2021 Anti-Cheat Dev Letter

Hello Survivors!

As you’ve no doubt heard by now, PUBG: BATTLEGROUNDS is going free-to-play on January 12, 2022! While this is certainly an exciting time, we know that there are often important questions that pop up with such a transition. Namely, how will we address cheaters in a free-to-play game?

Anti-cheat is always a critical priority, but with Free-to-Play incoming, the need for an effective anti-cheat system is more important than ever as banned accounts can easily and infinitely be replaced.

To that end, we’ve been quietly, yet fiercely, preparing a number of countermeasures to combat cheat programs. That said, anti-cheat is always a never-ending fight and nothing we or anyone can do will ever completely stomp out cheating in competitive online games..

In this Dev Letter, we’re going to dive in and talk more about what we’ve been building in 2021, how our anti-cheat situation is looking today, and what we have in store for the future.

What We’ve Been Doing in 2021

We’ve broken down our 2021 efforts into four categories that we’ll go into more depth on:

  1. Anti-Cheat Solution Improvements
  2. Hardware Ban Improvements
  3. Game Client Vulnerabilities
  4. In-Game Abuse Reinforcements

Anti-Cheat Solution Improvements: Zakynthos

Zakynthos is our proprietary anti-cheat solution that we implemented in January of 2021 as a means to speed up the anti-cheat process. Where before we had to rely on slower external solutions, the time saved with Zakynthos helped us remove an additional 28% of cheaters from the previous year.

Before we talk about what the future holds for Zakynthos and anti-cheat, let’s take a moment to talk about how we go about tackling cheat programs. When we discover a new cheat program, we secure and reverse engineer said program to get a full, deep analysis of what it does and how it bypasses our security. Once our tests lead us to a countermeasure, we develop detection logic into our anti-cheat solutions. Stability tests and other steps then help to ensure these updates don’t compromise the overall integrity of the game.

Even with all of the above, cheat developers are tenacious and will learn how to bypass our anti-cheat solutions’ radars after a time, meaning we always need to be adjusting and improving those solutions in an effort to keep up. Here’s a bit of what we will be implementing in 2022:

  • Automatic analysis of cheat software based on machine learning techniques
  • 24-hour monitoring of Ranked matches in upper ranks
  • Implementation of kernel drivers
  • Preventing tampering of client
  • Hardware ban system improvements

Hardware Ban Improvements: Keeping Cheaters Out

Collecting cheaters’ hardware information and dishing out hardware bans has been something we’ve been doing for some time now. While it is quite effective, every software has its flaws and some dedicated cheaters were able to find ways to circumvent such sanctions on their hardware.

There is also the never-ending struggle of issuing swift and decisive bans while avoiding any false-positives that an operation of this scale is sure to stumble upon.

To help solve these issues, we’ve developed a new hardware ban technology that utilizes special algorithms, which we implemented into Zakynthos. This upgrade eventually resulted in  a near 30% decrease in metrics that track players experiencing and reporting cheaters. The new hardware ban also prevented penalized players from circumventing their bans, which subsequently helped us hold the line in terms of anti-cheat metrics.

Game Client Vulnerabilities

In 2021, we also focused on dealing with cheats that took advantage of vulnerabilities in our client.

First, to counter speed hacks and flying cars, we made changes so that speed and air time for character and vehicle movement were cross-checked by the server. However, for gameplay aspects where responsiveness is key, having the server cross-check everything could result in sluggish character movement and vehicle control for everyone.

Therefore, we analyzed the play patterns of cheaters, and we were able to apply server-side cross-checks and other defense mechanisms to select accounts only. As a result, the number of players using cheat programs related to character and vehicle movement was reduced by an astounding 99.97%!

Next, we worked on countering cheats that allow players to score kills from absurd distances or that automatically set your crosshair on opponents (or Aimbots, as most would call them). As these types of cheats are especially detrimental to players’ willingness to continue playing, we worked very closely with content development teams to add various validations and defense mechanisms regarding weapon firing, as well as reinforcing Zakynthos to better prevent cheaters from tampering with our client.

In-Game Abuse Reinforcements

As more and more accounts were banned due to our increased anti-cheat efforts, cheaters looked more and more towards acquiring replacement accounts. As demand for Ranked-ready accounts increased, cases of accounts earning Survival Mastery XP in abnormal ways became more prevalent as well.

Also, in high-tier Ranked, we’ve seen an unfortunate increase in players who constantly team with cheaters to get an unfair advantage towards gaining their RP (Rank Points).

