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Josh Bycer, Blogger

November 5, 2010

9 Min Read

Once again showing my age, back in the pre-internet days, there was no such thing as YouTube videos showing a game walk-through. Back then if you got stuck at a section in a game you had to hope for either a walk-through printed in a magazine, or someone stumbling across a cheat code. Back then many games did not have cheats like "God mode" or infinite lives instead a third option became available.

Game Genie was a handy device for us gamers that the developers despised. It was a device that got attached to whatever cartridge you had (yes I had a Nes, Snes, and Genesis Game Genie). When you turned on the console you were presented with the Game Genie's interface, from here you would enter in codes from a book that came with the device that listed numerous cheats for specific games. After entering the codes you wanted (or hit the limit) you start the game with those cheats in affect.

The reason developers hated it was that you were basically legally hacking the cartridge and changing the programming to introduce these cheats into the game. With the popularity of sites like gamefaqs and YouTube that gamers can turn to for help, these devices have lost their popularity. Today's entry is all about cheating in games and the different variations of it.

In my opinion cheating at a video game can be broken down into four categories. Let's start with "cheat codes", not to be confused with the same codes featured with Game Genie. These are codes left in or added by the designer and can have a variety of affects. The most famous example would be the Contra code which I can recite at will at anytime.

The two most popular ways to find a cheat code these days is either through a guide either printed or online, or have it unlocked in game. Many titles feature a variety of cheats that are unlocked through progress in the game. Recently EA has been allowing gamers to buy cheats to be used in their games which really don’t sit right with me.

First is that using money to buy an in game advantage like that is a big no-no in my book. Second I can't help but think that games could be design to force players to buy these cheats by making things unfair for the gamer. You should not need to use cheats to get through a game these days and it feels that they are hurting the design of their games by allowing this option for someone to not learn the game and instead buy their way through it.

Personally I don't use that many cheat codes and never really fell in love with cosmetic changes like big head mode or different character models. I think this goes back to my love of challenge in games which is why I don't use things like infinite health.

Moving on to #2 we have "hacking". For this entry hacking will be defined as:

The player using an outside program to gain an advantage in a game.

Commonly seen in multi player games hackers can ruin a legitimate player's fun. There are many ways to hack a game such as having an aim-bot in a FPS or giving your character infinite health. Unlike cheat codes, designers are not fond of this and most designers take measures to prevent hacking. Many games have a zero tolerance for hacks and many gamers have been banned because of it.

While hacking is more popular with multi player games there was some news last month that Blizzard banned accounts of people who hacked the single player game for achievements. This is the first time I've heard of this action taken for a single player game. Blizzard used the argument that hacking the single player gave players achievements which would be displayed by everyone.

On one hand it was under Blizzard's right to stop this from happening but I can't help but feel that their time could have been better spent making sure that the multi player side of things weren't hack able

Next we have "exploits" which I'll define as:

The player using in game bugs or poor design to give themselves an unfair advantage in a game.

This one is a bit hard to explain. Here is an example that I dealt with and hopefully this will explain it. In Left 4 Dead's “No Mercy" campaign there was a bug on the third map that allowed the player to shove a door that would normally open by pressing a button on the other side of the wall, after hitting it enough times the door would break.

This allowed gamers to skip the crescendo event and while they are doing it they are in an easily guarded spot. During multi-player games many groups used this to skip the dangerous event to get an advantage in the game.

Exploits are a very "grey" topic. Most often the designers won't know that they existed until after someone discovers it and it starts to spread among the community. Unlike hacks there is nothing in the EULA about it as the player is not using any outside influence to gain the advantage. Instead they are using what the designers provided in such a way to give them an advantage.

Another issue is that it's hard to distinguish what could be considered a game mechanic and what is an exploit. For example in Starcraft 2 Zerg players have the trick that allows them to have more drones in play then their supply allows by creating extractors and then cancelling them and getting the drone back.

