had planned to begin this article by sharing my own true experiences
with online cheating as it pertained to a particular game. But I think
the long version of my story would cast an unnecessarily negative light
on the game and the company that made it. And since the developers are
good friends of ours, I'll stick to the short version that goes like
year I became hooked on a certainfirst-person shooter (FPS) game. After
a couple months of addictive online gaming, I became convinced that
some players were cheating and things suddenly changed that day. I was
ready to walk away from the game in disgust and tell everyone else to
do the same. Instead, I decided it was time to learn what I could about
the alleged cheaters, their motivations, and most importantly their
methods. In my case, I discovered at least three distinctly different
methods of cheating that could explain what I experienced -- though
as just a player I could not prove conclusively which methods, if any,
were being used against me.
of this article is to bring the subject of online/multiplayer cheating
out of the shadows and talk about it in terms of real problems with
real games and to help build a framework for classifying and understanding
the various details. I will cover some of the ways that players are
able to cheat at various games; at times I will go into the working
details, ways to prevent those cheats, and limitations of various game
architectures as they relate to multiplayer cheating. This is by no
means a comprehensive and exhaustive tome on the issue, but it is a
start. There is a serious lack of information on this subject, and paranoia
among developers that talking about it will reveal secrets that will
only make the problem significantly worse. Several individuals at various
companies declined to talk to me about cheating and their games for
this and other similar reasons. I respect that, but I think developers
have everything to gain by sharing our knowledge about cheaters and
how to combat them.
seriously should you as a developer take the possibility of online cheating?
If your game is single-player only, then you have nothing to worry about.
But if your game is multiplayer only, the success of your entire product
is at stake. If your game does both, you're somewhere in the middle.
As more games are released with online play as an integral component,
drawing ever-larger audiences (and the corollary development of online
communities and sites based around the game), it becomes ever more important
to insure that each online game player experiences what they believe
to be a fair and honest experience. I'm reminded of a quote from Greg
Costikyan's excellent report, "The Future of Online Gaming"
online game's success or failure is largely determined by how the players
are treated. In other words, the customer experience -- in this case,
the player experience -- is the key driver of online success."
Our short version is, "Cheating undermines success."
the well-known case of Blizzard's Diablo -- deservedly a runaway
best-seller and great game that acquired a significant reputation for
a horrible multiplayer experience because of cheaters. Many people I
know either refused to play it online, or would only play over a LAN
with trusted friends. Blizzard did their best to respond, patching it
multiple times, but they were fighting an uphill battle.
hit closer to home for me while I was working on the final stages of
Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings. Cheating online became a
widespread problem with the original Age of Empires. Tournaments
had to be cancelled due to a lack of credibility, the number of online
players fell, and the reputation of my company took a direct hit from
frustrated users. Unable to spare the resources to fix the game properly
until after Age of Kings was done, we just had to endure our users turning
their anger upon us -- probably the most personally painful thing I've
experienced as a developer.
your next game? This is a good time to introduce my first two rules
about online cheating:
#1: If you build it, they will come -- to hack and cheat.
#2: hacking attempts increase with the success of your game.
reasons to take online cheating seriously? Go onto eBay and type in
the name of your favorite massively multiplayer game. Now look at the
real money changing hands for virtual characters and items. What if
those items being sold were obtained via some sort of cheat or hack?
Let's not overlook the growth of tournaments and contests for online
games. Consider the public relations nightmare that would ensue if the
winner of a cash prize in a tournament had cheated. Enough to give you
a headache, eh?
the Hackers and Cheaters
truth is that the Internet is full of people that love to ruin the online
experiences of others. They get off on it. A great many cheaters use
hacks, trainers, bots, and whatnot in order to win games. But while
some openly try to wreak havoc, many really want to dominate and crush
opponents, trying to make other players think they are gods at the game
-- not the cheaters they are. The only thing that seems to bother them
is getting caught. Beyond that, no ethical dilemmas seem to concern
them. The anonymity and artificiality of the Internet seems to encourage
a moral vacuum where otherwise nice people often behave in the worst
possible way. A big factor in this is a lack of consequences. If a player
is caught, so what? Are they fined or punished? No. Are they rejected
by the people they played against? Usually, but it's so easy to establish
another identity and return to play that discovery and banishment are
no barrier to those with ill intent.
