The challenges of gaming and ‘bot fraud as a service’
What comes to mind when you think of bots? A hacker, sitting in front of a screen glowing with lines of code? Many people still have an old-fashioned idea of bot users or bot vendors - that you need to be a very sophisticated hacker to get started. Nothing could be further from the truth, Alon Dayan, Unbotify co-founder and CTO, says. Alon co-founded Unbotify in 2015, straight out of his master’s degree in Computer Science and Machine Learning from Israel’s University of Haifa. We caught up with Alon to hear more about the challenges faced by mobile game developers who want to keep their apps bot-free.
Many gaming companies are still surprised at how often ordinary users are tapping into the bot ecosystem. This is because the barriers to bot fraud are falling for both vendors and bot users. There are many sites selling bots that even the least tech-savvy user can deploy to give themselves superhuman abilities in-game. And the same thing is happening for fraudsters — you don’t have to be a computer genius to be a bot reseller or to cause massive disruption to legitimate companies.
These trends have only accelerated over the past months, with more and more users forced to shelter in place and stay indoors playing games.
Since COVID-19 hit, gaming has been the big winner, with Sensor Tower’s Q1 2020 Data Digest finding that the start of pandemic-related lockdowns corresponded with the largest ever quarter for mobile game downloads, topping 13 billion installs across the App Store and Google Play. This adds up to an increase of two billion downloads from Q3 2019 — a massive jump.
And, as the gaming industry grows, an increasing number of players are becoming ‘heavy’ users of the games they play. In fact, gaming is battling with streaming for the attention of the majority of consumers. A study from Deloitte found that 52% of Gen Z consumers (born 1997 to 2006) and 46% of millennials (born 1983 to 1996) binged on games, both mobile and console, during lockdown.
With these highly engaged users, you see a pattern: gamers want to achieve more and more results in a shorter period of time; and it’s an environment like this that makes bots extremely tempting for users - making it easier to achieve more, faster. As more dedicated users enter the space, as the industry grows, and as games become increasingly popular, you’re going to see more bots.
There are gamers today that launch a bot before bedtime, and when they wake up they have collected a large amount of in-game resources. This allows them to play all day and enjoy playing much more. They don’t need to buy from the game to progress, they can use bots to spend superhuman amounts of hours in the game to bypass the usual pain points of gathering resources or levelling up.
Bots are designed to be faster and more efficient than humans, and can demolish human players when competing against them. As the number of bots in games is rising — with 5-15% of the users in games using bots — this is a source of frustration for honest users who don’t cheat. This is compounded in games where people play for real money, like poker, Skillz or Tetris Royale.
Some of these users can be incredibly young, with teens as young as 14 in the United States facing legal battles due to their use of bots. And the problem is incredibly prevalent, with an Adjust survey of 500 US gamers finding that more than 40% of respondents have paid for bots, spending an average of $65.
Gaming bots are becoming big business and these fraudsters are increasingly professionalized. Just like tech disruptors in legitimate industries, bot fraudsters aim to provide bots-as-a-service for unscrupulous customers. With just a few quick searches, I could provide you with links to bot operators online and all you need to do is put your credit card in — giving you access to whatever bots you want at the click of a button, for many famous games.
Unfortunately, many companies still don’t fully understand the threats posed by bots. Market leaders often know about the problem — because their audience becomes a prime target. And often they have tried to solve it, but quickly learn it's a tough thing to solve. Even for companies operating at a massive scale, bot fraud is a knotty problem.
It’s often the users themselves who usually sense that there is a bot problem with a game. Cheating strikes at the heart of a gaming community, making it less fun for the majority. Gamers will then go on to complain on all kinds of forums, such as Reddit or other social media like Twitter. The first step for most games is to get community managers to ban specific users when they receive reports about them using bots. But this solution is not scalable, especially when games become runaway successes.
The users that feel most hard done by are often a game’s best users - the ones that companies invest a lot of money bringing in or that have been playing sometimes for years. But they could easily churn because they've had enough of the cheating.
Which brings us to the technical and technological concept behind Unbotify — behavioral biometrics. Unbotify uses sensor data from every interaction the user makes with their device. Generating thousands of touchpoints a second, this is a gold standard for bot detection. What this means is that when you’re playing the game, the Unbotify team collects — via their SDK — all the relevant sensor data. Unbotify collects, for example, the touch events when you're touching the screen. The SDK also logs the curvature of your movement, the speed of your movement, the pressure of your finger on the screen.
There are also markers collected from accelerometer sensors and gyroscope sensors. This helps the team to understand the movement of the device in space while you are playing the game. Unbotify can also analyse the light sensors, battery and magnetic fields and many, many other sensors. Our SDK, the Android or iOS or Unity SDK, is collecting these signals, sending the payload to our backend where the Unbotify system can analyze it in real-time, with a set of machine learning models to then accurately differentiate between humans and bots.
Reputation is a huge thing in any industry, not just in gaming. And reputation is what we are ultimately protecting by removing bots. For Alon, there’s a huge sense of satisfaction involved - and he says you can “immediately see it in customers that we are protecting, in the forums and in the community, how the users react to this kind of clean-up. It’s a positive experience for everyone.”