The world’s biggest PC games are fighting a new surge of cheaters and hackers
If you’ve ever played a PC game that has a competitive element, you’ve probably played against a cheater. Whether it’s that sniper bullet that felt a little too accurate, the person teleporting around the map, or the opposition that just somehow knows which angle you’re about to peek from every single time. Some of the world’s most popular PC games are now fighting back against cheaters in new and interesting ways — just as cheating becomes an even bigger problem.
The developers behind Call of Duty: Warzone, PUBG, and Destiny 2 have all announced big pushes to respond to cheating in recent weeks. The hottest game on Twitch, Valorant, isn’t even out yet, and cheating is already a problem that needs to be addressed.
Cheating in PC games isn’t a new phenomenon. Game hacks and cheat software have been around as long as PC games have existed. Aimbots automatically lock onto opponents’ heads, so cheaters can fire and immediately win a battle. Wallhacks expose everyone on a map so cheaters get a huge advantage of knowing when you’re about to push a point or turn a corner. There’s even lag switching, which mainly affects peer-to-peer games, allowing cheaters to stutter around a map and become very difficult to hit.
A wallhack cheat for Warzone.
Aimbots and wallhacks are the most common forms of cheating in online shooters, allowing people who are new to a game or simply at a lower skill level to get a huge advantage over other players. Some cheats are the obvious type, where a player is flying around a map at an impossible speed or firing a gun faster than anyone else. Others, like wallhacks, are far less obvious, and often go undetected in games for weeks or even months.
There’s a constant cat and mouse game between developers and communities that create and sell mods and cheats for games. Cheaters often purchase tools that act like malware, hacking and injecting a game with specialized code that will change how it works. These tools have gotten increasingly complex in recent years, with whole underground communities and forums dedicated to ensuring aimbots and wallhacks remain undetected for monthly subscription fees. A PC Gamer investigation back in 2014 warned that some of these cheat providers could be making millions of dollars per year, and some cheat developers now claim to sell specialized tools for hundreds of dollars a month.
The cat and mouse game has intensified recently during a pandemic that’s helped Steam break its all-time concurrent user record multiple times in recent weeks. The perfect storm of more people looking to play games and find cheats has been met with new titles like Call of Duty: Warzone and Valorant, alongside plenty of existing battle royale games. Developers are now looking to increasingly unique and controversial ways to prevent people from cheating.
Warzone cheaters are matched up against each other. Image: Activision
Infinity Ward is matching suspected Call of Duty: Warzone cheaters against each other in a virtual battle of whose wallhacks and aimbots are more sophisticated. More than 70,000 cheaters have already been banned, and Infinity Ward says it has a “zero tolerance for cheaters.” Respawn Entertainment, the maker of Apex Legends, has also been struggling with cheaters and hackers recently. After banning more than 350,000 cheaters a year ago, hackers have figured out how to bypass hardware ID bans from the Easy Anti-Cheat software that Apex Legends utilizes.
PUBG has similarly spent months trying to respond to cheaters. “Last year, we spent time working on various measures to block cheat programs,” explains Taeseok Jang, executive producer of PUBG PC. “Most of these actions focused on blocking cheat program developers to make it more difficult for them to create these highly lucrative cheats.” PUBG is now improving its code to protect against manipulation but admits that cheat developers continue to “excel at adapting to our measures.” PUBG utilizes BattlEye, a self-confessed “anti-cheat gold standard” that hasn’t been enough to counter cheaters in the game.
Other games like Overwatch and Destiny 2 are also seeing competitive games riddled with cheaters. “Cheating in Destiny 2 is up roughly 50 percent since January,” admitted developer Bungie in a blog post addressing the issue last month. Bungie recently reintroduced its competitive Trials of Osiris mode, and cheaters have become a huge issue on PC since Destiny 2 went free to play around six months ago. Much like other games affected by cheaters, there’s growing community anger over Destiny 2’s cheater problem, with developers slow to respond. I play Destiny 2 far too much, and not a day goes by without noticing a cheater in the game. One Destiny 2 cheater even got caught using wallhacks live on a stream recently and was quickly banned.
Destiny 2 streamer gets caught using wallhacks.
Blizzard started detecting Xion and Pentagon aimbot tools for Overwatch around six months ago and promised “major things in the next two patches going in to address anti-cheat” back in January. Some community members have even turned into virtual sheriffs to police Overwatch. The “Overwatch Police Department,” infiltrates cheating networks to find the latest hacks to get them shut down. It’s a hobby for those involved and part of the ongoing battle to stop cheating.
As many of these games are free to play, game developers also have to balance the ability for cheaters to simply create a new account if they get banned. That’s increasingly difficult for the popular battle royale games that are purposely designed to make it quick and easy to jump straight into a game with a new account.
