If everything went well, they could make thousands overnight.
The two trampled into the Liu family home, a three-story fortress leaning over the mountainside. They ran through the basement and up a flight of dark stairs into a messy bedroom, crowded by a king-sized bed. They tossed Multivariable Calculus textbooks haphazardly on the ground and tore laptops out of backpacks. Frantically typing over Skype, Liu reached out to his online friends from across the globe. Soon enough, the team needed for the complicated duplication process had been assembled. This team, an unruly band of hackers in the game's secret hacking community, are one of many such groups that have long plagued a corporation's most successful and wildly popular game—and the company Nexon has sued in the past to punish hackers.
Just twenty minutes before, Liu had been studying for a Multivariable final when he received a message from a MapleStory friend. A vulnerability in the game's programming had been discovered that could allow Liu and his friends to "dupe"—duplicate—hundreds of items, before Nexon, the South Korean company that publishes MapleStory, could catch on.
The bedroom was silent except for the constant beeping of Skype notifications, between Liu and someone who called himself Duke. Liu stared at his computer screen and typed rapid-fire.
"Who the f**k is playing music?" Liu asked Duke over Skype.
"Well turn him off — break his strings or some sh*t."
An hour passed in silence. The virtual world of MapleStory, where players fight monsters for virtual currency (Mesos), trade and barter with newly-made friends, buy the latest bling, and level curse after curse at each other, buzzed on.
"Shit!" Liu yelled, suddenly furious.
The vulnerability that the two had so furiously tried to exploit had been released to the public via a post on an unofficial MapleStory website, vastly increasing the chances that Nexon could and would trace and undo their work. Frantic, Liu searched for the leaker to get him to take down the post.
The leaker, it turned out, was a hacker friend named Miles, who had released the dupe in retaliation — another hacker had spread Miles' dupe, and so Miles had released it to the public, essentially destroying any value the technique had once had.
"Dude, delete it," Liu pleaded. I looked over his shoulder at the screen.
[9:35:58 PM] Miles: it's wayyy
[9:35:59 PM] Miles: too late
[9:36:00 PM] Miles: now
[9:36:00 PM] Miles: lol
[9:36:02 PM] Liu: DUDE JUST DELETE IT
[9:36:03 PM] Liu: SO NEXON
[9:36:05 PM] Liu: DOESN'T KNOW HOW TO
[9:36:05 PM] Liu: PATCH IT
[9:39:42 PM] Miles: I fk'd myself
[9:39:45 PM] Liu: why
[9:39:45 PM] Miles: by trusting
[9:39:49 PM] Miles: someone
[9:39:50 PM] Liu: so you did it
[9:39:51 PM] Miles: and then
[9:39:51 PM] Liu: out of ego
[9:39:52 PM] Liu: #shame
[9:39:55 PM] Miles: nono
[9:39:58 PM] Miles: then
[9:39:59 PM] Miles: it spread
[9:40:18 PM] Miles: this exploit
[9:40:20 PM] Miles: got out of hand
[9:40:23 PM] Miles: and everyone knows it
Liu sagged in his chair, exhausted. He knew that the chances of keeping his valuable virtual items had dropped drastically.
"Whatever," he said. "It's hit or miss; we might as well continue. We'll just rinse, repeat and keep duping items." More than occasionally, Nexon fails to correct a hack. With this Hail Mary in mind, Liu and Jalalian worked until 2 a.m., until they had built up a satisfactory cache of duplicate items.
"We're in the I-have-a-headache-and-I'm-hungry stage," Jalalian said, as we headed downstairs into a huge kitchen. Liu's parents were long asleep, as were, Jalalian pointed out, most folks with finals the next day.
Liu made eggs, sunny side-up. This was his first time hacking Maplestory in a while, he told me, having quit for months. Still, he couldn't resist the allure of another dupe. It hadn't gone as well as planned: old connections had gone stale or completely dead, and because he couldn't force his friend to remove the post, there was little chance of this dupe ever working.
