Digital Salad: Thoughts On Digital Economies Part 2

So, with the dust settling from my last post on botting where I controversially recommended developers to be less oppressive in banning players for botting if they want a stable in game economy, or else not have a player driven economy, I thought I’d carry on my look in to Digital Economies. This time I wanted to look into exploiting.


Exploiting overlaps with botting in many ways, which is why this is really Part 2 of the previous post. Although you don’t have to have read that post before this one necessarily for it to make sense it would probably help it all make sense.

So, what is exploiting?

Dictionary time! The OED definition says:

2) make use of (a situation) in a way considered unfair or underhand

That covers quite a lot of activities, even if you narrow it down to just in video games. GW2 has had some notable examples which have received very stern responses from the development team, such as the Wintersday 2012 Snowflake-gate. Yet, you could argue that champion farming is also an exploiting activity – something which the developers are implicitly promoting through the Champion Killer achievement repeatedly popping up on the Monthly Achievements.

There was a recent surge of players playing an event at Jofast’s Waypoint in the Cursed Shore, which if failed would immediately trigger again; giving players huge rewards over time. Technically speaking its exploiting in the sense that it’s making use of a situation to gain more reward than the developers intended – basically making hay with their mistakes and oversights.

The Pact base at Jofast Waypoint in GW2
The Pact base at Jofast Waypoint in GW2

So, in a round about way there’s a contradiction going on with exploiting. Exploiting experience and loot chests is promoted, perhaps incidentally. Yet, exploits which relate to the Black Lion Trading Post are heavily ban-hammered by the developers.

The Wintersday 2012 Snowflake-gate is a good example of an exploit which got a big developer response. Players found out that making items such as a Mithril Snowflake Ring and then salvaging it would often give you an Ectoplasm, which didn’t go into the original recipe. Selling these Ectos on at a profit was judged to be a serious exploit and thousands of perma-bans were dished out that week. A not so Merry Wintersday for some that year!

A statement from the developers at the time read:

I’ve seen the numbers, and the damage to the economy could have been substantial, if the exploit wasn’t closed down and if these people were allowed to use their ill-gotten gains.

But would it?

WARNING - Academic ramble incoming! (Borrowed stock picture)
WARNING – Academic ramble incoming! (Borrowed stock picture)

The interesting thing about the developer’s comments is that its quite a misunderstanding of the idea of a free market. With the Black Lion Trading Post they’ve tried to create the perfect free-market, driven by player’s supply and demand.

In a system of perfect competition, such as that which they aim for, the free market is always tending towards equilibrium, where the price reflects a balance of supply and demand. If the supply suddenly rockets then the price shifts to reflect it and a new equilibrium forms. Textbook Adam Smith says that through price mechanisms, any excess supply does not affect equilibrium.

What does that mean in layman’s terms?

What it means is that if there is a sudden influx of Ectoplasms into the GW2 economy because of the Snowflake exploit it shouldn’t actually affect players in the long term. Some individuals, most likely the first to catch on to the exploit, will make a reasonable profit in the short-term; but the market will balance out the sudden change in supply. So really, although the price of Ectoplasms might change absolutely, they won’t change relatively to what you can afford – the market will work it all out over time.

A perfect market?
The Black Lion Trading Post: a perfect market? (on a side note, a screenshot from way back in 2012 giving an idea of what has and hasn’t changed in price)

So maybe exploiting isn’t as bad as is often painted for Digital Economies. The perfect free market would suggest that it isn’t and that developers should just let it take its path. Of course, many exploits aren’t too dissimilar to Trade Post Speculation. What really is that different from buying yellow items on the Black Lion cheap, salvaging them for Ectos, and making a tidy profit compared to the Snowflake exploit? Not a lot of difference really other than the intentions of the developers when they made the original item.

The trouble is is that exploiting is emotional, much like botting. The definition of ‘exploit’ doesn’t help much with this, as something ‘considered unfair’. Developers have often said that exploiters “knew what they were doing” – that it must naturally twig that when you find an exploit it must feel wrong. The fact is is that it often doesn’t.

Does the average player joining in with the Jofast event farm exploit feel that they’re doing something that is judged as wrong? Does the average player stumbling across the fact that you can make a margin by salvaging a particular item feel that they’re doing something judged as wrong. None of these players felt that they were damaging the game or its economy. But emotionally, those looking at them, and especially developers, want to paint exploiters as bad – not playing the game as the developers wanted, regardless of how they’ve allowed it to be played.

Developers are fast to act on exploits, but is that entirely fair?
Developers are fast to act on exploits, but is that entirely justified by the figures?

