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Erebus Blog

Debunking the Myth of the PC “Master Race” Part I: Cheaters

I have been an avid PC gamer since the late 1980s. I remember the King's Quests, the Ultimas, and the advent of first-person shooters. I also enjoyed the NES, Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis, and Gameboy while growing up. When I wasn't doing homework or outside playing with friends, it's safe to say I was gaming. With my hobbyist qualifications out of the way, let's get down to business.

First of all, let's not mix facts. The current-gen XB1 & PS4 consoles are roughly on par with my 3.5 year old mid-range PC. In fact, taking into consideration all of my PC components are overclocked and stable: nVidia GeForce GTX 480, Intel i7 2600k, and 8GB of DDR3 RAM, my aging PC likely exceeds the gaming capabilities of the current year-old consoles.

So then, why would I buy one of these outdated next-gen consoles? Well, the simplest answer is console exclusives. There are games I know I'll want to play that will not be released on PC. However, there is a second, equally important yet more complex answer: less cheating in online console games. PC games don't just push the most triangles and highest pixel count, they also have the highest cheating to legitimate player ratio, a notable spec I would prefer to be without.

Cheating is something that has been around since competition has existed. If there is competition, someone, somewhere will try to cheat. Video games are no different. Being that the PC is the most open of all the gaming platforms, it is, by definition, the easiest to cheat with during online games. One does not need any experience writing programs, modifying hardware, or hacking of any kind. All you need to know is how to open a program and possibly tweak a few settings. You'll then be cheating in a matter of seconds. Consoles, on the other hand, are closed systems that require a level of commitment, understanding, and assumed risk in order to cheat. By no means do I foolishly assert that cheating is absent on consoles. However, the barrier to cheating is significantly higher on a console than on a PC. This is especially true before a console is jailbroken.

As a recent anecdotal example, I will discuss my experiences with cheaters on the PS3 and PC versions of Dark Souls II. Considering both versions of the game are nearly identical and were played under similar conditions, I felt this would help better illustrate the differences between cheating on the PS3 and PC.

I played Dark Souls II on my PS3 at the time of its release. Out of the estimated 500 encounters I had with enemy players, I cannot say with any certainty that a single one of them was cheating. Keep in mind the PS3 had long since been jailbroken, and yet the ratio of cheaters to legitimate players felt incredibly small. It was nice to know my losses against other players were almost always legitimate.

Then, I played the PC release of the same game. I encountered two obvious cheaters within the first 24 hours of the game's launch on Steam. From then on I began to subconsciously suspect that some of my more questionable losses were also the work of cheaters. This was confirmation bias at work, the most substantial drawback of gaming on a platform with just a few too many cheaters. In some instances one simply cannot know if a loss was the result of being legitimately outplayed. Since the PC is completely open, one can tamper with the game in many devious ways.

While there are some measures in place to prevent cheating in both PC and console games, the PC’s methods are generally less effective. A small percentage of games on the Steam platform use Valve Anti-Cheat (VAC), a program which attempts to automatically flag players who tamper with the game's files or memory addresses. While this has been a moderate success for the games that support it, games without such functionality are at the mercy of the programmer's server code to detect and flag suspected players -- if any such code exists. At best, a VAC ban prevents a cheater from playing the specific game tied to the specific account in which he or she was caught cheating. At worst, the VAC software can be circumvented altogether. Conversely, tampering with a Sony or Microsoft console can net one a permanent ban from playing games online with the offending console and/or account. In other words, punishment for cheating on a console can be much more severe than on a PC.

I previously mentioned the PC is a more open platform than consoles. This means PC users can readily access and run tools which allow the dissection of processes and files being run on a PC. As such, one can intercept and change the rules of the game: walking through walls, subtle or ridiculous speed boosts, spoofing client code – the options are practically limitless. The hacker can then release the modified code to the PC gaming public for easy consumption. A console, however, has its processes tucked away much more securely, making it far too difficult for the vast majority of gamers to tamper with or run modified code.

