computer games games industry security

Cracking EAs Spore DRM: Joining the dots

Is it just me, or is calling this about “piracy” missing the point here? (and, in case this isn’t obvious enough: yes, this is a deliberately very flippant post, but the points are serious :) )

EDIT: just for the record, I actually bought and played the game, quite a lot. Although don’t expect a professional review there :).

computer games games design massively multiplayer security

MMO Economies Suck: But developers are blameless

…according to Ed Castranova’s snippet that Scott J posted from the MDY vs Blizzard trial notes.

Courtesy of Scott, here’s a hosted copy of the source documents.

Ed writes a nice little explanation of why / how bots damage an in-game economy. I liked that. Good stuff – go read it. So far, so good – a great primer for anyone wanting to understand the situation better.

Unfortunately, the implication throughout the document is that this is all directly damaging to Blizzard’s revenue, and should be prevented *by someone other than Blizzard*.

I think this is a really stupid way of looking at things. My impression from reading the submission was that it’s overall a somewhat twisted description of the situation, coloured by a desire to use the facts (economic analysis) to support a personal desire (stop people using bots rather than go to the effort of fixing the bugs in the game-design). Sure, capitalist companies will pursue the cheapest possible means to achieve their goals, including suing people if they think they’ll succeed, but I deeply object to this kind of good factual analysis being spun to imply it proves stuff that it does not prove, and which consists an attempt to dodge responsibility and use the legal system to make up for mistakes in a company’s product-development strategy. Make better games, don’t blame the players for not playing the way they were “meant” to. Even the ones who are cheating. Ban them for cheating, stop them however you can, but don’t claim it’s not your fault that they’ve managed to cheat in the first place: of course it’s your fault.

Picking the snippet Scott quoted, which is nicely indicative of the whole piece:

Glider bots destroy this design, distorting the economy for the average player in two specific ways. When a Glider bot “farms” an area, it picks up not only experience points for its owner, discussed above, but also the “loot” that is dropped by the mobs killed by the bot. Because Glider can run constantly, it kills far more mobs than anticipated by WoW’s designers, thus creating a large surplus of goods and currency, flooding the economy with gold pieces and loot like the Essence of Water. This surplus distorts the economy in a specific way.

When bots gather key resources, they gather them in abundance. Owners of bots usually sell these resources to other players for gold, which inevitably deflates their price. Blizzard’s design intent is for the resources to command a certain high value, so that average players, who might get one or two of the resources in an average amount of play time, may obtain a decent amount of gold from selling them. But because characters controlled by bots flood the market with those resources, the market value of these resources is far less than Blizzard intended, and the average player realizes only a fraction of the intended value from the resources s/he finds. The deflated value of key resources presents a critical problem for ordinary players trying to enjoy the game. Blizzard’s game systems assume that players will be earning a certain amount of gold per hour, and many systems, such as repairs and travel, force players to make fixed payments of gold into WoW’s systems. Buying a horse, for example, costs a certain amount of gold. That pnce IS set by the game designers based on the assumption that normal players will accumulate gold at a certain rate, and that some of their gold will come from the value of resources that they harvest and sell. When the value of those resources plummets because of Glider, the amount of time it takes to accumulate the gold required for in-game expenditures like the horse skyrockets. This skews the economy, frustrates players, and, as a result of a less-satisfied user base, damages Blizzard.

My interpretation of the above argument:

  1. Designer makes various tables of numbers showing relationship between prices, rarity, the difficulty of achieving items at a given level, etc. This is normal – people who do this are often called “balance” game-designers, because they’re balancing out the risk/reward, cost/effect of everything
  2. Developers hard code these values, on the assumption that the world is perfect, they are God, and nothing could ever go wrong (this is fine; normally you make that kind of mistake once, and then fix it when you realise the problems this is going to cause)
  3. System collapses because of “bad people”
  4. When caught in such situations, Developers get to blame everyone except themselves, even though it’s clearly their own shoddy game design / implementation

The analysis is economically accurate, but the conclusions about the impact on design, and whose responsibility it is to contain/prevent/undo this, is just making out game developers to be lazy, stupid, bullies. People should take responsibility for their mistakes, not blame everyone else. Especially not blame the users of a game. Even if they hack your game to pieces and cheat like crazy THAT’S STILL YOUR FAULT AS A GAME DEVELOPER. You may hate them, rightly so, but it’s your responsibility to make better games. At least, that’s how we used to make games. Maybe the industry doesn’t work that way any more. Maybe it’s just me that thinks that way, maybe to everyone else in the industry a “bad game” isn’t your fault as a developer, it’s the players’ fault for not being clever enough to appreciate the coolness of your game.

