Friday, May 18, 2007

Corruption, Insider Trading and Abuse of Power in MMOs: Ethics Thrown to the Winds

So I'm a little late on the whole CCP dev-scandal in Eve Online, but I saw a recent interview with Raph Warner where he mentions that this sort of thing has always gone on, specifically referencing GM Darwin from the old days of UO (I cant find a decent link but apparently he would create castles and sell them on Ebay).

And it got me thinking about developers playing their own games, and then a sudden repressed memmory came back to me from my times as QA on Ultima Online. I was brought in a few months before they released Age of Shadows and there were a couple of specific incidents that I thought were totally out of line.

The first one was relatively minor. As we opened up our beta servers with the new code a few days prior to release, I was walking around in invisible, GM mode, watching what the players were doing and looking for potential problems, when I found one of the real GMs, decked out in all artifacts (artifacts were being introduced with the expansion), killing as many players as he could near the Britain moongate! UO being a semi-balanced game PvP-wise, he ended up eventually dying to the swarms of players that went after him, even with his uber-gear. They, of course, quickly looted his body, and he was forced to use his GM powers to freeze them and search their packs for all the artifacts that he shouldnt have parading around to begin with. My astonishment at this breach of conduct was was slightly ameliorated when he had to repeatedly ask the players, 'OK. Who has my pants?'

As he was regathering the items, he noticed me standing there, still invisible, and soon after, physically came upstairs to explain that he was 'testing' the artifacts to make sure they weren't too powerful. Uh-huh. That's why you're in QA... oh wait... you're not QA! He wasn't looking to test anything. He just wanted to show off, make himself feel powerful and get some attention, which he did as there were several threads about his escapades on the boards soon afterwards. And the fact that he went out of his way to make excuses to me just proves that he knew he was behaving inappropriately.

A relatively minor incident, but nonetheless, he was abusing the powers he had been granted in a very open and public manner.

The second incident actually occured earlier, and was much more egregious. With the advent of the expansion, came new lands, on which housing could be built. Now anyone who is familiar with UO back in the day knows how precious and scarce open land was. So, of course, it was expected that there would be a land rush on opening day to place houses in convenient, valuable and interesting spots. A couple of weeks before this went live, it came to the attention of one of our QA people, that there were 'secret' areas that could only be accessed via hidden runestones. Somehow, the devs had neglected to inform QA about this little feature, claiming that it wasn't worth testing. We at QA, of course, disagreed. So we got the details, wrote up a test plan and tested it. Well, after release, it turned out that several of the devs and GMs went and placed houses in these secret spots as soon as they could, which I would equate to insider trading.

They made these secret spots that players wouldnt know of immediately, conveniently decided not to inform QA about their existence, and then, as soon as the code was live, they quickly placed houses for themselves in what would become coveted locations!

So should MMO devs play their own games? It's quite different than playing a non-persistent game, for characters and items have real-world value in most MMOs. And the persistence factor means that any abuses have a ripple effect across the entire server. But even if they arent using GM-enabled accounts to create valuable items out of thin air, their knowledge of the inner workings on the game and their access to the code itself can present problems. Is there a real solution beyond trying to educate those inside the company on ethics? It's definitely a promising sign when the devs enjoy playing their own game. But at what point does playing the game for fun and enjoyment cross the line into abuse of power?

I let the artifact incident with the GM slide, as I was still the new guy, he stopped as soon as he was caught and it was on the test server which was brought down and wiped a couple of days later anyway. The issue with the dev-team coding in secret areas that they would be able to 'discover' first just sort of evaporated as well. I know some complaints were sent up the chain of command from QA, but I don't know if any reprimands or talks ever came of it. I'm not even sure what would be done considering that the entire dev team was in on it.

In summary, I would hope that people would have enough personal ethics to not ever get involved in scandals such as these, but, obviously, there are a number who either just don't care, or are too dumb and self-centered to consider the implications of their actions. I'm not sure why I expect those involved in creating and running MMOs to be any different from the rest of the world. It is a business after all, and I've seen plenty of ethics breaches in other jobs I've been in whether they've been retail, manufacturing or technical. I guess that since I have such an affection for well-crafted computer games, I expect others with similar sentiments to be similar to myself. A bit of a naive attitude when I stop and think about it. But I can say, that if I were in charge, such abuses wouldn't be tolerated!

Side Note: Interestingly enough, when I was at Origin, out of the dozen or so QA we had, only 3 of them actually played UO outside of work.


Steve Williams said...

This has always been a fascinating subject to me, both before I became a "dev" and after.

On the one hand, you don't want the people with the power to abuse it, so you make elaborate rules and policies about it.

But on the other hand, we're talking about people who LOVE games - are so passionate about them they work on them all day and then play them at night! If you restricted them from play (either explictly or implicitly) they would just develop a sense of entitlement and find a way anyway.

My opinion is that as the industry moves from a hobbyhorse sort of industry to a mature one, the general professionalism of the developers will go up. As wages and job requirements increase, you begin to create a different view of the job and the games being made.

Now, this doesn't mean these virtucrimes will stop - instead we'll start seeing even more of the white-collar crimes - instead of jackassery with too-powerful items, we'll see more instances of devs creating and selling items for cash. This is already happening and I think will be a "crime on the rise."

Back in UO's day, a dev running around with uberitems would be considered an annoying and funny anecdote. In the near future, it will be grounds for immediate dismissal and someday even blacklisting from the industry.

Tholal said...

That's an interesting comment. I never really thought about it that way, but you probably could classify most of the previous MMO breaches of conduct by insiders as 'juvenile-type' crimes. I would equate it to something along the lines of letting your buddy shoplift from a retail store you work at. And it even makes sense in a way, considering that of game developers tend to be relatively young (on average).

It will be interesting (and a bit scary), to see how ethics grow and/or devolve amongst the MMO development community.

Anonymous said...

I was a GM in UO for several years. Developers as well as GM's were free to do whatever they pleased on the test center. That is what it was for. The dev in question could have slain every player he encountered and insta-looted their bodies and it would have been fine. The test center was just that- a test center. It was always designed as a sandbox and not for serious play. The GM team would not even respond to a complaint from test center of any kind until after 2005, after which time they would only respond to racism.

Surely you are not suggesting that Developers rely on QA to let them know whether or not game elements are balanced. They would tested them before giving them to QA to review.

QA at EA always had a strange culture of inflated self-importance, even going so far as to claim to have been the level-designers for games like BF2 after they made design suggestions to the actual level-designers. This weird little culture of self-importance is why so few QA people at EA ever get promoted.

Tholal said...

re: anonymous

You seem to be one of those with the juvenile attitude. Test centers are for testing and hopefully discovering major problems before a patch goes live. They're not for GMs or Devs to give themselves an inflated sense of ego by using their special powers to pretend to be big shots and claim to be 'testing' (how buffing up your stats to godly levels and equipping yourself entirelywith the best items in the game before slaughtering players counts as testing is beyond me). I guess you're one of those who doesn't really have a solid internal code of ethics, which is basically what my original post was about. I guess that just proves that there does need to be some sort of employee oversight for MMO worlds.

I've heard that QA at EA is a crappy job for crappy pay. I actually worked for Origin before they were moved out to EA HQ. Luckily, at the time, we were regarded as an important part of the process. I guarantee that any Dev who tests their own software and ignores QA is putting out some crappy software.