There’s something to be said for creating a behemoth. And whether Brendan Greene intended to or not, that’s what he got with Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG). Though accused by some of being derivative, and decried by others for being shallow, or roughshod, or any other number of derogatory comments, the game is, far and away, the most popular on Steam.
Despite complaints, or because of them, players from all over the world flocked to the title in 2017. It now sits firmly atop Steam’s “Top games by current player count” list, and on any given day, peaks at well over 2 million players.
That’s impressive any way you slice it.
But with such massive popularity, there’s bound to be hiccups. And, unfortunately, PUBG seems to suffer from one of the more niggling and pernicious ailments that could affect any game: cheating.
A Fly in the Ointment
When a game has such a massive community, idiosyncrasies tend to show. For MOBAs like League or DOTA 2, these are expressed in the toxicity of the community. For MMOs, it’s heartless elitism (try a dungeon queue in any MMO and you’ll understand what I mean).
And for PUBG, a game that’s the epitome of competitiveness, it’s cheating.
Cheating isn’t so much of a symptom of PUBG, but more of a distilled expression of the dark underbelly of the shooter genre. This becomes especially clear when considering how quickly the game climbed from obscure Early Access title to top-of-the-charts blockbuster. It was so fast that Bluehole (now PUBG Corporation) and Battleye (the anti-cheat system the game uses) had nearly no time to react to the exploding player base.
Considering the circumstances, it’s difficult to compare PUBG to something like Counterstrike (and the Steam VAC system), which has been growing slowly and steadily since the early 2000s. With nearly two decades to adjust to the playerbase, cheating is far less feasible. Of course, it still happens, but it’s hardly as prevalent as it was back in the early days, when VAC was still in its infancy and Team Fortress 2 was at its peak.
The unfortunate results is that cheating has been able to develop a solid foothold in the PUBG community.
In the early days of PUBG, cheating was characterized more by server instability and vulnerable game files than the kinds of exploits players have come to expect from first person shooters.
Server instability often prevented buildings from loading, meaning players could see, shoot, and even drive, through walls. And, depending on the computer, this would be an issue in nearly every game played.
From a game file standpoint, it was possible to remove the wall textures from buildings, meaning they just wouldn’t load, allowing cheaters to see, and shoot at, players that thought they were safe. On top of that, it was also possible to replace the default player textures with ones of higher contrast and brighter color, making players easy to pick out on the original map’s drab color palette.
This type of cheating persisted through the beginning of Early Access until PUBG Corporation managed to increase server stability and Battleye began to ban players for game file exploits. A reporting system was even put in place, but it served as more of a “feel good” button than an actual avenue for deterring cheaters (the original text under the report button stated that reports were collected for statistical purposes only and wouldn’t be used to take action against any players).
But once these exploits were made moot, more conventional types of cheating began to gain ground in the steadily growing community. Aimbots, wallhacks, speed hacking, and increased health all made their debut as the game barreled towards a late-2017 release. And even though Battleye tried it’s best to keep up with the growing numbers of players exploiting the game, it was never enough.
Things kept getting worse.
All that Glitters…
The official release of the game added everything. Even the kitchen sink. Servers were remarkably stable, there was a shiny new killcam, a replay feature that allowed players to watch games back from nearly any perspective, and a functioning report system.
But the the improvements were a double edged sword.
The killcam and replay functions put a spotlight on cheating in PUBG. That isn’t to say that cheating wasn’t a popular topic before. Indeed, it was likely one of the most talked about problems in the game, but being able to see cheating from the perspective of those doing it was far more damning an exercise.
It’s one thing to suspect that a player is cheating, but quite another to watch as they track you through a wall, or to see their cursor snap to your head just as it comes into view. For a short time, there did seem to be quite a bit more cheating on the third person servers. This meant that escaping to first person was a possibility, but even now that gap has narrowed to near as much makes no difference. Now, it doesn’t matter where you go, you’ll still likely die to someone who has some sort of (artificial) unfair advantage.
And things become even more daunting when considering just how many players Battleye has banned. In December, the number was right around 100k.
And in January?
It was 1.5 MILLION…
Let that sink in for a second.
Who’s to Blame?
That brings us to the elephant in the room.
Any player who has had the stomach to leave in-game chat turned on at the beginning of a match has likely heard more than their fair share of racial slurs and other uncouth language. But there’s something else they’ve likely heard far more than even that:
“China number one!”
Regardless of what PUBG server you frequent, the influx of players from Asia has been nothing short of phenomenal. But this is especially so for the NA servers.
Since official release, the number of players spouting slurs and name calling has subsided, replaced by an ever growing population of Chinese players. It’s immediately appropriate to ask why this influx of Chinese players is relevant. Especially with regards to cheating.
Cheating, of course, isn’t something that is exclusive to one region or another – it happens everywhere and in every game – but in the case of PUBG, most cheaters are coming from China; 99 percent of them according to a Battleye statistic cited by Brendan Greene.
