The War Against The Billion Dollar Video Game Cheats Industry

Cheats fuel the dark side of gaming. Can devs win the war against them or is it a losing battle?

Abhimannu Das
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<div class="paragraphs"><p>The War Against The Billion Dollar Video Game Cheats Industry</p></div>
The War Against The Billion Dollar Video Game Cheats Industry


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Manic Miner, a game released in 1983 for the ZX Spectrum console was possibly the first ever game to include a cheat code by a developer. Years later, the Konami Code or Contra Code was introduced in Contra which granted players access to 30 lives, making the game much easier. It is arguably the most iconic “cheat” of all time. But things are no longer as innocuous.

Gamers are finding new ways to exploit games and get an advantage in multiplayer scenarios. Using cheats in single-player games is generally considered harmless, but in multiplayer games, it ruins the experience for everyone and can even jeopardize esports careers.

Game developers are constantly trying to improve the state of player behavior, encourage positivity and are cracking down on cheats but it feels like they are fighting a losing war.

Cheating has cost the games industry a reported $29 Billion USD in potential revenue in 2019 alone, and things are only getting worse. Developers have tried creating programs to deter cheats but no game has been 100% successful. AI is also a powerful tool that can help put an end to the cheating pandemic but it has not been 100% effective. How and why do cheaters continue to evade detection?

The Economic Impact of Cheats on the Video Games Industry

According to a report by US-based online security platform ActiveFence, the industry faced a staggering $29 billion loss in revenue due to cheats. This financial drain stems from multiple sources, including lost in-game revenue and diminished player retention.

The backbone of many games' profitability lies in in-game purchases, from weapons to skins, which players buy to enhance their gaming experience. However, when cheats or mods allow players to obtain these items for free or at a minimal cost, the game studios lose out on significant revenue. As a recent example of this, Apex Legends players received thousands of Apex Packs (lootboxes) for free from hackers. A more malicious use of cheats in video games directly targets in-game economies, an issue that is common in MMORPGs and web3 games, where players use bots and automated scripts to farm currency without even playing the game themselves. 

Types of Cheats in Video Games

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In the context of esports, cheating shatters the integrity of competitive games, driving a wedge between honest players and those seeking unfair advantages. As cheaters dominate the game, honest players grow frustrated and disillusioned, leading to a mass exodus, which inevitably causes a loss in revenue for game developers, tournament organizers and other involved stakeholders. There are reports of old Call of Duty games being ruined by the use of cheats, some of which can reportedly harm your computer using remote exploits.

Examples of How Cheats Adversely Affect the Video Games Industry

Earlier this year, during the Apex Legends Global Series championship, a hacker known as Destroyer2009 infiltrated the game, using aimbots and wallhacks to target two specific players. Destroyer2009 claimed the hacks were deployed to expose vulnerabilities in the game and to be "fun." They included memes within the hacks to prevent players from being falsely accused of cheating.

The hack disrupted the ALGS tournament and highlighted security concerns in Apex Legends. Respawn has since patched the vulnerabilities used by Destroyer2009. The incident sent the entire Apex community into panic and many online forums advised against playing the game until Respawn issued an official statement claiming that there was no exploit found within the anti-cheat. While anti-cheat provider Easy Anti-Cheat’s statement was not verified, it implied that the exploit was at Respawn Entertainment’s end. 

Understandably, Respawn Entertainment did not officially reveal what led to such an intrusive hack and part of the ALGS event had to be conducted offline which was a huge blow to viewership. 

Cheating is not always done through software or hardware either. During the 2019 Fortnite World Cup qualifiers, a player named "XXiF" was found to have received help from friends to win matches unfairly. Epic Games, the developer of Fortnite, investigated the matter and subsequently disqualified and banned the player for 14 days, causing significant controversy in the competitive gaming community.

In World of Warcraft, players used "bots" (automated programs) to farm in-game currency (gold) excessively. This flooded the virtual economy, causing massive inflation and ruining the experience for legitimate players who couldn't compete with bot-generated wealth. It forced Blizzard, the developer, to take strict action against bots.

Cheaters sometimes use hacks to launch DDoS (Distributed Denial-of-Service) attacks, overwhelming game servers and making them unplayable for everyone. Additionally, some use these exploits to harass other players, ruining the overall gaming experience. There are multiple instances of players from games like Apex Legends, Destiny 2, and even Overwatch. Sometimes entire game servers get taken down and it disrupts entire communities from playing their favorite games and leads to lost revenue due to server downtime.

