Gamers who have some experience playing PC games are undoubtedly familiar with Valve Corporation and its homegrown anti-cheat client.
Valve's innovative "VAC" (Valve Anti-Cheat) has gone through two iterations -- the marginally successful VAC1 and the industry-leading VAC2 -- since its implementation into the classic online shooter, Counter-Strike, way back in 2002.
The service has done so well that, if one was to name any of the most popular PC shooters right now (Left 4 Dead, Team Fortress 2, Counter-Strike, etc.), there is a good chance that it is being "watched over" by Valve's VAC client.
In the PC-gaming world, the influence of VAC now extends outside the home base of Valve. Third-party developers have begun licensing the client for use in their own online games, whether they are in charge of "indie projects" like Red Orchestra or responsible for big-name franchises like Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon series.
The reason for the client's popularity -- and the major thing that separates VAC from other anti-cheat clients like Punkbuster -- is that when VAC catches a player cheating, that person's punishment is a lifetime ban from the dozens of VAC-supported titles running on that particular game engine, which are separated into two major groups:
"Goldsource Engine" games (Counter-Strike, Half-Life, Day of Defeat, Team Fortress Classic, etc.)
"Source Engine" games (Team Fortress 2, Left 4 Dead, the "Source" versions of Counter-Stike et al.)
Once banned, the account user can no longer play on the thousands of official VAC servers because the offending account will only be able to connect with the "leper’s community" of non-VAC servers, which make up about 5 percent or less of the servers in most every game's community.
Essentially, the cheater is completely cut off from "legitimate" online gaming, unless he/she creates a new account and rebuys all his/her games.
Why VAC Works
At first, Valve's "zero tolerance" policy may seem like it is counterproductive to building a large audience of players. But as the success and longevity of series like Counter-Strike, Day of Defeat and Team Fortress continue to prove, a little policing can go a long way towards creating strong, lasting game communities.
In the PC world, many cheaters who have had their accounts "VAC banned" have simply gone out the next day and loaded up a new account. In these instances, banning cheaters actually helped companies sell games.
Even if the cheaters do not become returning customers, kicking them out of the online arena still improves the general health of the gaming communities that the cheaters were damaging. And the "healthier" a gaming community is, the more likely it is to grow via word of mouth, which should attract new players.
In contrast, the more a community becomes overrun with cheaters (see: NHL 09 on the Xbox 360 and PS3 pre-patch), the more likely it becomes that legitimate players will spread negative word of mouth about the game or just stop playing it entirely -- both of which can drive online communities to an early extinction.
Clearly, the unfounded theory of "banning cheaters is bad business" does not apply to Valve games, which have become, next to Blizzard Entertainment’s Warcraft/Starcraft/Diablo franchises, the most popular PC games online.
Console Gaming Becoming the Cheater's Safe-Haven?
So if Valve can have so much success using a "zero tolerance" policy of enforcing cheating in its games, why can't console developers start sending out harsher penalties to offenders in their games?
After all, there are plenty of cheaters to punish. Simply take a look across the spectrum of this year's high profile online games and you will find many of the communities have, at one point or another, been damaged, if not completely ruined by cheaters and glitchers.
Case #1: Madden NFL 09 (Xbox/PS3)
If you tried to play Madden 09 online at any point during the first two months of its release, you probably ran into one of these guys: the direct snapper. Thanks to this glitch, players could move the ball down the field at will, and defenses were powerless to stop it.
Despite EA saying it had the records of every play being run online and would punish players who were found to abuse the direct snap glitch in ranked online games, only a few of the glitchers actually had their records reset. In the end, many of them escaped punishment, and it was almost as if nothing had ever happened.
Case #2: Battlefield: Bad Company (Xbox 360/PS3)
Another recent EA game, Battlefield: Bad Company, shipped with an exploit that allowed players to build experience at a ridiculously fast rate by repairing overturned vehicles. Players using the "repair glitch" were able to max out their rank (and unlock all the best guns) in a matter of hours, not weeks, like the developers had intended.
Even worse than the competitive advantages that these "boosters" gained from unlocking the best guns, was the negative effect these players had on their teams while they were boosting. In a game that demands teamwork and coordination to complete objectives across huge, detailed maps, a single teammate who is not participating in the fight can make things extra difficult for the rest of team.
However, since "boosters" tended to travel in packs, the more likely scenario at the time of this exploit's peak was to have entire squads boosting, leaving the half or so "legit" players on a team with virtuously no chance of completing the round's objective and winning the game.
Much like the Madden 09 situation, a small number of Battlefield players had their ranks reset and their weapons taken away, but a large number of cheaters got to keep their ranks/rewards.
Case #3: NHL 09 (Xbox 360/PS3)
By far the worst offender on this list, NHL 09 is a game that had been essentially unplayable online since users found a way to boost all their created player's stats to the superhuman 99 level.
The frequency of "juicers" was so high prior to the game's second patch that it became almost impossible for legit players to find an online matchup in which they were not at a severe disadvantage before the puck even touched the ice.
In addition to the rampant "juicing," "win-trading" and "stat-padding" have also severely compromised the integrity of NHL 09's online leaderboards. And, unlike the "juicing," this instance of cheating has not been accounted for at all in the latest patch. Players are still able to take turns letting each other put up ridiculous 30-point games in order to artificially enhance their stats.
As of this writing, there are no penalties being handed out to the people who had previously helped ruin the NHL 09 online experience for the past two to three months.
Teams who have cheated their way into the upper divisions (or worse, into position for the playoffs) are not being penalized. Players who have "juiced" or "win-traded" their way onto the top of the leaderboards are not getting their stats reset.
The "juicing" glitch is not even getting fixed, really. All that is being done as of now is that players who try to enter online games with "performance enhanced" attributes will have those attributes dropped back down to legal levels when they actually get into the game.
What Kind of Message are We Sending to Our Kids?
So tell me, console developers, why are you guys such softballs when it comes to dealing with cheaters?
Why can't you guys be more like the PC developers and give these cheaters what the really deserve: a lifetime ban to their Xbox Live/PSN account, which will show these kids that cheating is never OK -- not even if "everybody else is doing it" or if it is "the only way I can compete."
Why, instead, are console developers like so many of today's out-of-touch parents: complete pushovers who only end up raising kids with a false sense of entitlement.
Sounds a lot like the Xbox Live community, eh?
For the same reason that our community's real-life police officers are paid to do their job: to make life more enjoyable for the rest of us, even if they can never make the common citizen's life completely crime-free.