Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, January 04, 2011
Tol Barad exploit, and the path of least resistance

Heroic dungeons in Cataclysm right now are considerably harder than heroic dungeons were at the end of Wrath of the Lich King. The WoW blogosphere is full of horror stories of pickup groups failing horribly (and then unfairly blaming the healer). While the people who spent most of WotLK wailing about how WoW was far too easy haven’t manned up enough yet to admit that Blizzard did something right with Cataclysm, at least they mostly stopped complaining. But the “let’s optimize the fun out of games” brigade is already hard at work to circumvent any challenge that Cataclysm might hold. And the way they are using is exploiting Blizzard having made a massive blunder when designing PvP for Cataclysm: Tol Barad.

Tol Barad is a zone which works a bit like Wintergrasp, a PvP zone which can change hands in a battle every 150 minutes, winning which gives access to an extra raid dungeon. So far so good, but somebody who apparently had no idea about how PvP works in World of Warcraft designed Tol Barad so that the attackers need to hold 3 points to flip the zone, while the defenders just need to keep one of those points to keep it. It is easy to see that if both sides try equally hard, the defenders always win, and Tol Barad never changes hands. Statistics showed Tol Barad only changing hands once every 11 battles, the defenders to attackers win ratio was 10:1.

So Blizzard “hotfixed” an already bad idea with an even worse won: Defending Tol Barad successfully gives 180 honor points, but the reward for successfully attacking it was increased to 1800, ten times as much. In what Spinks calls The Miracle of Tol Barad, players immediately realized that this could easily be exploited by match fixing. Defenders simply lose on purpose, thus turning into attackers two-and-a-half hours later, and getting much more honor points than if they had defended successfully twice. While that is technically a bannable exploit, in practice Blizzard can’t punish anyone. In every battle the ones getting rewarded are the attackers, and they didn’t do anything illegal. And on the defenders side it would take enormous manpower and effort to find out exactly who was actually trying to defend, and who was just pretending to.

As a result players now have the choice between doing hard heroics for a random chance on an iLevel 346 blue item or doing Tol Barad without resistance for enough points to buy a guaranteed iLevel 352 blue item of their choice (they cost between 1250 and 2200 honor). Of course the honor point items have resilience on them, but the other stats are good enough to make these PvP items perfectly useable in PvE. And even just carrying them in your backpack counts for the “average iLevel” that WoW now calculates for each character to determine what dungeons they can go to. So by exploiting Tol Barad, players can either gear up enough for raids, or at the very least use the PvP gear to make heroics easier. And because so many players *do* exploit Tol Barad, it has become virtually impossible to play that PvP zone as intended. If many defenders lose intentionally, a few defenders trying to actually hold Tol Barad won’t be able to do so. And as the theorycrafters from Elitist Jerks pointed out, it is a variation of the prisoner’s dilemma game theory problem, which is more unbalanced towards cooperation than the original prisoner’s dilemma, leading to a snowballing of cooperation once a certain threshold of exploiters is reached.

While the situation is certainly interesting from the point of view of social engineering and game theory, it is pretty bad for Cataclysm in general. Players having found a path of least resistance is removing some of the challenge Blizzard added with the new heroics. And it isn’t even obvious what Blizzard could do to fix that. Even if they were able to quickly fix Tol Barad, the genie is out of the bottle, and it is nearly impossible to reverse the situation and take all the exploited PvP gear back out of the game. As the exploit is a collaborative one, Blizzard could never selectively only remove the PvP gear from people who willingly participated in the exploit. And if they just removed all honor point gear, they’d punish everyone who gathered honor points in a legit way.
Hotfixed on Jan. 3 so that winning attackers get 360 Honor.
Quote from that forum thread: "But everyone is already fully geared now. No need to run TB or BGs anymore."
Basic math should have shown that the honor ratios made no sense at all. Always winning should beat winning half the time, and yet, that's exactly the opposite of what Blizzard created.

Of course nerfing the win honor just brings back the original problem of offense requiring excessive conditions compared to defense.
As someone who doesn't play WoW, I'm staggered at their initial hotfix.

