Technology

Dead Space cheat undermines in-game micro-transactions

Dead Space 3
Image caption Dead Space 3 is the first in the popular franchise to feature micro-transactions

Exploits in the bestselling video game Dead Space 3 are allowing users to obtain in-game items for free.

The "cheats" could prove costly to the title's publisher, Electronic Arts (EA), which has introduced a system that charges users cash for extra equipment in the sequel.

The move has proved controversial with some, since the title already costs about £40.

EA has the ability to issue an update to remove the workarounds.

However, a spokesman said the firm had no comment on the issue.

Dead Space 3 is an action-horror third-person shooter set on a frozen planet.

Part of its challenge is locating scarce in-game resources needed to create ammunition and medical packs in order to tackle the title's monsters.

In previous games in the franchise, the user needed to find credits in order to buy upgrades. However, the new game introduces real-money micro-transactions as a way of allowing players to add equipment faster than would otherwise be possible.

Ethical dilemma

The bugs were first reported by the news site Game Front, which subsequently posted a video online showing how they worked.

Image caption News of the exploits did not take long to spread online

One involves the player's character walking into a specific building, picking up an item, walking out - and then returning to find a new item has appeared. This can be repeated an unlimited number of times.

The other requires the user to go to a different destination, to pick up an item and then to select save and quit before returning to the game.

Within hours of the discoveries, news of the exploits spread to other gaming sites and social media networks.

Several users commented that they did not believe using the cheats was unethical because Dead Space 3 had already been priced as a "premium title".

Bolt-on costs

The rise of micro-transactions in video games can be traced to Asia, where they were introduced as part of efforts to combat piracy.

Rather than charge users to buy software, publishers opted for a "freemium" model, in which the basic product was given away but premium add-on services or features involved payment.

It has since become a common feature in the wider smartphone market.

Console titles have long offered the ability to buy additional downloadable content (DLC) such as extra levels, characters or clothes. However, it is relatively rare for them to charge money for items intrinsic to a character's progress through core content.

Dead Space's developer, Visceral, has stressed players do not need to buy items in Dead Space 3 in order to finish it - but gamers have been concerned about what the innovation signalled.

"People are wondering why do you have to pay more in order to get a weapon that is in the main game anyway," said Keza MacDonald, games editor of the IGN news site.

"The way EA is presenting it is that if you want the weapons earlier then you can buy them. But it's a slippery slope because if most games start adopting this as a tactic you're effectively devaluing the money gamers have had to lay out in the first place."

Legal questions

Cheats have long been a feature of video games.

Magazines such as Zap Attack used to publish pages of tricks in the 1980s to help gamers boost ammunition or health points. Websites offering walkthroughs and other cheat sheets now continue that tradition.

However, one solicitor told the BBC that the practice became "legally grey" once micro-transactions were involved.

"If you go into a baker's to buy a bun and they give you the wrong change and you walk away knowing you have been given more change than you handed over in the first place, that's theft," Sara Ludlam, an intellectual property expert at Lupton, Fawcett, Lee & Priestley told the BBC.

Image caption Buying in-game content lets players spend less time having to hunt for hidden in-game resources

"So, arguably if you go into this game knowing you are supposed to be paying for these weapons and you notice a glitch allows you to accumulate them without paying, that's theft as well.

"But it is arguable because it's a new area."

There is no suggestion that EA would pursue such a case.

Game Front has also made clear that it believed the "farming" of resources within Dead Space 3 should not be equated with in-game purchases.

"Game Front is committed to providing its audience with walkthroughs, easter eggs and cheats for popular video games," said its managing editor Mark Burnham.

"This video was an example of Game Front providing that service, and did not present an ethical dilemma.

"The strategy described in our video merely allows players to efficiently gather resources freely available in the game; the only way to instantly gain resources in the game is to purchase them through the micro-transactions feature."

Update 12 February:

EA later issued a statement to Game Front suggesting the ability to farm items was not a glitch.

"We have no plans to issue a patch to change this aspect of the game," said spokesman Jino Talens. "We encourage players to explore the game and discover the areas where resources respawn for free."

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