Is rampant cheating destroying Facebook gaming?

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Cheating on Facebook games is a hard subject to tackle because it takes several forms, from the more ‘acceptable’ form of creating several accounts (which is not the one we are concerned about here) to the proliferation of ‘cheat engines’ that mostly operate locally, on the user’s individual machine. These are designed to change variables such as increasing one’s gold or resources, or accelerating repairs or upgrades so that they take seconds rather than weeks. Strangely, these cheats somehow manage to make their way from the individual browser into the game’s central database, and seem to be either hard to detect by the developers,  or they simply look the other way, perhaps having accepted that cheating activity is part and parcel of Facebook gaming.

What is clear, however, is that cheating is so rampant that ‘legitimate’ players, in order to remain competitive  – or simply to stay in the game – have to either engage in it or at least devise ways to deal with it, such as investing time and energy in detecting and reporting cheaters, and in some cases spending thousands of dollars trying to fight hackers off. And while you would think that a cheat-filled playing field might spell the death of a game, with gamers deserting it in droves, this does not seem to be the case. This article aims to shed light on why this is so, as well as the implications of cheating on Facebook gaming in general.

How this article came to be (and a disclaimer):

This article is based on the experiences of a friend and colleague, whom I will call Adam (not his real name). An avid Facebook gamer, my friend has spent an average of 8 hours per day for more than two years playing “War Commander”, and other Facebook games. Together, we have witnessed the various forms of Facebook cheating evolve, and have had discussions over the implications of these to the Facebook gaming in general.

A valid question is whether this discussion of cheating in Facebook games applies to some or most Facebook games. What we are claiming is that insofar as the main ‘cheating engine’ tools used in Facebook games support most or all games on Facebook, this problem is pervasive and endemic. However, it may well be the case that the in-game dynamics and the response of the developers to cheating in their games varies, and that the phonemenon plays itself out differently from game to game. It may be that “War Commander”, which is the case study here, is a unique case; and it may be that strategy MMO’s might have different dynamics than other games (and if so, please let us know in the comments section).

Introduction:

With its ability to connect large numbers of gamers together across the globe, Facebook is the ideal multiplayer gaming platform. According to figures from Facebook released in early 2013, more than 250 million people play every month, and the number keeps growing. In fact, while active users on Facebook seems to have plateaued or is stabilizing, growth in the number of Facebook gamers seems to continue unabated.

Large communities of hardcore gamers have formed over some of the most successful games, and large numbers of gamers can end up spending large swaths of time playing, attaining higher and higher levels and becoming very powerful, and some gamers will spend large amounts of money on in game items and powerups. Teams will form, mostly (but not necessarily) along national lines (e.g. German team(s), Pakistani team(s) and so on), and then blur over time as alliances shift and friendships form etc.

In most MMOG’s (massively multiplayer online games), there are really two kinds of game going on: the game itself, and what we will call the ‘meta game’, which is the very human business of forging alliances, influencing other players, and so forth. This is a large part of the draw that these games have, and one thing that we will examine in this article is the notion that cheating may simply be part and parcel of it, just as it may be a part of life. We will explore this concept further in the ‘meta game’ section below.

The many forms of cheating:

The underlying concept is this: if you can hack into the game – typically flash based – in the browser and determine the codes/variables that govern the various game elements, you can change these at will. You can change the amount of gold you have, the number of troops/tanks/planes/etc. and can change weak units into the most advanced units in the game. You can even pretend to be someone else, if you know their user ID, and trick the server into replicating their base or what they’ve built or accumulated for yourself.

Facebook Cheats Screenshot2

The average user can do this using ‘cheat engines’ that are in most (though not all) cases available for free. However, cheat engines need to be ‘fed’ certain codes, as it were, in order to work: to change anything you need to know which values to change. These codes can be hard to find, but not too hard. Typically, they are plastered all over forums or Facebook, or shared by players and their friends. Somebody needs to go in and hack the game in order to find these codes, of course, but in general they seem to be be prepared to share the codes they find quite readily.

Aside from cheat engines, players can sometimes discover and exploit loopholes that are occasionally found in the games. Someone will discover, for example, that if you start building a certain unit or resource, then cancel it at a certain point in it’s development and exit to the map screen, that the item will have been built the next time you re-enter your base, or something similar to this. Typically, news of such a loophole will be shared quickly amongst friends and member’s of one’s team, and the developers will eventually fix it. But these loopholes are short-lived and players are not sanctioned (or only sanctioned lightly) once the loopholes are discovered and/or fixed, and are not what really what we mean when we talk about cheating in this article.

The distinctions between different kinds of cheating that we list below are somewhat arbitrary, but can be informative. (Note: this list is not necessarily exhaustive; there may be more forms not mentioned here).

