Investigating the hacking arms race at the heart of ‘Escape From Tarkov’

Content creators and cheaters share insight on the for-profit cheating at the heart of 'Escape From Tarkov'

If you ask the communities of multiplayer shooters what’s bothering them the most, it’s likely that many will tell you the same issue – it’s the hackers. cheating is on the rise.

There are few games on the market where cheating is as impactful as it is in Escape From Tarkov, where a chance meeting with a hacker can wipe out hours of progress and gear. It’s a particularly brutal game, as death often means losing everything you’ve brought in with you.

Long-simmering frustration with hackers finally came to a head on August 30, when Pestily – one of the game’s biggest content creators – released a video titled The Cheating Pandemic. In short, he seemed to confirm everything that the community is feeling: cheating, in Escape From Tarkov and across the FPS genre, is out of control.

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With the floodgates wide open and the community in outrage over perceived rampant cheating,  I wanted to hear from someone at the heart of the community. To learn more I spoke to Escape From Tarkov content creator Gigabeef, who creates Tarkov videos and tutorials on YouTube while streaming lighter Tarkov gameplay on Twitch.

Due to the informative nature of his videos, Gigabeef finds that cheating has “pretty much zero effect” on creating videos for his channel. He’s a lot more skeptical than others about whether cheating in Tarkov has actually taken off, although he clarifies that he isn’t a “four hours+ per day player” and actively avoids Labs, a map “where traditionally cheaters have been most active”.

Interestingly, Gigabeef doesn’t fully buy into the cheating epidemic. Instead, he feels that a variety of technical issues – such as networking or desync – can often be to blame:

“There can be dramatically different things happening on each screen sometimes and when two streamers meet it becomes very obvious that this is the reason, whereas if you only have one side it very much looks like something else.”

Gigabeef also suspects that cheaters themselves are helping to fuel the perception of a game overrun with hacks. As he points out, cheat developers “have a vested interest in making the community broadly believe that there are many cheats”, as it pushes players toward a mindset of buying cheats to level the playing field.

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That being said, Gigabeef is well aware that Tarkov has a cheating issue, as the very nature of Tarkov “brings financial opportunities for cheaters due to the way the game is structured”.

He’s referring to real-world trading, which is when players pay real money for in-game items gathered by sellers. This, Gigabeef alleges, is what’s fueling an “arms race between Battlestate and the RMT cheat community”.

Escape From Tarkov
Escape From Tarkov. Credit: Battlestate Games.

“All large FPS games have cheaters but in Tarkov, the cheating that comes along with real money trading is much more of a problem than players cheating just to troll or to simply defeat other players,”

“Each wipe cycle brings an influx of new people, who are prime targets for RMT because the game is hard and the learning curve is steep. These players buying rubles or items is the starting point for the cheat economy.”

When hackers have a financial incentive to cheat, a permanent ban does even less to dissuade users. As Gigabeef puts it, “getting banned turns into a cost of doing business,” meaning hackers will simply keep buying new versions of the game “as long as there are players buying their in-game items”.

Switching sides

His point about real money trading being the root of Tarkov cheating interested me, and I wanted to learn more from someone who uses cheats to provide in-game profit for others. To do so, I set about looking for one of these cheaters-for-hire.

In Tarkov, one of the biggest RMT services is referred to as ‘carrying’. Someone with hacks will sell this service to players, ‘carrying’ the customer through an online raid and using their cheats to wipe all competition from the map. With the overwhelming advantage, the customer is then able to loot the map freely and take home items that could otherwise take hours to earn legitimately.

As it turned out, finding these illegitimate services was – like almost anything nowadays – just one Google search away. While I wasn’t expecting my search to be difficult, I was still nonetheless surprised to find a host of results advertising carrying through Discord.

Picking a server at random, I joined a community that advertised safe and effective carrying services. It was a professional affair – different tiers of carries came with varying prices, and a ticketing service was in place to ensure that orders were dealt with in a timely manner by members of staff.

