The tale of how one man from Canada became the kind of person who pays a monthly fee to cheat at video games is like many stories about good people who slide toward the more nefarious extremes of life.
There was hurt. There was frustration. And then there was the temptation to step inside from the unabating drizzle of life, to take shelter and experience some glee. The glee, of course, would cost him. It would cost him money and friends , though maybe it was worth it.
The man from Canada goes by the online name Johnb32xq. In the eyes of some he is what's wrong with online multiplayer gaming. Some might brand him a scourge—maybe even a bad person—but that's the common reaction to situations like these, when good people cross lines that other good people don't.
The man from Canada doesn't seem like such a bad person. He just pays to cheat at video games.
John lives on a 200-acre farm somewhere in Canada. He has a day-job and loves to play video games. He bought Battlefield 3 at launch last fall and played it on the PC. Then some things happened and, soon enough, John became the kind of gamer who has an arsenal of cheats at his disposal. Each was a hack that he paid for. One lets him saunter into a multiplayer match in Battlefield 3 and automatically kill the next person he sees. If he's feeling particularly destructive, John flicks on a hack called "Mass Murder" and strolls through a Battlefield battlefield while every opposing player just drops dead. One button press and the text notices indicating the death of each opposing player scrolls in like the next line of movie credits. These hacks John uses require no skill other than the discretion not to be caught by the people who make Battlefield. His opponents stand no chance.
Paid cheaters like John are the steroid-users of video games, with two caveats.
"Technically hacking does ruin games," John recently told me. "I do feel bad for doing it, ‘cause I know regular legit gamers—which I once was—just want to have fun and play the game with their friends. I basically go into servers and hack, because it's like releasing anger with my job. I fix Blackberrys for Rogers Wireless, and I get bitched at and get stressed out, because people are upset."
Cheating is John's anger outlet, one he's willing to pay up to $25 a month to keep using. His situation is the reverse of most video game scare stories. Video games have not compelled him to misbehave in the real world. A shooter video game didn't turn him into a hellion in real life. On the contrary, the real world, he says, is what has caused him to be a cheating terror in the video games he plays.
Paying cheaters like John are the steroid-users of video games, with two caveats: 1) nothing they do appears to be illegal; 2) nothing they do appears to require the skill that, say, still must be present to enable even the most chemically-enhanced baseball player to swat a 95-mph fastball over an outfield wall.
Paying cheaters certainly violate what some would say is the spirit of the game. They certainly spoil what other players might have thought was a fair competition contested among players of Battlefield or Call of Duty or any other competitive PC game.
A hacker uses cheats in Battlefield 3 in this clip that was uploaded to YouTube a few weeks before BF3 was officially released.
But, certainly, paying cheaters are also gamers, members of a growing tribe of humanity who want to win so badly in, say, Words with Friends that they will peek at dictionaries to help them defeat their best friends. Some people study YouTube clips to learn how to breach invisible walls in Call of Duty. Gamers break rules to gain advantages and even one of the Mt. Rushmore heads of this field, Sims creator Will Wright, says that the best way to play games—the way he plays—is to subvert the game's proper rules.
John is on the extreme end of a spectrum, because his tactics are so lethal, so outside of what the game's creators intended, so far beyond what rival players can defend against and, oh yeah, he paid some hackers money to have them. John pays to be able to kill your character instantly in Battlefield. He's surely crossed some line, though it's anyone's guess just where that line must be.
John from Canada is one of an unknown number of customers of a service called Artificial Aiming, a mirthful band of entrepreneurial cheaters who hack popular and unpopular games alike. Their star hacker is someone named HelioS, a mysterious figure who is regularly outfoxing or being outfoxed by the makers of games such as Battlefield.
There are rival providers of paid cheats too, including Project 7 and the surprisingly slick FPSCheats.com. The latter claims to be "The #1 rated hack website in the world." Launching their website triggers a video of an attractive blonde welcoming you to their site and boasting that the four-year site has more than 300,000 members; their Twitter feed, however, has fewer than 900 folllowers.
