Almost exactly five years ago today, WoW Insider broke the news about one of the craziest stories in WoW's history. Some called it a "scandal," but I disagree with the term. Everyone involved, I believe, acted without malice. The entire affair was a matter of one colossal blunder, followed by a series of unfortunate assumptions and, ultimately, heavy-handed repercussions.
The real victims here, after all, were the bosses.
But the event is a fascinating and unique one: one player, given the kind of unlimited power that only a game master or developer was meant to wield. How did it all go down?
Mysteries in the armory
On April 29, 2009, WoW Insider heard stirrings of something very odd: A guild that had just cleared Naxxramas (Wrath edition) was ripping through Ulduar -- including hard modes -- in record time. Finding little evidence to substantiate the stories, we reported nothing at first, but we decided to dig deeper. It was difficult to believe that anyone could be hacking, especially to do something so high-profile.
Alex Ziebart looked at the armory of the guild leader, a gnome warrior named Karatechop on Veknilash-US. There, Alex saw a very odd statistic: Karatechop's largest hit dealt was three and a half million damage. Even by Mists standards, that's a large number. By Wrath's standards, it was impossible.
Earning both achievements at once would have been an incredible feat for the best guilds in the world at that time. With their gear and experience, The Marvel Family couldn't have pulled this off legitimately. Only one conclusion could be drawn.
Somehow, Karatechop had one-shot heroic Flame Leviathan.
Inspecting the gnome's gear also raised questions. He had a shirt equipped, but it didn't show up in the armory. The site said, "Error showing tooltip." But hovering over the item revealed the item's number: 17.
Fortunately, Wowhead uses the same numbers as the armory, so a quick check showed Alex which shirt Karatechop had equipped. This is item 17:
The forgotten ticket
The next day, WoW Insider's Lesley Smith interviewed Karatechop to figure out just what had happened.
Karatechop told her that one of his guild members, Leroyspeltz, had suffered an account hack back in December of the previous year. The hacker deleted and transferred several of Leroy's characters, along with taking his gold and other items. The hacker also ransacked the guild bank, since Leroy was an officer at the time. He opened a ticket, requesting an account restoration.
Blizzard never answered the ticket.
Four months later, Leroy opened another ticket about a loot problem in Obsidian Sanctum. A GM responded to that one and also finally asked him about his hacked account. When he logged in on April 19th, his characters and many of their items had been restored. But there was one more item in the mail that Leroy wasn't expecting: Martin Fury.
Because the shirt is designated as plate, Leroy gave it to his guild leader, Karatechop, who could equip it. Karatechop and Leroy assumed that the item had been included on purpose, since it came from Blizzard. The item had charges, after all. It couldn't be used forever. They thought it had been given to Leroy as an apology for Blizzard's failure to address his ticket, leaving his characters in limbo and the guild bank depleted for four months.
First, they tested Martin Fury on Ignis in Ulduar, and it worked. "We were laughing about it," Karatechop said. "After killing Ignis, we went out and reset the raid to heroic. We went back in and killed Flame Leviathan." They did it with all four towers up, the hardest possible configuration.
They used it 14 times total in several different raids. In the process, they wracked up eight realm-first achievements, including Stokin' the Furnace, and the world-first for If Looks Could Kill. They also got their guild-first Malygos kill and their Sartharion plus three drakes achievements on both the 25- and 10-player versions, earning titles and mounts. Karatechop said his wanton Furying wasn't meant to help the guild's progression:
According to Karatechop, he never tried to hide the shirt or what he was doing with it. He wore it and logged out with the shirt equipped, which is how WoW Insider discovered it. He never thought he had a reason to hide it.
This wasn't, for me anyways, a way to get loot or achievements. This was purely a comedy thing for me. It was funny. We went back to Ulduar with twenty-two people and made several legitimate attempts at Flame Leviathan. This is where I feel really bad. Some of the people we had with us didn't know we had Martin's Fury. Then we engaged and used the item. It was a riot!
Blizzard struck back hard. The studio banned Karatechop's account permanently. He received an email detailing why, which he shared with WoW Insider:
The fallout also hit everyone in Karatechop's guild. They all received 24-hour account suspensions. "They aren't happy," Karatechop said of his guild members. "Some are upset at me, but most of them have my back on this. We didn't hack the game. We were given a 'You Win' button and it was something we used."
