Apple Lets Developers Strike Back Against Hacked Leaderboards

After a very long wait, Apple has finally handed the keys for Game Center leaderboard management over to developers.

News by Pete Davison, .

Leaderboards are a great form of "passive multiplayer," allowing you to compete against friends and strangers alike to see how strong your skills at a particular game are.

Unfortunately, Apple's Game Center online service has been plagued with leaderboard hackers for many years now, making the public leaderboards for many popular games all but useless for determining who is "best" in the world. For example, at the time of writing, the supposed "top" Fruit Ninja player in the world has apparently sliced through a rather implausible-sounding 9,223,372,036,854,775,807 pieces of fruit; the "top" Tiny Tower player has supposedly constructed an oddly similar-sounding 9,223,372,036,854,775,807 floors in their tower; the "top" Plants vs. Zombies player has killed -- you guessed it -- 9,223,372,036,854,775,807 zombies in their lifetime playing the game. If you're wondering why that number keeps coming up, it's the maximum possible value for a "long integer" numeric variable such as that used for storing scores in modern programming languages -- in other words, it is impossible for Game Center to store a score any higher than that, or indeed for a game to record a score bigger than that internally.

These obviously implausible scores would be less of a problem if they were isolated incidents, but the top rungs of leaderboards for popular games are infested with clearly hacked scores like this. In the case of Plants vs. Zombies, for example -- a game which Game Center records as having 5,312,972 players who have played while connected to the Internet at least once -- the "top" 75 players all have the same score, and it's impossible to scroll down any further than that using the Game Center app on iOS. You can at least see your own ranking at any one time, but not those immediately around you, making finding players of similar skill something of a challenge.

This issue has been a headache for developers of Game Center-compatible games for some time now, since Game Center is seemingly very easy to hack for those inclined, and developers have not, until now, had sufficient control over their own leaderboards to deal with cheaters. It's such a problem, in fact, that many mobile game makers choose to make use of third-party services such as Mobage or GREE for online functionality rather than Apple's integrated Game Center solution -- a decision that leads to player bases being fragmented across a variety of different platforms rather than being able to gather together in one place.

Up until now, the only real way developers have been able to deal with the problem is to temporarily set the maximum possible score attainable in a game to a value below those posted by the cheaters -- automatically deleting the abnormal scores in the process -- and then reset it to a higher value afterwards. This is only a temporary solution, however, since for reasons known only to themselves, the cheaters are normally back in force before long.

Fortunately, Touch Arcade reports, help is finally at hand. According to a recent post on the Apple Developer site, app and game developers can now "view and manage the top 100 scores and usernames for all of [their] Game Center leaderboards" -- or at least those scores stored within the last 30 days. By making use of Apple's iTunes Connect service, developers will be able to delete fake scores and block players posting them -- and also restore scores and players if they were deleted or blocked in error.

How useful this new update will prove is up to the developers themselves rather than Apple -- developers will need to invest some community management time in their popular games to keep hackers and cheaters away, but ultimately putting in this work will hopefully deter the less scrupulous players out there, helping to make Game Center more useful and fun for everyone involved in the process.

(Oh, and if you were wondering? "Nine quintillion, two hundred and twenty-three quadrillion, three hundred and seventy-two trillion, thirty-six billion, eight hundred and fifty-four million, seven hundred and seventy-five thousand, eight hundred and seven." You're welcome.)

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