Sasquatch Soapbox: Unleashing the Banhammer? Xbox Live, cheaters, and bans

For all the positives that your yearly Xbox Live gold subscription buys, it comes with one major downfall: the generic Xbox Live asshole. This is not a new phenomenon — Penny Arcade codified the "G.I.F.T." system more than five years ago — but on two recent major Xbox 360 titles, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and Forza Motorsport 3, it appears that the Live team is finally taking a strong stance on cheaters.

But is what's happening in these titles really cheating, and is the tough-guy stance really the appropriate response?

The Wild West

Xbox Live has always been seen by gamers as a walled garden of sorts. From the early days when the service launched on the original Xbox, there were worries from users that any sort of modifications or hacks to a system would get you kicked off the service — for good. Fears of a permanent ban may have diminished (at least they had prior to Microsoft cleaning house earlier in the fall), but for all intents and purposes, Xbox Live has been a digital Wild West. It's a land of opportunity with plenty of wonderful features to make use of and mine (not the least of which being playing games online, of course), but you have to deal with cheaters, players taking advantage of glitches in games, people meta-gaming the system and all variety of foul language. In short, it's got its drawbacks.

It's fascinating, then, to see that Microsoft finally appears to be leaning on some of its biggest development teams to actually do something about the mess gamers make online. Both Modern Warfare 2 and Forza 3 have had glitches almost ruin the online experience recently, and — surprisingly — the developers have responded by pushing back against the cheaters.

Modern Warfare 2's multiplayer is huge business — it's number one on Xbox Live activity according to Major Nelson (note that even the two previous CoD titles — World at War and CoD4 — are still in the top 10!). It makes sense that, with that many people actively engaged in their game's multiplayer component, Infinity Ward and Activision would want to rein in any cheaters.

It appears that Infinity Ward is being proactive against Xbox Live cheating — the recent "javelin" glitch already has a fix, and other issues (like an infinite ammo glitch that spreads like a virus, and issues relating to accidentally being sent to private matches via the public matchmaking) are being addressed soon.

While Forza 3 has only had one major glitch issue to deal with, it was a big one. Players could manipulate the game to create cars that could be re-sold in the game for hundreds of millions — if not billions — of in-game credits. Those credits, while only good within Forza 3, allow players to buy cars, parts, and — crucially to the ecosystem of the in-game economy Turn 10 created in Forza 3 — items off of the in-game storefront. Not only did a glitched bank account mean access to an unlimited supply of designs and vinyl groups -- it also meant the storefront's auctions were easy to dominate.

A Leg to Stand On?

Along with both developers fixing the bugs and glitches and preventing users from accessing them again, users who exploited those glitches have also been banned from Xbox Live — either temporarily or, in some cases, permanently. Can Microsoft do this? Of course it can. As pointed out by Turn 10 Community Manager Che Chou, it's in the Xbox Live Terms of Use:

“In using the Service, you may not exploit a bug, or make an unauthorized modification, to any software or data to gain unfair advantage in a game, contest, or promotion."

So not only are modders, who have traditionally had to be wary of Xbox Live bans, on the run, but now glitchers are too.

While developers might have a legal leg to stand on in this case, do they have a moral one? Many gamers feel that the old EA Sports motto should apply here: If it's in the game, it's in the game. If there's an exploit sitting in the finished game, well, the coders should have fixed it in the QA process and it's their fault. That's the stance some gamers took in regard to MW2; however, the problem is that it changes the game. In the case of MW2, it changes from a game where you shoot guns to a game where (in the case of the javelin glitch) you have to avoid the suicide bomber with a giant anti-aircraft missile.

In the case of the Forza credit glitch, gamers on forums have pointed out that the exact same glitch was in Forza 2; indeed, glitched Forza 2 cars were being passed out before Forza 3 came out. It's a very laissez-faire way to approach glitching in games, and one that's apparently made even more acceptable by the motto of "ship it and patch it later" in development that goes hand-in-hand with the current console generation.

Does the Punishment Fit the Crime?

Of course there have been accidental bans as well. A comment on that Turn 10 blog post linked above was posted by a user who seemingly was wrongfully banned for glitching in Forza 3:

I just logged onto forza and see that my profile has been found to have violated the XBOX Live terms of agreement via a credit exploit.?!?

