Play 2 Earn: How I managed to expose a scam and actually make a difference


In this quick case study I will describe my assistance in exposing a scam: namely how I managed to find out about it, what actions I took to warn others and what the results were. It was quite a journey and produced results that are motivating so I hope you’ll enjoy this quick read.  

This article is a short format summary done with Publish0x readers in mind. It's quite concise and if you want to know more you can read the full summary on read.cash.

The culprit in this story is a game called Thetan Arena. It debuted in October 2021 via Binance Launchpad and got off to a very good start. Its whitepaper described it as the 1st MOBA NFT game that’s easy to pick up and play. Launchpad participants were able to buy mystery boxes with one of 3 types of heroes Common, Epic or Legendary and then duke it out on PvP arenas in one of many competitive modes. Players with consistent win rates could expect to make money, just like in a game of poker. 

I did not participate in the launchpad nor did I have any prior knowledge of Thetan Arena but sure enough, I heard of it late November when Thetan went public. In early December, after seeing a bit of gameplay I convinced myself to purchase one of the cheaper “common” heroes and test the waters. And well, that’s when I noticed something was off. 

Identifying the Scam

I do have some background in doing Quality Assurance and video game QA testing which might explain why I quickly realized gameplay didn't seem natural. Both your teammates and opponents were acting weird, often would glitch out, or just act completely reckless.

To make the long story short, it seemed I wasn't playing human players but rather bots. And no, not bots like in Splinterlands or Axie where people create programs to play for them. No - these were bots made and controlled by the developers, which meant payouts, game results etc were open to manipulation from the inside. 

For example bots were often not interested in attacking each other (this was Battle Royale, you can see in the top right corner there's 12 players left) but instead were dead set on killing human players first (to the point where you could clown them into running in circles). Obviously since these were "insider bots" so to speak, they had perfect knowledge from the onset. Knowledge of the map, who the human players were, location of the powerups and so on. 

b0b88da11b392806ecec624af4251bc0d7402a9ed80aaee7f5991245f5029fe2.jpg

It's bad enough to inflate player numbers and deceive players into thinking they're facing human opponents when they're really battling bots, but it's even worse to engineer these bots in a way that puts players at a substantial disadvantage. The bots didn't earn any coins or cash out their winnings. If the average win rate for the bots was higher than humans it could mean big savings for the developers at the expense of the players.

I kept doing some more playtesting and things were looking worse and worse. Here you can see what looks like 6 'players' converging on me from all the different directions 😂

5ec0940588bbde5d1361c42a23db9b770d456d4adb008e245f59d4d4f51f04f3.jpg

It was almost impossible to avoid defeat in such situations. The way rewards were distributed was such that the top 3 players get the biggest amount of coins. As a result, if bots place for example 1st, 3rd and 5th, their win rate might be 50% but their actual payout impact would be much bigger since bots would collect a disproportionate amount of money from the pool, closer to 70%. And since every game costs players money, you can easily start to connect the dots here. Again let me remind readers that the issue here is these weren't normal bots, but bots secretly deployed by the developer team

Fortunately, developers did not bother to cover their tracks very well. I quickly realized you can identify bots just by looking at their names! They all follow a similar naming pattern, possibly a result of some kind of name generator.

f267ae1f21515e12a53fd770ac30215961ba950759476ab39de045bc12032fb4.jpg

ProudCrab, SoufulFly, TestyRabbit, SnazzyAnt, GraveLizard and so on. Almost all of these variations follow a similar pattern, an adjective followed by an animal verb, both always capitalized. This made identifying bots a whole lot easier and also made my case against Thetan a lot more solid.

Anyone who plays Thetan Arena could now check my findings themselves and confirm they are true, quickly identify who the bot players are and notice their artificial behaviour.  Also it would be hard for Thetan Team to argue that these are all coincidental names and that there’s no collusion going on. 

Meanwhile, the game was generating more and more hype and people were piling in from every direction, so time was of the essence. Here we can see CagyJan, one of the bigger names in the play to earn space, placing second in Thetan Arena and not realizing he just lost to a bot ("CausticToad")!

b69f29b9e928c71753643e6a92c09cabf506d870b936d063e9cfe6d2e4ab9f9b.png

CagyJan assumed (just like 99.99% of players) that he’s playing against another human. Most people had no idea what shenanigans were taking place behind the scenes, and were making flawed financial decisions that could cost them dearly. It was important to blow a lid off this thing and to do it fast. 

Exposing the Scam

First I went to check Thetan Reddit. I made a couple of posts outlining the discovery of bots and urging players to be careful, but the results were very meagre. Sure, I got a bunch of upvotes, but that was it. Thetan subreddit wasn’t particularly active and it was hard to expect any major reaction or resonance.

My next best bet was to look at various influencers in play to earn space. Most seemed to hype up Thetan like crazy but there was one video that caught my eye that was more critical than others. Champion NFT Gaming (now knows as Asobs) made a video that questioned Thetan Arena's claims about its player base. Around that time Thetan Arena officially boasted 6 million players and to Champion NFT Gaming this seemed like an extraordinary number, especially compared to Axie Infinity, which had only 3 million players at the time.. 

It appeared that Asobs was quite skeptical of Thetan Arena to begin with, so I figured he would find my discoveries of bot activity interesting and useful. I searched for a website, Twitter, or any other form of contact, and eventually found their Discord. I explained the situation to one of the Discord administrators, presented evidence of bot play, and waited.

A few hours later, I was put in touch with Asobs, who was now investigating my findings. It turned out that there were already several other red flags related to Thetan Arena too. For instance, the money generated from 'mystery box' sales was transferred to a private Binance wallet instead of being burned, as promised.

