A Very Haxor His­tory

From glitches to wall­hacks and aim­bots to man­u­fac­turer-cham­pi­oned cheats, Nathan Lawrence takes a closer look at the ne­far­i­ous past and present of cheat­ing in on­line shoot­ers.

Hyper - - FEATURE -

Wher­ever there’s com­pe­ti­tion, there will be cheaters. It’s an un­for­tu­nate re­al­ity of life out­side of games, but it’s an in­creas­ing con­cern when it comes to on­line shoot­ers. Cheat­ing in games has ex­isted for al­most as long as games them­selves, and the same is re­gret­tably true of on­line gam­ing. Am­a­teur, semi-pro, or at the high­est com­pet­i­tive level, there’ll al­ways be those seek­ing a com­pet­i­tive edge that’s un­fair.

The more pop­u­lar the game, the more likely it is to be tar­geted by op­por­tunis­tic play­ers look­ing to ruin ev­ery­one’s fun. On­line shoot­ers have a long and sor­did his­tory of cheats. Sur­pris­ingly, these cheats aren’t al­ways cre­ated by play­ers, ei­ther, as hard­ware man­u­fac­tur­ers have con­fused ‘com­pet­i­tive edge’ with ‘down­right cheat­ing’.

At times, it can feel like on­line cheaters are more ram­pant than Ash­ley Madi­son’s leaked data­base. As fans of PC gam­ing will know, the open-source na­ture of the plat­form is both a boon and boowor­thy: great for ver­sa­til­ity, but that adapt­abil­ity tends to lead to wide­spread cheat­ing (at least com­pared to con­soles). That said, con­soles aren’t com­pletely free of cheat­ing con­tro­ver­sies, ei­ther.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the more in­fa­mous in­stances of cheat­ing in on­line shoot­ers.

A VERY, VERY QUAKEWORLD

While the orig­i­nal Quake brought the first-per­son shooter genre into true 3D-ren­dered space, id Soft­ware also for­ever changed the way that peo­ple play shoot­ers on­line with QuakeWorld. The QuakeWorld ser­vice was de­signed as a way to let play­ers ef­fec­tively LAN on­line, in­stead of be­ing re­stricted to mo­dem-to-mo­dem death­matches. Af­ter all, back in the days of QuakeWorld, high-speed in­ter­net wasn’t a re­al­ity.

To be fair, on­line cheat­ing in shoot­ers orig­i­nally started as a de­bate about the vi­a­bil­ity of

ex­ploit­ing game code to gain a com­pet­i­tive edge. Some play­ers con­sid­ered ex­ploits such as bunny hop­ping in Quake – which was later ram­pant in Counter-Strike, be­fore be­ing tamed by Valve – and tex­ture­climb­ing as ex­ploitable glitches, while oth­ers con­sid­ered them to be cheats.

But while a glitch is im­plic­itly per­mit­ted by a de­vel­oper, if only in the fact that it’s ex­ploitable within game­play, cheats are play­er­ac­ti­vated as­sis­tance ex­ter­nal to what’s al­lowed for within a game’s en­gine. De­vel­op­ers can, of course, patch out glitches (where pos­si­ble) that they deem to be an un­fair ad­van­tage at ends with their mul­ti­player de­sign in­ten­tions. That said, ski­ing in Tribes, which let play­ers gain a mas­sive speed boost, started off as an ex­ploitable move­ment glitch but went on to be­come a sta­ple and de­vel­oper-cham­pi­oned part of the se­ries. The same is true of rocket jump­ing in Quake.

QuakeWorld’s cheat­ing con­tro­ver­sies may have started as de­bates over the skill gap cre­ated by move­ment glitches, but it soon flew into full black-and-white ter­ri­tory when play­ers started us­ing skin hacks. Cheaters in QuakeWorld found ways to dis­guise their player mod­els as shad­ows, harder-to-see items and, even­tu­ally, pix­els, which made them al­most im­pos­si­ble to see.

There was a time in the his­tory of Team Fortress, a mod for the orig­i­nal Quake, where us­ing a min­i­mal num­ber of cheats was con­sid­ered fair play to stand a chance against ram­pant cheats.