Artificial Aiming offers cheats for lots of games, from Battlefield 2 to six different Call of Duty games to Mass Effect 3 (40 games in all, plus cheats for Duke Nukem Forever which are, for some reason, labeled as free; a "master package" to use all the cheats for all the games runs $20/week or $50/month). The cheats are provided through a separate computer program that runs in concert with the game. It essentially gives you super-powers, and unless you're bitten by a radioactive spider, super-powers aren't for free.
A couple dozen cheats have recently been available for Battlefield 3. The cheats tweak the game's frame-rate or radar and are said to be undetectable by the anti-cheating service Punk Buster. The meatiest part of a $25/month Level 3 Battlefield 3 cheat subscription from Artificial Aiming is the aimbot, which will more or less do your shooting for you. Here's a breakdown:
- Uberdamage (only one bullet is needed to kill a player instantly)
- Auto Spot (spot everyone on the map, automatic. You'll get the spotbonus for every kill your team makes)
- Massmurder (kill everybody with a single button)
- No Recoil
- No Breathing
- Visibility Checks
- Soldier Aimbot
- Vehicle Aimbot (All land vehicles, Chopper gunner and Helo transport machine gunner Aimbot for air vehicles)
- Aim Styles (Off, When firing, Full auto)
- Targeting Styles (Closest Target, Closest to crosshair, Highest Threat, Lowest Health, etc.)
- SlowAim (Off, On) (+ Configurable slow aim speed)
- AimAngle (Off, On) (+ Configurable autoaim rotation angle)
- AutoFire (Off, On)
- FriendlyFire (Off, On)
Anyone who wants to buy cheats has to expect them to work only some of the time, as game developers do their damnedest to block them and hackers then have to try to work around the barricades. A forum administrator on Artificial Aiming noted this past Friday that "Our BF3 sales are disabled at this moment due to security issues. So we cant deliver you a cheat at this moment."
This kind of business riles the people who are in the business of making games. The profiteering cheat-makers tend to infuriate.
"It used to be that hackers did it because it was fun and they want to show that they can," Karl Magnus-Troesddson, the director of the massive Swedish studio DICE told me a few months ago. DICE are the makers of Battlefield and have been battling hackers and cheaters for years. "It's about big money today. They want to make money off of these cheats. That's what pisses me off the most. They're not just ruining the game for others; they're actually making a profit off of it. That hurts both my gamer heart but also my dev heart, I have to say."
The folks a Artificial Aiming laugh at this kind of thing. Online, they seem as jolly a band of hackers and cheaters as there is, cackling on message boards about how they disrupt games, rejoicing when, in one instance, Artificial Aiming hackers used cheats to snag the virtual dogtags of Battlefield developers. Top Artificial Aiming personnel as well as top people at other cheating groups brushed off repeated requests by Kotaku to tell their story, to explain why they cheat and size up just how big a business it is for them to mess with games like Battlefield 3. One of their ringleaders, an AA administrator who goes by the name Haruhi, recently posted a link to a Forbes article entitled "Cheating is Good for You". This is what he pulled from the article:
Psychologists have found that when playing games, if players aren't allowed to punish others they suspect of cheating, the game community falls apart. People will even pay money out of their own pocket to punish cheaters. So figuring out ways to keep the larger community involved in dealing with cheaters can keep the group engaged in ways that "regular" game play might never allow for.
He supplied his own addendum: "Fact: Cheating is good for you!"
If there is profit in it for the cheat enablers, that presumably makes it all the sweeter.
All is not fair, however, even for the cheat profiteers. In January, several Artificial Aiming administrators and VIP users tried to distance themselves from a new non-AA hack that was being used to get honest Battlefield players banned from the game.
