Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

23 February, 2007

Cheat while exploring, not while achieving
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 3:48 AM

There’s one dichotomy I’ve found fascinating about online games: people get all bent out of shape if you cheat in terms of achieving. Botting is generally frowned upon by companies, and the mere hint of the possibility of buying items/characters sends people into a frenzy.

Yet, the equivalent behaviors relating to exploring aren’t as vilified. Heading to a site to find quest location? Not a problem. Buy a strategy guy? Go right ahead!

In other words, as the title says: cheat while exploring, but not while achieving.

Why is this?

Now, I have some pretty obvious biases for people that read my site: I’m a pretty hard-core Explorer type. I love going out and exploring new areas, filling out the map, and figuring out how things work. I consider this one reason why I’m a pretty good developer: I can take a look and figure out how things work. A good trait for most people with an engineering mindset.

Of course, I understand some of the motivation here. Meridian 59 disallows botting because it causes social problems, especially on a small server. If the people you try to talk to are botting and therefore not responding to tells, then the game seems less friendly. In a PvP game, botting is also a way to circumvent dealing with other players. A person who gets a bunch of reagents to bot up spells in an inn is much safer than the person who has to run around avoiding the random PKers to collect reagents to practice out in the wild. In a PvE-focused game, this means that you have assholes that go around stealing kills and being a nuisance to the “real” players who happen to be in the same area.

But, what about people who “automate” quests? You could argue that the person heading to Thottbot to look up quest coordinates isn’t exactly participating in the game. This person could also mindlessly blow by people legitimately trying to figure out a quest and disrupt some aspect of the quest that they’re trying to accomplish.

Part of the problem is that part of the Explorer mindset, as Dr. Bartle describes it, is to be the source of novel information. The Explorer type enjoys explaining some obscure observation or explaining how to do step X in a tricky quest. So, the nature of the Explorer makes it easier to accept that exploration can be automated to make it easier to share information with others. On the other hand, achieving is significant because it assumes the player has invested the time and effort required to “earn” the levels and status. Botting violates that assumption, because it allows the person to skip the time and effort.

But, here’s the part where it gets interesting: people I respect sometimes claim that people willing to RMT to gain more power to skip playing the game show “bad design”. Yet, I don’t see a similar accusation leveled against quest hint information. Isn’t the fact that people want to skip figuring out a quest mean that the quest is flawed as well? But, this brings up a strange contradiction: people said that WoW’s quest design was one of the absolute best. But, would the existence of quest help on Thottbot invalidate that?

I think one of the root causes here is the tremendous focus on achiever-style gameplay in current games. This is why it’s forbidden automate or bypass achievement, but doing the same for explorer-type content is accepted and even praised.

What are your thoughts? Why is bypassing explorer content so accepted, whereas bypassing achiever content vilified?


  1. Because achiever content is tangible and explorer content isnt.
    Also time spent (ie wasted) exploring to find something is time lost achieving something else.

    Comment by paul — 23 February, 2007 @ 4:35 AM

  2. > (Doesn’t) the fact that people want to skip figuring out a quest mean that the quest is flawed as well?

    Yes it does. It means that this pattern has now been learned and that efficient communication has effectively rendered that pattern learning to be (mostly) redundant.

    That’s one reason why dynamic content is my personal goal – i don’t mind if you (Psychochild the Explorer) explain to the new traveller how to get through the hidden pass in the mountains or which solar system to jump from. I do mind if, in doing so, his experience is absolutely identical to yours and every person following has the exact same experience.

    I do know that shared experiences are a bonding mechanic but i think that this really only applies where there exists a likelihood that the experiences be different. When everyone and his cat has killed a dragon, meeting a dragon-slayer like you is nothing special.

    Comment by Cael — 23 February, 2007 @ 5:10 AM

  3. One of the differences might be that Thottbot and the like enables both styles of play: it gives Explorers a ready-made way of sharing their discoveries, and gives Achievers a direct resource for accessing the information they want. (It does cut the Socializers out of the loop, however…)

    Botting, on the other hand, acts to somewhat invalidate the effort of the Achievers, while Explorer-types don’t really care one way or the other… except that some with a design bent look at systems that can be botted and go “if that system were more robust (and thus had nuances to ‘explore’), it probably couldn’t be botted…”

    From the design point of view, I’d guess the impulse to protect “Achiever” content is because that is where the majority of the creation effort was focused. I’ve always gotten this sense of “resignation” from people in the industry in terms of creating “explorer” content: a kind of “we’ll do what we can, but…”

    How much of it is simply an understandable impulse to try to “protect” the content that received the most focus, because it was felt to be the most likely to succeed?

