Day of Defeat - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Tim Stone)

Having spent around eight months in Early Access and then three in a mysterious state called Phase 2 , Flight Sim World, Dovetail Games’ modernised-but-feature-trimmed-and-unfinished version of Microsoft Flight Simulator, is officially dead. On Monday, out of the blue, DTG announced that work on the project has come to an end. Apparently, there simply weren’t enough customers to justify continuing. As the team assembled by the British train sim tycoons seemed to possess sufficient passion, will and, initially at least, resources to make FSW a success, it’s hardly surprising that some in the flight sim community are blaming the failure of the endeavour on poor project management and the manner in which Dovetail dealt with Flight Simulator’s vital ecosystem of third-party add-on devs. (more…)

Counter-Strike

All popular multiplayer games fight never-ending battles against cheaters. But as Counter-Strike: Global Offensive rose in 2014 to become the most-played FPS in the world, a few things made it particularly susceptible to hacking. 

As the 10th game released on Source (and the third mainline CS), there were already piles of knowledge on how to tamper with Valve's engine. Hacks built for ancient stuff like Half-Life 2: Deathmatch could, with a few minutes' tweaking, perhaps function in CS:GO (although Valve says they'd be trivial to detect). Design-wise, the traits that make CS:GO a skillful game of angles and accuracy also make cheats more effective. Weapons are highly lethal, so putting those guns in the hands of aimbots makes them even more devastating. And CS:GO's focus on information and stealth means that knowing the location of your opponent is invaluable—fertile ground for wallhacks.

CS:GO's fight against hackers is "important, valuable work" according to Valve, but if you've played the FPS, you may have noticed a couple years ago that things were beginning to get dramatically better. Not only did Reddit complaints and frustrated replay clips of cheaters seem to circulate less frequently, but the perception of cheating—as hazardous as anything to a competitive game's health—seemed to dissipate. We published stories of high-profile bans, along with news of thousands of cheaters getting banned in single waves. How was Valve purging most of these jerks?

"Cheaters didn't get the memo we were doing it, and players were super happy and we were just busting cheaters left and right. It felt so good."

John McDonald, Valve

In one of the only in-depth moments of transparency on this topic, Valve programmer John McDonald spoke at the Game Developers Conference last week in San Francisco about how he and Valve used deep learning techniques to address CS:GO's cheating problem. This approach has been so effective that Valve is now using deep learning on "a bunch of problems," from anti-fraud to aspects of Dota 2, and Valve is actively looking for other studios to work with on implementing their deep learning anti-cheat solution in other games on Steam.

Solving CS:GO's cheating problem

While between projects sometime in 2016, McDonald noticed that "The only thing the community was talking about was cheating," based on online discussion and a private email address that received mail from CS:GO pros. "It was this, just, deafening conversation," he says. The uptick in VAC bans around this period, McDonald says, supported what Valve was hearing.

To combat the issue, Valve and McDonald looked to deep learning, a solution that had the potential to operate and adapt over time to new cheating techniques—attractive traits to Valve, which has historically elected to automate aspects of Steam rather than hire hundreds of new employees to tackle issues like curation. What Valve created is known as VACnet, a project that represents about a year of work. 

VACnet works alongside Overwatch, CS:GO's player-operated replay tool for evaluating players who have been reported for bad behavior. VACnet isn't a new form of VAC, the client and server-side tech that Valve's used for years to identify, say, when someone's running a malicious program alongside a game. VACnet is a new, additional system that uses deep learning to analyze players' in-game behavior, learn what cheats look like, and then spot and ban hackers based on a dynamic criteria.

"Our customers are seeing fewer cheaters today than they have been, and the conversation around cheating has died down tremendously."

John McDonald, Valve

McDonald says that "subtle" cheats remain difficult to solve, but in building VACnet, Valve decided to target aimbots first because they present themselves at specific, easily-definable points during rounds of CS:GO: when you're shooting. This allowed Valve to build a system that captured the changes in pitch (Y-axis) and yaw (X-axis)—degree measurements in a player's perspective—a half a second before a shot, and a quarter second after. This data, along with other pieces of information like what weapon the player is using, their distance, the result of the shot (hit, miss, headshot?) are the individual 'data particles' that together form what Valve calls "atoms," essentially a data package that describes each shot. 

VACnet can't necessarily spot a cheater based on one atom, though. "We need a sequence of them, what we actually want is 140 of them, or at least that's what the model uses right now … We just take the 140 out of an eight round window and we stuff those into the model, and we're like, 'Hey, if you were to present this sequence of 140 shots to a [human] juror, what is the likelihood you would get a conviction?'"

Pretty good, as it turns out. Both players and VACnet report players for judgment in Overwatch. But when VACnet reports a suspected cheater, they're almost always a cheater.