  • Increasing your gold: by simply giving yourself a lot of money, you can buy everything that you need. Tends to be less labor intensive than other forms of cheating and relatively less disruptive to the game dynamics.
  • Changing other game variables: i.e. giving yourself more resources, advanced units, more of a certain unit than is allowed by the game, etc. This tends to be more labor intensive than simply grabbing a lot of gold,  since you have to identify and tweak individual codes, etc. This can be very disruptive to the game dynamics, because players who have been in the game for two days can suddenly have the same privileges that normally take legitimate players two years to access, for example.
  • Repair’ or development cheats: which is to say, accelerating the time it takes to repair your units or develop new techs and weaponry to a few seconds rather than days or weeks. May be less evident or more easily concealed than other forms of cheating.
  • Deactivating other player’s items/weapons: imagine, say, launching a missile at someone, waiting for the countdown to impact, and then… nothing. This is what happened to my friend, without explanation, when battling another player who had a hidden bag of tricks up his sleeve.
  • Designated ‘cheating’ accounts: which can be used in order to reap some of the benefits of cheating for your ‘legitimate’ account without suffering the consequences of being banned. For example, you can attack resource depots or other targets with your cheat account, then withdraw at the last second and  move in with your real account to complete the job and get the benefits (or let your allies and friends do so). If and when the cheating account is banned, your ‘real’ account is unaffected, or so you hope. I will say, though, that most serious players keep cheating accounts as a laboratory in order to experiment with and keep up to date with the world of cheating, because many of them feel that they have to.
  • Cloning someone else’s identity: sometimes known as ‘base clone’, this is not a taking over of someone else’s account, but rather tricking the game into thinking that you’re someone else and being able to obtain an exact replica of their base and the items they have in your browser.
  • Denying legitimate players access to the game: imagine that your base is under attack, and that you rush to your laptop in order to defend it, but that your login attempts keep failing and your access denied. Cheaters manage to do this as well.

You may assume cheaters in any game to at least outwardly pretend that they’re not cheating, but many cheaters in a Facebook MMOG do not seem to have this concern, and can be identified through a not-too-thorough examination of their base and/or units. You will immediately notice, for example, that the person possesses units that are only legitimately granted at a much higher level than theirs, or that they have multiples of a unit of which they’re only allowed to have a maximum of one, etc.

Facebook Cheats Screenshot1

In fact, cheating can change the entire game experience. The sudden emergence of cheating teams on the scene (yes, there is such a thing) can feel like the Mongol invasions of the Middle East and Eastern Europe, in that these hitherto unknown people seem like they are coming from outer space with much superior militaries.

Despite all of this, players seem to cope and do NOT seem to be leaving the game in droves (at least not the serious players who play most days of the week). In fact, they are more likely to complain loudly about a change or tweak of the game rules, units, or elements than they are about obvious rampant cheating becoming more the norm than the exception.

Detection and policing:

If, like me, you would have assumed that cheating can be instantly detected by a self-auditing central game server, you will be surprised to learn that this is far from being the case. What seems to happen is that cheating accounts thrive and survive for a very long time before they get banned.

Far from having a technological solution for finding cheaters, game developers seem to rely primarily on other players reporting it before they take action against cheaters. This is by no means the only way that game developers counter cheaters though; occasionally they’ll be ‘waves’ of weeding out accounts where cheating has been identified, but these are not as frequent as you might expect, and the phenomenon is so resilient and widespread as to seem  – from the perspective of an outside observer like myself – to be actively tolerated (more on this below).

Below are some interesting notes that have to be mentioned in this section:

  • Free vs. paid accounts: the sad reality is that game developers treat cheaters differently based on whether they are paid of free accounts. They will ban both types of accounts, but generally speaking paid accounts can and will be unbanned after some time has lapsed, whereas free accounts are likely to be banned forever. Even the notices that different types of accounts receive can be different, with paid accounts told to contact a game representative while free accounts brusquely informed that ‘cheaters will not be tolerated’.
  • Flagrant vs. hidden cheating: you are more certain to be banned if your cheating activity is a flagrant and obvious than if it is hidden and subtle. This may be a good metaphor for and similar to cheating in life in general, but it is nonetheless strange to think that you can get away with any kind of cheating in a computer game.
  • Policing as a tax on legitimate players: what would you do if all the work you put into a game playing 5 hours per day for more than two years is being jeopardized by someone who joined the game a week ago and is encroaching on your turf via cheats? You would spend considerable time and effort on taking screenshots of their units and bases, sending emails to the game developers, and lobbying your friends and allies to do the same. What just happened here is that the time you spend playing the game has just increased quite a bit on account of policing activities which are more properly dealt with via computers and/or a central authority. Essentially, you are doing the developers’ job for them, free of charge.
  • Sanctions are most effective on legitimate players who have something to lose: the threat of having your account be banned DOES work, as most people who have invested time and energy building up their account would be extremely loathe to lose it. However, it is a lot more effective on legitimate players who have something to lose rather than hackers, who simply create a new Facebook account every time it happens.

The Meta Game:

Here’s a question: imagine playing a game of cards and knowing that one or more of the people you are playing with is cheating, even if you might not know who it is; would you stick around and continue playing? My guess is that most people would say that they would not, that they would leave the table immediately.

