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The Most Effective Playtester: The Griefer!

Peer Reviewed by Yrjö P., slicer4ever, Glass_Knife

playtesting griefing opinion design online mmo multiplayer
Have you ever had someone who just intentionally ruins an online game experience for everyone by exploiting the rules? For developers and admins, it can cause a ton of extra work to corral The Griefer and patch the holes in your game. But in dealing with The Griefer, the game is improved as a whole.

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Back in my college days, when the internet was still new to the general public, I formed a friendship with this guy that turned out to be "The Greatest Gamer I've Ever Known". He was a natural at fighting games. He read tabletop RPG manuals and exploited the flaws in character development better than anyone else. His insight on the gaming (and piracy!) communities was unparalleled. He's the only guy I knew in 2000 that could make a self-booting Dreamcast copy of a disk. He was quick of wit but always calm in his demeanor. And he was a jerk to everyone except his friends and he did it for fun! He's dead now (no joke!) but he's immortalized in my mind as a "Master Griefer"... and the world, most especially the online community, is better for having experienced him in their lives even if he was the villain they so vehemently despised. (And rightfully so!)

His name was "Ralph". (He would have LOVED the Wreck It Ralph movie! It's so appropriate...)

The Master Griefer:

The Effective Playtester

I watched Ralph terrorize several online MUDs. Those communities rallied like white blood cells to combat his actions which is exactly what he wanted: attention and power. Over his shoulder, I watched as whole scenes played out over several days, weeks, and months as the community and admins tried their best to contain "The Griefer". What was great about it, though, was that he knew that whatever exploit he exposed would be fixed within a week or so. As I marveled at his expertise to find flaws, I wondered out loud to him why the game admins didn't try to get him on their side and circumvent the grief he was causing to the player-base. He'd shrug noncommittally and mutter "I dunno." I replied, "If I ever had someone like you poking holes as big as you are in my game (and Ralph was a big guy!), I'd be sure to get you on my side to help me fix things." He chuckled at that and responded with the essence of what this article is about: "They are fixing things because of me. I have to work harder every week to be as big a pain in the ass as I am to them now." I'll never forget that line. He was justifying his playstyle as being an effective service to the games he was screwing around with. And I can't say he was wrong!

This claim I am making would be incomplete without some examples. Of course, this could be incriminating in a court of law, but Ralph's dead now and he always worked alone. I never participated in anything illegal he did. I was just impressed by his skills and had a second-row seat.

One particular MUD he loved to harass banned all the accounts he made as fast as he could be identified. At one point, he got the entire BellSouth ISP banned from making accounts for that MUD. Ten minutes later through a couple proxies, he had another account made and was back up to his hijinks.

Same MUD, he caused the admins to enforce strong passwords on their server after harassing another account that stood up to his bullying in game. The victim's login name was "Merlin". Ralph talked smack about himself being an admin (not true) and waited for the guy to log out of the game. It's an insult to hackers to say that Ralph hacked the other guys account. "Merlin's" password was "Excalibur". The victim was looted, password was changed, and his character was left out in an area far above his level in case it was ever recovered. The strong password requirement came down a few days later.

Another MUD: Ralph caused naming conventions to be enforced. There was a player on the server that was decently respected and liked by the community named "Virgil". Ralph (over several accounts) and Virgil became heated enemies over time. So Ralph engaged in some character assassination by making an account named "VirgiI", replacing the lower case "L" with an uppercase "i". On the UNIX FTP screen on which the MUD was played, "Virgil" (VirgiL) and "VirgiI" (Virgii) were identically displayed down to the pixel. He only played "VirgiI" (Virgii) when he knew "Virgil"(VirgiL) wasn't around. Knowing Virgil so well from the time they fought each other verbally online, he mimicked the original's typing style and mannerisms. He even made derogatory comments about The Griefer account that Ralph was currently using. Subtly, over months, the derogatory comments became inflammatory and then outrageous to the point where Virgil (VirgiL) started suffering the repercussions of VergiI's (Virgii's) actions. The whole thing took about 8 months to be discovered and VrigiI (Virgii) got banned. But when Ralph went to make another character, there was a new rule in place that would only allow the FIRST letter of a character's name to be capitalized.

EDIT: The naming was so effective, that it even looks the same in this article. I've added alternate spellings in parenthesis to help clarify things.

Same MUD as above: (Ralph really liked picking on this MUD!) There was a very underutilized character class on the server. It was a spellcasting class that was terrible at soloing as it was a support class. One spell it had was WEB. WEB was cast on an opponent and held that opponent in place for a period of time determined by some formula tied to the Personality trait. Personality was generally used for NPC interactions and shop discounts. Once it got to a certain level, it was never increased by the common player. For this one class and this one spell, though, Ralph figured out that if he dumped ALL his creation points into Personality and got the WEB spell right away, that WEB would root a target in place for 3 days in game time. Once more... in game time! And this MUD encouraged PVP. So Ralph would wander around picking fights and casting WEB as his first move. Yes, his character would die and respawn, but the other guy was stuck in that spot for 3 days! In game time! That meant 72 hours of logged-in game time. If they logged out, the timer paused until they logged back in. The fix for that came down in 2 weeks since most of the regular player base was stuck and couldn't play the game. The WEB spell became a tier-based timer based on Personality with a max cap of 5 minutes.

