Throwbacks Part 1: The Effects of Bots on Online Games
This is the introduction to a multi-part series where I will be refreshing and reposting content which I've written before the days of this blog. An introduction to the series and topic is here.
Back when I was writing my book, I intended to include a chapter with a candid narration of botting fallout. After consulting with some lawyers, we decided to cut the chapter rather than run the risk of having a "confession" out-right in the book.
Since then, I've posted it online multiple times. Because of the decision to remove it from the book, just remember that this is Nick Cano, the Bot Developer speaking, not Nick Cano, the Book Author. I just want it to be clear that The No Starch Press is not involved in the posting of this exposé.
Keep in mind that this was written around 2014, so some numbers are out-of-date. I'll address any updates afterwards.
The Decay of Tibia
Tibia was released in January of 1997 by a company called CipSoft GmbH. The game is uniquely vulnerable to bots, mostly because of its simplistic 2D isometric style, strait-forward gameplay mechanics, and uncapped leveling system. As of now, the game is over-run by botters; no matter where you go, and no matter which of the six-dozen servers you play on, you'll run in to multiple characters that are being run completely by bots.
The game wasn't always like that, though. When I started playing Tibia in 2004, botting was unheard of. The top player at that time, Bubble, was level two-hundred; it had taken him eight years to get there. Three years later some simple bots were released, but botters were scarce and frowned-upon. The top level was three-hundred, but the majority of players still weren't above one-hundred. I remember being level forty-five, and paying $30 to a friend in exchange for fifty-thousand gold. Over the next few years, botting spread like an epidemic. Bots became intelligent, and about one-third of players were using them by 2009. The top player at the time, well-known for being a botter, was level four-hundred-and-sixty-seven. The amount of exp (experience points) he needed to reach that level was absolutely astounding, totaling 1.6 billion and dwarfing the 130 million that Bubble spent eight years gaining.
Many fair players were outraged that a botter was able to gain such a massive amount of exp in less than five years. These players – many still hovering around level one-hundred-and-fifty – became very vocal about their disdain, constantly demanding that Tibia's developers take a stand against botters. Their complaints went unanswered for two years, and when CipSoft finally attempted to crack down on botters in 2011, it was too late. The disease had taken over. There were thousands of botters above level three-hundred, and the top level was five-hundred-and-seventy. Nine out of every ten players actively used a bot, botters could reach level two-hundred in less than six months, and gold had become so abundant that the price of fifty-thousand gold coins dropped from $30 to $3.
During that time, Tibia's botting industry had been monopolized by two game hackers. The guy who started it all, Lord of War, slipped into obscurity in mid-2010 after CipSoft found a way to detect his bot. His former business partner, Ekx, continued to capitalize on the industry and completely captivated the community with his innovative bots until he closed up shop and vanished in December of 2011.
The ball dropped for New Year's Eve 2012, and, with it, three new game hackers filled the market that Ekx left shattered; I was one of them. Between then and now, it has only gotten worse. The top player has 9.4 billion exp, putting him at level eight-hundred-and-thirty. Botters can now reach level 300 in a few months, and they can leave their bots running for days with zero intervention. Moreover, the in-game economy is so inflated that the price of fifty-thousand gold has dropped to $.30 (yes, that's right, thirty cents).
I fell in love with this game when I was 11 years old. I met a handful of my closest friends socializing by the bank, exploring the dungeons, struggling to get past level thirty, and fighting enemy guilds for glory. But it's not the same game anymore. There's no friends to make, because every player is a bot. There's no dungeons to explore, because they're all full of botters. There's no struggling to level, because unless you plan on botting to level three-hundred, there's no reason to play. There's still fighting, though, but most battles are started when one botter kills another so they can bot a dungeon by themself.
Tibia is doomed and nearly unplayable, and there's not a doubt in anyone's mind that botting is the main cause of its demise. Little by little, bot developers picked at Tibia until it was too late. I don't think any of us intended to – I sure didn't – but it happened. It's not just our fault, though. CipSoft never made a serious attempt at cleansing the wound. Instead, they downplayed the issue, ignored it, made excuses, and, ultimately, they did so at the cost of their game.
Now, you've probably never played Tibia; few people have even heard of it. So, how does this apply to you? Why should you care if you ruin a game? Ultimately, those are questions you need to answer yourself. Personally, though, I've made the decision to never go down the same road again. I love hacking games, but I also love playing them, and I don't want to get to the point where my bots pose a threat to the playability of any game.
It's also best to keep in mind that, while games like Tibia, RuneScape, and Ultima Online have all endured similar crucibles, they are a subset that have fallen victim to rampant abuse. There are bots for ever major online game in the world, and many of them prove to be harmless due to their limited abilities, exclusive access, and less-than-occasional use. In my experience, in fact, it seems conclusive that the effects of bots only surpass negligibility if their developers begin using them to generate income.
Since writing, a lot has changed.
- Tibia released a brand-new client with BattlEye anti-cheat included. I no longer update XenoBot, though it does still get some sales for people playing on custom servers. No bots currently exist for real Tibia.
- The highest level is now 1114, with five others above level 1000 and a few dozen in the 900's.
- Prices are down to about $0.21 for 50,000 gold.
- Dozens of dead game worlds have been merged together to keep player counts high, but many old worlds are still dead.
- Player counts are the lowest they've ever been. The record was 64,000 concurrent players in 2007. Now they sit around 10,000.
A lot of the high-level players are the uncaught products of relentless botting, and there haven't been any retroactive bans. To counteract their saturated experience charts, CipSoft released a handful of new servers that are eternally transfer-blocked, ensuring the charts grow organically now that bots are basically wiped out. If we look at the blocked worlds which arose after the age of botters, the highest levels are around 350-400.
It's good to see the game attempting to turn around but, if we're honest, it's already dead. Despite these changes. It's not the game it used to be, and it never will be again. Botting reigned supreme for over a decade, and the map, quests, and play-style of Tibia evolved in lock-step with the ability of bots. As CipSoft catered to their players' desires, they enabled the ever-growing lust for power that drove botters forward. Even with bots gone, the Tibian universe still lingers in a stasis of what it was.
The inevitable fall of Tibia is evidenced by the fact that custom servers for versions 7.4 and 7.6 (circa 2004-2006 or so) have around 1000 concurrent players, and servers for version 10.98 (the final version before bots went away) have around 2500 concurrent players. Including all versions, Open Tibia accounts for around 15,000 concurrent players, a 150% increase on real Tibia.
With dozens of versions, it's hard to count exactly where players are, but there are a few lines where they gather. Old-school players hang out between 7.4 and 8.0 to play Tibia as it was in the old days, before bots took hold. This is the game I loved. Next is version 8.6, where a bunch of players who were fans of Elfbot – one of the best PvP bots ever made – login in droves to murder each other in the streets of Thais. Finally, theres the crowd on 10.90 to 10.98; those who can't simply let botting go and move on.