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Breaking the cycle of cheating in The Cycle: Frontier

Yager Development senior producer Wolfgang Siebert shares useful insights from combatting cheaters in The Cycle: Frontier.

Yager Development's The Cycle: Frontier launched earlier in June and joined the ranks of "fairly popular PC multiplayer games we're surprised we hadn't heard of." It's a PvPvE extraction shooter in the vein of Escape from Tarkov, where players are tasked with diving into zones filled with dangerous enemies, killing monsters, getting loot, and making it back to the extraction vehicle without getting dusted by another team.

Like other multiplayer developers, Yager has to fend off cheaters and hackers exploiting the game's code to help some players dishonestly rack up wins and score high-tier loot. It's often hard for developers to speak honestly about how to route these digital miscreants, since sharing any knowledge about anti-cheat measures exposes how to get around them.

But a few weeks ago we got an interesting ping from the folks at Yager: They wanted to talk about what they've been doing to fight cheating, and why. What we learned is that as the world of multiplayer game development evolves (and developers start to eye the potential of revenue from digital goods), the extensive network of video game hackers evolves with it. 

As senior producer Wolfgang "Wolf" Siebert told us, their motivations—as well as the motivations of their clients—are evolving too. Here's what he's learned countering their efforts for the last five months.

Why do people cheat in The Cycle: Frontier?

Plenty of folks have written about the motivations of players who choose to hack in multiplayer games over the years. But in prior years, the most a hacker or cheater could accomplish in your Halos or your Call of Duty matchups was ruining a few lobbies or maybe helping a few streamers present themselves to the world as legitimately great players.

Some of these cheaters do exist in The Cycle. Siebert described the first group as "trolls" who don't really care what game they're disrupting (maybe they're targeting a popular streamer or game for the attention), and then there are those who use cheats like athletes use performance-enhancing drugs.

But the growth of PvPvE games, and other genres with high-value, in-game items that players covet, has given birth to a new class of cheater: digital highwaymen (or women) (or highwayfolks of varying genders) who do it for the money. Demand for powerful weapons and cosmetics is not only driving some players to strike illicit deals on back-alley sites, it's creating stable employment for a class of hackers who can make money off those sales.

How does that work? Siebert broke it down for us like this: In a round of The Cycle: Frontier, players are at their most vulnerable after they've killed a slew of monsters and are high-tailing it back to the extraction point. They're loaded with loot and ripe for the picking.

It's not unusual for players who want that loot to camp out near the extraction point. What is unusual is for those players to be loaded up with aimbots and other hacking tools, making it nearly impossible for the fleeing team to win in a fair fight. A few seconds of virtual gunfire later, and boom, the highway robbery is complete.

A Cycle player holds a fancy gun.
Nice gun you have there. Shame if a hacker were to kill you for it.

Now, those hackers can take that loot, find a buyer, exchange money outside the platform, and transfer the loot by joining a game with the buyer and dropping it on the ground for pickup. All of these interactions break Yager's terms of service, of course, but few involved care about the consequences.

Siebert called these hackers "the most interesting ones" to him. After all, these cheaters aren't farming the high-value goods themselves, they're explicitly using cheats to target other players. And not all of them are bored players looking for a little extra cash.

In this group of hackers, you'll find folks who live in parts of the world with low costs-of-living, high unemployment, and relatively weak currency.  "There are parts of the world where selling...a [digital] brooch or something like that for $20 will feed your family for a week—or even longer," he said.

And with that, the fun multiplayer mechanics of the PvPvE genre run headlong into the economic realities of a globalized economy. For some people with machines powerful enough to run The Cycle, it might be the best remote employment opportunity they'll ever have.

What is Yager doing about the cheating?

Siebert had to keep mum on some of Yager's anti-cheat solutionsagain, if he disclosed fully how they worked, he'd have to spend the next week plugging the new holes that openedbut he was able to share a broader look at how this activity impacts Yager's playerbase.

Because earning these in-game items fair and square takes so much effort, Siebert said that players have been left infuriated when they're insta-gibbed by someone using hacks and cheats. One solution to the problem has been a system called "cheater victim compensation." As he explained it, first Yager looks for cheaters and works to ban them from the game.

Next, they look at all the players killed by the banned player, and grant those players back the stuff they brought into the match where they were killed. There's an important distinction Siebert makes here with regard to the restored loot: "We're not giving them back necessarily what they [earned], because there's still a chance...that they may not have extracted with the stuff they had at the time," he said. "But at least they don't lose what they brought in."

A monster from The Cycle: Frontier.
To be fair this beastie might have taken your loot before a hacker hit you.

It's an important system for a game like The Cycle that may not have value in other online multiplayer games. For instance, if I get blasted by an aimbot in Apex Legends (and boy can you tell when you've been blasted by one), Respawn Entertainment doesn't need to "make me whole" in any way. I didn't lose any in-game skins or crafting materials when I died, I just had 5-15 minutes of effort thrown away.

