China’s online gaming cheats turn to hardware to evade detection

7 min read
Cheaters often target shooter title “PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds.” (Image Credit: PUBG Corp)

The recent banning of high-profile “Fortnite” pro-gamer FaZe Jarvis laid bare the prevalence of software-based cheating as players look to gain the upper hand over their fellow competitors. In China, the practice is rife too—Tencent bans more than 10,000 “League of Legends” players per week for using hacks to win.

Gaming companies have worked hard to reduce the use of cheating software and bots to ensure that users are not put off from playing by such activity, thereby protecting their all-important revenue streams. With the use of hacks outlawed, cheat creators are increasingly turning to hardware. Since 2018, manufacturers have been creating plug-in devices that underhandedly assist gamers, and they are hard for gaming firms to spot.

Indeed had FaZe Jarvis used a cheat device rather than an aimbot to better target enemies, he would have stood a far greater chance of getting away with it. The use of these devices is significantly harder to detect compared with software, according to a report from Tencent Game Security. From TechNode’s observations, these cheats are particularly prevalent in the shooter games segment, where small boosts in accuracy can give players a significant upper hand.

Unlike their software counterparts, hardware cheats are still legal or are at least in the legal grey area for now. A quick search on Taobao and Tmall pulls up hundreds of stores openly selling such gear, each lauding their products’ ability to avoid detection. Gaming companies again face a rush to combat such activities to keep their punters interested.

Sights set on shooter games

There are two main types of cheat hardware on the market aimed at shooter games: mouse pointing devices with macroinstruction (macro) functions—a set of commands that convert specific input sequences such as clicks and keystrokes into preset output sequences, and USB input devices featuring microchips that mimic the functionality of mice.

Simple macros can be used to speed up mouse clicks, enabling semi-automatic guns that require individual mouse clicks to fire like automatic weapons. Typically, a long press of a mouse button only outputs one click, but the macro can set the output to a rapid sequence of continuous left clicks, with the button virtually released after 0.03 seconds each time. Once applied to shooter games, this lets players fire more than 30 rounds in a single second by just holding down the mouse button.

And it’s not just the speed of shooting that these devices improve, they can also boost accuracy. More advanced macros can completely offset the effect of weapon recoil, massively reducing the movement of the crosshairs after each round of fire. These so-called “no recoil macros” automatically compensate for recoil by moving the mouse in the opposite direction, leaving players to concentrate solely on tracking enemies’ movement.

“Weapon recoil in shooter games generally follows a certain pattern. The game CS:GO used to have completely fixed spray patterns for weapons, which means when you hold the left mouse button, your muzzle will always move in the same way. With no recoil macros, you can basically land every shot on the same dot,” an employee at an organizer of “PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds” esports events surnamed Huang, told TechNode. He declined to be named in full due to his position within the industry.

Although software-based tools can achieve essentially the same, and often better, results as hardware cheats, game developers around the world have come up with various means to weed them out. They have also enlisted the help of professional anti-cheat companies such as BattlEye to counter them. Hardware cheats, however, are tough to detect using traditional means as they are no different from standard peripherals used on a computer. Even if game developers attempt to track abnormal accuracy or recurring recoil correction patterns, hardware cheat makers can quickly tone down their effects or insert random variables in the script so that users blend in with the crowd.

Readily available

Hardware cheats are easy to find on Chinese online marketplaces such as Alibaba’s Taobao and Tmall. A quick search for “no recoil macros” or “no recoil microchips” reveals dozens of stores that have racked up at least 200 sales each. The most popular sellers shipped over 1,200 USB devices in October alone.

The gear does not come cheap. The most inexpensive no-recoil macros for massively popular battle royale title PUBG, for instance, are priced at around RMB 300 (USD43). Pricier options, such as those with more functions, fetch as much as RMB 600. More advanced niche products also exist with “live streamer-specific” macros, for example, going for upwards of RMB 800.

 

Search results of “no recoil macros” on the e-commerce platform Taobao. (Image Credit: TechNode)

One of the best-selling no recoil macros is the “Zhilian Digital,” with 11,000 sales on Tmall. Priced at RMB 479, the dongle features more than 13,000 recoil compensation macros that are automatically applied to guns once plugged into a computer. The store also claims the device can optimize recoil compensation by identifying accessories and scopes for in-game weapons and pinpointing the position of players on-screen.

