A Strange Game

Deathwing. So it happened again. The player client software for the latest World of Warcraft expansion, Cataclysm, leaked into the public arena long before it was intended to become public. Again, because this also happened with the previous 2 expansions. A third leak is beginning to look careless.

WoW.com’s (unofficial) explanation of this “failure of secrecy” ironically fails to explain most of reasons behind the Cataclysm leak. Perhaps because the politics are rather too Machiavellian?

This article discusses the relationship between the game developer and its “fansites”. It uses the Cataclysm leaks to try and explain the underlying politics. The article questions why Non-Disclosure Agreements continue to be used, when they are worse than useless. Finally, it ponders the risks of such apparently one-sided relationships.

I’ve tried to present a fair and balanced analysis, which raises some important issues that aren’t getting discussed, and should be. Obviously, I can’t know everything. On this page:

Fansites

I define World of Warcraft “fansites” as offering game information or services to a large number of other players. Features that should logically be part of the game, but (for whatever reason) aren’t. Although many fansites are traditional websites, programmes like addons can also be fansites. Emphasis on useful service and targeting content to an audience (rather than writing for the author and their immediate community), differentiate fansites from wider community engagement, such as ‘blogging, guilds, or Twitter. That community aspect emphasises much more personal, social connections.

The most popular fansites still tend to be maintained by fans, because popular sites still require exceptional passion and dedication. However, the most popular fansites are also highly commercial operations, financed by someone other than their founders. For example, the ZAM network (notably Allakhazam and Wowhead) cost almost $10 million to assemble. Curse recently raised $6 million of venture capital. WoW.com (formerly WoW Insider) is owned by media giant AOL (via Weblogs). This is a long way from humble usenet beginnings. While there are still independent (owned and operated) fansites, most are in niches, and even those tend to be quite professionally run: Technical cost and complexity, combined with the very high expectations of WoW players, simply don’t allow half-hearted hobby projects to remain successful for long.

Of course, World of Warcraft is currently one of the most successful online games (successful in popular and critical terms – many casual/browser/Facebook-style games are more commercially successful, because their development and operating costs are lower), so we might expect to find a lot of “hangers on”, trying to profit on the margins. However, that assessment understates the genuine popularity and value of fansites to WoW players: People generally prefer to learn about World of Warcraft from unofficial sources.

2 reasons combine to explain why these 3rd party fansites have become so important over the last 3 or 4 years:

Goblin Princes

Arguably these fansites do nothing more than organise Blizzard’s data. Quicker, in a more useful way than Blizzard actually does, but nothing that Blizard could not (theoretically) do themselves. Just as, arguably, Blizzard’s “poor” design has created the demand for that information or 3rd party service in the first place. (Poor specifically means inadequate focus on the flow of information to the player as they play.) Or cynically, it’s a part of the design process where fansites innovate quickly to player demands, and Blizzard eventually integrates the best ideas into their own product. Yet surely every fansite owner is actually on an egotistical power-trip? Except the more commercial fansites, who are just “cashing in” on Blizzard’s Intellectual Property, when they should be paying a licensing fee. Not that a license would be forthcoming for something so heavily linked into the game software.

All these things are partly true, at least from the perspective of some of those involved. And consequently the whole “fansite ecosystem” is in a constant state of tension. Blizzard (I suspect) would be happier if much of the ecosystem didn’t exist, yet (implicitly) acknowledge that the fansite ecosystem has become essential for many players (that is, their customers) to play their game. Now consider that almost all of this takes place in a legal grey area (most fansites are breeching copyright, and when tested in Kopp vs Vivendi, both parties simply “agreed to disagree”). Where there are (collectively) many millions of dollars in play. Where Blizzard is highly influential on the opinions of its customers (so if it decrees that something “is bad”, then most players will eventually agree, however much they used to use that something – “gold farming” is a good example).

The result is a political system reminiscent of early-modern European courts:

I’m only on the edge of the system. Which probably explains why I’m stupid enough to write about it.

Box: Font Size +1
An example of the culture of non-communication: After 3 years of offering the world’s most popular fishing guide (admittedly a niche, but it still serves hundreds of thousands of people in a typical month), I received a 1 point increase in the font size of the link to El’s Extreme Anglin’. The words became bigger than all the other links on the page. It made me smile. Yet this is fairly typical of the rather subtle approach adopted: Privately I know a few people in Blizzard like what I do, but the corporate machine remains silent.

