ASUS, the Taiwanese components maker, has released its much-criticised video card drivers that allow online game players to cheat.
The drivers, which allow players to see through walls, were first announced in July last year and were immediately condemned by players and gaming organisations.
At the time, ASUS boasted: "There are three special weapons for ASUS VGA cards' users -- Transparent View, Wireframe View, and Extra Light. If you do not have an ASUS VGA card -- be careful! Never compete in the 3D games with anyone who has an ASUS VGA card. Because the only result is to loose (sic)."
In an open letter of complaint, the Online Gamers Association said that releasing the drivers "would ruin the spirit of good sportsmanship in online and competitive gaming [and] would be disastrous for the online gaming community, and for the growing sport of professional gaming."
A poll of OGA members showed that 90 per cent of those who voted felt ASUS should not release the drivers, "as it would encourage cheating in online games".
It was thought that ASUS had backed down in the face of overwhelming opposition, but this week it came to light that the drivers have in fact been released. Not surprisingly, online gamers and industry professionals are again up in arms.
Epic Games programmer Tim Sweeney, who created the Unreal and Unreal Tournament engines and is now working on development for Microsoft's Xbox console, was quick to condemn ASUS:
"What a bunch of lamers. Any hardware maker who releases drivers that encourage cheating in multiplayer games is out of touch with the spirit of gaming."
Tony Ray, programmer of the anti-cheating software PunkBuster, expressed similar feelings:
"We tried to get Asus to respond by helping us stop the use of the cheat drivers months ago and never received a response from them. They seem bent on harming the honest gamers in the online communities with no thought about anything except their own sales figures. They are playing on the worst human
emotions to try to sell more product."
It is possible to prevent most cheating in online games, either by implementing security checks or fixing exploitable bugs, but there is little that can be done to prevent the use of driver-level cheats.
PunkBuster can detect the ASUS drivers and ban players who are using them, but currently the software only works with one game, Half-Life, and its various add-ons such as Team Fortress and Counter-Strike. Players must install a small monitoring program and connect to a PunkBuster-enabled server, but the system is entirely voluntary so until it becomes standard, cheating players can simply connect to a normal server.
So is an engine-level solution the way to go? Tim Sweeney answers: "That's difficult, because Microsoft (rightly) goes to great lengths to abstract Windows away from particular pieces of hardware. Especially with a situation like this, where the cheating is a particular driver version from a particular manufacturer using an NVIDIA chipset -- it would be hard to ban just the cheaters without impacting innocent players who happen to have the same or similar hardware."
Instead, Sweeney suggests, the solution should come in the traditional form of complaints and protests from disgruntled players.
"Probably the best way to deal with this is to ask gamers all over the world to email Asus explaining why their cheat-drivers ruin everyone's online gaming experience, write negative articles about how Asus is anti-gaming, and criticise whatever idiotic marketing guy at Asus though this was a good idea."
Hype and hysteria
Although the ASUS cheat drivers do give reason for concern, their potential impact has been exaggerated by some members of the gaming community. In reality, it is not technically possible to achieve the "see through walls" cheat, at least not to the extent that some people believe.
One common optimisation in online games is that players and items which are hidden behind scenery are ignored, so there is less for the player's computer to draw and less data for the server to send, improving both frame-rates and network efficiency.
Quite accidentally, this optimisation also prevents the ASUS cheat from working as well as it otherwise might have. For example, Sweeney explains how the cheat would impact Unreal games:
"The effect will be somewhat limited because Unreal only sends coordinates of other players that are either visible, almost visible, or were visible sometime in the past several seconds. So it won't give cheaters a godlike ability to track other players, but will definitely create an unfair advantage, because you'll be able to see players who've just ducked behind walls or are running away and hiding."
But even if the ASUS drivers don't provide the miracle cure that cheaters are looking for, they are certainly a warning sign. It just remains to be seen what new ways ASUS or another 3D card manufacturer may devise to give their under-skilled customers a helping hand up the gaming league tables.
Cheating in online games, especially first-person shooters, is more common than you may imagine, and the tricks that cheaters use range from the devilishly simple to the technically impressive.
With games such as Quake giving players the ability to customise graphics, it wasn't long before someone came up with the idea of editing the 'skins' of opponents so they would appear as solid white figures, making it impossible for them to hide in shadows.
This tactic was soon taken a step further, and cheaters began to edit their own in-game characters so they would look like common items such as a health packs or ammo boxes, making it easy to hide and sneak up on opponents. Some cheaters even morphed themselves into tiny, one-pixel blocks, making them almost invisible.
Nowadays, cheats are much more advanced. Hacked versions of the OpenGL graphics system allow cheaters the same options as the controversial ASUS drivers, making walls transparent and even removing shadows, which gives a cheating player a tactical advantage.
And so-called "aim bots" exist which intercept messages sent from the game server and analyse where opponents are on screen, allowing them to be automatically targeted with no effort from the cheating player.
Last year, there was outrage after the programmer of an aim bot for Quake III Arena admitted how he had created the cheat in the hope of ruining the game for its mainstream audience. He preferred Quake II and hoped that by allowing people to cheat in Arena, genuine players would go back to the earlier game.