Hacking EverQuest Part Three - SOE's Response

In the final part of our series Benjamin J. de la Durantaye talks to SOE to find out how they intend to put a stop to the hacking and cheating in EverQuest.

In href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/features/everquest/hacking-eq-part-one">Part
One of our series we saw some of the reported examples of the
exploits that are taking place in EverQuest,
primarily on the Time Locked Progression Servers. In href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/features/everquest/hacking-eq-part-two">Part
Two we spoke with two individuals who had experience in
limiting the ability to hack on their emulated servers. In our final
part today we approach Sony Online Entertainment to find out what can
be done from their end to put a stop to the hacking.

We had determined that the early fixes that Rogean and Haynar had
implemented on their emulated servers may not be ideal on a large
commercial scale for SOE. However, since the time of the interview,
Rogean did contact me with some updates.

"Using packets with unpredictable variables to crash a client running
MacroQuest was just the beginning for us," Rogean began. "Even
selectively using that method, many of the hack programmers found new
ways to 'toughen' their distributions to make them impervious to the
sort of vulnerabilities that we exploited to detect them... We came up
with a brand new system of detection that we were able to embed into
the client directly without actually modifying the client itself.

alt="Famous video game hacker arrested">
Through this system we can then keep a watchful eye on the memory space
of the client. We can check to make sure that there are no external
modules loaded into the client that are reading or changing the
client's memory. If this system detects this, it sends the name of that
module with a specific flag to the server, which logs it for later
review. All of these flags came back as MQ2Main.DLL on Project 1999.
This system introduces a whole new level of detection available to us
that can also be adapted to the hackers' attempts to avoid it. They may
try to avoid it, but they are taking the chance that we alter our
detection to pick up on them and they lose their main character. In
most cases, this is not worth the risk."

The bigger issue that SOE may face is that once the cheaters are
comfortable using the hacks and do not see punitive actions taking
place against the hackers, they feel all the more confident that they
can get away with using them.

"It's just like if in real life," Rogean continued. "If you don't see
many police pulling over speeders or you get away with driving faster
and faster over time, you get comfortable driving those speeds... until
finally you get pulled over.

"That's what we did. We pulled over 365 people at once, publicly, and
that will stick in everyone's minds that we take our anti-hacking rules
very seriously, and we won't give up trying to detect them."

I called up Thom Terazzas, Producer of EverQuest. If anyone knew what
SOE was doing or would be doing to combat the hacks, it would be him.
Thom was familiar with the problem. He also knew the importance in
letting players know that bans are happening.

When we spoke about customer service vocalizing the bans Thom
recognized that it hasn't been happening much lately.

"I don't think they've done it recently as far as notifying the
community about mass bannings," he said, "but it is a big deal to us
too... I think what we need is just a little more promotion of
information from CS a little more often on the message forums--just to
let them know we're on to them."

Even though it is a concern to Thom and his development team, it may
take some time yet before the issue can be fully addressed.

"Obviously there's a lot of juggling we need to do in order to make it
a priority," he continued. "The expansion, [ href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/eq/interviews/fan-faire-2011">Veil
of Alaris], is something that we're really focused on right
now. That has gotten, I would say, 80 percent of the[development] focus
here. So doing anything that dramatically combats the hacking is
something that we would really like to do, but it is not something
we've been able to do."

That's not to say, however, that no time has been spent investigating
the cheats.

"When the dev team finds any extra bit of
time and are able to do a little more logging and checking, we do it,"
Thom assured me. "We caught quite a few people warping and we checked
times and locations of where they were standing when particular mobs
spawned and how long it took for them to die. Customer service has been
following up on this. So we have been helping CS do their work by
checking that type of information. With these new checks over the past
few months we've actually caught a lot of those guys and nailed them to
the wall."

But what about the theory that SOE doesn't want to stop hackers as it
would mean fewer paying accounts, thus less revenue? I asked Thom about

"Wow," Thom responded. "I think that's pretty far-fetched. I have style="font-style: italic;">never heard anyone
here ever
say anything like that," he continued emphatically. "There's never any
context of money in association with not fixing an issue. We should not
make any business decision based on what other people are negatively
trying to do. We should go about our business in a positive way and
take care of these people. Obviously that's what we have to do--a
higher effort. It should just be put at that higher priority.

"Believe me. I've never heard anyone say or even suggest that we should
not do anything about the hacks. That's never been said in any
conversation I've been around."

A cyber-army may be needed to stop hacking all together

A cyber army may be needed to stop hacking all together

Hearing Thom's passion in his response I was immediately reminded of
the passion that some of these players have been expressing on the
forums and in game. Was there anything the players themselves could do
to help the fight against cheaters? I asked Thom.

"I know that we're somewhat limited on what they're able to report or
record," he answered. "I know there's not much of a mechanism for them
to show proof of what's happening. The /report command will capture
text," but he also agreed that even that is somewhat limited in
actually capturing evidence of cheats.

"But maybe we can do something simpler or quicker that will help in
detecting the cheats even from the other players' perspective and allow
us to flag people for audit. I don't know what that would be, but it's
definitely worth a conversation with my team."

In the days following our conversation, Thom indeed did follow up and
spoke to the code team.

"We've decided this is definitely something that needs attention as
soon as we get through the fog of the expansion," he told me. "It's
probably not going to happen right now, but I did talk to CS as well.
They have been diligent on taking the reports and putting a watchdog
eye on people that need it.

"Customer Service does
want reports of suspected cheating," he expanded. "They've asked me to
convey that they want the continued /reports followed up by tickets on
those suspected of cheating with as much detail as possible. The more
detail the better."

As is typically the case in MMOGs, Thom also noted that CS probably
wouldn't follow up with a reply to the ticket when the cheater has been
caught, but they do appreciate and use the reports and petitions to
monitor the user's activity. "They do review every ticket," he said.

"The /report command will log the last lines of text. I think it goes
back up to 100 lines or so. So if there's any communication players
witness in the various channels, that command will help get some
definite timelines and locations on when the event occurred."

My discussions with Thom led me to believe that there is still a lot of
passion behind the developer curtain of this 12-year-old game.
Resources may not be at their peak and the downside to that means these
issues may continue for a while yet before a major focus in development
can be shifted towards combating the hacks. However, the community
itself is also very driven.  With a combined effort from the
community perhaps some of this can be satiated until more resources are
available from SOE to supply more tools not just to the CS staff, but
also to the community to help flag the offenders.

Hacking and cheating are cancerous to any online game as it directly
affects other players. No gamer and no developer wants hacks to be
happening in their game. The reality of it though, is that cheaters
cheat, and likely always will. It takes effort from everyone to let
them know they're not welcome in the games we play. We, as community
members can speak out against them and get the information to the
Customer Service staff. The developers can take their role by supplying
CS and the players with the tools they need to uncover the hacks. And
maybe, just maybe, with enough drive and enough people from the
community and the development team acting together, these cheaters will
no longer feel welcome, nor safe, in our games.

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