There are other, more nuanced reasons consoles make for a less desirable platform on which to cheat. Monthly subscription fees, (generally) more expensive games, greater personal accountability, and the ease at which current-gen consoles can create video documented encounters all serve as further disincentives to cheat.

Ultimately, it's simply easier to cheat online with a PC than with a Microsoft or Sony console; the PC has shown to be the path of least resistance for would-be cheaters. As such, there will continue to be a higher ratio of cheaters to legitimate players on PC than the other platforms.

In closing, I’d like to remind you there may be a vocal minority of gamers who will attempt to discredit me in order to protect their favored gaming platform – or their egos. They will claim I’m wrong, don’t know what I’m talking about, or provide disingenuous anecdotes of their own which contradict mine. With a small enough sample pool, practically any result is possible. However, most anyone who has been cross-platform gaming for any significant amount of time would agree: cheating on PCs is much more prevalent and widespread than on any other platform. All you need to do in order to prove it is spend some time playing online.

Why the Souls genre is among my favorites of all-time

It all started in about 1987. As a young child I was lucky enough to receive a Nintendo as a gift. I still remember that day. It was the best material gift I had ever received. I remember the sense of awe and wonder evoked by Super Mario Bros. The first fully realized platformer I had ever played. That same awe was awakened when I first played The Legend of Zelda, the first complex action-adventure game I had ever played. ...and again I remember playing Dragon Warrior, my first RPG.

All of these were genre defining experiences for me, and there were obviously many others.

Mario 64, Act Raiser, Soul Blazer, Final Fantasy IV, Wolfenstein (PC), Little Big Adventure (PC), Maniac Mansion, Diablo (PC), Metroid, Dune II (PC), Civilization (PC), Deus Ex (PC), Daggerfall (PC), Alone in the Dark (PC, 1992), and a host of other games were genre defining experiences. While some superficially similar games may have existed before these, these games set the new standard for how all others would be judged from that point. Many games have come since, and most are still foundationally derived from the standards set by these games.

Then I played my first MMO, Ultima Online, back in 1997. It made me feel like a kid again, experiencing an all new foundation for what a video game could be. The experience was instantly unique and magical. Sure, I played Meridian 59, Neverwinter Nights, and even some text-based multi-user dungeons which all came before Ultima Online. The earlier games still lacked that genre-defining, foundational hook. Just as Super Mario was not the first platformer, Ultima Online was not the first MMO. However, like its very distant platforming relative, Ultima Online set the solid foundation for how games in its respective genre would be designed. While games like Everquest, Asheron's Call, Dark Age of Camelot, and World of Warcraft would later come and (arguably) improve and certainly change the formula, Ultima Online was the first to catch the lightning directly in the bottle -- the moment where one realizes a new genre is born.

Then there was a lull in the gaming industry.... I'd played the best video games had to offer. Sure, new games would come out with new features, and in many ways improved existing features, but nothing was truly groundbreaking. Then, more then 10 years later, I would get something both familiar and new again.

I played Demon's Souls. All of a sudden, the defining elements of an action-RPG were insufficient to describe the genre, and the lines between single player, cooperative, competitive, and MMO games were blurred. I call it the Souls genre. Sure, you could call it an action-RPG like Diablo or Zelda, but these games are each only superficially similar to each-other. It would be like comparing Pole Position to Mario Kart simply because they are both racers -- but ALL of these games are vastly different. Art imitates art, but then art is sometimes reimagined to appear only superficially similar to that which came before.

After games like Diablo, I never thought I'd see a wholly original take on the action-RPG, and I've never been so happy to be wrong. I've also never seen it done better -- at least to my taste. The Souls games are not as infinitely punishing as many gamers or media outlets would have you believe, the games just won't take your bullshit. You can't be sloppy, you can't get cocky, and you can't be impatient. You will make a mistake, and you will die. You will make another mistake, and you will die. You will then make a mistake you knew you could have avoided, and you will pay the price. Eventually, you learn the language the genre is speaking. Even the best players will occasionally perish, as they will get thrown a curve-ball they did not prepare for. A player could invade and catch you off guard, a co-op partner could throw you off your rhythm, or you might try a different approach that doesn't work quite as hoped. You will be humbled before you "git gud." Some may blame the game, others will be too hard on themselves. For the rest of us, we listen to what the game is trying to tell us.

