Dec 16, 2022 - Technology

Lawsuits suggest some video game cheating could be illegal

Illustration of target points on a gavel

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

A raft of lawsuits from the games industry seeks to crack down on cheating in some popular online games, arguing that making cheats for games and even using them might be illegal.

Why it matters: Cheating is a scourge of many online games, inspiring increasingly bold legal counteroffensives by some of the companies who make them.

  • Those lawsuits are largely aimed against makers of cheat software, but they don’t let players who use the cheats fully off the hook.
  • Cheat-makers “induce and enable individual Destiny 2 players to create an unauthorized and infringing derivative work each time they deploy the cheat software,” states one lawsuit from Sony-owned Bungie Studios that’s still winding its way through the courts.

Be smart: The kinds of cheats in play aren’t the ones old-school gamers might have applied by inputting a developer-programmed invincibility code.

  • Rather, they involve premium cheats that let players see through walls to get an advantage in multiplayer combat games such as Destiny 2 or Call of Duty.

Game companies, many of which are banning tens and hundreds of thousands of accounts, say cheating scares off honest players and is costly to fight.

  • Bungie estimated in one suit that it spends “roughly $1,250,000 per year on its anti-cheating measures,” not including legal costs.

The big picture: Game companies definitely detest cheating but have been careful to focus their firepower on cheat-makers, possibly because targeting more cheaters themselves with lawsuits could be costly, backfire in court or just rankle players as heavy-handed.

  • Cheat-making is a big business, not quite as lucrative as making a blockbuster game, but a revenue generator that game publishers want to throttle.
  • One cheat-seller sued by Bungie still sells cheats for dozens of games, including an “aimbot” for Call of Duty that can be used for $13/day or one for Valorant at $85/month.

Winning streak: Game companies scored several legal victories in 2022 against cheat-makers.

  • In June, Destiny-maker Bungie won a $13.5 million settlement against a cheat-maker who, in turn, helped unmask others Bungie continues to pursue.
  • In November, another group of cheat-makers sued by Bungie and Ubisoft agreed to settle.
  • Also last month, an Australian judge ordered a cheat-maker in that country, who was sued back in 2018, to pay Grand Theft Auto publisher Take-Two Interactive AU $130,000.

Between the lines: Most cheating suits from big publishers claim that cheats that alter the game amount to copyright infringement, both when they’re made and when a player uses them.

  • A cheat that draws a box around an opposing player, who would otherwise be hidden from view, is creating unauthorized derivative works, suits from Bungie and others claim.

Pushback: Most defendants in the cheating cases have no-showed or folded, agreeing to damages and settling. But Bungie has encountered feisty resistance throughout 2022 from purported cheat-makers Phoenix Digital.

  • “‘Cheating in Destiny’ is not, in and of itself, unlawful,” the group’s lawyer said in a court filing back in January.
  • The increasingly wild case has included Phoenix Digital's countersuing Bungie for allegedly violating its terms of service in September and the judge dismissing claims on both sides that were since refiled with more specifics.

The bottom line: Companies aren’t showing that they have an appetite to sue garden-variety cheaters, but the lawsuits are designed to serve as a warning shot to those who think cheating in an online game can be consequence-free.

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