Catfish, a video game cheats developer, wasn't sleeping well. He had just suspended the sale of his massively popular and profitable cheat for PUBG Mobile after two of his closest collaborators had gone missing for days, and customers were furious. On the morning of January 20, after a restless night, Catfish woke up early, he said, and finally saw a message from one of the salespeople, who went by the name "IIIIIIIII," alerting him that he had to suddenly go on a trip to Shanghai.
At first, Catfish was confused, because his colleagues usually gave him advance notice if they were not going to be available to work, but "after I connected the dots I absolutely panicked," he said.
Catfish said he then wiped the servers he used to maintain and run his cheats, and used "a good old hammer" to destroy all his hard disks "that could possibly contain cheat-related stuff."
"I was so panicked that I also hammered every single visible chip in [the solid state drives]," he said. "Then I just drove to a place a few miles away and dropped them off there."
As it turns out, IIIIIIIII and the other salesperson had been arrested—on January 20 and January 12, respectively—by Chinese police working with Tencent, the giant Chinese technology company and PUBG Mobile's publisher. The arrests were the last salvo in a nearly year-long investigation started in March 2020, when Tencent reported Catfish's website to the authorities, according to the Kunshan Police.
"I've gotten used to being on the Chinese news," Catfish said.
Last year, authorities had already arrested 10 other people associated with the cheating organization. But those were just resellers, according to Catfish. The arrests of two of his closest collaborators hit much closer to home, and forced him to shut down the whole organization and lay low.
"I know the cops were on to my organization for a long time," Catfish told Motherboard. "Although I never disclosed personal info to [my colleagues] I actually always thought they were kind of invincible and never thought that they could get arrested."
"We were the best cheat for the most popular game"
At the beginning of April, the police accused Catfish's two salespeople, whom it identified only by the names He and Wang, of being part of the "world's largest" video game cheating ring, which authorities refer to as "Chicken Drumstick." The organization raked in $77 million from selling cheats, according to the cops. Wang owned luxury cars worth around $3 million—including a Ferrari and a Lamborghini—and a stash of Bitcoin worth around $4 million, despite the fact that his day job only paid him $462 a month, according to the police.
The two were accused of being responsible for the finances and day-to-day operation of the organization, including distributing profits, collecting money, and communicating with Catfish, according to the authorities.
But Catfish said he is the mind and the lead developer behind the video game cheating empire, and his story offers a rare glimpse into an otherwise secretive world—the quasi-illegal multi-million dollar industry of video game cheats.
Catfish, an alias Motherboard granted the developer because he is still wanted by the police, verified he is the main developer and leader of the cheat organization, which he branded Cheat Ninja, by showing he had control of several domains used by the group, including CheatNinja.com. That website included a link to a Telegram channel where Cheat Ninja announced on January 23—three days after the Chinese authorities arrested Catfish's colleagues—that it was pausing service "due to the ongoing legal issues with Tencent."
A screenshot of that announcement appears in a video shared by Tencent on its official account on Weibo, one of China's most popular social networks. The same video also shows parts of the official Cheat Ninja website. The video was made by a popular video game commentator on Bilibili, China's equivalent of YouTube.
One of Catfish's aliases also appears in an old build of the cheat, according to two sources in the video game cheating community. One of these sources shared the build with Motherboard, and it indeed included Catfish's alias.
Catfish also showed Motherboard he was the administrator of a Slack where someone with the nickname IIIIIIIII was another admin. Kunshan Police said that He, one of the salespeople arrested this year, was known online as IIIIIIIII.
Cheating is a constant topic of conversation among players in games like PUBG, Overwatch, and Call of Duty: Warzone. Cheats for those games are essentially hacks that allow cheaters to see through walls or aim perfectly.
Games like PUBG or Warzone attract some of the best players in the world, and winning games is incredibly hard. Losing because you get killed by a cheater is an infuriating experience and, if it happens often enough, can quite literally drive away a game's player base as people leave for games that have fewer cheaters.
"It’s a negative spiral that can kill a game," an employee of a video game company with knowledge of cheating organizations told Motherboard.
If players leave the games, especially the free-to-play ones such as Apex Legends, Warzone, or PUBG where players are more likely to buy cosmetic items if they keep playing, it hurts the publishers' bottom line.
For this reason, cheating is an expensive problem for game developers, many of whom have dedicated anti-cheat teams who try to detect and ban cheaters, and try to patch the vulnerabilities they were exploiting.
Despite game makers' best efforts, cheating is still a problem in online games because players want cheats and are willing to pay for them, which fuels a lucrative industry. Seven years ago, a cheat developer claimed he was making $1.25 million a year; more recently, a hacker revealed that for 20 years he had been living off of cheating and exploiting vulnerabilities in games. Video game companies have sued several cheat makers, claiming millions of dollars in losses, and in some of those lawsuits, judges have ordered cheat makers to pay back millions.