X-RAY VI­SION

Skin hacks have been around for years, and aren’t just used to make cheat­ing play­ers harder to see. In another form, skin hacks can over­brighten player mod­els to the point where it looks like a cheater has player-spe­cific Preda­tor vi­sion. This means player mod­els are a lot eas­ier for cheaters to see, even in dark spa­ces that would nor­mally make them harder to spot.

In a more dan­ger­ous form, this vis­i­bil­ity boost can be com­ple­mented by wall­hacks. That said, play­ers don’t need to be brightly coloured for a wall­hack to be ef­fec­tive, and if used in the right hands, wall­hacks can be dif­fi­cult to track.

This is why kill­cams have long been used as an in-game way of spot­ting cheaters. While a dis­hon­est player pulling off no-scope 360-de­gree head­shots with ev­ery bul­let from an LMG in Call of Duty is ob­vi­ous to spot (yup, that’s a real cheat), the savvy cheater will try to hide their ill-gained com­pet­i­tive edge. Kill­cams in se­ries such as Call of Duty or re­cent games like Rain­bow Six Siege let a sus­pi­cious and re­cently de­ceased player re­view their own death from the per­spec­tive of their killer.

Some­times, this helps de­ter­mine whether it was skill or per­haps luck that led to their death, and at other times, such as in the case of a wall­hack, it’s made clearer when a cheat­ing player is track­ing their prey with­out hav­ing line of sight. In terms of Siege, the kill­cam was orig­i­nally dis­abled in the highly com­pet­i­tive Ranked mode, but was later en­abled to help play­ers weed out cheaters.

Track­ing play­ers through a wall is one thing, but cer­tain wall­hacks have been boosted with speed­hacks and/or the op­tion for cheaters to move through oth­er­wise impassable sur­faces to get the un­ex­pected drop on en­emy play­ers. Choke­points don’t ex­ist when you can ghost through walls at Flash speed.

BOOM! HEAD­SHOT!

By far the most no­to­ri­ous and, usu­ally, eas­i­est-to-spot hack in on­line shoot­ers are aim­bots. These have come in a va­ri­ety of forms over the years, but they all re­sult in an un­fair au­to­mated aim­ing ad­van­tage. This mostly used to take the form of au­to­mated head­shot align­ment, which still re­quired line of sight on an en­emy. They’ve evolved over the years to al­low cheaters to tar­get dif­fer­ent parts of an en­emy, as­sumedly in an at­tempt to mask the ob­vi­ous­ness of suc­ces­sive, seem­ingly im­pos­si­ble head­shots. But that’s only for the cheat­ing player ea­ger to mask their hacks.

Linked to the aim­bot logic are hacks that in­flu­ence rate of fire, ei­ther boost­ing the fir­ing rate of a fully au­to­matic weapon, or tak­ing ad­van­tage of the ac­cu­racy boost of sin­gle-shot fir­ing modes, al­beit at an in­hu­man rate.

In more re­cent years, aim­bots have evolved to lev­els that are even more au­to­mated than their pre­de­ces­sors. Call of Duty suf­fered from aim­bots that didn’t even re­quire cheaters to have line of sight on en­e­mies. As soon as a team would respawn, they’d be im­me­di­ately wiped out, and the kill­cam would show the cheat­ing player on the op­po­site side of the map, shoot­ing at a wall. There’s a hack in PlayerUn­k­nown’s Bat­tle­grounds that lets a cheater au­to­mat­i­cally sin­gle-punch a server to death, be­fore any­one is on the ground.

MACRO PEEN

It’s worth not­ing that cer­tain PC shoot­ers al­low play­ers to re­bind the fire op­tion to mouse wheel up and down, mean­ing they can fire at a faster rate than what would be achiev­able tap­ping with your in­dex fin­ger. If that fails, there’s al­ways macros that can be bound ex­ter­nally to the game that al­low for sim­i­lar func­tions. It’s de­bat­able whether such player tweaks con­sti­tute cheat­ing, but de­vel­op­ers and pub­lish­ers are con­cerned about their im­pact.

