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MMOGology: Attack of the bots

Marc Nottke

A few weeks ago Tateru Nino wrote a great piece about the use of bots in Second Life as marketing tools to make virtual worlds feel less lonely and appear more populated than they actually are. The article got me thinking about the use of bots in games and the many purposes they serve, not only as virtual avatars, but more frequently as tools used by players to assist them with everyday tasks.

So what exactly is a bot? Although bot is short for robot we're not talking about Tom Servo or Crow T. Robot from Mystery Science Theater 3000 (although I guess technically they're puppets). Bots are programs with some level of artificial intelligence that are typically created to automate mundane tasks otherwise performed by a human. At their finest, they are tools that help make a gaming experience more enjoyable by streamlining our gameplay, providing us with useful information, or automating otherwise irksome tasks. At their worst, bots are exploits used by hackers to grind through a game while the player is away from their keyboards. For the purposes of today's article, I'll be referring to the "legal" variety.

Even if a bot is perfectly legal to use and is not technically exploiting the game, it's still automating tasks you'd otherwise be performing yourself. When we're talking about playing video games, if a bot is doing some of the "gaming" for us, then what exactly are we doing? In automating some of the hum-drum tasks of a game has something of the fun or challenge been lost; or, do bots just help us get to the parts of the game that are fun and challenging?

Although most video game developers frown upon the use of external, third party, helper applications, Blizzard's World of Warcraft has embraced them. As long as the bot doesn't exploit the gameworld's physics or otherwise allow players to outright cheat, most bots are allowed. WoW players are most familiar with bots in the form of interface AddOns. In fact, you'd be hard pressed to find a serious WoW player that doesn't use some type of interface AddOn. The functions AddOns serve are just too useful to be ignored.

It came as somewhat of a shock to me the first time I found out that interface AddOns were legal. In most other multiplayer games, any externally developed game modification that gave you a competitive edge over another player was considered an exploit. Any exploit detected would typically label the player as a cheater and ban him from the game. So why aren't WoW AddOns considered exploits? After all, they give players "in the know" a leg up on their competition. A player has to be familiar enough with the gaming community surrounding WoW to find out about AddOns and which ones are must-haves. The fact that Blizzard didn't discourage their use was, to me, a very new and interesting concept. In many ways, Blizzard made an extremely smart decision by allowing the community of gamers to help improve their game. Many of the popular AddOns of the past have been incorporated as standard features in the current version of WoW – and all without paying a dime to the "real" developer of the application. By allowing the community to create bots that solved irritating tasks, Blizzard improved their game so that those tasks didn't exist, or could be ameliorated by the addition of a new tool.

So what kind of irksome tasks are we talking about? One of my favorite AddOns for WoW is Auctioneer, a tool that automatically scans the auction house and stores information related to the commodities for sale. It's easily one of the handiest ways to competitively price that stack of Netherweave Cloth without researching hundreds of prices and writing them all down yourself. It's also a great tool to use when "playing" the auction house. You can find the lowest bids and buyout prices on items that are selling under their fair-market value; enabling you to buy low and sell high without all that added research. Personally, I think that Auctioneer is one of those essential tools that doesn't "spoil" any of the core gameplay – rather, it enhances my ability to make a quick buck. Another Addon I installed gave me quite a different feeling.

QuestHelper is another popular WoW AddOn, and is probably considered one of the essential AddOns for those people who want to level up quickly. QuestHelper compiles all the quests in your quest log and routes you quickly and efficiently from quest to quest based on your current position in the game world. As part of this process it also pinpoints exactly where you should go and what you should kill to complete a quest. All you have to do is take a look at your map and you can see exactly where to go, what to kill, and the fastest route to your objective. My first thought upon hitting my map key and seeing all my quest objectives highlighted on the map was, "YES!" It was almost too good to be true, almost too easy. And that's when a cruddy little feeling snuck in with my euphoria. If this AddOn is telling me where to go, what do do, and when to do it, what exactly am I bringing to the table? My role as a gamer was no longer an investigator, quest solver and explorer, but more like a husband at the grocery store with a list, and a nagging wife telling me which isle I should proceed down first. It made me wonder if this "helpful tool" was taking something away from the experience. If it was too easy, and held my hand throughout the process – the adventurous element of the game was somehow tarnished.

Maybe it's just the grumpy, grizzled old computer game veteran in me that says, "Back in my day we didn't have all these fancy toys that held your hand through every quest. We had to figure out things on our own!" Maybe there's something to be said for suffering through hours of searching every nook and cranny of a valley to find that sneaky kobold hiding in the grass because when we finally kill that punk it feels 100 times better than someone pointing to him and saying, "Kill that dude, OK?." If an MMOG no longer requires me to think on my own, where's the challenge? It cheapens the feeling of accomplishment that comes along with figuring things out for myself. At this point you'd have every right to say "Well if the AddOn bothers you so much, don't use it!" And while that's a valid comment, it's sort of like getting a dishwasher after having washed the dishes by hand for years. Perhaps dish washing helped you to build character in some way, but there's no way in hell you'd go back to doing it manually.

Whether you call them bots, AddOns, or helper-applications, these helpful little programs are here to stay for WoW players. For the most part, their benefits seem to outweigh the faults, occasionally even inspiring Blizzard to adopt the tools as part of the standard feature set. What are your feelings on the use of bots in games? Do they help us get to the fun parts faster, or do they make us lazy, spoiled, non-thinking slugs?

MMOGology [mŏg-ol-uh-jee] – noun – The study of massively multiplayer online games via the slightly warped perspective of Marc Nottke.

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