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Weekly Column

Get a Life (Which One?): A Real Battle is Brewing in the World of Everquest

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely

Everquest, if you aren't one of the 415,000 people who regularly play it, is an online PC role-playing game owned by Sony. At any time of day or night, 60,000 to 80,000 players are on the Everquest servers fighting fights, making alliances with other players, and striving to better their social positions in the fantasy world. And some of those players are cheating, a fact that is interesting to me only because Sony's reaction to the cheaters could seriously threaten both Sony's $100 million in annual Everquest income (nearly all of it profit) and even threatens the game itself.

I am not a game player, so I owe this column to my friend Paul, who is supposed to be writing a book about programming but instead is getting very good at Everquest.

At the heart of the story is a program called ShowEQ that runs not on your Everquest computer, but rather on a second computer that sits on the same LAN as your Everquest computer. So you need two computers and a LAN to cheat at Everquest, a pretty high barrier to entry. ShowEQ is a packet sniffer tuned to watch only Everquest packets. The program doesn't participate in the game in any way, it just watches. And because it just watches, ShowEQ is very difficult to detect.

What ShowEQ does with the packets it watches is compile an overhead view of what the game field looks like — a view that is not normally available to Everquest players. It can see where you are in the world, where other players are, and most importantly, where the bad guys are. Named bad guys like the Evil Overlord can pop up anywhere, but ShowEQ tells you precisely where he is and how tough he probably is. The program can even beep to warn you when bad guys are near.

An Everquest player with ShowEQ has a definitive advantage over those without. They see where they are in the game, where other players are, and if a really bad guy is in their path, they can know to detour around him and avoid being squashed. For all these reasons, ShowEQ violates the Everquest End-user License Agreement and those who are found to be using it are banned from the game by Sony — just bumped clean off, never to return. Sony is pretty ruthless that way.

But most ShowEQ users are never caught because the program is so unobtrusive and because it runs only on a Linux computer. Everquest is a Windows game, but ShowEQ requires Linux. That's where the story gets interesting.

The Linux installation for ShowEQ is a difficult one for most people. In fact, most users couldn't even do the installation, which requires compiling the ShowEQ source code and fighting with some difficult libraries to make the program work at all. This is by design. The authors of ShowEQ (the original author now reportedly works at Sony, having either been seduced by the Dark Side or brought into the light, depending on your position on this issue) don't want it to be an easy installation. Apparently, the idea is to keep out the non-technical riff-raff. If ShowEQ has only a few users, the theory goes, Sony will leave it alone and won't try too hard to kill the program or those who use it. This is what the guy who appears to be in charge of ShowEQ today refers to as the "Social Contract" — a tacit deal with Sony to keep ShowEQ hard to use and therefore away from the rest of us.

Think about it. The same people who like to push Linux as the logical alternative to Windows in this case are letting the inherent complexity of Linux act as a wall to keep out the masses.

And so it worked. Sony added encryption to Everquest, but that was okay because the ShowEQ developers cracked the encryption each time in a few hours and moved on. Sony couldn't use hard encryption, it was reasoned, because doing so would eventually slow down game play as individual player PCs had to hunker down and decrypt every packet.

Then Sony changed the game by adding some compression and changing the way encryption was done to make it no longer easy to decrypt using brute force methods. The Social Contract was violated, or so thought the minions of ShowEQ. There is no hard evidence, by the way, that Sony ever participated in such a Social Contract. Perhaps it was only a fantasy in the minds of the ShowEQ developers.

With the old cracking methodology no longer working, the only way to run ShowEQ is to pluck the decryption key straight from the memory of the Windows box where Everquest is running. This is easy to do and it is also where Sony may have put its own game franchise in jeopardy.

What is the best way to pluck the decryption key from memory in the Everquest computer? One way is to run a tiny program alongside Everquest on the Windows box and pluck the key, which is then sent to the Linux box where ShowEQ runs. But a just-as-easy alternative is to simply port ShowEQ to Windows and get rid of both the LAN and the second PC. With the Social Contract having been already violated by Sony, why not?

If ShowEQ for Windows appears, then 100 times the number of ShowEQ userswill exist. All the folks thwarted by the complexity of Linux will be able to run the program. Instead of a few hundred ShowEQ users, there might suddenly be tens of thousands. It is the "Script Kiddie" phenomenon applied to a PC game. Just as the Kiddies wreak havoc on the Net with precompiled scripts, viruses, and trojans they could never write themselves, so too the new population of ShowEQ users could ruin the game for everyone else. Instead of a few invincible dopes, there would be thousands.

Sony could ignore the situation or, more likely, they could take action, banning all the new ShowEQ users, which would probably be more detectable since their program would actually touch the innards of the Everquest engine and might even run co-resident with it. That's a no-no.

Or maybe Sony will do nothing. Is it in their interest to throw away maybe $10 million per year in revenue from banned players? On the other hand, if every tenth player is invincible, the game is probably ruined for the other nine.

Maybe everyone should have ShowEQ, re-leveling the playing field at a higher elevation. After all, there is a Star Wars role-playing game on the Net that gives users a kind of radar screen to use that acts much like ShowEQ and that game is also run by Sony. We'll see.

My personal theory is that Sony sees the three-year-old Everquest as an aging product they would like to move away from. They have to have been busy all this time working on a follow-on game, but how do you move all those players to the new game if they are happy with the old one? You make the old game no longer so fun to play or — better still — you allow someone else to make it no longer so fun to play. Don't be surprised to see a new multi-player game launched with lots of great features and a low introductory price. Sony needs to jazz things up a bit with xBox Live about to launch.

I want to end on another issue that is tangential to all this Everquest nonsense. Many of the ShowEQ partisans have their knickers in a twist over how Sony might or might not use its End-User License Agreement (EULA) to subvert the innards of offending computers. The EULA is that agreement we all click on but never read before loading new software. Awhile back, Microsoft altered one of its EULAs to grant all sorts of extras powers to snoop and grab and install extra software or remove software they don't like. This sparked a small outcry but no change in behavior on the part of Redmond, so I guess they've won again.

Or maybe not.

Maybe you have seen a new virtual postcard from Friend Greetings, owned by an outfit called Permissioned Media. It prompts you to install their software to view the card. You are then presented with a EULA granting them permission to e-mail all the Contacts in your Outlook Address Book. Those people are presented with an e-mail from you telling them they have a greeting card to pick up. So, this thing spreads like a worm, but it isn't strictly a worm since we have presumably agreed to participate. Most of the anti-virus sites have sections discussing the phenomenon, but none are yet detecting it as a virus or worm.

I love this idea. Friend Greetings and Permissioned Media are not good guys in any sense, but they might do a good service for us all. This EULA thing has gotten out of hand. We are clicking-away rights that we shouldn't and sure it is because we are lazy, but even lazy people shouldn't be victimized. It is time for someone to take Permissioned Media down. Any volunteers? By taking legal action against this two-bit outfit, the whole EULA issue can be dealt with and Microsoft doesn't have to be involved UNLESS, OF COURSE, THEY COME AS A FRIEND OF THE COURT FOR PERMISSIONED MEDIA. That would be like Jerry Falwell testifying for Larry Flynt, which he actually once did (they are friends sort of — go figure). But Permissioned Media is so obviously in the wrong here that we just might get our rights back if someone moves quickly.

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