You’re playing it wrong!

No multiplayer game ever survives contact with the players. This is as true for traditional card and board games (and pen and paper games, if those count as traditional these days) as it is for MMOs, but there is a huge difference in scale.

For example, has anyone ever played a game of Monopoly without some house rules? In fact, has anyone read the actual rules? I sometimes wonder if every family has its own set.  Note: Monopoly is such a poor game  that I’d advise anyone to PLEASE USE YOUR OWN HOUSE RULES IF THEY MAKE IT MORE FUN

Running pen and paper games, it’s also  a given that players will always think of something that you didn’t expect them to do. But when I’ve been running those sorts of games, a large part of the fun for me is finding out how players will surprise me.

I’m fascinated by player behaviour in MMOs,  particularly in ways we find to play the games that the devs never intended. This could involve:

  • exploits
  • players cooperating on goals where devs expected that they would compete, or vice versa
  • roleplaying in games that aren’t designed around that
  • exploring instead of achieving, or vice versa
  • soloing content that was designed for groups
  • buying gold instead of farming it
  • powerlevelling
  • griefing
  • building elaborate social structures that weren’t foreseen by designers
  • any kind of mixmaxing that devs didn’t spot
  • focussing on unexpected goals (eg. the naked warrior, or people who collect pets as their endgame)

As soon as you bring real players into the picture, the sky’s the limit. Some of these emergent behaviours get labelled as cheating. Players are told ‘you’re playing that wrong’. Or ‘you’ve broken the game.’ Some exploits get fixed, some players get punished, life goes on.

But is it really possible to play the game wrong? It is understandable that if you present a player with a game — and no rulebook — they’ll assume that anything they can do in game is reasonable.

Even if there is a rulebook, as per Monopoly, they’ll feel comfortable tweaking it the rules just don’t reflect how they want to play.

Some players will not make this assumption. Instead, they’ll assume that the way they play is reasonable and everyone else is wrong. You’ll sometimes see complaints about perfectly legitimate power levelling from players who think it removes the fun from a game.

So in any case, it’s easy to feel confused. The huge MMO sandboxes that we play around in are welcoming to lots of different styles of play. You can do what you like. Except when someone decides that you were playing it wrong. That rock on which no mob could reach you? You thought it was designed like that, but what if it was a bug? That’s an exploit right there. That super powered combo you built your character around? Sorry, not intended. It gets nerfed next patch.

It is absolutely part of the MMO genre that if players find a way to be a little too optimal in game, steps will be taken to fix it. For the sake of balance. And because in order for the game to be fun for the majority, the optimal route through needs to be a ‘fun’ one and not a dull grindfest? Well maybe.  In any case, devs have their ideas of what is fun and since you are paying them to produce fun games, we assume most players are down with that.

So when is an exploit not an exploit?

Most people are aware of when they are exploiting an unforeseen bug in the coding, or even outright cheating. When these bugs are fixed and the exploits closed off, the majority of sensible players nod, remind themselves that these games are complicated, and may even think in passing how much more fun MMOs would be if you could just dump the hardcore achievers with their minmax attitude, exploits, gold buying, and tendency to focus on the ends rather than the means.

But sometimes it simply isn’t that clear.

Recently City of Heroes introduced a mission architect. You could create your own instances, your own plot arcs, your own supervillains and enemy groups, and other people could run through and give them marks out of 5. You could even earn xp and pick up achievement badges inside architect missions. It was (and is) terrifically fun.

Then someone worked out how to create a mission that was optimised for xp. It was called meow. It wasn’t just optimised for xp, it was crazy xp. You could create high level mobs with virtually no health. You could use high level mobs who were effectively rooted to the ground. You could use bunches of high level mobs clustered around a bomb that players could explode.  Here’s a  video of a player in a meow farm mission.

Other people caught on quickly and before you knew it, the channels were full of requests for groups for meow missions. They zipped up levels like wildfire.

And then NCSoft decided that enough was enough. Positron stepped in (as reported by Blog of Heroes) and stated clearly that this was going to stop. Meow missions would be banned, and:

Players that have abused the reward system egregiously may lose benefits they have gained – leading up to and perhaps including losing access to the characters power-levelled in this fashion

So the punishment is not just for the people who designed the missions. But possibly for anyone who ever used them. Even if it was just to grab a couple of quick levels to get a new ability, to help a friend or partner, or just to get high enough level to access some of the cooler zones.

Ardua@Echoes of Nonsense has a good rant about this. He helped his wife get her character a couple of levels via a meow mission because he was tired and it was late, so that she could get a pretty cloak and a pet that would help her to solo and now she risks being banned for it? And this is in City of Heroes, a game with no significant endgame.