THIS IS RIDICULOUS! I have never glitched, I don't even know how, I have about 900,000 credits and I am into season 4, I just race career mode. I haven't purchased anything on the AH and the only cars I have purchased period are a 2003 350Z, and the GTR from the DLC. All of the cars in my garage are just the ones you get from leveling up.

This is my second game save because I purchased the MW2 elite and had to start over since I don't have a transfer kit. I am running a triple screen setup, and have enough headaches trying to get that to run properly with my DLC and now this..

I am a 30 year old gamer with no desire to glitch, hack, cheat etc. This is getting out of hand as far as denying my online access when I have done absolutely nothing wrong. I have spent my money on 3plus xboxes, monitors, triple lcd stand, forza 3 LE playseat, and 3 copies of Forza and this happens. I am pretty pissed off right now.

Who do I need to contact about this?

Granted, just because it's on the Internet doesn't mean it's true, but if this guy's being honest he has a right to be upset.

Interestingly enough, as part of the solution to the problem, Turn 10 ran an amnesty program in December regarding credit glitching:

Starting this evening (Dec. 12) and all through the weekend, we will be putting up Ford Focus RS for 10s and 100s of millions of credits as an amnesty program for glitchers. If you have gotten credits by cheating, we know all about it and have all the numbers. If you don’t want to get banned next week, I encourage you to go and get rid of your credits by purchasing one of these Ford Focus RS put up in the Auction House by Gamertag “TurnTenStudios”. Do not accept imitations or buy a Focus RS for millions of credits from any Gamertag other than “TurnTenStudios”. Purchase the Focus RS that is appropriate to the amount of credits you glitched and your name will be taken off the list for banning next week – but be sure to stay honest because we’re actually running another scan on Monday to see the outcome. Either way, it’s a chance for folks to come clean and start over.

"Come clean and start over." That's certainly an interesting choice of words to use for the situation. Turn 10 takes it seriously because it has tried to create an honest-to-god in-game economy for cars, designs, and auctions in Forza 3. They have released "unicorn cars" — race cars sprinkled into the auction house from time to time — but one of the cries they made against glitchers is that they cornered the market and drove up prices for those cars, creating an unequal economic situation. But how much should the developer intervene in a game's economy? That's a question that almost taps into one's socio-economic stance as much as the debate over public healthcare in the United States does.

The question comes back to what defines a "glitch," what defines "cheating," and what defines just plain-old "cheap" tactics in a videogame. A glitch can enable anything between unbalanced play and flat-out cheating, depending on the circumstance. Cheap is something that you have to rein in on a social level; remember four-player deathmatch Goldeneye on the Nintendo 64 back in the day? (Of course you do.) Was my group of friends the only one to ban the Oddjob character model from the game because he was so much shorter than everyone else and, therefore, harder to shoot? Doubtful. Was it cheating? Not really; Oddjob was in the game and designed that way. Did it present an unfair advantage? God yes, which is why he was banned by house rules.

My thought is that the Forza 3 credit deal is a glitch that falls under "cheating," whereas some of the MW2 ones are glitches that fall into being "cheap" — though the infinite ammo virus skirts into cheating, and the lobby one is plain-old wackiness. However, bringing Xbox Live bans into the equation makes you re-think some of these issues and try to think how developers and the Live team are going to defend their slippery slope.

If you start banning Xbox Live users for something that's in a gray area — like the javelin glitch — then what in other games becomes a ban-able offense? I'm all for anything that can help clean up Xbox Live — I currently play games only with friends for this very reason — but some glitching and buggy cheapness is something that I think falls on the developers, and they can't ban away their troubles.

Will there be cries to fix things that straddle the line between glitch and cheap in the name of game balance? Of course — that's the developers' jobs. With online play, a rising number of increasingly complicated games and so many people playing games like MW2 online with an almost religious devotion, it's going to stress even the toughest multiplayer game engine. The most rigorous online testing teams can't playtest a game enough to uncover every possible bug before release. But glitches and bug still need to be found and eradicated — especially ones as egregious as the javelin glitch in MW2, or the money glitch in Forza -- or else everybody loses out.