Hackers and Cheaters and Glitchers, oh my!

Game cheats
Game cheats

Since the dawn of PC gaming, people have worked endlessly to find new and innovative ways of cheating the system. From editing save files with hex editors to manipulating memory addresses to out-right changing the code of the software itself, people have been cheating their way to victory for decades. Since the dawn of multiplayer gaming, those same cheaters have been mucking things up for everyone. Invulnerability cheats, speed hacks, aimbots, shooting through walls, flying, teleporting, instant reloads and spell-casts, invisibility...these are just a few of the things that people have been doing to ruin the experience for everyone else.

In this article, we're going to take a look at WHY people cheat, HOW people cheat and what the game developers are doing to try to stop people from cheating.

EDITOR'S NOTE : This feature was intended to be out a long time ago. The delay is because it is seemingly impossible to get gaming companies to talk about the measures they are taking to stop people from griefing, hacking, cheating, etc...It's not because they want to be all spy-spook about it, either...It's because they simply don't want to talk about it. I attempted to engage around a dozen different companies for information about this subject and in every case but ONE, the answer – when I even got one – was usually one or two sentences, along the lines of :

We at [company name removed] take cheating and griefing very seriously and have taken a number of measure to prevent it. We also take any complaints of cheating or griefing very seriously and investigate every instance thoroughly.

Should you require any further information, please see our FAQ located at [address removed]

Of all of the companies I attempted to engage regarding the issue, only Sony Online Entertainment was willing to come forward and talk about the measures they take. Within minutes of emailing them, I had a reply back asking me to sit down with SOE's president, John Smedley. We had a frank and open discussion about cheaters, cheating and anti-cheating measures and I will talk about that in this article.

I remember encountering my first cheater in a multiplayer game. I was playing the old-school MMO Combat Flight Simulator "Air Warrior" on the GEnie network and an enemy plane (these were all WWII era planes) flew up on me at what seemed like mach 4, then killed me with a single shot. I was astounded that someone had figured out a way to beat the system and appalled that someone would cheat in multiplayer game.

Flesh Eating Zipper
Flesh Eating Zipper

After that came my experiences with Ultima Online, the grandfather of the modern MMO. When I first started playing UO, the game was solid and there was no cheating going on. One day I was attacked by a guy, however, who machine-gunned instant-cast energy bolts at me, killing me before I could even turn to face him. Again, I was appalled that someone would go to the trouble to cheat in a multiplayer game. Why would someone do this? Why would someone consciously go to the effort to cheat, knowing that it would wreck the gameplay experience of other people?

Later, other cheats and hacks and glitches started appearing. People figured out that they could stack paint brushes and use them like stairs to gain access to the top level of other players' castles and towers and could, from there, get inside and loot their victim's possessions. They figured out how to modify packets to make every attack hit or every spell fire without fail. They discovered dozens of ways to ruin it for everyone else and every time one hole was plugged, another would open up.

Enter the multiplayer shooter. This seemed like a great idea at the time it happened. Games like Rainbow Six and Call of Duty could be played with or against other people from around the world and a whole new class of entertainment was to open up and show us all a new way to game. Unfortunately this also meant that a whole new class of asshole was about to be born and would spend all of its time making people's lives miserable.

Over the years, dozens – perhaps hundreds – of multiplayer shooters have hit the market. From World War to Galactic War, throwing knives to energy blades, sniper rifles to plasma cannons, they have been as diverse and prolific as insects in the rain forest. The problem is that every time a new multiplayer first person shooter comes out, the cheats start up. Within seconds of the release of one of these games, the griefers start, within hours people have already figured out how to glitch the software and within days the cheat programs and hacks start showing up.

If you report a griefer, nothing is done about it. If you report a glitch, nothing is done about it and if you report a hack, they MAY do something about it which means that hack won't work for about 4 minutes but the fix for the hack won't come out until the next patch, which could be weeks down the road, meaning that the cheaters get to run amok in the meantime and since nothing is done about the griefers, well...the gameplay experience is ruined anyway.

