The great economic collapse of 2013

Neverwinter Days The great economic collapse of 2013

So funny story: In planning out in advance what I wanted to talk about in this biweekly Neverwinter column, I had selected something that recently caught my eye about the game and made me happy. That something was the Neverwinter Gateway, a web portal that allows out-of-game players the ability to fiddle with their character sheets, auctions, professions, guilds, and mail. I thought — and I still do — that this was a nifty service that deserved a day in the sun.

As I was getting set to write that column, Neverwinter’s economy exploded and then imploded over the course of a weekend, thanks to a nasty exploit that involved, yup, the Gateway. Suddenly my topic had to shift from “isn’t this a neat tool?” to “check out what the tools are doing with this tool.” Seeing the economy effectively destroyed in a matter of hours and how Cryptic Studios dealt with this PR nightmare might be old news at this point, but it’s definitely worthy of reflection, analysis, and speculation as to how trust can be rebuilt in this fledgling title.

Let’s get cracking — we have a lot of ground to cover!

Neverwinter Days The great economic collapse of 2013

The meltdown

Over the course of a few hours on Sunday, May 19th, a rather glaring glitch in the Neverwinter Gateway auction house became widespread across the community. Several posts on the forum went up detailing an exploit that allowed players to generate unlimited numbers of astral diamonds through the AH, effectively allowing everyone to print his or her own money. Astral diamonds are the backbone of the Neverwinter economy and are used to purchase auction house items, to buy special in-game items, and to convert into Zen (aka currency derived from real money), so an infinite of this currency supply quickly vacuumed up all of the available auction house items and Zen.

Cryptic, now facing a total disaster that threatened to permanently unbalance the game if left unchecked, swung into action. The team locked down the auction house and astral diamond exchange while deleting detailed exploit threads and banning those who were spreading the information. The team had to do this while the entire community was in an uproar, with plenty of people upset that their real money had been compromised and wondering whether a complete game wipe was coming.

Personally I hadn’t been playing the game that weekend (the wifi connections on canoe trips aren’t great), so my first hint about all of this was a barrage of email tips that players were sending into Massively on a minute-by-minute basis. Seriously, I can’t remember the last time we got so snowed under by tips like this. I then resolved to stay the heck out of the game until it became apparent what Cryptic was going to do.

The response

Initially, the studio was weak in responding and informing the community about what was going on, an issue that was compounded by threads getting locked down (some folks claimed that Cryptic was trying to put a muzzle on all discontented players, the locked and deleted threads were mostly about detailing the exploit, not the fallout of the exploit itself). Gradually communication increased past the “we’re looking into it; please be patient with us” phase, and Cryptic finally announced that it would be doing a seven-hour rollback to take care of the worst of the exploit’s damage while banning those who took advantage of it. The exploit itself was closed off, naturally.

Because of the rollback, player progress during this time frame was reverted by seven hours, erasing loot gain, XP gain, new characters made, and any prizes won via lockboxes. The studio assured players that astral diamonds and Zen spent during that window wouldn’t be lost.

A day later, Cryptic handed out a “we’re so sorry” goodie pack to all players. This pack included XP boosts, a cat cape (more on that in a bit), a facemask, teleport scrolls, and health stones.

That’s what happened in a nutshell, but there’s more to the story. There always is, isn’t there?

Neverwinter Days The great economic collapse of 2013

Who’s to blame?

On this week’s podcast, I was pretty vocal about being upset at those who took advantage of the exploit to hurt the game for everyone. Exploiters had to have known that they wouldn’t be getting away with it when it became so widespread, but they did it anyway. Their actions broke a fundamental part of the game and caused a rollback that punished everyone who played during those seven hours. I can only imagine how ticked off players might be if they spent a lot of time gaming during that time period, and that anger should be directed at the jerks who put this train wreck into motion.

But I’ve always said that the exploit buck stops with the developer. The devs are in charge of creating the rules, testing the rules, and enforcing the rules. Leaving a door open and then just trusting players not to wander through it is foolishness at best and irresponsible at worst (especially if that’s the doorway to hell or economic devastation).

So Cryptic is ultimately at fault here. The studio is at fault because it left a door open, it didn’t test things enough to know that it should shut said door, and it swung into action only after the game itself came into jeopardy. I’ve heard plenty of accounts that this exploit wasn’t even new but just became widespread during that weekend. If this was a known issue and Cryptic was ignoring it, that’s even worse. I can’t attest that this is 100% true, but I’ve seen it mentioned all over the place.

Plus, it’s a chronic issue with this studio. Cryptic makes fun products but routinely fails to fully test content and systems, electing to shove stuff out the door and fix it later. Heck, we’re still in “open beta” and this is the second major exploit that’s become so bad that it’s made widespread news. The last one also ended up giving good players the shaft because of the combined genius of the studio and exploiters.

While I’m piling on Cryptic (and I want to say that this is said in love, but tough love), while the gratitude pack was a nice idea, the studio struck a wrong tone in giving it out. Just a day after players had to cope with a rollback and seeing the game fall to pieces beneath them, the studio is making weird cat-astrophe jokes, downplaying the scope of the disaster (using the term “brief snags”), and generally being cheerful instead of sorry as hell that it let something stupid like this happen in the first place.

Brick by brick

So the situation is past, the catastrophe was addressed, conciliatory gifts were given, and life goes on. The problem is that these past exploits have shown that there are two major problems that have yet to be addressed in Neverwinter: The game needs a lot more testing to iron out these issues, and Cryptic has a lot of work to do to rebuild the trust it’s shattered with this fledgling community.

Listen, let’s just dispense with the “open beta” moniker right now. Either the game is launched or it hasn’t. But Cryptic’s stuck it in this weird limbo where it’s not quite ready for prime time but the studio is ready to take people’s money for it. If Cryptic and Perfect World wanted to be responsible, it would refund money and pull the game back into closed beta testing until these major (and minor) exploits, bugs, and loopholes weren’t going to be popping up on a weekly basis. The studio and publisher won’t do that, of course, so the next best thing is to make hunting these bugs down a number one priority. Cryptic needs to be listening to testers who have identified these exploits and address them proactively and not reactively. It needs to be rolling out weekly patches showing us just how much is being done to shore up the foundation of this game before the flashy new content comes in.

That would be a great step to rebuilding trust. Keeping a candid line of communication open would be ideal as well. I don’t feel that there’s really a vocal point person for Neverwinter the way there is with Cryptic’s other games, and that’s not good. I’d like to be seeing more community Q&As and more dev diaries telling us what the heck they’re doing over there.

But as we all know, trust is built brick by brick over a long period of time. This economic meltdown reset the trust clock, and Cryptic really can’t afford to have another reset going forward. Time will help us forget and gain confidence in this product, but time can only do so much if the good players continue to be penalized for what others are doing.

That wall looks pretty small from where I’m sitting. Let’s see how it looks in a couple of months.