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An archaeologist transformed the video game industry in 1996. Flinging herself from the rafters of her stately home and onto the screens of gamers, Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft redefined gaming standards. Today, the gun-toting, globetrotting heroine has made her comeback in Rise of Tomb Raider, finding a gaming world that’s transformed from her heyday.
This scene has been changed thanks to the exponential growth of the Internet and mobile devices, the rise of social media, and the new pirates lurking within. Video game piracy today effectively halves game industry revenue. According to Tru Optik research, in 2014 this industry generated $83.6 billion in revenue, but also lost $74.1 billion to the game hackers, modders and pirates.
In the old days, this type of theft consisted of bootleg floppy disks. Pirates have since evolved to online file sharing torrents, downloads and trading hacks for big money: an individual cheat seller can make up to $1.25 million in a year. In the latest advancement, hackers are hijacking social media gaming fan pages. We took a look at this latest wave of game piracy on Facebook, and the online gaming community calling for action.
Hackers hijack Facebook with cheats and scams
BrandBastion conducted a study and analyzed eight trending games on Facebook to see what types of threats the gaming industry is receiving. These games include video gaming icons such as Grand Theft Auto V, League of Legends,and Tomb Raider. From a sample of 120,000 comments, we discovered 1 in 18 comments included some form of threat.
Bit.ly links accompanied by comments such as “***((((GTA FREE DOWNLOAD WITH CRACK))))***” or “Gta Online Mods Site! Best Modds for Ps3 Ps4 Xbox-one and Pc!” encourage trigger-fingers to open malicious content.
Over half of these posts contained social spam: pornography, chain letters, malware, and phishing scams, and almost a fifth of these included direct links to game piracy, hacks, and cheats. This comes in the form of cheat codes, activation keys, and cracks. Furthermore,19 percent of threats contained severe hate speech, 5 percent promoted competitors, 4 percent promoted trading accounts and game items and 2 percent contained copyright infringements.
Cheat sellers trade game accounts and hacks for as high as $500, reported DayZ developer Eugen Harton at the Game Developers Conference in March. In efforts to investigate this “black market,” Harton and team have sat through Skype interviews to obtain insight into dodgy transactions for hacks and cheats protected by hardware ID locks.
Harton has received death threats, the hackers even started a crowdfunding campaign to hunt him down at the conference. However, the DayZ producers continue to explore this phenomenon, which holds great power over the industry. Heavily guarded cheats have the power to take down whole servers taking players back to the start, which Harton claims, “really hurt the community.”
The gaming community calls for action
In the study, the large reach of these popular games means that over 69 million fans on Facebook were affected by these scams. So what does the gaming world say to this onslaught of cheats and hacks?
The conversation on Facebook is one of exasperation: “Please just kick all the hackers!! Please! I can’t enjoy online anymore! too many hackers,” “cheaters everywhere … please do something about it! :(,“ and “Please can you ban the hackers” — these cries of heavy criticism echo the sentiments that fill most gaming forums.
Community administrators can moderate content, and Facebook continues to investigate false accounts and online scams. But the scope of the problem is huge, with around 170 million fake accounts and a veritable treasure trove of profits for the pirates. In 2014, reportedly the largest piracy sites made over $200 million through advertising alone.
Developers have tried to fight this, banning modders and hackers, opting for different paying models and modifying or blocking content in the game. Some use visual gags — such as Remedy Entertainment skull and crossbone eyepatch worn by the protagonist in pirate copies of Quantum Break — designed to guilt players into paying. Many also use various form of digital rights management (DRM) programs and encryptions to prevent this. Emerging technologies, that employ machine learning and natural language processing, can help moderators to identify and remove this harmful content. But quashing the Facebook comments is just one form of defense, as the hacker war continues.
In recent developments, some say that the pirates days are numbered. Earlier this year, the founder of Chinese hacker forum 3DM revealed difficulties in cracking the Denuvo DRM anti-tamper measure on Just Cause 3. Alias Bird Sister and reported “according to current trends in the development of encryption technology, in two years time I’m afraid there will be no free games to play in the world.”
Could this really be true, in an underground industry that rewards the most aggressive hackers with millions in profits? Experts are skeptical. “Games are cracked in minutes, hours or days, but they’re always cracked. If you want to pirate you’ll find a way,” said CD Projekt Red’s head of marketing and PR, Michal Platkow-Gilewski.
As the gamers debate the future of piracy, fans in their millions continued to be plagued on social networking sites. And it is the industry that ends up paying for this. Be this in the millions lost in revenue each year, or the efforts in tending to the outcries of the community and rectifying dodgy transactions with cheat sellers.
Piracy is a game of big money, powered by highly motivated and intelligent hackers. As such, we can expect a continued evolution of gaming piracy, despite the industry’s best efforts and zealous protest from the gaming community.
When a true gamer finally reaches the long lost Kingdom of Yamatai, or makes that final decision — A, B, C at the end of GTA V, they want to get there through their own blood, sweat and tears, not the cheats and hacks of pirates. But as new ways to crack these barriers continue to emerge, unfortunately, it may be some time before we can call it “game over” for the hackers.
Jenny Wolfram is the CEO and founder of BrandBastion, which protects brand reputation, ad performance, and copyright for the gaming industry on social media 24/7.
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