Let’s talk exploits. And no, this is definitely not a how-to guide! For shame! If you are a person who exploits, a pox on you. No, we are going to discuss how exploits — and more importantly, how those exploits are handled — can seriously harm, if not irreparably damage, a survival game.
This exact principle was highlighted this week with Studio WildCard’s announcement and its accompanying emergency update for ARK: Survival Evolved. I applaud the studio for jumping on the fix, even when it meant a surprise major version change that locked folks out of unofficial servers until they updated. However, how the exploit and the exploiters were handled is a different matter. In survival sandbox games, cheaters can ruin the long-term experience for the entire server, as does the subsequent action (or inaction) against those cheaters.
In order to delve into the topic, let’s use the example of ARK’s recent exploit that highlights the subject. Per WildCard, the studio just discovered a vulnerability that has existed basically since the game began. Being that it’s 2018, this August 2015 vulnerability certainly gave exploiters a chunk of time to take advantage. The official announcement stated that “multiple ‘mega-tribes’ across multiple servers were taking advantage of it.” That fact was disputed by a player who openly admitted to utilizing the exploit unashamedly for serious personal gain; he indicated only a few actually could access said exploit, but duped items were shared. Whether the exploit was grossly widespread or not, the nature of the exploit meant that tons of ill-gotten gains were distributed widely across servers.
What was this exploit? How bad could it be? The player who outed himself claims that it basically gave players admin-like powers on official servers. Benefits included building bases in the mesh under the terrain, seeing all enemies and creatures, and using the cooking pot to create all sorts of materials, summon bosses to crash servers, and craft test meat for instant tames. While he also indicated that this exploit has been used for about six months since the new servers were launched, you can see how this would be a big, big problem even if used for even a day or two. And that leads us to how dealing with such an exploit can seriously impact the game experience.
You know how games have been closing because they can’t break into the genre or pull in enough players to be sustainable? The last thing developers should want to do is any action that would drive players or potential players away. Unfortunately, not adequately addressing cheating is one of those things, especially in the survival genre. Perceived or literal, an uneven playing field will turn non-cheating players off from a survival game. (Obviously the cheaters would love to have an unfair advantage.)
Studio Wildcard demonstrated what not to do in this situation. As per the announcement, no wipes or bans will occur because of this noted major exploit. None. That means all the people creating an unfair and unfun environment for everyone else are in the free and clear, and all the duped items that have flooded servers giving only certain people unfair advantages get to stay in circulation. Tell me, how is this a good thing? Wasn’t this a core reason for developing the Legacy servers while making new fresh start ones, to even the playing field from old exploits that were just too much to deal with?
WildCard said, “We believe it is the best move to make for the health of the game and our Official Servers.” I admit am actually a bit confused by this one. In my mind, this decision does the opposite. Removing cheaters makes for a much better experience for other players (the non-cheating variety) not to mention the integrity of your game. Yes, I can see how it could empty out some official servers if it was truly as widespread as the studio is stating. Also, no one likes to lose stuff in a wipe — trust me, I am one of them! It is very disheartening to lose countless hours of work and favorite items/pets. But folks also don’t like being at a permanent systemic disadvantage that could be prevented. No one likes if they have no hope of ever having a fair chance let along coming out on top. If that’s the case, why bother playing?
How does not wiping and banning improve the health of the game and the official servers? WildCard already has the money from those people, so new funds would be from new players — players whom cheating and unfair advantages chase away. So often it feels like decisions have been more of a screw you veterans in favor of new players variety, why is this one different? Perhaps the point is not banning large tribes who are folks you are counting on to buy more expansions? Other suspicions abound, but whatever the reason, for survival games to survive in a healthy state, they cannot support uneven playing fields.
Offering bug bounties won’t help when cash is involved
In another case of exploiting, the lure of cheating went far beyond just having an advantage in game. One player admitted to selling duped items using PayPal. We are talking getting some cold, hard cash due to your exploiting. Those those specific remarks were deleted once a dev jumped in the thread, though the replies are still there. In the dev’s reply, the seller was offered a bug bounty for turning in a report of the problem so it could be fixed. Now I tell you, what do you think the answer would be? Sure, a bounty of $200 would be pretty sweet to a regular player who isn’t riding the dishonest train, but why would this duper give up hundreds more in perpetual income by pointing out the problem? The bug bounty-type programs are doomed to fail if real-world profits get involved.
This latest situation emphasizes why survival games need privately hosted servers. While many have the capability, I think all need it. When a population is relatively small (and most survival games are under 100 per server), one cheater or jerk can have a huge impact on the entire server. Personal admins with the power to enforce a more level playing field even when the developers don’t is crucial. Just look at ARK: The lack of action on blatant cheaters and the destruction exploiting does shows clearly why I would never play on an official server nor recommend anyone else to do so. Official servers are not a level playing field, and that can totally spoil the experience for the new players and non-cheaters alike. Heck, WildCard’s announcement outright admitted that players are forced to cheat just to keep up with the exploiters; it said amnesty was available “whether your motivations were malicious, or to put yourself on even grounds.”
Sadly, finding a good private server can be an ordeal in itself. You should be able to trust official servers to be fair, but when you can’t, private servers are definitely the way to go.