Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Grand Theft Auto and Modders

I was listening to a report on NPR this morning concerning the modding of GTA V / Online.  The modding was presented as an issue concerning intellectual property (IP) but I disagree.  I reached out to the segment's reporter,
and I decided to write this.

I think the IP argument is fair to make, though I personally disagree with it, and we'll probably get to why that is in a bit.

This is going to be a stream of consciousness kind of post, so it'll differ slightly in style from my usual.

Basically, my thoughts on modding in GTA (and gaming in general) is that it's fine if someone mods their own experience, but the experiences of others (especially in an online, public setting) should be consensual.

Let's compare Rust with GTA Online.

Rust is more like the traditional online gaming experience.  Similar to StarCraft or Deus Ex, you know beforehand if you are playing in a vanilla session, or if the session is custom or modded.  Rust has dedicated servers for modders, as well as dedicated servers for those who wish to only play with the standard settings.  Similarly, rust has an anti-cheat program that is required to be used to play the game.

GTA online is fundamentally different in these regards.  Every public session is commensurate with every other public session.  So, instead of modding the scenario itself and allowing official support (Deus Ex, for example, was a single player game which the community decided should have multiplayer and then ion storm added it in).  GTA Online has a persistent character, so that if your character attains or loses something in one session, that information persists onto the next server you visit.  For example, if you play several hours worth of missions and buy a new car, all the RP/XP, money, possessions, etc follow to wherever your character goes.  This also means that if someone mods those things out and Rockstar (take2?) doesn't catch it, then you potentially lose all those things.

Another fundamental difference between the sort of modding between these is that GTA online does not support modding, and it is against the TOS to mod.  The problem is, with the unauthorized mods like those of the openIV, are that they inject the code using a particular form of data manipulation between the clients and the server.  So someone can literally act as though they are someone else, or mod anyone's stats who happens to be on the session, etc.  This can also result in persistent client side artifacts causing a mod to follow a person who isn't modding (in the form of glitching local data that the individual clients should not be able to normally interact with remotely).

The difference between this kind of modding and the modding one sees in most other online interactions is that, for example, someone can give you GTA$ they've modded onto themselves, drop it onto the world (or transfer it as though you're their associate helping with a mission when you're not, etc) and you can pick it up and the server treats it as though the server gave it to you.

Another interesting and annoying exploit is that anyone modding can simply execute a command to kill/blow up a player.  So if you've been doing a warehouse mission for 20 minutes, they can just kill your character remotely at the last second and you get nothing.  They can grief you repeatedly this way.  Another interesting mod I ran across the other day was someone making controls not function properly to win a world event.

Another stupid thing is that rockstar can't seem to verify who is actually modding, as evidence by the 'Rockstar has noticed that your stats were adjusted by something outside your control, and we've adjusted it for you.'  It's common knowledge right now that, if someone mods money to you, you can just buy expensive cars and stuff to sell later, and Rockstar won't touch any of that stuff you bought because its' not a stat they adjust.  Get modded money, buy a car, switch session and sell the car, and your money is good.  It's supremely frustrating, and it leads to another problem with the overall economy.

If people can just mod money in, no one will buy shark cards.  Now, while I think the business of selling money to people is bad (IGN got in trouble for selling gold on WoW servers back in the day, if memory serves), it's not a bad way to support the game and the costs associated with running such a massive server-heavy operation.

However, there's absolutely no way I'm buying a Shark Card if I know that other people are just modding themselves millions of in-game currency for free, and that those people can effectively waste off any money I might buy.

How, you might ask?  Well, it goes back to the adjustments that Rockstar makes.  If they think your RP or GTA$ have been modded, they will take away whatever they believe to be modded.  You could be completely unaware that someone modded a small GTA$ sum to you, and if Rockstar believes you got more than that, they will just adjust it.  Same with RP.  I think I hit level 96 or 99 five times in a row because I was constantly in modded sessions and the RP didn't persist.

Which brings us to the other very big issue.  As we've pointed out before, because of the nature of the code being injected (CSS hijack perhaps?), Rockstar cannot tell with certainty who is actually modding whom.  It is not so common knowledge (see the link) that they have an algorithm to place players they believe to be involved with modding into a 'cheaters pool.'

Now, I've never modded, but I've been the victim of modding on probably half the sessions I've joined at this point.  It appears that I'm in the cheater's pool at least some of the time, and I have no recourse against it.  Speaking of which.

CEO and other missions can only be completed in public sessions.  One cannot do MC/VIP/CEO work etc in a private (invite only, crew, solo, or other) session.  The session has to be public and populated by rockstar's algorithms.  This means that I cannot avoid the modders at all if I want to do any of the online-only stuff.  Rockstar doesn't give the option for having an offline (private session?) character.  I can't play the online features of the game, effectively, in a private session where I do not have to worry about modders.  I would love to be able to just jump on a private session, play with the new toys, etc, and not have to worry about some idiot griefing me to death.  There's also no session balancing to speak of, so a person with a max level (likely modded) can get thrown into a session with people who are double digits and just screw around with them to no end.  I don't even care if this functions as an alternate character that I can't use publicly.

While we're discussing the online multiplayer experience, it's not limited to just open sessions.  I've been in multiplayer missions (tiny racers, deadline, death matches, etc - all the 'games' portion stuff with lobbies and matches etc) where people have modded themselves to be impervious to damage or whatever.  It doesn't help that I've got a 60Mbps connection and half the time the server lags to no end, or it takes 10 minutes just to connect sometimes (cheater pool algorithm might be part of that).

Again, to sum it up, I think the IP argument is fair, I just do not think it is valid here.  Rockstar is clearly more concerned about modders flubbing up the online space than they are about creators or offline/private session players modifying the game to create new intellectual property.  Modding can be handled in creative ways, but I think Rockstar simply doesn't have the manpower to deal with this level of the illegitimate stuff.

I've even tweeted to them before, how do I report someone if I don't know which person is modding, and they've told me to report the person who is modding.  They seem a tad out of touch on how grand this issue is.

Also, to be clear, I do not mod, and I do not condone this kind of modding.  I do not care what people do in their own environment on their own private copy of the game.  I only care when that infringes upon others' ability to enjoy the online experience as Rockstar intended, with people following the TOS and being kicked if they don't.  However, again, Rockstar has no way of definitively determining who is perpetrating the exploits based upon my understanding of how their code works (which is cursory, to be fair), and as such has a very long uphill battle in this regard.  I wish them the best, because I really enjoy playing the game online, and I really hate when people mod in the session I'm in.

Those are my thoughts for tonight.

As always, thanks for tuning in!