My exploit; your lateral thinking; his emergent gameplay

The game I am most looking forwards to playing at the moment (yes, even more than Diablo 3!!) is Scribblenauts. It’s a DS game that has been described as an emergent puzzle action video game – the slogan on their site is Write Anything, Solve Everything! The big lure is that you can use anything you can think of to solve the game’s puzzles. It’s set up to reward pure out of the box thinking.

Like many gamers, I love this kind of challenge. If I’m presented with an in-game world, I don’t want to be limited by the programming as to how I can interact with it. If I’m in a bar, I want to be able to pick up a chair and throw it at someone.  Or how about bribing the bartender to spike their drinks. Or maybe sneak into the cellars and engineer a power cut. Anyone who has played pen and paper games will be familiar with this kind of thinking :) I don’t want to be told – err, you can’t talk to the bartender, we didn’t think of that! Or – you can talk to the bartender but only if you want to ask for a beer.

Obviously, video games have their limits. They are limits that can only be stretched by very creative programming, or letting you interact with real people who are able to hop outside the box with you. The strengths of these games is in the way they can model games with very fixed rules like chess, Tetris, or MMO combat, or let you explore a virtual environment as long as you don’t want to interact; and probably not in how they model AI or human NPCs.

Well of course hardcore guilds find exploits!

One of the big news stories out of WoW at the moment is that Exodus, the guild who got the first ultra-hard mode Yogg-Saron kill have been banned for 72 hours for finding and using an exploit. Here they talk about it in their own words.

The ban looks to me to be punitive, setting an example to the rest of the hardcore guilds. It’s also rather arbitrary – as they say on their site they aren’t the only guild to have used questionable tactics on the first kills in some encounters. Blizzard really should sort itself out and get these bans under control. All they had to do here was fix it and remove the achievement from Exodus (or change it to something thanking them for finding and reporting the bug, which is what I would have done if it was my decision).

In any case, it’s not surprising if hardcore guilds find exploits. They explore the raid content deeper and more thoroughly than anyone else, especially when they are searching for a world first kill. Yes, the exploits shouldn’t be there in the first place but no test team in the world is as motivated as a ultra-hardcore raid guild.  Part of exploring new raid content is trying to think outside the box, trying to second guess the devs, trying to figure out what you have to do to solve the encounter.

So the games encourage people to use lateral thinking. But  not too lateral because that might be an exploit.

Having said that, these guilds are perfectly aware of when they find something that makes the encounter a lot easier than intended. And again, I think this is where the temporary ban is meant to send a message. If you find something and you know (with your experience of being a hardcore guild) that it’s not right, then you shouldn’t use it. That’s a rule for people who thrive on breaking rules, in games that encourage you to break rules cautiously to solve new puzzles.

I’m reminded of a hardcore guild leader in DaoC who noted that when he was leading a new raid, they’d do whatever it took to get the boss down (that was Gideon of Servants of the Lake, if anyone played Alb/Prydwen and remembers them). That’s what being hardcore means.  They weren’t cheaters – just they liked to win, and they liked to think outside the box and prided themselves on being good at it.

So do they want us to think outside the box or not?

The answer is not really. But players clearly have a strong appetite for being given more freedom in how they solve puzzles.

I thought it was interesting that there have been a few ‘exploits’ involving people using adds from one encounter to help beat another one (usually by stealing buffs or something like that). It’s not completely without precedent. In vanilla WoW there were raid encounters which could be made easier by using encounters outside the raid (remember the fire resist buffs from UBRS and the various world buffs from Onyxia and ZG?). I’ve always thought it was a shame that they never really followed up on this.

Why should an instance basically be a load of corridors leading between rooms with bosses in it, with each boss encounter totally self contained? Wouldn’t it be more fun if you could use something from earlier in the instance to help solve a puzzle later on? Might make the raids more coherent storywise also. That hardcore guilds keep trying to do this should be a sign to designers that there’s a hunger for it as a legit tactic.

So, bans aside, I hope that designers do look hard at the exploits and get ideas for new raid encounters from them. Because if there’s one thing that players are very very good at, it’s doing something totally unexpected.

And until then, I’m looking forwards to seeing if I can break Scribblenauts (wonder if it knows what ‘great cthulhu’ is).

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18 thoughts on “My exploit; your lateral thinking; his emergent gameplay

  1. I love to think out of the box. Yesterday I went to Slave Pens for http://www.wowhead.com/?spell=34906, hoping that it works for Steelbraker. Too bad that it disappear as soon as you leave SP.

    What Exodus did was not thinking, but exploiting. They did not find a new combination of world buffs or talent synergy. They found a bug, that certain monsters try to attack someone they can’t attack and just stood there.

    It’s not like throwing a chair in a bar. You should be able to do it, just the programmers ignored it. The “normal” thing is that the chair is throwable. Common sense says that if a monster can’t attack X because he is out of reach, he should attack someone else and not just run into the wall.

    Exploiting: using the programming restrictions (the ones you hate) against the common sense.

    • Blizzard designers already do everything in their power to prevent “buff sharing” across instances, so they would undoubtedly label this as an exploit if it made a tangible difference.

      Any innovative kill that didn’t involve tanking has been whittled out of the game since day one.

      They aren’t interested in lateral thinking. They’re interested in control.

      • yeah, definitely. They are control freaks and it annoys me. I think that when people ask for more challenge they don’t mean that bosses should have 2 million more health; they want more freedom to use their own initiative to solve puzzles.

        I’d love to see a hard raid encounter that two raid groups solved in completely different ways. I just wonder whether it’s possible.

