Dirty Worka and Carbine King - not their real names, as you may have guessed - are two Grand Theft Auto Online players who clash about one important thing. Dirty Worka hates the rampant cheating in the game. Carbine King is a boastful cheater. Despite this, they're friends and sometimes play against each other.
"Dirty Worka is a great friend of mine," Carbine King recently told me over email. "We disagree on some things, but we also agree on a lot of things. I've known him for about a year. He is a great guy. He's just mad because he can't beat me in a 1v1."
Carbine King recently survived one of Rockstar's periodic crackdowns on cheaters and he's proudly played the game using characters with boosted bank accounts as well as exploits like the one that removes recoil from his in-game gunshots.
Dirty Worka says he plays clean. He plays without the cheats and hacked money that let certain other players cause constant chaos in Rockstar Games' lucrative online world.
I recently communicated with both players, separately, over email and Skype, to discuss cheating in GTA Online. Carbine King is young. He says he's a student and just turned 18. Dirty Worka is older. He says he's a 39-year-old executive who travels a lot and winds up frequently playing the game from hotels. On social media, he promotes the Reaper Lords motorcycle club, showing off videos of his prowess in the more highly-skilled free-aim version of GTA Online and exhorting players to donate money to a breast cancer fundraiser.
"GTA provides me with the ability to escape a pretty boring and rigid existence into a world where I am free to indulge my savage side and enjoy meaningful interactions with friends I've developed online," he said.
One plays with modded money and cheats. One does not. Dirty Worka, when asked how he could be friends with a player like Carbine King, said: "Hate the sin, not the sinner."
You will not necessarily become friends with a cheater if you play GTA Online, but three years after the game's release, there's still a decent chance you'll encounter them. They're the people with all of the best guns, the fattest bank accounts and, just maybe, invisible bodies thanks to a glitch with the game's clothing.
Cheaters are abundant enough to require regular crackdowns by Rockstar, most recently in October when the GTA studio increased the severity of its account-suspension policy and began wiping trillions of in-game dollars from players with modded accounts. Those deletions and other actions to level the playing field get players talking.
"The most frustrating thing in the game for me is when friends and I are having a good, clean battle against another club, and inevitably the modded account trash-players show up and just start spamming rockets or using game exploits to crash the party," Dirty Worka said. "I want nothing more than to play the game the way Rockstar intended."
Rockstar frequently runs promotions for items in GTA Online, encouraging gamers to play more and get more in-game loot using official discounts.
Carbine King says he doesn't do exactly that, but he does use an artificially inflated bank account and has gleefully used cheats in the past. "I might break the rules, but it's a broken game," he said. 'Everything is way overpriced." He's talking about in-game guns and cars, which can be bought with money earned from playing missions or by buying Shark Cards, which convert real dollars to in-game cash. To play the way he wanted to play, he started paying $US10 ($13) for modded accounts that give him rewards without the effort.
GTA Online is accessible to the many millions of people who own GTA V, as many as eight million of whom were playing the online game weekly, according to figures released by the game's publisher just over a year ago. The game makes a lot of money, contributing to about half a billion dollars of revenue that it and GTA V earned in 2015.
The game is spread across GTA's massive, Los Angeles-inspired map. Players can join various racing and shooting modes or stay on that main map with 31 of their fellow virtual criminals, roaming around and looking for activities in the open world. There might be loot to steal, bounties to chase down or items to protect. GTA Online is meant to feel lawless, which leads to oddities like the fact that Rockstar has released DLC packs for it called "Ill-Gotten Gains" but has also had to issue an anti-cheater advisory titled: "Illegitimately Gained In-Game Money Removal."
Rockstar regularly doles out new free expansions to the game that allow players to build business empires and smuggling rings, to work as bodyguards and stage heists, to craft racetracks or maintain motorcycle gangs.
An online ad for a modded account that is designed to be transferred from an older console to a new one. Modders try to keep stats from being too eye-popping so that Rockstar presumably won't notice the account during a transfer.
Cheaters are able to use modded accounts to inflate their bank accounts and purchase what would otherwise be scarce and expensive high-end weaponry. Some exploits were more easily modded into the version of GTA Online that ran on the previous generation of consoles and are brought to newer consoles through the cross-generation character transfer tool.
Some fans believe Rockstar has gotten better at detecting modded accounts during that transfer process and blocking them. Modders therefore work to make the stats on these accounts less obviously bogus. One online ad for $US20 ($27) modded accounts promises "maxed stats/skills," "cash $US500 ($667) million" and a player rank up to 999, but with "120-499 recommended."
Dirty Worka said you can spot some modded accounts by checking players' kill-death ratios. Ratios of 6.66 or 4.20 are a pretty good giveaway of shenanigans, he said.
Rockstar doesn't talk publicly that much about cheating in the game and didn't take Kotaku up on an offer for an interview for this article. But the company has said in statements on its support site that it's been cracking down on cheaters' in-game money to "keep the gameplay environment fair."
Expanding on that, the company has said on that site that suspensions in the game "are triggered by a number of factors, including modding in GTA Online, exploiting or abusing game mechanics, manipulating protected game data and code, or interfering with other players' gameplay experience."
Dirty Worka got Carbine King into the game's specialised free-aim community last year. That's a mode of play that involves roaming through GTA's maps and modes without any aim assist on your guns, in theory incentivizing more highly-skilled play.