"When a human submits a case to Overwatch, the likelihood that they get a conviction is only 15-30 percent, and that varies on a bunch of factors, like the time of the year, is the game on sale, is it spring break. There's a bunch of things but the point is human convictions are very low," says McDonald. "VACnet convictions are very high, when VACnet submits a case it convicts 80 to 95 percent of the time." 

A slide from McDonald's talk: a model of the relationship between Overwatch and VACnet.

That doesn't mean Valve plans to phase out its cheater theater, Overwatch. Both systems work together: VACnet learns detection techniques from Overwatch, McDonald says. "Because we're using Overwatch and we didn't actually replace all player reports, we just supplemented them, that means that the learner [VACnet] is getting the opportunity to evolve along with human jurors. So as human jurors identify new cheating behaviour, the learner has the opportunity to do the same thing."

McDonald adds that when VACnet has been recently retrained with player data to spot a new cheat, the conviction rate might be nearly 100 percent for a short period before cheaters adapt to it. When Valve quietly rolled out VACnet to CS:GO's 2v2 competitive mode earlier this month, McDonald says "the conviction rate for that mode was 99 percent for a while, it was great. Cheaters didn't get the memo we were doing it, and players were super happy and we were just busting cheaters left and right. It felt so good."

Large Hacker Collider

To bring VACnet to life, a server farm had to be built that could handle CS:GO's millions of players, loads of data, and grow as CS:GO grew. Right now there are about 600,000 5v5 CS:GO matches per day, and to evaluate all players in those matches Valve needed about four minutes of computation, amounting to 2.4 million minutes of CPU effort per day. You need about 1,700 CPUs to do that daily work.

So Valve bought 1,700 CPUs. And 1,700 more, "so we'll have room to expand," McDonald says, hinting at Valve's intention to bring VACnet to other games. Conservatively, Valve had to have spent at least a few million dollars on that hardware: 64 server blades with 54 CPU cores each and 128GB of RAM per blade. That's a drop in the bucket compared to the estimated $120M CS:GO brought in off of game copy sales alone in 2017, but it probably represents one of the beefiest anti-cheating farms built for a single game. 

The work continues, but from McDonald's perspective, VACnet is kicking ass, and has potential application not only in non-Valve games, but in other stuff on Steam. "Deep learning is this sea-change technology for evolutionary behaviour," says McDonald. "We think that it is really helping us get developers off of the treadmill without impacting our customers in any way. Our customers are seeing fewer cheaters today than they have been, and the conversation around cheating has died down tremendously compared to where it was before we started this work."

Early December 2017 brought a new milestone for the system: VACnet started producing more convictions than non-convictions in Overwatch. "The system works great," says McDonald.

Counter-Strike

Update:  Following his arrest for sexual exploitation of a child, detailed in our original story below, Counter-Strike co-creator Jess Cliffe has been formally charged with the crime of commercial sexual abuse of a minor.

As reported by Ars Technica, Seattle's King County Prosecutor's Office issued the charge on Monday and released this statement of probable cause. Within, Cliffe is alleged to have engaged in multiple instances of sexual contact with a minor, who he is said to have met through a website and paid for sex. Cliffe is also alleged to have recorded one of these instances against the unidentified "juvenile" (aged 16-years-old at the time of the alleged incidents) alleged victim's will. 

Police are said to have served warrants to AT&T, Verizon, and SeekingArrangement.com who revealed messages sent between the alleged victim and the accused. As detailed in the above-linked statement, police attended Cliffe's home on January 31 to inform him he was "named in an assault investigation". 

Cliffe thereafter met with investigators, and confirmed his use of multiple dating websites, some of which led to paid "arrangements". He denied recognising photos of the alleged victim. He was then shown message logs, and said he "was unable to recall or connect the communications or any other recollections to photographs" of the alleged victim. Cliffe later corroborated details of one of the paid dates, and provided a physical description of the alleged victim as "Caucasian" and "appearing to be 23-years-old". 

At the time of writing, Valve has not responded to our request for comment.

Original story: 

Counter-Strike co-creator Jess Cliffe has been arrested in Seattle for sexual exploitation of a child, reports suggest. Valve Corporation, his employer, has suspended his employment until further notice.

As reported by Kiro 7—a local Seattle news outlet—Cliffe was taken into custody in the early hours of Thursday morning, and was not charged with a crime. Kiro 7 suggests Cliffe will attend a bail hearing on Friday afternoon, though Kotaku reports that he was denied bail. 

Police did not say if an actual child was harmed, writes Kiro 7, while Valve told Kotaku Cliffe has been suspended while it awaits more information.  

A Valve spokesperson told Kotaku: "We are still learning details of what actually happened. Reports suggest he has been arrested for a felony offense. As such we have suspended his employment until we know more." 

