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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.