From the outside, I was of the impression that Blizzard is very careful with how it patches the game, especially when it's high level stuff.

Seems like a really bad mistake from such a mature game and studio.
I didn't know this.

I noticed getting an extra load of honor once after winning TB but that was just one time. But it does explain why it was so hard to defend the time before that.
Maybe you didn't mention it because it's even more of an exploit but it's hotfixed now so probably okay to talk about.

What you do describe isn't the worst of it -- anyone standing on the bridge in the PvE part of Tol Barad can get the honor award for winning! So dozens of people from the attacking side swarm that bridge during the battle waiting for the folks actually in it to quickly win over the other side that throws it to them. It's extra silly.
Too bad that they do not read forums and blogs. They could have back-hotfix on the first day, since the blogosphere and EJ was full off "worst change ever" posts.
"Too bad that they do not read forums and blogs. They could have back-hotfix on the first day, since the blogosphere and EJ was full off "worst change ever" posts."

It should have been incredibly obvious this was a bad idea without hearing it from bloggers. Does Blizzard really not employ anyone who understands WoW as much as your typical blogger? That doesn't seem possible, but the evidence is mounting.

Cataclysm has been a strange mixture of signature Blizzard polish and "how could anyone possibly have missed this" facepalm moments. Things like Tol Barad, or Uldum not having a mailbox in the entire zone.

How do these things even make it INTO beta testing, much less released?

I'd like to point out that bad design, or even bad implementaiton of a design, does not an exploit make.

This is a case of bad design.

Blizzard should be held accountable - even with it's "godly" status among gamers. The guys who worked on this new pvp area should have had their pants run up the flagpole(at the least) for this horrific blunder from the start.

Players will take advantage of bad design -every time- once they figure out that something is unbalanced. It's nothing new, and to even mention bans or gear removal is to remove any culpability of Blizzards part in this. They need to fix/rework the zone and forget hotfixes....period.
From a PvE point of vue, i don't think it's a huge issue. Being fully decked in blues is already easily achievable anyway (rep, normal runs), and the honor items are roughly similar to 346 hc drops. If you are bad, having gear will not save you in a HC anyway.

In PvP, all will be buffed equally.

So overall, the impact is rather the disastrous loss of image in terms of pvp design for bliz. Surprising. To quote a (in)famous goblin, it's almost as if the internal testing was done by socials :D
I'd like to point out that bad design, or even bad implementaiton of a design, does not an exploit make.

The design is bad. But intentionally losing, agreeing to throw matches, is still an exploit, and Blizzard clearly said so.
While Blizzard's PVE and dungeons remain head and shoulders above the competition, Tol Barad yet again confirms that when it comes to PVP, Blizzard is just strangely clueless.
I wonder what that hotfix is supposed to change. Now its "work your ass of and get 180 points" or "do nothing and get 360 every 2 matches (=180 every match)". And since the cooperation is so well established now..
Actually, Tobold, you don't even need to exploit. Any sort of rational analysis, assuming you are in it for more than one trial, will have your premade, hard core PVPers queuing up to attack and declining to do so on defense.

I don't see how Blizzard could punish defenders for not showing up.
"The design is bad. But intentionally losing, agreeing to throw matches, is still an exploit, and Blizzard clearly said so."

Well since Blizzard said so. C'mon! How do you see the 10:1 implementation as anything other than "Please let the attackers win sometimes/Don't just sit there at one tower" excuse. I think (internally at least) that they knew what would happen. I can't believe the entirety of the dev team is so stupid/blind that they didn't see this one coming from a mile and a half away. No this was planned as a patchover because they know in 6 months all this stuff is going to be upgraded anyway and that, because of bad design to begin with, there was already an inequity so let's just bring everyone who wants it, up to the same level so everyone's even.
I was flabbergasted at the 1800-point hotfix. How could Blizzard implement something like that, and NOT realize that people would just start trading wins? Are they really that naive? It was really out of character for Blizzard. Of course, Tol Barad in general is out of character for Blizzard - not well-thought-out at all. Even in beta, testers were pointing out (rightly) that the BG design was asinine and favored the defenders too much. They were ignored and it went live as-is.
Sounds like the interns are doing a great job with WoW. Also very surprised they got PvP wrong, after all the success they had with WG and the various 'fixes' to AV. They really should just stick to sparkle ponies, much easier stuff there.
Blizzard couldn't care less about any design issue as long as it doesn't affect profit. Not sure what all the fuss is about.
It was a Christmas present from Blizzard. I'm in full 352 gear now with the 346 Revered weapons from the Tol Barad quarter master.

