Bots are terrorizing World of Warcraft Classic servers, stealing precious resources, monopolizing rare monsters, and inflating the virtual economy with truckloads of illicitly earned gold. Today, WoW Classic developer Blizzard Entertainment announced it has suspended or closed over 74,000 WoW Classic accounts over the last month, many of which were automating gameplay with bots.
For months, clusters of bot-driven accounts have trawled around high-level zones, attacking monsters with uncanny precision before rotating toward their next target in robotic 90-degree angles. These in-game characters are operated by scripts, programmed to optimally kill monsters and obtain rare, valuable items that drop from them. Lately, they’ve been targeting the sought-after Black Lotus, a necessary item for some competitive, high-level play.
World of Warcraft Classic is a punishing game by design, a harkening-back to the early days of World of Warcraft. It boasts little of the expediency that defines modern massively multiplayer online role-playing games; everything is an intentionally slow grind. To obtain a Black Lotus, players had to identify the specific spots where they spawn and camp there for between 45 and 75 minutes, waiting and warding off any competitors. For the last several months, when human-run characters attempted to muscle their way into the mix, coordinated groups of bots threatened them or closed ranks around the flower. So in late May, Loknar—who plays a healing priest in WoW Classic but still tries to kill bots whenever he sees them—decided to hold an anti-bot protest in the in-game city of Orgrimmar.
“There were over 50 people doing a line walk and yelling,” says Loknar. He was trying to draw attention to the issue, asking passers-by not to buy the Black Lotuses that bots put on the auction house at an inflated 300 gold. (The normal price on most servers, he says, is about half that.) Loknar made a racket, but the mafia knew how to shut him up. The bots mass-reported him to publisher Blizzard for “abusive chat.” Blizzard muted Loknar’s account, and those of other protest participants, for 24 hours. In the meantime, the bots got their Black Lotuses to the auction houses, where they maintained their monopoly.
“Whether they're a mafia, whether they're a crime mob, whether they are a syndicate, whether they're an Illuminati; whatever metaphor you want to use for them, the end result is the players are getting fucked,” says World of Warcraft Twitch streamer Asmongold. “They’re completely arrogant about it. . . they advertise the services that they're going to do and they're hacking while they perform the services.”
Dozens of websites easily found on Google sell code or services that automate the World of Warcraft Classic experience. Some individual players pay to hand their accounts over to a bot to level up their characters in the slow, meditative game while they’re at their day jobs or snoozing. Others turn a profit by automating groups of accounts that kill specific monsters and farm specific resources to earn mass amounts of in-game gold. Some use game-breaking techniques to gain an edge, like flying in the air and massacring rare monsters that can’t fight back. (Characters cannot fly in-game.) Then, they round up the goods.
Bots attack the integrity of WoW Classic, a game built on time investment and patience. (In an interview with WIRED, Asmongold compared it to earning a four-year college degree just moments before your college started giving them out for free.) They also undermine the game’s economy. Gold has less buying power when it’s obtained with no labor or time cost.
“There’s no limit to money creation,” says Dr. Michael Morrison, an Edinboro University of Pennsylvania economics professor who wrote his dissertation on the World of Warcraft economy. “In the real world, money is created through a federal reserve. Historically, the limit was how much gold was in the ground. In World of Warcraft, currency continues to grow with play. The more people play, the more hours played, the more money is in the system and the more inflation you see.” More organized botters sell the in-game money or high-level characters they obtain to players in exchange for cash on third-party websites. On Loknar’s server, 100 gold goes for $4.79, while 1,000 gold goes for $47.73. (No bot-makers or gold sellers agreed to an on-the-record interview for this article.)
The influx of bots and bot mafias has had a complicated impact on the WoW Classic economy. Some items are worth less because bots are working 24/7 to achieve them; others are worth more because bot mafias have hogged goods. Tarek Beutler from NexusHub.co, a site that collects analytics from World of Warcraft, crunched the numbers across different WoW Classic servers’ auction houses. The price of a Black Lotus jumped 600 percent over six months, he says, until Blizzard added more Black Lotus spawns in an attempt to fix the problem. He estimates that inflation rates over the last six months have averaged 2.26 percent for US servers, and nearly 7 percent for EU servers.
“Black Lotus for example is a scarce resource and can only be up on a few spawnpoints in the world at the same time. It's pretty easy for botters to control these spawns and gauge the prices, so they go up,” Beutler says. Other resources that spawn in dungeons—which may be disconnected from the shared experience of other landscapes—don’t have that restriction. Botters can speed through these dungeons, gather rare resources and dump their wares onto the auction house, which artificially lowers their value.
“On a macroeconomic scale, some of these activities are a driving factor in gold inflation, while others are moving gold around the economy. All of them are harmful to ordinary players who are trying to trade goods and services within the game economy,” says a spokesperson for the WoW Classic development team. “The presence of bots has a strictly negative impact on the game experience, and we are completely aligned with our players in a desire to eliminate them.”
That tie to real-life economics can breed desperation. On Blizzard’s WoW Classic forums, one player complained about another who allegedly operates 15 bots controlling the Eastern Plagueland for 12 to 14 hours a day. Anyone who kills the bots is subject to “obscene language and various kinds of threats,” says the poster. Two other sources described chat restrictions and threats they say they received from accounts that utilize bots.
Despite Blizzard’s recent crackdown, players have criticized how slow the studio has been to stomp out botting in WoW Classic. Unstrategic, too. Blizzard recently adjusted the drop rate on the Black Lotus so that it’s less rare, and ideally, less easily monopolized. The value crashed across servers, but unfortunately, players say, that just means more flowers for bots. “They would sell them at an inflated price and purchase anyone who tried to undercut and resell the item for the higher price,” says Loknar.
In a blog post today, Blizzard explained why it’s been slow to act: After using automated systems to determine if an suspect account is in fact a bot, official moderators must manually gather evidence,a “time consuming and complex” process. “While today's suspensions were applied in a batch (often referred to as a "banwave"), it is a top priority for us to identify accounts that are botting and remove them,” the company wrote. “Our team works around the clock, every day of the week, and many of the suspensions and account closures over the last few months have gone out in the middle of the night, or on weekends.”
Although Blizzard recently erased tens of thousands of bots from the game, players are concerned that more will easily crop up to replace the old ones. Between banwaves, bots are leveling themselves up. It’s Whac-A-Mole. “People using bots are going for months without getting banned,” says Asmongold. “Blizzard isn’t fixing it because they’re so set on the way they solve problems that they’re unable to adapt to the way things have changed.”
One player, Tpyo, says he quit over the bots. They messed with the economy. They made it hard for him to get materials for high-level raids. And they intimidated him when he spoke out, earning him a chat restriction. “The world is full (of bots) and feels entirely empty when you're in it,” he says. “It kinda killed the community feeling that kept me in the game.”