Governments Are Cracking Down on Anti-Cheat Programs

In China, cheat software, or cheatware, has become a multi-billion yuan industry. Tencent Holdings, a giant in the gaming industry, estimates that the market for cheatware in China is worth more than RMB 2 billion (USD 293 million) annually. It comes as no surprise then that Chinese authorities have launched several campaigns to combat the spread of cheatware. One prominent initiative is the Sword Net 2020 campaign, which specifically targeted online cheatware vendors. A significant milestone of government crackdowns was achieved through a collaboration between Chinese police and Tencent. This joint effort led to the closure of what is considered the largest video-game-cheat operation in history

Elsewhere, South Korean authorities are considering imposing fines on video game players who use cheats or hacks, to gain an unfair advantage over their opponents. The proposed amendments suggest fines of 200,000 won ($154) for players who use illegal programs. Meanwhile the creators and distributors of these programs could face up to five years in prison or a fine of 50 million won ($38,460). In Japan, arrests have been made under the Japan's Unfair Competition Prevention Act.

Publishers have also taken to arms with Activision being granted a default judgement in a court case against known cheat maker EngineOwning on 28th May. EngineOwning owes Activison $14.5 Million in damages and another $292,000 in legal fees.

Things Are Looking Up in The War Against Anti-Cheats

AFK Gaming reached out to a cheat analyst of a popular tactical shooter who shared his insights on the state of anti-cheats. 

He stated, “AI has become a critical tool in the fight against cheating in video games. It helps us identify suspicious behavior patterns and anomalies that traditional methods might miss.” 

While he cannot comment on new technologies in development to combat cheaters, he blamed developers for the current state of foul play in video games. “Publishers often do not want to deploy sufficient resources to combat cheating in games. It is a sad state of affairs with everyone looking to milk profits from every corner. Manual reviews play a major role in combating cheaters in games and even some AAA studios that I have worked closely with simply refuse to invest enough manpower into security teams. They leave it up to third-party anti-cheats to solve all problems and call it a day.”

Despite the concerted efforts of government crackdowns on cheat makers, the ultimate responsibility for protecting games and their players rests with the developers. Jason “Thor” Hall, a game developer and hacker who has worked on anti-cheat systems for Blizzard Entertainment and Respawn Entertainment, highlighted the importance of ban waves in the past. 

He explained that ban waves every three to six months prevent cheat makers from quickly identifying and patching fixes. This strategy not only disrupts the business of cheat makers but also leads to chargebacks and negative reviews from their customers, further deterring cheating activities. These comprehensive measures underscore the critical role of game developers in protecting their games and ensuring a fair and enjoyable experience for all players.

Hurting the economics of the cheating industry is one of the most important steps that developers and publishers can take. Bungie, the studio that created Halo, won a landmark lawsuit and took home $4 Million USD in damages. Activision-Blizzard has also taken steps against cheaters and if more publishers unite and crack down and make the cheating business nightmarish, we could see massive improvements in online gaming.

According to Riot Vanguard anti-cheat analyst Mohamed who goes by GamerDoc online, player trust is one of the roadblocks to effective anti-cheat measures. He stated that there is a lot of fear-mongering because of which gamers do not trust kernel-level anti-cheat programs.

Games like Dark Souls 3 and GTA V have suffered high-level attacks despite not using kernel-level anti-cheats. He said, “Someone can breach Microsoft and force update every machine with malware”. 

Everything that you use can be an attack vector and he thinks that the arguments against kernel level anti-cheats are “stupid”. However, players have to exercise caution and trust the developer only if they have earned it. GamerDoc agrees that “If trust hasn't been earned, it's understandable, and I respect it."

What Lies Ahead for Gamers?

If developers can establish sufficient trust then we can have better anti-cheat programs. Anti-cheat programs have advanced far enough to detect hardware cheats and Valorant is one of the titles that has successfully cracked down on multiple hardware cheats. It boils down to what anti-cheat programs developers deploy.

Riot Games made breakthrough advancements in anti-cheat technology that have helped detect previously “undetectable” hardware cheats but it does not mean that others share the same level of success. Anti-cheats in a lot of games are easy to access and there are players who boldly claim that they will “never get VAC banned”. To know more about how Dota 2’s unseen specter of hackers are impacting the game, check out our Dota 2 Hacks Exposed deep dive where we peek at the MOBA’s dark side.

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Abhimannu is a PC esports writer at AFK Gaming. With over seven years of experience in esports journalism, he has worked on a myriad of games and their ecosystems including Valorant, Overwatch and Apex Legends.