If massively multi-player online gaming falls apart it won't be from business or creative factors. The blood will be on our hands. We continue to clamor for "bigger, better," but we are asking for the wrong development focus. Why? Because cheating by the participants is the greatest single threat to the continued success and growth of the online market.
Case in Point. Last weekend a squadron mate sent me a film of a YAK 3 climbing at over 400+ mph through 41,000 feet to 45,000 feet. The aircraft then nosed over to the vertical and achieved 650+ mph terminal velocity to 3,000 feet where it amazingly transitioned to a vertical climb, gradually bleeding off airspeed to an altitude of 22,000 feet. That's quite a feat, err, cheat.
For comparison, the intended flight model supports a YAK 3 that will struggle to 39,000+ feet in a 20-minute, excruciating climb and will only sustain that altitude with a 30-degree angle of attack at 160 mph.
The miracle performance was brought about via a memory-editing program that was obtained from a public URL that specializes in 'cracking and hacking any DOS or Windows-based game'. The game parameter that was adjusted was MaxThrottle (from 100 to 250). The performance was astounding...so astounding that the perpetrator would certainly be caught and burned at the stake. Right?
Skip to Scene 2: the Problem
In the case above the violation was obvious, but the reality is more like this. First, most perpetrators would never use 250 for MaxThrottle when 110 would serve quite nicely to provide the edge in velocity for an extension or a pursuit. Second, cheating is not acknowledged nor punished by the hosts that regulate the online experience.
The reality is that cheaters are clever enough to escape detection through subtlety and most publishers/online hosts lack the resources to effectively deal with cheaters in most situations. Then there's the specter of potential of litigation brought about by 'Little Johnny's Dad' who thinks that a deep-pockets game publisher should have saved his son the anguish of making a dishonorable choice. Let's skip the sad discussion of moral decay this time, shall we?
It's a (dis) belief system. When we go head to head with a human being we believe we are putting our skills, techniques, and experience to the test in a fair contest. When doubt about the fairness of the contest arises, the whole experience deflates for most people.
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It certainly becomes an experience that most of us would hesitate to pay a monthly fee for. Where does that leave us? At this point in time we are left with a Mech that cannot be damaged, a bomber that can turn 720-degrees per second, a submarine with 200 torpedoes, or a Spitfire capable of 13,000+ kph.
Nothing New Under the Sun
Our first-person shooter comrades remind us that cheating is not new. They have been avoiding the problem for years by buying retail games and competing against only trusted colleagues on secure servers or driving their computers 400 miles to 'weekend congresses' where an unlucky cheater would face a potential thrashing (or worse) if caught cheating in such a setting.
Massively multi-player becomes a gigantic whale rotting on the beach in this context, since the disincentives don't exist to counter cheating. Sadly, it's a death that has nothing to do with a lack of business or creative acumen and everything to do with a lack of personal ethics.
It's past time for methods and processes to be developed to detect and correct cheaters and cheating from massively multi-player gaming. We should not ask for another 'enhancement' from our favorite publisher until this situation is addressed. Allow them to devote the time and resources needed to preserve the environment. If we don't, we'll be renting hotel ballrooms in order to find a fair fight, and massively multi-player, the ideal environment for on-line gaming, will have become a historical footnote in the book of the Internet.
Go to Part II