One such carry, who went by “Woody”, was happy to talk about his time spent using cheats to earn cash. Before becoming a carry, Woody was a legitimate Tarkov player – until his friend asked if he would like to receive a carry.

“My friend told me that he had found a carrying Discord, and that they are cheaters who go into a raid with you and get you a whole bunch of loot. At the time, I was new to Tarkov and wasn’t going to deny the service as it was early into the wipe.”

At the start of a wipe, where all players are reset to an even playing field, this free loot gave him a huge advantage over other players. The ability to “run around early wipe with great gear and guns” hooked Woody, and he admitted that “If I’m being completely honest, it made the game more fun for me.”

Escape From Tarkov Interchange
Escape From Tarkov. Credit: Battlestate Games

Once Woody was involved in the community, he found that it wasn’t a big step to move into actually running carries for others. When he saw the opportunity arise, he took it.

“The person I was receiving carries from at the time wasn’t doing a very great job, and I knew I could do a better job at it.”

Like finding a carrier, discovering cheats was “as simple as a Google search”, and most carrying Discords had sections dedicated to helping others get into cheating. Using TikTok and a site designed to advertise Discord servers, Woody tapped into a budding market for Tarkov players who wanted all the rewards of cheating without getting their hands dirty.

Woody shares that demand for carrying peaks at the start of every wipe – which is roughly once every six months – and continues for two or three months before dying down. During this season, the two most common reasons that Woody hears from customers looking for a carry is that they’re looking for an easy way to gear up or they “wanna get revenge” for losing loot to cheaters in the past.

While demand for carrying is dwindling as we get a few months into the wipe, Woody is another individual who thinks that cheating is a rampant issue right now. Citing the fact that “it’s just become easier to access” cheats, he’s noticed that cheating is far more prevalent than it once was.

As carrying – his “side hustle”, as he calls it – involves repeatedly using cheats to gain wealth for customers, Woody’s own hacks enable him to see the telltale signs that others are hacking. From the vantage of a hacker, it’s plain as day to spot one of your own.

Escape From Tarkov
Escape From Tarkov hacking screenshot, provided by another “carry”. Credit: Battlestate Games

Woody can see every player in a raid, how much they’re worth, and what their player stats are. That last one is important – one telltale hacking sign is a player with completely maxed stats, as a particularly common cheat allows hackers to give themselves maximum levels in every skill. Woody’s X-ray vision also lets him see how players are acting across the map, which very quickly gives away obvious cheats like aimhacking when he sees players kill one another with perfect shots through solid walls.

It’s so bad, Woody says, that “50 per cent of the raids I go into, there are people using shoot through wall, aimbot or silentaim [cheats]”. He stresses that while 50 per cent of his raids include a cheater using blatant hacks, he hasn’t accounted for “closet” hacks that are less obvious even to other hackers.

Although Gigabeef rightfully points out that cheaters have an incentive to make the situation seem worse than it is, in this particular case Woody seems genuinely frustrated by the situation. As Woody sees carrying as little more than a “hobby” in his case, I’m inclined to believe his experience – though it’s still worth taking with a grain of salt.

When Woody isn’t running carries for cash, he’s playing on a second Tarkov account that he reserves for legitimate play. On this second account, Woody can ironically find himself on the receiving end of hackers. Despite doing the exact same thing, Woody strongly emphasises that “cheaters ruin the game”. When I ask him if he’d rather continue his side hustle or play knowing that nobody can cheat, he answers that he would “rather Battlestate make the game playable again” and return to playing legitimately on his second account more often.

Escape From Tarkov
Escape From Tarkov. Credit: Battlestate Games

Like many players in the community, Woody feels like Battlestate Games is taking the wrong approach to shutting down this cheating spree. He explains that he has never been punished with an account ban for using cheats due to the use of spoofing. This essentially gives Battlestate Games a fake HWID (Hardware ID) which prevents the studio from permanently banning your system. Woody explains:

“If you are spoofing and have cleared traces, they cannot track anything back to you. The thing is with these spoofers that I’m using, I have seen EAC [Easy Anti-Cheat] detect them countless times to the point where these spoofer devs stop supporting EAC spoofing.”

