Digital Salad: Thinking About Botting And What It Means For Digital Economies

Botting. It’s against the rules in every single MMO and many games have regular ‘purges’ to flush the bots out. Ask any regular MMO player about bots and they’ll probably be able to tell you a story of a grim army of clones doing the same activity again and again. On a related note, I’ve recently discovered the MMORPG Dragon Nest. Its originally South Korean from way back in 2007, but its only this month been released in the EU. I saw it pop up on my Steam adverts and thought I’d give it a go!

Another player's characters - I play as a Swordsman mainly, with an Engineer alt
Another player’s Dragon Nest characters – I play as a Swordsman mainly; with an Engineer alt

Dragon Nest is Free To Play and Free to download – the developers make money through the cash shop (which is very similar to the Gem Store on GW2 – ascetically pleasing items that don’t change the gameplay). Its actually a really good fun game to play, and is a nice break from GW2 for me.

The thing about Dragon Nest, which you’ll spot almost immediately, is that it has a real bot problem. Both starting areas have a blacksmiths forge, where you will find a horde of clones smithing away.

A small bot group on Dragon Nest
A small bot group on Dragon Nest

Seeing the bot army made me think about botting as a video game trend, and I’ve found it fascinating to look into.

I’ve played GW2 as my main MMO for over year now and its changed me I’ve realised having dipped my toe into Dragons Nest. GW2 has very few bots. I remember back at launch you’d often see huge trains of identical rangers killing everything in sight – bots. I was never quite sure what they were up to, bots usually stick to resource gathering or crafting in MMOs. Whatever they were up to ArenaNet didn’t mess around and had a serious purge. I’ve never seen more than the occasional one since. I see them so rarely I’d all be forgotten about them and their affects on MMOs.

Kudos to ArenaNet for a really affective purge I suppose!

It hasn’t always been that way for me. As a kid, most worryingly over a decade ago now, my first ever MMO was Runescape – many people seem embarrassed to say that they’ve played Runescape but I’m proud of it, I had a great group of real life friends who played it together and worked together.

runescape1Its still going strong as an MMO actually, now into Runescape 3. I was a Runescape 1 kid and made the transition over the Runescape 2 for a few years as well. I remember Jagex, the developers of Runescape, fought a constant battle against the bots in Runescape – and judging from the game forums they still are.

The key with Runescape is that it is actually quite difficult to get a great deal of money/the highest stats/the best gear. First of all, it’ll be much easier if you’re a paying member as opposed to a free player (they have a really ingenious set up of members/free on Runescape). Second, it’s very grind based in fairly static locations. Not only does this lead to people turning to gold sellers to skip that grind (which often fuels botting to make that wealth to sell for real world money), but it also leads to people dabbling in botting programs to automate the grind.

Industrial scale botting - there's only one real player in this Runescape screenshot
A borrowed picture showing industrial scale botting – there’s only one real player in this Runescape screenshot

I certainly never bought gold or used botting software, but a significant number of people did – aside from those who did it on an industrial scale.

I think what Runescape taught me with that was that if you create a game which involves a static grind there will be a two tear botting system. Its kind of like drugs I suppose, you have your cartels (the big scale botters) as well as your hometown guy growing some in his loft (the small scale). Neither is legal, and in the case of botting both will find themselves very severely dealt with during clamp downs.

If a developer wants to avoid botting then the best thing is to make a game without a static grind, which means that botting programs have to be far more sophisticated and, therefore, out of the hands of ordinary players dabbling. Cut out the cause of the bots! The sophistication that a non-static grind requires (by this I mean moving gathering nodes like in GW2) is the Achilles heal of the program, because it makes them very clear for the developers to spot and take down – making a bot free game entirely possible. That’s why GW2 doesn’t have a bot problem and why Runescape does.

Guild Wars 2 Ranger bots - a very rare sight!
Guild Wars 2 Ranger bots – a very rare sight!

All of this talk of bots made me think though.

Dragon Nest has a massive bot problem, which they’re not cracking down on as yet. But the economy isn’t affected greatly, it hasn’t made me wealthier or poorer as a player. Yet, whenever Jagex has a purge of Runescape bots prices spike up massively and all players feel the affects. Whats the difference?

Well, for Dragon Nest there is a player auction house akin to the Runescape Grand Exchange and GW2 Black Lion but it isn’t a major part of the game. Nearly everything I buy on GW2 comes from the Black Lion. So botting can’t really affect me on Dragon Nest because the things I’m buying are all a set rate decided by the developers, creating a very tight grip on in-game inflation.

WARNING - Economic ramble coming
WARNING – Economic ramble coming

But then, as the Runescape Grand Exchange economy has shown every time after Jagex does a purge on bots, prices spike massively – inflation goes up.

Inflation isn’t good in an economy. In an MMO economy it can be even worse than in the real world.