Look at Diablo – it fell to pieces and died because of in-memory live hacking of the game-data. Seriously hardcore stuff (in a way). But that didn’t mean everyone just shrugged and said “those nasty hackers, they ruined a perfect game, it’s not the developers faut”, instead we took it to mean they hadn’t built it well enough, that next time they would have to change their approach, or their priorities, to prevent this from happening again.

To pick one more quote that underlines how silly I think this piece is because of the spin being put on it:

Glider bots occupy resources that Blizzard could otherwise put to other, more constructive uses. Because those resources are required to fight Glider, they are spent in a way that does not improve the game

Well, duh. And the same is true of most of the work being done by the Customer Service depts that all of the MMO companies pay large amounts of money to in salary every day. And it’s also true of the hardware that we use to run the game. Etc, etc. Just because a development cost “does not improve the game” doesn’t mean you have grounds to go and sue someone else for causing you to have to do it.

Where does it stop, if you go down that route? Are we going to start suing players who ask questions of the CS team that are too stupid? Will we bill players with crappy graphics cards for our time that was wasted diagnosing problems with their hardware that were stopping them from playing our games?

Which is not to say that I support botting or bot applications. I don’t support either. And I believe there are many different ways you can fight them, and there are many good reasons for shutting down people and organizations that use them. But I don’t think the reasons given above are included. And I don’t want to sink to the level of making specious arguments just because it’s the path of least effort…

conferences security

How to really secure WordPress for a remote blog

EDIT: downloading the nice plugin recommended in this post will now break your blog if you’re using WordPress 2.5 – the wordpress authors have made some incompatible changes. But it’s OK – bengreen has fixed the plugin, and made a new version available (read here for some very basic information on what will break and idiot-proof instructions on how to fix it)

I had a nasty shock when I realised that wordpress by default has no security at all. Anyone in your office who doesn’t like you and has a basic knowledge of using google can potentially steal your admin password and take complete control of your blog. This is, really, pretty mind-blowingly stupid – I love wordpress, but “no HTTPS support out-of-the-box” is frankly irresponsible, especially for a product used by so very many people across the world. The only good part is that AFAICS on a quick glance there’s no easy way of taking control of the entire webserver if you’re the wordpress admin (plugins still have to be manually uploaded, so you’d need separate access to the server to manage that).

What follows is a discussion of how to fix this, along with links to step-by-step guides that worked well, and an extra note on how to complete the process without doing the “login once insecurely” that all the guides tell you to do at the end.

conferences security

Austin GDC: Vote for your conference

AGDC is a small computer-games conference (about 1,000 attendees) with a particular focus on online and massively-multiplayer online games (MMOGs). In that context, it’s pretty big – with such a niche within a niche, it tends to have talks and representatives from most of the players in the space.

Every year, each of the games industry conferences have to pick between 100 and 300 talks and speakers, each of whom gets a free all-access ticket and usually free international travel, hotel, etc. The process is fairly straightforward: they put out a request for proposals about 6-9 months earlier, receive thousands of 1000-word abstracts, and select those that they think are interesting, novel, or will attract people enough to make them buy expensive tickets.

Democracy rules

Often, the choices made baffle, frustrate, or infuriate people in the industry. The most common complaint is that each year the conferences a higher proportion of worthless talks on subjects that everyone with any experience already knows about, and contain no information you couldn’t have got from home just by using google for a couple of hours. A lot of conferences have a few near-identical talks each year, so that if you’ve been to one you needn’t bother with the rest – one conference even got a reputation for just recycling the talks given at other conferences already that year, which killed it. There are always slightly bitter rumours about the best way to get a talk accepted – “pay for some advertising with the company that owns the conference”, or “offer a favour to someone on the advisory board”. Certainly, the biggest games industry conference (owned by the same people who this year bought-out AGDC) – GDC – has had a substantial number of talks in the last few years that either blatantly broke the conference rules on talks “not being an advert for a product”, or which were of an extremely low quality / low in any actual content.

