World of Warcraft: Should people have the right to cheat?
More than 100,000 folks seem to think so. That is how many copies have been sold of a computer program called Glider, which essentially plays the game World of Warcraft for you. While you sleep, eat, go to work, attend class or do whatever else, Glider controls your WOW character — killing monsters, casting spells, collecting treasure and accumulating the experience points required to advance and become more powerful.
Of the 11 million people who play World of Warcraft, most do so legitimately; they actually play the game themselves. The whole point of a massively multiplayer online game like WOW or EverQuest is that players can take pride that their virtual accomplishments and wealth reflect real human effort, determination, ingenuity and skill. Even though I haven’t played WOW regularly in more than a year, I’ve still racked up thousands of hours in that world since 2004. To have the few unscrupulous players use a “bot” program like Glider makes a mockery of that effort and contributes to ruining the entertainment experience for me and everyone else.
But should creating and selling a program like Glider be illegal?
That is the question that has been winding its way through a federal court in Arizona since 2006, when Blizzard Entertainment, WOW’s creator, first locked legal horns with Glider’s author, a programmer named Michael Donnelly, and Mr. Donnelly’s company, MDY Industries.
Last summer the court ruled that MDY (which has made at least $3.5 million in sales from Glider since 2005) had illegally interfered with Blizzard’s customer relationships and engaged in various copyright violations. Then, last week, Judge David G. Campbell additionally ruled that MDY had violated the Digital Millennium Copyright Act by circumventing an anti-bot technology developed by Blizzard. Blizzard, he said, was entitled to an injunction essentially shutting Mr. Donnelly down and halting sales of Glider, which costs $25. (WOW itself generally costs around $15 a month to play.)
Let me be blunt: I, like the vast majority of gamers, feel strongly that bot programs like Glider are abhorrent and people who use them should be banned from the games they bot in. I agree wholeheartedly with Judge Campbell’s assertion that “the public interest may favor full and honest competition, but MDY ultimately is an exploiter, not a competitor.”
But I also recognize a powerful argument on the other side, which contends that it is dangerous and improper to allow a software company to dictate what other programs may be used in conjunction with its products. Glider does not hack into Blizzard’s systems or alter World of Warcraft’s programming code. And it does not actually copy the game’s programming or visual assets. It “merely” interacts with the game, like a player, only with inhuman stamina and precision.
“What if Microsoft made a deal with Electronic Arts and said you are only allowed to play E.A. games on machines running Windows Vista?” asked Lance C. Venable, Mr. Donnelly’s lawyer in Arizona. “What if Ford said that if you put third-party Napa auto parts in your vehicle, you are no longer allowed to load the software that runs your car’s ignition system?”
As the case nears the appeal process, it is Mr. Venable’s job to make the most dire slippery-slope argument possible. And he appears to understand why many gamers might dislike his client: “My client is a pretty unsympathetic character if you look at this case from the very narrow lens of it being a case of Blizzard versus a botter. I completely understand why people are sympathetic to Blizzard’s position.”
For now Glider is still for sale; the judge has not yet decided whether to impose the injunction pending appeal. It would surprise fewpeople if that appeals process continues for at least a year.
All I know for sure is that as a gamer, I think bots are as bad as out-and-out hacks or people hiring a “goldfarmer” in China to play the game for them. I have seen bots and hacks destroy other online games, in particular a previous Blizzard product called Diablo II. Diablo II was one of the world’s best games until it was swamped about five years ago by hackers, who illegally duplicated and distributed copies of rare and expensive items in the game, just like counterfeiters.
Paul Sams, Blizzard’s chief operating officer, has every right to get on his high horse, as he did in a telephone interview this week. “The Diablo II experience is why we are so adamant about this,” he said.
“We are not going to stand by,” he continued, “and let our games be destroyed by people who are taking away from the fun that we have created and that others are experiencing, and we are not going to let that happen to our customers again. Ever.”