Splinterlands: Game Economy Analysis - How Bots Are Making Tournaments Unsustainable
Please note that I am writing this article as a player, not as a team member. Any opinions expressed are my own and do not necessarily reflect any official positions.
This post is specifically focused on how the th12 botnet is making tournaments unsustainable, particularly at the lower levels. I’ll begin by discussing the money multiplier and how that economic concept can be applied to blockchain game economies. Then I will define the th12 botnet. Next, I will examine some recent tournaments to explain why this is a problem for the game. And lastly, I will brainstorm a few potential solutions and hope that others can help generate other possibilities.
The Money Multiplier Effect
In economics, the money multiplier and reserve ratio are used to determine how an injection of funds can lead to a disproportionate increase in the money supply. Historically, banks have had to keep a certain percentage of their deposits as liquid reserves – the rest can be loaned out. So if the reserve ratio is 5% and $1000 is deposited then $50 has to be held in reserves and the remaining $950 can be lent out. That $950 would be spent and then deposited, after which an additional $47.50 would be held in reserves and $902.50 can be lent out. With each iteration, 5% would be held in reserves each time and the rest would be lent out. This forms an infinite geometric series where ultimately the Money Multiplier = 1 / Reserve Ratio = 1 / 0.05 = 20, in this case. So the initial $1000 can theoretically lead to a $20,000 increase in the money supply (though in actuality the multiplier will likely be less since not all the money would be deposited into the banking system and some will be held as cash currency).
In blockchain gaming, one of the revenue streams of games like Splinterlands and CryptoKitties is a market fee for the sale of any assets through the official marketplace. For example, when a Splinterlands card is sold, the seller gets 95% of the amount paid while the market platform gets 5%. If the official website is used, then Splinterlands gets that 5% as the market fee (and Splinterlands uses this to help fund tournaments). If I spend $1000 in single cards, then Splinterlands collects 5% and the sellers get $950. If those players then use that money to buy cards they want, Splinterlands gets another 5%, and the cycle continues. Within the context of the game economy, the market fee functions similar to the reserve ratio. If players keep their earnings within the game (i.e. keep depositing their funds at banks) then there will be a multiplier effect for the overall game economy.
The challenge is that not all players will reinvest their sale proceeds back into the game (just like how not all money will be deposited at a bank). Some players will extract their earnings from the game economy. Some players see Splinterlands as simply an investment vehicle so this is just a return on their investment. Others are playing the game to earn some money they can use for real world expenses. I am not making a moral judgment on those who are extracting from the game but from an economic perspective, if too many people are doing it too much, it can significantly stifle growth.
What is th12?
The th12 botnet is a series of accounts owned by j6969, the largest player/investor in the game. He has spent over $300,000 on cards. While there are other big investors in the game who have multiple sets of max cards (@aggroed, @nealmcspadden, @dreamryder007, @tcpolymath) the key difference is that j6969 has hired professional programmers to create a sophisticated bot to play all his accounts. The combination of max cards plus an expensive bot has allowed him to dominate both Ranked and Tournament play.
There are 27 primary th12 accounts that are all in the M00N guild. There are also some minor accounts in a secondary moon guild and a handful of others like th12-toy which has all cards but at level 1.
j6969 also has an associate, o1oo1o11 (who uses multiple Discord aliases, including Lancing). He has several accounts including: o1oo1o11, oo1o11o1, splinter-sage, hack-n-slash, sm-mercenary, and dont-loose (the newest one). Since these are botted through the same system as the th12 accounts, I group them together as part of the th12 botnet even though the card levels for the o1oo1o11 accounts are lower.
The issue with the th12 accounts is that the bots allow them to play Ranked 24/7, to enter all Tournaments with their 27+ accounts, and because they already have max cards, any earnings they make will almost certainly be extracted from the Splinterlands economy. This is even more likely since in recent months j6969 has become antagonistic towards the game and seems more intent on disrupting the game than trying to let Splinterlands grow or succeed.
For human players, many low level tournaments are not worth the time:
Tournaments have increasingly become bloated with more botted accounts and that results in additional rounds.
A lot of weak bots with minimal cards means that the early rounds are boring and there’s a higher amount of randomness since there’s a big difference between getting randomly matched with a weak bot or a real human opponent or a strong bot like th12.