It only takes about 3 seconds to search on youtube and find hundreds of videos of people griefing in games like Modern Warfare. Truly, it's that fast. I'll search now and then post the first video I find.

Shockingly, the first video I found was a Machinima video, glorifying griefing. Wow...So I'll move on the second video I found, because I'm not going to glorify Machinima being a bunch of morons and glorifying griefing.

Be aware, this video has quite a bit of foul language. Viewer discretion is strongly advised.

So why is it that with so much griefing going on, none of these companies want to do anything about it, and what is it that makes people want to cheat and grief other people?
I think if we want to know why people cheat in video games, we have to look at why people cheat in other things. Let's take this from the perspective of someone who is in school and cheats on a math test.

If you have to cheat on your math test, it means that you are either failing to grasp the information because you're lazy or you're failing to grasp the information because you suck at math. It stands to reason, then, that if you have to cheat at a game, you are either failing to be successful at that game because you aren't putting enough time in it to become proficient or you're failing to be successful at that game because you suck at it.

The first of those two is easy to overcome. Spend more time, get skills, do better. The second one isn't so easy. If you just straight up suck, there's not much you can do about that. Sure you can spend more time and perhaps get a little better but it is difficult, if not impossible, to go from sucking to not sucking because when you suck so bad that you have to cheat, it is generally an indicator of an underlying suckage which won't be easy to overcome.

If you're too uncoordinated to use a controller or mouse/WASD combination, that's going to be a tough one. Fine motor skills aren't for everyone and if you don't have them it will be difficult, if not impossible, for you to gain them. In this case, you can either accept the fact that you suck and just carry on sucking or you can quit playing the game. That is, if you're a decent person. If you're a cheater, though, you'll just download the latest aimbot and get to work on killing people.

Note – this doesn't mean you're good...It just means that the person who wrote the aimbot software was good at programming cheats. You still suck at the game, now you just suck AND you're a cheater.

But what about the people who cheat just to ruin it for other people? Well, that's a completely different situation and in order to address it I would have to go in to a long and drawn out analysis of anti-social personality disorders, impulse control disorders and a whole slew of other things which would require me to break out my copy of DSM IV and I can't be bothered to argue with all of the armchair psychologists out there so I'm not going to do it.

What it all boils down to, though, is that these people lack social skills, they have low self esteem, they're most likely completely unable to get laid and they think that making other people's lives miserable is going to somehow make them feel better about themselves. Basically, they're losers.

And why don't the gaming companies do something about all this? That's simple! It all comes down to economics.

You see, the gaming companies have to employ people. Many of the people they employ are coders. Those coders cost money. When a game is released, the gaming companies get a massive influx of money from the sales of their game and that money goes into the bank with the purpose of being available to pay people and be used for marketing, etc...

Once a game is released, most of the team that was working on that game will be re-purposed – that is, they will be moved to other programs. A small staff will be kept on-hand to write updates and bug fixes and DLC for the title but the heavy hitters mostly get moved to other stuff. When you make a complaint about a hack or a glitch or a cheat, the gaming company has to determine if the thing which was reported is worth their time.

If it is something that is difficult to recreate, they often won't worry about it because it is difficult to recreate and will take too much of their time to fix. If it is something which is easy to recreate, they may think about fixing it but if it is going to take up too much of their time and money, they forget about it. It gets swept under the rug because the powers that be can't be bothered to think about it, let alone pay for it. If it falls in to the sweet-spot of easy to recreate AND easy to fix, it may get some attention but the fix is going to come far down the road...there will be no quick solution here.

So why don't they ban the people who are doing the shenanigans? Well, that comes down to economics as well. The more players you have, the more copies of a game you will sell. The more copies you sell, the more money you make. If they start banning all of the people who cheat, they will lose money on future sales because their player base will be smaller. There's also the issue of people bypassing cheats by either making new accounts or, if the gaming company bans a cd-key, going and getting ahold of a new copy of the software.