“But on the other hand, Battlestate Games (BattlEye) has never once detected any of the spoofers I have used, not even once.”

Although Woody claims carrying players doesn’t earn a significant source of money, he’s quick to add that “the devs making these HWID spoofers and cheats are making over $40,000 [£28,849] a month easily.”

The developers he knows work either solo or in small groups of up to four, and make such a significant amount because “it’s not an easy thing to do and there is demand.”

From the end of Battlestate Games, COO Nikita Buyanov has addressed a long-suffering community with a status update on September 4. Acknowledging that the situation is “a hot topic right now”, Buyanov explained that the team is currently working on “three new modules to anticheat system[s] to increase AC reaction time and overall cheat detection speed,” though ends his address on anti-cheating by stating “the war is not over”.

Unity Escape from Tarkov
Escape from Tarkov. Credit: Battlestate Games

When I ask Gigabeef about Buyanov’s efforts, he appreciates that Battlestate Games is “very committed” to fighting cheats and although he would like “a little extra communication” on progress, he appreciates that “it’s a hard line to draw because you don’t want the cheating community to use the information against Battlestate’s efforts”.

He also feels that much of the battle against cheating lies on getting RMT customers to stop purchasing goods from hackers:

Tarkov is a game that revolves around challenge, bettering oneself and becoming more skilled. Don’t allow the cheaters to remove this with the temptation of an easy win – it only hurts your own experience, the game overall and allows the cheat devs to keep doing what they are doing.”

On the other hand, Woody puts little stock in Buyanov’s plans and doesn’t believe they will lead to any substantial breakthrough, or that Battlestate Games is even focused on the right battle in this war.

“They are so worried over detecting the cheats, when instead they should be more focused on detecting the HWID spoofers that are making these people bypass bans, or making it so you won’t be able to get accounts for 80 per cent less than the website price.”

While he remains deliberately vague, Woody feels the studio should “cut out access to cheap accounts, spoofers and KD lowering bots.”

The bigger picture

The issue here, then, is that many of these services have far wider implications and reach than just Escape From Tarkov. Spoofing software is used by hackers across the world to cheat in all sorts of games without consequence, so this specific case is an issue that Battlestate Games alone can perhaps not handle entirely.

Back in January 2021, Riot Games teamed up with Bungie to sue a prominent site that offered HWID spoofers and other types of anti-detection software like the ones that Woody – and many others – use. Both studios alleged “millions of dollars” in losses caused by cheats, and the cheat-enabling company later paid $2million (£1.42million) in damages and closed down completely.

Destiny 2
Destiny 2. Credit: Bungie

As recently as last month (August 2021), Bungie once again teamed up – this time with Ubisoft – to take another leading cheat company to court. Once again, each studio reported losses in the millions due to cheating. This defendant – which is, as it stands, still doing business – is responsible for offering HWID spoofing, aimbotting and other cheats. It was named specifically as a cheat provider for Escape From Tarkov.

The sheer amount of money behind these lawsuits highlights that this cheating surge is affecting companies as well as players. With so much money on the line and the enjoyment of millions of legitimate players on the line, perhaps this approach – pooling resources to go after the biggest culprits – is one that more companies should be adopting.

Escape From Tarkov may be struggling with cheats on its own, but the plague this game seems to be facing is just one small battle in a wider war. Across the world, studios great and small are fighting the same fight. From what I’ve learned, game-specific cheats are more of a symptom, while software that protects hackers from punishment sits as the true cause.

While those creating the cheats and HWID spoofers are often working in a decentralized manner, the sheer amount of money and workforce power that game studios have available to pool together should not be understated. If studios want to find a way out of this issue, teaming up and sharing information could be the best way forward.

While any decisions of a worldwide nature are best left out of my hands, I still wanted to know one more thing. Woody – like many players – is happy to cheat, despite seeming to enjoy the legitimate side of Tarkov. I ask him why, and he pauses for a second before answering:

“When a company makes it so easy to do it, and you can make a little bit of money while still playing the game, why wouldn’t you do it?”

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