Understanding cheat developers and defeating their tactics

i3d server side anti cheat
20 February 2024

Cheating is often viewed in absolute terms, with game developers or players skirting around the issue or calling for outright bans when cheaters are caught. However, the issue is complex and requires a solution that is more effective than a ban that might be circumvented fairly easily. In this article, I look at the landscape of cheating and how cheats are developed. The objective to counter cheaters looking to make a quick buck or negatively affect the playing experience of gamers is achieved more effectively if cheaters are beaten at their own game, instead of constantly chasing the latest exploit and trying to counter it.

Table of Contents

Over 2 decades of fighting cheaters

For those unfamiliar with using or renting cheats, let me share my experience as a gaming industry veteran for over 25 years. I have played (lots of) games, owned a server company dedicated to gaming and built anti-cheat middleware. I have always found cheating in games to be irritating and the gaming industry’s response to the problem misguided.

How game producers see cheating

The majority, if not all, game producers prefer to avoid discussions about cheating, often deferring the issue. Some believe that cheating won’t occur in their title, or they can address it post-release if it becomes apparent. Others may be hesitant to invest in anti-cheat middleware, choosing to gauge player feedback first. However, these perspectives are misguided. Every multiplayer game with a player base inevitably deals with cheaters, making no game immune from such instances.

Hype brings cheaters

New game releases bring hype throughout the industry, getting the gaming community excited for new experiences. However, not everyone is looking for novel means of entertainment. Some are busy calculating how to unjustly profit off the newly-released game, while others are looking to hinder the experiences for other players — it’s not all roses.  

Following the game’s release and often before, the malicious actors who happen to be highly skilled developers, are actively working to bypass the implemented restrictions designed to maintain game balance. These talented individuals, who, under normal circumstances, might even have made excellent game developers, are creating cheats.

Why are cheats made?

On one hand, there are individual cheaters who, driven by thrill and enjoyment, delve into coding to create cheats for your game. Their motivation is not monetary; they enjoy frustrating other players and view it as a fun challenge. Their code tends to not be well written and is missing any anti-cheat detection protection. Many of these cheats are easily detectable by anti-cheat middleware.

On the other side of the spectrum, there are professional cheat developers solely motivated by financial gain. These individuals or groups go to great lengths to conceal their identity, operating behind firewalls and VPNs. With considerable skill, they turn cheating into a lucrative full-time job, earning thousands of dollars monthly. These cheats boast sophisticated coding with built-in protections against anti-cheat middleware detection. Their websites often use terms like “undetected” or “secure” to highlight this feature. However, bypassing anti-cheat middleware becomes an ongoing challenge for both cheat developers and the companies producing anti-cheat middleware.

Creating an anti-cheat solution from scratch

Early-stage research

In order for us to create a well-rounded anti-cheat solution, exploring the cheat development market was a crucial step and the process, mildly put, was intimidating. The idea of loading software that requires control over my computer was unappealing, prompting me to use a dedicated gaming PC for cheats as a safety measure. A search for a game title and the word “cheating” uncovered numerous providers with varying rental costs, ranging from $15 to $65 per month, depending on the game’s popularity. It’s noteworthy that there are no refunds, and once the money is spent, it feels like it disappears into a black hole.

Down the cheating rabbit hole

While navigating popular cheat vendors’ websites, I noticed robust security measures, with sites protected by Cloudflare and other security protocols. Signing up for these sites seemed straightforward until it came to renting a cheat, requiring personal information and a valid payment method. This process felt akin to online shopping on a big box store website but with added risks of sharing private information with potentially dubious companies located far from the United States, leading to potential financial losses without accountability.

Discovering an ecosystem dedicated to cheating

After renting a cheat, access is granted to forums specific to the game title. Browsing these forums was intriguing, with players discussing cheating tactics, evasion strategies, and even detailed processes for reversing bans, complete with phone numbers and contacts within gaming companies.

Beyond enemy lines

Installing the cheat for the first time posed challenges, necessitating full BIOS control, and granting the cheat access to every aspect of the computer. Once installed and in the game, adjusting cheat settings involves opening a menu with the insert or delete key. Cheats typically come with low default settings to avoid detection by anti-cheat software. There’s an unspoken understanding within the cheating community to use cheats sparingly, as excessive usage raises the risk of getting banned.

Countering the 'rinse and repeat' formula

When a cheat is identified by anti-cheat middleware, the developers swiftly disable access for their client base. Subsequently, they undertake the task of recoding the cheat to render it undetected once more, and then reactivate it. Unfortunately, this entire process is completed within a very short timeframe, perpetuating the ongoing cat-and-mouse game between cheat developers and anti-cheat middleware companies.

To ban or not to ban?

It’s important to recognize that dealing with cheaters is an inherent challenge in the gaming industry in the form of a never-ending cat-and-mouse game. Despite concerted efforts, completely eradicating cheats from games is difficult. Players and game developers must accept this reality, not necessarily by ignoring the issue but by acknowledging that cheaters often constitute a significant portion of a game’s player base and revenue. Considering that the primary goal of releasing a game is typically to generate income, it’s essential to understand why many producers opt to ban cheaters, which may seem counterproductive.

This strategy aims to discourage cheating without outright banning players, avoiding legal entanglements, and ban reversal requests. Such practices can enhance the overall gaming environment for both the studios and the player base. Achieving this is feasible through the implementation of server-side anti-cheat middleware. Even with client-side protection, the detected instances can be forwarded to the server-side middleware for thorough review and appropriate punitive measures.

Main Take-Aways

The article discusses how cheaters develop cheats, and why it is important to counter them through innovate strategies.