Lost Ark has a botting problem. This won’t come as a shock to anyone who has booted up the game since its launch earlier this year, regardless of whether they’re a Mokoko Seed Hunter, a gold-broke Tier 3 gear honer, or your humble casual player levelling at their own pace and exploring the world of Arkesia in no rush at all.
Whether it’s inflated item prices on the auction house, illicit spam in area chats from Rethramis to Papunika, or bundles of Berserkers zooming through questing zones without even attempting to hide their sketchy practices, it’s the bots. Botting, if you’re unclear, refers to AI controlled characters or accounts, which can go out and complete a variety of tasks be it levelling up to max, farming resource nodes, selling goods on the in-game market, and so much more. Bots disrupt the economy, cheapen rewards that require a lot of farming to achieve, and overall bring a bad reputation to the games they afflict.
Botting and cheats are not a blight unique to Lost Ark; any popular multiplayer game with a decent community has a dark corner filled with exploit salesmen. Since Lost Ark is still pulling in over 400,000 concurrent players on Steam even today, the market remains ripe for those looking to make a buck off distributing this stuff. It is, in layman's terms, very annoying.
So, I thought I’d take a dive into the darker waters that encircle one of 2022’s major releases to find out why the botting scene exploded so suddenly, whether steps taken by the workers at Amazon Studios have made any impact on this issue at large, and perhaps even learn more about the current mood among bot sellers. All names have been kept anonymous, and quotes will be attributed via fake aliases.
My first interviewee was a bot reseller that had advertised their services on popular cheat forums (which are typically used for acquiring cheat software for FPS games). From there, I joined their Discord server where the software was sold to interested parties. For Lost Ark, as is true for a majority of games these days, Discord acts as a great hub for finding and buying this sort of dubious product.
“No bans have been recorded since the release of my cheats,” claims “Paul” when asked whether his services were affected by the recent ban waves. “What most people were using was a Chinese version that sends too many packets to the servers which makes it detectable, also people reporting counts as well,” claims Paul. “Even if there were bans, that wasn’t a problem. The bots that were doing everything automatically were transferring gold to another account, and that gold was then sold on platforms such as g2g.com. There are still many bots in-game, I can’t even tell if there was an actual ban to be honest.”
So, granted we take these claims at face value, how is it possible for these bots to dodge the ever-present eyes of Easy Anti Cheat? This super popular anti cheat option for a vast variety of developers boots up every time you run Lost Ark and constantly scans your computer for nefarious programs affecting the game it’s attached to. In theory, as long as Easy Anti Cheat is running alongside Lost Ark, it should catch any nonsense.
Paul spoke about how their own software has remained undetected so far, claiming that their software “doesn’t send any malicious packets to the servers, while the file name changes every 0.1 seconds as a background process”. In addition, the program automatically jumps to less populated channels to duck manual reports from other players. Sneaky.
Another interviewee, a reseller of the Chinese bot software for use on the Western version of Lost Ark, who we will refer to as “Patrick” from here on out, also claimed that heavily publicized ban waves had no effect on the software they were providing. When it came to whether they were worried about future anti-cheat measures, they also claimed that it would be fine “as long as you play like a human”, indicating that overly blatant exploits – like speed hacking – put you in the firing line when it comes to account suspensions and bans.
So what can be done? If everything stated above is true, it paints a dire picture of the botting situation for players who want to play Lost Ark honestly. I asked the distributors themselves what would need to happen for times to get tough from their perspectives, and while Patrick was unwilling to comment, Paul was more than happy to elaborate.
“For Amazon to put an end to all this, it needs to close all the platforms where it sells in-game currency and find every developer that makes bots on their games. The company has the money to do that of course, but will it? Most likely not.
“Amazon can try banning as many users as it wishes. The only actual way to stop mass bots is selling Lost Ark for money, instead of leaving it for free. I have a bot that can create unlimited Steam accounts for free and it creates thousands per minute.
“In that case, bots will still stay, but not as many as there’s currently. What would I do if this ever happens? I will spend money on the game – and still use the bots. Of course, I will be limited in what I can do, but there’s always a way around everything.” As of the interview, Paul claimed to be making €300 to €500 per day.