Box: Perfection and People
My favourite pink-pigtailed gnome (and daytime public relations professional) analysed just how bad Blizzard’s communications are, with particular reference to ‘bloggers. While her arguments are compelling, Blizzard’s current approach (of more-or-less ignoring everyone) hasn’t obviously hurt them. Indeed, it’s an intriguing paradox that the creator of an inherently social software platform is able to succeed with such disregard for people. However, if you produce things that are “very good”, people will love you for it, even if those people receive no love in return. This is how perfectionists survive. A sense of relationship is possible because of the curiously personalised view most players have of Blizzard: People talk to “Blizz” or “Blue” (their corporate color) like they are talking to their dog, not a corporate monolith. Much like a pet dog, people feel able to hold personal conversations, without ever expecting a reply. Disturbing similar to the relationship some people have with gods.

Hacking Azeroth

Information about most aspects of the game can be hacked out of the game client – the software installed on players’ own computers. Many larger, more general fansites now almost entirely depend on client-based hacks, because observing changes in-game is too time consuming. In contrast, my little fishing niche still primarily depends on in-game exploration, because WoW’s fishing data is almost entirely “server-side”, so has to be observed in-game.

In computing culture the word “hack” has 2 different, but related, popular meanings: To modify software or re-programme in a manner that was not originally intended. And to use similar techniques to break electronic security measures – often criminally. Ultimately, hacking is better defined by individual intent, not by the method.

The World of Warcraft “hack” community is similar. This isn’t as simple as “good and bad”, rather “shades of grey” between 2 extremes:

  1. Harmless art or information: Machinima (video) makers may alter the game’s 3D models and graphical effects. “Data miners” discover information about the game world and gameplay mechanics (for example, the numeric variables controlling in-game actions). These are action that do not directly damage other players’ enjoyment, or the original creator’s ability to make money.
  2. Ethically unpleasant practices: The creation of ‘bots (unauthorised automation) and exploits. This is action that seeks an unfair advantage over other game players, or offers a way to play that reduces the profits of the original creator.

But in spite of such a wide range of intentions, everyone shares the same understanding and tools to break into the original software. This means that communities of people with different intentions tend to overlap. Those overlaps make it relatively easy for people to move between communities – especially people who don’t have well-defined personal ethics, or don’t appreciate what they might be getting into.

Box: Adventures in DBC Files
Client hacking isn’t as easy as it might sound. Imagine receiving half of a 500-table relational database, with no model of the relationships between tables. Where none of the table columns have headers, and chunks of the table structure can change from month-to-month. And then try to produce a reliable, coherent analysis of the 0.1% of the data that has changed, before someone else beats you to it. All at 3am, when you should be sleeping. This is roughly what a site like MMO-Champion does. While the process can be automated, the constant changes and need for interpretation of results, make this rather challenging.

Box: Nogg-aholic
The secretive “Nogg-aholic” community was primarily engaged in World of Warcraft (game world) exploration and model changes (altering game graphics and models to create new personal art). Best known for their (essentially harmless) movies and Gnomish realm invasions, they also discovered techniques that could be useful to those with less scruples. The hostile reactions of Blizzard to Noggaholic leaks of The Burning Crusade alpha (a private test of the first WoW expansion), and the tendency to get mixed up with the less desirable elements of the WoW hack community, all contributed to the Nogg-aholics formerly closing down at the start of 2007.

Something Cataclysmic

Cataclysm will be the 3rd expansion to World of Warcraft, due to be released sometime towards the end of 2010. The later stages of MMOG testing tend to involve people who are not developers. Both to gain customer feedback prior to formal release, and to highlight bugs that only occur when many players are active. For WoW, this involves a first “alpha” stage with relatives and friends of Blizzard staff, followed by a more public “beta” stage, in which people are invited from the wider playerbase. The first stage is considered private, with participants prevented from releasing information (or even discussing the existence of the test) by a Non-Disclosure Agreement.

At least, in theory.

WoW’s player-base contains many technologically literate people, some of whom like to discover what they’re not supposed to discover. And so, several hours before Blizzard even acknowledged that Cataclysm alpha testing had started, the test client had already been downloaded. By Boubouille, at the leading data mining-based fansite, MMO Champion. When I say download, that’s what I mean. The only “hack” required is to know where to look: WoW clients, including the private test clients, are distributed via BitTorrent. One hexadecimal string (a magnet link) is all anyone needs.

This had also happened 2 years before, with Wrath of the Lich King, the previous expansion. Then, MMO Champion started to leak information from the test client, and was rapidly asked not to by Blizzard. Most mainstream WoW fansites tried to ignore the leaked test client (the notable exception was WoW Insider, although their coverage was very selective and not always accurate). Many “typical” players, that wanted to know more, disappeared into what I only half-jokingly called “the Evil East” – various cheat, exploit, and emulation fansites. Places where the “cease and desist” letters sent by Blizzard’s lawyers, weren’t going to have much influence. Some previously fairly shady, largely unknown corners of the internet were suddenly deluged by clueless tourists.

In the final analysis, those 2 months of Wrath of the Lich King alpha testing provided great advertising for unofficial emulated (“private”) servers, exploitation, and… pretty much everything else that Blizzard wouldn’t want to advertise to its players.