John from Canada used to hate hackers. All of his stats in Battlefield used to be legit, the simple tally of how good he was at a popular first-person shooter. He was part of an online gaming clan who vowed to play together. But work got in the way for John and he couldn't play as much as he wanted to. You have to play a popular first-person shooter a lot to be competitive in it; distractions that kept him from the game would hold him back.
"One day I got pissed and fed up with one of the guys in the clan cause he didn't have a job and just grinded the game 24/7 and gained 10-15 levels above us," John remembered. "I wasn't the best player in BF3. So, one of the other clan members said to me in a different teamspeak [that] he used to hack APB: Reloaded, and I'm like, ‘Really??' He sent me the link. I looked at the site, and I made an account. I saw the hacks and I'm like, damn that's a lotta hacks for games, so I was like, ‘I'll give it a go.' I bought a one week subscription to the master package, which gave me access to all the games' hacks."
That was John's first injection of Artificial Aiming's product. He suddenly had 42 hacks at his command. He loved it.
"I see a guy, press my key, instantly snap on, killed him, then snapped to a few other guys and killed them. I'm like, ‘I love this hack.'"
The first time he used a paid cheat, he loaded up the hacks and a copy of Battlefield 3, jumped to his favorite multiplayer map at the time, Metro, and configured an "aimbot" cheat to his Alt key.
"I was running around the map. I see a guy, press my key, instantly snap on, killed him, then snapped to a few other guys and killed them. I'm like, ‘I love this hack.'
His clan noticed that his scores were suddenly a lot better and they figured out what was going on. He was angry about being caught, hopped onto his team's server and killed his teammates 13-0. They banned him.
"It took a few days to sink in as I realized what I had done to the gaming clan I had been with for four or five years," he said. "I felt like utter crap. I actually cried for about five minutes, wishing I could go back in time. But you can't, so, basically I sucked it up from there."
John cheated some more.
"I bought a one-month BF3 Level 3 sub, which gave me access to everything: autofire, no spread, no recoil etc."
He kept using the hacks. He kept enraging other players. "I just laughed at them," he said. "Three to four months down the road, the hack team scripted uberdamage which basically makes anything a one shot kill and extends max range. On any game mode, I can run around with a G17 and one-shot kill them.
"Then, a month later Mass Murder came out. This option completely destroyed the game. Key-bind it to a button and [no matter what] you're holding in your hand, you press the button and it will kill almost everyone on the enemy team."
He made a video out of that one and thanks master-hacker HelioS for that mother of all cheats.
EA has banned John's account three times, but he has continued to play, hopping from legitimate accounts to pirated ones.
He says he bought Battlefield 3 legitimately twice. He also bought the game's first downloadable expansion, Back To Karkand. The proceeds for those sales flowed back to Battlefield's publisher EA and its Swedish development studio, DICE, where Karl Magnus works.
He's also bought pirated keys to access Battlefield from Russian hackers sites. He estimates he has spent about $100 on pirated keys and spent about $120-$150 on cheats from Artificial Aiming.
In early March, when it had become clear that cheaters were targeting Battlefield 3, Karl Magnus wanted me to know just how hard DICE was pushing back. "It has been a problem," he said, "as it is in all shooters. We have a separate team that works in DICE that deals with cheating. The best way to battle cheating is to just look at the stats and ban people and get them out of there."
The anti-cheating team at DICE looks for people who pad their stats through glitches that haven't been patched out of the game. "Those are things that are easy to fix," Magnus said. "The hacks, where people aimbot and these kinds of things that are using a third-party cheat are usually a bit a harder, because it's usually an overlay using DirectX on top of that. We can't patch that out of the game. From that perspective it's easier to just look at the stats and say, ok, if they have a kill-death ratio of this or whatever the algorithm has been set up, that's probably a cheater. Let's look into that, and then we do mass-bans continuously."
The Battlefield studio director described the fight against cheaters as "an ongoing arms race," one that would never end.