"I came all the way back to MapleStory," he said, spreading salt over the eggs. "And no one wants to talk to me."As long as there have been online games with virtual currencies, gamers have tried to take advantage of them. The most infamous exploit, and maybe the only one to ever break through to the public consciousness, was the phenomenon of the so-called "gold farmer". In China, hunched over computers in crowded sweatshops and even prisons, workers mined World of Warcraft gold through menial tasks, to be resold for real money to wealthier players. The business boomed. In 2005, The New York Times reported that there were over 100,000 full-time gold farmers in China alone.
Other notable hacks came as early as 1997, when Ultima Online players figured out a way to kill "Lord British," a supposedly invulnerable character sent in to do a server stress test. In 2005, EVE Online players stole $16,500 from another group through a targeted virtual assassination.
MapleStory presents rare opportunities for hackers with even a cursory knowledge of coding, like Liu. The game is huge and free-to-play, with over 35 million user-created characters, and, as a consequence, constitutes a huge market for cheap items. While you can't sell items for real money in the game, third party services like Paypal provide an easy loophole. For-profit hacking is present in almost every massive multiplayer online game, but some hackers and programmers say MapleStory is remarkably easy to hack due to its "gaping vulnerabilities."
Eos Parish is a programmer who owns southperry.net, a website that analyzes developments in MapleStory. He said that hackers are "subtly poisoning" the game, though the fault lies on the end of the publisher Nexon and game designer Wizet.
"Maple has by far the worst abuse I have seen," he wrote in an email. "The combination of its popularity and openness and the severity of its design flaws made it a perfect storm for exploitation for profit."
It's hard to quantify just how harmful and prevalent these hacking networks are. Nexon has taken legal action against specific, particularly sophisticated hackers, but thousands and thousands of players use simple hacks on a daily basis. In MapleStory, mass duplication of the kind done by Liu and his friends is less common, and almost always leads to extreme deflation since the supply of goods becomes artificially inflated.
But, even more importantly, some of Liu's hacks require crashing the game, which could constitute a denial of service attack, a federal crime under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. By this standard, even lesser, more common hacking could be considered potential fraud.
Parish doesn't believe Nexon, which only gave a short statement for this story, will prosecute Liu or hackers of his ilk. "It makes more sense for them to target the suppliers than the users," he wrote. "It'd be too time-consuming and expensive to bother targeting a hacker here or there while hundreds more are waiting to take their place."
I asked Liu if he feared prosecution. He dismissed it, saying that he wasn't doing anything illegal.
That's assuming Nexon never goes after the mid-level hackers. If the company decided to take another tack, Parish said that it is "entirely possible for Nexon to go for 'low hanging fruit' if they see a highly visible, recognizable and easily prosecutable hacker ... to instill fear into the masses."I first met Justin when we were both freshmen, preparing to take the AP Chinese exam. I didn't really get to know him until junior year, when we sat at the same table in AP Calculus, which he rarely attended. Like myself and many of my peers, he's the son of Chinese immigrants turned engineers — the "silicon elite" as they're known, though to us they're mostly just awkward, visor-toting parents with irrepressible immigrant instincts.
In class, Liu was always That Guy Who Never Listens in Class; in-thought and quiet, he'd sit a few desks away from me, slumped over, staring idly at a pen, not even feigning attention. Outside of test prep, though, he struck me in many ways an average Saratoga teenager — prom, AP classes, girls and goofing-around. Except, of course, instead of doing homework, Liu spent his time exploiting MapleStory.
In the weeks following the night at Justin's, I couldn't help but wonder: who were the other hackers, this vast network of people who conspired with Justin? Duke, DOTcurrency, Kizaki — they seemed like a colorful bunch, but finding them turned out to be difficult. The ones I contacted mostly claimed to be "retired" and the few that weren't feared legal ramifications.
Their fears weren't without justification. In, 2012, Nexon sued a woman named Alexandria Anastasia Cornwall (and others) for providing hacks to other players, alleging the "insidious and harmful practice of developing, distributing, and selling, for a profit [hacks] that ... destroy the online experience of this game." In other words, Nexon accused them of destroying the game by enabling thousands of players to hack.
