Last week, thanks to a tip from an MMOBomber, we reported on the serious issues En Masse Entertainment was having with regards to its TERA community and its response to a wave of bans regarding third-party applications. We received responses from EME to some basic questions regarding the whole affair, but they only brought about more questions – and contact – from players challenging EME’s assertions.
After looking over that information, we can’t really fault EME for doing what it did, in the broadest sense. Even some of the people who created the tools that resulted in the bans agree that what they were doing was wrong, either in a technical sense (i.e., against the Terms of Service but benign) or in a more malicious sense (i.e., this totally breaks the game or is otherwise exploit-y).
The primary issues we’re having is with the timing of EME’s response to third-party programs and how that affected the community of TERA players, many of whom use such tools without any intention of unbalancing the game. What could have been a policy agreed upon by all players as best for the game instead turned into a PR mess due to hasty decision-making, poor communication, and a sudden shift to a “zero-tolerance” policy that contradicted previous statements by staff.
We weren’t given a name to go along with the responses from EME. Even after specifically asking for one, we were told to attribute them to “the TERA team at En Masse Entertainment.” So whether it was a certain community manager, executive producer, or whatever … we don’t know.
Our first question was about the bans themselves, and why they were enforced at this time. The response was:
And here’s an email exchange between a player (the one who initially informed us of this affair) and a GM, in which the player reports himself for using a third-party program and is given the nudge-nudge-wink-wink OK from the GM:
Granted, GMs are not full-time employees of EME, and their decisions can be overturned as the parent company sees fit. But it’s still easy to see why responses like this could be seen as explicit approval from EME regarding the use of such programs and why the sudden ban wave of April 26 seemed to come out of nowhere.
We asked EME to verify that this exchange was official and came from one of its employees; the company refused to comment.
Follow the money
Getting back to the question of “why now?” our EME source says that
“Recently, we detected that some players were using third-party applications in ways that unbalanced the game economy, which had a detrimental effect on the game experience for other TERA players.”
The exploit in question appears to be the creation of one “Memeboy,” who used an app to exploit the Emporium, TERA’s in-game store. Memeboy was able to access rewards of a higher tier than his loyalty tier – which is normally gained by completing certain tasks in game and by spending money in the Emporium.
Memeboy’s mistake appears to have been in bragging about his prowess in a public place, which he did on April 20. News of this hack clearly got back to En Masse Entertainment; six days later, the hammer fell. It might not have been a “distant executive” as I stated in my original story, but it was still a hasty, blunt-force decision made by someone with an eye on the bottom line.
What Memeboy did was clearly wrong. It directly subverted TERA’s rewards system and cost the game money. En Masse Entertainment was right to ban him, as well as anyone else using a similar exploit. You can’t blame EME for putting a stop to something like that.
However, as the previous chat logs show, running third-party programs in general was acceptable to EME, even despite technically being against the ToS. All such programs were explicitly permitted – in some cases, with explicit permission from GMs – for five years, but the moment such a program threatened the game’s income, everything was shut down as quickly as possible. That was the priority.
EME also indicated that fewer than a dozen players had been banned. As stated on the forums, the primary objective is to go after the players creating the third-party programs:
“But this isn’t mass player eradication. We’re investigating those who are egregiously modding and tampering with the client. In some cases players are very clearly guilty of hacking and interfering with the live service of the game, and those players will be banned without warning.“
Further language tells players that, essentially, just because you might be using something as innocent as a DPS meter doesn’t meant you still can’t still be banned for it. Perhaps EME has no way to detect people using DPS meters or it takes too many resources to do so or doesn’t want “mass player eradication” and the fallout that would come from it. Whatever the case, a policy that an authority doesn’t have the means or will to enforce is largely toothless.
EME also stated that nobody appealed their bans, as of the responses we received on May 4. That, too, appears to be false, as one player appealed his ban on April 29:
So where does all this leave TERA? Perhaps in a worse place than it was before the bans. Several of the third-party programmers acknowledged that their tools could be used for nefarious purposes. One of them, known as Bernkastel, even had a script that would auto-block attacks – a clear gameplay advantage – as well as alter your appearance on the client side only. In other words, you could deck yourself out in whatever fancy cash-shop gear you wanted, but only you would see the difference; other players would see your actual equipped gear. Even so, it would clearly be another case of taking money out of EME’s coffers.
However, Bernkastel didn’t make that script available, acknowledging that the auto-blocking part of it “was BS.” Now that he’s banned, however?
You can’t help but have a little sympathy for EME, particularly seeing that it is TERA’s publisher and not its actual developer; that duty belongs to Bluehole Studios. Does the publisher permit the programmers operating in a morally grey area to continue doing their thing and hope that nobody crosses the wrong line, as Memeboy did? Or do they bring the hammer down on the programmers, cleaning the game up momentarily but potentially opening themselves up to further, malicious attacks while also infuriating players simply looking to improve their experience?
The third option is, of course, to improve the game so that players don’t have to provide their own tools to reduce ping, track DPS, and so on. To the company’s credit, the communication on that front appears to be improving.
It may be a lesson learned too late. As Atlus discovered with its strict Persona 5 streaming rules, threatening your customers – as EME did in its initial post about the issue – is never, ever a good idea, PR-wise. The gag order EME tried to impose regarding the topic just made a bad situation even worse. You can’t threaten your players with bannings and then tell them to be quiet and accept it, especially when it’s effectively and suddenly reversing a policy that had been in place for five years.
While it’s only one source, take a look at how daily player numbers have dipped since the bans were announced on April 26:
Steam Charts shows a decrease of around 1,000 players in the weeks following the bans. If fewer than a dozen were banned, then that’s probably about 20% of players leaving the game voluntarily rather than having to get by without their tools. More might have stayed on while cleansing their clients of anything that could potentially get them banned.
If one-fifth of your players feel the need to “cheat” in your game, that’s a pretty big problem. It’s one that requires more than a quick banhammer and threatening forum post with a clickbait-y title to solve.
In the long run, too, it might not matter. Our of our sources tells us that “Most of the people I know to be banned don’t care. And just made another account on the EU version of the game.”
Again, we’ll re-iterate: En Masse Entertainment had the right to ban anyone it chose to, as spelled out in TERA’s Terms of Service. This is especially true with regards to players like Memeboy and Bernkastel. The issue lies in the application of those bans and the company’s initial narrative surrounding them, which contained some marked inconsistencies and inflammatory language that makes it hard to view its actions in a positive light.
It would have been better to come clean and admit from the start that violations of the ToS regarding third-party programs were allowed up to this point, and “that’s our mistake,” rather than the clearly false “we’ve always been tough on crime” stance that was put forward. (A stickier point would have been admitting that the reason they aren’t allowed now is less about improving player experience and more about immediate financial considerations – a point that wasn’t clarified until we did a little digging.) Announcing a “grace period” for players to clean up their clients – while still insta-banning the third-party programmers and egregious exploiters – might also have been a good idea, especially if there was no intent to really go after the DPS meter crowd. The net effect would likely have been less of a shock to the system for the player base as a whole and a greater approval rate regarding the “new” policy.