Enter the Dragon

Many World of Warcraft players will be familiar with the dragon, Deathwing, the lead villain of Cataclysm. Including this Deathwing image. Featuring stunningly inappropriate environment and lighting, it was supposed to be proof that the alpha client had both been leaked, and hacked sufficiently to produce screenshots. The picture was (originally) hosted on MMO Champion’s public servers, but, as Boubouille subsequently explained on IRC it wasn’t intended to be published:

Instead, it was being used for “negotiation” with Blizzard. Negotiation in an attempt to avoid the Wrath of the Lich King problem, where not hosting leaked content on the more reputable fansites had simply introduced more players to the less reputable fansites (“more” and “less” are relative terms). Negotiations that promptly collapsed once the image had inadvertently become “the first big Cataclysm leak”. There could be alternative conspiracy theories, but that “negotiation” explanation is consistent with the way events unfolded, and the motivations and methods of the people involved.

Early the following morning, the information required to download the Cataclysm alpha client finally leaked onto public channels. And so it had become inevitable that someone was going to publish hacked information and pictures. By sunrise over California (where Blizzard are headquartered), the internet would be awash with leaked content. And so MMO-Champion used its 30-hour data-mining/exploration head-start to immediately publish vast amounts of information, simultaneously wiping out anything “the competition” could hope to offer, and engaging the wrath of Blizzard – and the risk that something truly cataclysmic might occur for real.

Deathwing Analysis

That takes some courage, but perhaps this isn’t as suicidal as it may first seem:

MMO-Champion is owned by Major League Gaming. That’s MLG, who the day before (5th May) announced that World of Warcraft had belatedly been added to their 2010 Pro Circuit. Blizzard have desperately tried to turn World of Warcraft into a professional eSport, even though their own designers admit the game was not originally intended for this, and WoW arena matches are widely regarded as less exciting to watch than classic eSport games like Counterstrike. There may be no direct link between the timing of this announcement, and the Cataclysm leaks. But it would surely be illogical for Blizzard to start threatening MLG over copyright violations, while simultaneously encouraging MLG to promote World of Warcraft as an eSport.

The bad news for MMO-Champion’s main traditional competitor, World of Raids, is that Blizzard sent out a friendly reminder to official fansites, notifying that they would lose their official status if they published alpha content. World of Raids, as a part of the Curse network, is an official fansite. For a fansite that had been struggling (since its founder, Teza, departed to set up another almost identical fansite, WoW Raid, since abandoned), a block on reporting the only thing their readers probably care about, could be the final nail in their coffin.

Publishing leaked content will certainly maintain MMO-Champion’s reputation among players as the best source of this type of information. But leaking wasn’t absolutely essential: The same site survived Wrath of the Lich King alpha testing, and rapidly regained “its crown” once testing formerly became public.

Overall, while no fansite is invulnerable, I suspect that if the alpha content was going to be removed from MMO-Champion, it would have happened by now. A situation which leaves the original Non-Disclosure Agreement in tatters, since it isn’t obviously protecting anything from anyone that might want to know. [Update: A few days later Blizzard asked MMO-Champion to remove the content.]

Non-Disclosure

While a “freely” downloadable alpha client certainly didn’t help keep things private, some of the people officially participating in the alpha test also seem to be remarkably lax about information: Over the last few days I’ve watch countless videos recorded on official (rather than emulated) test servers. Even live streams, broadcast directly by testers. Seen countless “OMG look at the Stamina bonus on that loot!” screenshots. Found the contents of private testing forums re-posted to the public internet. And I’m doing little more than following my natural curiosity for information on the internet.

Blizzard’s own employees are sworn to secrecy (because their job, and likely any similar job in their industry, depends on it), but some of their “friends and family” are clearly only playing in private. Unfortunately, that’s private in an age where private is the new public. Where every element of one’s life is to be shared across an array of social media. “Non-disclosure” simply isn’t part of the popular lexicon.

So why bother with a Non-Disclosure Agreement? At best they’re totally ineffective at preventing information from circulating. At worst they push mainstream users across towards “the Dark Side”, and create endless hassle and frustration for anyone trying to enforce the agreement.

Respect

What erks me is that Boubouille is adopting (to my mind) a fairly reasonable position – by keeping mainstream players in the mainstream – yet isn’t getting any respect from Blizzard for doing that. Quite the opposite. Perhaps it comes back to perfection again (see Box: Perfection and People)? That relationships with Blizzard are inherently one-sided?

Unfortunately, that relationship understates the value of “respect” to Blizzard.

