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Behind the Mask: The exploiter's dilemma

Patrick Mackey

It's tough being an exploiter, especially in a game like Champions Online. It carries a certain social stigma, somewhere above catgirls but below most other castes of players. I feel like the exploiters have a bad rep, because other players misunderstand and misrepresent us.

Exploiters are the players who find bugs and ultimately discover FOTMs or gimmick builds and strategies. Because most people consider bugs and "flavors of the month" to be bad, the people who work to discover these things tend to be treated badly.

This is unfortunate, because exploiters are basically explorers. One might think that they are achievers or killers (as the end result of finding exploits is granting unfair advantages), but exploiters are explorers at heart. While other explorers journey through lands that have been charted by other players (except in the case where the game or feature is new), exploiters explore the landscape searching for things that other players haven't discovered and might never look for. The thrill of learning something new drives the exploiter, rather than the material reward of an imbalanced build.

After the jump, we'll talk about some previous exploits in Champions Online and the ways they impacted the playerbase.

The Catalyst "bug"

For about the first six months of CO, Catalyst items dominated the secondary offense slots of most players. They gave heroes a massive energy discount to most powers. Players tend to dislike CO's energy mechanics so the option to make energy management much easier was highly abused.

The main issues with Catalysts were twofold:

  • They completely obsoleted all other choices for secondary offense
  • They enabled Force Cascade spam, a huge damage ranged AoE with a normally prohibitive energy cost
Catalysts were never actually bugged. They were simply overpowered. FC spam was way too good, and PA spike (which used multiple high-cost Powered Armor attacks firing simultaneously) could deal incredibly nasty DPS to a player in a very short time.

There were numerous upsides to the eventual Catalyst nerf, but the playerbase erupted in fury over the changes. The reason for the player fury was pretty obvious. If Catalysts allowed the average player to enjoy the game more (by lessening the burden of energy mechanics), there was definitely a positive lesson to be had. Still, the overall change (nerfing Catalysts down to nearly no value compared to stats) was better than no change.

Zone chat was often full of people claiming that they didn't need Catalysts to make a character, attempting to elevate themselves above the lowly "abusers." Even when everyone abused Catalysts, people attempted to put themselves on a pedestal above the people that liked them.

Damage buffs buff damage debuffs

This was a huge problem and there are a gazillion cases of this. I think the worst issues of damage buffs were with Invulnerability and recently with Unstoppable, where damage buffs would enhance the resistances of these powers, creating almost unkillable characters in PvE.

The instance of this issue that saw the most press though, was Collective Will. CW summons untargetable pets that spam psychic bolts at the enemy. It benefits more from enemies suffering from holds, summoning an extra pet temporarily for each nearby foe held. Collective Wills can also apply a resistance debuff, strengthening future psychic damage dealt to anything they hit.

Collective Will's debuff was strengthened by other buffs to ego damage, such as Shadow Form, Ego Surge, or just everyday superstats. More troubling, Collective Will's debuff stacked. It was not uncommon to have over -150% ego resist stacked on an enemy in PvP, with each bolt from CW dealing thousands of damage while the hero delivered deadly Ego Blade Breaches for 6000 damage per hit. At the time, most players had well under 10k health, so death was pretty much inevitable if one was held and didn't immediately break out.

It all came to a head one day when Collective Will hit the dev watch list. Players assumed that a high-ranked dev (or someone else involved directly with the game) had been murdered by CW in a duel, possibly on an alt. It's certainly a possibility. Never has a single power been targeted by the devs so strongly before.

Fortunately for us, the devs took the smart decision on this one. Collective Will was nerfed badly compared to its previous game-destroying glory, but the resulting power was still far from unusable. The existing debuff duration was lengthened, but the stacking and boosting from damage buffs was removed. The power still does fairly high damage per hit (generally over 1000), and is still a very significant threat if a player is held. As a player who uses CW on my current main, this was pretty satisfactory.