So, essentially what the message of this post is is to say that many exploits aren’t all as damaging as is often painted to digital economies. As with botting, emotional responses have often clouded the argument, and that’s pretty much unavoidable.

A cold hard look at the reality of exploits shows that there isn’t a nasty undercurrent in MMO communities looking for a slight crack in the game’s armour that they can ruthlessly use to their advantage. There are only ordinary players who find what they think is a bargain, just like finding a £100 RRP item on sale for £10 in a shop. We need to understand that, that there isn’t ‘evil’ players out there looking to scam the game – anyone could be an exploiter.

I don’t mean to encourage players to break the rules with this, or my botting post. Both activities remain strictly against all MMO rules, so don’t break them! I want this post to be a message to developers to encourage them to look at their rules unemotionally. Exploits aren’t always all that damaging, so maybe be a bit less heavy on the perma-bans and make sure that you test your games rigorously. Game testing is generally declining over time, huge glitches remain in modern games that are released for sale – so they shouldn’t all that surprised when exploits develop.

Digital Salad –


7 thoughts on “Digital Salad: Thoughts On Digital Economies Part 2

  1. C. T. Murphy January 14, 2014 / 12:34 pm

    I think my issue comes when people are banned for easy to reproduce exploits that are obvious mistakes. Temporarily ban them, reset their earnings, whatever, but don’t permanently ban them for your mistake!

    There are cases (though none spring to mind) where exploits take a lot more work, are a lot more malicious to the game, and reflect a far more intentioned pursuit of doing wrong rather than simply taking advantage. THOSE deserve permabans.

    • Digital Salad January 14, 2014 / 3:21 pm

      I’d definitely agree with you on that actually.

      I’ve never really come across any exploits like you mention, the real malicious ones that burrow in to find a fault and use it. By the sounds of things though that kind of exploit would be a small group or even just an individual, so that’s one positive side to it.

      I think the worst part of the exploit thing to me is that those who accidentally salvage a ring and make a slightly higher profit than they should are lumped in with those malicious ones. There’s a range of exploiters, but they’re mostly just ordinary people who accidentally find what they most likely think is just a good deal. Its not evil mostly, as much as developers seem to want to paint it that way.

  2. ipvgaming January 14, 2014 / 3:25 pm

    Good read! Can’t get enough of this stuff.

    • Digital Salad January 14, 2014 / 4:11 pm

      Glad you like it 🙂

      Keep checking back regularly, I try to post interesting stuff as often as possible. If there’s any topic you’d really like me to take a look at just comment to me and I’d be more than happy to give it a go!

  3. Knivesmith January 15, 2014 / 1:08 pm

    I cringe when people add “-gate” to any and everything. I also had to stop reading and starting writing my response after “But would it?”

    Except Ectoplasms are hugely tied into the game’s economy. Ectoplasms are sought after all sorts of materials, are used as a de facto gold standard when judging the base worth of any salvageable rare or exotic item, and are still produced in such high quantities that to this day we’re getting more and more ectoplasm sinks and yet their prices on the market aren’t skyrocketing. I mean, look at the picture you posted! Ectoplasms were going for 29 silver each and they’ve only increased about 6 silver over the course of the entire year!

    If the snowflake exploit had continued throughout the entirety of Wintersday last year then yes the economy would have suffered a ton. Snowflakes were easy enough to generate thanks to the all the Wintersday activities generating presents with socks/hats/sweaters that could be traded in bulk for a ton more snowflakes. Lower level snowflakes could just be promoted. Everyone would have shifted into snowflake production and therefore ectoplasm production. From there many other pillars of value in the market would have plummeted. Ectoplasms being easy mean that crafting would have been devalued even more, with now a flood of crafted rares and exotics on the market. Those would have been thrown into the Mystic Forge en mass to create hundreds if not thousands of legendary precursors considering that tens of millions of these things would have been thrown in during the month at the very least. And then the most defining pillar of the game, legendaries, would have their value slowly collapse.

    Then, Wintersday would end. The best description for what would have happened next can only be described as “market whiplash.” And then there’s still the fact that anyone who missed the boat would riot even worse than those that missed out on a 20-slot karka box during the Lost Shores event just a month prior.

    The market would eventually correct itself. But would it have been worth it? Part of the defining issue was the fact that you were making several silver worth of profit out of thin air. That would have caused massive inflation throughout the entire economy.

    Reading more, the difference between buying rares off the trading post is that they have to be found, and their value is propped up by ectoplasms. Also, when I remember your post about the gold to gem ratio, this exploit had the potential to take the gradual climb of the exchange rate over the past year and compress it into one month. And there wouldn’t have even been much worth buying!

