For as long as there have been games, there has been cheating. In Norway, for example, archaeologists discovered a 600-year old wooden dice carved without the numbers “1” or “2.” Nicknamed the “cheating dice,” you can imagine why such a wooden thing was carved by ye olde dice throwers.
Nowadays, games are a bit more sophisticated than six-sided dice, but so are the cheats. Some of the world’s biggest games today – Call of Duty, League of Legends, and Destiny 2 – are almost exclusively played online, and are inviting targets for enterprising cheaters. But in the era of live-service games, fighting cheaters is more important than ever.
As cheats continue to proliferate and impact the most popular online games, developers have begun developing stronger and stronger anti-cheat measures. Not just to improve the player experience, but ensure their game’s survival.
The War on Cheats
There’s a veritable buffet of cheat options for players looking to have an unfair advantage in a game — whether they want programs to help them shoot through walls or automatically aim for a perfect headshot. Or, for a little bit more money, both.
There are many reasons why people cheat, from the obvious over-zealous competitiveness games can bring out in some to plain curiosity. At worst, some cheaters do it just to ruin the fun for someone else.
“Cheating in games is like asking why the sky is blue. You’ll get a ton of different answers and perspectives, but there’s no definite answer for either one,” writes cheat maker IWantCheats. “The truth about cheating in gaming varies from person to person — some might do it because they’re addicted or think that their life will be better if they win more often while others become hackers out of sheer curiosity or frustration at being beaten by less talented players than themselves.”
Screens – Battlefield 2042
Whatever the root causes, cheat developers are certainly cashing in on the demand. Earlier this year, Chinese authorities arrested a cheat-making group known as “Chicken Drumstick,” who have reportedly made over $70 million selling PUBG Mobile cheats alone.
As the adage goes, if you’re good at something never do it for free, and cheat sellers have created increasingly sophisticated operations to peddle their wares. The most popular cheats for ongoing games are offered to players as subscriptions rather than one-time purchases. Cheat makers will justify this by citing the constant updates required to stay ahead of game developers’ latest anti-cheat advances.
And that constant work doesn’t just apply to single games – cheat makers are constantly evaluating what the next big game for cheating will be, and getting to work on how to break it. Even games that aren’t mega-hits quite yet have had cheats developed for them. A scroll through one popular cheats website offers hacks for popular games like Apex Legends and Warzone, but also smaller titles like Bloodhunt, Outriders, and Hood: Outlaws and Legends.
Perhaps more concerningly, cheats are being released for games that haven’t even been formally released yet. Call of Duty: Vanguard and Battlefield 2042, both games released for open beta testing, have been hit by cheats before their official release date.
Video game developers have stood firm against cheaters in the past, but this year several major games have announced deeper anti-cheat implementation as a blockbuster feature. In some cases, anti-cheat is now announced with the same fanfare as new gameplay modes or graphical upgrades. While unveiling Call of Duty: Vanguard, Activision revealed that the massively popular Call of Duty: Warzone spin-off will receive a “multi-faceted, new anti-cheat system. In August, Bungie announced it will work with BattlEye to bring a comprehensive anti-cheat to Destiny 2. Both announcements were received by some with the fervor often reserved for new modes or features.
But the increase in anti-cheat hasn’t deterred cheat-makers. In fact, it may have spurred many of them on.
“COD anti-cheat has a pretty spotty history since it was first implemented. When the initial implementation came out, COD cheaters were able to circumvent this method and continue playing with their hacks in cheat mode,” IWantCheats boasts, while promoting its Vanguard cheats.
“As of right now, there is no sign that the anti-cheat program will go away with Activision’s newest version of Call of Duty… However, we are also confident that this will not last forever,” IWantCheats writes. “Our developers have grown accustomed to working against COD anti-cheat and we’re sure that our team can circumvent it for the foreseeable future, barring any unexpected changes in their technology.”
A quality anti-cheat, now, is paramount for any popular online shooter. The problem for those implementing them, however, is that players and developers didn’t always see eye-to-eye on the best ways to add robust anti-cheat to games.
Anti-Cheat: The Devil You Know
To see how the perception of anti-cheats has changed in just the last year alone, one doesn’t have to look further than Riot Games’ own Vanguard anti-cheat system (not to be confused with the new Call of Duty subtitle). When Vanguard was announced alongside the company’s competitive shooter, Valorant, there was vocal concern among players that the system was too invasive. Kernel-mode drivers — like Vanguard and Activision’s recently announced Call of Duty: Warzone anti-cheat, Ricochet — gain a deeper level of access to your PC. For anti-cheats, this access allows for better monitoring of cheat software without the limitations of user-mode applications. But they also require a level of trust between players and game developers.