Magnus would rather not ban someone, if possible. The first time they think they've found a cheater? "We usually start by stats-wiping them. If we see a repeat felony or whatever you want to call it, we ban them.., if we want to be really mean, we can ban them not just from Battlefield but from all EA games, but, I mean, that's very harsh. We try to keep it within the franchise."
He described the fight against cheaters as "an ongoing arms race," one that would never end. The cheaters find a way to hack the game. DICE applies a fix. The cheaters find a new exploit.
In late March, with cheat services like Artificial Aiming making money selling stat-boosting cheats to gamers like John from Canada, DICE started selling perks—"shortcuts"—that level Battlefield players up. DICE isn't selling cheats but, rather, offering the kind of quick-leveling up of player rank that unlocks better gear for players who don't have time to play to earn those levels:
Today, we are also offering 10 different shortcut items for sale for Battlefield 3 on PS3. If you're new to the game, this is the perfect way to gain some ground on the veterans online. Or if you'd love to get some more air time in the jets but want to equip those AA missiles straight away, this is for you.
The 10 shortcut items are available now from the PlayStation Store and the in-game store and include these:
- Kit Shortcut Bundle: Immediately unlocks all items unique to the four playable classes
- Vehicle Shortcut Bundle: Immediately unlocks all items for all vehicles
- The Ultimate Bundle: Immediately unlocks all items from all other available shortcut packs
The shortcuts cost $7-$10. A full bundle costs $40.
These official paid perks may have enabled John from Canada to keep pace with that member of his clan who kept playing Battlefield while John worked. It wouldn't have made John a better Battlefield player, but it would have made him a better-armed one. Who's to say that wouldn't have kept him from becoming an Artificial Aiming customer? When DICE began offering these paid booster packs, Artificial Aiming administrator Haruhi cackled at what he saw as apparent DICE hypocrisy: "EA Games is legalizing Cheats for BF3," he proclaimed.
John from Canada says he has been trying to quit using hacked cheats.
A couple of weeks ago, I asked an EA rep what had become of the arms race Magnus had described. Artificial Aiming and their numerous rivals continued to make new and more efficient cheats for Battlefield and other games. Their Mass Effect 3 aimbot is one of their newest products. They kept selling them to people like John from Canada. DICE kept banning players and issuing new services and paid downloadable content to Battlefield gamers, trying to get Battlefield gamers to send money DICE's way instead of to third-party cheat services. The EA rep was unable to get an update from Magnus but provided the kind of less impassioned statement you get from a corporation that wants to convince gamers its product is safe-rather than the kind of heated words one gets from a creator who is tired of people profiting off of vandalizing his game. "We continually monitor the Battlefield 3 community to make sure everyone is having the best possible Battlefield experience. We have a dedicated team at DICE tracking cheaters/hackers."
John from Canada says he has been trying to quit using hacked cheats. He sounds like he is tired of being banned, of having to re-start his Battlefield 3 playing again and again. But he's still using Artificial Aiming. The temptation to cheat is strong.
He's still not allowed in his old clan, but does play games with a few clan members who don't mind that he hacks. They play Test Drive Unlimited 2 together. He also played Farming Simulator 2011, which is something less than escape for him. He lives on a farm.
"Gamers say hackers have no lives or they are gay or they have small dicks," he said. "Honestly, all the guys I play with in Battlefield 3 who also run AA have normal lives and raise families, have wives etc.. I'm 21. I live on a 200-acre farm. I help my dad whenever he needs it. I work a full-time job. I hang out with my friends. I play paintball. I'm living a normal life, and I'm a gamer. I hack, ‘cause I find it fun, sometimes. And it just gets me away from shit and stuff which can happen in our everyday lives."
UPDATE: After the publication of this story, John got back in touch with me. He says he really is done with cheating. His most recent Artificial Aiming subscription has expired and he's resisting the urge to renew it. "I haven't touched a hack or played BF3 for 2-3 weeks now. My friend is helping me get out of hacking and its going pretty well. When tempted to, I just play another game other than BF3.