“Most of the soft­ware for mice or key­boards, macros for in­stance,

come em­bed­ded with the mouse and key­board you ac­tu­ally buy,” says Alexan­dre Remy, brand direc­tor of all things Rain­bow Six. Un­for­tu­nately, the op­tions for com­bat­ing such things are lim­ited for game cre­ators. “What we can do is ed­u­cate, re­in­force the fact that you do not use soft­ware or hard­ware that cre­ates a com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage.”

This is also an area where pe­riph­eral man­u­fac­tur­ers for con­soles have started mak­ing money out of the grey area of hard­ware-cheat­ing con­tro­ver­sies. Nowa­days, con­sole play­ers can buy adap­tors that al­low the stealth con­nec­tion of a key­board and mouse, which can pro­vide a mas­sive ac­cu­racy ad­van­tage in on­line shoot­ers, es­pe­cially in games that have in­built auto-aim al­ready. Hell, Sony gave its bless­ing to the re­lease of a gamepad/mouse combo that cuts out the adap­tor in­ter­me­di­ary and con­nects di­rectly to the PlayS­ta­tion 4.

Remy touched on the com­ments of tack­ling this is­sue. “On con­sole, there are now play­ers who can ac­tu­ally use a key­board and mouse,” says Remy. “It’s the same sort of is­sue or ques­tion: ‘When there’s hard­ware that gives you a clear ad­van­tage, how do we tackle this? It de­pends. It’s a case-by-case sit­u­a­tion.”

Un­for­tu­nately, for fans of fair play, the de­bate about man­u­fac­turer-sanc­tioned cheat­ing goes be­yond macros, key bind­ings, and con­troller re­place­ments.

MAN­U­FAC­TURER-FORGED CHEATS

One of the more in­fa­mous in­stances of wall­hacks was cham­pi­oned by hard­ware man­u­fac­turer Asus. A set of driv­ers in 2001 were de­signed to of­fer play­ers a com­pet­i­tive edge, com­plete with a press re­lease that bragged about fea­tures such as Trans­par­ent View, Ex­tra Light, and Wire­frame View: all de­signed to boost vis­i­bil­ity in an un­fair way, in­clud­ing through solid sur­faces (in com­pat­i­ble shoot­ers).

Such was the back­lash to the press re­lease, the driv­ers were never of­fi­cially re­leased, but they did still some­how end up on­line, al­low­ing dis­hon­est play­ers with a com­pat­i­ble GPU to in­stall Asus-cre­ated hacks. Pop­u­lar anti-cheat ser­vice PunkBuster was even­tu­ally up­dated to de­tect and ban play­ers us­ing the driv­ers, but only on servers pro­tected by the ser­vice.

In more re­cent years, Asus re­leased Sonic Radar soft­ware that of­fers play­ers with com­pat­i­ble hard­ware the op­tion to tog­gle an on­screen over­lay that cre­ates a re­al­time vis­ual map of in-game sounds, rel­a­tive to the player’s po­si­tion. The on-screen tracker would vis­ually

map foot­steps, gun­shots, and even call-outs. To put that into con­text in terms of fair play, Bat­tle­field 3 play­ers with Sonic Radar in­stalled re­port­edly had to dis­able the soft­ware to be al­lowed to even start the game.

To be fair, while the of­fi­cial Sonic Radar page first men­tions it’s meant for pro and am­a­teur gamers, it also flags that it’s de­signed for play­ers who are hard of hear­ing. That said, Sonic Radar isn’t the last in­stance of Asus in­tro­duc­ing ques­tion­able fea­tures in the name of pro­vid­ing its cus­tomers with a com­ple­tive ad­van­tage.

GamePlus is a fea­ture on com­pat­i­ble Asus mon­i­tors that lets play­ers use hotkeys to ac­ti­vate on­screen func­tions. Some of them are in­no­cent enough, such as a frames-per-sec­ond counter or dis­play align­ment. Oth­ers are more du­bi­ous, like the op­tion to ac­ti­vate a fixed crosshair or an on­screen timer, which is in­tended for RTS, but is handy for mon­i­tor­ing the ever-shrink­ing cir­cles in PlayerUn­k­nown’s Bat­tle­grounds.

