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Transparency: A look at the multi-million dollar MMO botting industry

World of Warcraft might of banned a bunch of botters, but it's only a dent in the mult-million dollar business.

MMO botting hit the news recently in two different but related stories. A large gold-farming group was shut down in Star Wars: The Old Republic, and in World of Warcraft, over 100,000 accounts were banned because they used a bot to earn gold and other in-game items. This prompted me to ask why this trend is so popular. I’ve been known to have some controversial opinions regarding gold farming and botting, but I think you’ll find me on the side of not using unsanctioned bots and hacks in video games.

Breaking a game’s terms of service can result in some very bad news for you and your pocketbook. In 2009, the creators of the bot called Glider was shut down and subsequently sued for $7M. The bot was found to not only break the terms of service, but it also broke copyright law. The court cited that because Glider circumvented the warden program that protected the “end-user experience” that it was infringing on Blizzard’s copyright of that experience. So clearly, any other bot that takes over the action of your character would be found in the same violation.

5.7 million reasons dollars

The most recent bot in WoW has been operating for five years. At that point, it seemed as if Blizzard wasn’t going to do anything about it, and even the creators of the bot program were feeling untouchable. Creator Bossland cited the court ruling against Blizzard in Hamburg, Germany, in 2010 as a suitable reason to feel that they could keep business going as usual. The creator said in a blog post, screenshot below:

“With Honorbuddy you thought that we are unbeatable, we never thought that, we've succeeded since 2010 - Honorbuddy had not a single software detection. It seems there is one now.” In fact, Bossland all but admits defeat: “For now we closed our Honorbuddy Authentication, when we know any more details we will inform you.”

It’s clear why the creators of the botting software wanted to keep going. If the advertising for the software is true, then creating botting software is a million-dollar-a-year business. It claims to have over 200,000 registered users, and if each of them has a single lifetime account that’s $5.7M. That’s not even counting the money made from selling gold and those users with multiple accounts.

This does beg the question why other people would do it. It seems very risky and frankly, you’re not really playing the game when the bot is doing everything for you. Regardless of any court ruling in Hamburg, Blizzard has the right to ban anyone using a bot.

On the front page of the bot’s website, it might say “Botting is not against any law,” but it also says that using the software “may be against [Blizzard’s] TOS/EULA.” Blizzard community manager Bashiok was quite clear on Twitter where Blizzard stands.

Even if people do it subconsciously, they all weigh the risks versus the rewards when using a bot or anything that might break the terms of service. Before writing these people off as complete idiots, I have to ask what makes the risks worth the reward.

Botting with benefits - are the risks worth it?

A couple of years ago, an American gold farmer named Josh Miroslav talked about how he made upwards of $10,000 a month botting in Runescape. This was a type of second-hand botting where he never made any direct sales. He would run bots gather materials, selling them, collecting gold, and repeating the process multiple times a day. When he reached a certain number, he would then sell the gold to a third party who would act as the distributor of the gold. (Those are the annoying spammers that you see in the common areas shouting about gold sales.)

What’s interesting about Josh’s case isn’t what he did. It’s that he kept doing it despite being banned multiple times. Josh was asked if he’d ever been banned. He told Vice:

“A lot. I would have no idea, really. In one day, Jagex managed to take out every single account I'd ever touched, which was a lot at the time. I'd say at least 50 have been permanently banned, with many more accounts locked.”

But given that the amount that he was clearing monthly, it doesn’t matter. Even if he had to buy a $20 game every time he was banned it would take quite a few bans before it would be a significant challenge to his income.

Manchester University performed a study in 2008, stating that the gold farmer industry at the time was a $500M a year industry. It’s only grown since then. More recent accounts say that players using bots can make $40 a day per bot. Many people who bot professionally usually run 5 bots at a time, which means $200 a day if done well.

The ugly side

I have mentioned that I’m OK with gold farming in and of itself, but there is an ugly side. The same Wired report that cited the Manchester study claims that 80% of the gold farming industry takes place in China. And despite Americans making in the tens of thousands a month, a Chinese gold farmer is known to earn $142 a month. Even the most capitalistic side of me cannot agree with that ratio. The Manchester study stated there were 500,000 people in the gold farming industry. If the $500M is divided evenly, those people would have made about $10 each... not even close to an optimal division of wealth.

Although it could be nice for World of Warcraft to live without bots for the rest of its existence, we know that’s not going to happen. This industry is far too lucrative to be bot-free.

Published May. 19th 2015
  • NoizyGamer
    That Vice story about Josh Miroslav is pretty disturbing.

    Just thought you might want a couple of other links. One, for a paper written by Professor Heeks published in 2010, suggests the market was over $1 billion.

    https://journals.tdl.org/jvwr/index.php/jvwr/article/view/868/633

    The second, published by Tuukka Lehtiniemi and Vili Lehdonvirta in 2007, estimated between $1-2 billion globally, but the number was squishy because the sources in Asia mixed the primary and secondary markets.

    Of the two, you might want to read the Heeks paper.

    Every time you write on the topic, people tweet me to make sure I read it. Can't wait for you to write about how RMT has influenced the design of online games.
  • Jay Ricciardi
    Contributor
    It's pretty insane to think about just how lucrative botting is - and also how easy it is to obtain one. I just did a Google search for 'mmo bot' and a ton just popped up.
  • Larry Everett
    Featured Columnist
    I've personally known players who have made tons of money botting and similar. And the amount of money to be made only increases as the number of MMOs and similar online games increase. It's kind of crazy.

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