State of the Game – Patch 1.1 Followup

This week saw the release of Game Update 1.1 – Incursions.  Aside from the titular activity that sees players facing off against the LMB in a water treatment facility, 1.1 introduced new ways to earn gear, new gear to earn, and a few quality of life changes that were heavily requested (I’m looking at you, death cam).  While the patch delivered many things that players are currently devouring en masse, there were more than a few complications as a result of this update.  What I’d like to talk about today is responsibility; who is responsible when game breaking exploits are pushed to their limits?  What is the appropriate response to the use of these exploits?  Are they really cheating?

Incursions – A Great Concept

You can’t really begin to discuss the patch without a thorough understanding of what went wrong with regards to the flagship feature, Incursions.  Exploits and glitching are nothing new to any online game, especially a fledgling endeavor like The Division.  Putting the game’s best loot in one place is practically inviting the fringe members of your playerbase to come out and break the encounter; however, who is responsible in this case?  Is it the developer for not giving the encounter a solid quality assurance period where exploits would no doubt be discovered?  Or is it the fault of the playerbase for repeatedly abusing something that they know isn’t part of the intended encounter?

I think the first thing that we need to touch on is what, exactly, happened.  At the outset of the patch, an exploit existed (and still does, to a degree) that allowed players to bypass the entire encounter, and clearing it much quicker and easier than intended.  The exploit involves using Mobile Cover to bypass the start of the encounter.  By glitching through a wall, the fight never truly begins and thusly enemies will not engage you.  After getting through the wall, players were simply going up to the boss (an armored personnel carrier) and simply nuking it down with Sticky Bombs.  The regular course of the encounter sees you fighting waves of LMB troops and using the C4 charges they drop to accomplish this.

Obviously this exploit is huge, and it gave people access to a huge amount of loot in a very short time frame.  At the same time, there also existed an exploit that allowed players to repeatedly receive the weekly reward as much as they wanted.  Basically one player in your team would remain behind at the start of the encounter, while the other three went and did the previously mentioned exploit.  As soon as the loot dropped, the players killing the boss disconnect from the game, and rejoin on the player left in the hallway.  Weekly rewards would continue to drop, and you simply rotate out the person waiting in the hallway.

The problem here arises from the fact that it took Massive 3 days to patch out these exploits; and that’s a generous assessment of what they did, since they simply disabled weekly rewards for all players.  In the intervening time, three more exploits for killing the APC without doing the fight properly have been discovered.  While online games of this scope and ambition are few and far between, games in a similar vein would have typically been taken offline immediately until a fix could be implemented.  The Division, instead, suffered for three days while players got as much loot as they could stand to have.  Normally this wouldn’t be an issue, but in a game with a PvP component that sees your character progress translate directly to killing capability via the Dark Zone, this has the potential to introduce a huge imbalance in the structure of an already turbulent environment.

The Blame Game

The response to these problems, both from players and from the community and development staff at Ubisoft, has been staggering.  In one corner you have players who are incensed that other less scrupulous players are gaining the best gear in the game so effortlessly, and equate their actions to flat out cheating.  In the other corner is Massive/Ubisoft, repeatedly assuring players that a fix is going to be implemented and that the exploiters will be punished in some way.  The official forums for the game over at Ubisoft became absolutely toxic, and threads were being pruned on a regular basis.  Some players saw this as censorship of valid complaints and an attempt by Ubisoft to “cover up” negative criticism; at the same time, community managers said they were simply performing their job by removing toxic and unhelpful posts from the forums.  Who, if anyone, is right in this situation?

That’s a tricky question to answer, given the volatile nature that an online forum can achieve in the right situation.  Is there really a good side and a bad side to this situation?  Is only one group of people to blame for what’s happened over the past few days?  In my opinion, no; but let’s take it piece by piece

Players Verus Developer

At the outset of the primary exploit being discovered, Ubisoft and Massive went absolutely silent on the matter, which was rather shocking giving the free nature in which they communicated leading up to this point.  To have a group of community managers that are normally so vocal suddenly vanish from the public eye was unsettling, especially at a time when players needed them most.  Much of what they do is reassurance, after all, and there was a fair degree of uncertainty when players started sharing the methods they were using to gain the best gear in the game with essentially no effort.