I don’t have a problem with devs banning exploits and cheaters where they find them in games. But when it was down to their mistake and no one was really hurt by the extra powerlevelling, what’s the point in coming down so hard on all the players who may have taken part?

Maybe instead we should ask: why were people so keen to powerlevel in CoH? Is it because the midgame is boring as heck? Is it because some characters just don’t get fun before they collect a full set of abilities at higher levels?

Yes there will always be some people who exploit loopholes just because they can. In a way, they get their fun by outsmarting the devs (and good luck to them). But when you find a large proportion of the playerbase jumping onto the bandwagon, you have to ask what’s wrong with the game at a more fundamental level. Because if it was fun in vanilla mode, people would eat vanilla.

And if it takes hours of boring gameplay to get the character you want, then maybe the problem isn’t with the meows.

On another note, I’m still impressed at whoever thought to design powerlevelling missions. Someone recruit that guy as a level designer, stat. S/he obviously has a solid understanding of game mechanics and how players behave in game.

11 thoughts on “You’re playing it wrong!

  1. My Monopoly house rules:

    1) Bear always wins, unless someone catches him cheating.
    2) Race Car gets to move roll of the dice +1 because she’s really fast.
    3) If Race Car passes Scottie Dog, Scottie Dog gets to chase Race Car.
    4) Hat may be worn by Bear or Scottie Dog, at their discretion.


  2. I like those rules too. But any bear or dog wearing the hat should go straight to jail if they start singing ‘Putting on the Ritz’ when they pass Mayfair.

    (err, just occurred to me that will mean nothing unless you play on the standard UK board. Oops)

  3. Not predicting that this will happen was entirely the designer’s fault.

    And if something can be exploited, it will be exploited. Even if people know for sure that they are bug-using or found a flaw in the game mechanics.

    Sometimes the line is blurry indeed.

    You are abolutely right:
    “But when you find a large proportion of the playerbase jumping onto the bandwagon, you have to ask what’s wrong with the game at a more fundamental level.”

    The whole mission designer idea is flawed, and City of Heroes always had problems to keep people playing the game. This is just sad, but to put it bluntly, City of Heroes is not too good and just cannot be more than that, the basic design idea is rather limited.

    They recently rebooted their idea with the upcoming “Champions Online”.

    But I am grateful that they do not go the usual “add an achievement system” route and gave players totally crap tasks that take a long time to complete.

    Even if the reward is totally not worth it in the end, people must love achievement systems, they keep people playing and paying.

    • I think CoH may have been first to the party with the achievements, was it the first game with titles? I remember my husband grinding holiday mobs to get some special title, for example.

  4. Pingback: West Karana » Adventures in Monopoly: House Rules

  5. “Most people are aware of when they are exploiting an unforeseen bug in the coding, or even outright cheating”

    Don’t agree with this at all.

    Everyone has a notion of what is admissable and what is over the line but this varies wildly from player to player. Some examples:

    Boosting: “need SM boost paying 5g” This is power-levelling in its purest form – cheating or not?

    Muling: your character came with 5 bag slots and 7 bank slots plus the main bank space. Surely getting more bank slots by creating dummy level 1 alts you have no intention to play is an exploit?

    Spying. On pvp servers you can’t role an alt on another side to spy on rival players. Unless you buy a second account. Is that cheating? In fact, is it pay-to-cheat?

    OK, so like Monopoly, Blizzard has rules. All we have to do is look at the rules and all will be made clear, right?


    The WoW rules are written by lawyers to protect Blizzard from litigation. Basically what the rules say is anything and everything is potentially a bannable infringement and you agree to accept this as a condition of play.

    So if we attempt to play WoW by the rules we can’t actually do ANYTHING at all since it might be an infringement and we’ve agreed not to infringe. Possibly playing with the character creator might be OK since it doesn’t actually impact anyone else.

    In English law we have two main types of law, Statute Law which is laws which are made up by legislators then applied and Common Law which is general practice that everyone agrees makes sense and which is usually confirmed by a previous court ruling. To draw an analogy with WoW WoW is a jurisdiction with no statute law pertaining to what you can’t do. Everything is based on precedent and accepted practice.

  6. Spinks, this is exactly why I keep harping on player choice and flexibility. People will naturally explore their fishbowl, and push the boundaries. The game should take advantage of that, not try to stifle it and band-aid the places where the *devs* make mistakes (not the players) by retroactively saying “you’re doing it wrong”.

    Nice writeup.

      • Indeed. It’s part and parcel of the MMO business, methinketh. That’s why it’s all the sillier that these devs aren’t taking their lumps, but looking to shift blame. It’s not like this took a lot of foresight.

        People *will* abuse your system… any system. Plan accordingly. 🙂

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