The store emphasizes that different from some “lower-end” products, which use software cheats but disguise them as hardware ones, its products carry out all the corrections on the hardware level. According to screenshots in the product’s description, upon being plugged into computers, the dongle would be recognized as two mice and a keyboard with default drivers.

In addition to promising an effortless cheating process without the risk of a ban, stores that sell no recoil macros also offer premium after-sale services, providing buyers with unique customized remote adjustments as well as frequent free updates to perfect recoil compensation.

Unfair playing field

Unlike macros used in massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), which players use to generate vast amounts of in-game currency, hardware cheats for shooter games upset the game balance in clear ways.

They firstly help players to cut corners in honing their in-game skills. They no longer need to form muscle memory to deal with the effects of recoil. “Compensating for recoil takes practice, a lot of practice. If you are talented enough, you could manage to keep weapons in a game under control in, say, three to four months,” Huang, the PUBG events organizer said. “With mouse macros, you could skip this step entirely.”

Hardware cheats can also help players to surpass human limits with ease. While many shooter games put restrictions on the fire rate of weapons to guard against speed click macros, cheaters can still use no recoil macros to reach the maximum theoretical fire rate while also maintaining incredible accuracy, Huang said. “They can rapid-fire a sniper rifle with very high recoil and still manage to land most shots,” he added.

Compared to software cheats such as aimbots that automatically lock crosshair on targets’ heads, hardware cheats are often less visible to players. But according to Huang, they are widely used among regular players and game-centric content creators alike. “Many content creators on Douyin are using no recoil macros or similar things,” Huang told TechNode. “You can’t be sure when you see them, but the fire rate and accuracy give something away. Ordinary players are rarely that good.”

Players of Tencent’s shooter game “CrossFire” have also complained about a surge in the number of hardware cheaters. “I see no recoil Gatling guns every day and can’t kick them from my game. Goddamn it,” a user going by the handle “if my mouse is good, I am good” commented on a thread on CrossFire’s official forum. “If they don’t ban mouse macros, a lot of people are going to quit this game,” a user named “attending physician,” said on the Baidu Tieba for CrossFire.

Developers’ reactions and legality

It may have taken longer for game developers and operators of shooter games to cotton on to the scale of damage caused by hardware cheats, but they have been quick to devise detection schemes and ban offenders.

Tencent, for instance, found that 30% of mice and keyboards used to play one of its first-person shooter games have macro functions. Tencent’s CrossFire also started to ban users based on abnormal activities such as very short intervals between shots and low recoil effects around March this year. The move followed widespread criticism about its inaction over mouse macros. Suspicious activities will result in a one-hour suspension, and repeat offenders will receive permanent bans.

Blue Hole, the developer and publisher of PUBG, also started to ban macro devices earlier this year to curb rampant in-game cheating. Players who are found to be using a macro mouse will be kicked from games with a message reading, “Your client will now close due to the detection of an unauthorized device. Mouse macros and devices used to gain an unfair advantage are strictly prohibited.”

Despite being able to ban players who use hardware cheats, game developers could have a tough time taking legal action against those who make the gear in China. If cheats don’t have software components, the producers of them are not punishable according to China’s criminal law, He Jing, a lawyer at the Beijing branch of Merits & Tree Law Offices, told TechNode.

“Macros that achieve what they do by making changes on the hardware connected to computers and not the games themselves are not illegal,” He said. “China currently does not have any laws related to hardware cheating.”

However, He says a considerable percentage of hardware cheats sold on Taobao and Tmall are actually software cheats such as scripts in disguise, meaning that they can be considered malware, and their distribution is a criminal offense.

Although game developers can’t file criminal lawsuits against creators of real hardware cheats, civil lawsuits are not entirely off the table, though no gaming company has opted for them as of yet.

“The production of hardware cheats could violate the law against unfair competition since they damage the rights of game operators and other players,” He told TechNode. “But since no company has filed a lawsuit of this kind, we are not sure about the court’s opinion on this.”