Do you reverse engineer games or develop cheats for them? Or do you work on anti-cheat engines? We’d love to hear from you. Using a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai securely on Signal at +1 917 257 1382, lorenzofb on Wickr and Telegram, OTR chat at email@example.com, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Developing and selling cheats in China is considered a hacking crime. Last year, authorities sentenced five men to six-to-nine months in jail for developing and selling Peacekeeper Elite (the name for PUBG Mobile in China) cheats. Earlier this year, a man was sentenced to three years in prison and a fine of 100,000 Chinese Yuan (around $15,000) for developing and selling cheats for Knives Out, another mobile battle royale game. That man was charged with providing tools for intruding upon or illegally controlling a computer information system, according to local media.
According to a recent report from Statista, there are more than 650 million people in China who play games on their phones such as PUBG Mobile, making it "the world's most lucrative gaming market." Tencent, a company worth around $890 billion, has made a point to publicly denounce and shame cheaters, and has worked with the authorities to round them up too.
In an over the top promotional video last year, Rick Li, the producer of PUBG Mobile, said that "cheaters will always be punished."
A Tencent spokesperson declined to answer a series of specific questions about the investigation into Catfish's Cheat Ninja operation. The spokesperson confirmed that the organization focused mainly on PUBG Mobile cheats; he also said the criminal inquiry is still underway.
"Tencent Games is committed to providing a fair-play environment for our players," said a statement sent by Tencent via email. "Our security team makes continuous efforts to combat cheating and optimize in-game security systems."
When the Kunshan Police and Tencent announced the charges against Catfish's colleagues, the tech company presented the police with a plaque that said: “Strike like thunder, clean the net, crack down on illegal activities, govern together.”
Tencent and the authorities refer to the cheating operation as Chicken Drumstick because of the icon of the cheat, which Catfish said was inspired by "winner winner chicken dinner," the slogan displayed to the winning team on PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds and PUBG Mobile. Officially, however, Catfish said the cheat was first known as Sharpshooter and, more recently, as Cheat Ninja, a name Catfish and his colleagues adopted after they employed some new people and launched a dedicated website by the same name.
Even before the branding change, Catfish's organization was well known and highly profitable, perhaps as much or more than anyone else in the business.
"There are cheat developers we know that make over $2 million per month. That’s $24 million per year," the employee of a video game company with knowledge of cheating organizations told Motherboard. "If you are in business for three years, you’re in that ballpark."
Another gaming company employee, who also asked to remain anonymous as they were not authorized to speak to the press, agreed. He referred to the case of LeagueSharp, a provider that was making cheats for just one game, League of Legends. Riot Games sued the developers and forced them to pay $10 million. In that case, the settlement was determined based on LeagueSharp's gross revenue, according to him.
"So maybe a long running Chinese organization targeting multiple games could get that high," he said. "And if they did, it'd likely be a record."
Catfish declined to share exactly how much money his cheating operation generated, but said that the $77 million figure that the police claimed is roughly correct when accounting for Bitcoin's surge in value in the last few months. That's enough for him to retire today if he wanted, he said.
Catfish never thought his cheats would become so popular and would make him rich, or that he would come in the crosshairs of Chinese police. After all, it all started as a curiosity at the end of 2017.
At the time, Catfish said, he and his friends ran into a lot of cheaters when they played PUBG on PC. As a software engineer he got curious about developing his own cheat for himself and his friends. When Tencent launched a version of PUBG for iOS and Android, he started working on a cheat for the new platform as well.
His cheat for PUBG included features such as wallhack, which allows cheaters to see other players highlighted through walls and other obstacles, and aimbot, which allows cheaters to automatically aim at enemies, according to Catfish.
Through a cheat development chat group, he said, he soon found a business partner to sell them, focusing exclusively on the Chinese market. In the country, cheats are usually sold on sites that pretend to distribute legitimate software, called "卡网," which translates to "card net" or "key net." Customers pay the sellers and get a license key in return to activate the cheats. Cheats are also sold via WeChat gaming groups or dedicated forums.
"The cheat was a huge hit. It sold thousands of copies within a few days. People just had never seen this kind of cheat on mobile before," Catfish said. "I think we earned tens of thousands of Chinese Yuan within not even a week."
The success soon overwhelmed them both. Catfish's business partner was worried about getting caught by Tencent and the police, and Catfish was worried about the cops finding out his real identity as well. It soon dawned on him that developing and selling cheats would involve a constant and relentless cat-and-mouse game to get around Tencent's anti-cheat system.
"It's too much pressure to add new features, to follow game version updates, and to research ways to bypass Tencent's anti-cheat measures, so I realized that I needed more developers," Catfish told me.
The money was too good to stop.
At the time, Catfish said, they charged between $10 and $15 for a monthly subscription to the cheat. Cheats like the ones Catfish made are typically sold as subscriptions because they include support and constant updates as the game makers detect the cheats, forcing developers to deliver updates that keep the cheats operational. Catfish and his colleagues were getting a thousand subscribers per day. That amounted to at least $350,000 a month, according to Catfish.
"This is totally not the norm of the cheat market though," Catfish said. "I think we did it purely because we were the best cheat for the most popular game."
Behind the scenes Catfish was mostly busy working on his PUBG Mobile cheat. And with help from a new developer, a friend of his, he kept fighting Tencent's anti-cheat efforts in what he called a "whack-a-mole game."
