How Can Developers Beat Cheaters?
Cheating is as old as the first rule-based competition and probably dates back to some Old-Greek or prehistoric time.
Cheating in video games has an ambiguous tradition, ranging from developer-promoted cheat codes in game manuals to a multi-billion industry of third-party cheat software created through the demand of online players’ need for that win. It is likely impossible to prevent someone from cheating, but it seems that some studios are finding a way of preventing cheaters from accessing their cheat tools by suing the makers of cheat software.
In this article, we will delve into Bungie's recent lawsuits against cheat makers to help understand why cheat software makers are often liable for their behavior, and the risks and benefits from these lawsuits for players, game developers, and the cheat manufacturers themselves.
In April 2021, the Destiny developer successfully settled a case for $2 million against GatorCheats and settled a lawsuit against another cheat developer for $13.5 million in June 2022. Two recent cases brought by Bungie cement the studio’s status as a pioneer in the legal battle against cheat manufacturers:
- Bungie v. VeteranCheats (from 2021-2023): Bungie secured a legal victory over a Destiny 2 cheat maker, ordering payment of over $12 million.
- Bungie v. Aimjunkies (ongoing): Bungie similarly sued a Destiny 2 cheat maker (Phoenix Digital), ending with a settlement of over $4.3 million in damages and attorneys' fees. The settlement order remains in dispute as of the publication date of this article. Further, it appears the last word has not been spoken here as well as here.
Is There a Law Against Cheating or Cheat Software?
Cheating (in sports, video games, or other competition) is not illegal per se under federal and state law. There is no video game statutory law that says a cheater is a bad person and that because he cheated, he must go to jail. Hence, the studios get creative. The commonly made claims by the studios against the third-party cheat software makers typically include:
- Copyright infringement: modification or reverse-engineering of the game’s assets as is necessary to develop the cheat software, but without a license.
- Trademark infringement: unauthorized use of the branding or “marks” held by the game-maker, which cheat makers tend to need to market their cheats.
- Breach of contract/tortious interference with a contract: behavior contrary to the terms in the developer’s licensing agreement. The cheat maker will have to download and buy the game to access the code and the software for their development of their cheat software.
- State consumer protection laws: In the U.S., each state has its own laws meant to prevent businesses from using deceptive or unethical practices in selling their goods, like Washington’s state consumer protection laws in the Bungie cases.
Specifically, Aimjunkies argued that Bungie should be held liable for obtaining information about the cheat software from Aimjunkies’s computers and then surveilling the operations without consent, essentially saying Bungie had to download the cheat software and by “hacking” the cheat violated the cheat maker’s terms. Further, Bungie could show that Aimjunkies was attempting to evade detection by Bungie “such as [by] deleting any mention on their website of Destiny 2 and adding the word “Destiny” to their website’s profanity filter.” Aimjunkies thereby deliberately concealed operations and marketing of the cheat from the developer itself.
Some Takeaways for Players, Studios and Software Developers
Playersthat use third-party cheat software will likely not see studios threatening legal action against them because it is simply uneconomical to pursue one or all cheating players if you can go after the gatekeeper. Not only is the effort tedious, but also the sums that a studio can recover are tiny in comparison.
Regardless, studios likely have a contractual claim against players because their use of cheat software in most cases violates the EULA and the Terms of Service. Studios leverage their rights from the EULA and the Terms of Service and push cheating players to forfeit the price of the game and any in-game purchases without legal recourse. Studios further leverage these rights for community-based enforcement measures like public shaming or lengthy in-game bans to make it more difficult for players to recommit cheating offenses. To combat cheating, Battlestate Games (Escape From Tarkov) encouraged its playerbase to continue “reporting the bastards,” further stressing the importance of playing fair. Such calls for action seem to have led to mass bans. Sometimes studios choose a less impactful route and request from banned players a homework assignment to reclaim their accounts; one developer required cheaters to submit an apology essay on the damaging effects of cheating.
Lastly, players that use cheat software have to be specifically aware that they may find themselves caught up in legal action against the cheat maker. A court could determine that players' download and usage data of the cheat software proves valuable for the legal proceeding. This includes seizure of personal data of or evidence of payments made by the player to access the cheats. In California, a court approved Jagex’s request to obtain the personal information of users who used cheats in RuneScape. The cheat users’ information was acquired even when housed on a third-party website like YouTube.
Developersshould take these victories as a success against the rising number of cheat makers, though this is not without costs. Game devs will need to continue spending thousands and perhaps millions of dollars on robust anti-cheat systems, depending on the size of the playerbase. Bungie itself alleges over $2 million spent to combat cheaters. But legal proceedings take time and money, and studios of popular multiplayer titles are forced to implement cheat detection software ASAP, either in-house or via third parties like BattlEye, to hold cheat makers accountable without or before filing a lawsuit.
Aside from technical measures, developers will have to set the grounds for legal battle with the terms they provide for in their EULA and Terms of Service. In particular because these terms provide the rules for download and use of the code, which the cheat software requires for development. Most EULAs therefore include a ban of reverse-engineering game software, and some specifically address using cheats in online settings. For example, Bungie’s LSLA prohibited players who “[h]ack or modify Destiny 2, or create, develop, modify, distribute, or use any unauthorized software programs to gain advantage in any online or multiplayer game modes.” Studios should consistently vet and update their EULAs to ensure that they prohibit any modification of game software without the developer’s permission.
Cheat software manufacturers run a precarious business model, given the costs incurred by litigation for infringement (and the ability of larger developers to foot the bill for these lawsuits). It will be difficult to convince a court that making and selling cheats does not infringe upon a studio’s intellectual property and commercial rights in some manner. Large payouts to studios are likely to persist for willful and large-scale infringement by cheat developers. Even for games where lawsuits were not previously explored (i.e., because the developer may not have had the financial means to sue or cheating was handled with non-legal alternatives), some devs may want to emulate the success of companies like Bungie. This will be especially true if courts continue to order the cheat makers to pay for the developers' costs to bring the lawsuit itself, which amounted to over $735,000 in the Aimjunkies case and $215,000 in the VeteranCheats case. As seen in the past, perhaps smaller devs will take the hint from companies like Bungie, Ubisoft, and Riot Games to join forces against cheat makers in a single bout of litigation against a common enemy.
Furthermore, if a cheat maker is caught, their corporate records may be required to be turned over to determine how much money the cheat software brought in. Destroying evidence or refusing to comply with the terms of discovery could lead to additional monetary costs. For example, in May 2023, the court ordered Aimjunkies to turn over its Bitcoin wallet, and earlier, subpoenaed PayPal to turn over customer records for those ordering the cheats. In a 2018 court case in Australia, Rockstar Games (Grand Theft Auto, Red Dead Redemption) was able to obtain a legal order to search the work and homes of cheat developers.
If there’s one takeaway from Bungie’s recent lawsuits, it’s that cheaters will cheat but that developers have tools to take them on; some more costly than others.
Author: Matthew Vernace
Released: November 8, 2023