Shielding Your MMO Against Hackers

Last week, Korean security solutions company AhnLab announced the launch of its HackShield anti-hacking technology in North America. As the MMO market continues to grow here, the games will become greater targets for hackers if not adequately protected. We chat with AhnLab's CEO Charles Kim about the hacking problem and the tech to stop it.

Posted by James Brightman on Tuesday, November 22, 2005

GameDAILY BIZ: First, please explain what HackShield is and how it was developed. AhnLab as a company was not always actively involved in the game industry, right?

Charles Kim: HackShield is a set of anti-hacking toolkits developed for online games. It provides hacking detection, prevention, and blocking features to protect online games from hackers.

AhnLab has been actively involved in the game industry for the past 5 years. We have been working closely with online gaming companies like NCSoft, Nexon, NHN, and JC Entertainment since 2000 on virus and security issues. We introduced HackShield in 2001 in Korea and since then it's been tested extensively in Korean and other Asian online game markets.

BIZ: What are the worst kinds of hacker problems that you have seen in today's MMO games?

CK: The most prevalent hacking incident in the beginning of the game is the use of an auto-mouse or macro program which automatically upgrades your levels without actually having to play the game, as well as tampering with the game process in system memory to steal items, raise the level, and capabilities of your avatar or character. More serious problems include a type of hacking called 'robot client' which directly connects to and manipulates servers without even running the game client.

BIZ: Is the hacker problem bigger in parts of Asia since the MMO genre has really taken off in that part of the world?

CK: The hacking problem is more prevalent and frequent in certain parts of Asia, namely China and South Korea. The number of players and the amount of time spent in the game are much greater than here; subsequently, there is stiff competition among players in the game and more attachments to in-game items, level, and characters. People take the games very, very seriously. Hackers affect the balance of the game to the point that game developers sometimes have to stop its game service for number of days, creating unhappy players and a community that is nervous about the security of the virtual world.

Recently we have seen businesses selling specialized hacking tools and services -- we attribute this to the intense level of competition in online games and the increasing correlation between virtual and real world currencies.

BIZ: What makes HackShield a more secure solution than some of the in-house security that developers of these games might implement?

CK: AhnLab has been in the security technology business for over 17 years and HackShield has been tested and proven in the massive Asian online games market.

Companies have to stop and consider what is the most effective way to manage the hacking problem. An effective in-house security solution means a lot of resources and time must be invested to solve the hacking problem. Fighting hackers requires not only intimate and extensive knowledge of hardware level of system, operating system, game structure, and communication protocols, but also understanding possible vulnerable points and finding a solution for each of these areas. This is very specialized knowledge -- finding people with these skills requires a lot of overhead for most MMOG developers. Companies must also consider handling the aftermath of attacks, such as policies, roll-back of servers, and addressing community issues. We believe it is not necessary to devote vast development resources to the hacking problem any more. We have been addressing these issues for years in an advanced market, and in the process have created a cost effective security solution.

There is no such thing as a 100% complete fool-proof security solution. Hacking will never go away; it will always be a battle for MMOG companies. This is why HackShield is a flexible, ongoing service.

BIZ: What other advantages would a publisher or developer gain from using this technology rather than their own anti-hacking measures?

CK: The most important benefit of HackShield is the quality of security the software provides, preventing most damage from hackers before incidents ever happen. Beyond that, a developer saves an immense amount of time and money compared to developing in-house hacking solutions.

BIZ: How easy (or difficult) is it for developers to incorporate HackShield into their game's code, and how much does it cost approximately for developers to use this technology?

CK: HackShield is very easy to use and has flexible toolkits. With most of our customers the integration took from 2 to 5 days. If a developer has a moderate level of online game security knowledge, 1-2 weeks of integration time would be more enough time.

We also offer complementary QA/Testing service to ensure proper integration of HackShield.

Our licensing pricing varies depending on the number of subscribers per game and the edition of HackShield. The base price starts from $30,000 per year.

BIZ: Have you been able to license your HackShield technology to any major MMO makers here in North America yet?

CK: We just introduced HackShield in North America last week, but we have licensed it to Electronic Arts for one of their MMO games for the Asian market. We also worked with SEGA on their online game service in China. Games serviced by HackShield in North America, include Knights Online and Shot Online.

BIZ: Can you tell us a bit about Red Jump? Why did you select them as your sales partner for Western markets?

CK: Red Jump is a game consulting company which specializes in bridging the Asian and North American game industries. We first worked with Red Jump last year to conduct market analysis and assess business opportunities for the North American market. During that time, we discovered that Red Jump has a very rare combination of online game industry knowledge and hands-on experience running an online game operation in the U.S. and Asia -- which is a very valuable set of qualities for us. We will be working very closely with them to service new customers in North America and Europe.

BIZ: Hackers are a smart bunch, and they usually find a way around new tech that tries to hinder their efforts. Are you worried that HackShield will be cracked, and what does AhnLab have planned to address that situation if/when it happens?

CK: Attempts to attack or crack the HackShield module itself are anticipated, but, in reality, we have found that most hackers find and target other vulnerable spots. Using an analogy, if you lock your front door with a very sophisticated, heavy-duty, and hard to crack lock, the thieves usually target the window instead of the front door. HackShield is already equipped with its own protection features and we also have countermeasures when or if such attempts are made.

BIZ: Lastly, is there anything you'd like to add?

CK: We are offering a 30-day free trial of HackShield for the North American launch. We encourage everyone interested in evaluating the most cost-efficient anti-hacking solution for on-line games to give it a try!

BIZ: Thanks for your time.

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