The next day Champion NFT Gaming was already out with their video. 

a1bf09b5cdc54260980b76f195c3ed307dfbde8e40fa354c2522cc4ae307dec4.png

Titled aptly “Theta Arena Scam?” it laid out both proof of bot presence and also implications of such manipulations. Asobs did a very good job in explaining even to laypeople why having AI bots pose as human players is such a big red flag. Video also touched on other topics like inflated player numbers and funds from sales being transferred out of Binance Smart Chain and into an unknown private wallet. The video raked around 15 thousand views and in all honesty, I thought that was it. I did my part, spoke out, found a way to share my concerns and now there is a video on Youtube that explains everything better than I could. I went to bed knowing I did the right thing and was ready to move on.

To my surprise, however, this is when things actually started to take off. As other outlets and influencers started picking up NGC’s video, news began to circulate and when I woke up the next day Thetan Arena scam was discussed all over crypto Youtube.

  36ea33b84f5ad4f0a23ba5971a6de8180690a3b219ec350f93b3410fc81a8c51.png

Content creators picked up on Asobs's video, broadcast it to their own audiences, and collectively changed the discourse almost overnight. Suddenly, bot play, along with other malpractices that Thetan Arena's team was involved in, became a topic of discussion!

Some Youtubers like Crypto King acted very honorably. Crypto King not only cautioned his followers to avoid Thetan Play, but even apologized for helping publicize this game.  But others were not as honest with their viewers (and maybe also with themselves).

Accusations of FUD followed, even accusations that this is some kind of well-orchestrated move by competition that wants Thetan to fail.  

f0cfc6c5c06419b017c1973084ae4661d3d995adf8f7f922c400fee08b47796f.png

c6cb592e341d83212d1fc259095240906f02d1777fd855d3f7f4189615702eda.png

That was the suggestion made by Bulldog1205. That this is some kind of black PR stunt and that Thetan users shouldn’t stress as there is nothing to worry about.  Other videos were even more jarring. Go Shiny Hunter concluded that “This is not a scam, it’s just unfair to the player who gets matched with bots”. It’s not hard to guess a lot of those crypto influencers had their own money invested into THG and seeing their minds twist like a pretzel to avoid hurting the game and its sales was quite interesting if not depressing. 

A couple of days later a surprisingly large number of users started commenting on the NCG Youtube channel, Crypto King as well as on other social media where bot play was discussed. Posts were usually quite aggressive in their format, things like ”you’re just a sore loser that blames bots for lack of skill” “I have never seen a bot” and so on. 

Some replies were totally nonsensical: 

f17ce0812df08eae45191f964c02098b46bdce909b8ea64674086a2df07c4367.png

There was no such thing as Epic Taekwon hero, no such things as “Fire” affinity or skin or whatever, and also max the level you could reach in Thetan Arena was 10. But that didn't matter. For those unfamiliar with the game, this created impression as if there’s always some kind of sensible reply that will counter what they saw as FUD.

Also worth noting, this reply was directed at someone asking how come there are players with 300 win streaks in the game - a good question that never got fully answered as it’s not possible to look into individual game logs. But it would be curious to see what opponents did this 300-win streak player met on his way and how this record-breaking result came about. 

Not that it mattered all that much anyway. At that point, Thetan coin was already going down significantly. From $9 on the 17th of Dec when CNG published their first video to $4.50 at the end of Dec when Asobs published his last video on the subject.  Players interested in this game were almost guaranteed to stumble upon at least one of those warning videos. And with the coin dropping lower and lower, it was obvious that Thetan will not become the next Axie. 

There was one more issue with Thetan Arena. It turns out that Thetan Arena wasn’t even a real blockchain game. It’s actually an old mobile game from 2020 called Heroes Strike!

ade98c24c1f1d796755ae6dc6ba97205982c74491723f7a99e832205da17cd8e.png

Thetan Arena team didn’t even bother to create their own unique project, instead, they took an existing game of which there are loads, repurposed it for crypto and then made millions. Even with the project being exposed Thetan Team still made at least tens of millions from selling their Binance Launchpad mystery boxes. 

Summary

The fact that all these red flags weren’t noticed, neither by Binance, nor by influencers, nor by anyone, is symptomatic of the entire P2E space which encourages crooked and unscrupulous grifting over honest devs work. Thetan Arena looked like a fun, engaging game that could have made its mark, and with its poker-inspired economics, its token could have reached some form of equilibrium but unfortunately, greed triumphed over everything else and now Thetan Arena will be remembered as just another money grab. Currenly THG coin is worth $0.07 down from highs of $9 last year.  

But there’s also a bright side. I’m positively shocked how much effect one can have by exposing such misdeeds and how much difference one person can make. I spotted something, explained, made noise, contacted Champion NFT gaming, and it all snowballed from there. And suddenly there's people are talking about it, and suddenly it’s having some real-world effect. Seeing for example Youtuber discuss in German how you can spot bots by looking at adjective + name was quite powerful and satisfying. 

Armed with evidence and motivation to do something about it you can make your voice heard and make a difference. So let’s support good projects, expose the scams and make this world a better place ✌️

How do you rate this article?

3


MatPawluczuk
MatPawluczuk

Tech Writer, VR Enthusiast, Backpacker, Activist


Tech, Trends and Travel
Tech, Trends and Travel

Everything relating to bleeding edge technologies and nomadic lifestyle. Life's nothing but peachy.

Send a $0.01 microtip in crypto to the author, and earn yourself as you read!

20% to author / 80% to me.
We pay the tips from our rewards pool.