The phenomenon of video game cheating harms user experiences and damages gaming revenues. This article explores the challenges faced by Trust & Safety teams and the tactics needed to fight back.

With almost three billion people playing online games in 2021, the video-game industry is a titan that rivals Hollywood in cultural and financial impact. However, it is also an industry under attack. Professional teams of cheat developers continuously write code to exploit the in-game economy and provide players with unfair advantages.

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What is Cheating?

Cheating is a misleading term. It once referred exclusively to pre-programmed tricks and codes to modify single-player experience, enabling players to skip challenging levels or enjoy similar gameplay. Now, it has evolved into fraud.

Today cheating is a sophisticated, parasitic industry that breaches IP law and intercepts the revenue streams of gaming studios while ruining multiplayer interactions.
This cheat industry sells codes that can rewrite a game’s architecture to give an advantage to one player over their competitors. Other codes create in-game items (skins, weapons, or coins) that players should win or purchase from in-game stores.

The Cost

The actions of organized cheating operations are incredibly lucrative for gaming exploiters, but they jeopardize the legitimate industry. For example, in 2019, the gaming industry lost around $29 billion in lost revenue to cheats. Multiple factors brought about this loss ranging from lost in-game revenue to diminished player retention.

Falling revenue from in-game purchases

The profitability of games is highly reliant on in-game purchases: everything from weapons to skins that are available for purchase within a game are critical components of that game’s revenue stream. When a new cheat or mod allows cheaters to obtain these items at a fraction of the cost, the game studio loses that potential revenue.

Diminished integrity drives player exodus

A more indirect but no less severe cost occurs due to weakened player retention. When cheaters gain an unfair advantage in competitive games, the experience is ruined for honest players. They resent cheaters, and when this resentment becomes the dominant experience within a game, players leave.

If cheating isn’t stopped in time, games can fall into a tail-spin, with once honest players turning to the damaging cheats themselves to even the playing field. The result is to drive away potential new players, existentially risking a game’s viability.

Tackling the Abuse

While it is clear that cheating is a threat that games can’t afford to overlook, getting ahead of exploiters is highly complicated.

The cheating industry is advanced and lucrative, powered by the significant sale of exploitative products on dedicated marketplaces and websites across the clear and darknet. The economic returns for these cheat developers inspire them to continuously innovate – bringing out new products to stay ahead of any anti-cheat technology or patches to code reactively created by gaming studios.

Constantly overcoming cheats then “becomes a cat and mouse game between cheat makers and game developers,” according to AFK Gaming writer Abhimannu Das. “Once a developer catches a cheat, something better comes along, and the ball goes into the developers’ court to find a fix.”

Staying Ahead

For game developers, anti-cheat software typically relies on knowledge of existing cheats, identification of unusual player actions, or the existence of third-party apps. Unfortunately, this reactive approach will always leave the developer at a disadvantage.

Robust as they are, reactive anti-cheat technologies will always be too slow: acting after the damage is done.

Countering fraud on this scale will only be possible if studios take the fight to the cheaters themselves, neutralizing the cheats and banning the players before they can damage the gaming ecosystem. To do so, an intelligence-based approach to cheat deterrence is crucial. With prior knowledge of new cheats on the market, the advantages they aim to provide, and the technologies they use, game studios can get ahead of cheat developers, identifying the threat before it lands. In addition, studios can modify their codes to make cheats obsolete and work to shut down the fraudulent sale of their property by bad-faith third parties.

In other words, to proactively counter, disrupt, and deter cheaters and their extensive networks – companies must deploy next-level intelligence-gathering abilities.

Knowledge is power. It is essential for teams tasked with securing games from cheats to understand their rivals’ operations. ActiveFence has produced an exclusive intelligence report into the infrastructure of cheating operations online, demonstrating how their networks can be infiltrated and stopped.