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Rockstar's reaction to Grand Theft Auto Online exploits is expected, boring and a missed opportunity

Rockstar has announced that players could be banned if they’re caught abusing the system in Grant Theft Auto Online in order to gain more cash.

The exploits are allowing players to amass giant amounts of in-game currency, and through things like the bounty system, the cheating players have spread the currency around the game, to the detriment of honest participants.

If you happened to kill someone with a massive bounty on their head due to the exploits, the money will be removed from your account. You’ll be able to keep your items, and won’t be punished in any other way. The more vicious "cheaters" will be dealt with, however.

This is a criminal simulator, by the way.

Hate the player, not the game

The Grand Theft Auto world is filled with violent, dishonest people who will do anything to get ahead, which makes the strict adherence to the in-game rules amusing to those observing from the outside. Grand Theft Auto Online players are expected to be terrible to each other, but only within the rules and systems created by Rockstar.

You can screw over each other, in other words. The system allows that. But something has to be done when you begin to screw over the system.

Let’s take a look at an exploit that has already been patched out to show some of the methods that people are using to gain massive amounts of cash. The fact that people find these flaws, and then leverage them against the game itself, is fascinating.

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Game designer David Sirlin wrote an amazing piece about how World of WarCraft teaches the wrong lessons back in 2006, and he noted that punishing the players for these kinds of loopholes is counterproductive.

"The very idea of using the terms of service as the de facto way to enforce a certain player-behavior goes against everything I've learned. A game should be a system of rules that allow the player to explore. If the player finds loopholes, then the game developer should fix them," Sirlin wrote.

"It's never, ever the player's fault: it's the game developer's fault. People who currently make deals with enemy faction (Horde or Alliance ) to trade wins in battleground games are not really at fault… A line in the Terms of Service saying that you shouldn't behave this way changes nothing, and teaches nothing."

The piles of cash impact the balance for everyone who plays, but why ban paying customers who are using every aspect of the system Rockstar created in order to succeed? If no code is being changed and no actual hacking being done the players are technically using all the rules of the game Rockstar released to get ahead.

Using the argument that the game wasn’t "intended" to work that way just proves that you failed at creating the game you intended.

Having a large audience is like pouring water into a container: If there are any holes or cracks, the water will find them. Blaming the liquid is boring, anachronistic and counter-productive. It crushes often enjoyable metagames or the ability for the player to become creative with the game’s systems.

"The very idea of using the terms of service as the de facto way to enforce a certain player-behavior goes against everything I've learned."

This is their game, and they can do whatever they want with it, but it’s not like the in-game Rockstar culture has ever preached restraint or class. We’ve discussed how social norms need to change for online behavior to change, and that’s likely never going to happen in a Grand Theft Auto game.

If the game teaches that violence and force gets you what you want, that those who color outside the lines are often rewarded handsomely, it’s hard to argue that everyone should play by your set of rules when the game is found to have so many opportunities for ill-gotten gains.

Rockstar is approaching the holes in their container like a traditional developer or publisher, and this shows a lack of understanding about what they’ve created. Why not reward players who pull off virtual heists against the game’s rules? Or better yet, inflate the price of everything and then shut down the exploits. Force the players to adapt to the hell they've created.

Make that cash mean something, or nothing, from a gameplay point of view. If the campaign proves that crime pays, often handsomely, it would be interesting if the other players in the online game were forced to deal with characters who were more powerful because they became what amounts to virtual criminals. What would happen? How would people behave, or how would the meta-game change?

Grand Theft Auto celebrates crime as a pop culture fetish, and then steps on that same attitude in the multiplayer aspect of the game. Why not see what happens when someone breaks the rules to become an actual virtual gangster?

The game may even isolate cheating players so they only play with and against each other. Put me on that list! The ruthless, creative players all put together in their own sandbox sounds way more interesting than dutiful adherence to the rules. Putting all the players who are willing to find holes in the system for proft into a single bucket is a wonderful way for them to punch holes in that bucket. I can't wait to see what happens.

Rockstar's reaction is expected and boring. Embracing these exploits as virtual crime, while trying to remove the cracks and tighten up the game, would offer so many chances for emergent play and creativity on the part of the player that it’s depressing to think about what we’ve lost. The players are doing what they do best: Testing the limits of the simulation and playing with the game.

Rockstar should stop punishing the players and begin to play back.

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