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Apr 26, 2019

Cheating Sucks: Protecting Real Gamers from Hackers

by Lee Adams

Cheating in video games has hit the headlines again, as a major player on the mobile esports scene announces that more than 1200 competitors were caught cheating in the first week of their World Cup qualifiers…

Around 200 of those cheaters were prize winners. This clampdown on naughty behaviour resulted in the perpetrators forfeiting their winnings, as well as receiving bans of varying severity.

Cheating in video games has been around almost as long as video games themselves. It really came into fashion in the ’80s, when developers needed to create their own cheat modes to help test their often insanely difficult creations. These modes then found their way into the hands of players, and the market for cheats developed into its own industry.

The rise of consoles in the ’90s led to the golden age of the cheat cartridge, or “game enhancer” as the manufacturers euphemistically called them. The most popular was the Game Genie, which shifted five million units of its original device. This success prompted other companies to release rival cartridges, such as the Pelican Codebreaker and the Game Shark.

I’d forgotten all about the Game Genie until I started researching for this article. Maybe I’d suppressed the memory because it always went a little something like this:

You save up your paper round money for weeks to buy the Super Nintendo game that everyone is raving about at school. When you finally buy it and get it home, the game is rock hard, close to throw-your-console-at-the-wall difficult.

You talk to your mate who owns a Game Genie. He offers to lend it to you, and you resist at first. But then the temptation gets too much, and you hurry home with the tacky plastic thing in your bag. You get up to your bedroom, slide your pristine cartridge into the Game Genie’s sleazy slot, and into the console it goes.

Then, a few hours later, the game is complete. You’ve now got a forty quid game sitting there that you’re never going to play again. That’s when you realise that this particular Genie doesn’t give out wishes, he takes them.

You take the bus ride out to the arse-end of town, to the street with the bridal gown rental places and the cheap hairdressers and the porno shops and the Chinese takeaways and the shack selling spare vacuum cleaner parts. You duck into the dingy little shop that buys, sells and trades video games. It always smells like hot carpet inside. Hot carpet and cardboard, B.O and cigarette smoke drifting in from the back.

The guy who runs the place is laid back and friendly, always up for a bit of banter. He knows that he’s got you right where he wants you, and this man is ruthless.

“How much for this, mate?” You ask hopefully, handing him your new game after a few minutes’ chat. A few minutes’ chat to make it look like you’re not too desperate, but you’re not kidding anyone, least of all this guy. He can see it in your eyes, he can fucking smell it on you. He takes the box from you, opens it up. Checks the pages of the instruction manual. Does a little thing with the corners of the mouth, a little raise of the eyebrows — not bad, that face says. Then he looks at the cartridge, frowns a bit, peers down the open end at the chip. He frowns a bit more, prompting some justification from you — “It’s brand new. I’ve only played it a few times.”

He inhales, sighs. “I don’t know, I reckon I can give you fifteen quid for it.”

“Fifteen quid? But, but…”

“All I can do, mate. You’ve got plenty to choose from.”

You both know that’s a lie, and you know exactly where that puts you: in the realms of Pit-FighterWayne’s World, and the dodgy copies of Dragon Ball Z. Several copies of each, sitting on the shelf next to each other in their tatty, unloved boxes.

It’s a long deliberation process because it’s not like you’re going to pack up your new game in your bag and walk away. You could just cut your losses and sell it to him, then put the money towards another new title in a few week’s time. But you won’t do that either. You want something new to play now, otherwise it’s a wasted journey.

You spot a copy of Castlevania IV. It’s ancient, but you’ve wanted to play it for ages and it’s in pretty decent nick. It’s over your limit, but… “Can you make it twenty?”

He shakes his head. “Can’t really, mate. If I do it for you, I’ll have to do it for everyone else. Then where will I be?”

You don’t answer, feeling another sting of shame as you turn back to the shelf. You scour the titles again, in the vain hope that there’s something decent you’ve missed.

Twenty minutes later, you slink back out into the street with a copy of WWF Super Wrestlemania in your bag. You tell yourself it’ll be a laugh playing it with your mates, as you head for the bus stop and the long journey home, where you end up playing it for the first and only time by yourself, before putting it away in the bottom drawer, ready for your next visit to the game shop at the arse-end of town…

***

I guess what I’m trying to say with this ludicrously self-indulgent intro is that cheats never prosper. And here at MADFINGER Games, it is the goal of Bohuslav Kuchta and his team of Customer Care experts to make sure it stays that way.

This is Bohuslav in happy mode. Cheating makes him angry. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry.

The team has dealt with cheaters almost since the studio’s inception. The original Dead Trigger was originally a paid title, which instantly made it a target for piracy. We eventually had to switch to F2P, so at least we had some oversight on what the hackers and cheaters were getting up to.

Shadowgun Deadzone was an interesting challenge for the team because it was our first online game, making it a magnet for cheaters. We took a lot of positives from it because it helped us identify the type of cheats that exist online, and what tactics they use. The perpetrators usually fall into one of two categories — those who are trying to gain an unfair advantage over other players, and those who just want to ruin the game for everyone else.

The Deadzone situation warranted the creation of undercover agents in the game, made up of MFG employees and trusted community members. We’re lucky to have a good core of players who keep their eyes open and provide excellent video evidence of any discrepancies in another player’s behaviour. In Shadowgun Legends, there is also a report function built into the game’s menu, which assists the team tracking down and expelling cheaters.

MADFINGER Games has a zero tolerance policy on cheating. For example, if a player is observed one-shotting (hacking the game to kill an opponent in what seems like a single shot from a gun), they will receive a permanent ban. Once we’re alerted to the hack, the team patch out that particular weakness to prevent anyone using it again.

Hackers will always target our games because they see it as a challenge to deconstruct what we’ve created. Some of our regular players devote hundreds of hours of their time to our games, so we owe it to them to act upon reports of cheating as quickly as possible.

The team are careful to differentiate between major breaches and less serious transgressions. Toxic behaviour, for example, is unpleasant for others but doesn’t usually constitute cheating, and may only incur a few days’ suspension.

It is difficult for hackers to make any financial gain from cheating, other than acquiring in-game items that would otherwise cost them money. This, of course, affects our bottom line, and as much as we love creating games that are Free-to-Play, we also need to pay the bills. There have been instances of money changing hands in Deadzone, where hackers sold souped-up accounts — loaded with illicitly gained skins, gold, weapons etc — for a few dollars. These transactions were taken very seriously, and if we found evidence of players selling accounts — you’ve guessed it — a permanent ban soon followed.

There are less serious cases of account trading. Sometimes players are daft enough to lend their username and password to a friend online, only for that “friend” to change the login details and steal the account. The practice is heavily frowned upon because helping players recover hijacked accounts wastes time that the team could spend hunting down more malicious transgressors. That’s why Shadowgun Legends carries a warning for players not to exchange their log in details.

Hackers are pretty smart, but they usually screw themselves up in the end, either through greed or complacency. One of the best stories Bohuslav told me was about the hacker who reported another player for cheating, but left his own cheat engine open in the screenshot he sent to us — and also received a lifetime ban!

***

If you are a player of any MADFINGER game and experience unusual behaviour from others, please don’t be shy about bringing it to our attention. Even if you’re unsure about whether it’s cheating or not, still run it by our Customer Care team — they’ll be happy to take a look at any video evidence you can provide and act accordingly. We’re not always able to give feedback on the progress of a case, but you can feel rest assured that you’ve helped us protect the games from the toxic minority who want to ruin the fun for everyone else.

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