The crosshair func­tion is par­tic­u­larly trou­bling as there are cer­tain on­line shoot­ers or hard­core modes that dis­able crosshairs en­tirely, or for cer­tain weapons (like the AWP in Counter-Strike). This means the GamePlus crosshair can pro­vide an un­fair ad­van­tage not sup­ported by the game de­sign. Cou­ple that with shoot­ers that have 100-per­cent first-shot ac­cu­racy, even with hip-fire, and no-scope kills be­come eas­ier when there’s a hard­ware-sup­ported op­tion to re­move any doubt of where you’re aim­ing.

Asus isn’t alone in cham­pi­oning un­fair com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tages, though.

COM­PET­I­TIVE EDG­ING

Scout Mode is a pro­pri­etary tech­nol­ogy com­pat­i­ble with spe­cific Cre­ative Sound Blaster pe­riph­er­als. In­stead of cre­at­ing a vis­ual map for noises it al­lows play­ers to hear sounds at a greater dis­tance, be­yond what was in­tended in the game. Scout Mode can be en­abled or dis­abled with a hotkey, which means it can be used se­lec­tively to stop the player be­ing over­whelmed by a ca­coph­ony of nearby and far­away sound sources.

While it may be frus­trat­ing for the av­er­age am­a­teur player to come up against such tech­nolo­gies in pub­lic on­line matches, it’s re­fresh­ing to hear that things are much more closely mon­i­tored on the com­pet­i­tive stage. “If you’re se­ri­ous about com­pe­ti­tion, the point where you’re go­ing to end up play­ing at the level field, we are mon­i­tor­ing things much, much closer,” says Remy.

“The mo­ment you go for the se­ri­ous com­pet­i­tive pro­grams that we’re bring­ing [in Rain­bow Six Siege], there are ex­tra lay­ers of mon­i­tor­ing. With ESL – ESL Wire and ESL MOSS – these are tools you in­stall on your ma­chine that are mon­i­tor­ing your PC mak­ing sure that, on top of our anti-cheat, you’re not us­ing soft­ware [that pro­vides a com­pet­i­tive edge]. For in­stance, it takes screen­shots ev­ery 30 sec­onds or so, so we mon­i­tor ex­actly what you have on your screen.

“If you have [un­ap­proved] soft­ware, it will be able to say, ‘Hey, that thing is not play­ing the proper way,’ and you’re dis­qual­i­fied from the tour­na­ment or the com­pe­ti­tion. That’s on the high­est level of com­pe­ti­tion, while mak­ing sure that the in­tegrity of the com­pe­ti­tion is as re­spected as pos­si­ble. In the case of the [LAN] fi­nals that we see, you can’t choose your PC. It’s a ma­chine where you can bring your key­board and your mouse, and those are checked by ad­mins. We’re pay­ing a lot of at­ten­tion there.”

THE CHEAT­ING GAME

Back when free cheats were ram­pant, it was ac­tu­ally bet­ter than it is to­day. Free cheats meant that de­vel­op­ers or the ad­min­is­tra­tors of anti-cheat soft­ware, could ac­cess the cheats, too, and re­verse en­gi­neer them to im­prove the se­cu­rity of the game’s code. Nowa­days, cheats for on­line games have be­come a mil­lion­dol­lar busi­ness.

Re­port­edly, coders are in­cen­tivised to cre­ate cheats for cer­tain pre­mium cheat-pro­vid­ing web­sites with a cut of the sales of their game hacks. Not only does this drive cer­tain coders to by­pass anti-cheat sys­tems in on­line games, it also mo­ti­vates them to up­date their cheats when­ever they’re blocked. The scary re­al­ity is that these cheats are sup­pos­edly up­dated and work­ing again within days or, in some cases, mere hours af­ter be­ing blocked.

On top of this, sea­sonal sales on dig­i­tal plat­forms re­port­edly also lead to a spike in hack­ers. Dig­i­tal plat­forms like Steam use anti-cheat soft­ware like Valve Anti-Cheat (VAC) to sniff out and ban hack­ers. While VAC is ef­fec­tive at weed­ing out cheaters, game sales, par­tic­u­larly those with dras­ti­cally re­duced prices, al­low cheaters to re­pur­chase games or buy mul­ti­ple copies of a game and spread them across their ac­counts.

