So... yeah. Very quiet here. First it was starting the new job at BioWare, then it was buying a house, then it was starting to take classes (I'm trying to go back for a Master's degree). Somewhere in there, my web server got misconfigured, resulting in approximately a 20% HTTP 500 (Internal Server Error) error rate. That was hard to track down, but in the meantime made it difficult to write new blog posts (or read the site, for that matter).
I decided to restart my blogging with a subject that I've been thinking about for a couple of years, but never quite had the gumption to blog about: security in MMOs. There are a few kinds of general security areas with online games, and not all of them are as interesting as others. After being involved in a few projects, I've noticed that trade systems frequently don't get the security consideration I would like1. To that end, I'd like to highlight some of the general concerns that should be taken into account in building a trade system for an online game that doesn't immediately blow up in your face.
One common problem with MMOs is that they avoid a perfectly relational database model in the persistence layer. Here's an example of a situation where that hurts you2: the database itself can't enforce ACID, so the rest of the game software has to - and as it turns out, generally doesn't have the same level of scrutiny applied to it that database engines do. So we've evolved not-quite-relational ways of reducing the window of exposure. One example: when two players execute a trade, both of their characters (which may not be serializable at higher resolution than "the whole character") are saved to the database in a single transaction so that either the whole trade succeeds, or the whole trade fails. If you do that, by the way, make damn sure the error bubbles up all the way: otherwise the trade transaction could fail but leave open the possibility of future character saves (where both characters aren't saved in a single transaction) persisting an incorrect state. You also have to make sure precisely one authoritative in-memory copy of both characters exists across all servers, or else that perfectly valid trade transaction could be overwritten by another server (which could result in item duping, or completely erasing the items traded from the game, depending).
All of that is very interesting, but it's pretty much textbook examples of transactions (including the not-completely-ACID part - bank transactions are NOT that perfect :-). The more interesting part is preventing players from scamming each other. For example, when Dungeon Runners first launched, it had no built-in support for a trade system: if two players wanted to trade, they both dropped a pile of stuff on the ground, and picked up the other guy's pile. Scamming wasn't so much a problem as it was the day-to-day experience. On my most recent previous project, one iteration of our trade system3 involved - at the network protocol layer - one player's computer telling the server "this is the trade, and by the way the other guy already agreed to it." That wasn't actually a problem for our prototype, since none of us were hacking the client and anyway we were all in one room - if someone cheated, we could kick them in the shin.
So how do you do it right? First of all, treat the whole thing as a transaction. Store the whole trade on the server, and if there's a problem halfway through executing a trade, be prepared to roll it all back (also? test this code). More than that, though, assign every step of the trade process a globally unique identifier. When a player initiates a trade, that's a unique ID. When the other players responds with a counter-offer (or even an initial response offer, if it begins with "I'm offering X, what can you trade?"), that's a new unique ID. Each change and counter-offer... unique ID (this ID is also shared with both parties' game clients - it isn't a secret). The final step is when both players agree: both have to indicate their acceptance of the trade using the ID for that version of the trade.
The server, of course, tracks what the ID is, and more importantly what the most recent ID is - and the trade doesn't happen unless both players agree. This solves what seems to be the most commonly-seen trade scam across MMOs, and stops it dead: the network latency scam. Without these unique IDs, it is possible to change the offered trade right as the other player (the scammed player) accepts it - and then immediately accept it yourself. Offer a sweet mythical axe, and then swap it for a newbie dagger - and get whatever the other player thought the axe was worth.
Of course that scam doesn't work every time, but if it ever works, some players will try over and over until it does. There are also trickier variations that rely not on protocol problems, but on information presentation: for instance, swapping out the sweet mythical gear for trash loot that has the same icon (or, if you can trade many items as a stack, offer a stack of 99 uberpotions and then reduce it to 1 such potion before the trade actually happens). The solution, in these cases, is to enhance the information presentation - that is, the user interface - to highlight and emphasize trade changes. Make the axe's icon pulse until the user mouses over it. For that matter, don't let a user accept the trade until they've moused over the new items, so that they see what it is (assuming most details only show up on mouse-over, of course). Consider a waiting period after each change to the offer (1-2 seconds, nothing unpleasant for the user) before the user can accept - this also serves to highlight that the change occurred, and prevents them from clicking it as the offer changes (a more minor timing problem, to be sure).
Generally speaking, though, worry about the unsuccessful path. Worry about timing issues, information presentation, out-of-band attacks... there are people whose jobs it is to develop a taxonomy of security threats, and most of their results apply to MMOs.
1. I may be a bit of a grognard in this regard: my entire philosophy in managing the server that runs this blog, for example, can probably be summed as "paranoia." I run OpenBSD, I pay close attention to everything from partition layout to process management to minimize exposure from security holes. And yes, I use PGP. I don't mean to say this system is unhackable; merely that it is a tougher nut to crack.
2. Of course, there are also plenty of times where a nicely relational database model will bite you in the ass. There isn't a perfect solution.
3. Yes, by the time our office was closed we were on our third iteration of a trade system. That third system incorporated everything I mention here, plus it had a pretty polished UI; I was very proud of it. You only get that out of the third (or later) iteration; the first iteration was a hideous monster-child I felt obligated to drown like Oswald Cobblepot in Batman Returns.