Monday, January 3, 2011

Tol Barad exploit, and the path of least resistance

Heroic dungeons in Cataclysm right now are considerably harder than heroic dungeons were at the end of Wrath of the Lich King. The WoW blogosphere is full of horror stories of pickup groups failing horribly (and then unfairly blaming the healer). While the people who spent most of WotLK wailing about how WoW was far too easy haven’t manned up enough yet to admit that Blizzard did something right with Cataclysm, at least they mostly stopped complaining. But the “let’s optimize the fun out of games” brigade is already hard at work to circumvent any challenge that Cataclysm might hold. And the way they are using is exploiting Blizzard having made a massive blunder when designing PvP for Cataclysm: Tol Barad.

Tol Barad is a zone which works a bit like Wintergrasp, a PvP zone which can change hands in a battle every 150 minutes, winning which gives access to an extra raid dungeon. So far so good, but somebody who apparently had no idea about how PvP works in World of Warcraft designed Tol Barad so that the attackers need to hold 3 points to flip the zone, while the defenders just need to keep one of those points to keep it. It is easy to see that if both sides try equally hard, the defenders always win, and Tol Barad never changes hands. Statistics showed Tol Barad only changing hands once every 11 battles, the defenders to attackers win ratio was 10:1.

So Blizzard “hotfixed” an already bad idea with an even worse won: Defending Tol Barad successfully gives 180 honor points, but the reward for successfully attacking it was increased to 1800, ten times as much. In what Spinks calls The Miracle of Tol Barad, players immediately realized that this could easily be exploited by match fixing. Defenders simply lose on purpose, thus turning into attackers two-and-a-half hours later, and getting much more honor points than if they had defended successfully twice. While that is technically a bannable exploit, in practice Blizzard can’t punish anyone. In every battle the ones getting rewarded are the attackers, and they didn’t do anything illegal. And on the defenders side it would take enormous manpower and effort to find out exactly who was actually trying to defend, and who was just pretending to.

As a result players now have the choice between doing hard heroics for a random chance on an iLevel 346 blue item or doing Tol Barad without resistance for enough points to buy a guaranteed iLevel 352 blue item of their choice (they cost between 1250 and 2200 honor). Of course the honor point items have resilience on them, but the other stats are good enough to make these PvP items perfectly useable in PvE. And even just carrying them in your backpack counts for the “average iLevel” that WoW now calculates for each character to determine what dungeons they can go to. So by exploiting Tol Barad, players can either gear up enough for raids, or at the very least use the PvP gear to make heroics easier. And because so many players *do* exploit Tol Barad, it has become virtually impossible to play that PvP zone as intended. If many defenders lose intentionally, a few defenders trying to actually hold Tol Barad won’t be able to do so. And as the theorycrafters from Elitist Jerks pointed out, it is a variation of the prisoner’s dilemma game theory problem, which is more unbalanced towards cooperation than the original prisoner’s dilemma, leading to a snowballing of cooperation once a certain threshold of exploiters is reached.

While the situation is certainly interesting from the point of view of social engineering and game theory, it is pretty bad for Cataclysm in general. Players having found a path of least resistance is removing some of the challenge Blizzard added with the new heroics. And it isn’t even obvious what Blizzard could do to fix that. Even if they were able to quickly fix Tol Barad, the genie is out of the bottle, and it is nearly impossible to reverse the situation and take all the exploited PvP gear back out of the game. As the exploit is a collaborative one, Blizzard could never selectively only remove the PvP gear from people who willingly participated in the exploit. And if they just removed all honor point gear, they’d punish everyone who gathered honor points in a legit way.

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