Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Thresholds in Virtual Air

As an effect of studying a little biology you get more sensitive to the concept of threshold values. You learn not to view things as absolutes but as ranges, in terms of variation around a norm or minimum. You learn how important every mountain gorilla becomes when there's 400 of the damn things left but the generally accepted threshold for sufficient genetic variation for a species' long-term survival is at least 500. Or take for instance the famous depictions of atmospheric greenhouse gasses (remember Al "gimme-an-Oscar" Gore pointing to his spiky chart?) and the issue of truncating graphs for effect. It is legitimate. In fact that graph's Y-axis should be truncated at just 250 to 300 because that is the world we know, the world in which we have always existed. Drive home the point that we are now literally off the freakin' charts! Our human reality doesn't go from 0 to 400 ppm. Our world, the only one we know how to live in, was that historic norm of around 280. That's where everyone from Julius Caesar to Queen Victoria lived. An increase of a hundred ppm isn't 0.0001 or 25% or 33%, it's 1000%, it's a ten-fold amplification of the worst variation human civilization had known previously.

But you know what, all that's too depressing to think about. So let's escape into online games, where the skies are always blue and the elf-lasses busty. And then listen to some corporate fatcat trying to convince you that making you buy various stat-boosting items with real money is harmless really because the advantages they give will be minor. I complained long ago about legitimized cheating, and quite a few times since then. It's been around for many years now, completely wrecking the viability of most online games as games, degrading them to no more than social arenas.
At the time I complained about the now largely defunct game Savage 2's stat-boosting items giving anywhere from 10-30% bonus to effectiveness depending on how you looked at it. For the sake of simplicity, stick with the idea of a 15% health increase. A cheater who bribes the game company for that advantage has 15% more HP than a player who doesn't. Now, 30 more health might not sound like much on a 200-HP player character, but the truth is you don't live and die by that 200 HP. Your success is measured by the statistical difference between your performance and another player's and that oftentimes ends up being precisely that 30 points. It's one more attack, one more defense, one more bullet, one more health potion. Look in any PvP game and see how often you survive a fight with 15% or less HP and how often a player who beats you survived with 15% or less. If a football player had a chance to improve his odds of scoring a goal or even successfully placing a pass by 15%, would he call that trivial? Would he just shrug it off?

The effect really is vastly magnified considering most of these online games, multiplayer games, concern teams of players. Does 2% sound like very little? Here's a nice anecdote.
Back when I was playing WoW, way-when in the mists of time it first launched, I had the opportunity to raid a bit. These were the big old 40-man raids with 39 players praying that the team's tank doesn't die or they'd all wipe. I was a druid, largely derided and discounted because as a hybrid class druids lacked any one specialized value (damage/healing) to throw around as simpleminded proof of their usefulness. So back when my guild was in the Molten Core instance, I was immediately and vociferously criticized for using the "Insect Swarm" spell on raid bosses. All the idiots who lived and died by the damage/healing meter criticized me for using a low-damage debuff when I was what they called a "healer" class. Insect swarm, however, also gave its victim (in this case the giant menacing raid boss) a 2% miss chance on attacks. I replied somewhat thusly:
"if you found an item or a potion or a buff that gave your main tank an extra 2% dodge chance, would you want to use it?"
And from that day on, my guild had not just me but the other druids constantly using Insect Swarm on raid bosses as a general policy.

2% is huge. It snowballs. If in a 40-man PvE raid that was mostly a way of keeping the tank alive, in PvP scenarios any and every advantage counts. Yes, if one of your twenty or thirty players in a PvP game lives through a fight once, just once, by a 2% margin, he can go on to completely shift the power balance.
"For want of a nail, the kingdom was lost" the centuries-old saying goes and it holds true despite cheaters throughout history trying to laugh off and trivialize their sin. They're the same ones who want to keep polluting because hey, 0.0001 is oh-so-little. Cheating matters, and nobody knows this better than cheaters themselves. Once one jock starts using steroids, all the rest have to as well just to keep up. Cheating forces more cheating. That's the beauty of it from the viewpoint of game companies. Once they offer that possibility it becomes a necessity. As soon as they've made that first microtransaction of half a dollar for a 2% stat boost, they are assured thousands more.

The reality of it from the players' view is that corporations are never sated. Greed, unlike your character stats, is not a threshold value. Once a company starts offering legitimized ways to cheat, it will keep offering more and more. The game will inevitably revolve around them. Why? Because once a thousand players have bought the first 2% and the spending threshold for success has been raised, that threshold will be raised again and again. 2% here and 2% there, the biggest spenders accumulate more and more advantages until your virtual world is as polluted as the real one.

You have to keep the damn nail in the horseshoe in the first place. Demand that companies never institute even the slightest bought advantages. NO legitimized cheating, regardless of numeric values.

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