These cheaters can then get straight back into a game af­ter one ac­count is banned. If that fails, there are al­ways free-to-play shoot­ers like Team Fortress 2, Dirty Bomb, and Tribes: As­cend where cheaters only have to cre­ate a new ac­count. The re­cent user re­views on the Steam page for Tribes: As­cend stand as a warn­ing for would-be new play­ers. Avoid: here be cheaters.

The larger prob­lem is that cheat­ing doesn’t ap­pear to be il­le­gal. In fact, the Dig­i­tal Mil­len­nium Copy­right Act, the same act that was used to de­fend peo­ple’s rights to jail­break their smart­phones and tablets, tech­ni­cally pro­tects cheaters from be­ing pros­e­cuted for dig­i­tally tam­per­ing with soft­ware that they have legally pur­chased.

This may be part of why ex-lead Steam en­gi­neer John Cook said, “Cheat­ing is more of a se­ri­ous threat than piracy.”

COUNTER STRIKE

When ru­mours of wall­hacks in Counter-Strike reached the Valve of­fices, the jug­ger­naut de­vel­oper/ pub­lisher started tak­ing cheat­ing se­ri­ously. Prior to this, PunkBuster had been used to mon­i­tor on­line cheaters in Counter-Strike and in other Half-Life mods. VAC has evolved since its in­cep­tion of dish­ing out 24-hour bans to per­ma­nent bans as of VAC2. The un­of­fi­cial es­ti­mate as of July 2014 is that VAC has banned more than 2.1 mil­lion Steam ac­counts.

To use VAC, though, a game has to be part of the Steam ar­chi­tec­ture. Non-Steam games use other an­ticheat ser­vices such as FairFight, PunkBuster, EasyAn­tiCheat, or Bat­tlEye. Like most anti-cheat ser­vices, these all have vary­ing lev­els of suc­cess at find­ing cheats and ban­ning cheaters. But some­times a sin­gle anti-cheat ser­vice isn’t enough to com­bat cheat­ing, es­pe­cially in pop­u­lar on­line shoot­ers.

Rain­bow Six Siege, for in­stance, launched with FairFight, but there was a point when cheat­ing be­came so ram­pant that another so­lu­tion was re­quired. In­stead of ditch­ing FairFight, Ubisoft Mon­treal com­ple­mented it with Bat­tlEye. When Bat­tlEye was switched on for the first time, the le­git­i­mate Siege com­mu­nity play­ing at the time saw scores of con­tin­u­ous no­ti­fi­ca­tions in­di­cat­ing that play­ers had been banned from their spe­cific server clus­ter for cheat­ing. To this day, Ubisoft Mon­treal talks about a darker time be­fore Bat­tlEye, and a fairer time af­ter its in­tro­duc­tion.

This two-fold ap­proach is also used by Trip­wire In­ter­ac­tive, even though its games are used within the VAC-pro­tected Steam plat­form. Trip­wire com­ple­ments VAC with PunkBuster for Red Or­ches­tra 2 to pro­tect against hack­ers. Prior to this, cheat­ing was a mas­sive is­sue, par­tic­u­larly be­cause Red Or­ches­tra 2 at launch lacked server-side val­i­da­tion for hit de­tec­tion, which meant cheaters were able to tweak their games to pull off im­pos­si­ble head­shots.

Un­for­tu­nately, cheat­ing in on­line shoot­ers isn’t likely to go away any­time soon. That’s not to say that de­vel­op­ers and pub­lish­ers should re­lax their anti-cheat stan­dards. Ac­tive on­line com­mu­ni­ties can dwin­dle if there are too many cheaters. As long as there’s de­mand for cheats and peo­ple will­ing to pay for that edge, anti-cheat ser­vices will have their work cut out for them.

Pe­riph­eral man­u­fac­tur­ers en­able all kinds of un­fair ad­van­tages to play­ers with the right gear.

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