I wrote a very controversial post back in November called “Gems Are Like Gold Dust”. It somehow made it on to the GW2 Reddit, and my views rocketed overnight. I can’t complain about that too much – so thank you to whoever posted it, although I did get a lot of hate messages from those who disagreed with what I wrote. As I say at the top of the post in my ‘Edit’, I cherry picked data to show the point, it wasn’t meant to be a serious in-depth analysis of the GW2 economy.

I’m going to be brave and jump right in at that deep end though, although I’m not meaning this to be thesis depth analysis either. Gems are one measure of the GW2 economy. The cost of gems in in-game gold has dropped a bit recently, probably a combination of burnout and a lack of new items of interest, but they continue to relentlessly drive up in value over time on average. GW2 has a number of other inflation indicators though, such as T6 materials and Ectoplasms which have remained relatively stable, although with some general upward trend.

Inflation is a problem for the GW2 economy, just like it is for Runescape. Developer intervention keeps the lid on a lot of the markets which can be used as indicators. Although ArenaNet never release which markets they fiddle with, they do admit to it, and the GW2 Forums generally seem to see a trend of them keeping the price of indicator items such as Ectos down on average over time.

Would there be more of this without developer market intervention?
Would there be more of this without developer market intervention?

So inflation is a problem of MMOs. Yet, botting purges seem to be a key driver of inflation.

I am going to make an incredibly controversial point here, and for anyone who’s stuck with the post this long (thank you!) I want to emphasize that I mean this academically and do not condone botting in video games at all.

I  wonder if developers could tone down their zero tolerance policies on botting. Bots are an actor of deflation, a very rare actor in a Digital MMO economy. In many ways it can be argued that botting is the free market’s response to an imbalanced economy in the first place.

Perhaps a brave developer should try an experiment here, allow botting and do not intervene in the player-driven market at all – allow for it to be a totally free market. That is what Dragon Nest currently is, and it works in a strange way. Its the free market in action.

If developers don’t want bots but also want a stable economy then they have to give up the dream of a perfect player-driven economy. A player-driven economy cannot be stable without bots, and can only be stabilised temporarily by ever increasing ‘bailout’ interventions by developers into the market.

An interesting point and maybe a little to intense on the academic thinking on Digital Economies. Hopefully you’ve stuck with me though because I think its a fascinating concept. I’ll be back to my usual, much less intense, form with my next posts.

Digital Salad –


8 thoughts on “Digital Salad: Thinking About Botting And What It Means For Digital Economies

  1. C. T. Murphy January 12, 2014 / 3:21 am

    This was a solid read. I wouldn’t mind if you posted more like this!

    • Digital Salad January 12, 2014 / 3:07 pm

      Thanks for the comment and appreciation!

      I’ll see about writing a few more like this then, I’ve got lots of ideas and love writing them. I’ll also see about writing one about non-gaming stuff soon, seeing as you inspired me. So many ideas; not enough time to write!

  2. ipvgaming January 12, 2014 / 4:19 am

    Laissez faire economies ftw? 😉 I honestly don’t see what is so controversial about your proposal, but I’m also not an mmo gamer. Good post. There can never be too much academic thinking on digital economies, mainly because in the end it translates into real monetary expenditure.

    • Digital Salad January 12, 2014 / 3:13 pm

      Thanks for the comment 🙂

      I’m glad to hear that you don’t mind the proposal, but I know it wouldn’t go down well with a large chunk of the player base. The hate I got for suggesting that Gem Price on GW2 is out of control was crazy, let alone the emotional topic of bots.

      Its a really good point. These games are worth millions of dollars, and players pour millions of real world currencies into them for the promise of in-game reward. It all relies on a delicately balanced in-game economy for it to work.

      The most interesting thing for me when I was researching this was the ominous symmetry it has to real life economies. Intervention into free markets by governments happens, but that seems about as much wishful thinking as ArenaNet tinkering with the price of Ectos as the house proverbially crumbles under the pressure all around.

      I’m going to try to write another similar post sometime soon, so keep tuned and thanks for reading!

  3. knivesmith January 12, 2014 / 3:30 pm

    One of the reasons why bots ruin economies is because they up the supply. Prices go up when bots disappear because the free supply runs out, and players have to pay prices equivalent to how much that supply is being generated by actual players.

    So, bots being purged isn’t necessarily causing market-ruining inflation. You’re just asking for things to be easier to buy. Maybe things are too expensive. Maybe they need to increase certain loot drops. But bots also obfuscate this process.

  4. Ettesiun January 22, 2014 / 1:06 pm

    Just to understand what is inflation for you ? For me inflation is the devaluation of money, meaning that prices goes up.
    Here in GW2, the problem is the definition of the reference money : is this gold or gems ? If it is gold, the decrease of the price of gems is deflation, whereas if gems is the reference money, the increase of price of gold in gems – same effect as before but stated differently – is an inflation, no ?

    About the effect of the bots : Bot are creating more offer on the material they farm. Is they farm money, there is an inflation. If they farm materials, they will create a decrease in price of those materials, and a little inflation – but this inflation will stay inferior to the decrease in price of those materials !

    Thus bot will change the economy by changing the relative price of object easy to bot-farm VS the object hard to bot-farm. No ?

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