Thanks Blizzard!

Blizzard is clueless when it comes to PvP. Alterac Valley has been gutted for 3 years when it could have been a number one reason to play WoW. C'est la vie.

Rifts beta 4 on Jan. 7 and DC Universe next month. I can unsub until the next WoW expansion. :)
I've said it for months, gamers will always take the easiest route to obtain better gear. MMO gamers aren't playing MMOs for the joy of slowly getting stronger... that want fat loots now. A few people enjoy altism, but they are a minority.

Someone else to consider. The majority of the staff in charge of WoW now is completely different from the staff that was there 3 years ago. Most of the original team was moved to Titan.
Same type of thing happened all the time in early Warhammer Online PvP. Due to huge population imbalance both sides would organize intentional losses via IRC to pad stats and to get capital cities opened up so each side could get their PvP gear.
hmmmm lets see if after 150 minutes the attackers start gaining "reinforcements" that continue to increase till the zone changes hands then vanish. Problem solved.

Eventually even two against 20 would flip the zone.
The solution is simple. Award progressively more honor points for each consecutive successful defense. If attackers get 1800 for winning, defenders get like 800, 1600 then 2400 for consecutive defenses, or something like that. Maybe some sort of epic weapon for a certain number of consecutive defenses. Everything is exploitable but I doubt one side will let the other win 5-10 times in a row.

Most people didn't even use IRC. There was no benefit to defending a keep early on so everyone just keep swapped. There was also no benefit for attacking a defended keep so if for some reason someone did show up to defend you just went to another keep.

As for the capital city swapping that had to be done. The zones were design so piss poorly and the servers so unstable no cities could be taken if the Fortresses were defended.
One of the things I think this discussion somewhat sidelines is how fun TB actually is.

I'd heard about the exploitation of TB from in /guild, but hadn't managed to check it out - wasn't 85, just taking my time. I recently popped 85, and queued for the scenario to find a lacklustre game of win swapping going on. Whilst the free honour was nice, it sort of lacks any sort of gameplay fun. Whilst getting loot in WoW is one of the main targets of the game, I also like shooting things in the face with lasers.

Imagine my surprise when - last night - I had a TB game where attackers and defenders were doing their jobs. It was a massive, awesome firefight with people going Captain Insano on both sides. Win or lose, it was amazing fun (I don't offhand recall if we won or not, because it was a blast either way).

In the design of TB, I think they really got the *fun* aspect of it right. Rewards and designs to make it a long term strategic game certainly could use some work, as rewards fixing is not good. There's a number of ways they could patch TB to make it less useless than it is right now, but in all things I think Blizzard will probably take a bit of time to think it through.

But I'd encourage my fellow Tobold readers to just hop in and have a go - if you liked AV of old, this has the same flavour :)
I honestly saw this coming and things of this nature continue to happen in every MMO. The developers seem unable to accuratly predict how their gamers will react to any given change.

Yes, like everyone else I have a blog. Wrote about this a week ago... or more about the mindset of this.
@ Richard

Sure, the first time there is an awesome experience, but it's the after-matches that showcase the horrific flaws. After a few battles it turns into nothing more than a mind numbing circle-zerk(zerg). Blizzard has openly stated that it's stacked in favor of the defenders, but the attempt to "hotfix" the issue resulted in what can only be described as - here, have free honor, because we goofed and dont have a fix right now-. =(

The developers seem unable to accuratly predict how their gamers will react to any given change.

Also on the flip side, the gamers are simply not doing what the developers want the gamers to be doing. Obviously Tol Barad isn't meant to be exploited like that, but the gamers, by nature, want everything the easiest way.

