Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3 launches this week and as players fight to save the world from Vladimir Makarov’s machinations in the single-player campaign, they’re bracing themselves for the next battle in the seemingly endless war with video game cheaters.
Modern Warfare 3’s beta tests were home to cheaters who used aimbots and wallhacks to defeat legit players in multiplayer matches. While the PC platform forms the bulk of the cheating that goes on in video games, consoles are susceptible to cheats, too. In fact, one clip went viral on social media for showing cheating in the then PlayStation 5-exclusive Modern Warfare 3 beta.
this smh on ps5 too pic.twitter.com/dZy2SYYPmN
— Duqys (@Duqysss) October 8, 2023
Remarkably, cheat makers were spotted handing out free cheats for the Modern Warfare 3 beta to promote their cheats for the release version. In brazen advertisements online, one significant cheat maker sold limited-time pre-orders for lifetime access to its Modern Warfare 3 cheat, but warned it would stop selling lifetime access once Modern Warfare 3 came out, perhaps taking a leaf out of the sales tactics employed by the publishers whose games they are ruining.
All this despite Activision’s best efforts to combat cheating in Call of Duty, and multiple blog posts proclaiming waves of bans and more effective technology. “PC MW3 will be riddled with cheaters,” declared the self-styled ‘Anti-Cheat Police Department’, a video game cheater watchdog group that works to take down cheat makers from the inside, in a tweet viewed 300,000 times. Activision failed to comment when contacted by IGN.
PC MW3 will be riddled with cheaters. A provider is giving out free cheats for the entire beta to promote their cheat further. pic.twitter.com/MMUHSiM8pb
— Anti-Cheat Police Department 🕵️ (@AntiCheatPD) October 11, 2023
If all this sounds familiar, it’s because it is. Video game cheating is as old as video games themselves, but Call of Duty has suffered significant reputational damage as a result of it, particularly in the post-Warzone era. Following the explosive launch of the free-to-download battle royale in March 2020, cheating has dogged Call of Duty to such an extent that one Warzone developer said cheaters were “ruining some of the best work” he’d ever done. The biggest Call of Duty streamers and YouTubers often bemoan cheating in front of their fans and on social media. Cheating is now an almost accepted part of the multiplayer experience, so much so that when a new Call of Duty game comes out, many console players disable crossplay as a matter of course in a bid to avoid PC cheaters.
Why are cheat makers always one step ahead of the game? Why is Activision, with all its millions of dollars and boardrooms full of expensive lawyers, seemingly powerless to prevent cheating from afflicting Call of Duty? IGN spoke with the Anti-Cheat Police Department to find out more.
‘Laser’, who goes by the Twitter handle @laser__cs, is a ‘cheat analyst’ who represents the Anti-Cheat Police Department, a group of 10 volunteers who mostly focus on combating cheating in Riot’s Valorant. The ACPD started life around six years ago when former Overwatch esports player, GamerDoc, noticed an increase in cheating on the competitive hero shooter’s ranked ladder, as well as ‘boosters’ and ‘win traders’, and took matters into his own hands. GamerDoc helped identify and publicly call out to cheaters in the hope it would encourage Overwatch developer Blizzard to dish out punishment. Eventually, GamerDoc moved on to Riot’s Valorant, and soon after, he was hired by Riot as an anti-cheat analyst.
Now, there are multiple roles within the ACPD. Some members focus on community and server reports. Some develop Discord bots that make the ACPD’s reporting system more efficient. Others focus on maintaining the public image of the ACPD, which is where tweets like the one above come from. All do a spot of “infiltration” from time to time. More on that later.
Laser admits to cheating in Valve’s Counter-Strike: Global Offensive for years when he was younger before leaving a life of virtual crime behind to go vigilante. Laser even owned and sold cheats as part of an underground market. The turning point came with the release of Valorant in June 2020. Laser began by playing the competitive shooter legitimately before getting frustrated. He cheated and was banned immediately. It was a shock moment for Laser, who took an appreciation for Riot’s impressive anti-cheat tech.
“I actually got banned before I even got into the game, which was absolutely shocking,” Laser says. “I used my connections in the community to get involved with a private cheat, really talented developers, and it didn’t matter. That’s really why it was so shocking to me, like, wow, their anti-cheat is actually good.
