The PvP Files: Breaking the Game

How the use of mods and add-ons affect online gaming

The use of mods and add-ons is very prevalent in online gaming today, whether or not the game designers permit it.  These programs range from the simple (Teamspeak overlay add-on that allows you to see in game who is speaking) and usable by anyone to the complex (programs such as ACTools, which can be used for macroing) which can require more detailed coding knowledge.  But even if the intent of such tools is benign, the actual effect can be far more profound and game-breaking in the long run. 

Before delving too deeply, I’d like to define the terms I’m going to be using.  Please note, these are my definitions of these terms, and are meant to be the generally accepted uses of these terms.

  • Mods – Any outside program designed to work within or in concert with a game.  These can either be allowed by devs or used despite being forbidden.
  • UIs/Overlays – Replacing game files to redesign or reconfigure the game’s user interface (UI).  These can range from specialized artwork to more functional changes.
  • Add-ons – Programs used to provide any function not originally intended by the game developers.  These can be stand-alone programs, part of other programs, or compilations.

Going by those definitions, UI/Overlays and Add-ons are also Mods, and the intent behind all these is the same – to change the game as provided by the developers in some way in order to suit the player.  To make things easier on the terminology, I’ll just use “Mod” unless I’m speaking of one of these areas specifically.

As mentioned in the definition, mods can be permitted by the devs, but that permission is usually limited to certain areas.  The most common type of mod allowed is probably the Overlay.  Since these generally do nothing more than change the look of the game UI, they are relatively harmless.  There is no actual interaction with game mechanics.  Other forms of add-ons do affect how the game can be played though, and these are the first steps in breaking the games we play.

An application which was meant strictly to help players is Split Pea for AC1. This stand alone program was meant to make learning new spells less tedious.  Due to the complexity of the AC1 spell system, learning higher level spells mostly involved several hours of time consuming trial-and-error substitution of reagents.  Behind the scenes was an actual mathematical basis to the correct components but the average player wasn’t about to sit down and figure that out.  One player did do the math work though, and he wrote a program to automate the tedium.

Sounds like a godsend, right? If you were an AC1 mage, this program was just that.  Split Pea succeeded in making learning spells easier, but it also resulted in a explosion of the amount and type of spells that players were using at earlier character levels.  Instead of hours upon hours of research, one only had to spend a bit of time plugging in already known spell components to the program and it gave back possible suggestions to use for other spells.  Another side effect was the fact that the behind the scenes math was tied into the account and wasn’t specific to the character.  Once all spells were learned on character A, then those same spell formulas worked for characters B, C and D as well.  For a time, mages reigned supreme in AC1, unbalancing the game for non-mage players to the point were the developers reacted by adding weapons which ignored magic protections.  Split Pea, for all its innocent intentions, turned out to have a profound impact on the game itself.

Over time, the use of an add-ons called Decal and its associated plug-ins became almost required to play, at least on the Darktide server.  Again, the majority of the plug-ins such as Nerffus Buffus (NB, for automating the buffing process) were meant to be harmless.  Prior to NB, players would only buff against the main attack of the mobs they were fighting because of the time limits on the buffs themselves.  So when fighting tuskers (bludgeon damage), that protection would be the only one used, leaving the player open to the other five forms of damage in the game (acid, electricity, fire, piercing, slashing).  But as with Split Pea, the ability to put up complete protections in approximately five-ten minutes (my own record was around 71 spells in just under five minutes) changed the dynamics of PvP once again.

In addition, guilds competed to see who could code their own macro and detection plug-ins first in order to gain a distinct advantage.  Many of these plug-ins allowed players to see beyond the effective range of the in game radar and to select names for a list for easier targeting.  All this while the developers seemed to take no notice at all.  Unless a mod had a detrimental effect on the game performance itself, such as using the program Gear to over clock the game client, causing severe lag for everyone else in the vicinity and taking years for the devs to finally ban, then nothing appeared to be “out-of-bounds.”

In contrast to Turbine, other game companies haven’t been as laissez-faire towards mods for their games.  Mythic Entertainment would ban players caught using mods in Dark Age of Camelot (DAoC) although it’s likely that not all offenders were caught.  They never are.  Asheron’s Call 2 originally had an area set up in the UI specifically for macros during the beta phase, but this was eventually abandoned for retail and not supported.  That didn’t prevent enterprising players from setting up trade-, buff- and portal-bots though, and as in AC1, these types of mods were “overlooked” by the devs.  In fact, when the Turbine devs eventually banned the use of unattended combat macros in AC1, the aforementioned bots were specifically exempted.  These were perceived as being harmless, yet the ability of a level 10 character to easily have level 7 buffs (the highest available and lasting the longest) enabled players to level much more quickly than usual.

Shadowbane’s UI was one of the most flexible in any game, yet most mods were for graphical updates.  Ubisoft/Wolfpack did not officially sanction these, but neither were they specifically banned.  Despite leveling in SB being extremely quick and easy, many players set up AFK leveling macros to speed up the process even more.  As in AC1, these macros involved the use of an outside program such as ACTools and were banned.  The most common way of AFK macro leveling also involved the use of terrain exploits, with a high-level AOE caster standing in a location unreachable by the mobs and those being leveled standing safely out of the spawn zone.  The SB GMs had an interesting way of dealing with macroers who were using terrain issues though.  The most common method involved porting the macro-bot and all AFK levelers into reach of the mob spawn.  This combined with the free-for-all PvP environment helped to keep the macro populations under control.

