Illustration: Sam Woolley
Millions of dollars raining from the sky. Disappearing oceans. Jetpacks. In GTA Online, rule-breaking players can stage miracles, tragedies, and stunts using fan-created tools known as mod menus. The people creating these mod menus have their own community, where cheaters can be honorable, while others use exploits to make a buck.
Mod menus are third-party cheat programs that players access by installing specific files onto a PC or a modified console. Infamously, players use mod menus to become stinkin' rich, though that's just the tip of the iceberg. You can also spawn animals, become a giant cowboy made out of barrels, or create clone armies to fight for you.
On Youtube, there are hundreds of videos of mod menu shenanigans with millions of views. Mod menus are the reason GTA Online has a reputation for being a wild west of chaos: some players can literally do almost anything they'd like on PC and last-gen consoles, provided they brave the risk of getting banned by Rockstar.
Source: Heaths Tuts
For some developers, mod menus are a business, with some programs charging up to $US20 ($27) or more on websites that claim to have thousands of customers. While some mod menus can be downloaded online, some actually ship on a physical disc. Paid menus aren't necessarily better or more advanced, but they do offer customer support that players can use to troubleshoot problems.
Some mod menus even use a subscription style service, charging up to $US15 ($20) for a month. Subscriptions seem to be the way some hackers are responding to Rockstar's continual attempts to stop the rampant cheating, though there's never a guarantee that even cutting edge, continually-updated modding menus can avoid bans. All the same, cheating marketing copy tries its best to assuage potential customers:
Getting these tools to work isn't a simple process for console players: you need a modded last-gen system, which can range anywhere from $US200 ($269)-$US500 ($673). That is: some people are paying more money for old hardware that lets them cheat, than they would for the latest consoles that can play state of the art games.
Modded consoles can tamper with GTA V's script engine, which controls game code that dictates how GTA Online works. Changing "SET_PLAYER_WANTED_LEVEL", for example, could throw the police off your trail, or it could be used to sick cops on another player, depending on the whims of the modder in question.
While nobody has figured out how to put mod menus on new generation hardware, keeping them on older consoles does have some advantages. According to mod menu developers I spoke to, Rockstar doesn't seem to care as much about what happens on older consoles, where GTA Online is no longer receiving any updates. "Taking action against a modder on last-gen is a drop in the ocean," J, a mod menu developer, told Kotaku via email.
"One [modder] disappears, two more appear." At the same time, relying on ageing hardware means consoles can buckle and crash. Most mod developers have moved on to PC, leaving last-gen consoles to become a cheating wasteland.
You might think mod menu creators are trolling arseholes, but developers I spoke to said that cheating allows them to dig into GTA Online and find out how the game works. This knowledge allows people to create ridiculous mods. Crucially, mod menu creators told me, tampering with GTA Online also grants them a deeper appreciation of GTA's coding innards.
Take the popular "Shooting Cars" mod, for example: to make it, modders used two basic functions. "One function literally gives you the X, Y and Z position of where you last shot a bullet, and then another function spawns a car," said Tustin, a former GTA V mod menu developer. "You can use the position that the first function gave you (which was your last bullet fired position) and give it to the spawn vehicle function and that's it." Even basic information as to how GTA Online is held together can go a long way toward giving people ideas for popular mods.
Mod menus also help keep an ageing game alive, creators told me. "My main goal is to 'extend' the game a bit so people can get some more joy out of a 3+ year old game," J said. After a few years of driving around the same city, with the same weapons and killing the same cops, GTA V can get stale. Even something as simple as turning off police can a make big difference for those willing to cheat.
Of course, while many mod menus allow for hijinks like drivable toilets, not all GTA Online modding is harmless. "Some mod menus [freeze] other players and [pull] their IP addresses in game," explained Tustin. If a malicious modder gets a hold of your IP address, they could potentially disrupt your gameplay. "That's something I've never been a fan of because things like that make people look down on modding," Tustin said.
Some of these modders seem to embrace the "dark side" of cheating. A mod menu called GTA Force Elite uses imagery from Star Wars, including villainous characters like Darth Vader, on its website. A banner ad even mentions boasts about its ability to let other players "suffer".
Some of the most popular "suffering" functions in mod menus include kicking players from a session, draining other player's money, and putting constant bounties on other players. The Force Elite menu in particular has some other really nasty ways to mess with players. You can even kick out an entire lobby of players with a single button press.
Infamously, some mod menus also allow cheaters to attach themselves to other players, where they can pretend to rape their victims. Ironically, some morally ambiguous cheating software offers protections from these same features -- so if you want to be safe, you have to participate in the thing that spreads misery in the first place.
The mod menu creators I spoke to swore that developers allegedly don't give people tools to do malicious things. Potentially problematic mod menus are typically developed privately, and not released to the wider public -- but some still get out there.
"There are some bad apples who release malicious mods for some e-fame," said J. "Everyone knows about them, but only a select few actually interact with them," explained J, "And the ones that are in contact with them often aren't the most loveable people to begin with."
J and Tustin claimed that some mod makers sometimes share game-breaking bugs with Rockstar out of a sense of honour. Recently, for example, J suggests that Rockstar became aware of an exploit where players could steal money from one another because modders told them about it. "Most of the [mod] developers frown upon these idiotic people who abuse and sometimes outright bully people online and will do everything in their power to stop them," J said.
According to the mod menu creators I spoke to, they try to report "malicious" players who outright bully players, while only distributing mod menus that add lighthearted hijinks to GTA Online. They might all be cheaters, but they still make a distinction between silly pranks and cheating that can ruin someone else's day, though the line may be thin.
Even if mod menu creators claim to be helping Rockstar, nobody is above enjoying the advantages of mod menus. According to Tustin, the most popular mod menus allow players to skip GTA Online's grind. GTA Online requires players to spend hours and hours completing missions and heists to earn enough cash to buy new cars or homes, but mod menus give players the power to rain bags of cash on people. When I asked Tustin if he ever gave himself more money or better cars, he said. "I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't that kind of person."
Source: Devil Mods
Tustin and other mod menu creators say that the fun lies in playing a game in a way it was never meant to be enjoyed, while others say they love seeing what makes the game tick. Regardless of motivation, some players will undoubtedly see all types of cheating as an unfair advantage against legit players. "I understand their position," J said, "But you have to keep in mind that this is our hobby. Something we are interested in and love to share with others."
On consoles, the future of mod menus is shaky. Older systems lose players every week, while new consoles show no signs of cracking open for cheaters. It seems likely that whatever small community stays with older machines will be free to mod and mess with GTA Online as much as they want -- Until one day when the only people left are cheaters.