For example, like many fansites, I reject any advertising for anything against World of Warcraft’s terms of use. I excluding adverts for Real Money Trading, not because I personally disagree with it (I’m actually far more concerned about the social implications of non-transferable virtual goods, which Blizzard enthusiastically sell without a hint of hypocrisy), but out of respect for their policy. This is non-trivial: One can’t sensibly use advertising networks like Google AdSense, because either new adverts appear too easily, or one tends to wastes more time micro-managing advertising, than is gained from the value of the advertising. And having declined (often substantial) amounts of money to advertise their services directly, I’ve found that some of the same organisations reappear as forum spammers. Not to mention the variety of hacker that’s probably getting paid more to try and break my website security, than I’m “getting paid” to maintain that security. They must think I’m mad.

Sometimes it would be so much easier not to care. Not to have any respect at all. And when you find yourself trying to do “the right thing”, and getting screwed for it, you find yourself asking why?

Perhaps the answer lies in passion and dedication? That we care about the wider community. Which implies that either we’ve got it wrong, or are too disconnected from that community. Or that Blizzard have got it wrong, or are too disconnected from that community. Unfortunately, I’m too biased towards my own position to judge.

Fallout

Am I bitter? I hope not. As with previous expansions, I don’t plan to break the spirit of Blizzard’s Non-Disclosure Agreement by publishing any alpha information. Partly that’s pragmatic – most fishing-related information can’t be hacked out of game clients anyway. Partly diplomatic – I don’t have any desire to upset Blizzard. And partly it’s just old fashioned respect of the wishes of the original creators.

However, I was disappointed that Blizzard appeared to have learned nothing from the previous expansions. Not adequately restricting the distribution of their “private” software, and then still expecting everyone to deny what becomes public. And if you think fansites have a problem trying to contain this, spare a thought for the already under-valued (I’ve seen what these people have to deal with) moderators on the official forums, who have been instructed to moderate anything that points to leaked content. Right now that must feel like trying to hold back the sea.

The ideal is either totally secret or totally public – not stuck in limbo, somewhere between the two. Consequently, I have a lot of respect for Boubouille’s decision. Unfortunately, respect which not everyone appears to share. Tension remains over something that didn’t need to cause tension.

Added March 2012: Boubouille wrote about the reasoning behind the leaks.

6 comments on "A Strange Game"

  1. On May 10th, 2010 at 4:10 am Larísa wrote:

    Huge grats to the +1 Font size! That’s what I’d call recognition! Even if you’re not in the fansite program, at least there’s a link to the only fishing resource you’ll ever need. And that’s something.

    Like you I’m a bit wonderous at the willingness to leak among the so called friends and families. Maybe I’m oldfashioned, but in my world you honor the promises you make. Or you won’t go into such a deal, if you know that you’re the kind of person who just can’t shut up.
    What kind of friend are you if you lie to your “friend” and release information you weren’t supposed to?

    It’s those friends that are most to be blamed. Not MMO-Champion.

    There’s probably more to say on this; I have to ponder a little upon it first, as always with your articles. Very thoughtful and interesting!

    Edit: Larísa’s post – http://www.pinkpigtailinn.com/2010/05/why-people-leak-and-other-musings-over.html

  2. On May 10th, 2010 at 3:30 pm Windsoar wrote:

    Just to be old-fashioned and rather cane-waving: If you agree not to share information, you shouldn’t share said information.

    From MMO-Champ’s perspective I can “understand” wanting special access–they are promoting WoW’s product and there is some give and take in the relationship.

    However, it just seems that their is a flood-gate of information coming out that should not be available at this stage of product testing.

    Excellent article, definitely enjoyed the read.

  3. On May 10th, 2010 at 5:59 pm Ben wrote:

    this is what I don’t understand. Why is MMO-Champion bound by the NDA or under any threat of legal action whatsoever? As far as my legal knowledge goes, my understanding is that the NDA only bounds people who _agree_ to it. Unless MMO-Champion are being given alpha keys, they’re under no obligation to keep the alpha secret right? Aren’t they more like a press organization or journalist, publishing authentic but leaked information legally? Whoever gave them the stuff might be in trouble, but not them for merely reporting/disaplying it. Or am I missing something?

  4. On May 11th, 2010 at 1:01 am Tim Howgego wrote:

    Ben – I can’t speak for MMO-Champion. But, if you’re a player, you’ll appreciate that it is hard to use Blizzard’s software without clicking “I agree” at least once. However, the NDA isn’t the only issue: The software is still protected by various rights, giving Blizzard a lot of legal avenues.

  5. On June 27th, 2010 at 4:18 pm Thoughts on the Resolution of Nothing - Tim Howgego wrote:

    [...] of sub-society, where everything is subservient to the master right (the Goblin Princes in A Strange Game exemplify the complexity [...]

  6. On July 20th, 2010 at 1:06 pm Systems of Curse and ZAM - Tim Howgego wrote:

    [...] to learn that there are millions of dollars involved in World of Warcraft-related websites. A Strange Game and Learn2Play, the new Real Money Trading provide an [...]