The Firing Line: Banning aimbotters in the age of F2P

The Firing Line 6
Sony Online Entertainment president John Smedley made headlines this week when he smacked down hackers, aimbotters, and various PlanetSide 2 ne'er-do-wells via his Twitter feed.

Aside from the comedy value inherent in the CEO of a major corporation engaging in a public joust with employment-challenged neckbeards, the incident resonates because it shines a spotlight on the herculean task facing SOE and any other developer that decides to enter the skill-based competitive gaming realm.

PlanetSide 2 - TR Prowler and Galaxy
"We'll find you. We'll find your family. We'll hunt you down. Or maybe I've been watching the trailer for Zero Dark Thirty too much. Seriously we're on this," Smedley tweeted after name-dropping a recently banned aimbotter.

The quote was widely circulated in the gaming press (often minus the Zero Dark Thirty bit), and Smed eventually added a disclaimer, presumably after an exasperated phone call from his PR handlers. "Just to make sure people know I was joking -- we aren't hunting down hackers' families. Someone thought I was being too aggressive," he wrote.

PlanetSide 2 - TR Heavy Assault winter camoFunnily enough, though, the banned hacker in question immediately turned around and made himself a new account, which is easier (and cheaper) than ever nowadays thanks to the proliferation of the free-to-play business model. Smedley continued to offer tough talk, and frankly I admire him for that since it's so rare for a developer or executive to say anything that hasn't been heavily sanitized. I have my doubts as to whether SOE can back it up, though.

That is, unless it scraps the free-to-play business model.

Follow my train of thought here and tell me if I'm wrong. SOE bans an aimbotter and gets some positive PR. Great. As we've already seen, though, F2P basically allows for an unlimited number of accounts to be created by the same individual. And I'm not just talking about the lack of a sub fee here because PS2 also lacks a box fee.

You can, if you're predisposed to grinding your life away, play the game literally for free, which is good news for hackers because I'd imagine that most of the guys who spend their time using aimbots probably couldn't afford to continue dropping $60 on a game box every time they get a ban.

But, SOE could ban by IP address, right? Sure, and anyone who's savvy enough to use Google is also savvy enough to learn about IP spoofing and various other methods for making yourself truly anonymous online.

OK, what about blocking aimbots and various hacks by identifying some sort of common signature? Well, yeah, SOE could do that, but the dev team is just that: a dev team. I don't know how many individuals are actively working on PS2, but I know it's a fraction of the number of individuals on the internet who are willing and able to continuously tweak an aimbot program. So it's a simple numbers game, one that will never work out in SOE's favor.

One possible solution would be to require the registration of a credit card for every account, but given SOE's well-publicized security problems in recent years, not to mention the ease with which casual gamers can simply flit away to a less demanding or more anonymous account creation process, I'm not sure that's the best option.

I'm also just assuming that SOE has the tech (and more importantly, the time and manpower) to identify an endless stream of cheaters. You and I can't really tell the difference between a highly skilled PlanetSide 2 player and an aimbotter, for example. Both kill almost instantaneously due to the game's low TTK and the average gamer's pedestrian abilities.

Maybe the guy with a 20:1 kill/death ratio is an aimbotter, or maybe he's just been flying his ESF around since launch day, making mince-meat out of hapless infantry thanks to his air-to-ground rockets. As it stands right now, PS2 is very much an unorganized zerg for most players, so it's not hard to imagine some of the more skilled outfits racking up insane ratios at the expense of the ignorant masses. Maybe SOE can separate these guys and spot all the real troublemakers, and Smedley has certainly said as much in recent days. But would you really expect him to say anything else?

Ultimately, I don't have the answer for PS2's aimbotting problem. To be frank, I lack the data to even state definitively that there is a problem. I do know that SOE's business model makes the problem, if it exists, infinitely harder to solve. I'll stop of short of saying that freemium was the wrong model for PS2, as this game absolutely cannot function as intended without a huge number of users, but I'll be interested to see whether the lack of any sort of entry barrier comes back to bite SOE in the butt.

PlanetSide 2 - TR Galaxy and Prowler
The Firing Line's Jef Reahard has a twitchy trigger finger, a love of online shooters, and an uncanny resemblance to Malcolm Reynolds. OK, maybe not, but at least if he ever kills you, you'll be awake, you'll be facing him, and you'll be armed.
This article was originally published on Massively.