It happens to all of us sometimes: you come home after a long, exhausting day of work and crash down in front of your desk. The only thing you want to do is long on to your favorite game and play a few rounds with your buddies, hopefully putting the whole day behind you. You crack a drink, open up the game, and…it simply won’t load. You’re stuck at a “connecting” screen, or your game throws a connectivity error message. You check the game’s server status online and notice that you’re not the only person having problems.
Sometimes, these frustrating moments are due to maintenance or general server outages on the networks that the game uses, but other times, they are something more sinister. These outages can also be the result of a DoS, or denial of service, attack. Done for a variety of reasons by a variety of people, denial of service attacks and their cousins, distributed denial of service attacks, are designed to prevent players from playing a game. Why would people do this, and what effect does it have on players? Read on to learn more.
What are DoS and DDoS attacks?
According to the illustrious Wikipedia, denial of service and distributed denial of service attacks are events where one or more instigators want to prevent legitimate digital traffic from reaching its destination, or a server. (They can also be targeted at websites and other hosted platforms, but we’ll be focusing on game-based ramifications in this article.) They do so by flooding the server with a significant amount of “requests”, which could take the form of logins or attempted connections to a game. All of these fake requests prevent actual traffic from being fulfilled by the server, making it impossible for users to establish a connection or perform a function in a game.
A denial of service attack occurs when the fake requests come from one source, which makes them comparatively easy to control by server owners and developers as they can (eventually) block the source and restore service. Distributed denial of service attacks occur when the fake requests come from multiple sources. As you can imagine, it’s a little trickier to stop a flood of requests if they’re coming from many different sources. As such, distributed denial of service attacks tend to be more common on major platforms and games.
What do users see during a DoS attack?
Unfortunately, denial of service attacks are common enough that players of online games have gotten used to seeing various error messages and issues that come with them. Earlier this month, Blizzard was hit by a DDoS attack, which took Overwatch, World of Warcraft, Hearthstone, and other games mostly offline until the attack could be mitigated. During the attack, players were unable to see their friend lists, join groups, and stay connected to servers. Players attempting to log into Battle.net, Blizzard’s game launcher, were told that traffic was high and too many players were trying to log in at the same time. Blizzard later made an announcement on Battle.net that a DDoS attack was ongoing and that they were working toward stopping it, which ended up taking several hours.
Unfortunately, the player-facing signs of a denial of service attack can also look like general server load or maintenance issues. The notice that too many players were trying to log in at the same time could have been the result of an especially popular update in one of Blizzard’s games or even the launch of a big new game that everyone wanted to play, though nothing special had dropped on the night of this most recent DDoS attack. In Apex Legends, another popular online title that’s been hit with DDoS attacks, players receive similar connection errors and error codes during a denial of service attack and during times of general server problems. This is usually because games tend to convey to the player only that they cannot connect with the server and not why they can’t connect. In most cases, it takes an official announcement from a developer that a denial of service has taken place in order for players to pinpoint the cause.
Why do people launch DoS attacks?
Sometimes, more computer-savvy (and criminal-minded) users launch DoS attacks in order to bring attention to an issue or a cause. Though not technically a denial of service attack, Apex Legends was hacked back in July by users who wanted to bring attention to the proliferation of hackers, cheaters, and bots in the game Titanfall. While Apex and Titanfall are both made by the same developer, Apex is a significantly larger and more public game at the moment. The hackers wanted to make Respawn Entertainment pay attention, so they took the game down to force them to listen. While it’s not necessarily the right way to go about making your cause known, at least there’s a reason behind the denial of service.
Other perpetrators of DoS attacks simply want attention or to cause chaos. Some people want to use their technical skill to earn an illegitimate few minutes in the spotlight, which they do by preventing people from playing a game. (Imagine what these people could do if they used their technical skill and knowledge for good!) Others just want to sabotage the experience for everyone else, perhaps because they’re frustrated at the direction a game is taking or because they suffered a particularly bad or unfair loss. Think of it as the extreme version of rage quitting – if these people can’t win, no one else can, either.
Unfortunately, our world of constantly interconnected games and servers means that there are more opportunities than ever for hackers and opportunists to ruin play for everyone. Online games bring infinite possibilities for collaboration, competition, and play among users from around the globe, but they also bring more possibilities for outages, hacks, and denials of service. As developers and publishers the world over continue to upgrade their server infrastructure and IT protection, us players can only hope that these attacks will become fewer and less common. In the meantime, don’t toss your keyboard out the window if you can’t connect to your favorite game – just make a cup of tea, head to bed, and try again the next day.