It is a vicious cycle.

Basically, people cheat and grief because they either suck or they're hopeless losers. Gaming companies don't get rid of those people because even though they suck and/or are hopeless losers, they effectively pay the company to look the other way.

In some cases, these gaming companies will use third party programs which detect and automatically ban cheaters, like punkbuster, but we all know that punkbuster can be bypassed and is fairly inaccurate in its cheat detection. A LOT of companies I wrote to replied back with "we use punkbuster in all of our pc based multiplayer games", thinking that I would smack my forehead and say "Well, THESE guys are on the ball! Guess everything is in order". Well, sorry but that shit doesn't hold water. Using punkbuster to stop cheating is like putting your faith in a quadriplegic chihuahua to guard your valuables.

Game hacks
Game hacks

I know this all sounds hopeless...How can we get past the cheaters and hackers and griefers to a point where we can enjoy our gameplay experience? Well, fortunately SOME companies out there are doing something about it. Unfortunately, though, only one of them actually has the balls to talk about it.

When preparing for this article, I sent out a LOT of emails. I made my position clear – simply that I want to know what these companies are doing to stem the flood of cheaters in their games. I sent emails to EA, Activision, Blizzard (ACT), SOE, BioWare (EA), 2k, and at least 10 other, smaller companies to get their take on the situation and see what, if anything, they're doing to get these losers out of the game.

Of the host of companies I emailed, only one had the balls to give me a proper reply. Sure, I got lots of emails back telling me "We use punkbuster" and "We accept complaints through our customer service department" and, of course, the ubiquitous "We taking this kind of thing very seriously". Funny, though (really, it's more sad than funny), SOE is the only one of the larger companies who bothered to write me back and they immediately invited me to sit down with their president, John Smedley, to talk about the situation.

Of course I took them up on the offer and I had a long, honest and open discussion with John about what Sony Online Entertainment does with cheating, hacking and griefing.

There are some things we talked about which I can't divulge, due to the nature of the situation and because I understand that doing so would give the cheaters some good intel on how to skirt their methods. Also, some things we decided just aren't fit for public consumption so I'm not going to transcribe the whole conversation here, I'm just going to hit the important points.

This conversation took place well before the release of Planetside 2, when a lot of cheaters were floating around the beta. This was a great time because it was giving SOE a huge opportunity to gain intel and data on the cheat methods which were being employed, and allowing them to increase their ability to detect them. You see, SOE has a number of methods in place to track stats and information in order to identify people who are PROBABLY cheating. Once the people are identified, they can be investigated and, if found to be cheating, they can be banned.

Here's how it went down:

The first thing John told me is that the net was already out. They had already identified a number of hacker groups and were in the process of fixing some of the holes that allowed their software to run. They told me about some highly classified cloak-and-dagger, style, "I could tell you guys about it but I'd have to kill you or SOE would track me down" kinda stuff, as well but...I can't tell you about any of that. What I can tell is some of the less hush-hush stuff about how they track cheaters.

First off, they have a team of people who are 100% dedicated to catching and banning cheaters. They do nothing else. They aren't coders or artists or writers who moonlight as game security, no...All they do is track down and ban cheaters. Those people do that by looking at a wall of data and searching for anomalies. When they find one, they start to dig deeper. ONce they've dug enough, they find that either it was a true anomaly or they find that there's some shenanigans going on. If shens are detected, they swing the ban hammer.

Game cheating
Game cheating

So what are some of the things they look for? Well, if you have an outrageously high percentage of head shots, you're going to get looked at. If you have an outrageously high accuracy, you're going to get looked at. If you have a really high XP:kill:death ratio, you're going to get looked at. The people at SOE know what a cheater looks like, on paper, and they're going to have a look at you if you do anything cheater-ish...That includes glitching and boosting (falsely inflating your score or rank) and many many people have been banned for doing shady things.