You would think that it would be the same with these Facebook MMOG’s or any other game, but it is not, at least not for long time players, who mostly soldier on, and seem to try to cope as best they could with cheating almost as if it was part of the game itself.

Which brings us to the concept of the ‘meta game’. You could think of this as the human drama that encompasses the game itself: the discourse and communication that goes in these games, and the truces, alliances, and influence peddling that takes place. If you’ve played any MMOG you know that you will spend a lot of time chatting with other players both publicly and privately, trying to convince them to cooperate with you or share resources or to become your allies, taking screenshots of the public chats that other players in the game engage in and spinning it to other players in accurate or misleading ways that you perceive to be to your advantage, and so on. Creating multiple accounts that you use in a game would certainly fall under this category. Would cheating not fit in it as well?

Could it be that players don’t leave because hackers are making the game environment more interesting? There is a sense that cheating has a Robin Hood effect, which can be explained as follows: while spending $200 dollars on a couple thousand virtual gold coins is not a very big deal if you’re sitting in the US or Europe, in many countries that contribute thousands of players to the game this is a small fortune and is utterly inconceivable. Cheating, in this sense, can be looked at as indirectly providing legitimate players with strong opponents they would otherwise not have.

In other words, could cheating not be part and parcel of the game, something to be coped or dealt with much as cheaters exist in, say, every market economy or for that matter any conceivable human environment, system or endeavor?

The last word: our opinion

While you would think that rampant cheating by hundreds or thousands of players would completely destroy a game environment, massively multiplayer games on Facebook seem strangely resistant. Why?

One likely reason is that a player who has invested months, even years playing a game, who has accumulated and built up their in game base/units/perks, who has nurtured a community of friends and allies (and a reputation) that in some cases is closer to them and more like-minded than his/her real-life friends, and who has possibly spent hundreds (and in some cases thousands) of dollars on a game – you would think that this person has a lot more vested interest in tolerating cheating, and less of an option to simply walk out of the game in disgust than someone sitting at a table for a game of cards.

In other words, it may be that most players don’t leave because they’re a captive audience who have too much invested in the game already to be able to do so. (And the one’s that do leave don’t show up on the radar, because they were likely never much involved in the game in the first place).

In fact, the large scale existence of cheating in MMOGs presents a number of troubling moral issues:

  • It may actually be beneficial to the developer’s bottom line: this in two ways (1) by forcing legitimate players to spend a lot of money in order to counter the strong and belligerent cheaters encroaching on their turf, and (2) by inducing a lot of people who either want or feel like the have to cheat, to become paid players, in order to protect their accounts from being irrevocably banned if and when they are found out, since paid accounts do grant some sort of immunity. In other words, game developers can be implicated in a way that makes them look at this phenomenon not as hackers hijacking their game, but as something that benefits them financially that they are not entirely incentivized to get rid of. Imagine if your local police department stood to make money from the crime activity that takes place in your community.
  • It forces legitimate players to become cheaters themselves: imagine that you’ve spent weeks, months or years playing a game (and perhaps hundreds of dollars) building up your account, only to see that others who joined the game last week are stronger. How much of a sucker would you feel for spending all this time, energy and money? Your likely reaction is to immediately open designated cheating accounts to experiment with cheating yourself and figure out how to go about it undetected. This was not your intention, of course, when you signed up, but you feel like you have to go this route in order to compete and protect what you’ve legitimately built up.
  • It simply is not fair: it takes away the game from people who’ve spent years playing it. I also pity new, eager players have no clue what they’re getting themselves involved in.

Rampant cheating in an online game is definitely not what people expect, and not what they signed up for when they initially started playing. Nobody was told ‘hey, by playing this game you will encounter rampant cheating by other players at a much larger scale and faster pace than the developers will deal with, but it’s ok just consider it part of the game’. Perhaps game developers should have such a disclaimer, but as things stand now legitimate players are, in a sense, victims of a large bait-and-switch, where they think they’ve signed up for one thing only to find later on down the road (and once they’ve got too much time, energy, and money invested in the game) that it is something else.

I asked my friend ‘Adam’ mentioned above, who provided me with his excellent knowledge of Facebook cheating for this article, how he would feel if cheating on his favorite Facebook game became a thing of the past. He responded that it would be ‘the best thing that could ever happen’, because ‘battles will finally become fair’. ‘But it will never go away’, he continued, because the company wants it to stay, because they make money off of it’.

To me, the quote above speaks volumes, because it suggests that gamers do not trust the game developers anymore, and see themselves as set apart from them (rather than partners with them). Captive audience or not, the future of Facebook gaming seems a lot more uncertain to me than outward appearance and growth in numbers might suggest. The world seems ripe for either a better platform that can fix and prevent some of these problems with rampant cheating, or better games where the developers act more responsibly, that eager gamers might migrate to and choose to spend their time there instead.