    Here’s a random rhetorical question: would a service like Thottbot be less acceptable to some if it’s data was accumulated by “bots” that simply sprinted back and forth across the landscape like some kind of laser-scan gun, automatically recording anything and everything encountered?

    Comment by Craig Huber — 23 February, 2007 @ 5:45 AM

  4. By extension, your argument would also have to apply to stopping to ask people in game where a paritcular quest mob is. The difference is that on the one hand, you ask someone in game and on the other hand you get the same infor, perhaps shared by the same person, but from an external source. Where do you draw a distinction? Or should we consider asking for directions in game as cheating as well?

    Using thottbot and it’s ilk is definitely metagaming and yes, from a certain, very hardcore purist, point of view, it could be considered cheating. But consider this: the person who “blows by” and disrupts someone doing the quest may not have looked at a hint site – they may have taken the time to discover the solution for themselves with another character and are doing it again with an alt. That surely can’t be cheating? Is it cheating to get high level guild mates torun you through zones to get flight points or whatever that you shouldn’t be getting at your current level?

    EQ2 had a nice little feature whereby there were landmarks or particular items that could be “discovered” by a player and subsequent visitors would see a “discovered by Dragon” tooltip. My first thought was “Wow! That’s really good.” My second thought was “A player late to the game like me will never discover anything like this unless they keep getting added to the game and I’m lucky enough to search a new area.” My third thought came after I found one of these little hotspots and felt thrilled to have discovered something no-one else had, only to be informed that the hotspots reset themselves on a regular basis. My achievement felt belittled when I realised it was a bit of a facade and that someone else had already been there before me. The thought was “Why did I get excited when it doesn’t mean anything?”

    (There was probably a point to that little anecdote but I can’t remember what it was. Too much beer at lunchtime!)

    Comment by Dragon — 23 February, 2007 @ 7:30 AM

  5. But, here’s the part where it gets interesting: people I respect sometimes claim that people willing to RMT to gain more power to skip playing the game show “bad design”. Yet, I don’t see a similar accusation leveled against quest hint information.

    I’ve absolutely stated that Thottbot is a helpful panacea for bad design decisions. Here’s a link:

    In my article about Station Exchange last week, I also noted that it was interesting that more people than expected were using SE to get past a roadblock in one quest (i.e. buying a sword that’s otherwise completely impossible to get in order to complete a quest). This is, arguably, “explorer cheating” as well.

    That being said, I’m more forgiving of quests being bad than a basic advancement grind, because designers have to come up with hundreds or even thousands of quests and somehow make them feel like unique and special snowflakes. Bugs and balance problems often sneak through.

    Comment by Damion Schubert — 23 February, 2007 @ 8:59 AM

  6. I’m a huge explorer (100% on Dr. Bartle’s test) and I absolutely hate spoilers. I go out of my way to have no contact with them, and someone obviously reading a spoiler while I’m grouped with them will usually cause me to make a couple of snide remarks and then log out in disgust. My friends online understand this (because I’ve told them that I really hate spoilers) and respect it.

    By the same token, I’m happy to help them by giving hints. When they say “Tal, I’m stuck trying to find the bandit lair so I can rescue the villagers” I tend to respond with “Well, they attacked the village from the east, so if you look east of the village you might find their lair hidden in a cave out there or something.” So I like to help my friends along but I don’t want to give them a detailed walkthrough.

    There are times when I just get flat stuck on a quest or piece of content in a game and ultimately give in and go to a spoiler site to get through it, but this is a last resort for me, and I usually follow it up with a /bug or /feedback about whatever I was stuck on.

    So is it cheating? No, but only because when someone else does it, it doesn’t really effect me. If I had to draw an analogy, I’d say it’s like smoking. I work with a bunch of guys who smoke. I don’t do it and I know it’s bad for them, but I can’t control what they do. It’s not illegal, and as long as they respect that I don’t smoke and I don’t like it, I’ve no grounds to be really upset with them over it.

