Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/06/21/hacking_mmorpgs/

Hacking WoW and the pursuit of knowledge

The Warden vs. The Governor

By Dan Goodin

Posted in Security, 21st June 2007 01:12 GMT

USENIX Once upon a time, rising through the ranks in World of Warcraft was largely a matter of patience and stamina. For some beginners aspiring to online greatness, it meant spending hours in a virtual forest gathering leaves and later finding the elf who'd pay gold for them.

But spending hours huddling over a keyboard pecking at the same keys can be just a tad monotonous, so some players soon yearned for a way to automate all the repetition. And at the same time, WoW and other massively multiple online role-playing games (MMORPGs) became multi billion-dollar economies that could generate serious real-world money for sales of rare commodities in Fairy Land.

So the hacking of online games was inevitable, as absolute a certainty as gravity. That's the first thing Gary McGraw, co-author of the forthcoming book Exploiting Online Games: Cheating Massively Distributed Systems, wants you to know about the phenomenon. The second is that the hacking of these games matters to a hell of a lot more people than the geeks who frolick about in virtual landscapes casting spells and slaying ogres.

"These massive distribution systems are pushing the limits of software technology," said McGraw, during a session at this year's Usenix Annual Technical Conference in Santa Clara. "These are exactly the sorts of software security problems we should expect to see over the next decade in all massively distributed systems."

With about 12m paying customers, WoW was Exhibit 1 during the 90-minute talk. The game is so complex and massively distributed that its architects have no choice but to break off tiny chunks of the underlying software's "state" - variables such as a character's location that are supposed to be universal throughout the WoW universe - and let them run on an individual's machine.

It turns out these chunks of state are highly alterable, which makes it trivial for WoW users to change a character's X, Y and Z coordinates to give the illusion of flying or move to a more advantageous location.

Another hack uses code to automate a character's task of camping outside a cave in wait of monsters and stabbing them when they appear. A player who runs the bot shortly before going to bed can awake to find the character has pocketed plenty of gold left behind by the felled beasts.

It's okay to cheat

WoW hacking has other similarities to the non-game software security struggles, including the cat-and-mouse game played between those enforcing the rules and those trying to flout them. After growing wise to the bot scripts, Blizzard Entertainment, the provider of WoW, started sending agents into the game to query suspiciously drone-like characters with instant messages asking, in effect, "Hey, are you real?" So a hacker responded by modifying his bot so it forwarded all IMs by SMS to the hacker's cell phone, McGraw said.

McGraw's book, which is slated to hit book shelves next month and was co-written by Greg Hoglund, promises to contain plenty of hands-on demonstrations of how to hack MMORPGs. But his talk also spent considerable time discussing the ethics of the practice. His thesis: With a few exceptions - packet sniffers, denial of service attacks on opponents and the like - it's all perfectly OK.

For one thing, there are no laws that prohibit cheating in WoW and other games, and the end user license agreements (EULAs) are so chock full of ridiculous provisions that their ability to be held up in court are open to genuine debate.

"A lot of people think you can get in trouble for breaking EULAs," McGraw said. "It turns out EULA writers can get in trouble for asking improper things."

One of the legally specious requirements enforced by Blizzard is user permission to have software run on the player's machine that monitors instant messenger activity, open programs and other computer functions and reports them back to the company. The software, which Blizzard dubs The Warden, probably violates an anti-spyware statute in California, McGraw said.

So McGraw and Hoglund have responded with their own piece of software, which they call The Governor. It closely monitors The Warden and curtails activities the authors deem invasive.

Given there is no legitimate reason to argue against hacking MMORPGs, McGraw concluded, it would be irresponsible not to research how their rules can be circumvented. These games, after all, spawn real economies with gross domestic products that can rival many industrialized nations. What's more, the market for virtual assets such as land in Second Life or gold in WoW is large now and expected to mushroom to as high as $7bn in the next two years, according to IGE, a broker of MMORPG currency and assets.

Said McGraw: "Should we talk about breaking (MMORPG) systems? Absolutely we should, because otherwise we won't know how to build systems that don't suck." ®