Hey Internet people, did you know that Microsoft makes video games? Okay, you’re probably aware of the various incarnations of the Xbox, yes. But long before the Xbox, Microsoft was a video game publisher for the PC…and still is! It even has its own distribution platform, which is the rather terrible Windows Store.
The point here is that Microsoft is very much aware of the lucrative PC gaming market, and they’d really appreciate it if you thought of the Windows Store as an alternative to Steam. It’s not, not even close, but they’d like it to be. And now they’ve introduced a new anti-cheat system, which they call TruePlay to go with their store that no one wants to use.
What Is Anti-Cheat Software?
If you have a multiplayer game, you need some kind of protection against cheaters. Cheaters are inevitable if you get any amount of active player base, and if you don’t at least attempt to quell the naughtiness, all your law-abiding players are going to leave for some other game where they don’t keep getting killed by jerks.
Developers often don’t have the resources or expertise to to detect and track cheaters in addition to their regular development and upkeep duties. So now there are pre-built anti-cheating systems that they can incorporate into their games…sort of like a game engine that only does one thing. The most popular is probably Valve’s Anti-Cheat (VAC) that’s integrated with Steam itself. In addition to detecting cheaters, VAC tracks them across servers and multiple games, allowing developers options for bans and blocks of all kinds. Most of the commercial alternatives have similar options.
Some multiplayer game developers still maintain their own anti-cheat systems, but VAC and its alternatives are so extensive and economical that they’re often used just to save time and money. For example, Activision uses VAC on multiplayer shooters like Call of Duty, even though it’s a competitor to Valve and one of the biggest publishers in the world.
How Is TruePlay Different?
Compared to VAC, Microsoft’s TruePlay is comparatively simple. (That’s not some kind of put-down, by the way—VAC has been around for over a decade, so of course it’s had more time to mature). TruePlay runs as a system-level process in Windows to protect the game program and its files from tampering instead of trying to detect online players via servers.
TruePlay is a relatively small API that can be added to Universal Windows Platform applications (the apps you download from the Windows Store). The applications have to be cleared by Microsoft’s internal system for publishing to the Store, and end users (players) have to agree to TruePlay terms before the system is applied to their games. Developers can choose to restrict access to certain parts of their games—like online multiplayer, which is often targeted by cheaters—for players who refuse the terms of TruePlay. This permission check can be applied over and over again in the background.
If TruePlay detects an irregularity in the local game files, or if the player revokes permission for TruePlay to run (by, say, disabling the local process in the Windows task manager), the game can instantly shut off access to its TruePlay-only components. In other words, kick the player out of a multiplayer game.
Why Would Developers Use It?
The upside here is that TruePlay should make it harder to hack games from the user end, and continuous monitoring by a Windows process instead of a server-side detection system will be cheaper and easier to manage. That’s a good thing for players—at least players who don’t want to cheat—and developers who want to protect the integrity of their games and avoid losing frustrated customers.
The big hurdle to this is that the Windows Store still really isn’t a well-established destination for big, profit-driving AAA games. There’s a pretty decent selection of mobile-style titles and a few notable Microsoft-published games like Minecraft and the Forza racing series, but that’s about it. At the time of writing, the best “selling” game on the Windows Store is Candy Crush, the famous and infamous smartphone/Facebook game.
It’s not all gloom and doom. The Windows Store is gaining some steam, especially as indie developers get fed up with Steam’s lack of curation. Having a system-level anti-cheat option is a small but crucial step to enabling the Windows Store to become more of a true competitor. Combined with efforts like cross-platform play and Microsoft’s mixed reality VR system, things are generally looking up.