Fighting off cheat programs is very important, but we feel that enforcing these abuse cases are also important in providing a fair gameplay environment. By implementing machine-learning techniques and analyzing abuse cases, we’ve been doubling down on penalizing players engaging in malicious behavior.

As a result of our efforts, the number of players gaining Survival Mastery XP in abnormal ways has decreased by approximately 30%, and the number of players gaining RP through wrongful methods in high-tier Ranked has decreased by approximately 50%. As improvements are made and players learn they can no longer get away with cheating, these numbers continue to decrease.

Current Anti-Cheat Status

Here on the anti-cheat team, we refer to various metrics to assess the game’s overall anti-cheat status. We first take a look at how many suspected cheater accounts there are out of our monthly player count, as this metric gives an intuitive sense of our overall anti-cheat status.

By delivering on the anti-cheat goals we had for this year, the ratio for suspected cheater accounts has gone down by approximately 45% compared to early 2021, and the situation is continually improving. Our work on patching up client vulnerabilities has continually dropped the average kill count per session for cheaters, a clear sign that the effect cheaters have on our service is decreasing.

Even when comparing the number of permanent bans with last year’s, the number has gone down by approximately 47%. Judging by the fact that the ratio of suspected cheaters to monthly traffic has decreased and is staying at similar levels, we can see this as a sign that the number of cheat program users has significantly decreased as well.

Anti-Cheat Analysis During Free Play Week

Previously, we ran two Free Play Week events – one in 2020 and one in 2021. While great marketing for the game, these weekends also gave us valuable insight into our anti-cheat capabilities in a Free-to-Play environment.

During our June 2020 Free Play Week event, the ratio of suspected cheaters skyrocketed, especially when looking at Normal Matches. However, during the August 2021 Free Play Week event, the ratio of suspected cheaters spiked after the event started but eventually recovered and settled in line with the numbers we had before the event, marking another promising victory for Zakytnthos.

Cheater Reports in Ranked Matches

As reports from players in the upper ranks who claimed to have encountered more and more cheaters came in, our team studied the report rate data for each Rank Points range. The graph below shows that the report rate was relatively high early this year, but it gradually fell as we reinforced our anti-cheat solutions over the months. We do realize that not every rate has greatly improved, but it is a promising start and we are planning to strengthen our anti-cheat solutions even further.

Upcoming Plans for the Anti-Cheat Team

Now that we’ve talked about what we’ve done up until this point, let’s take a look forward at what our teams will be doing for free-to-play and beyond.

We are continuously preparing new and improved anti-cheat reinforcements. To share a few, we are actively looking into improving the situations of cheaters bypassing the SMS authentication system and of cheaters hacking into innocent players’ accounts.

We have received numerous suggestions from you all on ways to alleviate cheating in ranked play, including raising the Survival Mastery entry level for Ranked. We have of course considered this suggestion, but are still cautious of the risks of creating a difficult environment for beginners and current players trying to reach the entry bar for Ranked, especially going into free-to-play and its potential for a large influx of new players. We will of course keep a close eye on this and other suggestions as we work towards the ultimate solution.

Cheating is not the only annoyance players face in the game. The spam and promotion of these cheats have continued to be a problem as well. The cheat software promotions happening in-game are being continuously monitored and gradually improved, but we will continue to reinforce our efforts against illegal promotions happening. We will also continue to actively enforce legal measures against those developing, supplying, and selling cheat software.

Console platforms will also see their anti-cheat solutions strengthened. We took measures against lag switches in early December and are continuing to research and develop solutions for cheaters’ use of unauthorized controller accessories that also negatively affect gameplay on console platforms.

In addition, we are continuously working on our solutions for other commonly reported cheat software such as ESP (showing enemies’ locations) and “Aimbots.”

As much as we wish to share more in-depth information with you all, cheat developers are always watching our every move and using every bit of our information to create stronger cheat software and stay a step ahead of our solutions. Therefore, we tried our best to share as much relevant and promising information as we could, while keeping the rest a bit more incognito.

We know you watch our anti-cheat efforts with great interest and know that you’ll continue to hold us to a higher standard due to the sheer competitiveness of a game like BATTLEGROUNDS. We may still be cautious about sharing topics about anti-cheat, but we will always look for ways to communicate what we can more frequently with you. A certain date can’t be promised, but we will come back with more news once notable anti-cheat achievements are made.

The battle with cheaters continues as PUBG: BATTLEGROUNDS enters the free-to-play world, but we are dedicated and doing all we can to ensure that you not only hear about, but feel the effects of our anti-cheat solutions for yourselves.

Thank you.

See you on the Battlegrounds.

PUBG Anti-Cheat Team