Siebert said that the cheater victim compensation system is "completely automated" on the game's back end. Some developers rely on customer service representatives to field these kinds of restoration efforts, but Yager went the extra mile to let a machine handle the math. 

He said it took "a little more conceptualizing" to cook up the software. Specific challenges included doing proper technical design documentation and wrapping the teams' heads around how scalable the service would need to be. Cheating apparently only impacts five to 10 percent of The Cycle players, which means only 1/10th of the total game data needs to be stored and processed. 

"You have to be kind of cautious that you don't create something that is super costly in terms of memory and CPU usage because most of that data will never be used."

Another system Yager is relying on to prevent cheating is called "trusted matchmaking." Siebert and his colleagues took inspiration from Valve's Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, which gives players little verified badges if they pay for "Prime Status." 

Yager's version of trusted matchmaking isn't pay-for-play, and relies on parameters that the company can keep hidden, or modify if new information on how people are cheating becomes apparent. Using those parameters, the developer can create groups of players it's very confident are not actively cheating. Then those players are only pooled into matchmaking with other trusted players.

"We're fairly confident that the cheating that is going on...it's mainly happening in the non-trusted bracket," Siebert says. And when you loop back to the cheater victim compensation system, it helps Yager reduce the amount of data it needs to pull in to scan for cheaters and their victims.

The trusted matchmaking system isn't perfectSiebert said Yager has dealt with instances of cheating in that matchmaking poolbut they were apparently identified quickly enough to not be disruptive. 

Part of why this system works, according to Siebert, is that it extends the length of time between a cheater creating a new account and being able to play with the people who have the most valuable loot. He compared it to how banks combat old-fashioned robbery: "They take money out of the safe with those little dispenser things, and they can only dispense so much money in a given timeframe," he said. 

In this metaphor, if the bank robber wants more money, they have to wait around longer and run the risk of law enforcement intervention. In The Cycle, Yager can spot a player cheating their way up through the untrusted matchmaking ranks, and catch them before they hit the most valuable player pools.

We laughed briefly at the realization that by creating this pool of trusted players with high-value loot, Yager has managed to create a virtual "digital gated community," with all the fancy houses metaphorically located in the same neighborhood. Siebert said he hasn't noticed any particular demand for the accounts of trusted players, because that gets into the realm of general account theft. 

Both Steam and Epic have built their own defensives for players, so the best they can do is urge players to not visit risky sites and use 2-factor verification tools at every opportunity.

What's it like to outthink cheaters every single day?

Chatting to Siebert reminded me about conversations I've had with various security experts over the years (cross paths with them at a trade show and they love telling stories about all the bad actors they've caught). Siebert and his team implement technical solutions but he's solving similar problems that a corporate head of security might be tackling. 

That makes him one of the few people in the video game industry who has to wake up each day and actively think about the people who will try to break his employer's game—and not in a fun way. Raising that fact didn't seem to faze Siebert. "I have to be careful about what I divulge about myself right now," he joked, alluding to a mysterious, possibly security-adjacent career before he joined the video game industry in 2004. 

Siebert said that what's motivated him in his professional life is that he finds human beings to be "very interesting creatures." He specifically takes an interest in "human motivation," which he noted is partly what the video game industry is built to interact with. Siebert noted that his colleagues on the game design side of the industry are in the business of making learning "fun." Players willingly subject themselves to complex rules when playing games, and that kicks off psychological and biochemical responses that influence who we are.

"We're playing with learning, right? We, as humans, have this innate satisfaction from learning...and that's why we always need progression," he mused. If other players are what stand in the way of everyday The Cycle users from making progress or having fun, Siebert said he takes pride in analyzing and dissecting how to solve that problem.

A screenshot from The Cycle: Frontier showing a beautiful cavern.

It seems to put some distance between Siebert and the cheaters he's dancing with. He noted that there's a huge difference in that respect compared to if he was working in law enforcement (something he dreamed of doing "last millennium"). 

What does seem to weigh on him is the fact that in his role he'll frequently want to move heaven and earth to help players, but won't have any easy solutions to fix their problems. "The customers that approach [me] are the people who have had a bad experience," he explained. "That makes it very challenging for [me] to keep a positive outlook sometimes." 

When someone comes to Siebert and explains they've been wronged, it's natural for him to want to fix the issue immediately. But implementing fixes takes time—or sometimes isn't economical. Because only a small percentage of players are using cheats and hacks, every solution has to be weighed against the budget and capabilities Yager has available.

Siebert—and plenty of other security professionals and community managers in games—sometimes have to admit there's nothing they can do. And when your primary job is to help players have fun with a game, to help them make the most of their downtime, those two facts can be at odds with each other.

It's a brief moment that captures an interesting contradiction of combatting in-game cheaters: the literal solutions may be technical, but the problems are human. Why players cheat, why players hate it when other players cheat, the conflicts that pop up when cheating is prevalent—all of these are psychological and design challenges, not just programming ones.

Update: This story has been corrected with the proper spelling for Siebert's name.

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