New Warden in Town

For those of you that missed it – a good while back, Blizzard made the news in a hard way when consumers learned that the gaming company had included a sneaky bit of anti-cheating software into the World of Warcraft client. The software is called “Warden” and has been around for some time busting punks and catching cheaters in Blizzard’s Battlenet service. One of the less known features of patch 2.3 is a newer and much stronger version of the Warden. It is believed that this new version is significantly more powerful in its pursuit of those trying to exploit the games Terms of Service.

At first blush, this seems pretty reasonable. No one likes competing against botters and gold-pharmers for in game resources . Nor do they like the impact that these actions can have on server economies. For that matter it’s safe to say that the average gamer is even less thrilled about keyloggers and trojans, both of which can be used to hijack an account leaving the toons inside naked and penniless. If the Warden is there to protect us from the predations of tools like these – then more power to it right?

Maybe, maybe not. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Warden is technically spyware…spyware that runs on our home computer and dutifully reports our activities back to the Blizzard mothership. Creepy but not necessarily evil? I mean after all, Blizzard is just trying to keep the playing field level for the actual gamerz while providing no safe haven for professional cheaters, hackers, and gold/level pharmers. According to folks at Blizzard – that’s exactly the letter and spirit of their intent.

Despite this, there are an increasing number of folks who are up in arms about the Warden and markedly unhappy that the tool has taken up residence on their hard-drives. They claim that not only is the Warden able to comb through virtually all parts of your computer – but that its findings are often arbitrary and have been the cause of unjust bannings and account closures.

While it’s hard to measure the veracity of these claims, it is clear that the Warden has a great deal of power. Greg Hoglund, a security expert and author has spent a fair amount of time looking at what Warden does while it runs in the background of our game. According to Hoglund’s Blog, the Warden runs about every 15 seconds while we play and does a number of things including:

  • Reads information from the World of Warcraft Application and all of the dynamically linked code libraries that make it up
  • Grabs the “window text” from the titlebar of every open application window…including applications that have nothing to do with WoW
  • Through these open applications Warden was able to sniff through the e-mail addresses of contacts in chat clients, pull the URL’s of open websites and the names of all of his running applications – even the ones in his toolbar

According to Hoglund, the application then compares this information to built in “libraries” of “bannable data.” Simply put – if something you’re running is actively against the terms of service (such as a botting application like WoW-Glide) then that fact is zipped off to Blizzard who can then immediately flag your account for investigation or closure. This is a careful difference. No personal information of yours is technically passed to Blizzard, instead, they simply look at what’s going on in your system and then compare it against a list of things they think are suspect. If Warden finds a match – he calls home and tells mom about it. This allows Warden to be quite invasive in its exploration of our running processes – without technically telling anyone at Blizzard how much money is in our Quicken Checking Account.

“So what?” one might say, “I don’t bot, I don’t buy gold, and no one else has access to my account – so I have nothing to worry about.” In a sense, this is true, it’s easy to not fear a tool like the Warden when you game with the righteous. But what happens if you inadvertently surfed to a gold selling website and didn’t think to close the window before launching WoW? When Warden runs does it know the difference between someone buying gold and someone who’s just browsing? Does Blizzard care? The problem is that no one outside of Blizzard knows what the rules are when it comes to account banning or closure and thus it’s truly impossible to know how a certain action might be looked at.

To the truly paranoid this is on par with allowing police the ability to search your home at any time – with no search warrant – and then being subject to prosecution for offenses that only they know exist. Regardless of how you might feel about gold pharming or botting – there is a certain atavistic fear involved with someone that can invade your privacy at any time and report on your actions. Blizzard claims to only want to protect their game and their business (as well as your in game experience) from the predations of those that would exploit it. This is understandable – reasonable even. But every WoW player signs away a small (or large depending upon how you look at it) bit of their privacy when they accept the Terms of Service for the game, without really understanding what’s living on their hard-drive.