I contacted Cornwall through a Skype video call. Going by the alias "Riu Kizaki" online, Cornall is a hacker turned "legitimate" — though not by choice. A programmer whose abilities Liu described as "godly," Cornwall (who described Liu, in turn, as "small fish") first started hacking in college — basically, because she could. However, her tuition at Baylor University was costly, so she turned to for-profit hacking. In a short period, Cornwall said she made $30,000 by selling hacks to others and — she confided with a bit of a smirk — by hiding ads in the programs her clients unwittingly downloaded. She said that rampant hacking occurs as a result of Nexon's "incompetence."
"Nexon is very, very bad at programming," Cornwall said. "They have a ton of crashes in their game, players get disconnected, channels will crash ... it's like they don't understand as a programmer you're supposed to assume the client is always malicious, always wanting to destroy everything."
Ultimately, Nexon settled with Cornwall, who said that the monetary damage to her was "not devastating." [The settlement listed damages as $750,000 and stipulated that Cornwall was not to discuss her hacking activities, though she gave an interview previously to Maple.FM, a MapleStory website. Parish described the situation as "baffling."]
Though the terms of her settlement prevent Cornwall from discussing the intricacies of her hacking, she was happy to describe the larger community. Secretive and largely aloof, many of the for-profit hackers don't actually play the game outside of "duping." If Nexon bans their character, they make another one. If Nexon bans their IP address, they simply tunnel through with a Virtual Private Network. And if MapleStory gets boring or less profitable, they move onto other games.
"If Nexon hired me I could get the entire community banned and save them hundreds and thousands of dollars," Liu told me. "Would I do it? Probably not — a lot of these people are my friends."
The core hacker community, numbering perhaps a few dozen, is predominantly white and comprised of people in their late teens or early twenties. Over Skype and on message boards, stories run wild: Liu told me about groups bringing in thousands of dollars a day, and extremely profitable hacked currency generators. One hacker was rumored to have made $32,000 in two weeks before releasing his dupe to the public on New Years. He was, according to the story, a 16 year-old high school dropout.
Wilson* was once an extremely well-known hacker who, by his own admission, "polarized" the community. A 20 year-old who works in a non-tech job, Wilson claims to have left the game and hacking over a year ago.
He fears that other hackers try to glamorize the practice because many people in the hacking community, he said, are "stupid as all hell or extremely cocky — everyone thinks they're extremely special. [They do it] for ego, for reputation ... They're saying it because they know they're going to be publicized, be recognized."
Though he was reluctant to talk to me, Wilson agreed to go on the record because he was worried that "people will think that this is a luxurious way actual way to make money."
"It's been too physically and mentally straining, not some sort of stupid cushy job," he said. "I've made enough money to sustain myself [for a bit], but I can't go out and buy a new fuckin' Mercedes."2013 New Years' Eve at noon — prime time for MMOs, which usually see high traffic on holidays — Liu was playing MapleStory when he found out about a new dupe. Coincidentally or not, this new dupe had been released publicly when most Nexon America employees were on vacation.
Initially, Liu didn't think much of it, since a public dupe usually means a patched dupe. But he got his team together and went to work, anyway.
"The first rule of duping," he said, "is to never count on Nexon to rollback, because it costs them a lot of money. The second rule of duping is to abuse the fuck out of it."
Throughout the night, internal conflicts between Liu's group of six broke out over the division of duplicated goods. They split into two groups of three; Liu watched as the other group disintegrated. One left for New Years' dinner, the second guy went off to eat out of anger, and the third guy was "just sitting there, raging by himself."
Liu and his team stayed up until 6 in the morning. By this time, Liu guessed that it was too costly for Nexon to rollback the economy, so the crew tried to figure out ways to outsmart Nexon's response system. Nexon's tactic involved banning accounts with certain duped items, so Liu and his group created several characters and gave them each a specific item — that way, if Nexon went after item A, the character holding A is banned and useless, but those holding items B, C, and D would still be around.