    When it comes to champ farming in Frostgorge and Queensdale, the primary reason that’s allowed is the same reason why Citadel of Flame path 1 was left as profitable as it was for so long. Players are going to grind and farm, there isn’t a better system to replace it, and even better than CoF path 1 is the fact that it’s still rate of gold and rare acquisition that isn’t so crazy out of tune with the rest of the economy as to cause massive inflation and damage.

    • Digital Salad January 15, 2014 / 4:15 pm

      Thanks for the comment.

      I’d recommend reading the rest of my post if you did stop at “but would it?”, it certainly explains the start much more. As for adding “gate” to everything, my academic background is in politics so it’s pretty natural to me; although in this case I used it in a purposely flippant sense. That said, I shouldn’t have to justify my particular use of English, it what it is.

      Ectoplasms are a great measure of the strength of the Guild Wars 2 in game economy, sure, but that only goes so far. To judge the health of the economy purely on them would be misled mainly because of the fairly well documented instances of the developers intervening to keep the prices of them stable. Despite interventions Ectoplasms do remain a good health indicator, although not the only good one.

      Nowhere in my post did I suggest that the exploit should have remained. The moment that developers realise their mistakes they should work to close them and fix them as soon as possible, no doubt about it.

      What I was addressing was the section of the statement quote “if these people were allowed to use their ill-gotten gains”. The developer statement made two separate points, firstly that if left to continue unresolved exploits would cause untold damage, and secondly, that those who used the exploit were essentially ‘bad’ and would cause untold damage to the economy if they spent the money they had made through exploiting.

      That second element is what I address and it simply isn’t true. If those who made money through the exploits were not banned, and even allowed to use that money then it would not have affected the economy greatly at all. They were certainly not malicious on the most part, and many did it purely by accident and never realised there was any fault in their actions at all.

      That was my second point, that exploiters are not ‘evil’ or ‘bad’ on the whole. As I discussed briefly with the fantastic Mr Murph in the comments section above, there are a tiny section who are so, but the majority are not. Developers, however, would like to paint all exploiters as an evil which must be severely punished to keep the rest of the players in line.

      I’d like to respond to what you said would have happened in the event of the snowflake exploit continuing throughout Wintersday 2012 though. Your dystopian image of the state of the economy in such an event doesn’t ring particularly true with me. The exploit would have remained relatively small scale, only those discussing it with friends and through off-game forums such as GW2 Reddit would have cottoned on – and we must remember that that represents only a tiny fraction of the much larger player base. Would that player base have continued to use the exploit to the damaging level that you suggest? I would argue not, and it links back to what I said about maliciousness. Most players play Guild Wars 2 for fun, not to pursue the most in game gold at every turn, and most would not have sat and taken advantage of the exploit every waking hour even if they had the chance. It’s a rather paranoid view of the individual as a player that would suggest as such.

      This response has become quite long now, so I’ll leave it here. I respect and value you spending the time to comment on my posts, and I will always endeavour to respond, but I would really appreciate you being more constructive with you criticisms.

      • Knivesmith January 16, 2014 / 4:06 am

        I did read your entire post before hitting “Post Comment” and even added a number of things that responded to later points in your post. But I guess the rest of my response came off as emotional and dismissive.

        I did misinterpret what you meant as to what the market would correct to. My only response is that you and I don’t know how many ectoplasms nor how much money was gained from this exploit. If the information spread to just enough people with hundreds of gold or more, the often called “TP Barons”, it wouldn’t have taken long to turn those hundreds into thousands, which would have been enough to disturb the legendary weapon market and/or shift the gold/gem ratio a noticeable amount.

        Some innocent people may have been caught in the banning crossfire, but at that point ANet noticed primarily because hundreds if not thousands of ectoplasms were appearing in the market, and they investigated where they came from. This wasn’t the first type of absurd profit ratio that had hit the game so it was reasonable to believe that people who were speedily crafting and salvaging for ectos were out to grab as much money as they could as quickly as they could before the loophole was closed.

        But if you want to call that more amoral than anything, then at least there’s a chance ANet agrees with you. After Wintersday 2012 most people went hunting for more such exploits after every patch, and a number of times it caused ANet to have to do a hotfix within hours of a new Living Story patch throughout the year. The mentality of many money focused players became “exploit or lose out”, but with the rapid turn around of hotfixing and/or possibly a change in mentality at ANet, we didn’t seen anymore major bannings.

        And I have a background in tech, where the last few years has seen tech focused media people add “-gate” to append every single little bit of uproar or controversy, especially after the “Antennagate” following the release of the iPhone 4. There are better ways to label controversies that don’t involve using a meme. It’s a personal pet peeve.

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