Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

30 July, 2016

Exploiting arms race
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 9:32 PM

Cheating hurts competitive games. That’s the honest truth, and one of the big headaches when designing competitive games. Some people will cheat and ruin the game.

But, what elements of design and game operation encourage or promote cheating? Yes, sometimes a design can actually encourage people to cheat. Let’s take a look at what does that.

A tournament in FFXIV

I placed second in the Triple Triad tournament in Final Fantasy last week.

FFXIV Triple Triad placed

Am I an amazing Triple Triad player? No, I basically abused the rules of the game to place so high. The design of the tournament is supposed to encourage people to play against each other and have a chance, but the reality is that the rules are ripe for exploitation.

If you look carefully, you’ll see a few interesting anomalies the that scoreboard. For example, the person in 10th place only won 1 game. This happened because this was a “feeder” character that played the tournament super early. You gain more tournament points for playing someone on the leaderboard. If you play early enough, the “feeder” can end up on the leaderboard, giving the person winning against that target more tournament points.

Also notice that 1st place has quite a few more points than me, despite losing a few games. The system I used (which was primarily playing against a friend who threw the matches, as I did for him in a previous tournament) guaranteed the maximum possible points under that situation. However, the person in first place likely used the same system, along with exploiting the “play early so your feeder ends up on the leaderboard” part.

So, why I did I abuse the rules? Essentially there was a card that you can only reliably get from getting in the top three positions in that tournament. My friend, who was my co-conspirator for this tournament and another where he won, also wanted that card. We’re two gaming nerds, and we wanted to figure out how other people were consistently placing at the top of the tournament board. So, we came up with a plan, executed it, and won twice.

So, leaving aside the details, what elements of the tournament design encourage cheating?

Juicy rewards

The first part was a big reward. You can get the Lightning card from this tournament. You used to be able to play Triple Triad against an NPC, but once you go past a certain point in the storyline that NPC is no longer available to play. You can also open random packs and hope for the card, but the best way to get those packs short of grinding the gambling currency is… the Triple Triad tournament!

So, if you want that card, and I did for the sake of completing my card collection, you’ll want to get to the top of that tournament. But, here’s the first lesson: a big reward you can only get from a system will encourage people to exploit that system. In the case of a competitive tournament like this, people will figure out how to cheese the tournament to win that rare card.

Prisoner’s dilemma and enforcement

And now we get into a bit of game theory with a prisoner’s dilemma situation. Tournament members can choose to exploit the rules or not exploit the rules. The problem is, if someone exploits and you do not, then you are at a disadvantage. So, if you know other people are exploiting the rules, it makes sense to exploit the rules yourself in order to gain more. Even if the ideal situation is that nobody exploits and everyone plays fair.

Part of the problem here is a question of rules enforcement. If you know that exploiting the rules will not be curbed and that others are cheating, then the game will not be fair. Therefore, you should exploit the rules if you want to have any hope of winning.

So, here’s the next lesson: you must aggressively enforce the rules and curb rules exploiting and cheating. Otherwise, people will despair of ever being able to play the game fairly. The flipside of this rule is that some rules lawyers will explain that their exploits aren’t really exploiting; it’s all perfectly legal according to the rules as stated and put into code. Although it seems pretty obvious that this type of behavior goes against the spirit of a tournament.

Exploitable rules

This might seem obvious, but making rules that can’t be exploited is actually surprisingly hard. MMO designers, particularly PvP designers, tend to be rather pessimistic people seeing the worst in everything. Not that it helps, as exploits still happen. Part of understanding an exploit is seeing it in action, and while you can guess about how people will exploit the rules, you never know 100% until you see it in action. (And, sometimes, as a designer you have to fight against people who will say things like, “oh, that will never happen!” when you know it actually will.)

Since you can’t anticipate every exploit, that means adjusting the rules in a live game is vital. Looking for ways to shut down exploits is important. Although, you need to be careful that you don’t simply move an exploit to something where only a select few can exploit it.

For example, the secret to my win in Triple Triad was playing against a friend who agreed to lose. If the tournament rules had diminishing returns on rewards from playing against one person, then that would shut down the exploit my friend and I worked out. However, someone with access to many different accounts could still exploit this by getting 40 different characters to lose in 40 individual games; this merely shuts own more casual exploiters from winning the tournaments. So, this rule wouldn’t necessarily be a good change.

Code can’t determine intent

This is a phrase I like to use when it comes to exploits. The problem is that some exploitative behavior could be identical to the behavior of people playing in earnest. Or of people with an intense rivalry, even though one is pretty terrible. So, looking at specific indicators, like “this person is winning 100% of the time against this other person” doesn’t necessarily indicate exploiting of the rules.