And to think that WoW is supposed to be all about polish too. Blizzard can polish the game, but they can't exactly polish the players. Though they might be able to police them.
I agree the gamers aren't doing what the developers want the gamers to do. Then that raises a question.

Whose fault is it that gamers are choosing the path of least resistance, the gamer or the developer?

To be honest I say it's the developers fault. The gamer will always choose that path of least resistance and the developer should know this. (It’s been that way since EQ) Therefore the developer should be aware of it and make changes in advance to guide the gamers in the correct direction of their vision. It’s not that people are choosing the path of least resistance that is the problem. The problem is that Blizzard didn’t anticipate this path and plan ahead to minimize the negative impact on the game.

If you think of your player base/community as one rather simple minded entity it becomes much easier to predict how they will react. Sociologist and Psychologist spend years studying how to make people do things and why they do things. The fact that developers can't figure out that they should be employing these people is mind boggling.
well this is what happens when a group of talented techies try to make a system that relys on social behavior. They have no real world experience in making people behave or getting them to play as intended. It was amusing in
Vanilla WOW now it's just bordering on pathetic. They need to hire a few psychologists amd sociologists to help them figure out what people will do.

Whose fault is it that gamers are choosing the path of least resistance, the gamer or the developer?

I'd say that both are responsible. The developer for providing the chance, and the gamer for actually taking the chance. However, for exploitations, the gamers are the ones responsible more than the developers.
It's always the developer's fault, never the gamers. Blizzard, as a developer, puts the player on rails in their theme park environment. Blizzard insists that you experience WoW a specific way (progession in pve and pvp). It is not a sandbox.

If you take away a players choice, everything becomes a calculation. Win trading was a calculation easy for (forced upon) the player to make.

That, my friends, is bad game design.
I quit WoW, so I don't understand the exact layout and mechanics of the zone, so excuse me if this sounds stupid.

Couldn't they have just required the defenders to hold 2 towers (and attackers hold 2 towers, or whatever it is) to fix the problem.

Again, maybe it isn't that simple, but odd numbers provide a lot of inherent usefulness in situations like these. Not sure why Blizzard didn't just change the amount of "x" required to win to 2/3, and keep the amount of honor earned equal.
It's always the developer's fault, never the gamers.

Wow that's a very strong statement there. I find it disheartening to see such a reluctance to accept any share of responsibility from the gamer's side.

If you accidentally left your door house unlocked and someone robbed your house because it was unlocked, do you think that the robber was never at fault? If you actually locked your house and someone robbed it by breaking your window, is it your fault for not making your window unbreakable?

I think Blizzard was very naive for not anticipating the players' behaviour when they increase the reward by so much. But that doesn't mean that it's only their fault and the players are innocent. Just because a game offers a cheat method (e.g.: Saints Row 2 with the phone numbers, or NBA 2K11 to unlock Michael Jordan rather than to go through the challenges, etc) doesn't mean that players have to use it. Just because there's terrain glitch for easy kill in many shooters games doesn't mean that the players must exploit it.

If a single player RPG allows the players to grind, and the player decided to grind to the max level 99. Then they fought the first level 10 boss, is it the developer's fault that the game ended up being too easy for that player from then on? Not exactly.

Win trading was a calculation easy for (forced upon) the player to make.

I'm just flabbergasted by this idea. If the win ratio of 10:1 between attacker and defender is maintained as the same as before the fixed matches, then the reward increase wouldn't have been a problem. So the players simply needed to do the same thing as what they had been doing before playing Tol Barad as intended by Blizzard. Their intention of rewarding the attacker a bit more because their task is more difficult than the defender is suddenly exploited because of the player's greed.

I wonder how many WoW players would switch to "VERY EASY" mode (everything in-game is soloable with ease as monsters are 1/100 as strong as normal mode) if Blizzard someday decided to create two different difficulties for the game. I wouldn't be surprised if up to 90% would do that.

It is always the job of the game to appeal to me. I am not obligated to like it.

First off I dislike analogies because they spiral into arguing the analogy and not the point of your analogy, so I’m going to ignore it. I hope you don’t take offense.