As of 2.3 – there is a new wrinkle. Not only do we have the toughest, meanest, most ruthless version of the Warden resident on our computers, but he now speaks a language that only Blizzard can understand. That’s right – the output from the new Warden is now completely encrypted. In the past, a number of bloggers and gamers supported Blizzard’s use of Warden because the results of the application rumbling around their hard-drive could be monitored by other applications or tracked by a good firewall. This is no longer the case. While the Warden may be as benign as ever to the honest WoW player, the fact remains that what he does on our systems is now completely obfuscated from even the most technical. While most of us will continue to play World of Warcraft – the fact remains that the application now resident in the guts of our game is one that monitors our actions and speaks in tongues. The results of these incomprehensible conversations have great power over our ability to play the game. Yet none of us know the rules it judges our worthiness by – or when it might find us wanting.

This latest action by Blizzard takes some of the luster off of what I believe to be an exemplary patch to the game. Now I don’t personally believe that Blizzard is mining my personal information or communicating my bank balance and shopping preferences to Blizzard. But the fact remains that I don’t appreciate that the functions of the tool are no longer transparent. Only time will tell how effective the new watch-dog program will be. Can it bring an end to the corruption of WoW economies by gold sales? Can it protect players from those that would compromise their accounts and steal the fruit of their in-game labors (or worse – their credit card numbers and account passwords?) Will it be a fair arbiter of justice? Or will we begin to see innocent people get their accounts banned because they surfed the wrong web-page, communicated with the wrong people in IM or received SPAM e-mail from known gold sellers?

While I don’t have a single tin-foil hat in my closet, I can’t help but feel a bit creeped out about all I’ve learned. I know from now on, when I play – I’ll close everything but the game itself. This in itself is a bit of a drag on my in game experience since I’m used to having FireFox open (with about a million tabs) and my mail and chat clients all open. As a mac user it’s easy enough to run WoW in a window and keep up with the rest of my online life at the same time. But like having to maintain some kind of half understood systema or to maintain command information security, I’m now feeling pressured to mitigate how I enjoy the game – because I just don’t know what it might say about me while I play.

Shaman Nerfed – World LOL’s

With 2.3 on the horizon and most of the WoW playing population eagerly waiting for the new content and various fixes that come along with each patch, there remain a group of stalwart players that are once again dreading it. Of course – I’m referring to the venerable Shaman.

At one time, the Shaman class was an unmistakable hurricane force in world PvP. Feared by all, this versatile hybrid could burst melee like a warrior, kite like a hunter, and nuke and heal in ways that made druids prowl away in shame. They were *monsters* a horde only superclass and long did the alliance dramakin sing to the devs begging for them to be nerfed.

nerf this shaman!

Somewhere around WoW 2.0 – that wish was granted. Worse, like a spurned ex-girlfriend the devs seemed to find new and entertaining ways to include at least one or two new nerfs in each successive patch. Still stinging from a botched (read ignored) review several patches ago and a string of setbacks that whittled away the classes best tools, Shaman seem to truly have a bitch worth scratching. Today, the Shaman is the least played class in the game and the few remaining stalwarts are hugging their totems and raising a QQ that would make a ret-pally blush.

Tenebreon from the Maelstrom server summed things up pretty well in the official class forums:

This started as a reply to Wylde’s thoughtful, mature post about his take on the state of shamans. He touched briefly and gently on one point, the destruction of enhancement PvP that took place in the transition from old world to new world. The original post is HERE:

My reply follows:

I’m not going to be as nice. You touched on one point that I really want to ram down Blizzard’s throat, so here goes.

To start, yes, I’m posting on my warlock. Yes, he is my new main, at least as far as PvP is concerned. My shaman is a Legionnaire with over 60 days /played, had a TUF before getting it was trivialized, and was, for a very long time, the most enjoyable class I’d ever played.

The implementation of TBC and patch 2.0 destroyed a unique, highly enjoyable, viable play style: enhancement PvP. This is unique in the history of WoW, with the possible exception of the demise of the reckoning bomb, “HIT ME IN THE JIMMIES! AGAIN! AGAIN!” paladin. (And even in that case, the spec remained viable, just changed in play style.)

Many- and by many, I mean tens of thousands- of us rolled shamans expressly because we enjoyed this play style. In fact, I would venture to say that the majority of PvP-minded shamans came to the class with this in mind. Most of the most recognizable names in the history of the class arose from this play style and spec. (Quick word association game: I say “Pre-2.0 PvP shaman video,” you say: _____. If you didn’t say “Unbreakable,” try again.)

