Cleaning up a virtual Economy: The latest Gold-Dupe-Bug in Diablo III

It was a short-dated addition to patch 1.0.8 causing a bug in Diablo III which has been called the “Biggest fail in the history of gaming!”. Admittedly, this might be a bit of an emotional exaggeration: similar claims have been made before (for example after the release of SimCity 5 in March 2013). However, a programming error which resulted in a Gold-Dupe-Bug has caused a lot of trouble for producers and players of Diablo III. It enabled players to multiply their gold by creating high-value auctions in order to sell gold, but cancelling them before actually selling it.

Patch 1.0.8 included a change which allowed players to sell gold in stashes of 10 billion instead of 1 billion. Such an upgrade makes sense, since inflation in Diablo III is high. One reason for this economic trend are gaming strategies focused on gold farming which means that gathering gold is the main incentive and aim of playing. In Diablo III this is particularly worthwhile, because players can choose and switch between two kinds of auction houses: there is a gold auction house where virtual items are bought and sold for in-game gold which you can gain while playing Diablo III. There is also a real-money auction house (RMAH) for certain regions where players can buy and sell items and gold for real-world currency.

As mentioned before, due to inflation, the game developer Blizzard decided to introduce a change which allowed players to sell 10,000,000 gold per stash. There was however a programming error in the note that determined this change within patch 1.0.8. As a recently uploaded Youtube clip shows, a player was capable of listing 6 billion gold. This amount is already strategically chosen: 6 billion is an ideal amount since it is high enough to produce a considerable return when applying the strategy that profited from the bug. At the same time, when selling a stack of 10,000,000 gold for 0.39 USD per stack this sums up to under 250 USD. This is important, because when trading in Diablo’s auction house, the value of any transaction needs to be under 250 USD. You are however able to ‘cash out’ gains earned in the real-money auction house via PayPal in order to prevent exceeding this limit. In that case, a transaction fee of 15% will be charged.

How does that relate to the gold-dupe-bug? After listing the aforementioned 6 billion gold for sale in the RMAH, a significant share of the amount would ‘disappear’. As the aforementioned video shows, this might have caused an initial shock among some players, since the gold appeared to be lost. However, it would not actually be distracted from their overall gold savings. When ending the auction before selling the listed gold though, the refunded amount was identical to the intended amount to be listed. This way, as described by Max Woolf briefly after the incident, players were able to multiply their gold rapidly. While there was a coding error when the players listed their auction (the whole amount was not listed since the stash was not properly programmed to ‘keep’ such high amounts), there was no error while reclaiming the money and the initially proposed amount of gold would be refunded.  An illustration of this effect has been provided by the user FryGuy1013 on Reddit:

PseudocodeDiablo

The suspected reason for this error is that the change has been integrated without any preliminary testing. What could have been found during internally checking the patch for bugs, was then discovered and promoted by players. That was four days ago, and resulted in huge speculations about “the end of Diablo III”, expectations of a total roll back among North American Diablo servers (the only ones that were affected), and finally a temporary shutdown of the auction houses. It was only this morning, that a message titled “Breaking News” appeared on Diablo III’s start screen:

DiabloGoldDupe

Diablo III’s production director John Hight responded to the incident with an official statement. Apart from some basic explanations, it includes a highly normative subtext and an evaluation of players’ behaviour:

“To all of you who reported this to us, thank you! As soon as we confirmed what was happening, we took the Auction Houses in the Americas offline and suspended gold trading in order to isolate the problem. From there, we were able to troubleshoot, develop a fix, test it, and deploy it to all regions before the day ended (…) While this was happening, we locked accounts that appeared to be exploiting the bug as well as collaborators that held gold or items for the exploiters. Once we confirmed that an account was involved in this exploit, we either banned or rolled back the account depending on their activity. (…) we have already recaptured more than 85% of the excess gold from the accounts involved, and over the days ahead we will continue to pore over our audit data to reclaim as much duplicate currency as possible. (…) We highly value fair play, and we’re going to continue to monitor the game and take steps necessary to prevent exploits like this from happening in the future.”

Phrases such as “reporting”, “exploiting/exploiters” or “fairness/fair play” unfold a highly normative discourse. The users’ reaction to the bug is not seen as awareness-raising behaviour as it is continuously claimed for comparable hacking activities. Their recognition and usage of the error is criminalised ‒ even though they have been handling it in a way which does, in the end, correspond with an aim that is highly encouraged or even demanded by Diablo’s predefined gameplay: gathering gold. Particularly the openness of players regarding their behaviour, e.g. through Youtube videos and Reddit discussions, casts doubt on whether Blizzard owes the disclosure of the gold-dupe-bug to passive observers/reporters. The way that users were showing off their discovery questions such a black-and-white narrative.

As stated in the Diablo III Exploitation Policy, “(…) an appropriate penalty for exploitation is determined by whether or not: The exploit is performed intentionally, maliciously, or repeatedly. The exploit damages another hero or their gameplay. An attempt has been made to conceal the exploit’s use”. With currently banning and resetting involved accounts, Blizzard sets a warning signal for all players. They enforce a practical as well as a normative punishment that lends weight to an ethically founded (instead of knowledge based) user behaviour and a top-down defined norm of fair play ‒ particularly regarding the relation of gamer and game developer. Gold dupes have occurred earlier on and were often discussed/promoted publicly. This time however, seeing the controversial real-money auction house, Blizzard needs to unconditionally promote and enforce a gaming ideology that does not allow for a terminology of playful cheating or critical hacking, but criminalises such a behaviour as anti-social and directed against the community. Demonstrating their ethical and social superiority now culminated in “(…) donating all proceeds from auctions conducted by the suspended or banned players—including all of THEIR sale proceeds that we intercepted as well as our transaction fee—to Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals”. That should appear sufficiently altruistic in order to get away from the question of whether one should accuse the players who recognized and used the gold-dupe-bug, or a company that discovered the intersection of real-money and in-game economy as a profitable, but highly risky business model.

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