I know that they look at things like XP:kill:death ratio, like I said but one of the things that really caught my attention was that they also look at every round fired in the game. I asked them what they do about people who have figured out how to clip through walls and kill people inside buildings and they told me that they track every single round that is fired, from its point of origin (the gun barrel) to point of impact. From there, they can also track every single thing which was in the bullet's path so if the bullet originated at X and impacted a Z but Y was in the way, they know someone's up to something and can take action.

Some of the other anti-cheat methods they have in place are client side, which includes detection algorithms to prevent some of the more basic, key hacks which programmers use to change games. This prevents things like injecting code into .dll files and a number of other cheat methods. If those things are detected, the situation is reported automagically to SOE for them to investigate and act upon.

Additionally, they have server side detection which looks for modified packets, and helps to identify cheaters. This also takes a lot of load off of the team who works on catching the cheaters by helping them identify some of the anomalies which will lead them to snatching these people up. They also use the standard reporting type features which most multiplayer games use and the "humint" (human intel) facet of cheat detection is always valuable because people can catch things that no cheat detection program will ever be able to.

Now, is that so hard? Why isn't everyone doing this?

During our conversation, John used a lot of analogy and he likened cheaters to sharks, many times. One of the things he told me is that he wants to make sure they don't end up with any dolphins in their shark nets. I think that's an amazing goal to have. He also told me that, as part of the sweep they were tracking (and will continue to track) every single aimbot in the game. They do this for a couple of reasons. First, they want to make sure it's an aimbot and not a bug. Then, once they have identified it an aimbot, they want to gather as much data as they can. They may let an aimbotter play for an extended period of time so they can gather that data and make sure they can incorporate that data into their future detection.

It was a rather enlightening conversation.

We then talked about why people cheat...John Smedley's take on it is that the people who write the cheat programs do so because they're super smart and they can...They do it because they want to see how good of a program they can write. I can agree with that. I think it is a big motivation for people who are really smart and really bored to write software programs like that simply because they are able to and want to see just how good they are.

As for the people who use the cheat programs, his take is equally simple – cheaters cheat because they're losers who like to cheat and screw it up for everyone else. This I completely agree with.

We went on to talk about all of the Youtube videos of people employing aimbots, speed hacks, teleport glitches, shooting through walls, etc and I asked if he had seen them. He told me that he had seen all of the videos which were currently out and featured people cheating. He also told me that a lot of the people who made those videos had already been banned and wouldn't be making an appearance in the final release, which brought me to my major point...The dagger that I would thrust into SOE to make them see the error of their ways...

It's a free to play game...How do you "ban" someone from a free to play game when they can just make a new account and continue to cheat?!

His answer was immediate and definitive..."The bans will stick" he told me, "Making a new account won't bypass a ban".

Orly? And how, pray tell, are you going to accomplish that, Mr. Smedley? We went on to spend a lot of time talking about the ban methods and the various particulars of how they are making it work. They told me that I am free to talk about those methods but to be honest, I don't want to. I don't want to because I don't want to give the people doing this crap any information they may need to make it easier for them to find a hole in the system. What I can tell you is that the bans will stick...Of that I have no doubt.

Sure, someone may bypass one ban but you can't get past them all...

Funny how SOE was willing to sit down with me and go over all of this but other companies wouldn't even confirm that they use any kind of anti-cheat systems at all. I am under the distinct impression that many of them use no anti-cheat systems and couldn't care less about cheaters because once they've gotten your money, what do they need you for?

Of course, now a lot of companies are starting to charge monthly or yearly premiums for the ability to play their games online which MAY cut down on a little bit of the cheating but in the long run the only thing most of these companies care about is money. They'll continue to charge and really won't do anything about it until gamers start to vote with their wallets.

It's good to know that we at least have companies like SOE around who are taking an active stance against cheating and trying to make the gaming world better for everyone. It's about time.