Tackling the cheat market in China
Like the video game industry it harms, cheating is a global phenomenon. It’s also no secret that one of its biggest markets, in terms of both supply and demand, is China.
In spite of (or should that be because of) the scale of the problem there, many publishers and developers find themselves unable and unwilling to tackle the issue, and effectively turn a blind eye.
It’s certainly true that it’s difficult to take legal action against the developers, and as we’ll explain later, it’s also hard for Game Security teams outside the region to get a full picture of what is going on.
However, never ones to shirk a challenge, the research team at Intorqa recently began to analyze the cheat community there, in order to evaluate the scale of the problem, understand how the ecosystem operates, identify similarities and differences with US and European cheat markets, and uncover opportunities for managing the threat.
Whilst this briefing is only an introduction with some initial observations and hypotheses, we hope it helps. If you’re interested in going deeper and looking below the surface, we’d love to talk further.
The state of play
The Asia Pacific region contains half the world's gamers with 1.48 billion and China accounts for close to 700m of those, so it shouldn’t be a surprise the cheat market in China is significant. As we say, where you find players, you’ll find cheat developers.
That said, it’s arguably disproportionately big. For example, according to data from the publisher, of the 7 million banned script users in 'League of Legends', a staggering 5 million were from China. Similarly, PUBG discovered that 99% of their identified cheaters originated from China.
Sometimes this hits the headlines, as many of you reading this will recall with the case of 'Chicken Drumstick' a couple of years ago which featured quite staggering numbers: Police bust 'world's biggest' video-game-cheat operation - BBC News
So, it’s important that as an industry we start to pay more attention to it and better understand the cheat ecosystem and its nuances better. As we’ll see, cheating in China throws up its fair share of contradictions, and being aware of these will help publishers and developers take the appropriate action.
While cheat developers in the US and Europe look to establish their own websites and utilize forums and community platforms for promotions, many of their counterparts in China and Taiwan adopt a notably different strategy.
Emulating the more traditional retail business model of a legitimate manufacturer, these developers work with primary cheat sellers/wholesalers, who then employ a 'franchising' system, recruiting sub-sellers for broader distribution.
Similarly, when it comes to marketing, US and European cheat developers typically handle both the development and promotion aspects, and as a result it's the developer that builds a brand and reputation.
The dynamic in China is distinctively different. Here the cheat retailers act as the brand, and the cheats themselves are treated as individual products within that brand.
Interestingly, Taiwan's selling system works more like the US and EU with developers selling and interacting with their customers on Discord.
This structure and approach poses challenges for Game Security teams as identifying the root seller becomes much harder, requiring scrutiny of various elements like contact information, website design, and associated links.
Also making matters hard for Game Security teams is the fact that cheat communities within China, are predominantly (very) private.
Access to many of these forums and groups often requires membership. Several Chinese platforms, such as QQ and WeChat, restrict sign-ups from overseas regions like the EU and US.
The use of distinct social and communication platforms, such as “Kook” - often referred to as the Chinese version of Discord, also presents challenges for outsiders lacking local knowledge.
Additionally, due to specific censorship measures in China, players frequently sidestep direct terms like “cheat” or “hacks,” opting instead for euphemisms such as “Support 辅助” or “Technology 科技”. (Not quite as obvious as the use of ‘cheese’ or ‘chair’ in the US!)
Delving into cheat forums, one might anticipate discussions about the functionality and efficacy of various cheats. However, closer observation reveals a different scenario. Many of these usually independent forums primarily serve as platforms for cheat sellers or users to share free cheats.
In the comments section beneath these posts, there's often repetitive content. Users frequently leave comments like "I have liked and commented on this post" or "6666" (a term in China signifying approval or that something is 'awesome'). This pattern emerges because many forums necessitate user interaction, such as commenting, to access and unlock cheat download links.
In contrast to many US and European cheat developers, who often leverage these forums to promote their cheats, Chinese cheat sellers tend to rely on private QQ groups, in-game public chats, and even platforms like Taobao for promotions.
