We recently reported on a newly discovered hack spreading in GTA Online. However this minor albeit new issue is just a reminder of a mounting problem that the game hasn't been able to shake for years now. It's one that if treated incorrectly, might be the one thing that could halt Online's miraculous growth.
Hackers have been around on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC more or less ever since the game was released on these platforms. While initially, before the game exploded in popularity and fame, things were pretty quiet and safe, even though hackers were present in small numbers. However, as GTA 5's popularity picked up speed, the game's audience gained more and more people of the unsavory kind.
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It isn't quite clear when the issue devolved into an acute problem, but Rockstar has been fighting against a rising tide of hackers for years now. The battle has had its highs and lows, but unfortunately, there have been more lows overall. The main theater of this conflict has been the PC without a doubt, due to the old-gen consoles being vulnerable and lawless by virtue of their hardware, and the current-gen ones having yet to be cracked.
The open nature of the PC means that pretty much every game is vulnerable, regardless of what kind of security measures are put in place, thanks to the rule of thumb that nothing is unhackable. Consumers having free access to game files is what lead to the rise of the leaker culture around GTA 5, and while that earns some grumbling from Rockstar, it's the in-game hacking that is overboard.
Thing is, in this day and age (not that it was too different a decade ago) "hacking" a game isn't even remotely difficult since no actual hacking is needed from the person. The term "script kiddie" rose from this, as these "hackers" need only purchase so-called mod-menus which allow them to use the special in-game abilities like prop spawning and god mode.
However, over the years, the arsenal of these menus has expanded with various scripts that hurt players, negatively affected the game experience, and more recently, caused actual real-world monetary damage - and that was before the policy of permanent, non-negotiable hacks was implemented.
The problem has gotten worse and worse over time and community forums often contain posts about how every session has at least one hacker. I'm sure some of you guys remember that period in the game's history on PC where it was advised to avoid all public lobbies, right?
Every now and then, the situation spiked with some kind of major altercation. At one point, Rockstar tried to stop hacks by mod-proofing the game entirely, thus killing single player mods as well, in spite of the massive modding community that sprung up around GTA 5. This didn't work out in the long run, and Rockstar ended up rolling back the change.
Their next attempt was trying to sabotage the typical venue that hacks exploit in the game. Basically, the game engine calls scripts from the game files (we're super simplifying here), and the hacked scripts 'inject' themselves during this process. The new anti-cheat sought to litter dead-code throughout the files so that the hacked scripts don't know what to latch onto - thing is, the official game files were similarly affected, essentially not only killing the hacks, but the game itself entirely.
Occasionally Rockstar managed to get on top of the situation and clean things up with a few strategic ban-waves after which the game was relatively safe for weeks, but then the hackers would always return in greater numbers.
The next major confrontation was a battle that went on for several rounds. A particularly nefarious insurance fraud hack appeared after some time which pinned the destruction of personal vehicles on other players, thus deducting the insurance premium from their in-game accounts. Seeing as the hack repeated this on an instantaneous loop, players sometimes lost millions before jumping session or pulling the plug on their system. To add insult to injury, destroying a personal vehicle also gets you some bad rep, and doing it repeatedly will boot you to a bad sport lobby with all the other bad apples out there.
Seeing as players have the opportunity to buy in-game currency through Shark Cards, and that currency is also deducted when paying insurance premiums, this hack actually caused real-life monetary damage to players, forcing Rockstar to quickly work out a fix. Their short-term solution was to disable the insurance and bad sport systems to prevent any more losses.
Rockstar rolled out an alleged fix and restored the systems, only to have the hack return yet again, as it seemingly bypassed the implemented fix altogether. Rockstar's response was taking down the insurance premium and bad sport systems permanently. It's really quite an acute issue when the hackers force the developers to outright deactivate entire game mechanics - mechanics aimed to punish misbehavior, no less - to deal with the issue.
In the end, it was the entire community that got struck with the fallout of this hacker problem, as Rockstar was forced to go draconian in response to ever growing hacker numbers. Not too long ago, they implemented a system which more accurately tracked illegitimate money, which included cash that was dropped on you by hackers as well as money made through duplication glitches, and removed it.
When this was first introduced, it immediately went to work and performed a retroactive purge, deleting literal billions from hacked accounts in what has gone down in history as the great de-moneying of 2016. This, however, wasn't the end of it either.
Crucial changes were enacted in the game's banning policies. Under the new order, everyone has a total of two strikes at the most. The first, issued for minor offences, temporarily suspends your access to GTA Online, while also deleting all progress made with the account in question. This mean all your money, your rank and everything you've unlocked and bought will be erased. Ouch.
For second offences, or if the first is severe enough however, Rockstar will strike you with a permanent ban, locking the account out of GTA Online forever. To top this all off, all bans are non-negotiable. Any attempt to appeal will be met with an automated response very politely telling you to take a hike.
And this is the root of the issue at hand. Here we are, long after the tightening of the fist, and yet a new hack has appeared on the horizon. They're back for more, and the new ban policy won't be turning them away. However, Rockstar is risking their goodwill with the legitimate players.
Ever since the non-negotiable bans were enacted, posts about being wrongfully perma-banned have popped up en-masse on all community forums. While we've explained in the past that the vast majority of these claims are made by script kiddies who just won't admit they cheated, if only a tiny fraction of them are true, those are still legitimate customers who no longer have access to the product they purchased.
Persistent hackers always come back with a new account and a new mod menu to screw around with, but the average GTA Online players doesn't dedicate that much cash to a hobby. Some people might be opposed to re-buying it after a false-positive ban on principle alone, while others might just not be able to justify wasting $60 so to say.
It's a tough situation, since not cracking down on hackers hurts the legitimate players, and cracking down on the hackers also hurts the legitimate players. If, for every 10 claims of a false-positive ban, only one is true, after months and months those will add up. News will spread, players will lose faith or they will fear for their progress. It's always better to quit a game of your own volition than have you progress wiped, leaving you unwilling to go over all that again.
GTA Online is a massive, burgeoning juggernaut of a video game, its playerbase growing day by day. This is a game that has reached popularity of a magnitude that took everyone, even the developers, by surprise. However, this gift that keeps on giving might just stop giving if the hacker issue isn't solved, and in the end, it might not even be because of the hackers, but because of the über strict rule intended to keep them out. Rules that ultimately fail.
First of all, let's hope Rockstar took a long, hard look at the hacker issues of GTA Online and invested in a dedicated server park for Red Dead Online instead of once again relying on this peer-to-peer nonsense. Second of all, the most beneficial solution here would be working out a reliable anti-cheat system which doesn't do false-positives and has a significantly tighter net. Other hyper-popular multiplayer games out there don't have this kind of issue (but then they're not peer-to-peer) so we know it's possible.
The risks of this situation are many and obvious. Rockstar is playing a dangerous game with their current ban policies, and risk driving legitimate players away while the hackers continue to roam free on the virtual streets of Los Santos. This is a situation that could, if escalated, topple the mighty GTA Online - and that is something none of us want to see.