Cliffe co-created Counter-Strike as a Half-Life mod alongside Minh "Gooseman" Le in 1999. Valve thereafter bought the rights to the FPS, which has since become one of the most popular multiplayer shooters of all time.

Counter-Strike

Photo by Jo o Ferreira, click for source.

For as long as CS:GO has existed as an esport, North American teams have played the role of the underdogs, perpetually overshadowed by European—and recently, Brazilian—squads who always end up taking home the hardware at the big tournaments. Since the advent of the Valve-supported Major tournaments in 2013, no North American team has ever won one; today, at the penultimate day of ELEAGUE Boston Major 2018, the Americans of Cloud9 have brought themselves tantalizingly close to ending that drought.

After a rocky start in the group stages, Cloud9 fought their way back into contention with a convincing 2-0 win over the French squad of G2 Esports. The vagaries of the tournament bracket meant that this victory set them on a collision course with CS:GO’s current team to beat, the top-ranked Brazilians of SK Gaming. Riding a wave of momentum, and with the hometown crowd cheering their countrymen on, Cloud9 nonetheless entered their semi-final match as the heavy underdog.

As soon as the first map got underway, it was clear that it was time to throw rational predictions out the window. A series of incredibly well-executed rounds and some huge individual plays led Cloud9 to a crushing 16-3 victory to start things off, shocking the analyst desk and driving the crown into a frenzy. Despite the second map not going quite as well, resulting in a 16-8 victory for SK Gaming, Cloud9’s momentum appeared unbreakable, and they rallied to win 16-9 on the third map to clinch their berth in the tournament’s grand finals.

This outcome marks only the second time a North American team has managed to make it into the finals of a Major, after Team Liquid reached (and subsequently lost) the finals of ESL One Cologne back in 2016. If they pull off a win tomorrow against the formidable opposition of FaZe Clan, they will make CS:GO history, and perhaps begin to turn the reputation of American Counter-Strike around.

They’ll also have faced one of the toughest roads to victory of any Major-winning team in recent memory, due to their lacklustre performance in the group stages putting them in a very tough bracket position. Making their way through G2 Esports, SK Gaming and FaZe Clan, the fourth, first, and second best CS:GO teams in the world respectively, is a feat that will finally put to bed any question about Cloud9’s legitimacy as a top-tier team on the world stage.You can catch the grand finals at 11:00am PST on Sunday morning on ELEAGUE’s Twitch channel.

Counter-Strike

Image by DoctorRed2000 on DeviantArt

For the last few days, Valve has been teasing the release of a revamped version of venerated Counter-Strike map Dust 2, and yesterday they spilled the full beans on the new facelift. Valve's been refreshing old Counter-Strike maps for a while now, in an attempt to keep CS:GO looking as modern as possible, but messing with Dust 2 is a bit more of a risky proposition than modifying less-played maps like Train.

The more beloved a map is, the larger the potential backlash will be. Dust 2 has been a staple of competitive play for over 15 years, and was far and away the most played map in the game until its removal from the active map pool back in February. 

It's not surprising, then, that Valve's rework is so conservative. While all the assets have been replaced with higher-res, higher-poly ones, achieving the goal of bringing the map in line with modern graphical expectations, changes to the way the map plays are modest. 

The biggest change is to the visual clarity, which has been improved across the map. Most of the dark or busy looking areas that allowed players to blend in with their surroundings have been illuminated: the tunnels leading to B are much brighter thanks to a new open ceiling, and a lot of the crates throughout the map have been draped in white cloth to better contrast with player models. Bombsite A benefits from the deletion of the busy-looking doors at the back of A long, and some cleanup of the wall decoration along catwalk. These are bound to be uncontroversial changes, and are in line with what Valve has been doing with the other map facelifts.

There’s also been some common sense cleanup work that probably should’ve happened years ago. Stuff like widening the window from CT spawn into B site, and simplifying the scaffolding near CT-side mid doors, feels like pretty basic quality-of-life improvements that will prevent newer players from getting stuck on weird geometry or having their shots glance off of random pipes.

What impact will these changes have?

In the coming weeks we’ll get a better idea of the full ramifications of this update. A couple things to keep an eye on will be whether the new single car on A long (which replaces a pair of cars that were at odd angles in the map’s previous version) will actually be useful as cover now, and whether the increase in room to maneuver behind B site’s car will increase its viability as a hold point for CTs.

It s a healthy overhaul that makes some modest but interesting changes without reinventing the wheel.

There are also some subtle changes that may not even be intentional, and may or may not have a substantial impact on gameplay. Foremost among these is a problem we’ve seen already on some of the other modernized maps, but doesn’t seem to have caused enough of a ruckus to attract Valve’s notice: almost every previously-flat surface is now slightly bumpy (presumably for visual fidelity reasons), which affects the way grenades bounce off of floors and walls. Given how big of a deal smoke and flash placement is in CS, this may prove to be problematic in the long term, as it’s going to reduce the accuracy with which banked grenades can be placed.

