The increasingly complex world of cheating in videogames

Features
April 4, 2016 by Todd Mitchell

Cheating used to be something between a player and their computer. As games change, cheating changes... and so do its effects.

Cheating is as old as gaming, but it still presents brand new problems. Gone are the days of simple cheat codes in secluded sessions between player and machine. In their place, a booming new business thrives. Companies battle in court for the right to offer cheat hardware and intricate software tools, pro tournaments are shrouded in scandal, and new cheats are even keeping real money out of the hands of publishers. Cheating is raising questions faster than we are finding answers.

Humble Beginnings

Cheating first became commonplace in the 1980s among hobbyist computer gamers. Many users of systems like the Commodore 64 were comfortable with basic programming tasks. Playing a game occasionally required typing its entire source code in manually, so it was a simple matter for some to load a game into the computer’s memory and modify a few values in the right locations to grant themselves goodies like points and health at will.

The eventual development of peripherals like Romantic Robot’s Multiface, a device capable of saving and modifying a computer’s memory at the push of a button, made game state tampering accessible to even more users. More developers were concerned about the growing issue of outright game piracy than simple cheating. Some games were released in the public domain from the start, and players were encouraged to customize a game to meet their needs. This case wasn’t strictly considered cheating at all.

Early consoles like the Nintendo Entertainment System offered a vastly dissimilar experience. With no access to code or an operating system, players saw only what was intended for them on the screen and could only respond with a few controller buttons. This did not deter cheating for long.

Many game developers found work in the late 80s and early 90s by converting games from arcade cabinets for home console use. Most arcade games are designed with sharply increasing difficulty to keep quarters coming—which made these ports painful to playtest. To cope with this challenge on systems with limited means of input, developers created secret button sequences that triggered changes like invulnerability, allowing them to survive testing even when the gameplay gets tough.

None of these sequences are more popular than Kazuhisa Hashimoto’s Konami Code, a secret first created to grant all upgrades in the arcade port of Gradius, which he forgot to remove prior to the game’s release. The Konami Code has since been included intentionally in dozens of games (developed by Konami and others) in honor of its popularity among players.

Cheating thrilled console players. Enterprising hardware engineers took notice, and quickly set about pushing the limits even further.

The Business of Mischief

In 1990, Codemasters, a British game development studio, created a “video game enhancer” capable of the same memory value modification used on gaming computers with the Multiface peripheral. The Game Genie, as it was eventually named, could be connected between a cartridge and the NES itself to modify the game with codes entered by the player before passing the program through to the console. Though the codes used an obfuscated format, they result in direct editing of values in memory, meaning knowledgeable players could discover their own useful codes in addition to those distributed with the product. Codemasters’ publisher Camerica distributed the Game Genie in Canada while Galoob sold it in the United States.

Galoob found itself defending the Game Genie against Nintendo only months later in U.S. District Court.

The Galoob v. Nintendo case hinged on whether or not a judge would agree that using a Game Genie created derivative works of Nintendo’s games, in defiance of established copyrights. Thanks to the Game Genie’s marketing verbiage—specifically that it’s a “video game enhancer”—the court ruled that Game Genie players are still using the original Nintendo products as intended and established no damages. Galoob, on the other hand, was awarded $15 million plus legal fees. Not only was Galoob allowed to continue selling the Game Genie device, but a legal precedent protecting game enhancement without permanent modification was established, paving the way for the cheating industry to emerge and flourish.

In time, Galoob expanded its Game Genie product line to include all major consoles, and it competed with other cheat cartridges including Action Replay and GameShark products. Cheat code books and guides were published, updated, and republished. Rumors and codes were listed in nearly every game magazine in print. The now-defunct cable and satellite network G4 dedicated a half-hour show, Cheat!, to providing game codes and secrets, demonstrating them on-screen. Most importantly, resources for game cheating arrived on the web.

Cheaters Online

As household internet access became the norm, players were flooded with the collective wisdom of nearly the entire gaming community for the first time. Virtually unlimited information about tips and tricks were revealed as “urban legend cheats” began to decline (sadly, Michael Jordan really wasn’t in NBA Jam on consoles).

In addition to widespread information, the internet made new genres of player-versus-player competition possible. Cheating again followed closely behind—this time, at the expense of real opponents elsewhere in the world.