Even PC games that are still thriving after almost a decade aren’t immune from a wave of hacker attention. Valve has also been battling a big increase in cheaters in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive since the game went free to play more than a year ago. Valve, like many others, has invested heavily in anti-cheat efforts, using its automated Valve Anti-Cheat (VAC) system to detect cheats installed on computers. Valve has also created other methods to tackle CS:GO cheats, including a system where experienced players could serve as virtual jurors to review suspected cheaters and regulate the community.
“Eventually we realized that cheating itself was a goal for some users and they were going to return no matter how many of their accounts we banned,” says John McDonald, senior software engineer at Valve, in a statement to The Verge. “Starting in 2019, CS:GO converted to using Steam Trust which leverages deep learning and all of the data on Steam to do an even better job of identifying the likelihood that an account was going to cheat, even before the very first time that account interacts with other players, whether those accounts are free-to-play or premium users. We’ve rolled out Steam Trust to several partners and expect to do a broad release to all Steam partners later this year.”
Riot’s new Valorant shooter.Image: Riot Games
There are controversial ways of dealing with hackers arising, too. Riot’s new shooter, Valorant, isn’t even out of beta yet, and cheats have already been developed. Riot has created a controversial anti-cheat engine for Valorant, that it also recently announced may eventually come to League of Legends. It involves a kernel-level driver that’s always on, even when the game isn’t running. Fans raised fears over privacy and security, and Riot has had to provide more control over how its Vanguard anti-cheat software works. You can now disable the software, but it will prevent you from playing Valorant until you reboot.
The ongoing hacking back-and-forth is very similar to how malware is developed for PCs, with cheats using methods to tamper with games and inject themselves into memory. At the heart of the PC gaming issues is Microsoft’s Windows operating system. It’s the platform that the vast majority of PC games are played on, but its openness allows cheaters to develop these tools easily. There’s no unified or single anti-cheat system that can address the problems across a variety of games, and game developers are forced to use or build systems that are essentially antivirus software.
Some of these systems, like BattlEye, have even caused issues with Windows 10 updates or led other apps to crash on a PC. Microsoft was working on its own “TruePlay” anti-cheat system for Windows 10, but it was limited to the Universal Windows app Platform (UWP) that most game developers have ignored. Here’s how Microsoft described its anti-cheat engine:
TruePlay provides developers with a new set of tools to combat cheating within their PC games. A game enrolled in TruePlay will run in a protected process, which mitigates a class of common attacks. Additionally, a Windows service will monitor gaming sessions for behaviors and manipulations that are common in cheating scenarios. These data will be collected, and alerts will be generated only when cheating behavior appears to be occurring. To ensure and protect customer privacy while preventing false positives, these data are only shared with developers after processing has determined cheating is likely to have occurred.
After briefly appearing in test versions of Windows 10, it has since disappeared. We asked Microsoft about its plans to prevent cheating in PC games, and the company provided the following statement:
“Due to the open nature of the PC platform, cheating in PC games is a complex and varied challenge. The PC ecosystem consists of several layers, such as hardware, the operating system, 1st and 3rd party software, services and more. With that said, we are committed to providing the best experience for players while continuing to ensure that Windows is an open ecosystem supporting a diverse hardware ecosystem, multiple methods to acquire and service games, and supporting multiple technologies and services to analyze, identify and mitigate cheating. We partner closely with industry-leading game developers, middleware, and anti-tamper/anti-cheat services to provide the most robust, end-to-end solutions.”
The vast majority of aimbots, wallhacks, and other cheats simply don’t exist on consoles like the PS4, Xbox One, or Nintendo Switch. The locked-down nature of these systems makes it far more difficult for hackers to gain access and build cheat software. Consoles aren’t immune, as we’ve seen in the past with Modern Warfare 2, but modern consoles have kept most cheaters at bay.
There’s a lot at stake if these PC games don’t address the cheating issues they’re facing. PUBG has gradually been losing active players in recent months, and Destiny 2’s PC player base has fallen behind Xbox One and PS4 after taking over both consoles last year. A drop in player numbers means less revenue for developers who have adopted a free-to-play model, and nobody wants to watch pro players on Twitch face cheaters all the time.
Riot’s complex approach to anti-cheat isn’t the first of its kind, but it’s a sign of where PC games will need to head. Game developers have been slow to respond to cheating, and often, companies refuse to detail what they’re doing at all for fear of providing hackers a heads-up. If a developer reveals an upcoming patch will address cheating, then the cheat creators simply advise their subscribers to stop using the software until they can reverse-engineer the changes and guarantee they remain undetected.
Riot has also been using bug bounty programs to reward security researchers for finding vulnerabilities in the company’s anti-cheat engine. The Valorant developer has increased this up to $100,000 for flaws that undermine the privacy and security of its Vanguard anti-cheat software.
Valorant is still in the closed beta phase, but it will be the title to watch to see if the combination of an aggressive, albeit controversial, anti-cheat system and big security bounties helps keep cheaters away. All game developers are searching for a solution to the same problem that’s growing bigger every month.