Also on the topic of small, maybe-unintentional changes, the spawn locations have shifted slightly. A helpful redditor has pointed out after exploring the map that counter-terrorists can now get to their side of A long a full two seconds before terrorists can get to theirs, which may impact which corners CT players choose to hold, and which angles T players choose to peek from. Again, these are the kind of changes that will require some time to shake out, and we won’t know the full effect of this stuff until the competitive meta has fully adapted, which may take even longer than usual given there's a decade-plus of habits to unlearn.

But Valve seems to have struck a good balance with this update. It’s a healthy overhaul that makes some modest but interesting changes without reinventing the wheel. From a purely visual perspective, the new Dust 2 is beautiful, and undeniably an upgrade from the previous iteration. The terrorists have also gotten new higher-fidelity player models as part of the deal, and they’re a big improvement over the dated look of the existing models. (Puzzlingly, the CT models have not gotten the same treatment thus far.)

There are of course a host of bugs related to the new geometry, allowing for all manner of unintentional boost spots and weird clipping, but this has always been the case with these big map refreshes, and generally they get fixed in a fairly timely manner. Once these issues are addressed, we should expect to see Dust 2 re-added to the Active Duty map pool (possibly at the expense of Cobblestone) and the tournament circuit will quickly demonstrate what effect, if any, the update will have on the way Counter-Strike’s most iconic map is played.

Counter-Strike - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Alice O'Connor)

Though Half-Life [official site] is almost nineteen years old and its sanctioned fan remake Black Mesa is nearing completion, Valve have launched a wee patch for their pretty okay or whatever vintage FPS. The patch fixes a few crashes and exploits, and hit other Half-Life engine games too, such as classic Counter-Strike. Given how much of modern PC games history connects to Half-Life and its mod scene, I’m glad Valve are still tinkering a little. Earlier this year, they finally got Half-Life an uncensored release in Germany too. … [visit site to read more]

Counter-Strike: Condition Zero - alfred
We have updated the public release of Counter-Strike: Condition Zero.

Changes in this update are:
  • Fixed crash when entering certain malformed strings into the game console. Thanks to Marshal Webb from BackConnect, Inc for reporting this.
  • Fixed crash when loading a specially crafted malformed BSP file. Thanks to Grant Hernandez (@Digital_Cold) for reporting this.
  • Fixed malformed SAV files allowing arbitrary files to be written into the game folder. Thanks to Vsevolod Saj for reporting this.
  • Fixed a crash when quickly changing weapons that are consumable. Thanks to Sam Vanheer for reporting this.
  • Fixed crash when setting custom decals
Ricochet - alfred
We have updated the public release of Ricochet.

Changes in this update are:
  • Fixed crash when entering certain malformed strings into the game console. Thanks to Marshal Webb from BackConnect, Inc for reporting this.
  • Fixed crash when loading a specially crafted malformed BSP file. Thanks to Grant Hernandez (@Digital_Cold) for reporting this.
  • Fixed malformed SAV files allowing arbitrary files to be written into the game folder. Thanks to Vsevolod Saj for reporting this.
  • Fixed a crash when quickly changing weapons that are consumable. Thanks to Sam Vanheer for reporting this.
  • Fixed crash when setting custom decals
Deathmatch Classic - alfred
We have updated the public release of Deathmatch Classic.

Changes in this update are:
  • Fixed crash when entering certain malformed strings into the game console. Thanks to Marshal Webb from BackConnect, Inc for reporting this.
  • Fixed crash when loading a specially crafted malformed BSP file. Thanks to Grant Hernandez (@Digital_Cold) for reporting this.
  • Fixed malformed SAV files allowing arbitrary files to be written into the game folder. Thanks to Vsevolod Saj for reporting this.
  • Fixed a crash when quickly changing weapons that are consumable. Thanks to Sam Vanheer for reporting this.
  • Fixed crash when setting custom decals
Day of Defeat - alfred
We have updated the public release of Day of Defeat.

Changes in this update are:
  • Fixed crash when entering certain malformed strings into the game console. Thanks to Marshal Webb from BackConnect, Inc for reporting this.
  • Fixed crash when loading a specially crafted malformed BSP file. Thanks to Grant Hernandez (@Digital_Cold) for reporting this.
  • Fixed malformed SAV files allowing arbitrary files to be written into the game folder. Thanks to Vsevolod Saj for reporting this.
  • Fixed a crash when quickly changing weapons that are consumable. Thanks to Sam Vanheer for reporting this.
  • Fixed crash when setting custom decals
...

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