Players who have waded into the newly minted Elder Scrolls MMO are up in arms about the game's bots. According to a number of player reports, ZeniMax Online Studios and Bethesda Softworks have been struggling to fend off a proliferation of bots in the latest instalment in its acclaimed series of Elder Scrolls games, the first one to centre around online multiplayer gameplay.
Bots are essentially spam accounts run by computer programs instead of humans, and are designed to run on a sort of autopilot mode that lets them gather in-game currency — be it experience points, sellable items or just plain gold.
In addition to the overall oddity of seeing a bunch of characters move around the game world unnaturally, bots pose a bigger problem of destroying The Elder Scrolls Online's in-game economy. If enough of these programs are working simultaneously, for instance, they will all try to buy mundane items so many times over that it jacks up their price. Rare and valuable items, meanwhile, are depreciated in turn as they're hunted down relentlessly by these algorithms.
An Elder Scrolls Online player who asked to remain anonymous sent Kotaku three videos of his in-game footage showing how bots coalesce around NPCs to keep collecting completion rewards or even clog up dungeon passages to such an extent that human players have trouble passing through them. He asked that I hold off on sharing his gameplay footage, but here's a similar video that was also sent to Kotaku by another player that shows how bots can build up in a given area:
These kinds of problems are common in the early stages of an MMO's evolution. But once they start to proliferate, things get out of control for individual players who start to be confronted with in-game choke-points like those shown in the video above.
"I report bots daily," the Elder Scrolls Online player wrote in an email this morning highlighting a post he had made on the game's official forums. "I estimate that I've submitted possibly over 100 reports. In the last month, just 15 or so yesterday. When they are limited in number, I will make the effort to report each of them with a screenshot. This can be a difficult and tedious task when they are constantly running around, as you have to target them and snap the screenshot quickly."
This player's comments are in line with others I've seen posted on the game's official forums and other popular outlets for discussions about the game like Reddit. Back in April, one player even posted a de facto how-to guide on the best tactic he'd found to kill pesky bots on the Elder Scrolls Online subreddit.
"You are doing Stendarr's work eliminating these vile daedra," a fellow forum user responded. That's basically Elder Scrolls speak for: "you're doing god's work by taking care of these pesky but powerful bugs."
ZeniMax Online Studios has confessed to facing an outpouring of player complaints about this issue. In late April, Elder Scrolls Online director Matt Firor wrote in his regular "state of the game" address that "the scope of the black market activity accounts for up to 85% of Customer Service emails/calls." Shortly before that, ZeniMax had announced that the studio was temporarily suspending its guild banking system after detecting a bug that was duplicating stolen items and gold.
At the end of April, ZeniMax released a patch with updates specifically designed to "improve [the] fight against bots and gold spammers." The next two major updates that the studio has released made no reference to "bots and gold spammers" in their public patch notes. I've reached out to the studio to ask if the patch notes are any indication that the bot problems have been resolved or alleviated, and will update this story once I hear back.
Players acknowledge that ZeniMax is putting forward a genuine effort to tamp down on the bots. They're just not sure that the studio is doing enough, or if the problem is so endemic that the game itself is unstable.
"To their credit, an hour after my forum post, a GM ["game manager," a referee-type figure who keeps the game running smoothly] did show up in Windhelm," the Elder Scrolls Online forum poster told me in an email. "I watched him for 15 minutes banning the endless stream of bots gangbanging that NPC for quest rewards. I logged off for the night in disgust. I logged in again this morning, to more of the same bots running the same scripted path to the same NPC. If that isn't the very definition of ineffectual, I don't know what is."