It is a sad fact that cheating and rule-breaking in sport gives rise to a lot of bile amongst both competitors and supporters. Think of the furore when a top athlete fails a drugs test, or when the result of a championship final comes down to a judgement call about offside. Multiplayer computer games are no different, and while there may be some rough team sports out there, in no other setting are team players so overtly trying to beat the crap out of each other as in an online first-person shooter. Throw in a bit of teenage angst in 1/3rd of the player base and you have a massive “bile bomb” primed to explode at any moment.
For this reason, cheating and the perception of cheating is a really big deal in the design of online shooters. In Boom! Headshot! I voiced some theories of mine on how a lot of the perception of cheating in computer games may be explained by skilled players inadvertently exploiting the game mechanics, but I have recently seen a shining example in the form of the game Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (COD4) of how to address and mitigate the perception of cheating.
First lets review two sorts of cheating that have really captured the imagination of the popular player base: wall hacks and aimbots. With a wall hack, the opponent can see his target even though he is concealed behind an object because the cheat has modified the graphics drivers to display walls as translucent rather than opaque (slight simplification). Aimbots can identify enemy players and assist a cheat in bringing his rifle to bear on the body of the enemy, usually the head. Many players who meet their death in situations where they cannot see how the person has managed to hit them (because they have been hiding, have been moving evasively, or are at great distance) get frustrated and let rip with accusations of cheating. Ironically this sort of cheating is pretty rare, because widespread adoption can be effectively countered by cheat detection software such as punkbuster. There will always be one or two cheats with their own custom software, but the masses simply cannot cheat.
But the trick the Call of Duty 4 developers have used is to make an action replay. Now this has been done before in games for dramatic effect, but crucially COD4 makes the replay from first-person view of the enemy who makes the kill, and winds back a full 5 or 6 seconds before the kill. Should you be unconcerned to see the replay, you may of course skip it. The embedded youtube video shows multiplayer gameplay, with a action replay occurring about 40 seconds in. Now, read on to consider the effect of this…