So … it’s particularly interesting that for this year’s AGDC, the advisory board only chose the majority of the talks. For the rest, they took all the speaker proposals they had received, stuck them online, and invited the world to come and vote for which talks should fill up the remaining places. Even more interestingly, you can see how many people have voted for each talk, and what the average score is so far.

One man, one vote … maybe?

One problem – there’s no apparent rules restricting who votes. All you need is an email address (or gmail or mailinator) and a programmatic web browser, and you can choose who gets the free conference passes. I wouldn’t mind, but there’s a couple of talks I really want to go to myself which are on the voting list, and at least one of them isn’t going to get in – and I’ve little confidence right now that the ones that beat it will have done so by being the most popular with people who actually attend the conference.

And so onto the security angle here. This is the games industry, and this is a conference almost entirely dedicated to online games. It is immediately obvious that this voting system is open to rampant abuse (assuming they haven’t got silent back-end detection going on – I’m not criticising the conference organizers here, who probably have some good security measures in place, I’m merely using the visible details of the system as a starting point to talk about similar systems), and here’s a standard attack pattern:

“Write a program in a scripting language to automatically create accounts and vote for my talk”

  1. Use a free open-source library to make requests and post responses to the web server (libcurl)
  2. Use Firefox with the View Headers feature whilst surfing the site manually to see and record what you need to send and receive
  3. Create enough fake email addresses to swing the voting in your favour
  4. Don’t get detected

First of all, I’m not even sure that 4. above is an issue. Things to do:

  1. Use the US census data to programmatically make email addresses using believable REAL names with a wide variety of different names – and in the right proportion to be all US citizens
  2. Don’t have them all registered from a single domain name
  3. Don’t have them all from a single IP address (assuming they save your IP address when you vote, which most such sites don’t bother to do until too late)

In which case, the only question is “can we pass step 3?”. “But email providers have captchas, that stop automated account creation!” I hear you cry. Ahem. Even if they did (stop you automatically creating email addresses) the attack described only requires you to register enough email addresses to sway the voting. That may be as little as 50 or 100 emails – easily few enough that you could create them all yourself, manually. (in fact, right now, it would only take 20 or so votes to make sure your preferred talk was top).

Cheating better

If you’re still worried about the organizers getting suspicious of all those 5/5 votes for one talk, just look at it this way:

“Identify the major competitor talks, and vote them down, instead of just voting yours up”

Easy enough to hide your skewing of the results in the sea of all the other, genuine, untraceable voters voting one way or another based on personal preference…

Finally, I just want to briefly look at the expected outcome of this, because it touches on a real-life problem with games security: it’s unlikely any individual will cheat, so it may seem it’s “mostly” OK … but with some systems (such as this one) it only requires one cheater to destroy everything. As soon as one person starts cheating, others will notice and will feel “forced” to cheat also – this is what happened with Diablo, when cheaters found a way to make their character able to attack in towns, where no-one was allowed to attack. Non-cheaters were forced to cheat just in order to become able to defend themselves – there was no other defence that would work.

Some people started promoting their talks on their blog, and others have now followed suit. The voting contest has become a contest of who has the biggest blog :). I’m sure this was intentional by the conference organizers – it’s an excellent way of getting more free publicity that specifically targets and promotes the individual talks rather than just the generic conference itself. Even better, it has a natural tendency to give the most publicity to the most popular talks-to-be, whereas the conference organizers have to second guess what they think will make people pay to come and listen.

I wonder why they decided to let anyone vote, rather than restricting it to people who had booked tickets? They could even have just taken a refundable deposit, up to a certain date, to force only people who were willing to stump up some cash to take part in the voting. That could have filtered out most of the “no intention of going to the conference” people (although it certainly wouldn’t have made the system secure from determined cheating).