Furthermore, some bots like th12 intentionally take as long as possible (particularly against certain opponents) which draws out the tournaments even more.
--> As a result of these factors, the lower levels have largely become a bot fest. However, th12 has been able to reach a level of dominance that none of the other bot nets can come close to.
Let’s look at some recent tournaments:
Bronze Blunderbuss (NLS)
All of the Top 4
6 of the Top 8
10 of the Top 16
16 of the Top 32
Of the 18,200 DEC in prize money, th12 earned 13,000 which is 71.43%
Silvershield Knights are Recruiting (NL)
All of the Top 4
7 of the Top 8
9 of the Top 16
14 of the Top 32
Of the 36,200 DEC in prize money, th12 earned 22,550 which is 62.29%
Bronze Blunderbuss (NL)
All of the Top 4
6 of the Top 8
11 of the Top 16
14 of the Top 32
Of the 18,200 DEC in prize money, th12 earned 13,250 which is 72.80%
Furthermore, if we look at the Kobold Mining and Bronze Blunderbuss tournaments for the past two weeks (4/20/2020 - 5/1/2020), one of the 27+ accounts in the th12 botnet won every single one of the 12 Bronze Blunderbuss tournaments (100%) and 8 out of the 12 Kobold Mining tournaments (67%).
Why Is This a Problem?
Yes, there are human players who can consistently place well in tournaments using multiple accounts. Yet there is a big difference in degree because humans have limits on how many accounts they can manually play (as opposed to 27+ botted accounts) and humans can’t play in all tournaments (since they have to eat and sleep) while bots can.
Yes, there are other botnets out there. Most botnets simply farm Ranked play and daily quest rewards. th12 is at a whole another level because of its extensive tournament play and even compared to other tournament bots it benefits from superior card access (range of max cards) plus its superior AI.
th12 is creating negative play experiences for a lot of players and that is concerning because it might drive human players away from the game. In Novice and Bronze tournaments, it is crushing new players and extracting a disproportionate amount of the prizes that newer players could otherwise use to build up their collections. At higher levels, it is frustrating facing one th12 bot after another in both Ranked play and tournaments.
Regardless of whether or not you think it’s right for j6969 to be earning a return on his investment or whether it’s okay for players to be extracting all their winnings from the game economy, from an economic perspective it is not sustainable for Splinterlands to keep running low level tournaments where one entity is earning 60%-70% of all the prize winnings and then extracting it all from the system.
While some may hope that the upcoming asynchronous tournaments and multi-leagues will solve these issues, those are intended to mainly address low level bots, not high level bots like th12. For higher level tournaments, greater participation in Any Time tournaments may make it harder for any given account to win due to the increased competition. However, it won’t address the problem of th12 dominating lower level tournaments. Many top players self-select and are intentionally not playing Novice or Bronze tournaments. And th12 has enough advantages that it will just continue crushing newer players. Even though league limits provide a ceiling for the maximum level of cards used, th12 benefits from access to all cards and the AI can simulate far more team lineups to maximize its chance of winning compared to the limited play experience that newer players have.
What Is the Solution?
Unfortunately there are are no easy solutions.
Some players want bots banned altogether but I don't think that's going to happen.
I think for the issue of low level tournaments, they could prohibit or discourage high level accounts from playing in low level events. For example, right now a novice level account has to pay 3 DEC to enter a novice tournament but 2000 DEC to enter some diamond level events. A champion level account has to pay 10 DEC to enter the diamond level events but only 3 DEC to enter the novice tournament. One solution is for the Champion level account to have to pay 100 DEC or even 1000 DEC to enter the novice tournament.
With the upcoming multi-league system, maybe a portion of the tournaments should be reserved for those in the appropriate league. So half of the Silver tournaments are specifically for Silver league players and the the other half are open to all players (whether novice or champion).
Recently, @cryptomancer unveiled some new tournament options, including a Captcha requirement. It is my understanding that right now Captcha would be mainly an option for custom tournaments and the plan is not to utilize it for official Splinterlands tournaments. But I think it might be a good idea to implement Captcha for future real-time (as opposed to Any Time) official tournaments. Bots would still be able to participate in tournaments but it would require some more human involvement.
For novice tournaments, maybe entry should be restricted to accounts that have purchased the Summoner's Spellbook in the past month or two. That way, only new accounts would be able to participate.