"If you never try you'll never profit," he said. "100 times, 99 times it's a rollback, [but the one time it's not] you make bank, so you have to go for it."
The next day, Nexon America CEO Min Kim addressed the New Years dupe, telling the community "I often compare a part of our work to the emergency room ... [Our employees] did come in and worked well into the night during their holiday to fix the hack."
Nexon never rolled back the economy; the abuse had gone on undetected for too long, and was too wide-spread. Had a rollback occurred, thousands of players would have lost their activity for the past few days. Still, Kim promised to find the remaining exploiters, who "will lose their account, their connection to their friends, and all their invested time and money."
Liu was buoyed by the news, as his multiple-character precautions had paid off. He sold $2000 worth of duped items in a few weeks, and estimated that he had $5000 worth of items left. Liu showed me his Paypal account, which had a balance of over $9000. In total, he said he had made roughly $12,000 in two years.
When I met Liu for coffee, recently, next to a Smashburger that had sprung up at a newly revamped mall, he was far calmer than he was on the day of the first dupe. He told me that MapleStory was something that filled up his free time, a hobby. When he started playing the game in 3rd grade, he never meant to play for profit, but eventually that became the main incentive.
I asked him if MapleStory ever really affected his schoolwork; Liu had a reputation for missing school. He told me that he planned to stop playing soon — for good. In the fall, he was off to UC Berkeley, where he planned on majoring in Economics and Computer Science. The choice was inspired, in part, by his work in MapleStory.
I asked him if he ever felt bad about hacking.
"It's hard to define what's ethical or not ethical," he told me. "Who am I stealing from?"
"Nexon," I suggested.
"I guess you could make that argument," he said. "But I don't think of it that way. I'm not taking their property and selling it anywhere else. I allow people access to parts of the game that Nexon blocks off to all but the richest. What Nexon tries to make rare I make common."
When I asked him why he did it, other than the relatively small amount of money, Liu just shrugged. "Fun?"
We walked outside to a sunny day, with a few trees swaying in the wind. Crossing the parking lot, I asked Liu if he's ever noticed any parallels between hacking and drug dealing, the way the product flows down a pyramid from the originator, to mid-level disseminators, to a huge user base. And that the authorities are always trying to prosecute the hydra-esque offenders, who peddle their goods by black market.
He was amused. At school, he explained, he had made friends with fellow "Maplers" and even made some sales of Mesos, the in-game currency.
"I've sold $300-400 worth of Mesos to a junior at my school," he said. "He gave me the money right in front of a sheriff and I was like 'dude...' I mean what would we explain, that we're selling Mesos and not drugs?"
He laughed at the thought.
This is in regards to the dark side of games. And this is a message to all game developers to make sure you think about this when it comes to others. (And this is in regards to all MMORPGS (not just MapleStory).)
Some of us out there actually have other important things to do in life, but we still need to get these games done quickly (and at the same time).
This is a legitimate reason on why we need to use cheats on games. Say EG, it's moving day. So I won't be able to play my wifi-tethered game, (game name), until I get my new modem and router installed at my new house by midnight. Another example is the place I'm currently at has no free wifi source/hot spot. So with a cheat tool, I can get this game done first and now and worry about it later (like as in "Shoot first and ask questions later."). But with newer recent games that are server sided, they actually need an internet connection in order to play them!
I'm actually starting to hate games like this that actually force you to go the distance/waste your time (and real money) just to get them completed!
Because there are these things they host called Limited Time Quests (LTQs) that offer you a special prize if you complete this quest within a certain time limit. Worse case scenario here is that an LTQ pops up minutes before/after an appointment (dentist, doctor, job interview, meeting, etc) begins! By the time I get started on clearing the LTQ, it might already be too late and there's not enough time left to complete it (say EG, I'm currently a level 2 character). Then I might have to spend real life money on it just to complete the LTQ. And recently, I got caught by mom for using food money on things other than food (in this case, Karma Koins for NX, and iTunes Gift Cards for other game in-game currency (over $600CAD for the Karma Koins and over $2000CAD for the iTunes gift cards to get in-game currency in Online Server-Tethered Games for my iPhone 6s+)). Have you ever heard the phrase "Time is Money"? Yeah, this is where it's literally a race against time to beat the clock. I literally had to bring breakfast, lunch, and dinner to my computer desk: any food that's microwavable.
