Stop treating cheaters in online games as “the enemy”

Enlarge / Players selling tools like this can be hard to discourage with anything short of technical protections or legal action.

SAN FRANCISCO—If you’re a developer of an online game, you’re probably used to treating cheaters like vermin that need to be exterminated in order to maintain the health of your game. But Clint Sereday and Nemanja Mulasmajic—Riot Games alumni and co-founders of anti-tamper company Byfron Technologies—argued in a GDC presentation that cheaters aren’t always simply the enemy; they can often be some of a game’s best players, customers, collectors, and content creators.

Attacking cheaters with a zero-tolerance, one-size-fits-all policy can be akin to attacking your game’s community, the pair argued. “Cheating is born out of a love for the game a lot of times,” Sereday said, and in those cases, seeking to reform or dissuade the cheaters can be more effective than trying to ban them.

In their talk, the co-founders broke down the motivations they see driving cheaters in online games. Each one requires a different approach to maintain the integrity of the game without destroying the community’s trust in the process.

The money chasers

At the top of that motivation pyramid is money; this is the small group of players who create and sell cheating tools and resell cracked accounts for profit. These are the hardest players to reform, the presenters said, because they’re not interested in the game itself; they just see it as a money-making tool.

This is where technologies like Valorant‘s controversial kernel-level Vanguard drivers can come into play. While these kinds of tools don’t make cheating impossible, they do make it more time-consuming and expensive for profit-motivated cheaters to create cheats in the game and might force them to move on to cheaper, more vulnerable games. Legal threats against cheat sellers can also discourage those who tend to fold quickly at the prospect of spending time and money defending a lawsuit.

Kernel-level drivers can help discourage profit-motivated cheaters, but they can also impact trust with legitimate players.
Enlarge / Kernel-level drivers can help discourage profit-motivated cheaters, but they can also impact trust with legitimate players.

But there are risks to going too hard with this method. The Vanguard team initially tried to block players with outdated versions of exploited hardware drivers, which were allowing for kernel-level code insertion that could get around Vanguard. But that move ended up angering legitimate players who found that their fancy RGB keyboard drivers suddenly no longer worked when they played the game, for instance.

For players worried about kernel-level protections being built into a game, third-party code audits can help establish trust with the community, the presenters said. Game design can also cut off some cheat tools in the first place by minimizing the amount of information the game client even has for cheaters to exploit.

I’ve got the power

Next down the motivation pyramid are the players who cheat for power. For these players, reverse-engineering the game and figuring out how to get around anti-cheat tools becomes a compelling metagame in and of itself. They play for prestige within a community of like-minded cheaters, often bragging about the thousands of banned accounts they’ve accumulated in their quest to find new ways to troll other players.

Even if this group is small, it can lead to a damaging perception of a “cheating pandemic” in a game because these types of cheaters are likely to brag loudly about their exploits.

While reforming these players is difficult, there are ways to do so. For the 10th anniversary of League of Legends, for instance, Riot invited members of this cheating community to one-on-one matches with Riot staff. Here, though, both sides were allowed to use cheats, so the cheaters could see what it felt like to be on the other side of their own tools.

For some players, developing cheats becomes the main point of the game.
Enlarge / For some players, developing cheats becomes the main point of the game.

During the two-hour livestream event, Riot also made a one-time offer allowing these cheaters to get their accounts unbanned if they wrote a handwritten apology letter. Surprisingly, they got dozens of such apologies from cheaters, some of whom were apparently sentimental about getting their first accounts reinstated.

That forgiveness wasn’t a complete success, of course; 80 percent of those accounts ended up getting banned again a few months later because “they couldn’t stop cheating. They were addicted to the cheat,” the presenters said. The other 20 percent, though, offered the Riot team valuable insights into the community and a lasting relationship.

The more effective method for stopping these cheaters is some sort of barrier to entry for new accounts. Even in a free-to-play game, you can design some account features so they take time to unlock, making it harder to just spin up a new account to evade a ban. Hardware device bans and requiring links to fresh mobile phone numbers for ranked play can also make it more difficult for cheaters to create an infinite amount of accounts.

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