Vague Patch Notes: Crime and punishment and intent in MMOs

Dostoyevsky this isn't

We don't mean anything bad!

Last week, we saw Blizzard explain its philosophy behind why some World of Warcraft bugs in which players got to get more stuff than intended resulted in bans or rollbacks, and other stuff resulted in not even a slap on the wrist. The overall point was that the team decides this stuff based on intent, meaning that the people who are trying to exploit a glitch get punished harder while those who accidentally stumble into one and/or don’t realize what’s happening don’t get punishment. It’s a case-by-case decision based on analyzing the situation.

It sounds good right up until you realize that it’s actually a terrible, terrible idea to be making fuzzy judgement calls on every single situation wherein this might be applicable. And it’s something that seems so reasonable that it simply would not leave my head because it actually leverages into a discussion about rules, punishments, and uniformity in both that feels wholly appropriate to have. Because if you’re making case-by-case calls, something is going very, very wrong.

Let’s start with something very basic: A rule is only a rule so long as it is reliably enforced.

Suppose, for example, you work in a school with a stated rule of no orange shoes. Anyone wearing orange shoes has to go down to the office and swap those shoes for standard-issue bowling shoes until the end of the school day. That rule is simple and understandable, and so long as anyone wearing orange shoes gets to the office, then it’s fine.

Now, assume you have the rule on the books… but everyone knows that Mr. Schubert never sends anyone down to the office for shoes. And half of the aides don’t pay attention to shoes. And all of the students who do get sent to the office for wearing orange shoes are members of the Drama Club. While the rule written down in the school handbook hasn’t changed at all, the functional rule is no longer in place. Only getting caught by the wrong teacher actually matters, and more likely it’s a way for teachers to punish students for additional infractions by breaking a rule that is, for all intents and purposes, not enforced.

You’ll note that even in this scenario, there’s still space to make judgment calls. You can argue whether shoes are orange enough to count, or whether partly orange shoes are a problem, or whether orange shoelaces make a difference. But the point is that so long as the rule is uniform (orange shoes get sent to the office), people will respect the rule. The more you dilute its implementation, the less it’s considered real.

Also note that this is an entirely separate discussion from what the rule should be. Changing the rule about orange shoes and refining it are good things that can happen organically over time. But what matters is knowing that there is a rule.

Minnesota is hard done by here.

Most MMOs have at least one rule that entirely relies upon fuzzy judgment calls. It’s a rare game that doesn’t have a rule about your character/account name being potentially changed if the name in question is offensive or inappropriate, but that does require some amount of judgment applied by the people reviewing stuff.

It’s easy for a GM in Guild Wars 2 to know that a character named “Death to Minnesota” has an inappropriate name, but what about the name “Death to Sotabreads” if “Sotabread” is a known slur against Minnesotans? Or if the name is “Eight Words,” a common dogwhistle for the mantra of the anti-Minnesota movement (“We must destroy Minnesota, hopefully with incendiary devices”)?

(Please note: These examples are made up because even if my editor would let me write out a bunch of ethnic slurs for example purposes, I don’t actually want to. I apologize to any Minnesotans feeling targeted here; I was trying to choose a state no one could take actual issue with. You folks are all right, and if there is an actual anti-Minnesota hate movement please tell me so I can feel disappointed for our species.)

While these rules might rely on case-by-case decision making, the point is that there are rules with reliable consequences. All that has to be judged on a case-by-case basis is whether or not the name violates the rule. The punishments and expected behaviors don’t change. The rule remains in place, even if its applicability can vary.

But what about intent? What if someone named a character “Eight Words” as a reference to the opening line of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s timeless classic “Baby Got Back” and had no idea that some people would use it as a reference to anti-Minnesota sentiment? What if the player can even produce a notarized document from former state governor Mark Dayton calling her “Friend to All of Minnesota” and proving that she had no malicious intent?

My grandfather always liked to say that if you intended to build a shelf but wound up watching television, you should see how well that intent holds up books. Intent matters, but impact is much more important.

This is where we finally reach the intersection of good practices and bad ones. Intent can matter when you’re deciding on a punishment. Say your rule about names indicates that violators of naming rules will be forced to change the offending name and may also be suspended from play. Our hypothetical friend to Minnesota is going to have to change her name, but there’s no need to suspend her.

On the other hand, the guy named “Death to Sotabread” who changes his name to “Sotabred Don’t Report” is probably deserving of a suspension. Enforcement can vary based on intent and further context, but the rule itself remains pretty much a fixed point.


So what does this mean when you’re dealing with things like players exploiting a glitch in a dungeon? Having a fixed rule means that everyone has a standard expectation of what will happen. In the particular WoW Classic case, a rollback of any inappropriately gained items alongside potential suspension/banning seems like a good fixed rule. But it also needs to be treated as a fixed rule.

If you have the rule but decide to waive the entire thing and let someone clear Molten Core again? Intent and goal shouldn’t matter here. The rule was still violated, and anything gained during the second clear should be rolled back. Only punishing people who used the exploit with intent requires taking on faith whether or not someone meant to do something, and that’s always going to be a matter of blind guessing.

It doesn’t mean that the person who exploited a glitch two dozen times should get the same punishment as someone who used it three times. The former can get additional punitive measures if necessary. But if there’s no hard rule in place saying that this stuff will be punished, or the rule is just “well, only if your intent was exploiting?”

In that case, the rule is pretty clear: You should exploit a bug exactly as much as you can before crossing that obvious intent line. And if that sounds like a cynical reading that leads to unpleasant places, well… that’s because it is. It’s only made slightly better because there’s no hard-and-fast boundary of where that line may be.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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