Exploits, Downtime, and a Rollback: Neverwinter’s Difficult Weekend

The story of an economy-busting bug, the response, and the consequences for Cryptic's hot new MMO

It was a rough Sunday for the Neverwinter open beta.  An exploit reportedly discovered during the closed beta period of Cryptic Studio’s Dungeons & Dragons-themed MMO went viral late Saturday night when posts about it began appearing in the game’s official forums.  Large scale duping of Astral Diamonds (which can be exchanged for the game’s real money currency, Zen) was rampant in the hours after the reveal, inflating the in-game economy and triggering a lengthy investigation by the game’s publisher, Perfect World Entertainment.  The results of that investigation shut down servers for most of Sunday and resulted in a shard-wide, seven-hour rollback of character progress. 

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So what happened?  What are the consequences for players and the game’s longevity?  Gameskinny takes a long look at the issue, the response, and the repercussions for one of the most popular free-to-play MMOs of 2013.

The Issue

The exploit that ended up causing so much trouble last weekend allowed players to bid on negative auctions and generate a nearly unlimited amount of Astral Diamonds.  For readers not familiar with the Neverwinter economy, Astral Diamonds (AD) are a rare currency that can be earned by completing daily quests or other tasks constrained by strict time limits.  Completing these tasks reward the player with Rough Astral Diamonds, which can be refined into proper AD in a certain volume each day, another way the game carefully throttles AD income.  Astral Diamonds are critical to Neverwinter’s economy because they allow players to purchase some of the game’s rarest items and equipment (including mounts and companions), but more importantly because they can be exchanged through the game client for Zen, Perfect World’s real money currency.   

The effects of this massive influx of AD were evident almost immediately, driving up the exchange rate for Zen and causing auction house prices to explode.  A domino effect occurred as players took note of the skyrocketing prices, investigated what was happening, and in many cases began duping AD themselves.

 The Reaction

Late in the morning, Perfect World responded.  At around 10:30 AM PDT, the Auction House and the Astral Diamond exchange were disabled to mitigate the effects of the bug.  This didn’t stop resourceful exploiters though, who took to trading cat companions and other goods purchased with duped AD.  At noon Pacific, rollbacks were mentioned for the first time, though community managers indicated that they would only affect players who had been exploiting the bug.  Fifteen minutes later, the servers were shut down completely, locking players out of the game while the investigation unfolded.

Nervous players flooded the game’s forums and vocal factions began to emerge as rumors of a comprehensive rollback were bandied about.  Factions advocating deep rollbacks or complete wipes emerged, opposed by vocal players who didn’t want to be stripped of their progress or were nervous about the potential loss of real money purchases.  Sever downtime, first estimated at around an hour, kept getting extended, stretching out across the afternoon and evening.  Finally at around 11 PM PDT Sunday evening, administrators on the official forums announced a shard-wide rollback that would reverse all progress from between 5:20 PM and 12:20 PM PDT.

 The Consequences

As servers came back online in the small hours Monday morning, players logged on to discover that not only had they lost several hours of progress, but also some of the game’s other sub-currencies.  Representatives from Cryptic and PWE proactively announced that players would be rewarded for their patience during the downtime with a pack of items sometime this week and that exploiters had been appropriately punished or permanently banned.  They assured players that any gold and Zen purchases made during the rollback window would be fully refunded, and that they were taking steps to minimize the exploit’s impact on the in-game economy.  On top of a “robust thank-you pack” for affected players, the Auction House and Astral Diamond exchange remain offline as testing continues.

The long-term consequences to the player base are difficult to gauge: though some fairly damning accounts emerged over the weekend detailing a number of exploits reported but not addressed during the closed beta period, Perfect World has comported themselves well in addressing the problem and keeping lines of communication open to the community.  While it’s easy to say that a seven hour rollback isn’t that major, especially in contrast to a full wipe, the damage to player confidence is the important metric.  This whole incident brings into sharp relief the narrow line developers and publishers tiptoe down when they begin taking players’ money for a product that’s still in an open beta state.

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Alan Bradley
Getting played by video games since the '80s. Host of the Pictures Changing Podcast (pictureschanging.blogspot.com) and notorious raconteur.