Time for fair play: Online cheating by gamers is increasing - and it's seriously spoiling the fun

The idea of fair play has often been ignored by gamers desperate to slay end-of-level bosses or achieve the ultimate high score, but that's now changing. David Crookes reports on the fightback

Hands up everyone who wants $1 billion dollars free of charge. OK, so there are a couple of catches. The first is that, technically speaking, these dollars don't really exist. They're virtual, and can only be used in a video game. The second problem is that the people who are handing out these digital dollars are hackers (Boo! Hiss!), and their efforts to flood the game's economy isn't down to the goodness of their hearts.

The money-logged game in question is GTA Online, the multiplayer online version of the best-selling console title Grand Theft Auto V. Pumping illicit cash into a game where the idea is to start with nothing and strive to achieve has caused huge disruption for GTA Online's economy and removed the motivation for the players affected.

The recent influx of unlimited dollars led to countless complaints from gamers, and with hackers hell-bent on disrupting the game to take a short-cut to success, GTA's developer, Rockstar Games, was forced to take its game offline to remove the counterfeit cash. This week it vowed to place deliberate cheaters in "isolated cheater pools" and talked of bans.

And yet the hacking attempt was merely the latest battle in gaming's long-running war against those who refuse to play fair. Days after GTA Online was reinstated, new ways to earn unlimited dollars were posted online by monetary mischief-makers. For the online-games business – as well as the players, of whom more later – this kind of thing matters. The gaming industry is expected to be worth $83bn (£50bn) by 2016 with online and mobile alone set to grow to $48bn, some 55 per cent of the total worth. Cheating can seriously affect revenue. If some players can move through walls, float and be impervious to bullets and others cannot, then it produces an uneven playing field, leaving the non-cheating gamers at a distinct disadvantage. The danger is that they walk away.

Ryan Butt, former editor of PowerStation, a now-defunct gaming magazine devoted to cheats, believes that "cheats are harmless bits of fun if used by an individual to affect only their game. But when cheats affect the gaming world at large, then it becomes an issue. Unscrupulous gamers hack into games and run riot at other people's expense on multiplayer titles."

Cheating takes on different forms. Code can be used to control characters – or "bots" – within a game to give the advantage to a particular player, perhaps by getting them to automatically shoot at a rival player whenever they come into range. Players can hack maps within a game to see more of them than their rivals and find their way around them quicker. League-table rankings can be boosted and bugs exploited.

There are so many ways to manipulate online games that the mighty games publisher Activision admitted two years ago that it struggled to combat cheating players. More than 1,600 cheaters were banned from playing Modern Warfare 3 online and a petition was started at change.org urging Activision and the game's developer, Infinity Ward, to "come up with a better anti-cheat/ban program".

"Keeping an even playing field is integral," says Neil McClarty, brand director for the online game RuneScape. "But it's an arms race between a developer and a cheating community." As well as relying on players for tip-offs, developers look for unusual activity and use software to keep potential problems at bay. Since its release in 2002, Valve Anti-Cheat software has been used in more than 60 online games on the Steam gaming platform, picking up on computers with identifiable cheats installed on them. It has led to more than 1.5 million accounts being banned.

"We, as developers, have to be cutting-edge," says McClarty about RuneScape's own system. "We have led the way for years against malicious cheating. We will take random samples of 1,000 accounts and check for legitimacy to see whether it is a real person based on their behaviour. We have a very sophisticated system called Botwatch, which watches in-game avatars in real time. [Our] anti-cheating software can detect cheating within minutes."

Grand Theft Auto V lets gamers skip missions after a few failed attempts
Yet cheating in games is nothing new. For years, large sections in computer magazines would detail various cheats – from simple key presses to lengthy code. Sneaky hardware devices such as the Multiface for the ZX Spectrum or the Game Genie for Nintendo and Sega consoles allowed gaming code to be manipulated. It was rare for a game not to have some kind of cheat associated with it. But online cheating is different. "If enough players feel that cheating is endemic in a game, they won't want to play it. The playing community – and therefore the paying community – will disappear," says Mia Consalvo, research chair in game studies and design at Concordia University in Montreal. "Developers have to show publicly that they are taking steps to end cheating."

The motivation to cheat differs depending on whether the game is single or multiplayer. Gamers may simply be stuck and need a helping hand. They may want to open up parts of a game otherwise closed to them because they have not reached the stage of unlocking them. They may be curious to see what they could do or they may be fiercely competitive. Others cheat just because they can and they love to cause disruption doing so. "Some players believe that others are cheating, so they need to cheat to level the playing field," says Consalvo, the author of Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames. "They attach status to leaderboards and want to dominate competitions. For those types of players, achieving status is more important than being 'fair'."

But increasingly, developers set challenges that accumulate into points: the more points people get, the better a gamer they appear to be. They can be amassed, depending on a player's console of choice, as Xbox Achievements and PlayStation Trophies. Added competition means cheaters look for glitches to sweep up achievements and trophies in the fastest possible time. "These could involve unspotted bugs being used to prevent multiple playthroughs or farming for specific cumulative accolades in a certain place in the game," says Butt.

Yet developers don't always rally against cheating. Some have run premium-rate help- lines in the past; others offer cheats as in-app purchases (such as The Mighty Eagle in Angry Birds that allows levels to be skipped… for a one-off fee of 69p). "There's a prevalence of free-to-play games, where publishers let anyone advance slowly for free but will offer the player various ways to quickly progress – in exchange for legitimate payment," says Consalvo.

Then there are games which have given players an either/or choice. The classic GoldenEye 007 on the Nintendo 64 in 1997 allowed players to select invisibility, invulnerability and powerful weapons before playing a game. "But we called them 'cheats' and added the rule that if you played with a cheat enabled you would not unlock further levels," says the game's developer Martin Hollis. This forced players to question whether cheating was worthwhile.

This approach is less prevalent today and developers are aware that gamers want to feel a sense of progression. Last year's PlayStation3 game The Last of Us reminds struggling players that they can temporarily drop the difficulty level, while Grand Theft Auto V lets gamers skip missions after a few failed attempts (effectively letting people cheat in single-player mode). Handholding to prevent players from becoming bored or giving up is rife.

"Not everyone likes a challenge," says Tim Jones, head of creative at Rebellion, creator of the Sniper Elite games. "Some people just want to follow a story or quest through to the end, see everything in it and say they've beaten it. Games can be about freedom, not about testing yourself. It's just a healthy form of play."

Or is it? "A serious line is crossed when a person claims to have achieved something that they have not," says Hollis. "That is a lie and a fraud. If you cheat in online high-scores, use modifications to win in online play, or say to your friend you unlocked the super-ultra-banana and you are lying, you are stepping outside the bounds of acceptable behaviour, and as a consequence you will die alone. Unless you are very charming, of course."

Entry code: A cheating classic

If you entered Up-up-down-down-left-right-left-right-b-a-Start on a joypad in the 1980s, chances are you would have received some juicy power-ups. Created by game developer Kazuhisa Hashimoto to help him finish playing a title he had spent ages working on, this was called the Konami Code and it was used in more than 100 games.

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