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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Counter-Strike & Steam: To Hack or Not To Hack

For a while now, I've been a participant in what is called "Counter Strike" on a client platform known as "Steam" v1.6.  It's premise is relatively simple, play "T" or "Terrorist" and your objective is one of three.  Either a) plant the bomb, b) hold hostages ransom, and if necessary, kill em, and/or c) kill your opponents or the "CTs" (Counter-terrorists).  If you play "CT", then your objective is the opposite of those three "T" objectives.  In my view, it's very addictive, especially when using weapons that are close to real world weapons, instead of some made-up super-weapon.

There are no levels, and there are no "invincibility" cheats to exploit.  But there's a side to this game that almost no one talks about anymore, and it's also the reason I feel is the decline of the popularity of the game.  When I first started, I had used a computer far inferior to the one I have now.  It's capabilities were limited at best, so running this type of game required, quite literally, an all-night adventure.  It's also the reason I felt I was lacking in the game, and really there wasn't much I could do about it, except go and spend $500-900 for hardware that I felt wasn't justified.  Though even on a Cable Modem connection, there's still moments of sheer lag that just makes the game horrible to play, even as a fan.

Removing the hardware/software issue of the game, and removing the variable of my computer system being an issue, I've noticed that there seems to be blatant disregard for certain guards against cheating.  Whether by design, or by design flaw, many have chosen to exploit the vulnerability in the system to their liking.  Steam (aka Valve) has put into place what is called "VAC" or "Valve Anti-Cheat" system.  Supposedly, this logs a user who is frequently exploiting "hacks" to better their aim, their efficiency, even their kill rate.  In theory, this VAC system will log the user's IP address, and send a signal to Valve's mainframe computer that the user has fraudulently exploited the system, and will subsequently ban that user for life.  In other words, if one decides to cheat, they run the risk of being given the permanent kick in the ass.

However, as my best friend and I soon found out, this VAC system is nothing more than a glorified joke of an Anti-Cheat system.  During play on one of my favorite servers, I notice that many still use "hacks" despite the warning that displays during a load of every server, saying that if caught, that player will be banned.  But what are some of the more popular cheats that one can use?  What's the most surprising is that despite this so-called "VAC" system, there are hacks available that are undetectable by such system, rendering it rather useless.

I did some digging around, went to a few various sites, and what I found wasn't exactly surprising, though I wonder why Valve hasn't done the same search to find these cheat-producing users, and ban them for life.  Among some of the more exploits are:

1) Auto-Aim (aka AimBot) - This is probably the most popular of the hacks.  I'm not entirely sure the process, but it allows one to simply sit back, relax, and simply click the mouse when needed to make a kill.  No forced moving around the mouse to get a good clean shot, you just wait, and kill when the time is right.

2) Wall Hack - Probably the more talked about (and rather annoying) hack of them all.  This is when you are clearly NOT in view of any enemy, yet seemingly you are killed.  Why?  This hack will basically allow someone to clearly see you on the other side of a wall, and shoot you with any weapon for a kill.  Some claim that they do not use this exploit, but I've witnessed people shooting at walls only to get a good 2-3 kills out of it.  This can't just be a user being "that good" at playing.

3) Speed - Whether increasing your overall speed, or slowing everyone else down, this hack is when someone clearly is moving faster than the rest of the players on a server.  This is not only an annoying hack, but it can also create server-side lag that makes playing the game honestly very difficult, and turns off many new players.

4) Invisibility cheat - Self explantory, but not quite.  Basically, a player can conceal himself in a less visible way, wait for the time to strike, then knife another player's character to death.  This I feel is one of the worst cheats/exploits/hacks.  No matter how good you are, someone ALWAYS has this exploit running, and they WILL find you.  Doesn't matter where you are, they will hunt and kill your character.

So what drives an individual to "hack" a game that is intended to be an honest, fair, and otherwise fun game?  Some do it for fun, but for most it's about increasing their statistics, especially their kill-to-death ratio.  Some do it just for the simple fact that they can, and haven't gotten caught.  A good majority do it for the fact of being considered "the best", even though they are really cheating both themselves and the people who they use these exploits against.  Unfortunately, despite Valve/Steam's best efforts, I believe "hacking" / exploiting the game still goes on, and is a much more widespread practice than what is believed by newbie players.  This type of exploint turns off most veteran players from even joining games.

What can be done to curb this total disregard for playing an honest game?  What measures can be put into place that ensure the spirit of the game isn't "hacked" or cheated upon?  For one, I think Steam/Valve needs to routinely (and randomly) check a good sampling of servers every month to verify that each one is abiding by their VAC system.  If they have to, they should hire people trained to spot "hacks", and report the behavior to those who can review, even suspend and/or terminate accounts whose holders have decided it was time to cheat.

Another idea would be for Steam/Valve to do a regular Google search.  Just quick few keywords and I was able to locate "hacks" for Steam/Counter strike within a few minutes of my time.  If Steam claims this kind of involvement would require too many man-hours, they are wrong.  Again, it only took me a few minutes to figure out what cheats were out there.  Based on the "hacks" that are available, one could argue that Steam has the resources to combat this behavior, and even write new patches to detect these exploits better, and eliminate those players who breach rules more aggressively.

Lastly, I think Steam ought to provide a reward system for those who report suspicious behavior.  Give an incentive for players who report "hacks" and game-exploitations, like $5 off a purchase from Steam/Valve.  That would certainly get me to start reporting people left and right.  Although, I agree that this might require manpower, not only to investigate, but to enforce rules, and if necessary carry out the consequential actions.

Over the past 6 years, this has been my #1 game, but not for the good reasons.  It's been on my crap list of games that people exploit for their own gain, and even though I still play it, I wish I didn't.  Too many have "hacked" the game to the point where it's not even fun anymore.  There are very few servers to login to where cheating isn't exactly widely used, and the servers one does find it is not long before someone who is cheating logs on and takes the whole fun out of it all.

In closing, and I hope this is read by Valve/Steam, because this really is the reason in my opinion that has brought upon the decline of players.  It was only a few short years ago that I would log on and the number of servers would number in the THOUSANDS, possibly tens of thousands.  Today, logging in, I only find a few hundred servers, and most of which are infested with "hackers".

I've thought about using such "hacks" for my own gain, but then I would be lowering myself.  I don't want to do that.  I feel that if one is to play an online multiplayer game, one should be able to play fairly, and without the use of "enhancements" or hacks to get ahead.

Steam/Valve, if you are reading this, you've still got a lot of work to do.