    It should also be noted that quest walkthroughs are often a small portion of what is provided by fansites. Back in the day I used EQAtlas all the time to find things, and I often used Allakhazam’s to find gear upgrades and figure out where they came from so that I could go get the items. To me doing research about where things are sop that you can go there and then figure them out is much different from following a detailed walkthrough. It’s the walkthroughs that bother me.

    Comment by David (Tal) — 23 February, 2007 @ 10:06 AM

  7. I think Cael and Craig both hit the nail on the head.

    I’m extremely oriented toward exploration as well, and have always perceived spoiler sites as very unfortunate. As Craig suggested, the problem with spoilers isn’t that one player is able and willing to offer another player an important insight. The problem is that the information isn’t merely an [i]insight[/i], it’s a fully accurate [i]prediction[/i] that is hardly influenced by dynamics.

    The problem is the extent of predictability in MMOGs. These games lean so heavily toward achievement gaming that uniqueness of each individual player experience is not, in effect, a high priority.

    The problem isn’t that a fellow player’s website can offer me a map of Central Highlands. The problem is that such a map can so fully encapsulate my journey through that area; that I know what creatures I’ll encounter and when, that no barriers have been raised and no boons removed from my path, that I know precisely what I’ll find when I reach my destination. The problem isn’t that a player can tell me, “Careful, there are bugbears ahead”. The problem is that the bugbears will be of a small and predictable variety, completely lacking in personal traits and goals, so I know almost exactly what I’m about to encounter.

    Fulfilling explorative desires doesn’t necessarily demand that the player is utterly oblivious to future encounters, only that his or her picture of the future is incomplete. Estimation, not prediction.

    Dragon’s correct that there’s little difference between getting information from a spoiler site or getting it directly from a fellow player, but there is a significant roleplay difference. With the spoiler site, one is getting the info from another [i]player[/i]. In the game, one is getting the info from another [i]character[/i]. For those not interested in roleplay, it’s not significant. But those interested in roleplaying (like myself) would generally prefer that all players receive their information from other characters. That way, information is slowed and regionally particular, thereby enhancing the illusion of a realistic world.

    In a virtual world with strong roleplay appeal, you can’t get the location of “John of Umbrey” from just anyone; you need to talk to someone from around Umbrey, or someone who has been there.

    Comment by Aaron — 23 February, 2007 @ 11:25 AM

  8. My initial impression is that they’re regarded as being different because they bridge different gulfs in the software-human interface. You’re familiar with Norman’s gulfs, right?

    The gulf of evaluation is when you have a goal in mind, look at the state of the system, but can’t figure out from that state how to accomplish that goal. Explorer cheats bridge this gulf.

    The gulf of execution is when you try to accomplish a goal on the system but the system frustrates you. Achiever cheats bridge this gulf.

    Games are all about _creating_ one or both of those gulfs, and the process of playing the game is intended to bridge the gulf. An adventure game may have no gulf of execution to speak of – the entire game consists of gulfs of evaluation. A shmup, contrarily, consists almost entirely of gulfs of execution (the exception being “where is this thing’s weak point FOR MASSIVE DAMAGE?”)

    I’m betting that most people who play MMOs come to them from backgrounds which are heavy in gulfs of execution and low in gulfs of evaluation, which is why a gulf of execution is regarded as a core gameplay mechanic and a gulf of evaluation is regarded as a design flaw.


    Comment by Glazius — 23 February, 2007 @ 12:21 PM

  9. The nice thing about the Thottbots of the world is that you can ignore them if you want to. Sure, somebody might quote Thottbot at you in a pickup group, but for the most part you can just pretend it doesn’t exist and play the game the way you want to play it. And if you do get stuck on a particularly broken quest, it’s pretty good at showing you just the information you’re looking for and not spoiling a bunch of other stuff. I certainly resort to Thottbot on occasion when I’m playing WoW; spending 20 minutes searching for the pixel I’m supposed to click on is about my limit.

    Botting, buying characters, twinking, and the various achiever-type meta gaming isn’t so self-contained. If you’re in a pickup group with somebody that is significantly more powerful than you because of these these things, you’re going to notice. They’re probably going to be pushing to fight critters that are too much for your untwinked character, and may even mock the pitiful equipment you’re sporting. It’s not something you can ignore as easily.

