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You No Good Dirty Cheater! - The Scourge Infecting Online Gaming

by Matthew Kato on Sep 29, 2009 at 09:23 AM

As long as people are playing games, video or otherwise, someone will be cheating to get an advantage and win. It’s the nature of the human beast, and something that irks people in multiplayer contests. It’s one thing to spoil your own experience by turning on infinite ammo during single-player, but another to kill the fun of those playing by the rules in a multiplayer match.

“Most of the stuff turns out to be explainable,” says Robert Bowling, the Call of Duty 4 community manager at developer Infinity Ward, when we ask him about the avalanche of reports regarding cheating in the popular game.

Bowling says that most of what people consider cheating in the title is actually “glitching.” This is where a player finds and exploits an aspect of the game unintended by the designer. For instance, Bowling says that there used to be a glitch in COD 4 whereby if you had a P90 and a certain other perk, you also got the extra conditioning perk whether you enabled it or not.

One common exploitable glitch involves areas in the environment where a player can hide due to problems with the game’s collision. Bowling tells us that many of these were addressed early on as fans called them out. Infinity Ward would then institute an automatic death sequence (called a kill switch) for players that got too close to the glitched area or an invisible barrier to prevent access via a patch.

“We consider a glitch spot a cheat when it gives the player inside it an unfair advantage [over] anyone not inside it,” explains Bowling. However, Bowling says that there are definitely spots in the game that some gamers consider glitch spots but are perfectly legal because they are out of the way, such as snipers camping out on top of “grandma’s house” in the Overgrown map.

Anything related to modded video game equipment, be it a console or a controller, Infinity Ward considers cheating. Bowling says the latter is a growing problem. Third-party controllers can confer unnatural advantages to players if they enable rapid fire that is faster than is humanly possible, for example. The developer has no way to detect this other than to see a video of the suspected player in action, but Infinity Ward is considering having a set rate of fire for the two weapons which are victims to rapid fire modding, the pistol and the G3.

Lag switches are a console mod by which some people cheat. Lag switches are installed as a block between the console and the network. When activated, the player’s character appears to be frozen when in actuality they can still move around, grab loot, and position themselves for kills. When the console resynchronizes with the network, the player will appear out of thin air in their real position. Bowling says they caught on to this practice and addressed it with a patch by tracking some players who made their way up the leaderboards a little too quickly.

The popular MMO World of Warcraft has a similar lag problem enabled simply by hitting the print screen key on your PC during play. PC titles, with code more easily accessible than console software, are more susceptible to hacking in general. Speed or teleport hacks in WoW enable unnatural movement, and some scripts allow players to teleport to nodes underground and loot resources before anyone else.

MMOs also have their own particular bane – bots. These automated services play people’s characters for them (such as Glider, which openly acknowledges that the service breaks the game’s user agreement), enabling them to level up without playing (for more on power leveling, see our article in issue 158, pages 32 and 33). While the bots themselves may play by the rules, many WoW players see this practice as going against the meritocratic aspect of MMOs whereby the game rewards those who put their time into their characters.

World of Warcraft developer Blizzard has created what it calls Warden – to track if your computer is using any cheating programs. Although Warden does not collect any personal data, its critics accuse it of being spyware and object to it on this basis.
How to handle cheaters is something that players simply have to leave up to the authorities. Xbox Live has an abuse reporting system with bans of varying lengths applied by Microsoft, although the company does not specify how many negative feedback hits a profile will take before being banned. Using hacked or modded equipment, however, will result in an instant ban. Xbox Live also has a review system for specific players you play with that enables you to avoid that player in future matched games.

Infinity Ward’s Robert Bowling says that his team takes a look at all of the cheating reports they get, and the majority of them aren’t actually cheating. He points out one common occurrence where a deceased player’s bad network connection can make their kill cam look weird and thereby show them something that’s not actually happening. For those cases where the developer believes something fishy is going on, the team will jump online and check out the player in question and perhaps turn things over to its testing department to investigate further.

As on top of cheaters as Infinity Ward stays, Bowling admits that in many ways it’s a losing battle. “You always think you’re ahead of the curve, but no matter how much internal testing you do or how much we play the game every day ourselves, your endless community is always going to find things you didn’t see. I’ve never seen a game where they don’t. It’s not about finding everything, it’s about once you do find it, addressing it as quickly and effectively as you can.”

While this game of cat and mouse may seem inevitable and even fun to some, Bowling believes it’s slowly eroding the health of online play. “I’m a big advocate of morally right players. I think it’s the players’ responsibility to keep their community d-----bag free. I feel like we’re losing that, and the more and more multiplayer becomes the focus of games and the more we’re focused on online instead of just single-player, the more our online communities are corrupting, because we’re allowing them to corrupt. I just want to set the tone and state that our communities aren’t going to take it anymore. We want to have fun.”?¦?¦?¦

Im Too Godly? That’s Debatable

Earlier this year, Game Informer ran profiles on some of the top Call of Duty 4 online multiplayer gamers. Among them was Hampton Bays’ Steven Easton, who – for a time – ran under the now infamous gamertag Im Too Godly. Easton crossed the three million-point mark before anyone else, but was quickly accused of foul play.

In particular, Easton was accused of using a method known as boosting, whereby player can arrange to kill complicit friends for points and stats. Similar tactics, such as team killing or win trading can be used in a variety of games.

At the time Easton denied the allegations of cheating, and when we caught up with him recently, he stood by his ascension up the Call of Duty 4 leaderboards. “All I know is that I didn’t cheat.” I’m good with that.”

In a strange twist to the Im Too Godly saga, Easton says that before the article even became public, he had already given the name away to a young boy in his clan – although Easton doesn’t believe the kid boosted either. Stranger still, Easton tells us that the kid then had the gamertag hacked and taken by somebody else. “That might have been him,” Easton admits. “That was not me on that account at the time. It might even be the person who took the account. I have no idea.”

So who exactly is Im Too Godly? We may never know. Easton points out that of the many YouTube videos he’s seen purporting to show Im Too Godly boosting, some are simply how-to videos showing the practice and in others it’s hard to make out if the player is indeed Im Too Godly. Easton believes there are myriad ways to spell out the gamertag Im Too Godly simply by substituting “o”s for zeros, for example. “If someone could get a really clear video of it, I would understand,” he told us, “but it’s definitely not me.”

 We asked Call of Duty 4 community manager Robert Bowling what he thought of the practice of boosting. He didn’t like it, but acknowledged there was little he could do about it. “I’m anti-boosting,” he says. “We design our ranking system in a very deliberate way, and that goes down to how fast a player should rank up, and we do that for the enjoyment of the game.” Still, there’s not much the developer can do about it. Bowling ultimately believes it’s a practice that hurts the player themselves and not the experience for others, and that’s why it’s not banned. “We would like the player to experience it the way we designed it and not cheat themselves out of the reward of reaching level 55 on their own at their own pace,” Bowling says. “Because [if they don’t] then they reach level 55 or prestige 10 and they’re like, ‘Now, what do we do?’”