A big component of an online video game’s success is found in the efficiency of its ability to catch cheaters in a reasonable amount of time. Someone wall hacking in CS:GO, for example, can be a problem that ruins the experience of new and veteran players alike. Given enough time, those experiences compound and, ultimately, create cause for a loss of player retention of the long term. This is an issue Rainbow: Six Siege, for example, suffers from immensely.
Its in this area where Anti-Cheat software comes into play. Whether its a service that independent titles have bought to protect their playerbase or an in-house software created by the game developers themselves, these programs function as a barrier between players using third party software to gain an advantage and the rest of us who use raw inputs. The programs, from game to game and era to era, are most certainly not created equal, though.
Or Valve Anti-Cheat, is a software created by Counter Strike and Half-Life developers Valve. Back in 2001, Valve decided that their newly birthed love child, Counter Strike, would be stripped of its normal Anti-Cheat service, PunkBuster, in exchange for a newer, in-house solution that was deemed to be more effective ‘in the long term’. Thus came VAC.
The anti-cheat software, unlike many of its peers today, doesn’t run on a kernel level. This basically means that no matter how long you keep it open and running on your PC, it can never have a deep level of access to your hardware. Essentially, its very much a non-intrusive software that gives players ease of mind when it comes to their personal info being protected from malicious intent by Valve, or those who can exploit VAC for access into the anti-cheat’s database.
This approach of non-intrusive watchdoging comes at its own price, though. While many other anti-cheat software are proactive while looking for anything on one’s PC that might be suspicious, VAC can accomplish no such feat in such a rapid amount of time. Instead, VAC takes a more long-term, steady approach through two methods.
First, this software aims to provide challenges to a player’s client to test its response. Any response from a client that’s out of the norm is flagged immediately. Additionally, the software scans every player’s computer for processes and memory for any known cheats. Using these two methods, VAC is updated on a consistent basis to constantly evolve as more cheats are invented for the games running the anti-cheat, meaning that a majority of bans against smart cheaters are issued in waves and in large numbers, as apposed to a steady stream of “detect and delete”.
Riot Games’ anti-cheat service made solely for Valorant came out of its development (or early development, anyway) with a bang. News about its operations on a kernel level were quickly flooded into the relevant outlets, and the public worry over the potential risks involved with such an anti-cheat left about as quickly as it came. For those who have no idea what I’m saying, I’ll explain briefly:
Vanguard, unlike the aforementioned VAC, operates on a kernel level. Remember what I said about VAC never having access to your computer in any meaningful way? Well, Vanguard takes that principle and throws it out the window in ways that shook their playerbase to the CORE (kinda, not really. It was still interesting, though).
In theory, the anti-cheat, which still operates in the same way it did on Valorant’s release, could be used to steal all of the information contained within a player’s computer. Fun! Most people’s worries about this sort of thing happening are often eased by the fact that Riot Games, Vanguard’s developer and owner, doesn’t have any malicious intent behind their game development. And while that is, almost certainly, true. It doesn’t shake the fact that all, and I mean all, software can be taken advantage of. That’s the nature of software security, after all: If a protection can be made, it can be broken, however unlikely of that actually happening.
What I mean to say is that it doesn’t matter whether or not Riot wants to steal your info for one purpose or another. If someone who gains access to Vanguards internal communications in one way or another has malicious intent, they’ll abuse it and there is nothing anyone can do to stop them short of taking that access away.
This potential risk doesn’t come without its benefits, as most of you might be assuming. Because of the access Vanguard has to one’s computer, and the fact that its running whether or not Valorant is launched or not, the more precautions it can take in weeding out cheaters. In fact, and this might be more worrying than impressive, to some, Vanguard can detect whether or not a player has any cheats running on his or her computer before they launch Valorant in the first place. Neeto!
Less cheaters, less privacy. It sounds a terrible trade, to some. But others might make the argument that the right to privacy on the internet is a right that disappeared long ago. Make of that what you will.
This software runs on games such as Dead by Daylight, Fortnite, and PUBG, and can be described as the middle ground between the two aforementioned anti-cheats. It still operates on a kernel level, and still collects info about your computer and its software, but doesn’t do so when you’re not playing one of its respective games. The difference between this might be minimal or fairly substantial, depending on who you ask, and given Easy’s attitude toward a more ‘preventative’ and ‘less invasive’ anti-cheat being their goal, its clear they are at least making an effort to dress up their software as being a more effective VAC while being a less creepy Vanguard.
Again, its supposed to be a middle ground. And with these software taking up their positions as some of the big dogs in an industry as big as video games, it’ll be interesting to see how all three develop within the next decade. While the specific functions of each might vary and morph, one thing is clear: The hope that online gaming will retain its hands off relationship with the player into the future is slowly but surely dwindling.