Hiding in plain site
In contrast to this secrecy, it's common to hear streamers using cheats during their broadcasts on platforms like BiliBili. Some go so far as to promote these cheats, happily misleading their viewers by suggesting that manipulating computer programs through scripts isn't true 'cheating' since it doesn't directly alter the game's core code.
This narrative tends to blur ethical boundaries within the gaming community and may explain why some players see cheating as no big deal.
The role of VPNs
China's rigorous censorship and their desire for a different gaming culture and community, means players from China, as well as regions like Taiwan and Hong Kong, leverage VPNs to connect to outside servers. This choice to forsake local servers, despite the latency challenges of a 200-ping game on distant servers, speaks volumes.
Apex Legends offers an example. EA's decision against rolling out a dedicated server for Chinese players— a situation common with numerous games— means that these players, hungry for the Apex experience, turn to VPNs. They predominantly link up with neighbouring servers in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore. The sheer number of gamers China boasts ensures a significant spillover of cheating onto these Asian servers.
This influx hasn't gone unnoticed. Players from both Asia and Europe have expressed concerns about the swelling numbers of Chinese gamers and an associated spike in cheating, especially on these particular servers.
“As of now all Asian Servers from Singapore,Tokyo,Taiwan to Hong Kong are being plagued by Chinese Hackers” - Reddit user
“these guys are even blasting their mic during the loading screen to sell hacks and just dip…” - Reddit user
“Seems like they are invading every servers” - Steam user
Allegations of these servers being overrun by hackers are common. Recalling incidents from as far back as 2019, there were cases of Chinese cheat sellers deploying bots during the 'legend select' scene in Apex, only to exit the game just before the start. This left players stranded without a team and sick of being spammed. Unfortunately, this isn't an isolated event.
Other gaming communities, such as CSGO, Tarkov, and most recently Battlebit, encounter similar predicaments.
Vorsprung Durch Technik
Chanel, Louis Vuitton and Rolex aren’t the only Western brands sought after in China. Cheats from established developers popular in the US and Europe often find their way to markets in China and Taiwan, undergoing a repackaging process to make them appeal to local players.
Sellers in China and Taiwan often emphasize "Overseas Developer" as a unique selling point. To local customers, this denotes a level of reliability and security. Note how the MK cheat for Tarkov below is sold on Eden1113 as being developed in Germany, as if they’re selling a BMW or Audi.
These cheats are tailored to the local audience with translations and potential additional features, with sellers generally using Simplified Chinese to reach the most players possible.
Even here there are intricacies that make it harder for Game Security teams to stay on top of things. Chinese sellers often rename cheats into short form, so Klar will be KR and Fecurity is FR, or FE. Just to make things harder to search for!
But there is a real benefit in persevering.
These vendors potentially reach and sell products to millions of cheaters. So, if you’re a Game Security Analyst working on one of these games, and you can see which of the cheats available for your game are also being sold in China, you can factor this in when prioritizing which cheats need analyzing most urgently, and where your engineers can have the greatest impact with an update. If you’re not applying this lens, you could well be targeting the wrong cheat developers, at the wrong time.
Since you can buy these imported cheats from the vendors based in the US or Europe, procuring them shouldn't be too much of a hassle. It certainly remains much easier than buying cheats directly from the Chinese sellers.
The market for cheats in China is big, and as you look closer you can see how it’s becoming more integrated with those in the US and Europe - whether that’s the use of VPNs allowing cheats to play on non-Chinese servers, or the sale of ‘Western’ cheats in Chinese marketplaces.
And, while monitoring the Chinese cheat market and its communities is harder for developers than it is in their home markets (although that's not without its challenges as well) it’s perfectly possible to massively level-up your intel and insight on it.
The best starting point for any Game Security team is mapping the cheating landscape in the region for your game, identifying key vendors, actors, channels, and cheats, then setting up the appropriate monitoring where possible.
You won’t be able to pull in as many channels as you’d like, and buying local cheats for testing takes time and ingenuity, but you’ll soon know a lot more about the risks your game faces, and how you can counter them and make your game harder to hack than your competitors.
To help publishers with this, we have set up a dedicated team whose focus is on research, monitoring, and analysis of Chinese language cheat vendors and communities. And, we're waiting to speak with you.