Hyperspace Beacon: Cheating vs. poor design

Hyperspace Beacon: Cheating or poor design?
Recently, Ilum took center stage in an argument about exploits, and I honestly cannot say which side of the fence I'm on. When do the intentions of the designers take precedent over the players taking advantage of poor design? Well before Star Wars: The Old Republic even crossed the mind of BioWare's creative brain-trust, exploiters have been taking advantage of unintentional game design. Even more interesting about the situation with Ilum was that the design was not exactly flawed; instead, players did not respond to the designs the way the developers intended. The game was "working as intended," but the players weren't.

At what point do we blame the designers? In a game as large as SWTOR, we know that if someone is allowed to do something, he will. At the same time, players are lazy efficient when playing the game: They will find the fastest and easiest way to level or gear up despite the intended path. Designers should know this. I remember in Ultima Online when players would raise skills by poking each other with low-level swords for hours on end. I am sure the designers intended that players would earn skills by actually battling each other, but the simplest solution was to prod one another with a dull stick. I honestly don't know if that was ever fixed, but I certainly don't remember a GM tossing out a ban hammer for it.

Hyperspace Beacon: Where do we draw the line?
Ilum is intended to be a glorious battle zone where players fight for resources and planetary control. Basically, the PvP zone consists mostly of turrets and mechs. Each of these nodes can be destroyed by simply clicking on the item and waiting 10 seconds for the rocket to launch; repairing the turret also takes 10 seconds. By destroying these nodes, you gain valor and mercenary commendations. In fact, at the time, that was the only way to gain anything from the area. Killing other players achieved nothing besides inconveniencing them. There were even tales of some players being verbally attacked because they attempted to PvP in the PvP zone.

Planetary resources also became an issue, too. With the players just standing around not "inconveniencing" each other, the planetary resources wide open for anyone, no matter his level, to snatch up whenever he felt like it. It was not uncommon for a level 14 (the lowest level for a character have a ship) to run around grabbing these resources for an alt or even for himself.

Players quickly called this behavior exploiting, even though, according to reports, everyone was doing it. A player named Faction infamously made a video of his character taking "vigilante action" against some of these exploiters. Granted, he calls out Darth Hater for these exploits, but we are told explicitly that no member of the Darth Hater staff condone nor participate in exploiting the game. Despite that, the fact remains that people are upset about the issue.

Hyperspace Beacon: What is an exploit?
When defining exploitation, we know certain actions fall under this category without a doubt. Since Star Wars Galaxies is no longer available to play, I think it's safe to use that game as an example.

Any kind of item duplication or duping is easily classified as an exploit. SWG designers did not intend for players to plant houses on server lines so they could place duplicate lightsaber crystals in their weapons thus giving them a definite advantage in PvP. This kind of behavior was clearly outside the scope of the design. Most would call it a bug, and I do too.

Taking advantage of lag and geometric issues is considered an exploit by most people. Due to the incredible lag in battleground PvP areas, many premade groups were able to take advantage of target-of-target and wall-hacking. Basically, the leader of a group or a stealthed character would pop into a building and target an enemy player. The other players in the leader's group could then target that enemy before the enemy could even see them. Because of geometric issues, this would also allow players in that group to shoot through walls and floors, but because of these walls and floors, the enemy could not target them -- definitely an exploit.

I don't believe anyone will disagree that altering the game client to gain a tactical advantage is an exploit. The most famous of these in Galaxies was one that would allow a player to see stealthed characters. I really felt sorry for the developers because each time they would put in a fix, the hackers would find another way to reinvent the exploit. Sometimes, however, the exploit is unintentional. One visual alteration allowed players to access a part of the IG-88 instance that could not even be seen in the unaltered version. A player could stand outside the target zone of the mobs yet still target and destroy most of the mobs in the area.

Hyperspace Beacon: Where does Ilum fall?
Honestly, I'm not sure how the issues in Ilum are defined as an exploit. Granted, the actions on Ilum fall outside SWTOR's rules of conduct. Although it's now been removed, the rules of conduct used to state that "You may not engage in any conduct or practice that results in an Account containing items, objects, currency, character attributes, rank, or status that are inappropriate for the level or rank of the character contained in the Account, i.e., 'item loading.'" Most likely this was included to prevent issues like Ilum, not so you couldn't trade something to your other characters for them to use later. (It's nearly impossible to actually twink in SWTOR because nearly every item is level restricted.)

But does a company's terms of service excuse poor design decisions? I believe not, and to a point, BioWare appears to agree. Those who used a low-level character to repeatedly take advantage of the design flaw were only temporarily barred from gameplay -- kind of a slap on the wrist saying, "OK, we don't want you to do this again," but nothing permanent. To me it implies that partial fault falls on the designers. On top of that, Ilum has experienced a nice little overhaul since the "exploits" were made known.

My bottom line: No, using design flaws that aren't bugs is not an exploit, but before taking advantage of a flaw, players should consider what type of impact they are having on other players. They most certainly shouldn't berate other players for using the zone as intended. I know some readers aren't going to agree with me, but I want to hear your thoughts as well. And if you do agree, let me know that, too. How can BioWare fix this so it doesn't happen in the future?

The Hyperspace Beacon by Larry Everett is your weekly guide to the vast galaxy of Star Wars: The Old Republic, recently released by BioWare. If you have comments or suggestions for the column, send a transmission to larry@massively.com. Now strap yourself in, kid -- we gotta make the jump to hyperspace!
This article was originally published on Massively.