In many respects, the success of the MMO in the modern era is surprising in the sense that it is a cultural anomaly. Over the past decade, the rise of the internet has brought with it a culture of accessibility and quick reward. This paradigm shift in global culture is embodied in the precipitous decline in newspaper circulation, in favour of their online equivalents, blogs, and in some instances Twitter.
Gaming has reflected this, too. Cut scenes can be skipped in all but a handful of games. Every game is laden with developer programmed ‘cheats’ to iron out any possibility of irritation. Even in older times, games offered shortcuts for the intuitive; one example that springs to mind is the Mario series (who doesn’t love Warp Zone?).
Some games, depending on their mechanics, even allow players to skip inconvenient missions altogether. Achievements are dished out for everything – such as merely starting the game – to satiate players and ensure they feel their every action is validated.
This being the case, the runaway success of the MMO is something of a surprise; after all, here is a game model that offers little to no leeway for cutting corners, rewards patience and long term time investment, and offers less variation in terms of gameplay.
Speculation as to how and why the MMO has managed to buck this trend would be difficult; the reasons for playing vary from person to person, and so I’ll leave such an activity to the forums.
However, I do feel that the anomalous nature of the MMO may pose some problems for it, and the peak we’re currently seeing – particularly in the case of WoW – may be hard to sustain unless the MMO model changes, so as to facilitate its survival in a fast evolving games industry.
Botting is perhaps the most visible by-product of the unrelenting games design of the MMO. Players crave the same ease of progress and rewards of the average game, but are for the most part unwilling to invest the time and effort. Hence, they resort to tertiary software in the hope of attaining the reward of high levels – for any of a number of reasons – without needing to spend months hunched over a screen.
Thus, it makes sense to view macro software as reactionary to the aforementioned oddities of MMO games design. It was not made simply to poke Jagex, Blizzard, nor whoever else in the eye, but to feed the craving of impatient players yearning for the quick rewards offered by other games. In terms of gaming as a whole, patient gamers are a minority, and botting has a knock-on effect for these people; the vital community aspect of the game suffers as a result of it.
For this reason, bots cannot be defeated through software warfare alone. Jagex’s attempts to counter botting software only breed more sophisticated bots. At present, Jagex’s methods of combating bots are so rudimentary, that it is unsurprising that bots are becoming increasingly common. Also, the more there are, the harder walking around and banning individuals becomes; there’s every possibility that this could spiral out of control and reach the epidemic proportions that many people are concerned about.
Ultimately, the only effective way of combating bots would be through allowing those who bot the means of attaining reward in an easier way. In some games, ‘cheat codes’ allow for increased access to certain things that make a mission easier. An MMO equivalent would, for example, give special equipment or abilities that would increase the rate at which XP is accumulated.
But this in itself would create more problems. Implementing the changes stated above would totally undermine the game and all achievements in it. If skilling became easier, level 99 would become far less prestigious (something, which some argue, it already is). I cannot imagine that many people – far fewer than 5% of players – would not harness the opportunity to make skilling easier.
As such, Jagex would have to evaluate which would damage the game more: leaving it as it is or making the necessary changes that would make botting less tempting.
Of course, other options exist, but these would be far more difficult to implement. One would be to make minigames and diversions, which are arguably the more enjoyable aspects of the game, less reliant upon skills, thereby separating the two aspects into isolated, distinct spheres. Likely, skilling would greatly fall and minigames would be consistently swarming with eager players.
Another option would be to make the core elements of the game less repetitive. This would not only encourage players to engage with them more, but would also make it more difficult for bots to cheat. Bots would eventually find their way around a more complex set of skilling mechanics, but fewer people would succumb to the temptation to do so in the first place.
It seems, then, that Jagex is stuck in a very difficult situation with regards to RS. On one hand, bots running rampant pose a great threat to the game. On the other, only a drastic change can actually fight them off, but the potential consequences of such a change yield a great risk. Overhauls almost always have unforeseen consequences, especially in the games industry.
The situation Jagex finds itself in echoes that of many MMO developers. Because the success of their market is such a cultural contradiction, they have found themselves a comfortable niche in the market. Yet the great paradox of this seemingly stable, isolated niche market is that it leaves little to no room for manoeuvring in such a way that could end this chronic affliction called botting. Small scale solutions are only temporary, while large scale ones have yet to be attempted, owing to the great risks they carry.