The Chronicles of GameGuard

The Chronicles of Spellborn is a little-known European MMORPG that never quite got off the ground. Created by Dutch developers Spellborn Interactive, it features a fps-style targeting system using the Unreal Engine. Unfortunately, Spellborn Interactive went bankrupt last year, just 2 months after the game’s release here in the US. It is currently available for free while the game is being converted by Frogster Asia into a free-to-play system supported by micro-transactions.

But this post isn’t about the merits or shortcomings of the game. If you can ignore the painfully ugly 1998-era avatars, the unique fps-style combat can be fun. Rather, this is about an anti-cheat program called GameGuard.

One of nProtect’s products (they also make anti-virus software), GameGuard is used by several Asian MMOs including Lineage II, Flyff, Huxley, and others. It claims to block cheating by hiding the game’s application process, monitoring your computer’s entire memory range, terminating applications defined by the game vendor as “suspicious”, and blocking certain calls to DirectX functions and Windows APIs. It even auto-updates itself as necessary.

Sounds as harmless as a teddy bear, doesn’t it?

Sure, if your teddy bear happens to be named Rootkit.

For the uninitiated, rootkits are never a good thing regardless of their intended use. Imagine buying a new couch that contains a hidden gremlin who rearranges, breaks or removes the other furniture in your house. The only way you can use your new couch is if you agree to allow the gremlin to continue his mischievous behavior. Now imagine that even if you get rid of your couch, you still have to go through a complicated exorcism involving a pogo stick, a light bulb, and Martha Stewart in order to get rid of the couch’s gremlin. That, my friends, is a rootkit.

I initially downloaded and installed TCOS when the game was released. I saw nothing in the documentation about the automatic installation of an anti-cheat program until the GameGuard logo flashed briefly across my screen during the login process. Although it proved to be fairly benign on my computer, it did disable the programmable keys on my G15 keyboard and made my antivirus program (AVG) very unhappy. GameGuard is known to conflict with an entire list of applications, including Razer mouse drivers, Google Chrome, Steam, and NeoPaint.

After removing the game I attempted to post warnings on TCOS’s forums about GameGuard’s potential problems. My posts were consistently removed by the moderator. Eventually the developers relented and posted an FAQ page, listing all of the applications that conflict with GameGuard, along with instructions on how to remove it. The company filed bankruptcy a month after the page was posted, so I guess by then they didn’t care about their public relations.

What I don’t understand is why companies like Spellborn Interactive feel the need to use a third-party program like GameGuard. Granted, I don’t engage in PvP, so I don’t know how prevalent cheating may be. But other PvP-centric games like Guild Wars don’t resort to rootkits, so they’re obviously not necessary to run a successful MMO. I can’t imagine that cheating is so problematic that it’s worth alienating your players in an effort to prevent it.

That makes about as much sense as DRM.

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4 Responses to “The Chronicles of GameGuard”

  1. henebry says:

    I’m just amazed to see an MMO that allows you to customize your character to look like an opera diva. Cool.

  2. Michael says:

    Man, I remember finding out about the RootKit that came with Spore, and reading its details switched me from being enthusiastic about its release to holding the cross on my neck whenever I walk past its packaging in a store.

    I remember I had to stop playing Pangya, because it had a similar program (maybe the same one) creating conflicts with my antivirus software (Avira).

  3. Moddington says:

    Well, either they couldn’t properly maintain a proper client/server split during development for some reason (laziness, incompetence, overly ambitious server-side logic…), or they did manage to do so, and included GameGuard anyways for a reason unrelated to game security.
    So yeah, they’re either incompetent or malicious, take your pick.

  4. WysiWyg says:

    I really can’t see a good reason to have client-side anti-cheat programs in an MMO, it shouldn’t be THAT hard to employ server-side anti-cheat programs instead, especially since everything has to run through the server anyways.

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