To hear Zak tell it, the e-mail he received earlier this month was a total shock--it summarily informed him that he'd been banned from World of Warcraft.
"This is a notification regarding your World of Warcraft account," the e-mail began. "Access to this account has been permanently disabled for exploitation of the World of Warcraft economy or for being associated to accounts which have been closed for intended exploitation." Zak, a 14-year-old WoW player from Georgia, asked that his last name not be used.
According to several players, Zak isn't the only WoW participant who recently has received a ban with what they believed to be little or no justification. Critics claim WoW publisher Blizzard Entertainment has been snaring innocent players in a dragnet for banned activities like account sharing and gold farming--a system in which players either directly or indirectly acquire large amounts of in-game currency or goods through repetitious actions, often achieved by operating automatic "bots" or macros that kill monsters or discover treasure.
"I think Blizzard is being too tough on their issues with exploitation and like many others, I have fallen (victim) to their harsh system of banning people like me."
--WoW player Shoot201
Indeed, a look at any of the many public WoW forums reveals no shortage of postings from players complaining that they had been banned and asking for help. Usually, the players complain, they have had no luck getting through to Blizzard despite repeated e-mails and customer service phone calls.
To Zak, the notice didn't make any sense. He believed he hadn't done anything to break the game's rules against an illegal process known as "power leveling," in which players gain points and levels in online games through banned exploits, such as those that take advantage of WoW software bugs to award gold or expedited advancement to new levels, or which use disallowed third-party software for the same purpose.
And that was the activity for which he believed he had been kicked out of Wow. A week later, after writing to Blizzard, his account was reactivated.
"They thought I (had been) power leveling," said Zak, "because I was leveling excessively and very fast, which is what power levelers do. (But I had just been playing) late at night to catch up with a friend and just played all day."
Blizzard: "too tough"
"My account for WoW has been closed down," on the gamers' community site, Gamers Reunion. "Not with a warning. Not even temporarily banned. It's ! I think Blizzard is being too tough on their issues with exploitation and like many others, I have fallen (victim) to their harsh system of banning people like me. And when I say 'like me,' I mean people who play lots and level up very fast."
Others are posting to the various forums reporting an ongoing trend, and asking anyone targeted by Blizzard to report the company's actions. A series of forum posts "have been showing that a great number of innocent players are being banned in a whirlwind purge of Blizzard's," earlier this month. "For any players caught in this wave of bans by accident, please file a report with" the Better Business Bureau.
Many online game publishers routinely conduct purges of players suspected of terms-of-service violations as a way of convincing their customers that everyone is on a level playing field. But the theory in some circles is that Blizzard has intensified an effort to cleanse WoW of players suspected of gold farming, power leveling or otherwise violating terms of service, and that the company is banning first and asking questions later.
Blizzard said it has not been careless in its banning decisions and that there has been no intensification of efforts to enforce terms-of-service rules.
"For any account that is suspected of breaking the (terms of service) and/or the (end-user license agreement), we conduct a very thorough investigation before the actual ban takes place," Shon Damron, a Blizzard spokesman, wrote in an e-mail to CNET News.com. "In order to ensure that no ban is made without good reason, this system has been extensively refined and contains numerous safeguards."
Blizzard keeps "thorough records of any account-related actions, and we don't show any unusual recent banning-related activity," Damon added.
Not all WoW players think the company is being heavy-handed. In fact, they think most of the people getting caught in the dragnet are guilty as charged.
Stephen Kittel, another WoW player, echoed Mike's sentiments in his own e-mail. "When someone gets banned, there is a reason for it," Kittel wrote. "Blizzard does not wantonly expunge loyal customers. Most of the time, the complainer is not being forthcoming about what he has one."
It's hard to know for sure, since Blizzard is not sharing information about its banning decisions and would not directly answer concerns. It's clear, however, that while some players may be mistakenly banned, many others have either knowingly or unknowingly committed terms-of-service violations, and that Blizzard is operating under a low-tolerance system for those breaking the rules against power leveling, using various exploits or either gold farming directly or buying gold from gold farmers.
But because Blizzard is taking action against even players who are caught associating with violators, alarms have been sounded among some guilds, or organized groups of players.
"If Blizzard is now banning people who might have been in touch with someone who broke (the terms of service) in addition to the people who broke it themselves, then that is very risky for a guild because of the interaction that goes on" between guild members, said Sean Bonner, a Wow guild leader and CEO of Metroblogging.
Bonner said if a player buys gold illegitimately and gives it to guild mates, the consequences could be severe. As a result, he said his guild now requires all players to acknowledge and reiterate they have read and accepted the Wow terms of service as a guard against guilt by association.
"We changed our build bylaws," Bonner said. "We will also take action if we find someone violating" the terms of service...Even if someone hasn't been caught by (Blizzard) and we find out they are involved with something like that, we'll kick them out to prevent it spreading to others in the guild."
Bonner also said he thinks that some banned players were likely unintentionally taking disallowed items from intentional violators and were simply caught up in Blizzard's purges.
"In some cases, I think people are on the receiving end (of terms-of-service violations) without knowing it," he said, "which is why (Blizzard is) unbanning some folks who appeal. I think they are painting with a really wide brush trying to catch it all."