The Tip.It Times

Issue 11999gp

The Autonomous Problem

Written by and edited by Last_to_Kn0w

In the mining guild, I've noticed many more players there than usual. Most of them say nothing, continually mine coal, bank it, then repeat. There's nothing wrong with players skilling, except I have a sneaking suspicion it isn't players skilling, its autonomous code.

These players are controlled by what Jagex calls “macros” or “bots.” They are pieces of code designed to play, interact, and mimic real life humans in the way they move and act in game. These can be as simple as a program which repeatedly clicks the mouse to high-alch items, or even as complex as some of the more well known pay bots, which purported users in the tens to hundreds of thousands by claiming to be undetectable.

”Why is botting a problem?” I feel like this argument has been re-hashed a thousand times, so I'll be brief. It is against the rules. It cheapens the experience of the honest players, those that invest their time and money for a skill-based game. That said, it also provides a dilemma for Jagex. Users that bot are customers too, and immediately banning these accounts can be a potential revenue killer.

Why do people program bots? Wherever a challenge exists, there will be individuals who rise to meet it. One of the most well known “botting challenges” was sponsored by DARPA, an autonomous robot race. About thirty teams of universities that partnered with private corporations built and programmed robotic cars to race through a desert, and later a city.

What does the DARPA challenge have to do with Runescape? Well, these autonomous races are very similar to the challenges programmers face when writing macros for Runescape. Both have to make decisions, solve problems, and failure can be costly. The only difference between DARPA and 'scapers is that one challenge is readily accessible to any human with a computer and a compiler, and the other required huge investments in sensors and equipment.

So, knowing that there will always be people trying to cheat in Runescape, how can Jagex deal with this problem without dramatically changing the nature of their game?

One strategy Jagex could employ is the use of their potentially vast database of player-machine interaction. With about a hundred-thousand players logged in constantly, they can look for patterns in player behavior. How long does the average player take to find where they want to click, press their mouse, and release? What pattern does the cursor move with in time? How do players correct their errors? How long does the average player stay active before the client loses focus or idles? Ultimately, a statistic-based solution would be very costly, and with little reward. As Jagex bans players that are statistical anomalies, bots will advance and become closer and closer to humans.

Another approach Jagex could employ is to randomly change interfaces where players interact in-game. Changing the location of the inventory from right side of the screen to the left, up, or down, swapping places with the mini-map, and other various parts would definitely catch the majority of currently employed bots. The problem with this is that as easy as it is to change an interface, it is just as easy to modify code to detect changes. It will also annoy real users, as their accustomed click patterns will change and more mistakes will be made.

Yet another approach Jagex could use are Captchas. These bits of text are obfuscated, stretched, run together, and put against low contrast backgrounds. Current “real life” bots (you know – the ones that sign up for a hundred thousand email accounts) that are designed to break Captchas have limited success in text that is well modified. The problem with this is that Captchas can become impossible to break, even for real users.

Another strategy Jagex could use is shifting physical locations, make the actual world and the minimap not quite line up, or have the positions of buildings and stores and major game elements change from time to time. A good example of this was the wilderness replacement of the wilderness ditch with the wall. Bots programmed to cross the ditch weren't able to cross the wall because they didn't click in the right spot. This would be a problem for many bots for a short period of time. They'd have to be modified to react to these elements, but suffice to say it will be done, the challenge will be met. This option would also greatly affect the real 'scaper as they would have to deal with new nuisances throughout their daily play.

Another thing Jagex could do is silently introduce more random events. Similar to the interface problem, bots will eventually be able to solve all random events, but it will take a tremendous effort. If Jagex periodically introduced new random events as content, and forced every user to solve them after a certain time period of logging in, cheaters would have to be wary of when the next bot killer appears. In my humble opinion, this is the best option, as it will keep random content fresh while discouraging new players from using bots due to the high probability of being detected and punished.

Regardless of what Jagex does, botting will remain a problem. There are too many intelligent people that play Runescape, those that know a little more about computers and programming than the average person, willing to invest some time to get “free” longterm experience.

I've said it before, and I'll repeat it here. Runescape will always have bots. When the last Jagex server shuts down, there will still be bots trying to click at nothing. Runescape has a problem, an autonomous problem.

Do you have any thoughts or comments about this week's articles? Want to discuss these articles with your fellow RuneScapers? We invite you to discuss them in this forum topic.


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