    Comment by Joe Ludwig — 23 February, 2007 @ 12:43 PM

  10. In other words, as the title says: cheat while exploring, but not while achieving.

    I think it’s simple. People play the game to DO things (whether it’s kill N foozles, complete the Doodad quest, or just chat with their friends). Our achievement yardsticks measure the *doing* of things (number of foozles killed, number of quests completed, etc).

    Stuff like thottbot may make it easier to do some of the things we reward (in particular, complete certain quests or find certain mobs etc) but you still have to DO those things yourself. Learning HOW to do them in some fashion other than in-game trial-and-error is not cheating, any more than listening to your IRL friend describe to you the 5 strategies you have to use in order to defeat a certain boss is cheating. Listening to your friend, or looking the boss up on thottbot, does not excuse you from having to DO the boss fight. It just helps you figure out HOW to do it (and probably WHERE to go in the first place, as well as what OTHER things you have to do first, etc).

    As long as we make games that reward achievements proportionally to “time spent”, many people are NOT going to want to waste time figuring out explorer-type stuff on their own. In effect, the game design *punishes* them for figuring out stuff on their own, because it reduces the amount of achievement they can get done in that period of time.

    I enjoyed reading the quest descriptions in WoW and doing the quests, but don’t think for a moment that I wandered around the landscape for 15 minutes looking for a certain mob every time I got a quest step that said “kill the boss foozle and get my library book back from him”. That would be like reading a slow-paced novel that takes a 7-page break from the action and character drama in order to describe, in mind-numbing detail, the landscape and details of all the buildings and other stuff I don’t care about when the stuff I want to read is the action and drama. You bet I skip a few pages when that happens to me, for the same reason that I flip over to thottbot to find out where the boss foozle is (and where I will have to go after I kill him, so that I can pick up some other quests for that neighborhood while I’m on the way there).

    I would even go so far as to say that a game which expects me to do specific things becomes frustrating and un-fun for me when I can’t figure out (very rapidly) what I am specifically supposed to do. If I’m going to spend any of my time in an MMO, I don’t want to spend it being frustrated.

    Comment by moo — 25 February, 2007 @ 9:40 AM

  11. Why are Cheat Guides OK, but Cheat Tools not OK?…

    Brian “Psychochild” Green raises the question “Why are Strategy Guides and Hint Sites considered OK (and, in fact, a valuable resource) while bots, RMT, and other Achievement-oriented cheats so widely condemned?” at his blog.

    Go read the blog t…

    Trackback by PlayNoEvil — 25 February, 2007 @ 11:42 AM

  12. “Isn’t the fact that people want to skip figuring out a quest mean that the quest is flawed as well?”

    I may be biased, but I disagree. Spoiler sites might have started because of the obscure and often random quests in EQ that were nearly impossible to figure out on your own, but now they exist to document even the most obvious and straightforward quests. Designers have gotten way, way better at writing fun and clever quests that nearly anyone can solve with just a bit of effort, but spoiler sites exist anyway.

    The genie is out of the bottle, both on the design side and the site side. Designers can’t hope to make any quest unique and challenging because they know it will be spoiled almsot instantly, and players have come to view quests as something they have a right to complete rather than something they need to work to solve. Game sites competing against each other for eyeballs try to one-up each other on spoiler databases in order to attract revenue. It’s become a self-feeding cycle that can’t be broken regardless of the quality of the design.

    Comment by Moorgard — 25 February, 2007 @ 7:02 PM

  13. Personally I don’t believe that there is a distinction between botting/ RTMing and using guides quantifiably; it is a matter of quantity. I mean that guide using and botting are both of the same nature just of differing degrees. Players use bots and guides for the same reason, to achieve their goals in game with minimal time and effort. Botting is only looked down upon due to the more blatant laziness and lack of user intervention. However, using thottbot to “automate quests” as you concisely put it, it is only more accepted because it is a less barefaced offense.

    Is this an issue of bad design? Partially. Someone above mentioned dynamic content and quest variation. These are phenomenal ideas and would definitely lessen the number of people pushed to guides due to boredom. However this overlooks the issue of player’s experience greed. The major reason people use guides or bots, is not because they are bored with the quests, but because they get more enjoyment out of being high level as that gains them more social prowess. MMO’s are about the social aspect; questing is a means to an end for those seeking social glory. This is the root of the problem and it is only compounded by the boredom felt by genuine quest-lovers.

