It seems that the desire to cheat is an inevitable part of human nature. There’s just something about getting an unfair advantage that appeals to us so much that we cheat in school, on our taxes, and on each other. Naturally this rule applies to video games and the more popular a game is the greater the number of people cheating at it.
The Call of Duty series is very, very popular and it’s no surprise that cheating is rampant. In my reviews of both Modern Warfare 2 and Modern Warfare 3 I decried their usage of a peer-to-peer networking system for several reasons not the least of which was that it didn’t provide any way for players to deal with cheaters in a game. This is primarily a problem on the PC where you can run programs in the background that will allow you to, among other things, see players hidden behind objects (wall hacks) and auto-aim and fire your gun (aimbots).
With dedicated servers there’s someone who administers the server who will have the ability to identify and ban cheaters from playing on that server. The P2P system used in MW2 and 3, however, randomly picks one of the players to be the host and there are no provisions for banning cheaters or even voting to kick them from the game. The only real anti-cheating system in place on the PC version of the game is the VAC (Valve Anti-Cheat) system provided through the Steam client that Activision uses with that version of CoD. There are two problems with this system: First, it can take weeks for someone who has been flagged as cheating to be banned from multiplayer, though it does ban them from playing it altogether (as opposed to just a single server). Second, it creates an arms race between the folks who maintain VAC and the folks who write the aimbots and wall hacks for the games. Every time VAC is updated to detect the latest round of cheating programs the folks who make said programs simply update their code to hide it from detection for another few weeks.
[pullquote] This is a warning to anyone who’s thinking of buying [MW2] for the PC: Don’t fucking bother. — Infinity Ward has fucked over “Call of Duty” fans who play on the PC.[/pullquote]The creation of these hacks also appears to be trivially easy as the first one for MW2 was released within hours of the game itself. I suspect that’s partially because the past several CoD games have run on basically the same game engine as the preceding one with some new bits bolted on. In fact, the wall hack part of these programs uses the game’s own internal systems to do its work. Certain kill streaks in the game (e.g. remote sentry) already allow you to see players approaching from behind obstacles when you use them. All the wall hack does is turn that system on all the time regardless of whether you’re using an appropriate kill streak or just your trusty rifle. The problem of cheaters using hacks was so rampant in MW2 that after one night of game after game being ruined by cheaters I wrote an angry blog post saying that you should not buy the game for the PC. OK, it was a very angry blog post, but my frustration level at the time was through the roof. It’s one thing to lose to genuinely better players and it’s another to lose to someone who’s skill consisted entirely of holding down a mouse button while a program insured every shot was a headshot.
When MW3 came out the hacks followed and it looked like the whole situation was set to repeat itself, but it did seem like it had improved somewhat. I said in my review that the number of obvious cheaters seemed a lot lower than they were during the first few weeks with MW2, but the problem did still persist and there still wasn’t any easy way to report them or vote to kick them from a game. As before, the hackers just laughed at the VAC system as ineffective and the engine was still fundamentally the same as before, so what was responsible for the lower number of cheaters?
As it turns out, IW assigned someone to handle complaints of cheaters in MW3. Initially it was one person on Twitter named BanCandy who handled complaints for all platforms the game is on, but it should go without saying that she was quickly overwhelmed by the deluge. Now it’s a group of people under the collective name @IWEnforcers and they are some busy beavers. I’ve been following their tweets for quite awhile now and they are swinging the ban hammer as fast as you can manage. This has helped a great deal, but the reporting still wasn’t easy. They required that you be able to provide some evidence for the cheating such as a YouTube video and a link to the player’s Steam profile page. The Theater Mode in MW3 allows you play back a game and even render a YouTube clip so long as it’s smaller than 29 seconds which is barely enough to show one death with a killcam.
There had to be a better way and a clever fellow who goes by the alias Xifon came up with one. He created the MW3SA Reporting Tool which allows you browse through the demo files created by the game’s theater mode and lists off all of the players in each saved game. You find the game that had the hacker in it (it looks up each player’s Steam profile to make it easy) and then click on their name and hit Report. It opens a window and allows you to type in a description and then sends that along with the entire demo file off to IW where they can load it up and watch the playback from that player’s perspective to see exactly what happened in the game.
This tool has the hackers shitting bricks because there’s nothing that can be done to counter it. You can’t hide your Steam ID from the game and the files record exactly what happened during the course of a match. If you’re using a wall hack and repeatedly kill people you couldn’t see it’ll show up in the playback. Aimbotting becomes so glaringly obvious (see the previous YouTube video) that it’s pretty much a guaranteed ban.
The tool proved so popular that, once again, the surge of reports became overwhelming and suddenly it stopped working. Xifon posted an announcement that the queue wasn’t updating and it looked like it was to be a short-lived experiment, but the folks at IW got in contact with him and asked if they could work together to improve it. One of the problems it had was accountability for the person making the report. There wasn’t anything preventing you from submitting someone who just pissed you off by being a better player. So after a couple of weeks the new version was released that corrects that problem.
Now to use it you have to sign in with your Steam ID so any reports you make can be associated with your account. This provides a couple of benefits including the ability to see which reports you’ve submitted and whether they’ve been reviewed and what, if any, action was taken. It also has a scoring system that awards you points for every cheater banned and dings you points if your report wasn’t legit. This is to encourage you to be sure you’re submitting an actual cheater prior to dashing off a report.
These two solutions, the @IWEnforcer Twitter account and the MW3SA Reporting Tool, won’t eliminate the problem of cheaters in Call of Duty games any time soon, but they do help and Infinity Ward deserves a lot of credit for at least attempting to deal with the problem. The process is still slow as I have 3 reports in so far, the oldest dating back to June 9th, that still haven’t been reviewed, but at least they’re there and should get looked at eventually. With any luck, the tool will be a success and put a dent in the amount of cheating in CoD games. Either way, Infinity Ward deserves credit for trying to tackle the problem.