Tencent cracks down on cheats in world's top-selling video game

The PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds video game seen in an illustration photo.
The PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds video game seen in an illustration photo.PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Tencent Holdings is going after the cheaters that infest PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds as it prepares to bring the world's top-selling game to China.

Ahead of its debut this year, the biggest gaming company on the planet has enlisted Chinese police to root out the underground rings that make and sell cheat software. It's helped law enforcement agents uncover at least 30 cases and arrest 120 people suspected of designing programs that confer unfair advantages from X-Ray vision (see-through walls) to auto-targeting (uncannily accurate snipers). Those convicted in the past have done jail time.

Tencent and game developer Bluehole Inc have a lot riding on cleaning things up for China, which accounted for more than half the game's 27 million users, according to online tracker Steam Spy. It's also the biggest source of cheat software, undermining a Battle Royale-style phenom that shattered gaming records in 2017 and surpassed best-sellers like Grand Theft Auto V. The proliferation of shenanigans threatens to drive away first-time users vital to its longer-term growth.

Yet they continue to thrive. The game's message boards are riddled with complaints about mysteriously indestructible opponents. Software rings ingeniously treat its league tables like free ad space: as of Tuesday (Jan 16), eight of PUBG's top 10 players bear names such as "contact QQ574352672," ironically a private account on Tencent's own QQ messaging service through which enterprising players can buy cheat software. One vendor offered a 100 yuan ($15) program called "Jue Ying" or extreme shadow that, among other things, obscures players and grants a birds-eye view of the battleground. Another QQ dealer sent notices to customers warning them to "maintain control and keep your kills within 15 people per game," presumably to avoid detection.

"PUBG is going through a puberty of sorts and cheaters threaten to stunt its growth," said Kim Hak-joon, who analyzes gaming stocks for South Korea's Kiwoom Securities Co. "Cheaters mostly drive away new users, and without retaining new users, PUBG won't be able to consolidate its early success and become a long-lasting hit."

The Korean title is like a digital version of "The Hunger Games," where 100 combatants are dropped onto an island and proceed to slaughter each other till there's one person standing. The game is thus easily rigged if even one player acquires enough super-human powers to go after the other 99. No wonder fans are drifting away: the game's daily active users has flattened even though the studio continues to sell more copies.

Tencent is the US$530 billion entertainment behemoth behind smashes such as Honour of Kings that it uses to draw users to WeChat and other social media platforms. But it needs a marquee title to anchor a nascent line-up of Battle Royale-style shooters - a genre in which it played catch-up to Netease Inc. last year. Soon it will launch the game on local servers, sharply reducing lag times for players and potentially unleashing a new wave of first-timers from the world's largest gaming market.

Bluehole's anti-cheats partner, BattlEye, has banned 1.5 million accounts so far for cheating, a whopping 6 percent of the total community.

"Fostering a game environment that's fair to all players is crucial to us," said Lee Do-hyung, head of operations and services for PUBG Corp, the Bluehole division overseeing the title. "We're committed to working to address this both now and in the future."

Tencent's no stranger to ferreting out cheats. On Monday, Allen Zhang, who helped Tencent design WeChat and now heads the division, took pains to describe the company's recent attempts to clean up mobile mini-game "Jump" and its stance in general.

"It's a never-ending battle," he said at a conference in Guangzhou. "You could come up with something effective today, but encounter something completely different the next day."

People convicted of disrupting computer networks face five years' imprisonment or more under Chinese law. Back in 2010, a couple was fined 3 million yuan and sentenced to nine years for selling cheat software, according to local media reports.

It remains to be seen how effective Tencent's campaign can be, in a country infamous for hosting the world's largest population of pirates and fraudsters. In music streaming, Tencent filed lawsuits against piracy after it signed exclusive distribution rights with global record labels. Its arch-rival, Alibaba Group Holding, was criticized for years for failing to properly police counterfeiters on its online shopping services.

Tencent is now developing two versions of PUBG for mobile, on top of two other hastily created copycat titles. The crackdown "shows Tencent's determination to resolve the issue of cheating software on PUBG," it said in December. "Tencent promises to use the law and technology to help create equal and fair playing fields."