The frustration of reporting botters

Botters are almost universally reviled by players of WoW. Honestly I had never heard of them before playing WoW, though I understand they were present in great numbers in other MMOs like Everquest. In my first MMO, Star Wars Galaxies (SWG), I had never once heard of botting, though we did have a rampant problem with another bane of MMOs–duping. Duping is an exploit (bug) that enables a player to duplicate money or an item. In WoW however, botters are the predominant problems. And before you can truly understand why botters are so reviled you have to know a little back ground on them first. Then I’ll recount for you my own personal recent frustrations at reporting some.

In the ever on-going war with them we’ve seen the population of botters go up and down. Last May Blizzard struck a mighty blow in the war, sneaking in a change to game itself that was unobserved by the makers of their respective botting programs. And it resulted in the banning of anywhere from 50,000 to 500,000 accounts. Of course those reports are all unsubstantiated because Blizzard never released anything officially. The numbers were culled from various sources, and could be completely wrong, or completely right. You decide. Under normal circumstances a background program called Warden, that runs when you run WoW, is responsible for identifying third party applications–like botting programs–that are forbidden by the Blizzard Terms of Service.

What is not in question however is the fact that prior to May 20th botters were everywhere. You could walk around in almost any zone and see them running around. And you could see the evidence of there presence on the auction house.

Bots are not that hard to discern, though you have to learn the telltale signs to look for. The first and best way to identify a bot is in how they negotiate obstacles. A program called MMOGlider (used to be called WoWGlider) is by far the most popular program and it was and remains a relatively dumb program. It can’t see game obstacles like trees or fences or buildings. So it relies on the user to create a path for their character to walk along, and that keeps them away from potential obstacles. That isn’t always easy apparently. When a bot is walking along its path and sees a creature within a defined distance of its path, it’s programmed to attack it. If that creature happens to be on the opposite side of a tree, the bot doesn’t know how to walk around the tree to get to the creature. It will simply walk directly at the creature. When it hits the tree if will realize its stuck and attempt to find a way around it by bumping along one direction or another for a short distance. And failing to clear the obstacle, will stop walking and back up a short distance, then turn and attempt to walk in rectangular pattern around this obstacle. Its this process that most easily gives away a bot, because no human player ever acts in this manner. One note however, it appears there is an upgrade to MMOGlider called “Pather” that loads in the actual WoW game maps and enables the bot to know where obstacles are. While this is obviously a big improvement for them, its apparently not the easiest addition to work with, and so many people still do not use it.

The second best way to discern a bot is in watching it for a while. You will see that the bot has a routine. They’ll often use the same attack routine every pull. They’ll have the same pause after killing a creature before looting it. You can often run along with the bot, tagging their intended mob and they will continue to kill it for you. Normally if you do that to someone more than once they’re going to say something to you, but Bots can’t. That isn’t to say that a player can’t hear an alarm from their bot that someone is nearby and can’t come back to their computer and then speak to you though. So observation is the second best way of discerning a bot. Trust me, after a short while you will be able to tell a bot from a human player.

So what is it about botters that seem to cause all the problems? They can cause tremendous economic problems in the game, as well as frustration in other players. Human players do not normally grind on mobs for hours on end without breaks. Yet bots need to breaks. And can run as long as their inventory isn’t full (or even past that if they are configured to do so), or until their owner turns them off. I’ve seen bots running in areas for more than 24-36 hours strait. I play a lot myself, so every time I’d log on I’d see the bot still online. Yes, I track bots by putting them on my friends list. And I have notes about when I discovered them and their original name, just in case they change it. When a bot runs like this in an area–especially on quest mobs–it can cause huge problems because regular players are then not able to easily complete quests. And imagine the amount of leather, or greens or blues or purples that can be farmed off mobs in 24 hours.

You see botters are not usually doing it for fun. Indeed, they’re doing it for economic gain. They run bots to farm resources and items that they can sell. And often then turn around and sell the gold to companies that buy it. Who then turn around and resell that gold back to real players who want to buy it. I won’t get into this discussion today however. Botters also level characters up to sell to others.

The economic impact botters enmasse can have in game is tremendous. In some respects that impact might be good. In others it might be bad. Prior to May 20th, the auction house was flooded with items normally farmed by botters. Primals and leather. And it drove down prices as they all competed with one another for business. Of course they were also competing with actual players as well. Prices were not always depressed however. A bot, or group of bots could virtually corner the market on certain items, which kept the price high. The end result is that the economy often was thrown out of whack, and over time players would feed into this problem by adopting pricing used by botters. How many times have we looked on the auction house and railed at the crazy prices for low level green items? 20-30 gold for a level 21 Green leather item for instance.

Now that you have some understanding of why botters are reviled, lets talk about the frustration of getting rid of them. I’ve been someone that has reported dozens of bots over the past couple of years. I used to crow about my bot hunts to my guild mates. I took pleasure in it. And after May 20th the vast majority of bots were simply gone. Until very recently I rarely saw them again. But recently I’ve begun to see them again here and there. I’ve reported four of them in the past two weeks. Some more than once. But as of this morning not a single one of them has been banned. One I thought was banned logged on this morning in the same place he evidently logged out from a few nights ago.

I’ve sent emails to Blizzard about this and gotten the same canned response back that they will investigate and take appropriate action. When I see the bots on, I report them and ask a GM to come observe the bot for a short period of time. Because as I said, one of the best options is to observe its routine. Now, I’ve read a great deal on this subject in the last couple years and I think I understand the process Blizzard goes through. Most bot bannings result from player reports, but a simple report is not evidence that leads to an eventual banning. When Blizzard receives a report it’s passed to a cell of blizzard employees that do nothing else but review such reports. They open an investigation, looking through log files (incidentally if you did not know this, EVERTHING You do and say in game is logged and retained for future use. And yes that includes what you say in guild chat as well as in whispers).

These log files reveal paths that the bot might be running, and I imagine would account for small variances in that path. They also would show attack routines, and their variances, as well as the length of time a bot
is online and where. And a host of other information, including what skills the bot has in what button locations. The point of which is that it’s not one single thing that they use to make a determination. I imagine it works on a percentage basis, or something along that line. They pull all this information together from their logs, then see what the percentage is. If a certain level is exceeded, then a preponderance of evidence has been presented and voila, they determine the character is a bot. If that certain level is not exceeded, then they will not make the determination.

So that is where the frustration lies, because you can generally see a bot for what it is if you just observe it for a little while. I don’t need to know where their buttons are located on their bars, or any of those other things. There are always telltale signs that a human can see in real time. So as I said, over the past two weeks I’ve reported four and not a single one of them has been banned yet. And the bot I mentioned that logged on this morning that I thought had been banned (a level 13 human mage fishing in Tanaris WAY off the beaten path) is still there right now fishing. I only found him because I water walked from Menethil harbor to Steamwheedle port in Tanaris the other night and walk past him far up the coast, north of steamwheele port. Its unusual seeing a level 13 in tanaris in the first place, but one that had the fishing skill high enough to be fishing there in the first place is even more suspicious. So I stopped and watched him for a while. Sure enough, he hops every once and a while, then goes back to his fishing. Undoubtedly earning his master a small fortune in stonescale eels on the auction house.

I had begun to feel some level of frustration with this process prior to May 20th, but these past two weeks have made me question why I even go through the trouble any longer. Blizzard, if you are reading this, can you explain to me why any of us should continue to report bots when the majority of them do not get banned?

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