“It impressed me so much that I started becoming more involved with that community and started using my skills and experiences to help identify cheaters rather than be part of the problem.”
Laser now calls cheating “loser behavior”, but in truth there was an element of shame that contributed to the decision to leave cheating behind: “It was like, wow, I just got banned in this game that all my friends play and I have to explain what I just did. That was a big slap in the face.” Laser says it was “embarrassing” to have to own up to his friends for cheating. “They were like, ‘wow, you are really stupid.’ And I was like, ‘yep, I’m really stupid.’ “
Laser and friends at the ACPD now spend their time looking into community reports of cheaters, win traders, boosters, and any behavior that negatively impacts competitive integrity. Their members gather data about how their suspects play, looking for suspicious changes in activity. They process these reports and forward them on to developers — in the case of Riot Games, directly. The ACPD’s contacts at Riot then process these reports, which may result in expedited manual bans for cheaters who usually play at a higher skill level.
ACPD members even, on occasion, infiltrate the cheat providers. They will attempt to gain access to files for a cheat, information on cheat users, and cheat developer information, whatever the group can pass on to the video game developers to aid their fight.
It all sounds a bit like undercover vigilantism — sometimes it’s as simple as joining a Discord server to determine whether a cheat is legitimate. Other times the group will have to buy a cheat in order to analyze it. Laser also mentions “social engineering”, a tactic the group sometimes employs to obtain files related to cheats. The group can also find user accounts. Most cheat providers have what’s called a “vouches” channel in their Discord or Telegram server in which people post screenshots of their rank history, or clips of them playing. With a lot of the high-end cheats, which anti-cheat tech often fails to detect, the ACPD can on occasion find player IDs. From there, they can positively identify who is using the cheat so the developer can understand what they’re using and how they can detect them.
All Multiplayer Maps in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3
Laser won’t give exact names out, since some of the cheat providers are still around, but claims to have infiltrated a significant cheat provider, gained access to their Valorant loaders and cheats, and sent them to Riot. “This one in particular had some basic interview / verification for it,” Laser says. “So I basically just pretended to be a prospective cheater using alternate Discord accounts. Just false identities, but it’s not like I’m faking legal documents. Some cheats actually do require you to send in your legal documents. It’s very, very high security, but generally that isn’t a very big barrier for a lot of us.” IGN has viewed the product page of the cheat provider in question, which is still active but does not currently offer a Valorant cheat.
This infiltration work is becoming harder, Laser admits, because cheat providers “have gotten a little smarter and more aware of it.” Still, Laser claims that in the past year, work done by the ACPD has led to the manual ban of around 1,000 Valorant accounts, with roughly half stemming from community-submitted reports, the other half from the group’s own investigations or sources. Despite this success, Riot does not publicly acknowledge the work of the ACPD, nor is it officially affiliated with it, perhaps understandably given the grey area the group works within.
It sounds like a huge effort from a small team of unpaid volunteers who sometimes step into the darker corners of the internet while on the hunt for the most elusive cheat makers. So why spend so much time and energy on a war that perhaps should be the responsibility of the billion dollar publishers who operate these games?
Laser says motivation comes from a genuine love of multiplayer video games and a desire to uphold the integrity of competition. In the case of Valorant, some of the ACPD’s members are heavily involved in esports and tournament organization. “A lot of us have places in the community that make us more aware of these kinds of issues, and because of that, we all feel very strongly about it,” he says.
Laser, then, really knows what he’s talking about when it comes to video game cheats, and so when the Anti-Cheat Police Department warns Modern Warfare 3 on PC will be “riddled” with cheaters, the community pays attention. But how can the ACPD know this? How can it be so sure Modern Warfare 3 will have such a tough time?
The answer lies in Modern Warfare 3’s very nature as a sequel built upon the codebase of its predecessors. In the same way a developer might port a game to another platform, cheat makers port their cheats to sequels. That’s how cheats were available for Modern Warfare 3’s beta before it even went live. “It’s not completely rebuilt from the ground up,” Laser says of Modern Warfare 3. “It’s using the same engine. A lot of the systems work in the same way, so it really is just a matter of porting cheats rather than making whole new cheats. So in terms of the work that cheat developers actually have to do, it really isn’t that much. All the math and all the ways these systems are made, like wall hacks or aimbots, a lot of it works the same way across games, so it doesn’t take too much effort to make these cheats.”
