The last few months of 2003 were some of the most exciting times to be a Runescape player. After months of Jagex teasing us with screenshots and descriptions of the fully three-dimensional game world that they were working on, the date was finally set for the semi-open beta of Runescape 2. Due to limited payment options in my country at the time, I was pretty much the only Runescape player in my high school, and our high school was nerdy enough for this to positively affect my social status. For all the anticipation in the Runescape community, nobody could have expected that November would hold some of the most dramatic days in Runescape history, one of which we still feel the consequences to this day. November 17, 2003, was the day of partyhat duplication.
It started out as any other day, with me logging on to the game for some combat training. When I was walking through Varrock however, things were a little different. Even though I was on the busiest UK server early in the afternoon, the massive crowds in Varrock were larger than anything I had ever seen. To give you a general impression, the Varrock castle garden looked a little something like this:
Obviously, beggars aren't normally so populous, or, for that matter, so ambitious. Yet here we had literally hundreds of [/indent]people all screaming for Christmas crackers, the most valuable rare item in the game. I was absolutely baffled, as even in my darkest days of single digit combat level I had never asked for more than spare change. Rarely actually getting anything meant that my days of begging were over rather quickly, but I was sorely tempted to join the screaming masses even if I did have a bad feeling about the whole thing.
A quick trip to what was then called Scapeboard confirmed my suspicions. Theories ranging from a massive organized hack to a single disgruntled J-mod trying to destroy the game from within flew wildly, and even though I had absolutely no idea as to what was going on, I knew that asking for crackers and partyhats could only be trouble. Still I hung around, quietly observing the events even though I would only learn the true nature of what had happened this day later.
It was Runescape's first major case of "item duping", a now-common problem in almost every any MMO that had never occurred up until then. Duping, short for duplication, involves exploiting bugs and glitches in the game software to duplicate valuable items. A message sent out a few days after the event by the player who first discovered how to duplicate items roughly explains how he did it:
"Here it goes... I was the person who discovered the dupe and used it, and told like 3 other people, and then it got leaked. If it hadn't gotten leaked, I would be rich and the economy wouldn't suck, and Jagex wouldn't be uber pissed at me. This shall be a historical acount of the third time of duping. Before you begin to read this, please know this had no intentions of hurting the economy, or Jagex in any way shape or form. As for me, I have been banned on every character I own (including ones that did not use the dupe and we're banned out of error. Jagex wouldn't listen to my appeal though). Because of this, I am also quitting RuneScape now. But hey, at least im going out with a major bang. Now, onto the fun/interesting stuff.
The way the dupe worked was when in a trade screen it would put up a non-stackable item with an amount of zero, where it would normally be one. This would trick my side into thinking I put up nothing, and the other into thinking I put up one. So really, it's not duping because you don't need one to start with. It's more like "Creation." It also used an item ID. An item id is the number given to an item. No, each item does not have it's own ID. This is why it is extremely hard for Jagex to find out which hats are real and which are fake.
And the next morning. Note that this was my main, who I had NOT logged into at any time during the whole duping dealy so he wouldn't get banned for bug abuse. Well guess what, he was banned. And, he didn't abuse a bug. It tells me to check my message inbox, but guess what, they didn't give me a letter either. Oh well. Probably deserve it."
Had this player kept his secret to himself, then we never would have known and the number of new rares introduced into the game would have been negligible. However, the duplicator shared his method with three friends, who shared it with their friends, and soon the entire Runescape economy went boom. Even though at that point the street price for any party hat was a mere fraction of what it is today, but even then there was a clear hierarchy of colours, with pink (which became purple in Runescape 2) sitting at the top of the economic totem pole. Even today the rares market still shows signs of the cataclysmic event that occurred almost five and a half years ago. The valuable pink party hat was the one most duplicated, and even today it still has the lowest trading price of any partyhat.
Jagex's response was to offer a lifetime membership to any player who could provide the information needed to apprehend the perpetrators. In the end Jagex's own staff found the original duplicator, and immediately proceeded to ban not only the account he exploited the glitch on, but also all other accounts that shared its IP address. Several other accounts were also banned, but these bannings were limited to the greediest of the greedy, players who had duplicated literally thousands of party hats and crackers.
Beyond that, Jagex pretty much let the whole affair go. This was mainly done because the duplicated items were impossible to tell apart from their legitimately obtained counterparts. They could easily take a look in a player's bank, but a few dozen hats suddenly appearing was little more than circumstantial evidence. They could easily have gotten them from a friend, or even jut a random player that wanted to share the wealth. In the end, Jagex even refrained from doing a rollback (a complete reset of all characters to a previously generated backup). Doing this would have removed all duplicated party hats from the game, but it would also mean that thousands of players would lose whatever legitimate gains had been made during that period.
It might sound like I'm exaggerating a little here, but I truly believe that the 'innocent until proven guilty' approach Jagex took while dealing with the duplication has pretty much saved the game. The entire duplication disaster had snowballed out of control so quickly that literally thousands of players became involved. Banning them all would have dealt a crippling blow to their player base, one that I think the game would never fully recover from.
Of course the game world never did fully recover from this event. The market was flooded with thousands upon thousands of partyhats and Christmas crackers. The simple balance of high demand and zero new supply that had been driving up prices steadily for almost two years was suddenly thrown out the window. There was no way of knowing for sure how many new party hats and crackers were introduced, but prices plummeted almost immediately. Of course these low prices meant that the hats were suddenly obtainable for far more people, which drove prices right back up again.
In the end, it would take months for party hat prices to reach normal levels again, and the day of party hat duplication turned out to be one of the most dramatic days in the history of the Runescape economy, where a single player experimenting with third party software ended up forever upending the street values of the rarest items in the game.