Readers had strong reactions to the interview. The article received more than 700 comments. Many condemned Karatechop for taking advantage of an item that was clearly never meant to fall into player hands. Others defended him as a person who was merely human, who did what anyone would do in the same circumstances.
A few days after the interview, Karatechop reflected on the incident and his thought process:
Readers did lighten up on him after he posted these words. Many believed that Blizzard's actions were too harsh, especially given that a Blizzard employee had caused the problem in the first place.
Leroy admitted that he thought it was a mistake, to which I responded how the hell could someone make that kind of mistake? Then we justified it due to the limited charges on the item and Blizzard's neglect of Leroy's account for over four months.
Granted, in hindsight, any of these justifications [was] apparently extremely naïve, according to a lot of people here. And to the comments of the 14 times we used it, I would've used it 100 times as those were the number of charges the item had. IF a GM had contacted me at anytime in the game or even via email and said 'WTF are you doin'?', I would've promptly cooperated with them, as I am still willing to do. But I didn't honestly think it was something that was so far from believable; I never thought to open a ticket and obviously didn't think about being banned. I seriously justified this as customer service.
Karatechop said he contacted Blizzard to "help with the investigation." He wanted to exonerate his guildmates, who he believed had been unjustly affected by Blizzard's suspensions.
He felt that the permanent ban of his account was "over the top":
I wouldn't have skipped a beat if all of my achievements and gear even the ones I came by legitimately were stripped and I logged in as a naked Gnome (no one wants to see a naked Gnome, mind you). Because it was an awesome story. And I did love this game.
We never meant to upset people, anyone, by personal gain of loot or achievements. That's never how TMF rolled. It was simply a ridiculous amount of fun. That's all.
I cheated. I know this. The item said 'Cheater.' I justified it, to be sure, and it was an easy thing to find justification for.
Was it wrong for Karatechop to exploit the item? Was his banning just? WoW Insider's Allison Robert debated these points in a special editorial.
In her opinion, it was OK for the guild's members to try it out. But after they figured out that it was real, they should have submitted a ticket at that point to ask about the item. Because they didn't and because they continued to use the item for personal gain, what they did was wrong. Regardless of Karatechop's intent, the fact is that the guild could have used the Martin Fury shirt anywhere, and they chose to use it on fights that were progression for them. If Blizzard hadn't stepped in, The Marvel Family could have stolen the world-first Algalon kill.
She went on to say that because Blizzard had issued permanent bans for exploiting raid content in the past, the precedent had been set. Karatechop should have known that he risked having his account shut down forever. However, she argued that all of the raiders in The Marvel Family were complicit in this incident and that either everyone should have been banned or no one. It wasn't fair to ban Karatechop alone.
We ran a poll to see what other players would do given this unique opportunity. Less than half of us would open a ticket to report the error. Nearly a third said they would do exactly what Karatechop did. 83% would have used it in some fashion eventually. Only about 17% said they wouldn't have used it at all.
With great power comes great temptation -- even knowing that a closed account is the likely result.
At the end of the year, the incident was ranked number 3 on WoW Insider's top ten WoW stories of 2009.
The sad retirement of Martin Fury
Martin Fury wasn't just taken out of the game. To prevent any scenario where it could once again wreak havoc on innocent and unsuspecting raid bosses, Blizzard also changed the murdershirt into a gray-quality item. The devs changed its on-use ability to the opposite: "The caster commits suicide, instantly killing themself."
Despite the dubious grammar, the change was probably a smart move. If mailing it to a player happened once by mistake, it could have happened before, and it could again. It's not impossible that someone else, somewhere out there in the game, had that shirt too, and he was just waiting until he was about to quit WoW forever before he unleashed it. If so, you missed your chance for internet glory, my friend, and the lifetime ban to go with it.
WoW Archivist is a column by WoW Insider's Scott Andrews; it runs on Massively by permission. Every other weekend, Scott explores the secrets of World of Warcraft's past. What did the game look like years ago? Who is etched into WoW's history? What secrets does the game still hold?