  2. The problem with the ‘out of the box thinking’ you mentioned was it made old school raiding so horribly arduous. I remember progression guilds where you required to go get the Dire Maul buffs before you went to raid. Because what starts as a clever plan soon becomes the compulsory way that you have to do things and was a good part of the reason as to why Blizzard started getting rid of things like the Onyxia buff and the BC era joy that was needing to gather together 30 different buff items to go raiding.

    • That’s because they tuned the fights so tightly, so the out of the box way became the de facto way.

      I mean, getting the fire resist buff in UBRS before going into Molten Core wasn’t too bad. You also didn’t need it, but if you wanted to use it, the instance was close by.

      • The issue is more that the out of the box solution is fun for the first people to work it out. The it becomes the standard way you do things and more often than not? The actual out of the box solution is counter-intutive and serves to make the fight less fun.

        The best example of this I can think of recently is in Left 4 Dead. In L4D, there’s sections where you have to do something like flip a switch or wait for a plane to start or what have you. And while you do, huge hordes of zombies charge out at you. It should be a desperate, frantic fight for your life. But eventually, someone worked out if you all pile in the corner, rather in the various defensible spots that will eventually get overrun, you mow down the zombies hordes fairly easily. Which, y’know, is fine from a gamist point of view. But isn’t actually all that entertaining and serves to make the experience less enjoyable. But it’s what everyone does now because it’s the ‘out of the box’ solution that worked.

        IT’s fun for the first guy but it does result in everyone else having to do something irritating and stupid half the time.

  3. “If I’m in a bar, I want to be able to pick up a chair and throw it at someone.”

    This is true. I’ve seen Spinks when we lose the pub quiz…

  4. The bans don’t surprise me anymore. I remember back in the day when a guild was banned for using frost trap to split the Firelord from the giants in MC :/ I remember when a guild was banned for running a rogue down to a boss in MC stealthed, summoned him then the rogue aggroed the boss and it pulled to the entrance. Not only did the guild get banned, but thus came the changes to summoning (only in combat) and boss leashing.

    Blizzard really is just all about control. You didn’t see bans like this in EQ. Hell there’s STILL some things you can exploit in EQ that were never fixed, but were well known. The EQ team simply released a fix for the more important exploits and went about their business.

  5. I’m impressed with how Wizards of the Coast handles things. Magic the Gathering is built on breaking its own rules, and if a degenerate combo is found (despite devs’ best efforts), they just ban or restrict the cards that are the problem. They own their mistakes, and sometimes even applaud players for breaking their game because it helps make it better.

  6. Where’s the line drawn?

    I think that our current tactic in XT feels very much like a bug. Tanking him right on top of a scrap pile should make it harder in my mind…but noooooo.

    Likewise I remember my first ever ‘internet research’ for a Boss giving me a hard time…it was the big statue guy in Uldaman. Our newbie 5 man group was in serious trouble. I printed out maps, I read everthing I could get my paws on. We kited him out of his room and back up stairs giving our rogue plenty of time to kill the adds and the rest of us impunity to nuke the boss. We were so proud! But it sounds allmost exactly what 5 guys got banned for on FlameL. Okay they took less people but we were getting serious ganked before that tactic…

  7. “And until then, I’m looking forwards to seeing if I can break Scribblenauts”

    I’d be hugely impressed if it was hard to break… I can’t help but be skeptical though.

    Few words I’m gonna try:

    pygmy
    marmot
    lung
    graviton
    amoeba

  8. Scribblenauts is going to suck though. It’s a DS game, chances are the actual puzzles and interactions will be simple, and the draw is seeing how you can stump the game by trying different words. Drawn to life was similar, the hook was drawing your character but the game was basic. The DS is a great little system, but don’t expect wonders.

    As for the issue, no they don’t want players metagaming encounters by using weakness in code. Usually there is very little you can actually do to deviate from most encounters as planned in an MMO. Usually thinking outside the box means exploiting weaknesses discovered more than being able to truly use different tactics.

    • I dunno, the hacks who tried it at E3 seemed to like it well enough. For me, I like the idea enough that I’m happy to pay to play with it for awhile. I hope you are wrong about it sucking but I’ll see for myself :)

  9. I’m with Gevlon on this. I think there is a line between clever use of game mechanics and cheating and that players should use their judgment to play in a manner that is acceptable.

    Before MMOs I used to play Diablo 2. In that game people devised various cheats. Speed hacks where a character could zoom in and kill you. Dupes where you could manufacture infinite copies of rare items. And in Diablo 1 there had been townkill, a hack that allowed you to kill people in the safe area.

    Not only does cheating make a game unplayable when it becomes over-powered and rampant (it did for Diablo 1) but it is very hard on the servers. Duping for example was done by transferring an item to a mule, logging the mule off (so the mule is saved) then crashing the game (hoping to roll back your main character to get the original item restored to inventory).

    Certain forms of behaviour are best kept in certain games. In Eve for example it’s a dog eat dog world where someone can pretend to be your friend, work hard for your guild and then destroy it from within. That’s normal and admired gameplay. In WoW a guy I know specialised in robbing raid guilds. He’d join the guilds, play well, be proactive, work his way to officer status then steal the guild bank. He did 3 of the biggest Alliance raid guilds on my old server Scarshield Legion EU. Admirable in EVE, lame in WOW.

    Some forms of cheating are clearly going to kill the game. If someone developed a hack in Free Realms or Hellow Kitty Online that allowed them to corpse camp and teabag the little kiddies who play that game it would break the game.

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