With World of Warcraft (WoW), Blizzard not only allows and encourages modding their game, but they police what is being created and ban anything they deem unacceptable, including macroing.  Yet the sheer amount of mods available is incredible.  In fact, many players are very loyal to a particular add-on or compilation of add-ons and prefer to use these over the default UI provided.  In a few cases, Blizzard’s response to the popularity of certain add-ons has lead them to providing similar functionality to the game, such as additional tool bars and changes to the quest log.

As some mods become “required” by the playerbase, Blizzard has co-opted these functions into the default UI.  This serves to undermine the use of the mod itself while providing the functionality the players obviously want.  A recent example can be found in the 1.11.0 patch notes now on the test server:

User Interface

  • Text that a raid leader sends to chat will now be displayed in a different color and will have the [Raid Leader] label.
  • There is now a new raid warning chat channel available to raid leaders and assistants. Text that is sent to this channel will appear in the center of the screen for all players in the raid. The channel is called raid warning and text can be sent to it with “/rw”
  • Raid leaders now have a Ready Check button on their raid interface. This can also be sent with /readycheck from the chat line. A ready check sends an “Are you ready?” Yes/No dialogue to all players in the raid. The raid leader will get feedback in 30 seconds on all the players who were not ready or who did not respond.
  • Players now have a Raid Info button on their raid interface that functions the same way /raidinfo worked before. This function will display a pane showing all of the raid instances that a player is saved to, rather than displaying it to the chat window.

These changes are all straight from the most required raiding mod used – CT_RaidAssist.  While the added functions duplicate some areas of the mod, there are still some areas where the mod is still clearly better and its use will still be required for quite a while yet.

However, the biggest problem with any mod is the effect it has on the players, raid mods, for example.  What happens when they become so used to something not provided by the game itself that they are unable to play without it?  In the case of the mod creator stopping development and support, players can sometimes find a replacement to use.  But what about patch days?  Ongoing content is one of the biggest draws to a game, but the AC1 and now the Blizzard mod communities both suffer from these periodic updates and this can affect the player base in very detrimental ways.  Patch days are frequently chaotic for an assortment of reasons not related to mods, but add in mod issues and it can become an extreme hassle.  The mod developers can’t update their programs until the game patch is live, and in some cases that can take a while, leaving the users out in the cold, forcing them to find alternates to use, resorting to the default UI or even not playing until the mods are updated.

Eventually the hassle of maintaining an up-to-date set of mods can become too much to deal with.  For all that Blizzard has encouraged the development of outside mods for use within WoW, the fact that the most popular of these are broken every patch day is an annoyance, especially when the problems stem from simple name changes within the referenced files used and not related to a necessary coding change.  Many of these mods are intended (as usual) to simplify a part of the game that can be tedious (such as mailing multiple pieces of mail at once and automatically filling in the subject line), but others provide more of an advantage to the player; an advantage they are unwilling to do without.  The ability to arrange the toolbars anywhere on the screen is one of the most common mods, and is also one that seems to be affected the most in patches.

Other stand-alone programs such as voice communications (Teamspeak and Ventrilo) also prove to be advantageous to PvP gaming.  While the use or voice comms is accepted, even expected, in FPS games, it is still debated within the realm of MMOs, just not as strongly as in previous times.  The benefits are obvious to all players, not just PvPers.  It is far quicker to push a button and say “Rogue sneaking up on the left side” or “Target X!!” than it is to type.  Response times are lessened, coordination is improved and surprise attacks can be avoided or minimized.  In fact, most guilds have their own voice servers (either self-hosted or rented) and use is strongly encouraged if not required.  Solo or unguilded players are left out in the cold, missing out on information they could have gotten previously through text chat.  Voice comms means typing out details is no longer common, and text chats become very quiet and slow, to the point where players tend to forget to even read chat. Mixed pick-up groups (PUGs) can suffer from this the most, because the guilded members are all chatting in voice while the non-guilded members are missing out on information if it’s not transferred to text for them to read.  This can lead to confusion in mob pulls and helps to lessen some of the social communication that happens in PUGs as well.

But the use of these mods does much more than just fill some perceived lack within the games though.  They affect how the player interacts with the game itself.  This can be both good and bad.  In a way, it personalizes the game for the player, with many showing off how their game screen is laid out in screenshots.  But allowing mods also hampers the players ability to play the game as it was designed by the devs, and when the mods are removed, the players can be as well.  With the release of the latest AC1 expansion Throne of Destiny, Decal was broken and unable to be used.  Players dropped from the game in droves because they had become so dependent on the mod that they couldn’t play without it.  It fosters a dependence on an outside factor that can be taken away at any time, and take away from the skill of the player, especially in PvP environments.  When playing the game begins to require the use of these outside programs, no matter how beneficial they appear to be, it opens the door to which person has the best collection of mods instead of who is the better player.

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