A day or so later the silence was broken, and the response was spartan at best.  We were told they were aware of the issue, and that a fix was inbound.  While I’m sure this was basically all they were qualified to say on the matter (since community managers only have so much insight into the development and debugging process), I would’ve expected them to constantly be relaying information from the development team to the players in an attempt to quell fear and discourage exploiters.  Instead they were remarkably silent, leading up to the day of the fix.  This is when things took a bit of a turn for Ubisoft’s community managers.

In a one of about 200 threads on the topic, the subject of exploiters and punishment came up, as well as why threads were being deleted so often.  Over the course of a few pages, the community manager essentially pointed the finger at exploiters, stating that they were directly responsible for this situation.  Personally I don’t believe the community manager should’ve engaged in any discussion about blame or pointing fingers, and the community response is precisely why.

Understand that, out of the entire playerbase, those actively exploiting the game are an incredibly small margin.  Much smaller than the legitimate number of players, who Ubisoft essentially lumped into one giant category.  As a developer, obviously Massive has a responsibility to make sure that updates and content that leave development are mostly intact and (reasonably) free of exploits/glitches/bugs.  And yet, the update that we received was riddled with bugs and exploits, and remains that way.  The response to this problem seems severely light handed, given that within an hour of servers coming back up three new exploits had appeared to take the place of the previous one.  So it begs the questions as to how effective the maintenance was, why did it take so long, and what is being done to prevent this (both for further 1.1 fixes and future content)?

Thoughts and Opinions

It very nearly goes without saying, but what follows here is simply my opinion.  Obviously I believe my opinion to be educated and well founded, but it’s my opinion all the same.  Take what follows with a grain of salt.

There are several parties to blame inside of this entire debacle, and basically no one gets to come out of this cleanly.  The development staff at Massive need to seriously reconsider their testing and quality assurance practices, and they need to have a more active role in their community involvement.  When someone from your publisher begins leveling threats at an entire community, you should very seriously consider having a talk with them about running things by you before they denounce an entire community of people.  The state in which the update was released to the playerbase at large was very much a mixed bag, while being riddled with bugs and exploits.  Many of the features delivered were done well, but many others were simply ridiculous (I’m looking at you, purples in supply drops).  When something this catastrophic happens, the best thing to do is to shut the game down and work triple time on a fix, and deploy that fix as soon as possible.  Communication with your community is key, rather than hurling accusations and promising vague punishment.

It’s also my opinion that exploiting the game in the way that’s been happening is essentially cheating, with players knowing full well what they’re doing.  Circumventing encounters in such an egregious fashion is shameful, especially when that circumvention gives you a direct and commanding advantage over other players in the Dark Zone.  While the exploit is a part of the game’s current environment, repeatedly breaking the game to receive rewards is inexcusable simply because “it’s there”.  Players could definitely show more restraint with regards to what they do, and getting the gear in this way is simply dishonest.  If you’ve logged more than 500 hours into this game, there’s a reason you’re bored and thusly willing to stand in front of an immobile enemy for hours on end.  It’s time to take a break.

Going forward, there’s quite a bit for both sides to learn about how they should behave going forward.  Massive and Ubisoft need to have much better control of their game, hands down.  It’s on them to make sure that exploits and glitches like this don’t see the light of day, and they failed in an epic fashion.  The playerbase need to remember that the most effective communication with a professional entity is that of a mature and responsible one.  Leveling personal insults, name calling, and whining have no place in this discussion and frankly, they do no good for everyone.  If you find yourself so overcome with emotion about this game, you need to step away from any digital device, take a series of deep breaths, and come back when you’re ready to be an adult.

At the end of the day, I still love this game.  I think the developers have given us an amazing experience with near limitless possibility, and we should show them some modicum of respect for that.  I’ve also had the pleasure to play with some really awesome people (via matchmaking and otherwise), and I’m reminded why I love online gaming so much.  This has the potential to be a great thing to bring us all together, not split us apart.