On the whole, Collective Will is an important lesson. Buffs that buff buffs and debuffs are a really bad idea.

CW was a general unknown prior to it hitting the "on deck list." Once it arrived there, players disdained anyone who used it. It was not as deeply hated as other FOTM powers such as Force Cascade, even though Collective Will was (and still is) far worse than FC.

Viewing the exploiter in action

This is a brief insight into an exploiter's world. It also details a fairly new discovery that, to the best of my knowledge, most expert players do not know about.

A cursory glance at any stat guide tells us that Strength and Ego increase a hero's ability to burst from a hold. A formula is even given on CO-Wiki: 50+Stat*0.78 per button press.

Like any good exploiter, I wanted to verify the truth of this matter. Like many exploiters, I was focused on PvP, and hold powers are extremely dominant there. I wanted to see what passive ways could be used to deal with holds.

The first thing we tried was hold resistance. Hold resistance is only present in gear and in certain passive powers (namely Defiance), so getting hold resistance is somewhat of an opportunity cost. The advantage, of course, is that hold resistance can be gear-switched in, so no build changes are necessary. Our test hold was the current version of Soul Mesmerism, although we did a few quick verifications with Electrocute as well (these are the most popular PvP holds).

Our first tests, which used no breakfree attempts (just letting the hold run out) showed that the resists significantly lowered the hold time (20 seconds became 13). However, disaster struck when we attempted to break out. The break free time was consistently 8 seconds, regardless of keyboard mashing macros (I have an old-style Logitech G15) or gear. This means that in an ideal situation where you are attempting to break free, hold resistance gear does absolutely nothing. It only affects the hold time, not the hold's hit points.

This also told us something that we actually already guessed, but was never specifically proven: hold mashing speed is capped. The game seems to only allow a button press every half second or so. The game also seems to queue button presses, so perfect timing is fairly easy. A human with moderate mashing skills will break out of R3 Soul Mesmerism in eight seconds, pretty much every time.

Next, we tried stats. We used no superstats, superstat STR, superstat EGO, and both. Our hold attacks were Soul Mesmerism, Electrocute, Crippling Coils and Ego Hold. We were going to only test the first two, but after the results, we had to be sure that the two PvP holds weren't exceptions.

With both super STR and EGO and STR/EGO boosting talents, can you guess how long it took to mash out of Soul Mesmerism?

If you guessed exactly eight seconds, you'd be right. The answer would also be true of a statless, gearless, talentless character: eight seconds.

This was not something we took lightly. In fact, we tested it over and over just to ensure that we were not "screwing it up" somehow. The sad, disappointing truth was there, though: the characters with tons of stats were doing the exact same damage and breaking free at the exact same time as the characters with none. This was regardless of hold (although the individual holds had different breakfree times). No stats worked.

A quick sidenote on Superjump: the hold protection from this power does work, but it doesn't reduce hold time. It is decent against partially charged holds, but useless against fully charged ones.

It's also interesting to note that the hold breakfree damage was much higher than 50+5*.78. Our breakfree damage was over 110 damage per button press, which leads me to suggest that players just get the "maximum" amount of breakfree damage, since there is supposed to be a 225% soft cap. 225% of 50 is 112.5, which is pretty close to our mashing numbers.

So I ask: what does someone do with a discovery like this? This discovery is extremely hard to exploit. No one actually uses Strength or Ego for breakfree power anyway, and while a few people use hold resistance gear, they are probably a tiny minority.

Exploiters get a bad rep when people abuse things like Collective Will, but every once in a while you find something that makes for a really nice bug report.

For anyone who ever wants to join me and the rest of the Massively readers, feel free to join us in the ingame Massively chat channel (named Massively). Also, if you'd like to get a SG invite, just ask in-channel; every rank has invite privileges.

See you all next week, where we will discuss the evil energy mechanics and what we can glean from them about not just how to do things better, but also about the mindset of the MMO player. Stay tuned!

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