interesting aspect of online cheating is the rise of clans and how cheats
get propagated. If a member of a clan hacks a game or obtains a not-readily-available
program for cheating, it will often be given to other members of the
clan with the understanding that it's for clan use only and to be kept
secret. The purpose being, of course, to raise the standing and prestige
of the clan. If the cheater is not a clan member, odds are he will keep
the secret to himself for a while and not advertise his advantage. The
logic here is simple: If anyone goes public with a cheat, a) he will
lose his advantage, b) he will probably be identified by his opponents
as a cheater, and c) the developer can then patch the game, invalidating
the cheat. As a result of this secretive behavior we get to rule number
#3: cheaters actively try to keep developers from learning their cheats.
of the Hackers
do they discover the hacks and create the programs to cheat at your
game? Consider rule number four:
#4: Your game, along with everything on the cheater's computer, is not
secure. The files are not secure. Memory is not secure. Services and
drivers are not secure.
right, you gave them a copy of your game when they purchased it. The
hackers have access to the same tools that you had while making the
game. They have the compilers, dissemblers, debuggers, and utilities
that you have, and a few that you don't. And they are smart people --
they are probably more familiar with the Assembly output of an optimized
C++ file than you are. The most popular tool among the hackers I surveyed
was NuMega's excellent debugger, SoftIce - definitely not a tool for
the wimpy. On another day, you just might be trying to hire these people.
Many of them possess a true hacker ethic, doing it just to prove it
can be done, but more do it specifically to cheat. Either way we get
the same result: a compromised game and an advantage to the cheater.
games is nothing new, it's been going on as long there have been computer
games. For single-player games, it has never been an issue, since no
matter what a player does with a game, he's only doing it to himself
(and therefore must be happy about it). What's new is bringing the results
of the hacking to other players, who never wanted or asked for it.
count of the number of developers I've encountered who thought that
because something they designed was complicated and nobody else had
the documentation, it was secure from prying eyes and hands. This is
not true, as I learned the hard way. If you are skeptical, I invite
you to look at the custom graphics file format used in Age of Empires.
Last year, I received a demanding e-mail from a kid who wanted the file
format for a utility he was writing. I told him to go away. Three days
later he sent me the file format documentation that he reverse-engineered,
and asked if he missed anything. He hadn't. Thus, this is a perfect
example of rule number five. Yes, I've borrowed it from cryptography,
but it applies equally well here.
#5: Obscurity is not security.
we do things, such as leaving debug information in the game's executable,
that make the hacker's job easier. In the end, we cannot prevent most
cheating. But we can make it tough. We don't want effective cheating
to be a matter of just patching six bytes in a file. Ideally we want
hacking a game to be so much work that it approaches the level of having
to completely rewrite the game -- something that goes outside the realm
of any reasonableness on the hacker's part.
biggest things we often do that makes it easier for a hacker, and thus
harder on us, is include Easter eggs and cheat codes in the single-player
portion of our games. Considered to be practically a requirement, they
expose extralegal capabilities of our game engines and make it much
easier for the hackers to locate the data and code that controls that
of Multiplayer Communications
games use one of two communication models: client-server and peer-to-peer.
For our discussion, the deciding factor is where game event decisions
are made. If only one player's (or a separate) computer makes game event
decisions or has the game simulation data, it is client-server. If all
players' computers make some or all of the game event decisions, or
have the full game simulation, then it's peer-to-peer. Many of the cheating
methods described here are applicable to both models. I've organized
the various cheats, trainers, exploits, and hacks that I've learned
about into the categories listed in Table 1.
1. Cheating classifications
and design loopholes