A couple of days ago, after reading Kotaku editor Stephen Totilo's Pay to Win article, I expressed my disappointment to him and to Kotaku on their choice to advertise and promote cheat sites. Totilo felt that talking about the details about the cheat sites were meant to be as sourcing for the article, not advertising, while I felt that he might as well have linked directly to torrent sites for games.
Is cheating as destructive to multiplayer games as torrents are? I certainly think so, especially for free-to-play multiplayer games.
For a free-to-play game like the game my company makes, Super Monday Night Combat, cracked versions or torrents don't affect our sales. Our game is free. There's nothing to gain by redistributing a DRM-free client, because all the security and verification happens on our servers that we control. The downside of an easily-accessible free to-play-games is that it's primed for third-party hacks like the ones mentioned in Totilo's article. I feel the hacks are more destructive to our game and players than any torrent could ever be, because it ruins the experience for every other player in a particular match.
There was a line in the article: "The man from Canada doesn't seem like such a bad person. He just pays to cheat at video games." It expressed the idea that it's just cheating, that it's not a big deal and is part of the gaming culture. Sure, pay-to-win cheats have been around since the early days of games, from the adventure-game hint lines, strategy guides, and cheat cartridges. The difference is that cheating in a single player game can be fun and interesting for the player doing it. In a multiplayer game, it's a completely different story, because it's a shared experience with other players.
Super MNC is a team-based, 5v5 competitive multiplayer game with a focus on team play. With so much focus on team makeup, the game can get pretty intense. All it takes is a single player using cheats to ruin the emotional experience for nine other players. If those nine players feel like they've been cheated against, they're unlikely to keep playing or invest more time or money into Super MNC. Since there's no upfront cost, our hope is that if players play the game, enjoy it, they will invest some time and possibly purchase characters or items they find interesting.
A compelling experience is a must for the success of a free-to-play game. We spend a significant amount of time fixing exploits, creating tools to detect cheaters and letting players report possible cheats. We record every action a player performs in a game, including weapon-firing, movement speeds, and chat history that is saved to a data-replay-file during a match. There's also in-game reporting functionality that players can use to document a player suspected of hacking. Most of the common hacks like aimbotting, movement speed hacking, adjustments to weapons, and camera hacks are auto-detected and reported to our servers. We also use a community-run ban-list that keeps track of known cheaters. With a combination of automated features, game replays and player patterns, we're able to determine if a player is cheating.
The real interesting thing with cheaters in Super MNC is that they're not typically at the top of the leaderboards. Aimbotting in Monday Night Combat was much worse with the Sniper class due to the headshot kills. We learned from that experience and, with Super MNC's lower lethality and focus on teamwork, being able to auto-lock on heads isn't as useful to winning matches. Another thing we've tried is to take Sharpshooters off our our weekly free-class rotation. Aimbotters are content with paying for a third-party cheat but less willing to spend money in Super MNC to unlock a Sharpshooter class knowing that their account will be banned.
Even though the amount of cheating in Super MNC is low, we're starting to see some more creative hacks start to emerge as we ban the more common techniques. It's an ongoing arms race that will never end and we have to be vigilant with our constant updates. The suspicion that someone is cheating is enough for players to feel like they're not getting a good experience. It's our job to make sure that cheats stay out of our game and the playerbase know that we're active with our cheat prevention.
Is there a better solution to cheaters in multiplayer games? For the majority of the player base, this is a non-issue. The deterrent is game content. The more invested a player is into the game, the less likely they would want to get caught cheating and be banned, losing all the accumulated experience and unlocked items in the process.
Could we as developers deliver a compelling experience where players don't feel the need to pay a cheat site to get their entertainment? Possibly. Only time will tell.