And like before, negative factors inside/outside the game can slow your progress down. Such as a power outage (due to maintenance on the apartment generator/or a lightening storm blows out a transformer), the modem/router (unexpectedly) goes on the fritz, and anything else along those lines!
If your intention here is to delay our time on playing these games even longer (EG, In MapleStory, you decrease the amount of EXP we can get from monsters that we kill at our favourite EXP/Meso/Drop farm sites and rigging the profession gauge (for Alchemy, Smithing, and Accessory Crafting) to drop a certain amount every time we don't craft something after a certain period of time. In Payday 2, you reduce the amount of EXP we get from a stealth job we complete in addition to it's stealth exp bonus. In Zombie Gunship Survival, upon completion of a level (regardless of difficulty), you drop the amount of supplies and metal we can earn to a quarter of what we can usually earn.), than that's being cruel! This tells me your trying to siphon time out of me and/or money out of my pocket! I don't care about the game's ranking system, and I don't care about these rules to follow! I may not be a hacker/cheater (yet), but all that matters to me now is that I get these games cleared (and cleared quickly (without spending another penny on nothingness)). Plus, take this Payday 2 mod for example: https://modworkshop.net/mydownloads.php?action=view_down&did=14774 It's basically the equivalent of MapleStory's GM account's GM commands or Team Fortress 2's Chat Commands. So it's pointless at this point to put up rules about cheating. Worse still, more and more of these server-tethered games are popping up like weeds! How are we gonna continue playing these games if they were to discontinue or be removed from the App Store one day? Did the developers ever think about that part?
What makes MapleStory worse is that it's rigged so that when you die after losing all health, you lose experience in the process! This is especially troublesome when your over level 200, because if you go AFK in a monster map (due to the safe town being too far away to run to and (in a worse case scenario) your short of mana potions to use your teleport skills) thinking this platform/ladder/rope is safe to stand/hang on and you had to go to the bathroom due to an upset stomach or had to help mom cook dinner, a monster (especially a flying monster) comes out of nowhere and kills you. And unfortunately, we don't always learn from our mistakes or near-misses. Sure, your character ghost animation may look cute, but this is actually a serious matter! Because I already lost a ton of EXP from participating in the boss summon events just to meet the GMs.
With these types of games, LocalIAPStore and all those Jailbreak tweaks (for the iOS) are useless against these types of games!
Wrap your head around this for a minute. Your a kid/teen with elementary/high school or an adult with a full time/part time job; your gone outta the house for almost the whole day. You've got 9 or more favourite character classes and they all have daily quests. By the time you get back, it's almost 4pm or 6pm! You might not have enough time left to clear all the quests on every character before the game server's clock hits a certain time! In this case, MapleStory's quest reset time is 12m (midnight). And sometimes, I stayed up to almost 7am in the mourning just to get 500m mesos and exp during 2x EXP/Drop events that take place 12m-4am (I had to use the time after the event to DL stuff for my pc) without cheating/botting.
Of all the games I like playing out there, these are the games that are the biggest rose bushes I've ever had to tread through (besides MapleStory). Because these online server games actually eat away at my precious time that I could be using for other things (like brainstorming ideas for my animation projects) instead. The catch here is that if I even cheat on these types of games just once, I might be banned from ever playing on them again. Not by my parents, but by the game's moderators. Yet these games have my favourite themes that draw me into playing them. Plus, I actually failed my Excavator Training on Week 5 and lost $20KCAD due to the WiFi not working for my hotel suite and due to the server-tethered games Crime City and Modern War! No WiFi/internet connection=no playing on these types of games. And if I don't contribute to these games' guilds, the guild members kick me out. Yes, I actually got kicked out of some guilds in the past for either playing these games blind or not meeting their requirements. I couldn't afford to be kicked out of a guild again, so I took advantage of the training school's wifi as it was still working. Yes, I was playing MapleStory blind since I first began playing it.
