Gameplay Time: Sometimes Exploits are Okay (and that's Okay!)

A while ago I wrote an article about the importance of identifying and limiting easily exploitable mechanics in your game, lest the Gods Of Players Not Having The Intended Experience rain fire down upon you. I failed to make it clear, however, that not all games need to deliver a particular experience with this much precision. There are games where the player's narrative experience of the world is less important, and where it doesn’t matter so much whether or not players hit precise intellectual beats while engaging with gameplay.

Every game has its own individual goals in delivering an experience, and a player’s use of an exploit may not necessarily ruin that experience. In Tetris, the game isn’t trying to provide narrative engagement, and so no narrative issues arise if the players find and use a cheat that helps them get a high-score. Similarly, in freeform sandbox games such as Garry’s Mod , there isn't a carefully structured or heavily intellectual delivery of gameplay, so if players use exploits or cheats in order to get what they want, they’re not missing out on moments of crucial understanding. In Garry’s Mod especially, the exploitation of the game engine’s systems is the core of how the gameplay functions. If The Witness is a series of carefully delivered bursts of enlightenment, Garry’s Mod is creative chaos. Two very different, but still valuable, experiences.

It can be very rewarding for developers to study how players are engaging with their game after release. On the surface, and especially when we’re talking about tightly balanced competitive games, this may reveal the state of the game’s current meta, an understanding of which is essential if future updates are to properly engage the game’s community. Occasionally, however, we may see inventive players exploiting bugs in the game’s code, leading to issues that have nothing to do with balance or mechanical design. These bugs are almost universally exploited in order to give the player an unfair advantage, and so they’re usually patched out immediately.

But if we see these bugs and exploits less as the destruction of the game’s integrity and instead approach them curiosity, interesting things happen. All cheating is an expression of desire. When a player finds a specific place in the level where they’re invulnerable to the big boss' attacks and they choose to use this exploit, it tells us that perhaps this boss isn’t that interesting to fight, or that player motivation is misdirected or absent. Patch it, sure, but ask yourself why the use of this particular exploit is so appealing to the players of your particular game.

While dodgy marketing and an awful release schedule doomed Tribes: Vengeance and a rocky support record seems to have finally doomed Tribes: Ascend, the Tribes series had a wonderful heyday. Flying over mountains and valleys, skiing down slopes, smashing faces with flying discs, sneaking onto your best friend’s computer to change his name to ‘Shazbutt’. The old days were great. But the player's movement wasn’t initially intended to be as fast-paced as it became in later titles. In the first game, Starsiege: Tribes, the maps were big and movement was pretty slow, with players tending to rely on vehicles to get around horizontally and jetpacks to move vertically. Then players figured out that by hitting ‘jump’ with the right timing when travelling down slopes, they could avoid being slowed down by friction with the ground - in a similar way to how bunnyhopping works in some other titles. This meant that they could literally use the immense gravity of the planet to pull them down the hill (lazy, wow) and build up a lot of speed. The next hill in their path could act as a ramp, and suddenly there was a very quick and exciting way to get around.

Fast forward to the next release, Tribes 2. The devs had seen this exploit in action, evaluated its effect on gameplay and decided to work it into the game as a skiing mechanic, turning the series into the quick, massive-arena shooter we know today.

Forgive the music and colour grading - montage creators tend to suffer from I-Think-It's-Still-2006 Syndrome. There is no known cure. Call the hotline below to donate.

Sometimes a game doesn’t even have to be complete for exploits to influence the final design. During beta testing of Quake 3, it was discovered by players that if they held down forwards and the strafe left (or right) key while looking slightly towards the direction of the strafe, they moved more quickly. By repeating this motion - hopping forwards while alternating their strafing and looking between left and right - they could build and sustain a lot of speed, enabling incredibly fast movement through the levels. Players could even take wide corners without slowing down, by strafing and looking to the same side for multiple hops. It was a mechanic that could be used nearly anywhere, which meant that it had a massive effect on gameplay.

The bug, driven by some dodgy vector math shenanigans, changed everything. John Carmack wasn’t too happy with this, having envisioned a slower paced game about “badasses with big guns,” rather than a game where players were hopping like massive dorks. He tried to implement a fix, but after community feedback and his own dissatisfaction with how this fix affected the other forms of movement, these changes were reversed.

Here we’ve got an exploit that directly impacted on the intended experience. When players jump, their character emits a noise - most often a grunt. Twenty identical grunt noises in a row as a player strafe jumps down a hallway sounds a bit goofy, which sort of ruins the dark, gritty experience that the techno-goth architecture and grungy music is trying to provide. But you’d be hard pressed to find a Quake player today who doesn’t use and abuse it instinctively, and it’s difficult to imagine the game without it.

The mechanic also played a huge role in making mods that championed more athletic playing styles viable, such as CPMA and DeFRaG. DeFRaG in particular was a great development for the community, abandoning violence altogether and instead asking players to move through the levels as quickly and efficiently as possible. Players needed use the knockback from weapon explosions to propel themselves, strafe jump at incredible speeds, and master precision air control if they were to be successful.. It was really freakin’ neato.

I maintain that if we are developing a game with an emotionally engaging narrative or carefully structured intellectual experience, success requires that exploits be carefully ironed out. But it’s clear that there are exceptions to this rule, and a kneejerk DELETE THIS reaction by developers when an exploit is discovered may result in interesting and valuable gameplay opportunities being thrown out. Ultimately, we need to look at what we’re making, be curious about the potential benefits of whatever rises to the top of that frothing cauldron of community interaction and make an informed decision about what our game needs.

Pro tip: your game probably definitely needs more grunting skeletons. Especially if your name is John Carmack.