WASHINGTON -- Time is running out for the "punks" who disrupt game play and the virtual economies of the online world, experts say.
Increasingly, game developers and publishers of first-person-shooter and massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) are turning to third parties to combat cheaters.
"We were doing everything that we could to stomp out all of the cheat programs the jackasses of the world were making for Quake III," says Todd Hollenshead, CEO of id Software, which independently develops games for publisher Activision.
Just before releasing Return to Castle Wolfenstein in 2002, id Software realized that "we were fighting a losing battle," Hollenshead says.
So id Software contracted with the leading anticheating-software company, Even Balance, for its PunkBuster software. Four years later, id Software includes PunkBuster in all its games, and now MMOG developers and publishers are turning to Even Balance to fight cheaters on their servers.
Other companies, such as Sony, deal with the fight against cheating in-house. And game developers and publishers say that players also have an important role in catching cheaters.
"We rely on reports from our user base to help us find and eliminate these problems," says Chris Kramer, a spokesperson for Sony Online Entertainment.
Losing the battle is out of the question, says Hollenshead. Cheaters suck the life out of games, in part by setting off a domino effect.
"It's like performance-enhancing drugs in professional sports," says Hollenshead. "Even if not everyone is doing them, the whole sport gets tainted by the presumption of guilt rather the respect for athletic achievement. Pretty soon no one wants to play, and no one cares if it gets completely out of control."
Tony Ray, Even Balance's president, says more and more developers are realizing how cost-effective it is to outsource the fight against cheating." Advanced cheats can't be handled by low-level staff," he says. They require companies' highest-paid coders to "spend time figuring out how to combat cheats," he says.
Recently, Even Balance contracted with publisher K2 Network to run the software, which operates much like an antivirus program, on MMOG Knights Online, the most downloaded game on download.com.
Ray says more contracts with MMOGs are in the works, with another to be publicly announced in the next two to three weeks, once the "very large" publisher has incorporated the software.
Massively multiplayer online games represent a new challenge for PunkBuster, Ray says.
Most often first-person shooters run on local servers, and the cheats involve altering or otherwise taking advantage of the semi-open coding. The worlds of the multiplayer games exist on servers run by the developer, and in many cases, Ray says, the cheats are hardware-based.
Even Balance and its team of researchers are able to keep pace with cheaters in first-person shooters by scouring the Web for new cheat codes, and staying in close contact with game administrators. The team updates the software constantly, and maintains a list of cheaters that prevents the "punks" from playing any game running PunkBuster.
For games like Knights Online, some of the cheats come from macros programmed into the keyboard.
"There is really no way to detect that in the software," Ray says. But Even Balance is "coming up with schemes to detect certain drivers in the keyboard."
Sony, which runs the highly popular Everquest, prefers to handle cheaters through its customer service team, Kramer says.
"Because we run our own servers, we don't expose that much data to the client," Kramer says. "We don't necessarily need a third-party utility because we have lots and lots of those features already built into our server structures."
Sony also relies heavily on its customers to report "illegal" activities. "The customer service squad isn't that large," Kramer says. With 300,000 active accounts across 30 servers, customer service does "everything they can, but also depends on the eyes of our players to keep the world safe and fun."
Ray and Hollenshead recommend that gamers take screen shots when they think they have encountered a cheater, and notify an administrator or send the screens to PunkBuster.
Ray also suggests joining anticheating groups, and playing only with members of those groups.
For MMOGs, Kramer says players should report any activity that violates the terms of service or rules of conduct, from instances of harassment or profanity to suspicion of another player running bots or farming.
But be careful with reporting, Hollenshead warns. "Sometimes people think someone is cheating, but they're really just damn good," he says.