    Comment by HCC — 25 February, 2007 @ 7:42 PM

  14. Interesting discussions here. I’d like to mention that I mentioned this issue a while ago in a comment on Terra Nova. Not much traction since then, but this post seems to have brought people out of the woodwork.

    And, for the record, I will admit that I use help sites even though I’m a pretty serious Explorer. I like to try to figure things out beforehand, but when I exhaust all reasonable options, I’ll see what unreasonable option the developer had in mind. (Or what unreasonable option came about because of bugs, etc.) I’ll also sometimes use to make sure we don’t waste time. (How many times has this happened to you? “Ah, fuck, the guy we had to kill was back near the entrance to the zone. Run back, everyone, then run back here!”)

    A few specific comments:

    paul wrote:
    Because achiever content is tangible and explorer content isnt.

    That’s probably the core truth to it. And, by extension, people can compare achievement to each other easier than they can compare real exploring. (And, no, the sites that post up who was the first to “discover” something aren’t really achievement, that’s giving achievers rewards for doing their own exploring.)

    Dragon wrote:
    By extension, your argument would also have to apply to stopping to ask people in game where a paritcular quest mob is.

    No more than partying with other people is cheating. Asking someone where quest mobs are is interacting with the game, which is generally considered a good thing.

    Really, why is botting considered a cheat? Again, I think the key issue here is automation and working outside of the structure of the game. The person that callously kill steals your mobs and runs around erratically could be a player instead of a bot, just as the person blowing by the questers could be an alt or have gotten information from a guildie. But, with so many parallels, why is one reviled while the other celebrated?

    Damion Schubert wrote:
    I’ve absolutely stated that Thottbot is a helpful panacea for bad design decisions. Here’s a link:

    Okay, except for Damion writing a blog post about a year ago. :) But, you have to admit the outcry has been pretty limited.

    The problem is that I still don’t think that is necessarily a design flaw at the core of all these issues. Some people enjoy having to do a lot of work to find out the answer to a quest. Some of those people like the feel of “earning” the knowledge and sharing it with others according to their own motivation (recognition, profit, friendship, etc.) Similarly, some people like investing hours and hours into building a character up from the newbie lands to taking part in a dragon raid. Others feel it’s a grind and won’t play. Others feel it’s not as exciting and are willing to pay money to get around it. This is just different people handling the challenges in different ways, not some inability on the designers part to magically make a “good design”.

    Joe Ludwig wrote:
    The nice thing about the Thottbots of the world is that you can ignore them if you want to. Sure, somebody might quote Thottbot at you in a pickup group, but for the most part you can just pretend it doesn’t exist and play the game the way you want to play it.
    Botting, buying characters, twinking, and the various achiever-type meta gaming isn’t so self-contained. If you’re in a pickup group with somebody that is significantly more powerful than you because of these these things, you’re going to notice.

    You don’t see the parallels between these two bits of text, Joe? I think they’re pretty much identical, really.

    Anecdotally, I’ve had a lot more trouble with people diminishing my fun by going to cheat sites than I have had in people who engage in RMT, either directly or indirectly. I can count the times on one hand where my experience was diminished by some asshat gold farmer interrupting my gameplay in WoW, whereas I lost count of the number of times I’ve been in a PUG and had someone with Thottbot open on a second computer and basically just followed that to the letter without going beyond the straight and narrow. (“Oh, no use going down there, there’s no named down there according to the site,” is a common refrain.)

    I think the potential for problems is identical in both situations. Except more people think one is generally okay and the other is a reason for some people not to play the game at all.

    Moorgard wrote:
    The genie is out of the bottle, both on the design side and the site side.

    I think you could say the same for RMT and other forms of “achiever cheating”, really. But, I think people are starting to accept this thought; Scott Jennings has made a few comments about slowly and painfully accepting the fact that RMT isn’t going away anytime soon.

    My further thoughts,

    Comment by Psychochild — 25 February, 2007 @ 9:26 PM

  15. Blizzard Sues WOWGlider Developers

    [...] This blog post puts it yet another way – why is ‘cheating’ ok for Explorer content, but not for ‘Achiever’ content? [...]

    Pingback by Trusted Worlds — 26 February, 2007 @ 9:42 AM

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