The BIG Problem With Anti-Cheat Software in Gaming

Alex Alex 06 June 2020
The BIG Problem With Anti-Cheat Software in Gaming

Competing against other players online, is a bigger part of video gaming today, than it ever has been. So it's no surprise then, that fair play online is being taken more and more seriously, both by gamers, who view cheating as a huge impediment to their experience, and by developers, who are pushing anti-cheat software to keep players honest. And of course prevent gamers from just quitting a game because they're frustrated with how many cheaters are on the servers.

But these anti-cheat mechanisms have come with some issues of their own. And notably, the solution implemented by Riot Games for their hit shooter Valorant, has really ruffled the feathers of many, in the community.

So why can an ostensibly good thing, like anti-cheat software be so controversial? And what made Valorant such a target for rage, specifically? The answer to this question largely comes down to how exactly anti-cheat software works?

You see, many solutions essentially function as "drivers" and in case you don't know what those are, There are pieces of software that allow your hardware devices to talk to your operating system. But hold on, we're not talking hardware. We're talking a video game. So why would anti-cheat software need to take the form of a driver? The reason that developers do this, is because drivers often operate in kernel mode.The BIG Problem With Anti-Cheat Software in Gaming

The kernel is the core part of your operating system that interfaces most closely with your hardware and as such programs running at the level of your kernel, gets special privileges, and can access parts of your computer that other applications cannot. The BIG Problem With Anti-Cheat Software in Gaming It's common for people who write cheats for video games, to also implement them at the kernel level, in order to bypass restrictions. So the response from software developers often needs to be at that level as well in order for them to be effective. And indeed, many anti-cheat implementations over the years have taken the form of kernel level drivers, including Easy Anti-cheat and Battle Eye, which are used by Fortnight and Pub-G, respectively.

But while the rationale for running anti cheat software at the kernel level might make sense, it still presents some special issues. One of them has to do with system stability, as giving any kind of software, that much privilege over your whole system can lead to errors or crashes if it isn't coded well.  kind of like putting a team driver, no pun intended, with a learner's permit behind the wheel of McLaren. Not to mention that poorly coded kernel mode drivers can leave your computer very vulnerable to malware, that takes aim at core parts of your operating system.

But while some of the major anti-cheat solutions, that work on a kernel level have actually been fairly well designed and haven't given users too many high profile issues, others have made headlines for the wrong reasons. Such as when one notable anti-cheat service, the ESEA client, was exploited by a developer back in 2013 to unwittingly turned gamers PCs into crypto-miners.

And Valorant's implementation called Vanguard, has raised some additional concerns. One is that it's always running. Unlike other popular anti-cheat software that only runs when you start up your game, Vanguard, well, it likes to boot at boot time. And originally Riot Games didn't even offer a way to turn it off. The latest version, allows you to turn it off, but If you wanna play Valorant, you actually have to reboot your PC in order to launch Vanguard again. Pretty annoying.

And while Vanguard isn't the only anti-cheat solution to run at boot, it's been criticized for being especially invasive, as the driver is built to block programs it deems suspicious, yet it's affected applications gamers commonly trust, like CPU temperature monitoring software. Vanguard also has issues, not giving players proper notifications when a legitimate program has been blocked, blocking hardware like keyboards, and even, causing blue screens of death.

Remember what we said about how kernel mode software can make your system unstable? And to top it all off, there's also the argument that placing anti-cheat software at the kernel level, will entice cheat makers to operate at that level more often as well. With all the security and stability issues that presents.

Of course, that isn't unique to Vanguard. In fact, Doom Eternal's anti cheat software, Denuvo was recently pulled due to fears stemming from the fact that it too operates at the kernel level. But big name titles like Valorant, do tend to set trends for the industry, for better or worse.

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