Yes it is completely the Developers fault when gamers exploit or min/max out the challenge. If you know that gamers always take advantage of a situation, bug, glitch, whatever and you still leave it in the game you cannot as a developer shrug your shoulders and say “Well you guys didn’t have to do it”. Gamers are not individuals, they are one rather simple minded mass entity… a community if you will. Like any social group they are susceptible to peer pressure and what I like to call the land slide effect. As one person takes advantage of a situation, or min/max, then others will see the success and follow. After a certain point of this everyone is going to have to follow or else get left behind.

… you know what I will address your analogy…

So say I live next to a drug house. Over the past 10 years every time I leave my door unlocked my home gets broken into. Today if I leave and forget to lock my door; when they break into my house that would be my fault.

So let’s say I make MMOs. Over the past 10 years every time I leave a bug, glitch, or encounter in which my community can min/max out the challenge they do so. Today if I leave a bug, glitch, or whatever in the game; when my gaming community takes advantage of it that would be my fault.
It is always the job of the game to appeal to me. I am not obligated to like it.

Exactly! That's my point too. Why do you like/dislike certain games? Because it's based on your own preferences of likes/dislikes. Thus, it's the players "responsibility" whether they like/dislike something. The developer can only be responsible of offering what they thought would be liked no matter how good/bad it is to you. You are free to like/dislike their product.

In relation to Tol Barad exploit, the players are free to exploit the reward increase with match-fixing or not. If the players decided to exploit it, then the players share the responsibility too.

@Epiny, I'll take your advice and ignore your analogies. I hope you aren't offended. I'll reply to other points though.

If you know that gamers always take advantage of a situation, bug, glitch, whatever and you still leave it in the game you cannot as a developer shrug your shoulders and say “Well you guys didn’t have to do it”.

Gamers are not individuals, they are one rather simple minded mass entity

I strongly disagree. Gamers are individuals as shown by different preferences of gamers and the fact that developers can't satisfy all gamers no matter what they do.

And in relation to this, I'm actually very interested to see how many WoW players actually exploit this Tol Barad thing. I know such number is impossible to find for us, but it can prove whether you're right that gamers are as simple minded as that (this is if say 80% or more of WoW players exploited Tol Barad) or whether gamers are actually more complicated than you think (let's say only 60% or less exploited Tol Barad) that they don't all do "the same thing".

This reminds me of what happened in FFXI where the players were actually banned for exploiting bugs to duplicate items, despite the bug being Square-Enix's fault. But I think S-E did the right thing (they banned a few of my friends too because their LS did it) for holding the players responsible for their actions. And despite FFXI having around 500k players, only about 1k were banned. One thousand sounds a lot of course, but it's not even 1% of the player base. This showed that even when exploitation is possible, it's not always being taken by the players if the players still value what's morally right or wrong.

To me, pushing the blame all to the developer's side is just a cop out and a way for the players to wash their hands. While the developer isn't innocent, the players surely can't claim that they are innocent.
Another thing that I would like to add is this. If you are playing a single-player game and the game offers Easy, Normal, and Hard difficulty level, which one would you pick? I asked 11 of my gamer friends and 10 said Normal, 1 said Hard. Nobody picked Easy at all. This makes me start to question the "always choosing path of least resistance" mentality that we seem to assume that gamers have. Do gamers really always choose path of least resistance?

But if we're talking about MMORPG, I acknowledge what Epiny said about peer pressure. Peer pressure can be a dangerous thing where you're pressured to do something that you normally wouldn't. However, this only further emphasizes that the players should be responsible for their actions. Why? Because the peers are your fellow players. This can turn the Normal mentality that you have from single-player game into Easy mentality in MMORPG. The cause? Your fellow players.
People respond to incentives. Paying them for it is essentially a means of saying "I want you to do this". You pay them for swapping fights, they will. If you dont want them to do it, dont pay them for it. Basic economics, people. (The analogy with burgling the house fails because society provides disincentives in the form of armed homeowners, and/or jail time).
Afterthought: PvP was Fail ever since Blizz decided it should have separate mechanics than PvE.
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