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…
A player who believes he is hiding fully behind a crate or barrel but who in fact has his leg slightly exposed will see in the action replay that he is not fully hidden, and watch his opponent notice, and bring his gun to bear to make the kill. A player who is at great distance but visible will see in the action replay his killer lie down and spend time taking careful aim before making the shot that he would otherwise have assumed was done using an aimbot. A player who is indeed totally hidden behind an object but who gets destroyed by a frag(mentation) grenade will see in the replay that the enemy spotted him sprinting across and hiding a few seconds earlier, so the player did not need to use a wallhack to know he was there. In short, the action replay reassures the player that they were killed fairly.
Finally, I have observed another COD4 feature which helps improve the perception of fairness — the general permeability of most walls and objects in the levels to sustained gunfire. In real life bullets can penetrate many types of materials, and ricochets can kill when taking cover behind much harder objects. This means (in technical terms) that there is only concealment and never cover. The COD4 tutorials and “player challenges” actively encourage players to learn to shoot one another through walls and objects, for instance giving special awards and bonuses to new players once they have made five “through-wall” kills in a row. In many circumstances it is the shortcomings of the physics model of a game which jar the players enjoyment, but crucially most FPS players assume that taking cover behind an object will protect them from all bullets aimed in their direction, which is definitely not the case in real life (maybe this erroneous belief about real-life bullet pyhsics persists because those who discover its falsity do not live to tell the tale). This belief in simplistic bullet physics causes great frustration when people who believe they are cover get hit, be it because of improper concealment, or indeed because of lag, or bugs in the collision detection code for bullets (this does happen). Thus the reintroduction of more realistic bullet and materials physics into games, combined with proper education of the players takes away another major source of frustration for players.
So, top marks to COD4 for their attention to perception of fairness, but I have two more sinister thoughts:
1. If I was a COD4 developer and found myself having to endure regular cheating attempts, and indeed some so subtle that the user could not be instantly banned, I would want the action replay NEVER to show cheating — because as sports stars know, real cheating damages the reputation of a game as much as perceived cheating, if not more. For one, I would smooth the mouse movements of the attacking player, so that even if they were using a top-notch unprovable aimbot, there would be no hint of suspicion in the action replay. So could the perception of fairness techniques used to prevent unwarranted accusations of cheating actually be designed deliberately to cover up real cheating too?
2. Whilst action replay justice might be a breath of fresh air in the computer gaming world, has it really settled controversy and reduced bile in the real-life sporting world or not? Or does the presence of more information and data just undermine the authority of referees and others yet further? Could action replay justice adopters actually be shooting themselves in the foot?