.

The second major design decision that affects the fight against illicit RMT is that Eve is a free-for-all player vs. player game with no absolute safe zones.  In other games, especially on player vs. environment (PvE) shards, players can do very little, if anything, to interfere with those engaged in illicit RMT activities like botting or farming instances with valuable loot.  When I played World of Warcraft back in 2005 I remember warnings that griefing gold farmers by using tactics like training mobs into the gold farmers could result in a ban if the gold farmers petitioned your actions.

In Eve Online players have the chance to directly influence the profitability of botters and ISK sellers.  With the introduction of PLEX in 2008 CCP put an effective cap on the amount of money that illicit ISK sellers can charge.  Players have the ability to kill bots without fear of being banned from the game.  No place is safe as player-run events like Hulkageddon prove every year.  Indeed, the mechanics allow for a player to kill a bot, loot the ship and then report the botter and get the botter banned for a period of time.  If the botter is part of an illicit RMT ring, each of those actions impacts on profits.

One tactic that can severely impact the output of bots is one many null sec residents hate: AFK cloaking.  Because bots are not under human control, in null security space when a non-friendly ship enters a system, the botting software will immediately cause the botting ship to fly to a station and stay docked until the danger passes.  If the pilot of the neutral instead flies to a safe spot and engages a cloaking device, the AFK cloaker can then walk away and the bots may stay inactive for hours, losing the controlling player lots of profit.

The same tactic, with a little effort, is applicable in high security space.  Because attacking ships in high sec results in a visit and punishment from the space police, botting software does not automatically send a ship fleeing at the sight of another ship.  However, most botting software will allow a botter to enter names of known suicide gankers into a watch list and when the ganker shows up in the same system, the bots flee and dock up.  If the ganker recognizes what is going on, he can then AFK cloak in the system and keep the bots from mining or missioning.  Imagine how much money is lost if an AFK cloaker keeps a fleet of 6 Hulks with Orca support bottled up in a station for 6 hours.

Currently CCP is winning the war of attrition against the illicit RMT sites and botters.  Botting is reportedly down and some big RMT sites like IGE no longer sell ISK.  Part of the reason for that success I believe is the free-for-all PvP rules on Eve's single shard.  On the one hand Team Security benefits from having less places to search to find all of the cockroaches.  On the other hand players are allowed to have an impact on the illicit RMT trade by attacking and harassing those associated with those groups and reducing their profits.  While the number of players doing so on a regular basis is small, events like Hulkageddon cut into RMT companies' profits for weeks at a time.  Hopefully such a hostile environment will lead the illicit RMT companies to seek profits elsewhere.

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