Monday, August 16, 2010

AVR: Re-visiting Blizzard's Own "Kill Command"

With all of our work on heroic Sindy 25 of late, I've heard a few voices over vent proclaim, "I wish we still had AVR!"; getting extra tombs from improper placement of the beacon targets is never a good thing.

Sometimes, when doing Festergut and Rotface, I long for the near-definitive circle on the ground that made sure I was getting a stack of Inoculated or wasn't going to get hit by an Unstable Ooze Explosion. That certainty was really nice to lean on, to rely on, that when Blizzard took it away, it felt like I was entering these fights for the first time... again.

For those late to the party, AVR, short for Augmented Virtual Reality, was an add-on that projected graphics onto the game world, most often for use on boss encounters with specific ranges of abilities and the like. The aforementioned are perfect examples of the ingenuity of AVR; rather than using something like "/range 10" to determine how far away someone is, you could have a circle with a radius of 10 yards drawn around you in red, clearly delineating what you were and were not going to entomb in deathly ice.

Note I use the past tense, 'AVR was,' because in patch 3.3.5, Blizzard essentially "broke" the add-on, preventing it from working properly, and proclaimed that,
The invasive nature of a mod altering and/or interacting with the game world (virtually or directly) is not intended and not something we will allow. World of Warcraft UI addons are never intended to interact with the game world itself. This is mirrored in our stance and restriction of model and texture alterations. 
There was quite the uproar following this announcement and its implementation. Elitists, who never downloaded the mod, were filled with glee at all the 'scrubs' that were crying on the forums. The opportunists, who saw a way to help their raid learn difficult boss mechanics, were befuddled that something so seemingly harmless and extremely helpful was dispatched of by Blizzard, a company that supposedly welcomed UI add-ons and modifications that personalized the individual's playing experience.

Anyway, that's all in the past. The question I wanted to address, whether it is a touch belated or not, is this:

"Did Blizzard have the right to break AVR?"

Dotting the i's and crossing the t's

The following is an excerpt from the World of Warcraft End User License Agreement (EULA), specifically from section 2, Additional License Limitations:
"You agree that you will not, under any circumstances... use cheats, automation software (bots), hacks, mods or any other unauthorized third-party software designed to modify the World of Warcraft experience..."
At first glance, at least to a non-lawyer like myself, this seems to brand ALL add-ons and mods illegal (for the sake of this discussion, I intend the term 'illegal' to mean 'against the rules,' not against any state or federal laws). However, the operative phrase "any other unauthorized... software" suggests that there exist some mods and add-ons that are authorized for use by Blizzard, and some that are not.

How does Blizzard decide what to authorize and what to forbid? In short, we don't know. They are a business and, as such, don't necessarily have to explain why they do everything that they do; they don't hold the same accountability as a governing body. For example, if Ford wanted to stop painting their cars red, they technically would not be accountable to consumers as to the reason behind this decision. Their stockholders, perhaps, but not their consumers.

However, we can extract a reasonable guideline for these decisions from the World of Warcraft Terms of Use Agreement (ToU), as quoted from section 9, Code of Conduct, sub-section C, Rules Related to Game Play:

"[C]ertain acts go beyond what is "fair" and are considered serious violation of these Terms of Use. Those acts include... [a]nything that Blizzard considers contrary to the "essence" of the Game."

While the original context of this clause is in reference to the conduct of players within the game itself, it seems that this philosophy, of forbidding things that are contrary to the "essence" of the World of Warcraft, holds true for many of their policies and decisions.

Therefore, the question becomes thus:

"Is the functionality of AVR contrary to the "essence" of the World of Warcraft?"

Lines in the sand

As I suspected, Blizzard replies to this sentiment in the second part of the response quoted above:
[I]t removes too much player reaction and decision-making while facing dungeon and raid encounters. While some other mods also work to this end, we find that AVR and the act of visualizing strategy within the game world simply goes beyond what we’re willing to allow.
Let's see if we can extract some assumptions from this statement. First, Blizzard has an expectation for the level of player response in terms of dungeon and raid encounters.

For example, if I were to ask you to log in right now and stand twenty yards away from another player by purely eyeballing it, could you do it? I'm guessing a large proportion of you could not, myself included. However, with a simple "/range 20", this task is easily performed. What does this mean in terms of Blizzard's expectations?

It means that they know what is reasonable to expect from the player and what is not.

It is reasonable to expect a player to know that standing on top of another player who is marked for death via Ice Tomb is bad; it is unreasonable to expect a player to know, without previous knowledge, the exact distance in-game that he or she needs to be from the marked target in order to not be entombed as well. In allowing Deadly Boss Mods and its "/range" functionality, Blizzard was admitting that determining precise distances in-game without outside assistance was unreasonable.

Another assumption that can be taken from Blizzard's statement is that there exists a line that Blizzard has drawn that defines what is and is not acceptable in terms of the implementation of an add-on or mod, outside of previously established reasons (the "essence" argument).