Ultimately, claims that Vanguard is practically malware were unfounded, but the controversy around it was one of the biggest stories in 2020.
Fast-forward a year later and Vanguard is considered one of the more effective anti-cheat tools around. It’s now regarded well enough that a popular Reddit post on r/ApexLegends asks members if Vanguard could be implemented in Respawn’s popular battle royale.
Philip Koskinas is Riot Games’ anti-cheat lead and spoke with IGN to offer an insider’s perspective on the changing perception of anti-cheat software. It didn’t begin well.
“We dug our heels in and ate all the bad press you could possibly get,” Koskinas says. “We’re getting called nation-state malware, every single YouTube video was suddenly an expert on kernel drivers telling us how many secrets we were stealing or whatever. None of that was true.”
Koskinas says he doesn’t want to dismiss legitimate concerns about what players might have to give up to have a fair game, but says that as time goes on it’s become the “expectation that if you are going to compete in the first-person space, you use [anti-cheat]. Especially now that anti-cheat is considered a competitive advantage in Twitch shooters and anywhere where aim matters.”
Having a reliable anti-cheat, then, is what separates the most popular games from others, and boasting a low cheating count is now a selling point for developers.
As you might expect, developer investment in anti-cheat comes from a financial imperative, too. As games like Call of Duty: Warzone and Fortnite continue to generate massive revenue for companies, it’s important to protect that investment. This means keeping players engaged, and as it turns out players don’t want to engage with a game if there are cheaters everywhere.
“One of the things we were able to show, that I think really demonstrated the value of anti-cheat, is that after encountering a cheater and utilizing the report tool to identify that person as a cheater, the likelihood that a player quits triples,” Koskinas says.
“It’s actually worse in the first-person-shooter genre. After encountering a cheater, the likelihood that you stop playing for a week or more is like [five times higher when] compared to a player that hasn’t encountered one. We have a churn.”
The result is that developers like Riot are pouring more and more effort into their anti-cheat solutions – but as anti-cheats become faster and more iterative, so too have the cheats.
“10 years ago, cheats were often distributed by one to three primary providers who would have a large user base of thousands that spent most of the time undetected, and they’d be detected in waves,” Koskinas explains. “But due to how fast anti-cheats these days iterate, the cheating community tends to be comprised of up to a hundred, two hundred, in some scenes, maybe even a thousand different cheats,” Koskinas adds that it’s not just a case of searching for a single code base to detect the many, many cheats, either – some cheats with similar effects may take very different techniques to detect.
The more cheats emerge, the more expensive this all becomes. “The Vanguard team alone is a nightmare to the checkbook,” Koskinas says. First-party anti-cheat teams aren’t developing cosmetics or battle passes that will eventually be sold to players – they’re building tools so that players stick around their games at all.
Where Does It End?
Dice-throwers were cheating 600 years ago, and they’re cheating in games today. A stricter anti-cheat won’t deter some players looking for that extra edge, nor those making money out of them.
“I don’t know if this is statistically the case, but the more people that play, the more people that will ultimately become interested in at least Googling the word cheat,” Koskinas explains. From what the Vanguard team has observed for both League of Legends and Valorant, if a person cheats at least twice, they’ll continue to do so. “If you do it twice, I’ve never seen anyone come back.”
So, as long as cheating remains, anti-cheat in games will only become more important. But there are long-term solutions in the works. One “holy grail” anti-cheat Koskinas spoke about is the ability to distinguish mouse inputs from automated inputs — detecting the difference between humans and AI — through machine learning. But even this will require regular iterations and improvements from a dedicated software team.
You can also focus on protecting, at the very least, the core product. Activision is making sure that one of its most successful titles ever, Call of Duty: Warzone will receive a dedicated anti-cheat, while Epic Games acquired Easy Anti-Cheat after Fortnite became a worldwide hit (it is free for other developers to use). Of course, these are solutions that only the biggest, richest game creators can afford.
For Valorant specifically, Riot’s core focus is its prized ranked mode. “There tends to be a larger investigative effort into people that are higher ranked,” Koskinas says. For the Riot Anti-Cheat team, this means making sure that the top echelons of Ranked mode, defined as the top 20% of Ranked matches, are completely free of cheating.
So far Vanguard’s efforts are paying off. Even though the “variety and the amount of [cheats that are] available are probably at an all-time high,” as far as Valorant is concerned cheaters are at “an all-time low.”
When I congratulated Koskinas on this, Koskinas smiled. “I’d prefer if nobody cheated. A goal without a plan is a dream? I think that’s the phrase.”
Matt T.M. Kim is IGN’s News Editor. You can reach him @lawoftd.
Original Illustration by Saniya Ahmed.
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