If an email system or a corporate server gets hacked for financial gain, it’s usually in the news, and the perpetrator usually gets jail time if caught. When the internal economy of a computer game gets hacked, it’s almost never in the mainstream media, and very rarely even covered by games journalism.
Yet the hackers who find and exploit glitches in virtual worlds can make off with thousands of dollars – even millions in the most extreme cases.
Online games haven’t been immune to theft of accounts and payment information, of course, but that’s the sort of thing that will land you in the news (and in jail). The more indirect, but often no less profitable, means of hacking an online game is to find glitches and shortcomings in the game’s programming and design.
These can be exploited by someone who is otherwise playing the game normally, with no illegal access of servers required.
This is a method that almost never results in any sort of criminal penalty. About the worst a glitch exploiter can expect is that the publisher of the game may ban their account.
How do glitch exploiters make money? By selling accounts, items and virtual currency.
Using glitches, they rack up experience and items in-game at a much faster rate than would otherwise be normal.
Whether the terms of service permit it or not, there is always a market willing to pay good money to skip the “grind” that is a central mechanic of most of these games.
Desirable individual items can sell for tens to hundreds of dollars, and accounts with characters who are fully leveled up and in possession of rare items sometimes sell for thousands.
In-Game Economies of Scale
Most online games forbid the selling of player accounts, in part because of the cleanup and game balance issues that the inevitable glitches will introduce.
Game developers usually respond to glitches by removing any status and items obtained from them from the accounts of the players who exploited them.
Of course, players who bought accounts or items may not know that they were obtained in violation of the game’s rules, and will likely be infuriated at what they see as an arbitrary removal.
The policy of not allowing any sales of in-game virtual assets gives the game developer an affirmative caveat emptor defense against complaints; the player knew the risk when they paid for the items.
That inherent risk hasn’t done much to slow down the black market trade.
Players with cash to burn are always eager to pay to skip the tedious grinding required to reach the more exciting later stages of a game, or simply want to show off a rare item that few others have.
Many accounts and items on these sites were generated legitimately.
Buyers are less safe when buying things that have been obtained by way of glitches and exploits, but there is almost no way to know, and once the seller has the money in their pocket the buyer has very little in the way of recourse.
Games That Allow “Real Money” Transactions
Some games have experimented with legalizing the sale of virtual goods, though not with overwhelmingly positive results.
The most high-profile experiment of this nature was Diablo III’s auction house.
Players were initially allowed to sell loot they obtained in-game for real money through the auction house, but it didn’t quite make it two years before being shut down.
Publisher Blizzard cited problems with game balance as the official reason, but there were regular issues with hacking and bots that some players feel Blizzard never developed adequate countermeasures for.
The handful of games that still allow players to sell items or accounts exist on the periphery of the MMO scene. They are largely niche titles with much smaller player bases than the genre’s most popular games.
The two most significant are Wurm Online and Entropia Universe.
Wurm Online takes a sort of anarchic approach to its economy; players are allowed to sell accounts and items as they wish, but it’s entirely up to them to arrange these transactions outside of the game and at their own risk.
Entropia Universe allows players to withdraw in-game currency as actual money, subject to an exchange rate (and a 1.5% fee for the publisher).
Surprisingly, these two games have had less public incidents with glitch exploitation than more mainstream MMOs, though that very well could be attributable to their much smaller populations. They haven’t been entirely free of incidents, however.
For example, Entropia Universe has had several issues with glitches related to mining, the game’s primary source of economic activity.
The most widely exploited of these glitches revolved around a particular piece of mining equipment giving them three times the “drops” it normally should when manipulated in a specific way.
These drops come from a limited pool shared by all players, so it was in effect shortchanging everyone on the server not using the exploit.
Wurm Online also sees periodic flare-ups of glitches that can be exploited for profit.
Rather than patching them all out, many are actually described in detail under the “Cheating” section of the game’s terms of service. Players are expected to familiarize themselves with these potential exploits, and if they are caught using them they can be penalized or banned from the game.
