Gameplay Time: When Players Exploit Your Mechanics

Players take shortcuts. They’ll probe your game, find the flaws, and exploit the crap out of them. Because they’re tricky fuckers intelligent consumers who have are innovative and brilliant at creative problem solving.

If there’s a corner a boss can’t reach, a particular attack that’s unfairly powerful, or a pause screen that enables excessive jumping, players will find it and use it, often damaging the intended play experience in the process. The blame for this reduced experience doesn’t lie with them, however - it lies with us, the developers.

Some of these easily-exploited gameplay systems are the result of bugs, normally caught before release with proper testing. Sometimes one slips out by mistake. It’s fine. I’m sure it happens to a lot of devs. But some of these systems are intentionally included in the final release, the developers having failed to consider the ramifications of their design decisions. And that's where the issue lies, because if these design decisions are a part of a successful game, there’s the potential for them to be considered good by association. They set a precedent, and before you know it every future game has a similar gameplay system without anybody stopping to ask whether or not that system is damaging the overall experience.

The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time has a rolling mechanic. Hit a button and the player rolls in the direction of travel. While the mechanic performs its intended function well, helping the player dodge attacks, it also gives the player a small speed boost. This, combined with the fact that it can be triggered again immediately after use without any delay, and that it can be used almost anywhere in the game results in a lot of players using it to speed up their travel.

And when this happens, the intended experience breaks down. There’s a loud yell from Link, the player’s character, every time he rolls. Sounds that were only intended to be heard a couple of times a minute are suddenly heard a couple of times a second. It becomes immediately obvious just how few sound files there are for Link’s yells - I counted four. It’s a stark reminder for the player that the experience is artificial.

Immersion is broken further by the sheer absurdity of Link’s behavior. While the Zelda franchise has always carried a hint of humour and unreality, the notion that the Hero of Hyrule would roll across the kingdom to fight evil is at odds with the other facts that we know about the game’s world and its characters. The same problem arises if players use more advanced speed tricks (or at least, tricks that were less well-known at the time of release), such as running backwards or hopping sideways. When players make a conscious choice to stop engaging with the game world in the intended way and start manipulating the mechanics to their own ends, any hope of achieving a meaningful level of immersion is lost.

Isn't that lovely? Now imagine it with a whole bunch of angry 'HNYAAAH!'s over the top. 

The third issue arising from this exploitation impacts on something the Zelda franchise tends to do very well: music and environmental sound. While the player walks through the different zones of the game they are treated to carefully designed ambient soundscapes and music that has been tailored to each location. These audio tracks are intended to give character to the spaces and help set specific moods. While interruptions to this audio aren’t an issue in the more dangerous and combat-heavy areas, when players enter the calmer and more homely spaces of Kokiri Forest or Kakariko Village, it’s incredibly jarring to hear a series of yelps from our character, particularly when those yelps were designed to be used in combat situations and as such have a clearly aggressive quality.

Ocarina of Time was very successful, and so this mechanic has been replicated a lot. Owlboy (D-pad Studio) was released in late 2016. It’s gorgeous. Players can fly, pick up other characters, and throw turnips at bats - it's a lot of fun. The dodge mechanic - combined with a weird control setup - results in similar issues to those listed above. When players press the space-bar, their character performs a quick roll in the direction of travel. While they can continue holding the space-bar to fly more quickly than usual after this initial roll, it’s not guaranteed that players will discover this function, and will simply (as I did) end up spamming the roll ability in order to travel more quickly than the normal ponderous flying speed.

I promise Owlboy's animations look beautiful when screenshotted by a real professional.

I promise Owlboy's animations look beautiful when screenshotted by a real professional.

Beyond impacting on mood and immersion, core moments of gameplay are affected by misuse of mechanics. Early in Owlboy some naughty pirates show up and start being naughty. The player is put at the bottom of a long vertical level, and is expected to dodge the pirate’s spotlights on their way to the top. It’s clearly designed to teach the player about stealth and timing, however the speed and instantaneous change in direction offered by the unbalanced, spammable dodge means that if players abuse this mechanic - and they likely will - the level offers no challenge at all. Any intended gameplay teaching or thematic development is lost.

How do we mitigate these issues? An easy fix is to limit the use of these mechanics. Put a cooldown on the dodge, or add a short period of slowdown afterwards to ensure that there’s no bonus to the overall speed of the player. But this fails to address the core driver of the player’s actions in these situations - boredom.

Players don’t want to be trekking or back-tracking through overly-familiar areas. They have a goal, they know where it is and how to get there, and so they should be allowed to get there in a reasonable amount of time. This doesn’t necessarily mean adding an instant-travel mechanic - games like Shadow of the Colossus put a lot of value in the experience of the journey. It does, however, mean giving players ways to travel more quickly in a non-immersion breaking way, so that they don’t feel the need to exploit the core mechanics. Let them sprint, give them a mount, let them surf down a hill on their shield if it fits the tone of the game.

Owlboy does allow the character to sprint, but it’s hidden in the long-press of the dodge button, and there’s a significant chance that players won’t discover that functionality until late in their experience. Ocarina of Time gives players a horse part way through the game, but this quicker mode of travel is only available in some locations, leaving the player to return to their exploitative ways in the majority of zones. 

We also see instances where the size of the play area and lack of interesting content is encouraging players to rush through it, introducing and reinforcing the notion that speed is an objective of the game. In Owlboy particularly, I found moments where I was navigating completely empty areas of the maze-like levels. There was the occasional enemy, but they were incredibly easy to dodge, apparently there to fill space rather than to teach me anything or serve as any sort of challenge. It seemed like space for the sake of space, stretches of level there to create the sense of having traveled a distance rather than providing any real interest.

Some areas of Owlboy just feel empty. 

Some areas of Owlboy just feel empty. 

If it fits with the other design concepts in your game, let your players go fast. Give them interesting environments. Don’t build level for the sake of level - think carefully about what’s there, and don’t be afraid to edit it down. Players exploit gameplay systems because they’re dissatisfied with what they’ve got. They’re engaging in innovation, sure, but it’s innovation that stems from our own incompetencies as developers - in technical and gameplay design. The ultimate impact of these player-driven exploits is that the players get a lesser experience than we intended, missing out on gameplay, story, and mood. It’s up to us to ensure our players are getting their money’s worth.