Bots, Farmers, and Cash

Last week I was cruising past 700,000 gold, but instead of being halfway to 800K, I’m down to 650K. Why? Hookers? Blow? Nope. I spent about 100,000 gold on various materials, mostly metal.

All of my various World of Warcraft professions require raw materials that I then turn into more valuable items via the different crafting skills. These raw materials come from the world at large, i.e. ore from outcroppings of rock, herbs from plants, leather from animal skins, etc. I have the ability to gather these myself, but I don’t.

Why? Because it’s boring.

And also, because I don’t have to.

Instead, I simply buy these materials on the open market. Prices rise and fall, supply comes and goes, and I sit on the sidelines with a big pile of cash waiting to snatch it up at the right moment. And this last week was the right moment.

Commodity prices generally move up and down within a band, but there are two kinds of events that cause the price to either spike or plummet, and they’re driven by the absence of farmers and appearance of bots.

Farmers are players like you or me, though for all I know, they might be chained to their computers in an underground Chinese prison. Either way, they grind out the material hunt day after day, putting up with the boredom so that I don’t have to. They post their goods in a chunk every day or two, and the amount posted looks like an amount that could be reasonably farmed in that amount of time. Their presence is fairly steady.

Bots take advantage of API’s and hacks to pump the necessary actions through the user-interface to play the game for them. They gather obscene amounts of raw materials in a short amount of time and then dump them on the market at ever-decreasing prices. Blizzard calls this a violation of their Terms of Service agreement, and they kill the accounts of players caught employing these botting tools. They also beef up the software to keep the bots from working, but like all security efforts, it’s a never-ending battle to plug holes in the dike.

So, how do these push the normal supply/demand out of whack?

Farmers go on vacation or move on to other things, and then there’s a sudden drop in supply. If you have a large supply waiting in the background, you can cash in on a temporary price spike until new farmers are attracted to the market. I see this happen often enough in some markets to actually make decent money smoothing out the volatility, i.e. buy when cheap and plentiful, sell when expensive and rare.

Despite Blizzard’s best efforts, botters eventually find a way through the security, and the market floods with cheap material. Instead of five or six players posting twenty stacks each, one player shows up with six hundred stacks at half the price of the regular farmers. It can take a while for that bloat to be absorbed by the market, but it’s accelerated by people like me, willing and able to slap down thousands upon thousands of gold to grab a good deal while it lasts.

It’s a bit of an ethical quandary when buying from someone you suspect is a botter, because when I do so, I’m rewarding a cheater. I feel a bit bad doing so, but I know I’m not the only one opening his wallet. Eventually, the whole market absorbs their output like a nation of giddy SUV-drivers suckling at the oil spigot of a greedy dictator.

Plus, I can’t say for certain they’re botters. Even Blizzard considers it a tricky measure and only whacks them when it can detect the actual bot software, not merely when they detect the bot’s prolific production.

At least I can be pretty sure the botters aren’t using their ill-gotten gold on ethnic cleansing or terrorism.

Meanwhile, my newfound supply of elementium ore should last me most of the rest of Cataclysm and possibly into the next expansion.