The Old Guard
Of the more mainstream titles that forbid “real money” trading of in-game assets, there is no bigger or more enduring title than World of Warcraft.
Though Blizzard Entertainment has never allowed real money trading in their flagship MMO title, it has nevertheless spurred the greatest amount of real-world economic activity by far.
“Gold farming”, in which huge teams are organized to earn in-game currency which is then sold illicitly to other players for real money, began shortly after the game was released and was estimated to be a $1 billion industry at its peak.
It was so lucrative that some high-profile investors even involved themselves in it, perhaps the most notable being Steve Bannon, former White House Chief Strategist and head of Breitbart.
Bannon was vice chairman of a Hong Kong-based gold farming company called IGE for six years and convinced American investment firms to put money into the effort, including a $60 million contribution from Goldman Sachs.
Gold farming generally relies on masses of coordinated legitimate activity rather than glitch exploitation, but WoW has had periodic glitch issues from the beginning that can be combined with more run-of-the-mill farming activity when opportunities present themselves.
The biggest of these was an early issue with character duplication. Initially, when players created a new account under their unique license, their in-game mounts were also copied without being removed from the first account. This process could be repeated endlessly.
Another famous exploit was the Reckoning Bomb, which allowed paladin characters to stack an almost unlimited amount of bonus attacks gained by taking critical hits.
With a sufficiently big stack of these charges, the paladin could unleash a one-time attack that was powerful enough to one-shot just about anything on the server. Before this exploit was patched, characters were able to very quickly attain high levels and get equipment from raid bosses far beyond their current capability.
Means of “duping” valuable items, or replicating them in the player inventory by way of a glitch, are generally the most valuable exploits that people look for in any type of game.
These sometimes involve programming glitches, but in the case of World of Warcraft, at least one was induced by social engineering of the game’s GMs.
For a time, players could duplicate mounts by being simultaneously logged in to two different accounts, equipping a new mount on one account, and then messaging a GM asking them to unbind the mount. Once unbound, the mount would appear in both accounts.
Outside the Skinner Box
Similar MMOs all have their own history of exploitable glitches appearing from time to time, and often being patched so fast that they are already extinct by the time they are being passed around on a forum.
MMOs aren’t the only games vulnerable to glitch exploiting for profit, however.
Any title that involves grinding (and has a player base willing to pay to skip that grinding) is fair game.
Sports games are no exception.
Since the introduction of Madden Coins, the Madden football franchise has been subject to glitch exploitation for profit.
One of the most notorious of these was a mistake in the code of the game’s auction house, which bungled a temporary promotion in the summer of 2016.
Players were supposed to be able to trade in five elite cards from the 1985-1986 set for one elite card from the then-new 1987 set. A programming error allowed players to instead trade in any five cards, even the most common.
EA was forced to take the auction house offline for several hours as they fixed the glitch, and issued 10,000 coins of in-game currency to all players to compensate for the inconvenience.
Another offbeat for-profit exploitation scheme involves the digital distribution platform Steam and its system of trading cards.
Steam periodically rewards players with these cards at random intervals as they play certain games online.
The cards have actual monetary value and can be sold directly to other users through Steam’s internal marketplace. Wily entrepreneurs managed to get fake games listed on the platform that met the criteria for card drops. These content-free games could be “played” by bots to harvest cards passively and with minimal use of system resources.
Getting In the Glitch Game
Milking glitches for cash is hardly a reliable source of income.
The chances of stumbling across a profitable glitch or exploit are low.
One could scan forums related to the game throughout the day looking for glitch reports, but they’re often patched within hours of becoming public knowledge.
Most of the gamers milking glitches in this way are those who were already playing MMOs and similar online games for profit – power levelers, farmers, account flippers, boosters and so on.
The only reliable glitches that can be milked systemically and scaled up are those that involve using bots in a way that flies beneath the radar of the game developer.
Still, as long as the ability to turn a quick dollar exists there will always be glitch hunters roaming the virtual worlds, looking for new and exciting ways to break them.