Zynga Cracks Down on Farmville Cheating

Zynga Cracks Down on Farmville Cheating

  • By: CM Boots-Faubert
  • Posted 28th Sep 2011


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The most recent wave of bannings in the Zynga games Farmville and Mafia Wars has come to light as users complain on chat boards that their accounts have been frozen or banned outright today. The source of the bannings? Automation programs that play Farmville for the user.

A proliferation of "bot" programs -- automation software that allow users to set a series of decision triggers and then have their computer monitor Facebook and Farmville for those events in order to take advantage of them -- is the source of an ongoing battle between Zynga, who considers the programs -- and the edge that they give to the players using them -- to be cheating, and the players who use the programs to make their game play easier.

In the past the social game developer built-in checks to detect suspected automation -- timers that, when tripped by completing moves too fast, caused the offending account to get a temporary ban.

While it was possible for players to trigger the alarms accidentally by simply clicking too fast while doing their daily moves and harvesting from the news feeds of their friends -- this actually happened to someone on our Friend List -- consistently triggering the alarm almost always lead to a permanent ban by the account, since the multiple bans is considered evidence of bot or automation software use.

Why would players make use of this sort of application? In the fast-paced world of Farmville the news feed of your friends often contain very desirable items -- rare trees, animals, and materials that can be used to complete building projects in the game. This is why most players tend to check their friend's news feeds, so that they can obtain these special items when a friend has shared them.

A phenomenon that has been occurring more and more lately when harvesting the news feeds is encountering an event that just occurred and yet somehow the item has already been claimed. This is a topic that has appeared repeatedly on the chat boards, with gamers wondering how it can be that one of their friends grows a special rare tree, shares it to their news feed, and literally seconds later it has been silently claimed?! The answer? One of the gamers on that persons Friend List is running a Farmville automation app -- or bot -- and it detected the post to their news feed and instantly claimed it like a Ninja striking from the shadows.

Nobody likes being beaten out of goodies by what amounts to a computer opponent, and the idea that a player in the game would make use of something like that offends many players -- and really offends developer Zynga, who is taking steps to combat the tactic in its online Facebook game.

A Cat and Mouse Game

"The people who make and sell these programs know that they are violating the rules, know that we consider them illegal, and know that we will ban any account that is caught using them," a security team member for Zynga (who insisted on anonymity as they are not allowed to talk to the press) confirmed today.

"They don't tell their customers that when they sell them the program though, so a lot of players only find out what they are doing is illegal after they get banned, and then it is too late to do anything about it, their account is gone," the say. "Using these programs is a bad idea because we always catch you. Maybe not immediately but eventually we do."

The automation programs are sold for as little as $5 on websites, while some are given away for free, and allow Farmville gamers to not only mine news feeds for items but automate the process of growing and harvesting their crops, which gamers who are fans of the software say is well worth the $5 price tag, because there are too many mouse clicks in the game.

"I don't want my account to get banned so I do not use it to harvest news feeds," Farmville veteran and bot user "Amy" admits. "The security programs are watching the news feed collecting right now, not actual game play, and the program that I use has a random delay feature built into it that does the moves and clicking with different pause rates, so they would have a really hard time telling it is not me doing it," she claims.

A typical session for Amy -- who plays the game both at home and at work -- involves logging into Facebook and checking her friends news feeds herself, claiming whatever there is that she actually can claim.

Once she has finished that though, she logs into the game and runs her bot program, which automatically accepts all of her gifts and help requests, sending the gift she per-designated to all of the people on her Farmville Friend List, and then the bot proceeds with harvesting her ripe crops, plowing the fields, and seeding the next round of crops while Amy is nowhere near her keyboard, having walked down the hall to the break room to fix a cup of tea.

"I have three farms, each of which is growing a different crop, dozens of orchards, my dairies, stables, and all of the other animal related buildings. I just do not have the time to do all of that myself, and even if I did want to I doubt my boss would appreciate me spending an hour or two at work playing Farmville!" she laughs.

Amy is one of the large population of gamers playing Farmville who uses the bot programs to get her game play completed under the radar, and she does not see anything wrong with the practice. "I am not hurting anyone, and it is not really cheating, it is time saving," she insists.

When we asked about players who were using the bots carefully to avoid detection, the security team tech from Zynga scoffed at the idea. "I cannot comment on how we are doing it," they said. "But we have a new way to detect when players are cheating. That is all I will say about it. Well, that, and don't cheat!"