So what can be done?

I'm not defending Ralph or his behavior. He was an online monster. Calling him an early internet troll is as massive an understatement as like saying Jim Jones "had a few followers". He was a jerk of colossal proportions and liked being that way. I was fortunate to be on his "good side" and learn how to deal with people like him when I'm not on their "good side".

It takes what I call "social judo": redirecting the will of The Griefer to suit your own purposes. All Ralph wanted to do was to give someone a hard time online. Since it was online, it didn't really affect the person's "real world" life, right? (You couldn't disagree with Ralph. He'd grief you in a heartbeat with a big dopey smile on his face! It helped that he was technically right most of the time anyway.) So I accepted him for who he was. When I ran tabletop RPGs I let him make the characters the way he liked. I watched him. I talked to him and asked him for his opinion. I gave him what he wanted: attention and the power to shape the games he played. And by doing that, we got to be good friends and he worked WITH me in my assorted projects, making them mostly "Grief Proof" in the process.

Now time has passed and Ralph's been dead for several years now. (Natural physical health reasons.) The internet and online communities now have several controls in place to deal with the likes of him now. But I know that he wasn't just one-of-a-kind and there are others like him out there. I assert that even though they are trouble, that they should be embraced as a part of the community, not fought. If Ralph is any indication, they are geniuses struggling with their life circumstances and looking for some outlet for their feelings of frustration: needing to be in control of some aspect of their lives. Seriously, any MMO company would have benefitted tremendously with someone like Ralph as a permanent playtester. He would have broken their game in so many ways, the final product would have been bulletproof.

Article Update Log

16 Aug 2013: Wrote initial article points and incomplete first draft as a placeholder.

3 Sep 2013: Article approved for review. Minor clarifications and proofreading edits made.

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About the Author(s)

I ,Joshua Pickard, met Ralph his freshman year in college. Ralph dropped out after that year, but we stayed in touch for most of the rest of Ralph's life. The projects where I used his talents for good were mostly tabletop RPG's of which I was the GM. Ralph's personality and uncanny insight to games and gaming in general will be sorely missed. He was a good friend and the biggest jerk I've ever met. R.I.P.


GDOL (Gamedev.net Open License)


Sep 03 2013 03:50 PM

Heartily agree with the sentiment. I have one of those. Sometimes it's frustrating because core ideas are in trouble, but I've slowly learnt to think of all the worst possible outcomes early on. It's a process. :)

Sep 03 2013 05:39 PM

While I do think that certain griefers need to be told off, there also seems to be some developers (or rather moderators) who make some horrible decisions with regards to who's actually a griefer or not - either out of arrogance or because they simply don't understand player psychology enough.


And furthermore, with regards to the dubious stability of so many games released nowadays, the industry needs all the playtesters that they can get. Preferably the gamebreaker type.


Being given a fair warning when you do something you're not supposed to and a 24-48 hour suspension if you're plumping out some obscene comment in a global chat sounds pretty ok. But giving someone a life-time account-wide ban for having bought 1 item from an NPC that, due to a developer's coding mistake, sold it for 100g instead of 1000g, is not ok.


Players are not responsible for reading the minds of developers and, in a lot of cases, that's exactly what's expected of them. A new and/or casual player might not identify something as an exploit the same way a seasoned veteran would. Even seasoned players don't necessarily know the first thing about a specific exploit in question.


So, to conclude, it's definitely the mod's job to make sure that their suspicions are confirmed beyond any reasonable doubt. Too bad that's not always the reality. And the only thing a player can really do then is to just accept the ban and boicott the game. But that's rather harsh if the player loves the game and has invested many hours into his character.


Oh well, the difference between a horrible and excellent game producer, I guess.

Sep 06 2013 05:44 PM

Sometimes you gotta play the hard way for people to change any situation.... and with that in mind, I gotta admit that I gave people a hard time as "troll" as well on multiple occasions - but as long as it is done with the intent to show people how it's not being done, it can turn out to be a very effective way to improve software... and not only software.

Sep 09 2013 02:34 AM

Griefers forcing fixes isn't always the greatest thing, it often forces admins and developers to implement the fastest solution instead of the best.


re: strong passwords - really depends on the method used to determine 'strong' passwords, because the 'normal' methods... don't really help as well as they look at first glance https://subrabbit.wordpress.com/2011/08/26/how-much-entropy-in-that-password/


re: user account naming - Since they knew the font that was being used, it wouldn't have been too hard to ensure that no new accounts appear identical to existing ones (and to run a script against the existing names in the database finding if anyone else had attempted similar things using numbers instead of capitals... 1 often appeared the same as l in a lot of fonts too...)


Unfortunately, it's rather difficult to distinguish between the people who are good at finding exploits like this who would love to work with the developers and admins, with people who simply love to torment and grief others.


And you really don't want to make the mistake of giving the latter type any sort of direct power in the game.

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