This assumption is a bit harder to grasp. For this purpose, let's compare DBM with AVR.

In Deadly Boss Mods (DBM), messages and timers appear on your screen that inform you of impending attacks, abilities, cooldowns, etc. For anyone who has ever used this or a similar add-on (which I'm guessing is a large majority), you know that sometimes DBM can clog and pollute your screen with its incessant warnings. What's important to note is that Blizzard condones this; without even researching a fight, a raider can jump into Icecrown Citadel and have DBM chirp away all of the boss's abilities and reportable mechanics.

In AVR, textures appear around certain objects to visualize some of the abilities and attacks from various encounters to provide the player with a very simplified "don't stand in the red circle" version of raiding. Again important to note; Blizzard does not condone this.

What's the difference? Format. DBM can spam all the messages and timers it wants, but if the player doesn't interpret these messages and timers correctly and act accordingly, bad things will happen. AVR took this interpretation and beat it senseless; arrange the pretty patterns on the ground and you win (sarcasm, but it's not far from the truth).

One fight where AVR shined as brightly as a tire fire was Festergut, specifically for the purpose of determining the range of the spores. Essentially, this mechanic went from this,

where you can see ranged DPS and healers stacking under skull's spore intuitively, to this,

The mechanic no longer emphasized finding the spore target and making sure you're underneath it when it explodes (or whatever the hell happens to give you a stack), and instead it became a matter of "OMG stand in this absurdly large red circle outlined on the ground!" Rather than have one raid member valiantly put themselves in danger by *gasp* running out of melee to share the spore with ranged or, even more dangerously, running in towards the tanks to ensure they get a stack as well, it became a drawing game obsessed with making sure the player knew their shapes and colors.

The end of the road

Let's take AVR to its logical extreme. If the author felt especially ambitious, or if a player had enough programming knowledge to modify the add-on themselves, one could conceive of a boss encounter where the floor was quite literally covered by AVR. Special circles could represent where to tank the boss, other circles could represent where each player was to stand, and so on and so forth.

In essence, boss strategies could potentially be integrated into the add-on, turning the entire concept of fighting an 'internet dragon' into "stand here, don't stand there, hit your buttons, collect loot." (I know a lot of us kid that we may already be at that point, but in actuality, we are not.) By allowing AVR to progress to such a point, Blizzard would be killing off a community of intelligent discussion and interaction that has blossomed and flourished over the years. The spirit of creativity is as close a concept to the "essence" of the game as anything can get, and by providing such a basic and simple workaround to the more complex and difficult aspects of the game, that spirit would be extinguished.

I believe that Blizzard foresaw these developments, knew that the WoW community would want more and more out of AVR, and was determined to stop it. As per their legal agreements, they cited that AVR was not an authorized modification in that it violated the "essence" of the game, and took action to prevent it from functioning correctly, generously providing a more than ample reason for doing so to their player base.

Therefore, and this should come as no surprise, Blizzard was fully within their rights to make changes to the game to prevent any add-on like AVR from ever functioning properly. They laid out the rules, AVR broke them, they broke AVR, end of story.

I'm thinking of a number... but you can't have it!

One last legal issue before closing: the "intellectual property" issue of add-ons and mods. Even though such authors invest their time, and often money, in producing such additions to the World of Warcraft, the cold truth is that, due to the presence of specific clauses within the Ownership section of the WoW EULA, these additions are not the intellectual property of their creators.

If you went to Tom Smith's beachfront in Maui and built a sand castle on his beach, using his sand, but using your shovels, buckets, blood, sweat and tears, the sand castle would still belong to Tom Smith. In the same way, even though you're the one designing add-ons for WoW, using code that Blizzard has provided for developers like you, it's still their sand castle.

If perchance you went and did a CTRL-F for "TL;DR", here you go: Blizzard was right to disable AVR, a mod that significantly cheapened the game we love, because it's their party and they'll break things if they want to, and no amount of tears will ever bring it back.


  1. NOT to seem like i didn't read your post (i did, and i see what you're saying) but a tip for festergut: try hudmap :D it's AVR like, you just have to adjust your eyeballs and brain to relative distances vs literal circles on the floor. :)

    just turn it off for lich king after phase 1 >.<

  2. Agree wholeheartedly. And for the record, AVR began as just a 3D paint tool that let you draw stuff on the world, which wasn't too bad a problem -- you still had to figure out the strat yourself. Right before the banhammer came down, though, they made up a DBM-esque mod that went with it, and that's about where it crossed the line from "tool" to "cheating".

    For anyone who seriously misses AVR, I suggest HudMap -- it puts your minimap dots of raid members up on your screen and marks a few important things per fight (who has the plague on Putricide-H, where people were standing when Rotface's ooze exploded, etc) but doesn't take it to the extreme that AVR did (actually changing the world around you).

    It gives you a really valuable visual heads up on some of the more hectic "ohhhh shi-" moments in tough fights, without the straight up hand-holding.