Given cheat makers are essentially porting cheats that have existed for some time, why do publishers seemingly struggle to effectively block them? If Modern Warfare 3’s cheats are so similar to those that worked on Modern Warfare 2, Activision’s anti-cheat team is surely well aware of how they work. So what gives?
Laser begins by insisting Activision “does a lot of good work” when it comes to mitigation. Call of Duty’s Ricochet anti-cheat tech will sometimes let a cheater stay in the game to “mess with them”, for example. The point of that is to gather more data on the cheater and the cheats they use, data which may help to identify other cheaters more easily. But Activision’s Ricochet relies on server-side tools to detect cheaters, as opposed to Riot’s client-side anti-cheat, dubbed Vanguard, which continuously monitors the user’s computer for any signs of cheating.
In any case, Laser says client-side anti-cheat hasn’t been the “be-all and end-all” for cheaters for quite some time. It’s now simply too easy to get around, with cheaters using hardware-based cheats that involve plugging hardware directly into their motherboard to gain direct memory access at an operating level — something most anti-cheat tech fails to detect. Artificial intelligence is now at the forefront of the next phase of the war on video game cheats. AI-powered data analysis, which detects statistical anomalies, is combined with player reports to form a more effective system — in theory.
Making matters worse, it’s just too easy to get Call of Duty cheats, Laser says. When cheat providers are giving out free keys to their cheats, and the cheats themselves are relatively cheap, you have a recipe for mass cheating. “Finding legitimate providers is usually just a Google search and a couple clicks away,” Laser says. “It just doesn’t take a lot of effort to find a cheat that won’t get you instantly banned.”
Even if a Call of Duty cheater receives a hardware ID ban that is designed to prevent them from playing on the same computer, they can buy a spoofer that hides the identification numbers of the hardware on their computer. This leaves cheaters free to make a new account and jump straight back into the game. “It’s as simple as buying a new account,” Laser says.
Beyond the technical challenge publishers face, the complexity of international law can make clamping down on cheat makers, even those who advertise their wares publicly, almost impossible. Cheat providers aren’t necessarily collectively housed in familiar western jurisdictions. Many cheat makers are from countries in which complaints from the likes of Activision fall on deaf ears. Legal threats only carry weight when they’re backed up by local enforcement. As Laser puts it: “If you know that you’re in a place where you’re most likely going to be legally immune to these kinds of things, you realistically have pretty much nothing to be afraid of.” Because of this, there’s a somewhat brazen attitude from many cheat providers, so much so that they shout loudly and proudly, even aggressively, about their cheats across social media and on their own websites.
Laser says Activision’s Ricochet team “really is doing good work, but they really still have a long way to go in order to really make MW3 a much less frustrating experience for the players.” It is, admittedly, a gloomy outlook. But while no current anti-cheat tech is 100% effective, the tech is improving. Laser says anti-cheats are better than they’ve ever been, and has seen a significant uplift in publisher investment in the war against cheaters. “I think it’s getting better and it will continue to get better,” Laser says.
And it’s worth remembering that cheating isn’t always as bad as it feels. Cheating sticks out in our minds because it’s so egregious and often results in a frustrating death. We remember the times we lost to a cheater more than the times we won to a legitimate player. But cheating remains a minority pursuit, especially in a video game with such mass market appeal as Call of Duty. For the majority of players, running into a cheater is a rare encounter. It’s even rarer on console.
It’s also worth remembering the difference between Modern Warfare 3 Multiplayer and Warzone. Warzone feels like it has a bigger cheating problem than standard Call of Duty Multiplayer. It makes sense: inside battle royale’s huge lobbies, you’re more likely to run into a cheater than you are in the restricted lobbies of MP. Warzone is free-to-download, too, which significantly reduces the barrier to entry. For now, at least, MP remains a premium experience.
Still, when Modern Warfare 3 Multiplayer goes live this week, there will be a number of players who disable crossplay, hoping to reduce the likelihood of running up against a cheater. “Right now it’s completely reasonable to do that,” Laser says. “No matter what, if you’re playing against somebody on PC and you’re on the other end on console, you’re always going to have some doubt, is this player legit or am I just getting cheated on?”