Of course, one can point out that this is likely exploiting. But, the problem is if you shut down someone legitimately playing it could do more harm than good. People who aren’t cheating tend to get really upset when accused of cheating, and have the righteous fervor of a legitimate gripe to fuel them. (Cheaters who get caught cheating will also tend to get really upset, hoping that you’ll think they’re legitimate players.)

So, while you might put in rules and code to try to identify likely exploiting, this is perhaps as tricky as trying to anticipate exploits during design.

Individual motivation

The fact is, some people will exploit even without all these other elements. Some people will exploit because they can, because that’s how they have fun, or perhaps just to see if their idea will work. That last reason was a big part of why I went along with my friend. We were trying to figure out the exploits that people were using, and my game developer Explorer sense kicked in. Now, the rare card was also a motivation, so don’t think that my intentions were entirely high-minded. But, honestly, I doubt I’ll be motivated enough to exploit the rules again for my own gain.

And this makes it hard to really stop exploits before they start, because some people will just want to do it. Take away the reward, and someone will still exploit just to see their name at the top of that board. And others will look at what it takes to duplicate that person’s behavior. And this is especially true for games where you have some sort of zero-sum element to the game; if one person has to lose for another person to win, then you’ll see people motivated to exploit the game to make sure they’re on the winning side, even if it’s just some ephemeral epeen reputation on the line. No… especially if there’s epeen reputation on the line.

So, what do you think? Have you exploited in the past? What was your motivation? Would you prefer if everyone were to play fair? Or are you someone who really enjoys the game more when there’s a meta level of rules exploiting involved?


  1. Yup. Exploiting the random queueing system before running the Alterac Valley Battleground (AV) in WoW to get an coordinated (voice chat, strategy) team with more than 5 members.

    Why is a more complex story and tied up in the history of AV and the various things Blizz has done to WoW PvP. I had a small essay in my draft, and if someone really wants to read it, I’ll clean it up and post, but it’s summarizeable as “40 man team AV used to give an epic PvP experience, but Blizz has progressively made it the worst BG for group play, particularly if you play Horde in NA.” However, if you cheat the queueing system, you can often get a larger team in than the 5 player queue limit, which is a lot more fun, win or lose. I know some of the people I played with were there to work on the PvP achievements that have become very much harder to do since the achievements were created.

    “Would you prefer if everyone were to play fair?” Not really. I’d even be happier if the opponents used the same technique as we do more often.Heck, some of the most exciting fights we had were against equivalent exploiting teams on the other side or when we only managed to get 15-20 of the 40 available team slots.

    My real preference would be that Blizz actually grab a clue about team PvP development. In the middle of Warlords I cancelled my subscription and unless I hear glowing reports from people I trust, I’m not going back. I play Eve and GW2 mostly now.
    TBH, I do enjoy meta rules exploiting (or I wouldn’t play Eve) but that isn’t a concern in this case. It was a band-aid over bad design.

    Comment by John Dougan — 31 July, 2016 @ 12:07 AM

  2. There are two situations where you’ll find me in the vincinity of an exploit. The first, much rarer, occurrence is if it happens as a bug, by chance, and I happen to stumble across it and/or it triggers the systems Explorer urge. The urge to play around and experiment with it to see, “lol, just how far does this go?” is likely to encouge me to break it several times before sending a bug report to cover myself.

    The second considerably more frequent occurrence is when I’m doing some group content and somebody else wants to exploit something or other. Sheer expedience and a lack of willingness to engage in a moral discussion when it’s liable to get me kicked out of the party means I’m more likely to just keep my mouth shut and let the exploiters do their exploity things, because I also pragmatically get the rewards benefit. Preferably without having to show up on any logs that I was guilty of anything.

    I’m more a passive bystander of exploits than an active participant, in other words. If it benefits me, I’m probably not going to say anything. But if it’s really game-breaking, then I’m also likely to be a snitch and quietly report it to get fixed.

    If it isn’t obvious, yes, I would indeed like everyone to play fair and for there to be an even playing field. But I do also think that the onus is mostly on the developers to both quickly close loopholes and punish offenders as a deterrence. Spade players break things, it’s what they do. Harnessing some of them as white hats is also a good tactic.

    Comment by Jeromai — 31 July, 2016 @ 11:23 AM

  3. One of the problems wit designing the exploits out is that less exploitable rules will often (always?) make things less fun.

    For example, in this case, it is clear that making opponents random (but appropriate in some way) rather than allowing chosen matches would reduce exploits, as would then eliminating the ability of opponents to communicate with each other within a match. Hardly an improvement though, for most people.

    Comment by Dominic Fitzpatrick — 1 August, 2016 @ 4:19 PM

  4. A wise man (Ed O’Niell as Al Bundy) once said: “It’s only cheating if you get caught”

    Comment by Someone — 14 August, 2016 @ 6:07 AM

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