Jim has been an avid "World of Warcraft" player since 2007 and hosts a weekly gaming podcast known as Stormchasers of Azeroth.
Before We Begin: What Are Bots?
One of the ubiquitous parts of the internet is that bots abide. There are chat bots, email bots, if you’re not careful, you’re computer could house bot software where nefarious parties can use your computer to send emails and contact other bots as well and it can be a self perpetuating bot-fest. Bots are automated software that can do anything from simple to mundane tasks without the user monitoring the action performed.
In MMO’s like World of Warcraft bots are also a means to get ahead of the game. Even today they can be a bane of a WoW players existence from pvp’ing to dungeons crawling, to simply trying to farm and make some gold before the next expansion. For the bot makers they see nothing wrong as it is not illegal to make bots (as far as I can tell). And for bot-users there are a variety of rationalizations for “botting” the primary among them is that players don’t like grinding and want to alleviate the work it takes to succeed in the game. My question then becomes, why then play the game at all? Yes, parts of this game are tedious, but far less tedious than the real world analogs of such processes. For instance, could you imagine posting and reposting things in an auction house in real life pre-eBay?
As someone who has played this game for a number of years, I want to give you some tips on how to deal with auction house bots both remote and in-game versions as well as just tell you, you’re not alone, and I am ready to believe you, with a few caveats. Now onto the tips.
First Objective: Identify the Bot
The first thing to do, and this is a no-brainer really, is to tell the difference between a bot and a persistent player. For instance, in-game bots in the Auction House will usually use the same paths from the mailbox to the auction house each time, whereas there will be some difference each time a person travels from the AH to the bank and back again. You will notice that not only is their pattern similar, but identical each time from AH to Bank to Mailbox. If you can’t know for sure, record in-game footage and compare it. You can also mark players in question to track their behavior easily.
For a remote Auction House bot, there are ways to tell if there is a bot, but again it is even more difficult to pinpoint and eradicate the bot-like behavior there, as you cannot view their behavior online. Bot-like behavior though is usually predicated on a couple things. First is, rare deviation from a given procedure. For instance, in the Auction House the bot posts things on multiple toons alphabetically. In my case I noticed a clear alphabetical posting of items each time, logging in and out of 10 different names in order to post 20 items.
Second is calories burned to avoid detection. Part of the reason I think Remote Auction House Bots have an advantage over the in-game ones is that you can’t easily report them. For in-game reporting, you can simply right click on any online player’s name and report their behavior. For the Remote Auction House Bot, you have to use a web generated form, and it isn’t clear what category to use to report them. I was told by a GM that the correct form to use for reporting these people is here.
Another way to avoid detection is to use multiple names, as well as change names every week or so. This will not stop detection for people knowing what to look for, but it will keep the uninitiated in the dark. The current person I am tracking uses 10 different names, at least, to post their items on the auction house. They change their name every week and the reason I know it is the same person is they post at the same order each time as well as at the same interval of time. They also aren’t very savvy in their naming system. Each name change each week begins with the same letter alphabetically. For example if "Abe" posted Savage Ensorcelled Tarot and Elemental Distillate last week, this week it would be "Amanda" doing it, and it goes exactly like that down the line.
Third, another bot like behavior is that these bots always sell, never buy, and never adhere to the low threshold rule, that is, they will sell things for ridiculously low prices. The bot that I dealt with was selling items usually costing 6kg to craft for 300g. This is because there is a high probability that this is not the only bot in the supply chain. There are most likely gathering and crafting bots as well and to the person behind the bot, there is literally no cost in making what they craft.
Keep in mind that even with this overwhelming bit of evidence, there is still a chance this person is not a bot, but a methodical person posting using the web interface, as well as someone who is paranoid with the probability of being clinically insane. But then two questions arise: why use so many different names, and why change them every week? And why undercut your own items into the hole?
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Second Objective: Report the Bot
Once you have identified a bot, it is best to then report it, and when reporting, give as much pertinent information you can to the bots behavior. Explain why it's behavior is in question. If it’s simply “they keep undercutting me” that’s not a good answer. The bot the I deal with actually doesn’t repost every two minutes, it is more like a 10 minute interval. And like I said it scrolls through each name on the list, posting the two items for each toon and then moves on to the next one. It “feels” automated.
Giving as much detail helps Blizzard to know where to look to investigate this problem. If you can provide in-game video or pictures to support your theory that they are a bot, then by all means post it. You will hear many views if you investigate threads on the forum regarding bots, but I tend to think that Blizzard actually wants to detect, limit, and remove as many bots as possible. After all, they do disrupt the flow of the game and it's economy, not to mention taint the enjoyment of the game by their existence.
While on this subject I wish there was a way for us to know if we are in fact dealing with bots. Either answer (whether bot or not) to the persistence of a given toon or toons posting can be disheartening. In a perfect world, people would post once an hour at the minimum and then just forget it. Still, I wish Blizzard could give us a negative result or a positive result in contacting us about bots, but perhaps they are afraid of telling even the people they are trying to protect in fear that the exploiters will somehow get this information. I wish there was a better way for the player to know the answer to this question in a timely fashion, still all hope is not lost.
Third Objective: Use Strategies for Dealing With Bots
After reporting the bot or bots in question, and it is best to update their behavior whenever you feel it necessary (but don’t report it every day as that will get old fairly quickly). Also, you best prepare yourself for not getting rid of them that easily. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, once Blizzard can detect a bot, they don’t want to tip their hand to the software maker that they are onto them, because it will give the bot maker a chance to edit their code to once again be undetectable.
Blizzard also will wait before employing a ban wave to catch as many people at botting as possible and ensuring that the longest interval of time exists between banning the people using bots, and updating the bot software so that it is no longer detectable by Blizzard. So what will happen is once the ban wave goes out, it will snag as many people in the ban net as possible, and the people who would otherwise use the updated software will hopefully be out of commission long enough that the bot software venture itself becomes unprofitable. Think of the ban wave like the Hurricane in the movie Forrest Gump. Once the Hurricane hit, the shrimping business became lucrative, because his boat was one of the few not decimated by the hurricane.
In the meantime there are some fun ways to deal with bots that can prove profitable to you at home. Some involve risk so know that walking in, and by risk I mean you could be burning, time, effort, and gold to catch a bot (and maybe even yourself) flatfooted.
The first thing to do, is to try to figure out what the low threshold is of the bot (if there is one) and then attempt to snipe their auctions. In my case, I can easily track the different names posting whatever it is they are posting and know when, up to about 15 seconds, when and what they will post next. You can really pad your inventory depending on when these people post.
Second, you can make their posting as unprofitable as possible. I do this by using undercut rates that clearly cause them to lose gold each time they repost. This also means that I can also lose gold, as well as inventory, but the hope is that even though I lose gold, they do as well. The problem with both these strategies is that you can’t do this without your competitors also sniping your auctions.
Last word, don’t lose hope. There will be another ban wave around the corner, or if the person is actually a human, maybe they will finally give up, lose hope, or find another game to torment people within. The danger though is that once you get in the habit of countering the persistent poster, you yourself become one. Aside from that, May bots be clear of your server and happy posting!