Thursday, August 4, 2016

WoW Analysis: The Ensidia Ban Controversy

With Legion coming by the end of this month, it marks a point where the controversy related to Ensidia's ban and other punishment for supposedly exploiting their way to a Lich King world first kill, ages further due to it happening over three expansions and half a decade ago. Despite its age, the controversy is still discussed occasionally. This is understandable since the controversy is memorable due to its association with an iconic Warcraft villain within a largely beloved expansion of WoW. In addition, this discussion has taken many forms that essentially boil down to how much responsibility developers should take for mistakes like these. Unfortunately when discussion of this controversy happens to pop up, some arguments seem to be made out of ignorance due to issues of misinformation or unreasonable expectations. In this article, I will try to use a mix of old sources and personal recollection to set the record straight as well as providing my input on the controversy, which is a stance I have held since I learned about it many years ago.

What Happened?

According to sources such as this article and this one, the encounter was heavily trivialized through the usage of Saronite Bombs, which regrew platforms and essentially allowed a raid to ignore the otherwise lethal Val'kyr adds. The adds in question would normally pick up raid members and drop them to their deaths if not killed fast enough, but it drops them in a spot where a platform previously was until it was destroyed during a transition phase. Ignoring the adds allowed the raid to focus more on the boss, speeding up the phase significantly and allowing the players to more consistently progress through the fight. This is especially advantageous from a competitive perspective and would make a huge difference between whether a raid got world first or not.

However, the ban is suspect largely because of points such as the fact using Saronite Bombs is a DPS increase due to them being off the global cooldown, which would make them a must-use and the platform regrowth may have happened in error. Some go further to point out that such a bug is a mistake on Blizzard's part and so the exploiters should be exonerated. Regardless of the side one may take, it's clear why the topic remains controversial to this day.

Normal Lich King, Not Heroic

This misinformation bothers me on a personal level, but is easy to refute with evidence. While Heroic Lich King had its own host of issues and challenge when it came to the battle for a world first, Ensidia's ban was issued on the basis of exploiting the Normal Lich King fight on 25-man. The article linked above indicates that the punishment was issued for a kill that happened on the same week as the 4th of February, while Frostwing Halls was opened on the 2nd of February. Since players needed to clear Normal Icecrown Citadel to start doing Heroic, it was impossible to attempt Heroic Lich King during that week and thus the potential exploitation happened on Normal Lich King.

To be fair, this misinformation isn't that major, but it sets the tone for what happens when one screws up their analysis of past events. This point may serve as a partial reason as to why people seem to side with Ensidia more nowadays. Most of the other reasons why are covered in the following sections.

Ensidia's Ignorance

Part of the argument for why Ensidia didn't deserve the punishment they got largely revolves around defending their usage of Saronite Bombs. However, a number of these arguments made to support it don't hold much water. For example:
"It was only normal difficulty and no top raiding guild cared about that. Why would a top raiding guild cheat on normal difficulty?"
This point is literally argued by Kungen himself, who was the GM of Ensidia. However, the counterargument to this point is that the boss was the Lich King. He was not only the cover villain of the expansion but also a huge lore figure in Warcraft 3 to the point that many of the campaigns in Warcraft 3 along with its expansion, the Frozen Throne, were devoted to following the story of Arthas, who eventually becomes the Lich King. Personally, I'd go as far as to say the Lich King strongly contributed to the success of the expansion named after him based on a mix of sub numbers at the time and sales numbers for Warcraft 3 and its expansion.

Either way, the point is a kill on the Lich King, even on normal, was a big deal. Since 10-man was effectively considered inferior from a progression standpoint at the time due to weaker gear drops and the like, a 25-man normal kill was the big prize on the week Lich King was made available. There's definitely some notable fame to be claimed from such a feat even if the encounter was relatively easy compared to what Heroic Mode would offer. Thus, there's definitely a motive to cheat even on normal Lich King 25-man.
"Every DPS in a top raiding guild used Saronite Bombs on every encounter."
This is a point not just made by Kungen but by a lot of people, as mentioned in the previous section. I would also lend my own anecdotal evidence, however weak it may be, that I also used Saronite Bombs to achieve optimal DPS since it was helpful even if I wasn't in a top raiding guild. However, this raises a question: Why didn't other guilds get banned too? For example, Paragon proceeded to defeat the Lich King in "one attempt" potentially before hotfixes came out. Blood Legion, the guild that got the 10-man kill before Ensidia's 25-man kill was reported, also wasn't banned and their achievements removed despite the fact that it's strongly likely Saronite Bombs would've rebuilt the platforms on that difficulty too.

My point is that other guilds clearly did something different despite their likely usage of Saronite Bombs. This leads me to the next, more specific argument.
"Ensidia couldn't have known that using Saronite Bombs to rebuild the platforms was an exploit."
While people have the advantage of hindsight now and thus thoroughly know the Lich King's mechanics and how big of a deal regrowing platforms on the fight was, there's a few points to consider as counterarguments:

Firstly, Ensidia was a top raiding guild and thus had top raiders who are intelligent and have a high level of spatial awareness that allows them to best encounters where other raiders cannot. With this type of intelligence and awareness, it wouldn't take much from Ensidia's raiders to notice that the platform getting smaller makes abilities like Defile far more dangerous, not to mention the Val'kyrs trying to carry players off the platform is a huge tell as well. As they progress further into the fight and potentially observe that the platforms are rebuilt and destroyed, it would be clearer that the transition phases are scripted in such a manner. Thus, rebuilt platforms between transition phases would stick out like a sore thumb even if the source of it was unknown.