To shamelessly quote myself, enhancement shamans were, in the eyes of the alliance, the over-powered boogiemen of the battlegrounds, fearsome killing machines that shot lightning from our eyes and fireballs from our arses. And we loved it.

Okay, so that last bit was from Braveheart. But you get the picture. However, come 2.0, that was gone with nary a goodbye.

Why doesn’t it work anymore? There are a lot of reasons:

1) Enhancement PvP was a burst-based spec, through and through. Snare a clothie, pop the bubble, run in, and flatten them. Lather, rinse, repeat; with WF, SS, and ES, it was *typical* for us to be able to kill cloth in one to two swings.

~nostalgic grin~ There was this one time with a shadow priest in AB… Sorry, I digress.

Our burst, though, did not scale with player HP totals. You can’t WTFPwn even a shieldless mage in blues now. Add in resilience and the staggering life totals from arena gear and the situation gets even worse. A single player *cannot* burst down another player unless there is a substantial gear or spec difference; this is the reason for defensive abilities like CloS, TBW, Blazing Speed / Dragon’s Breath, etc on classes that never needed them previously.

Enhancement shamans never received that defense mechanism, never received any mechanism to deal with being kited or CCed, and by consequence fell far behind the curve.

2) Other classes received talents and abilities to deal with their weaknesses in PvP, while enhancement did not. I touched on this above, but it’s a significant problem. Shamans received no form of CC (even weak CC a la repentance), no way to close the gap, and no way to cope with being focus fired. Given that our targets could weather our burst without issue, even in the chaos of BG PvP, this is a crippling problem.

3) Finally, the nature of “real” PvP changed drastically. As a class / spec with limited closing mechanisms, no CC, and very limited survivability, we extraordinarily dependent on being able to get the first shot in on an unaware or distracted target and swing the fight in our favor from the outset.

That simply doesn’t work in the arena. A decent team will know where you are, and also know that if you are so much as slowed, your contribution to the match will be quite effectively and suddenly ended. This makes for a rather nasty combination with the proliferation of defensive and escape mechanisms granted other classes in 2.0; there is no class in the game at this point that cannot render an enhancement shaman ineffectual, bar only (perhaps) a holy priest.

Maybe these things sound familiar. They’ve all been QQed about before, at great length and many times since TBC beta began. Hundreds if not thousands of posts have been made asking for solutions to one or more of these problems.

“Please give shamans CC, we’re the only class without!”
“Please give shamans anti-CC, we’re getting murdered out here!”
“Please give shamans a way to deal with getting focus fired, we’re so squishy!”

I’m sure all three of these topics are represented within the first three pages of both the US and EU forums, so I won’t belabor the point here.

So what?

I’ll just return to my original point:

Blizzard destroyed a unique play style in their treatment of enhancement shamans in 2.0 and TBC. Thousands of players were effected by this set of decisions, and, for many, it was enough to drive them from the class or from the game entirely. Those who remained in the game had, in some cases, *hundreds* of hours of time devoted to their characters invalidated, all without a by-your-leave.

I, for one, am still pissed. Does 2.3 contain buffs to enhancement shamans? Yes. Do those buffs address any of the crippling problems outlined above and make it such that the class spec is once again usable for what so many of us rolled it for? NO. Enhancement PvP is still dead. The closest proxy?

Ret paladin. How’s that for delicious irony?

/rant off

Edit: No, I’m not requesting or recommending a return to the days of 1-2 shotting people; several repliers have gotten that impression. The point is that now that we can no longer do that, we need talents and abilities that will allow us to actually survive a sustained DPS fight. Other burst classes received exactly that sort of buff; enhancement did not.

So what do you think? The official class forums are filled with angry Shaman claiming that unless the class is fixed – and fixed soon – they will either abandon their toons or abandon the game altogether. With no real visible relief in sight are Shaman justified in abandoning the class? Are they in the same boats Druids used to be? So gimped into their hybrid role that they can’t do anything effectively? Has the class truly not kept up with the rest of the game – or are Shaman simply pining for their bygone glory days?

Only time will tell – but with nothing positive being reported from the test realm and with a fairly hard date for 2.3 burned into the collective consciousness of the playing public – patch day may be another dark day indeed for one of WoW’s most recognizable and revered classes.