Beat the cheats or we’ll go elsewhere

HANDS up who wants a billion dollars free of charge. OK, there are a couple of catches.

The first is that, technically speaking, these dollars don't really exist. They're virtual, and can only be used in a video game. The second problem is that the people who are handing out these digital dollars are hackers (Boo! Hiss!), and their efforts to flood the game's economy isn't down to the goodness of their hearts.

The money-logged game in question is GTA Online, the multi-player online version of the best-selling Grand Theft Auto V.

Pumping illicit cash into a game where the idea is to start with nothing and strive to achieve has caused huge disruption for GTA Online's economy and removed the motivation for the players affected.

The recent influx of unlimited dollars led to countless complaints from gamers, and with hackers hell-bent on disrupting the game to take a short-cut to success, GTA's developer, Rockstar Games, was forced to take its game offline to remove the counterfeit cash. This month it vowed to place deliberate cheaters in "isolated cheater pools" and talked of bans.

And yet the hacking attempt was merely the latest battle in gaming's long-running war against those who refuse to play fair.

Days after GTA Online was reinstated, new ways to earn unlimited dollars were posted online by monetary mischief-makers.

For the online-games business - as well as the players, of whom more later - this kind of thing matters.

The gaming industry is expected to be worth $83 billion by 2016 with online and mobile alone set to grow to $48 billion, some 55% of the total worth.

Cheating can affect revenue. If some players can move through walls, float and be impervious to bullets and others cannot, then it produces an uneven playing field, leaving the non-cheating gamers at a disadvantage. The danger is they walk away.

Ryan Butt, former editor of PowerStation, a now-defunct gaming magazine devoted to cheats, believes cheats are harmless if used by an individual to affect only their game.

"When cheats affect the gaming world at large, it becomes an issue," he said. "Unscrupulous gamers hack into games and run riot at other people's expense on multi-player titles."

Cheating takes different forms. Code can control characters - or "bots" - within a game to give the advantage to a player, perhaps by getting them to automatically shoot at a rival player whenever they are in range. Players can hack maps to see more of them than their rivals and find their way around quicker. League-table rankings can be boosted and bugs exploited.

Two years ago the mighty games publisher Activision admitted it struggled to combat cheating players. More than 1600 cheaters were banned from playing Modern Warfare 3 online and a petition was started at urging Activision and the game's developer, Infinity Ward, to "come up with a better anti-cheat/ban program".

"Keeping an even playing field is integral," says Neil McClarty, RuneScape brand director. "It's an arms race between a developer and a cheating community."

Cheating in games is nothing new. For years, sections in computer magazines would detail various cheats - from key strokes to lengthy code.

Developers don't always rally against cheating. Some have run premium-rate helplines in the past; others offer cheats as in-app purchases (such as The Mighty Eagle in Angry Birds that allows levels to be skipped).