That is the Souls genre. The satisfaction comes from a combination of learning to master exploration, combat, and successfully handle the unexpected. If it were easy, everyone would do it. If it were nightmarishly difficult, only pros or sadists need apply. The Souls genre is neither easy nor nightmarishly difficult. It is the Goldilocks zone of challenge and reward. I've been spoiled by the innovators of this genre.

The Souls genre recaptured my imagination and understanding of what a video game could be. As I age into my mid-30s, that is no simple feat. You don't see many genre-defining games these days, but the Souls series changed that in the latter half of the 2000s decade. At the time of this writing, I eagerly await Bloodborne's release. I know it will not be a genre-defining game, but it will be a tweaked, improved, and different version of what still feels fresh, challenging, and rewarding.

Blizzard's Titan and the Death of Mass Market MMOs

Mass-market MMOs are falling out of favor, and soon I will explain just how and why. While the one-game-fits-everyone approach worked like a charm back in 2005 when a bulk of the gaming market had yet to play an MMO, the general gaming public has now become acclimated with and bored of MMOs.

In other words, the scathing (though generous) WoW review I contributed to Gamespot back in 2006 is likely to find many more people in agreement today than it did back then.

The problem is the oversimplification of MMOs has resulted in a complete detachment of veteran players from their virtual avatars and the worlds they inhabit. Respecs undermine character choices. Name changes and server transfers subvert accountability while fragmenting communities. The list goes on: death without penalty, mirrored classes, homogenized play-styles between classes all lead to any MMO veteran feeling their time is nothing but wasted in an MMO.

The irony is, of course. many players requested and loved such features. Less-seasoned MMO players may be reading this and thinking these are great features. However, with each day another MMO veteran awakes to see the inherent flaws in modern, mass appeal MMOs like Guild Wars 2 and World of Warcraft,

While WoW and GW2 attempt to accommodate initiate and veteran MMO players alike, it turns out that in the long-term, they will satisfy neither. So-called veteran players will graduate from these games and look for something with more depth, while casual or initiate players would be overwhelmed by the different rule systems and stick to comfortable parts of the game while ignoring the rest.

This brings us to Blizzard's "Titan." Blizzard knows they can never have another WoW, because never again will so many MMO players be satisfied with the same game at once. Some players think fast travel is the only travel, while others assert it breaks immersion. Some players like playing in a cruel world, while others would simply find another game to play if they died. Reasons like these and the others mentioned in previous paragraphs are why Titan has recently gone back to the drawing board.

What will Titan be? While I have no crystal ball, I know what it won't be: it's won't be an MMO for MMO veterans. If you're hoping for a deep, immersive, genre-expanding experience, you should already know not to expect that from Titan. Instead, you should expect some sort of cash hook hiding inside a free-to-play model. Expect to flaunt your shinies after extensive grinds and/or pay walls. Expect fast travel along with every modern convenience imaginable in an MMO. In other words, expect a game that isn't for me.

However, this is a great thing, as it means Blizzard won't be trying to make a game that attempts to attract every would-be MMO player on the planet. They've already done so and succeeded, and they should know it will not happen again.

The solution, then, to designing future successful MMOs is to satisfy various niches in the MMO market, of which there are many. EVE Online is a perfect example: it had a vision, it was executed properly, and for that the game remains successful with a largely stable (and still expanding) subscription base. I've also never played it, because CCP dared to design a game that woudln't appeal to everyone.

We can expect Titan to carve out the biggest niche it can without trying to be everything to all people.... at least I would hope Blizzard knows better. One thing is certain: Blizzard is not a company known for innovating, so don't expect anything you haven't seen before in an MMO aside from some superficial touches here and there. As history shows, it could still end up being great for those it attracts.