At that point Cheat Ninja's cheats were designed to run in a virtual environment, meaning a sort of emulator that runs both the game and the cheat. Crucially, this approach did not require users to root their Android devices. (Rooting refers to the process of modifying an Android phone to get more privileges to tinker with the software and apps on it.) In mid to late 2019, however, Catfish said he realized they needed to change their approach and pivot to requiring rooted devices, in an attempt to avoid detection.
Security researchers at Lookout, who analyzed some of Cheat Ninja's cheats, confirmed to Motherboard that an old version of the app worked both in a virtual environment, or emulator, and on a rooted Android phone.
At the end of 2019, Catfish said, he decided to expand to other games, such as the mobile versions of Call of Duty, and Fortnite, and to expand globally. (Catfish shared an old version of his Call of Duty Mobile cheat, which a person who works on anti-cheat verified was a legitimate cheat.)
With the help of a new sales partner, Cheat Ninja started getting new customers in India, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, according to Catfish.
Business was booming, and sales got back to where they were before Cheat Ninja started requiring rooted devices, meaning around $400,000 a month, Catfish said. At that point, the cheats were still being distributed by sellers and resellers through a network of websites and private chats and forums. Catfish and his friend developed the cheat, their colleagues would then be tasked with distributing the cheats to the sellers and resellers, and then collect payments.
But then Catfish and his colleagues decided to launch an official website, CheatNinja.com, to showcase all their products.
In 2020, "our business was not exactly smooth sailing," Catfish said. There were more competitors, and PUBG wasn't as popular as it once was. Moreover, Tencent and Chinese police started to really ramp up their efforts against the cheat makers, arresting 10 people accused of being part of the Cheat Ninja organization.
"I know they were onto my organization for a long time," Catfish said. "They had been arresting our resellers in China left and right for over a year."
"I went through months of the chat log line by line making sure I didn't talk about anything I shouldn't talk about"
It would all come crashing down a few months later. On January 12, the Kunshan Police arrested Wang; then, on January 20 they arrested IIIIIIIII.
On January 20, Catfish had no idea about the arrests, he said, but IIIIIIIII's behavior made him realize he was talking to someone else impersonating his colleague. The Kunshan police would later state that its agents used Wang's account to communicate with IIIIIIIII, whom they identified as He.
In fact, Catfish said he spoke to the other team members and one of them said they got a bizarre message from IIIIIIII asking them to click on a link to buy something on Taobao, China's eBay. Then Catfish checked IIIIIIIII's login records on Cheat Ninja's forum, and saw that he had connected with an IP address in Jiangsu, a province near Shanghai. Catfish said he got suspicious, as his colleague always used a proxy. Also, some of their resellers had been arrested in Jiangsu a few months prior.
"So I connected the dots," Catfish said. "I went through months of the chat log line by line making sure I didn't talk about anything I shouldn't talk about."
When he shut Cheat Ninja down, Catfish said they had around 600,000 monthly active users. These numbers, according to video game insiders, are perfectly plausible given that Cheat Ninja operated in the world's largest gaming market.
Since Chinese cops and Tencent forced him to shut down Cheat Ninja, Catfish has been laying low. Meanwhile, copycats are keeping the Cheat Ninja brand alive, perhaps hoping to ride the wave now that the official one is gone.
Someone who appears to be a developer from Kazakhstan maintains an Android app branded as Cheat Ninja Sharpshooter, which has more than 100,000 installs and has last been updated in April. The subscription to the cheats cost between $3.99 and $20.99. The app's developer did not respond to a request for comment. Catfish said this app has nothing to do with the original Cheat Ninja.
One of Cheat Ninja's old resellers is marketing cheats through a website with the exact same branding and similar design. The reseller calls their cheats "clones" of the original cheat made by Catfish. The reseller, who goes by Md Samad, said he did not know who the original developers of Cheat Ninja were, a testament to how compartmentalized and layered the organization was—something that is not uncommon for large video game cheating organizations, according to people who track cheaters and cheat developers.
"No one knows their identity. They live in secret," Md Samad said in an online chat.
"We understood the risks of coding cheats that target Chinese games from the very beginning and took very sound anonymity measures," Catfish said. "We knew this was a risky business, and the less we knew about each other's identities the better."
Catfish initially said he wanted to continue making commercial cheats under a different name, as a way to get back to Tencent and the authorities for putting people in jail.
"I want to ruin their games and damage their profits," he said.
But a few days later he seemed to have changed his mind.
"I'm quitting this pay-to-cheat scene. I no longer need to make money through this, and it was too much stress fighting all these anti-cheats, competitors, scammers, crackers, etc. not to mention the cops," Catfish said. "I may still make cheats but only for myself and a few friends."
Most of all, Catfish said he looks forward to playing more video games like Counter Strike: Global Offensive, Valorant, Cyberpunk 2077, Hitman, and Final Fantasy.
"I had been doing commercial game cheats for so long it left little time and mood to actually enjoy the games," Catfish said.
Viola Zhou contributed reporting.
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