How could game designers reduce player cheating?

I have seen so many people cheating in games: doping in sport, poker cheating, disallowed plugin usage in PC multiplayer games … They just happen every day in almost every game.

Even myself have cheated in many of my games: when I was about 10 years old, I have been playing many RTS games. It was just so hard for an elementary school kid to complete the campaign – so I search online for cheat code to make my units invincible and have infinite resources. People who have played Warcraft III should all be super familiar with this short command: “whosyourdaddy”. It was still fun for me at that time, because I would never be able to beat the stage without these codes, and I could still enjoy the storyline.

Let's find out whos your daddy again in Warcraft III: Reforged in a week.

In the early Fire Emblem entries (generally before Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn on Wii released in 2007), characters have very low growth rate comparing to modern entries. It was super normal for a character to grow no attribute at all when levels up; even in some entries all characters has at most 10% growth rate on magic defense. I wanted to make my characters strong, but I didn’t want to spend too long to fight with RNG (i.e. reset the game if some character has undesired growth) to bet a good enough growth, so I just used emulator’s quick save all the time before every level up. This is still a kind of cheat because it saves your time, and obviously well-growed characters make the later chapters much easier to play. So for me, I normally don't hesitate to cheat in singleplayer games because of the difficulty or tedious RNG.

An excellent end game status of Lilina in Fire Emblem: The Binding Blade. This is played without cheating, and you will find the defense (second last of the first column) is only 6 - she has a initial defense of 2, class change bonus 1, so her defense has only grew 3 for 36 times of level up. This is super normal because she only has 10% defense growth rate, which has an expected final defense value of 6.8 for highest level status. Since her other attributes grows so well, if we just use quick save to bet for a +5 level up with defense grew, she will be an easy character to get full status (all green).

Before we understand how to reduce players cheating, we need to figure out why do people cheat? I tried to classify the reasons as below based on my experience:

In singleplayer games, cheating will affect only players themselves. The most essential motivation is players have a certain amount of dissatisfaction. It could be:

1. The game is too hard, I am not enjoyed at all. Examples could be RTS games which are generally considered as the hardest game genre; or games with high death penalty like soul-like games. Apparently not all gamers are hardcore and skilled enough; but you can't prevent players to play the games they are not capable to beat. Some people like to train their skill, learn from failure and finally beat it, but there are enough people just don't have time or motivation to do that.

2. The game is too grinding, I want to see some end game contents quickly. The most typical example is Diablo-like ARPGs. Since the rare items can have up to 3 prefixes and 3 suffixes, the numerical values of affixes can vary dramatically, and most affixes are not useful at all for your character, it might take millions of times to drop a desired item. People who are hardcore Diablo II players should have been able to kill Hell Mephisto mechainically over and over again. These games generally have unfriendly RNG, so people cheat normally to control the randomness on some level.

In Chinese Diablo II community, we call Mephisto "model labor" because he is farmed the most times by the most players. He is so diligent, let's appreciate him.

3. I am not a big fan of this gameplay. I just want to pass it easily and see other contents in this game. It happens on many story-based game, like cinematic games and visual novels. Many Japanese visual novels require players to make choice dozens of times to reach certain ending. Many people just look at online for the answers.

4. I just want to be the strongest one in the game.

In multiplayer, cheating is generally not accepted by people and completely disallowed in terms and services. We have heard many examples like a E-Sports player cheated during streaming or tournament lost rights to play in tournaments as well as his/her followers. People like them cheat mostly because they want to keep and expand their followers, but more people are not famous and have no follower to lose. It could be they simply want to win a lot, or some deeper psycoological problems like they want to behave differently than in real worlds.

So, how could game designers reduce cheating in the game?

Somtimes, the simplest way was to have better difficulty control. Another Fire Emblem example: if you have played this franchise for long time, you should know the biggest feature of this game is, characters dies permanently if they are defeated. At the beginning, Fire Emblem had no option to select difficulty, and the average difficulty was high because of the low character growth rate and hardcore level design. Since GBA, the difficulty was substantially lowered, but the permanent death was kept. From Fire Emblem: Awakening, this game finally allow players to cancel permanent death, but still reserve the option for hardcore gamers to play the hard difficulty. Some games like Resident Evil 2 Remake even has dynamic difficulty based on players performance. If the game can potentially let any kinds of players enjoy, the chance for them to cheat will be greatly reduced.

However, if the games are not meant to be played by all people, game designers should have a good understanding of their target audience. Soul-like games do not let players to choose difficulty, and the death penalty is super high. However, most players who like soul-like games will practice to overcome the difficulty instead of cheating. Game designers should also be aware to not often challenge players on the mechanics not asked by target players. A bad performance would be: to get powerups for Poppi in Xenoblade Chronicles 2, players are requires to play a mini arcade game. This game is extremly hard even for the first stage, not to mention better powerups are exclusive in later levels. This game has completely different mechanics than any other thing in the game, while you naturally get powerups for other blades throughout the normal fights. In my opinion, contents like this should never affect the core gameplay, but can exist for players like to further explore the game.

The screenshot for Tiger! Tiger!, the mini-game talked above in Xenoblade Chronicles 2

Some games actually have built-in cheat methods, like cheat code and console. These games are generally hard, so developers provide these cheat for players who are not good at these games. Players are free to use them or not, and they are legal and safer than using third-party plugins or replacing game files. I believe this is a valid way to control the cheating because these methods are selected by developers to be able to cover most needs for players, so they tend to not try other dangerous way of cheating. A special example of the built-in cheat is Persona 5, for people who only want to read the story, they can choose "safety" mode to not die in the battle (you might treat this the difficulty control, but "safety" mode completely make the core gameplay trivial).

The famous "Konami Code" that appears in many Konami games. Like Contra, entering this code at the logo screen give your character 30 lifes instead of 3.

In multiplayer PvP games, developers make huge efforts on prevent cheating because it reduces the experience of all non-cheating players in the game. They give better matching algorithm in order to make all players not feel so frustrated; they design various ways to protect new players; they develop sophisticated anti-cheating system and ban those players to keep cheaters out of normal games. However, I could not find an effective way to prevent cheating, because violating rules in game won't hurt their real life a lot. If I was banned, I could just register another account and buy the game again. Though developer's anti-cheating tool is evolving, the disallowed plugins also become smarter all the time. As the data shared by PUBG official in this reddit post, they still banned 116,531 players in one week during December 8th to 14th, 2019. Considering the concurrent players of PUBG recently (which you can check here), it was about 20% of concurrent players - which means even after the game has been released for more than 2 years, it was still highly likely for a player to encounter a cheater in one round of the game. Maybe we can only let time to solve it - wait until most PvP players are awaring the harm of cheating.

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