Forget glitches, badly designed worlds, boring quests and tedious levelling up - the scourge of the chivalrous, adventuring MMO gamer is something a developer has little control over, a beast that scours vast worlds for unsuspecting newbies, something that is causing players to leave fantastic, inspiring environments in their droves and, as a consequence, retracting that precious monthly credit card payment that makes it all possible in the first place.
What is it that could cause such havoc? Forget that. Instead, ask: who is it?
If you haven't guessed, it's griefers. Born in the brave new world of Ultima Online back in the late 90s, a griefer is a player whose sole purpose is to annoy, frustrate and lessen the experience of other more sociable members of the gaming community.
Aimbots, or rather the use of them, were a big problem in UT99...
If you hate them - they are immature teenagers with nothing better to do with their lives. If you love them - they are the stand up comedians of the virtual world. Griefers keep gamers, as well as customer service managers, up at night tearing their hair out, while they, like a pack of hyenas, stand on a great hilltop, cackling a laugh that can be heard echoing across the vast virtual plain below.
Ever been killed by a player who's using a glitch in a gameworld? You've been griefed. Ever been repeatedly team-killed in CounterStrike? You've been griefed. Add to that player killing, kill stealing, ninja looting, spamming and you're well on your way to being a real bastard of an online gamer.
Dig deeper and you'll find spectacular, ingenious, breathtaking griefs that use the game world a developer has provided in ways that, once the red mist has lifted, make you sit back, sigh and breathe: 'wow'.
Anyone who played Ultima Online will remember the carpentry griefers who would barricade gamers in with furniture. They would whack a table on one side; the person would turn round only to find someone else had shoved a piano in behind them.
MacGyver would be proud.
Some of them, the really smart ones, do it without breaking any rules at all. They just bend them to breaking point. They will read code of conducts just so they can find loopholes that give them an excuse when the authorities come calling.
'Newbies are so disgusting... they're the bane of my Sim life. I'll cage you like an animal and have people laugh at you'
A complex breed of gamer, many have attempted to work out what makes them tick. John Suler, a psychologist at Rider University in the US, found that deviant behaviour in MMOs boils down to revenge against authority figures that have victimised them in the past.
Some, though, believe Suler is barking up the wrong end of the tree and think the main reason players grief is because of one, intrinsically MMO, fact: anonymity.
Give gamers an audience, and provide them with a mechanic that allows them to hide their true identity, and you'll inevitably get some who abuse the system. It's the game itself that allows griefing to breed.
And so, ultimately, to many players, griefers are good guys who become bad guys because no-one will ever know who they really are. If you kill someone 84 times in a row, your victim isn't going to come round to your house and act out unholy revenge. It's also highly unlikely a griefer will do what he does in-game in a supermarket or pub.
...as well as CounterStrike.
Then you have the griefers who are bad guys in the first place, who view normal players as cattle, ripe for slaughter. They do what they do because the sheep that blindly follow the games' rules deserve to be taught a lesson.
One such griefer, motivated by a burning desire to banish all newbies from The Sims Online, drew attention to herself when she gave an interview to The Second Life Herald which quoted her as saying "Newbies are so disgusting... they're the bane of my Sim life. I'll cage you like an animal and have people laugh at you."
Some griefers, who would never normally take part in this kind of behaviour, might be dissatisfied with the game itself, or some change that has been made that they don't agree with, or they have received what they think is poor customer service. They would then try and ruin the game for everyone else, as it has been ruined for them. Often, it is these types of griefers who love the game even more than the role-playing sociable members of the community, but feel they have to resort to griefing to make their point.
Then, of course, you have griefers who do it because it's funny. Many are sympathetic with griefers simply because what they do can be so LOL hilarious. Bung 'griefing' into Google and you'll spend an hour wetting yourself.
The Warcry Network even ran a competition to find the 'world's greatest griefer'. They offered $5000 to the best one. One said she got banned from a beta because she griefed the developer by saying she slept with him and his brother.
Another griefer, whose actual last name is Arsemeal, named his character Arse in a MMO and then got banned. He then used the counter-claim that he couldn't get banned for using his own last name in a game.
I think this CS imitator want's to be ph34red.
Griefers have even joined together to form griefing guilds, which can pose serious problems for customer service teams. One of these, The Darkwolves (http://www.darkwolves.biz/), have collected their favourite griefs online in a series of stories, backed up by screenshots. When reading of the many tales of players who fall victim to the DarkWolves' prolific GiantKiller, then vent their frustration with any number of expletives, it's hard not to laugh, despite knowing full well that the poor sods will have probably quit the game as a result.
GiantKiller himself does it for the laughs: 'The number one motivation behind griefing is fun. Why would anyone play games if not to have fun? Griefers like to have fun at other players' expense. For most griefers, their style of play bears no reflection on their personality or their life situation. It is simply the role they've chosen to play in the collective storytelling environment that is an MMORPG.'
Then there's the legendary Fansy the Famous Bard ( http://www.notacult.com/fansythefamous.htm), who terrorised Everquest's Sullon Zek server in 2001 with his righteous mission to 'train' bad guys.
There's a skill to good griefing, a skill just as refined as landing head shots, casting the right spell or timing a jump perfectly.
GiantKiller obviously agrees: 'Being a successful griefer requires intelligence, creativity, and a sharp sense of humour. It can be a challenging role to play, but it's often very rewarding, and it's always a lot of fun. Griefing has often been described as playing an MMORPG set on hard. I think that's pretty accurate.'
'...they set up in-game 'brothels' and essentially forced other players into 'virtual' sex slavery that wanted to buy anything in-game.'
It's not all fun and games though. It's a fact that some gamers will simply abandon a game once a griefer starts to make his/her life a misery, rather than take abuse. Not all though.
Some have declared war on what they believe to be a disease that has infected the global MMOs landscape. They have begun to fight back. Player community initiatives, a sort of neighbourhood watch scheme hybrid, have been popular in recent years. Gamers will band together to run griefers, once they have been exposed by their wrongdoing, out of whatever virtual town they have been menacing.
In Shadowbane for example, which is dedicated to PvP combat, there are groups of players who act as vigilantes. They hunt down griefers and give them a taste of their own medicine, griefing them back until they can't take it anymore.
GiantKiller has also experienced resistance in the form of player collectives: "Gamers have responded to our hijinks by 'black-listing' us from in-game social circles, posting warning messages to other players, and ultimately petitioning the game companies to ban us from their games.
"However, griefers typically couldn't care less about social status within MMORPGs, no warning can reach every player, and a griefer's $12.95 a month spends just as well as any other player's $12.95."
Customer service teams have even begun employing the guys they are trying to stop. J.R. Sutich, Quality Assurance Specialist at Themis Group, which provides customer support services to developers and publishers of online games, is a counter-griefer - a hacker who defends against hackers. He was also a griefer himself - one who, before he swapped the Dark Side for the Light, once killed another player 84 times in a row. And got banned for a week. Now he's the one doing the banning.
Of course, there's no full-proof way of stopping griefers from doing what they do. As long as there are humans, griefing will exist.
"Take 'The Sims Online', for example", says Surly Bob, founder of the infamous griefers.net website, "our industry ' gurus' promised that it would be 'free' of griefing, since it was non-combatitive in nature. Well, it wasn't. Players screwed up the economy to the point where you couldn't earn 'Simolians' through the in-game 'job' system. Then, they set up in-game ' brothels' and essentially forced other players into 'virtual' sex slavery that wanted to buy anything in-game."
Griefers, it seems, will never lose their imaginations.