Secondly, while Paragon was said to have one-shotted the encounter and Ensidia claims to have done the same, it's very possible that the encounter was difficult even on Normal. Top guilds could've easily done attempts on their alts due to the limited attempts mechanic, then went on their mains after understanding the encounter mechanics. With that said, we don't really know what happened (and no, some guy saying Ensidia wiped a lot of times without a source isn't proof), but it's worth considering since if Ensidia definitive did not truly one-shot the encounter, it would greatly strengthen the "they exploited" argument due to the information they gathered from previous attempts.

Thirdly, there were GMs watching the fight, which is a theory reinforced to some degree considering on this encounter and future ones such as Sinestra, hotfixes were implemented very quickly to prevent exploitation. It would also make sense considering how highly competitive world first attempts would be to the point of ensuring there's someone there to ensure the kill is legitimate. Considering there's been showings of competitive raiding at Blizzcon, Blizzard clearly recognizes the credence of such competition. Either way, Blizzard probably knows if Ensidia acted with intent or not.

Finally, Ensidia's inactions speak volumes about whether they exploited or not. First of all, there doesn't appear to be any footage of the kill itself, which would settle whether or not Ensidia intentionally exploited much more than the logs they eventually posted. Second of all, there doesn't appear to be any attempt to report the exploit until the encounter was actually defeated. This would explain why a hotfix to Saronite Bombs was announced after Ensidia got their world first and not before.

I could probably think of more points as to why the argument doesn't make a lot of sense, but the first alone is probably enough to debunk it. The ability of such raiders is not something to be underestimated, after all.
"Even if it was known to be an exploit, it would be a waste of time for Ensidia to report it, which could cost them their world first."
I remember seeing this argument a few times when the news broke that Ensidia got banned for exploiting the encounter. It's understandable since competing for world first is a very time-sensitive affair and often involves a lot of time investment over a short period to grind out attempts and gear. Considering how long a GM ticket usually took at the time (literally could've taken days or weeks), there's a strong motive to report later.

However, ignoring the fact that in hindsight Blizzard's reaction to the situation was swift, the argument essentially says to ignore the concept of integrity, which is surprisingly similar to claiming cheating to win a competition is fine. It may be my morality talking, but that ideal doesn't sit right with me. Furthermore, there were ways to expedite a ticket and it's highly possible that players attempting world firsts on potentially buggy encounters get priority response. It may even be very possible that such tickets received priority response before considering how buggy some encounters were (such as Yogg 0).

Ultimately, a question has to be asked: Is it really worth getting a world first if you potentially exploited your way to it instead of sacrificing it for the sake of integrity? Frankly, such an achievement would be empty due to its illegitimacy, though I guess there would still be benefits to reap from doing so.

Blizzard At Fault

Another facet of the controversy that is often used to defend exploiters in general is to question the developers and their capabilities. In a way it's fair and in this case I will agree that Blizzard's developers should've known that Saronite Bombs were an integral part of dealing optimal damage considering they'd had three raid tiers' worth of data that indicates the usage of the item by that point. While I understand that the Lich King was meant to be something of a surprise to raiders and thus tested internally, the level of oversight to miss something that was established over the expansion as relatively basic gameplay is staggering. Because of this, I think it's fair to hold Blizzard accountable for their failure here.

However, that doesn't justify the act of intentional exploitation itself. It takes two mistakes for such an act to come to fruition and one has to be on the player's part. To put it another way, if an opportunity to exploit is presented to a player, they have choices as to what to do with the exploit. Actively utilizing it without informing the developer so that it can be fixed essentially serves as the intent that is typically punished. This is also why someone like Karatechop was punished (perhaps excessively) for using Martin Fury even though there was reason beyond doubt without considering hindsight that the item was given to a player in error. This point of intentional exploitation is also why individuals such as Karatechop and Kungen have to take a victim complex approach and claim ignorance even in the face of evidence showing otherwise.

To conclude, Blizzard being at fault isn't mutually exclusive with the guilt of exploiters. It is instead fair to say that both are at fault in the case of intentional exploitation and, depending on severity among other factors, Blizzard can reasonably enforce their ToU.

Final Statements

So the verdict is that I think Ensidia deserved their punishment since intent to exploit was sufficiently established, but I also think Blizzard screwed up. I also think that Blizzard was held accountable to a good degree because they took a hit to their reputation due to general issues of incompetence. On the plus side, they have gotten a bit better at making sure their internally tested encounters don't completely ruin a hardcore guild's day due to faster hotfixing than ever before. Blizzard could still stand to work a few kinks out though and I'd be inclined to say they could use more and better testers.

But that's my thoughts on this age-old mess of a controversy. Do you think Ensidia deserved their punishment? How responsible should Blizzard have been held? Is my analysis of the situation great or terrible?

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