Technically it is an exploit as the player is using a loop hole to get an advantage, on the other hand the player has to time it so that they are doing this within the correct time frame or it will not give them a huge benefit which makes it a game mechanic. At this point it's safe to say that Blizzard sees it as a mechanic as it has been in since the beta I believe.

My final category is where cheating can be encouraged by the designer, for this one I'm using the term "breaking" and defining it as this:

 To play a game at such a high level that it renders the challenge the designers intended pointless.

A few months ago I put up an entry about the different skill levels that a gamer can play a game at and how a good designer can build the game systems around this. Breaking a game is done at the expert level, the gamers who go for 100% completion and speed runs and such.

For example in the 3D Mario games (N64 and forward) there are many examples of challenges that a player who has mastered the triple jump, into a wall jump can get past without going the normal route. Speed runs through games require this high level of play to know exactly how to get through each section the quickest way possible.

RPGS are excellent examples of breaking; one popular term is "min-maxing". For the uninitiated, min-maxing refers mainly to stat base progression and it is the player putting the absolute minimum of value to get the maximum value out of it.

For example let's take a game that the player can put points into "strength" which affects physical damage. The player can have a strength value between 1 and 99. Through testing we find out that at 56 points of strength the player will have the most affect on doing damage and anything above that only gives a minimal increase at best.

Now using that example, let's say that a player does the same thing for the other attributes as well, by doing that the player will create a perfect character that can do everything equally well. I remember seeing guides to The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion on how to do just that, along with creating a cloak that renders the player completely invisible to the NPCs of the world.

Playing at this level depending on the personality of the gamer can lessen the enjoyment of the game. There are several RPGs that I've played that I specifically did not min-max or build the perfect team composition because I still wanted to be challenged. Also with personality it is not inherently better/wrong to play games like this.

To me it's like two different people appreciating music in their own way. One person listening to the emotions the song brings out and the other one listening to the technical aspects, such as if the quality of the music is good, do all the instruments gel well and so on. Neither way is the absolute "best way" to listen to music, they are just options available.

One of the best examples of breaking comes from Disegea which was mentioned in my blog entry I linked earlier. What I loved about it was that the game featured numerous sub systems that the player can choose how far they can go into each. To beat the main quest they can just run through the normal maps and just touch the surface of these systems.

However if they want to beat the post game content then they will need to dive head first. Also the earlier they start playing with these systems it will make the main game ridiculously easy. At one point during my play-through my level 50 characters were as strong as level 100 characters from what I did.

Before I sign off I have a few more points I want to discuss about breaking. First is that this term generally only applies to single-player games. The reason is that for this kind of play you have to be dealing with set constants, playing against a human opponent is different than playing against an AI of course.

Second is that the design of the game has to be built around this concept and that it can't be introduced by the player alone. What I mean is that becoming a master at a game is not good enough; there must be something in game that allows you to make use of those skills to get around what the designers originally intended.

For example in Ninja Gaiden Black, no matter how skilled you are at the game, you will still need to face every challenge; there are no tricks or short cuts that allow you to skip a section.

The act of cheating in games has changed throughout the years, from being mistakes in the code to rewards for the player. As games have grown so have the ways people can circumvent the designer's intent. With the evolution of digital marketplaces and platforms like Steam or the new Battle.net it will be interesting to see how it will affect the future of cheating.


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Josh Bycer


For more than seven years, I have been researching and contributing to the field of game design. These contributions range from QA for professional game productions to writing articles for sites like Gamasutra and Quarter To Three. 

With my site Game-Wisdom our goal is to create a centralized source of critical thinking about the game industry for everyone from enthusiasts, game makers and casual fans; to examine the art and science of games. I also do video plays and analysis on my Youtube channel. I have interviewed over 500 members of the game industry around the world, and I'm a two-time author on game design with "20 Essential Games to Study" and "Game Design Deep Dive Platformers."

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