First-person shooters are consistently among top-selling games across all platforms, and its players experience what may be the most ethically dubious cheats in gaming. Time has proven that, in countless settings and series, gamers love trying to outgun and outthink their peers. Some are willing to cheat—even at the expense of the other players—and no shortage of tools have been developed to accommodate them. “Bot” applications can grant perfect aim (and take the shot, if desired), network traffic can be manipulated to allow a player to see and attack opponents in real time while sending their own actions back in bursts that make them nearly impossible to beat, and incoming player data can be interpreted and exploited in ways that their opponents may or may not ever be able to detect.

The online role-playing genre has not fared much better. Mischievous players have elbowed ahead of their peers with tricks as simple as teaming up with other players to grind on a single account, and as complicated as putting your character in the hands of programmed scripts or completely automated bot applications. Given the subscription model on which popular online RPGs operate and the negative impact cheating has on the community, developers and publishers like Blizzard have not been shy about taking cheating enablers to court.

World of Witch Hunts

Products and services again emerged to capitalize on a new age of cheating. This time, it was developers and publishers reaching for their wallets, and the investment was to prevent cheats. In 2000, Team Fortress player Tony Ray began testing his anti-cheat tool, PunkBuster, on Valve Software’s Half-Life. Though the product proved capable, Valve declined to partner with Ray’s studio and began development of the Valve Anti-Cheat (VAC) system. Instead, PunkBuster was integrated first in Return to Castle Wolfenstein and later in the Battlefield series and others. Additional anti-cheat suites were integrated into online role-playing games, including nProtect GameGuard and AhnLab’s HackShield.

While anti-cheat systems have proven effective—the VAC system alone has banned over 2 million accounts—they require constant changes and an intrusive presence in a client system to discover banned tools or activities. This introduces room for errors, often in the form of “false positives.” New games and updates occasionally result in widespread erroneous ban reports from players who claim to do nothing but connect to game servers. In at least one instance, Battlefield players had to appeal their invalid ban, even after EA and PunkBuster were aware of the problem. Even today, most publishers prefer to ban too many players, rather than miss potential cheaters.

Reasonably effective cheat protection was key in the rise of professional eSports. Players, organizers, and sponsors all need to be reasonably sure of a level playing field before investing real money into competitive gaming. The very few cheating scandals at the pro level have been huge.

Just before the DreamHack Counter-Strike: Global Offensive tournament began in winter of 2014, three pro players admitted to cheating after the VAC system banned their accounts. All three players and their respective teams were disqualified from the game’s largest tournament. One of the players would later tell Twitch viewers he believed about 30-40% of players at the pro level were also cheating, reported viewers on Reddit. Chaos erupted again in the DreamHack quarterfinals, as team Fnatic exploited a map glitch to win a match, leading to their eventual forfeit. Suspicion of additional cheating rocked the community for months to come.

Real Money Cheats

Mobile gaming has given new momentum to casual games. Free-to-play games like Clash of Clans or the more recent Clash Royale bring in staggering daily revenue without charging players anything upfront. Everyone wins, until cheating disrupts the balance.

Over the years, developers have released a collection of cheat engine apps for mobile operating systems, particularly rooted Android phones and jailbroken iOS devices. This has allowed willing players to tamper with “freemium” games as they might with any other game—the difference is that they’re granting themselves lives, power-ups, and other resources that cost real-world money.

Freemium cheating raises questions for which players have many opinions, but definitive answers are less clear. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act allows for the modification of games and other software owned, but previous cheats have never so clearly and directly deprived developers and publishers of revenue. As Garret Bright astutely points out in his Gamasutra feature, freemium games only bring in revenue from in-app purchases, one side of the debate argues that this clearly robs the publisher, while the other side suggests there is no harm done if they never would have paid for in-game items to begin with. It may only be a matter of time before a judge is left to decide.

If the past is any indication, cheating will continue to evolve as gaming keeps pushing into new territory, and the community will grapple with new questions about what is acceptable and in what circumstance. It’s important to acknowledge the positive impacts of game tampering as well as the negative: the new ways players experienced their purchased games, the content publishers hid away only to be discovered like buried treasure years later, and the large-scale hacking and modding initiatives that effectively created brand new projects for others to enjoy. What’s certain is that players will never stop pushing the limits they encounter, come what may.