Dirty showed Carbine the ropes, though he said the younger gamer quickly surpassed him and moved on to the highly competitive team deathmatch scene. "He's trying to get to the top of that community," Dirty Worka said. "With that comes all the trash-talking, performance mods and posturing that is customary within that segment of the community."
Carbine King is grateful for Dirty's mentorship. "He introduced me to free aim and I'm really happy he did."
The younger player got himself into GTA cheating because it made the game more enjoyable. "I got my first modded account just a little bit over a year ago," he said in an email. He loves shooting other players in the game. "That's one of the things I do mostly. A modded account was great. You wouldn't have to worry about paying for anything. All you had to do was enjoy yourself and play the game."
When Rockstar cracked down on cheating accounts in October, Carbine King said one of the eight he had for the game was wiped out. He tweeted an image that indicated that Rockstar had wiped out $US117 ($156) trillion in in-game funds. He then started showing off screenshots of him back in the game with a different account and more inflated funds.
"With that kind [of] money you can buy what your heart desires," he said, noting that you don't really need a full $US117 ($156) trillion to have a good time. "Most people get a crazy amount for the looks." But, he added, "If you have a billion, you're good."
It would seem that way. A rocket launcher can run you 75,000 in-game dollars, a sniper rifle $US20 ($27),000. An armoured car is $US1.3 ($2) million, a jet $US3 ($4) million. A power-up called Bullshark Testosterone is $US500 ($667) a pop.
Players certainly don't have to cheat to make in-game money. They can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars from playing online heists and smaller amounts from shorter races and deathmatches, to say nothing of the various smuggling and other criminal enterprises Rockstar has added since launch.
Carbine King said he just doesn't feel like taking the time to play heists. He knows that by using a modded account he's breaking some rules, but he quibbles with how you label it. "I don't consider myself a cheater," he said.
"I play in a fair and respectful manner. I play the game for combat, and I'm very competitive." He argues that he doesn't use many of the exploits available in the game. He sees the persistence of some cheats even in the face of Rockstar's crackdown on modded money as a sign that the game studio is less interested in stopping overly raucous and disruptive play and more interested in nudging people toward paying real money not to modders but to Rockstar to boost their bank accounts.
"Rockstar hasn't really done anything to crack down on cheaters," Carbine King said. "They have only taken people's money so they can increase sales on Shark Cards."
Shark Cards are official Rockstar items that can be bought for real money and grant players more in-game money. For 10 real dollars, players can have 500,000 in-game dollars. Twenty dollars will get you a Great White Shark Card that converts to $US1.25 ($2) million in-game. Given that all of GTA Online's expansions have been free, any big revenue boasts from its publisher likely involve the sale of lots of these cards.
Dirty Worka does pours money into the game. "I personally fund my GTA addiction through the purchase of Shark Cards," he said. "I'd estimate that I spend at least $US20 ($27)/month for normal gameplay, but I have purchased $US100 ($133) or more when a big DLC comes out."
Dirty Worka says cheating in GTA Online impacts the game in three ways.
- It hurts basic fairness. "For players that enjoy the game as intended by the developer, we obtain new content either through grinding missions, which promotes collaborative gameplay, or through the purchase of Shark Cards, which contributes to the development of DLC and ensure on-going support for the game we love."
- It adds a disproportionate amount of havoc to the game, upsetting the balance in 32-player shares sessions on the game's big map where players can usually interact with each other at will. "A night of griefing in GTA Online might cost $US300k which, if obtained through legitimate in-game opportunities would take hours to earn," he said. "So not only do they steal content from Rockstar, they limit the desire of paying customers to actually play the game."
- He's also worried that modders' ballooning bank accounts may have distorted the game's economy and encouraged Rockstar to price new cars and other in-game items at higher prices.
When Rockstar began their latest crackdown on modded in-game money in late October, Dirty Worka said he hoped it would lead to people playing the game "closer to what Rockstar intended." Over a month later, he says things are better. "I am absolutely seeing more collaborative gameplay and an overall lower-level of hostility in game," he said. "The sheer number of modders and their advertisements seems to have been reduced (not eliminated)."
Carbine King doesn't quite see that. Assessing changes a month later, he said, "it's the usual, bunch of people cheating and abusing different things that Rockstar put in the game. Them taking away the money did nothing."
Cheats do remain. Carbine King said he could still use numerous modded cheats including fast-run and no recoil. People on both sides of the cheating debate say that an invisible body cheat that was triggered through glitches involving player clothing has been stymied, though there's some dispute as to what Rockstar may have done to affect it.
There are many ways a game publisher can find and punish cheaters. Rockstar has lowered its official tolerance for misbehaviour in the past couple of months but has focused publicly more on zeroing out accounts than removing them from the game.
Dirty Worka says he would have preferred that people who used cheats were kicked out of the game, not just had their bank accounts depleted. "In my perfect GTA-world, that's exactly what they would have done," he said. But, he noted, "I understand the need for them to maintain a large player base to keep interest in the game alive."
There are other reasons he's not in favour of a full ban. Not everyone who mods or cheats is a bad person or even a destructive player. He said that there is a "quiet population" of players who used modded money to make it easier to play the game but who avoided playing in a destructive way.
And there's Dirty Worka's friend, Carbine King. "He's like my little bastard step son," Dirty Worka said. "Lately he's been presenting himself like a heel from the old WWF days, but he's really a good kid just trying to figure out where he fits in within the GTA community. Six months ago, he was all about fair play. Six months from now, he might be back, or onto something new."