And yes, I actually failed 2 or more biology tests back in high school due to an LTQ MapleStory was hosting that was about expire in 6 hours by the time I got home. This LTQ was giving out a special Ring item that has way better stats than any other Ring in MS.
So yeah, Now do you really think it's worth it to go the distance to get these games done fair and square or is it better to shoot first and ask questions later to get this special event-exclusive item (knowing it will help you kill tougher enemies and bosses) because of the following reasons (and all these reasons will tie in with the LTQ that your this close to completing, but it's about to expire in a few hours or minutes (depending on the situation)):
A: Your on the edge of failing High School because you failed half the math exams in the school year and you need to study hard to pass this final math exam to barely pass High School
B: Your appointment to see your doctor to check why you have a never-disappearing rash on your thumb is gonna take place on the last day this LTQ will stay active
C: Your driving home from work and construction blocks certain roads on your way home. Worse here is that your car unexpectedly breaks down and you have to do repairs to it (as your job here is a mechanic (and no maplestory puns intended there)). Plus, the hard day's work is beating down on you and you just wanna take a nap to ease the pain.
Your mother is dying in the hospital and you wanna see her one last time before she passes on (thereby forcing you to forfeit this last quest you need to clear to complete the LTQ to earn this prize)
or E: All of the above (and anything else I might have missed along those lines)?
Plus, as humans, all of these things are totally out of our control! We can't control when our tire will blow out due to a sharp object buried in the dirt road. We can't control when our modem (unexpectedly) shuts down on us (especially in a critical situation), such as downloading our Word Document from our cloud server to a USB stick. And many other things like this!
In a worse case, your homework assignment is so hard to understand that by the time you can finish your homework, it will be 3 hours later. Plus, this LTQ is scripted to expire in a few hours and that prize you came so far for is about to turn to dust due to all these events inside and outside the game that kept slowing you down.
Cheats on video games won't hurt the game at all. After all,
video games are just video games.
PS, here's a little scoop into why I had to chance the star enhancement of my Ghost Ship Exorcist badge even though I knew it was going to be destroyed. Sales in the Free Market were very slow (for me at least). You see, when I first explored the Free Market, I noticed there were Tyrant Gear enhanced to 15 stars and being sold for 9.9 billion mesos. Soon, I came across an interesting item: a Terminus Raider with unique potential of Attack +XX%; sold by IGN siCky911 for 3.9 billion mesos. I managed to talk the offer down to 2.5 billion and I got it off of him. Soon after, this gave me an idea: If I buy a clean equipment from another person and enhance it with whatever stats the equip's class uses (EG, Terminus Chopper for Warrior uses Strength, Terminus Bolter for Wild Hunter (Bowman) uses Dexterity, Terminus Sceptre used by Beast Tamer (Magician) uses Intelligence, and Terminus Orchestrator used by Phantom (Thief) uses Luck), then star force it, and sell it at a bigger price, I'll make more mesos. Because since I did most of the upgrades and enhancements (up to 12 stars), I feel like I deserve more mesos in return. I was just hoping an unsuspecting customer would take the bait. But this hardly worked (and I suspect this is Nexon's handy work), because monsters were dropping less mesos than before from the older versions of the game. So it took more time to farm the mesos needed to get this item from me. So, with so little mesos in hand, I decided to chance it without the extra meso protection checkbox (as I was lucky to get some Chaos Root Abyss gear to 15 stars with no problems as well as the Zero sword to 15 stars). But, soon enough, the badge got destroyed. However, it did leave the badge trace behind.
Also, it was fun and games at first to grind for mesos and EXP during 2X events. But as time went on, I began to get bored of farming stuff by myself. I wanted to call a friend in to play on my character for me so I can do other stuff (like catching up on my animation projects) for once, but sadly I had no friends in real life. Eventually, my meso farming business just ground to a halt like a car just ran out of gas.
And there you have it, now you know why I'm in this pickle.