My third and final interviewee was not a provider of Lost Ark bots, but rather an expert on the subject matter who was familiar with the environment surrounding the Lost Ark bot economy and how it all worked. They acted as a fixer, providing me links to several additional reseller Discord servers as well as conveying an altogether different story than my previous contacts. From what they've told me, using Lost Ark bots isn’t as worry-free as the resellers let on.
“All these guys sell the same bot, and it's packed with a rootkit and a password scraper. If you’re going to run it, use a virtual machine,” says Alex. “Every single reseller I've acquired it from has the same sh*t in it. There's really only one bot on the market right now that does levelling and chaos dungeons which is this Chinese one that those guys are selling. When you see all the berserkers in levelling areas, it's this Chinese bot.”
And you'll see that if you want to buy this bot, prices are falling – and they’re falling fast. According to Alex, prices have dropped from around $90 to $30/$40 in a month, something you can see if you go scoping out the bot reseller accounts in Discords. Our second interviewee, Patrick, is currently selling bots across multiple clients for $39, which is a significant drop from prior asking prices. When asked why the price dropped, they only answered that “you can buy from me because this [is the] best price now”.
So why is this happening? Are resellers constantly undercutting each other to the bottom? Or have Amazon ban waves actually influenced demand? According to Alex, it’s a combination of both factors.
“The resellers are just dudes with Alipay/wechat accounts who can get into the QQ group and buy from the devs,” they explain. “As more people source the bot, they get more competitive. Let's say the devs sell it for $10. If I'm the only guy with it, I can charge $90 – and who gives a f*ck? But now, some other guy finds the source, and they start selling for $70, to undercut me... Well, now I have to sell for $65, and so on. Not only that, but Amazon Games and Smilegate are catching on; detecting hacks and avoiding a kernelspace anticheat like Easy Anti Cheat (EAC) is a constant game of cat and mouse.
“If you make cheats, what you have to do is patch a trusted kernel driver so you can execute commands in kernel mode. If you can patch a driver, you can mess with EAC so that it can't read certain memory addresses. In this case, you'd manipulate it such that it couldn't scan the address spaces that your cheat actually runs in.
“EAC catches on to this and changes the configuration so that the hooks live somewhere else. Now I can no longer obfuscate my cheat, so we repeat the process, and round and round we go.”
So, what does this actually mean? Well, it means that the risk for the users of bots is getting higher and higher over time. Even disregarding the claims that these bots contain malware, with the constant back and forth between Easy Anti Cheat and the developers of this botting software, the chances of players getting caught in the web only increases over time. To keep people keen, prices have been dropping and more features (like one purchase covering multiple clients) are thrown in to sweeten the deal.
We reached out for a statement from Amazon Games, asking whether it had updated figures on bans, and what future steps it is planning on taking to curb the ongoing problem. To this, the publisher referred to a recent blog post, which was published April 1 – after I had conducted my interviews.
In it, Amazon notes that it has established a new tactic of limiting the trading capabilities of Steam accounts with limited purchase history. While the company has confidence that this will hamper the botting and in-game fraud, it acknowledges that free-to-play players may be affected, and encourages the submission of feedback.
"While bots are still prevalent in Lost Ark and we are continuing work, we can report that we have seen some improvements in the numbers of bots seen in-game and are continuing to take action against those who have been able to remain,” says Amazon, implying a certain level of success against those who use and produce bots. I reached out to my first interviewee Paul to see if this would affect business, however they did not respond.
The botting and cheating situation has fallen into a back and forth between the developers and nefarious parties, with regular players getting caught in the middle. It’s clear that in Lost Ark bots are not going anywhere. In the future, it looks like they may come in waves, the same way that they do in Warzone, World of Warcraft, and numerous other multiplayer games out there right now whose anti-cheat software has been compromised.
Maybe Amazon could go out and be proactive, tracking down providers and slamming them with lawsuits like EA has in the past when combating Apex Legends cheaters. Something that is sure to be a long, expensive hunt for parties that remain hidden on obscure forums and discord servers. Even if that were to happen, this tug of war is likely here to stay, with the population of cheaters surging before being knocked back down. For now, there appears to be no end in sight. Strap in the for the long-haul folks.