In a single day, I became one the best Angry Birds Star Wars players in the world -- 8th overall. Today, I'm either 2718th or 1st. It's up to the hackers.
One of my co-worker's kids, Vincent, calls me "The Video Game Man". He's never read a thing I've written (he's 7) or asked me for my professional opinions on video games -- he couldn't afford me anyway.
But when I told Vincent that I had achieved this milestone, 8th in the world at Angry Birds Star Wars, his eyes shot wide open, scanning the air for the right words. The words he found could not haunt me more. He asked, "Why weren't you first?"
So I'll give you the same, lengthy explanation that I gave him and his dad, because I totally could have been 1st in the world, and may still be.
When Angry Birds Star Wars released on November 8, 2012, I was there at midnight to greet it. I toppled Tusken Raiders into the wee hours, slept briefly, then went to work, where I found sparing time during the day to bust out the iPad and fling a few.
By night, I had a full set of three shiny stars for each level, including the bonus C-3PO and R2-D2 levels, and noticed that I was in the double-digits on the leaderboards. Before I collapsed that evening, I'd made my way up to 8th out of 314,090 players worldwide, and felt satisfied. That didn't keep those top seven spots from bugging me as much as they bugged Vincent. Why wasn't I first?
We all know who's to blame here, folks. That's right, DarkGamingLord.
At least, I blame the population of Game Center leaderboards hackers that DarkGamingLord represents, and DarkGamingLord specifically who had the proverbial "First!" in sullying the Angry Birds Star Wars leaderboards. Check out a few other iOS game leaderboards like Fruit Ninja and Angry Birds Seasons and you'll see what I mean. He's everywhere (except Android, which doesn't have Angry Birds leaderboards).
And so is his calling card, a number that AB purists have come to despise: 9,223,372,036,854,775,807.
At just a hair over nine quintillion, give or take a couple of hundred quadrillion, sits the maximum value for an integer in a 64-bit computing environment. More simply, medium-to-high-end computers today run on 64-bit processors, and the largest signed integer that these architectures can process as a single value is 9,223,372,036,854,775,807. And according to Apple's iOS Developer Game Center Programming Guide (it's a hoot, let me tell you), Game Center requires a 64-bit integers.
So DarkGamingLord and posse took to Cydia, a software platform for jailbroken iOS devices, and downloaded any of a slew of applications made specifically for manually settings scores for Game Center games. Technically, that's a breach of the Terms of Acceptable Use Policy for Game Center. In practice, you've never seen a more brazen hive of scum and villainy.
It's the Old West of amateur hacking. Imagine a place where one of the only crimes you can commit is being committed daily, and the sheriff is nowhere to be found. Maybe dead. Maybe making cheaper iPhones. Who knows?
Nothing is stopping the hacker developers (Edge investigated the motives driving these cowboys) from publishing their hex editing software, and nobody has stopped the hackers from implementing. So applications like HackCenter, iHacksRepo, and iHackCenter continue to arm aimless fingers on jailbroken iPhones, and the leaderboards fill up with quintillions of points.
Of course, this hasn't gone unnoticed. Apple message boards have lit up since the first day these hacks were implemented, at least as far back as February 2011, just five months after Game Center was made publicly available. One user called the hacks "a clear slap in the face to everyone," and others pleaded with Apple to give any response.
Fan sites have expressed similar concern. Some sites, like AngryBirdsNest, have eschewed Game Center altogether and created their own, privately curated leaderboards. These are meant for dedicated iOS gamers to compete in a truly fair ranking system based on the ineffable honesty of the anonymous internet user or... wait.
As recently as June 2013, Fredrik9 took to Apple's community forums saying, "Please fix this in iOS7 or I'll stop buying stuff." But Apple needs you to buy stuff!
Apple is not entirely responsible but is taking all the heat regardless.
Apple is not entirely responsible but is taking all the heat regardless. According to the same iOS Developer Guide, the onus is on the developers to securely package and submit scores to Game Center. Not only that, but the guide gives some basic instruction on how to set max and min values for the submitted scores, which is, again, done client-side. If these values are set correctly, the guide says that any scores outside the acceptable range will be automatically deleted. I've reached out to Rovio for comment on this potential fix.
Now, Apple could conceivably write a script (or an API call) to delete values at a given range once the data reaches the Game Center servers. It would take away some freedom from the developers in terms of their usable score range, but there aren't too many games out their with scores regularly reaching into the quintillions.
Keep in mind that from the perspectives of both Apple and app developers, it doesn't really matter what they do; hackers uh uh... find a way.
That is, for every encryption and security provision that developers implement, there will be a hacker who can, and maybe will, crack it. That goes double for anything Apple attempts, especially if it's done in hopes of preventing further exploits.
It's not an unsolvable problem, but the answer requires some work, and while consumers continue to play a poorly aimed blame game, amateur hackers keep racking up the points. The Game Center leaderboards have become a Road Warrior-style apocalyptic barrens ruled by roving marauders and that one kid who's really good at Jetpack Joyride. It would seem that the empire has already won.
But even if developers were to crack down on the clearly falsified scores by, say, cutting out anything in the 9+ quintillion range, who's to say that the seemingly reasonable high scores are legit? Maybe some clever, and by clever I mean mega-lame, trickster thought it'd be fun to convince his friends that, no, really, he cleared Rayman Jungle Run in under 20 minutes. And what about the score below that? And below that?
What about every score except my score? Maybe nobody is really playing these games anyway. In a Kierkegaardian leaderboard, maybe the only real leaderboard, I might be the only actual player. Given this information, I think it's fair to assume that not only have I been 8th, but I've also been 1st in Angry Birds Star Wars, and I have no subjective evidence to suggest that I'm not still 1st. When Angry Birds Star Wars II released on September 19th, I'll be first all over again.
Well, you can imagine that Vincent didn't buy my first place argument; he's such a Randian loyalist. I suspect I won't convince many others with that argument either. I do still play Angry Birds Star Wars, and have three-starred all the other versions of Angry Birds, but am a ways yet from top of the heap in any of those rankings. I'm far from being a true Angry Birds pro since I haven't even bothered with Mighty Eagle completion or the regular Angry Birds Facebook challenges.
Thanks to the hackers, I'll never get the sweet, sweet leaderboard recognition I've earned. At least to Vincent, for a while, I'll still be the video game man.
HackCenter to Hack Games on Game Center [SpiritJB]