That’s far more than the lion’s share. And it’s caused a massive uproar in the community.
So what about region locking?
Since the massive influx of Chinese players (and cheaters) to other servers, there has been an overwhelming call from the PUBG community to region lock China: from threads on the PUBG forums, to reddit posts, to a change.org petition with over 7000 signatures.
No matter the source, the demand is always the same – for PUBG Corporation to restrict Chinese players to their own server, essentially preventing them from playing (and cheating) on any of the other PUBG servers.
The response to this demand has been lukewarm. So far, PUBG Corporation hasn’t provided an official response. And Brendan Greene has only gone so far as to say that he thinks region locking isn’t a great idea, and that it likely won’t happen. All the while, Battleye continues to ban as many cheaters as they can catch.
But even though no direct region lock will take place, PUBG Corporation plans to implement a solution that could be just as effective.
Enter Ping Matching
Originally, PUBG Corporation were “considering introducing a maximum ping limit to improve the game environment” for players. But, due to massive issues with cheating after the initial 1.0 release, that plan had to be put on hold while they worked on the Anti-Cheat Update in early February.
Now, however, they’re back with a different, and potentially better, plan for matchmaking. Instead of setting a ping limit for games, PUBG Corporation intends to try dividing the matchmaking pool based on individual player ping. Players would be prioritized and grouped based on their ping, supposedly meaning that players with similar pings would be put into the same game.
While this isn’t region locking per se, it could potentially act in a similar fashion.
This type of matchmaking wouldn’t prevent anyone from playing on any server, but it would most likely match players from outside a server region together, while prioritizing those within the region (due to natural latency associated with distance from a server). Of course, the flipside is that those inside the region with inferior internet would likely wind up playing exclusively with foreign players. Either way, this particular method of matchmaking, while not as far reaching as many in the community would like to see, will likely improve the quality of games in the near future.
This change in matchmaking was included on the “PC 1.0 Update #6” patch, rolled to the PUBG test servers on February 20. As of writing, there has been no official announcement as to when these changes will be rolled to the live servers, and the most up to date information on the PUBG forums states that an update timeline will be announced soon.
A step too far
Whenever the new matchmaking system is put in place, there is one thing I’m sure of: PUBG doesn’t need region locking.
Matchmaking based on ping will make games far smoother and the outcomes of firefights far more consistent (which is sorely needed), but from a cheating standpoint, PUBG Corporation and Battleye have already taken massive strides to tamp down on the number of players using exploits.
As I mentioned before, Battleye has banned over 1.5 million cheaters since release. And I’m sure they’re continuing to ban as many cheaters as they find. The service has been doing a good job of it so far, and I only expect it to get better as time goes on. Furthermore, PUBG Corporation has taken its own steps to combat cheating in the form of the Anti-Cheat Update Dev. Blog released on February 2. They’ve put together a team to specifically combat cheating. And, to supplement that, they’re implementing a program that automatically blocks helper programs that alter or aid gameplay in any way. According to the blog, the program will be expanded to respond to new cheats and exploits as time goes on.
These are all good things. And things that PUBG Corproation managed to do without exiling an entire region of players to a single server.
It may or may not be true that 99 percent of the cheaters in PUBG are from China, but it would definitely be wrong to label every Chinese player a cheater. And it would be even worse to let a few bad apples spoil the bunch, especially considering that, because of PUBG, China likely has more Steam users than any other country.
“But what about all the Chinese players on my server?”
Of course, it can be frustrating interacting with players that don’t speak your native tongue, but that doesn’t make it right to single out one group of people for it. Nor does it mean that every single person in that group is one of the many many many cheaters that are currently plaguing the game.
In my opinion, PUBG Corporation is going about all this the right way. They’re aggressively targeting cheaters, and will soon be matching players by prioritizing their ping. At the very least, this should improve individual games across the spectrum. And, while I’m not sure whether the matchmaking changes have made it into the final game, I’ve definitely noticed a decrease in cheaters over the course of February. I’ve still run into a few here and there, but the practice isn’t nearly as prevalent as it was a few months ago.
Hopefully, this positive trend will continue as the year wears on, and PUBG Corporation can have the opportunity to move forward. Based on their latest developer blog, they have plenty of exciting plans for the game in 2018. With any luck, we’ll get to hear more about them this month!
Addendum: On March 12, PUBG Corporation rolled back the Anti-Cheat Update released in February. Last weekend, they stated they would not be rolling back the patch in order to continue blocking cheats, but so many players were suffering from performance hits that PUBG Corporation had no other choice but to roll back the update until they smooth out some of the issues. While it’s still too early to tell whether this will result in a resurgence of cheating, it’s definitely an unfortunate turn of events considering massive bans and other proactive strides in early 2018.