Hacks! An investigation into the million-dollar business of video game cheating

Rage cheaters and closet cheaters

Gibson said that if you cheat, you always get detected eventually. After talking to cheaters, I'm not sure that developers are as effective at preventing cheats as they think. According to Slayer, there are two kinds of cheaters: rage hackers and closet hackers. A rage hacker is someone who uses cheats to their fullest potential, even employing features that kill everyone on the server instantly. They're the ones you notice and hate.

Zero said that if it wasn't for hacking, games wouldn't be fun. He said cheating is a rush, similar to the one he got when he used to deface websites. “In life, you're always going to have rebels,” he said. “It's like coming up to someone and asking, 'Why do you rape or kill?' But in this case it's cheating.”

Since he compared cheating to the worst crimes a human can inflict on another human, I asked him if that means he thinks it's a bad thing. He didn't answer. I asked him how he would feel if he was in a game with another player who was using cheats against him. “Doesn't matter to me because he's probably one of our customers,” he said.

Slayer agrees with Gibson that anti-cheats like VAC and Punkbuster, which work similarly to anti-virus software, are effective at catching ragers and detecting “public” cheats quickly. “But their methods are so reverse-engineered it's not even funny,” he said. Punkbuster's signature scans are easily dumped using public knowledge available on public forums. If you're smart enough and you know the methods they employ, you can get around it easily.

"In life, you're always going to have rebels. It's like coming up to someone and asking, 'Why do you rape or kill?' But in this case it's cheating.' "

“Punkbuster is basically defeated,” Slayer said. “If I write cheats and give them away on a public forum I can have my cheat up and running in 20 seconds because I found out exactly what they detected. If I was smart I would build that into my cheat and have my cheat fix itself on the fly, which isn't a stretch. Call of Duty dropped Punkbuster for a reason.”

I asked Slayer why Valve, for example, doesn't download his cheats, track the server, block it, and come after him. If it wasn't obvious already, I wasn't a Computer Science major. Slayer is, and my questions amused him. “You could do that, but what if I cycle my server IP every day, or every hour? Or I could reasonably and securely move DRM to the client with check on a less regular basis, or I could just spoof what VAC sees :). To be honest Emanuel, I can rent a server using a prepaid credit card via a VPN in another country and you will NEVER find who rented it.”

Closet hackers hide the fact that they cheat. I'm proof that cheaters do get caught—Steam banned me after a little more than two hours of aggressive, blatant cheating—but members of the Ultra Cheats community told me that I was simply doing it wrong. In one of the most friendly, polite exchanges I've ever had with online strangers, especially in the gaming sphere, they gave me tips on how to cheat without being detected.

“Play like you're not hacking,” one user who's been cheating in CS:GO with the same Steam account for over 250 hours told me. “Play as you would normally, only you're able to see through walls. Act.”

That means don't stare at walls, don't use an aimbot (since it moves the camera erratically and results in unreasonable kills), and make sure someone kills you in every match. He also believed you're less likely to get banned if you buy in-game items and get some hours in before you start cheating. He suggested that next time, I should launch the game and let it idle for a few hours before I do anything.

Another cheater suggested I practice cheating in free-to-play games. “That's what I love about free games,” he said. “You can just keep coming back and there's nothing they can do about it.”

If you're a good closet hacker you also won't get caught by statistical anti-cheats like FairFight, used in Titanfall and other Electronic Arts games, or Overwatch, another, peer-review layer of CS:GO's anti-cheat strategy, where approved players view flagged replay footage and vote on whether another player was cheating.

Tripwire closes loopholes as fast as possible, but Ultra Cheats is fast too. If a vendor's cheat stops working, Ultra Cheats stops selling it and the money stops flowing. Detected cheats come back online within hours, days at the most.

And these are only the cheats that we know about. “Anti-cheat can't detect what it can't get its hands on,” as Slayer said. Between that and the proficient closet cheaters, I can guarantee that you've played with way more cheaters than you think.

Supply and demand

If closet cheaters aren't trying to crush other players, why do they turn to cheats in the first place? Prophet started cheating so he could play with his kids. He's “over 50,” and suffers from a serious visual impairment. He says that without ESP (extrasensory perception), part of the wallhacking cheat that highlights enemy players with bright red boxes, he wouldn't be able to keep up. “If I did not use cheats I would not be playing at all,” he said.

Slayer said that they've heard from a few other people with disabilities who use cheats this way. “It enables them to enjoy a game like you or I would normally, without cheats,” he said. But even if there weren't players with disabilities cheating to “rise to a normal level of play,” as Prophet calls it, the reality is some players will always feel that they want special assistance.

If matchmaking worked perfectly and everyone always felt like a capable player up against equally skilled opponents, maybe there would be fewer of the closet cheaters that make Ultra Cheats a profitable business. When matchmaking works, you won't win every game, but you'll never feel dominated. It's like a friendly neighborhood basketball game. When it doesn't work, it feels like being mercilessly dunked on by LeBron James. That's not fun.

At that point some players dedicate a significant amount of time to get better. Others quit. A small minority turns to cheats. Even Slayer admits that what he does isn't good for games, but as long as there are enough of the latter he'll provide supply where there's demand.

Ultimately, the most effective anti-cheat strategy is to make cheating feel unnecessary. That means either more sophisticated, accurate matchmaking or some kind of handicap system, which some fighting games (Street Fighter IV, Smash Bros.) already implement.

Similar solutions in other games won't stop ragers. Nothing will. But they'll get caught, eventually. For closet cheaters, it might offer a legitimate way to play with others and undercut the paid cheats business.

Until then, “this cycle is unstoppable,” as Slayer said. “If we didn't do it, someone else would.”