Call of Duty multiplayer has always been a favorite target for cheaters, such as Modern Warfare 2, whose community had been ravaged by constant boosting, hacking and exploits. Keeping games safe from cheaters is a constant struggle, states Activision producer Noah Heller, but the company will not be heavy-handed about it.
Modern Warfare 3 suffers far less hacking, but the game still gets exploited by boosters. Heller won't explain what the developers are doing to keep the game's multiplayer safe, but he did hint that the company's in-house anti-cheating tools are getting better.
Heller compared the situation to an arms race. "Like all security, especially on the net, it's a race. We come up with some things, someone comes up with something better. I know the Infinity Ward guys are very explicit about launching the banhammer, and more than a few people have had their stats reset, or even been booted out of multiplayer for a period of time," he stated.
He then added that the software can detect obvious behavior, noting "We've evolved these automatic tools that detect boosting. For example, if you kill the same guy ten times in a row, and he just lines up to get shot, eventually you're going to get caught and you're going to get your stats reset. If you're in Elite competition at the same time, you might get disqualified and banned from competing in future competitions."
Of course, not everything is as simple as that, and determining legitimate behavior from cheating can be difficult. Some gameplay tactics are simply smart, not exploits. Sometimes it's a matter of context.
"If all of us were in a Lone Wolf operation and Mark (Cox, European Marketing Director of Call of Duty Digital Products) was playing with a riot shield and acting as a bullet shield for me, that would be cheating, because it's a lone operation," he gave as an example, "In a clan operation, that's good team play. So the tools we built to detect cheating don't really apply to clan operations. They have to be changed and refactored."
As another example, Heller described, "I know a couple of things: if Mark is on my clan and I'm killing him because he's on the other team, that's probably cheating. I also know that some people might want to hide and disguise their relationships with other users. So, if I just happen to be killing Mark over and over again, but he's only on my friends list and not in my clan, or even not on my friends list, that might lead it to be called cheating. And so, we're learning how to weight these different metrics against each other and have built tools to do it more automatically."
However, exploits are one thing. Console hacking is quite another, and Heller stated that Activision has co-operated with both Microsoft and Sony to combat it, when he described as "the most dangerous" cheating of all, since that gives the cheater superpowers such as invulnerability or wallhacking.
That sort of hacking is demoralizing to the legitimate player.
Heller also revealed that Activision's merger with Blizzard gave the company the benefit of the company's experience with multiplayer security. "There's a lot of interaction between the enforcement team and their counterparts at Blizzard. There's more of an overlap than you'd think," he said.
They also adopted Blizzard's policy of only banning players when it was absolutely necessary.
"Where we can, we try not to have too heavy of a hand. If it's for a digital badge, and what someone did looks pretty fair, we try and let that remain, because we really want hard evidence someone's a cheater before we take enforcement actions against them," Heller related.
"A cheater is a cheater and how to handle a cheater from a customer service and policy standpoint is not that much different from game to game."