Stop treating cheaters in online games as “the enemy”

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Enlarge / Players selling tools like this can be hard to deter with anything other than tech protections or legal action.

SAN FRANCISCO—If you’re an online game developer, you’re probably used to treating cheaters like vermin that must be exterminated in order to maintain the health of your game. But former students Clint Sereday and Nemanja Mulasmajic of Riot Games and co-founders of burglar alarm company Byfron Technologies-argued in a GDC presentation that cheaters are not always simply the enemy; they can often be among a game’s top 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 two men argued. “Cheating is often born out of a love for the game,” Sereday said, and in those cases, seeking to reform or deter cheaters can be more effective than trying to ban them.

In their keynote, the co-founders explained the motivations they see driving cheaters into online games. Each requires a different approach to maintain the integrity of the game without destroying community trust in the process.

The Money Hunters

At the top of this motivational pyramid is money; this is the small group of gamers who create and sell cheat tools and resell hacked accounts for profit. They are the most difficult players to reform, the presenters said, because they are not interested in the game itself; they just see it as a tool to make money.

This is where technologies like ValorantControversial kernel-level Vanguard drivers may come into play. While these types of tools do not make cheating impossible, they do make it more time-consuming and costly for profit-driven cheaters to create in-game cheats and can force them to switch to cheaper and more vulnerable games. Legal threats against cheaters can also discourage those who tend to bow quickly to the prospect of spending time and money defending a lawsuit.

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

But there are risks in going too hard with this method. The Vanguard team first attempted to block players with outdated versions of exploited hardware drivers, which allowed insertion of kernel-level code that could bypass Vanguard. But the move ended up irritating legitimate gamers who found that their fancy RGB keyboard drivers suddenly stopped working when playing the game, for example.

For gamers worried about building kernel-level protections into a game, third-party code audits can help build trust with the community, the presenters said. Game design can also remove some cheat tools by minimizing the amount of information the game client even has for cheaters to exploit.

I have the power

At the bottom of the motivation pyramid are players who cheat for power. For these players, reverse-engineering the game and figuring out how to circumvent anti-cheat tools becomes a compelling metagame in 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 though this group is small, it can lead to a detrimental perception of a “cheating pandemic” in a game as these types of cheaters are likely to loudly brag about their exploits.

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

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

During the two-hour livestream event, Riot also made a one-time offer for these cheaters to have their accounts unblocked if they wrote a handwritten letter of apology. Surprisingly, they received dozens of apologies from cheaters, some of whom were apparently sentimental about reinstating their first accounts.

This pardon was not a complete success, of course; 80% of those accounts ended up getting banned again a few months later because “they couldn’t stop cheating. They were addicted to cheating,” the presenters said. The remaining 20%, however, offered the Riot team valuable community insights and a lasting relationship.

The most effective method of stopping these cheaters is a sort of barrier to entry for new accounts. Even in a free game, you can design certain account features to take time to unlock, making it more difficult to simply create a new account to escape a ban. Hardware device bans and requiring links to new mobile numbers for ranked play can also make it harder for cheaters to create an infinite number of accounts.

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