TGDRT #62: Cheating

TGDRT Episode #62 is live!

Why do people cheat? What can designers do about it? SHOULD they do anything about it in non-competitive single-player games?

This is a topic that has touched many of our recent conversations, and I figured it was time to take it head-on.

A great point was made during the episode that I hadn’t thought about before: at its core cheating is another element of a game a developer can choose invest in or not just like gameplay features, cut scenes, bugfixing or anything else. This is especially true in non-competitive games where cheating affects no one but the person engaging in it.

Under this umbrella lives reloading any time something bad happens, and AI exploits, where the player willingly uses knowledge about the AI’s shortcomings to expedite victory – and ruins their own enjoyment of the game. A designer has to decide how important these issues are to address.

Unfortunately, strategy game designers in particular have given very little thought to reloading. And for obvious reasons: any simple cure you can think of is nearly always worse than the disease. Do you prevent players from saving whenever they want, inevitably inconveniencing a large portion of your audience?

Even if you hedge and create an autosave every turn but allow no other saving the ability to ‘scum’ is only slightly hampered. Disincentives to reload, or even more extreme, the complete inability to do so must be a core part of your game. Much of the popularity of roguelikes is built on the unbeatable mandate of ‘no mulligans – ever’.

The only answer I’ve been able to come up in the strategy genre is for a game to be very clear about when a player is crippled and the game is over. This is a big problem in 4X games especially, as it’s easy to lose a city or two and end up in what I describe as the ‘middle zone’. You’re not dead, but you’re probably too weak to win, and in many cases, even enjoy continuing.

Restarting and reloading is built into the DNA of 4X, and it won’t be easy to root out. There’s a good chanceĀ At the Gates puts up a good fight on this front though, as failure is obvious and unforgiving. If a middle zone does manage to survive it should at least be much smaller thanĀ Civ’s.

- Jon

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3 Comments

  1. sclpls

     /  January 14, 2014

    This was probably my favorite discussion you guys have had in awhile! It is interesting to me that you focused on the idea of quick saves as cheating, because it never occurred to me ever think of it as cheating. Cheapening the experience, possibly, but it all depends on the experience though, no? I tend to agree with Dirk that if the designer included a feature then it is part of the rules of the game, and therefore not cheating. If a designer didn’t want to allow constant reloading another save system should have been designed. Lets say you always want your player to be able to save without necessarily constantly being able to reload, you don’t even have go full ironman since maybe that’s more intense than what the designer has in mind. You can allow one save file, but also allow the player to load from designated check points. That strikes a balance between not allowing constant reloads, but also not wasting players’ time by forcing them to reach designated areas where they can save.

    The example of Bioshock Infinite was interesting. It’s worth pointing out that you do lose money every time you die, so I wouldn’t say that death is totally inconsequential in that game even if it isn’t as punishing as permadeath, I feel like it’s a fairly elegant solution for the most part, though of course it does have the drawback you mentioned where it can be hard to tell when you’ve reached a save point.

    Another interesting issue is the gray area that exists between outright cheating and exploits. I’m thinking back to the most recent World Cup match between Ghana and Uruguay towards the end of the tournament. Ghana earned a free kick, and made a beautiful shot that surely would have gone into the back of the net allowing them to win the game except that one of Uruguay’s players (not the goalie) put his hand out, and deflected the ball. This earned the player a red card, and so he was sent off the field and not allowed to play in the next game. The question is did he cheat? Based on the commentary in the U.S. it seemed like a lot of people felt so, and at a minimum it went against “the spirit of the game”. On the other hand, you can argue that he wasn’t trying to cover up his actions, and simply made a (correct) rational calculation that this is what needed to happen to keep his team in the running, and suffer the consequences. Since no duplicity was involved does that still count as cheating? To say that it goes against the spirit of the game, especially for such an international sport, the question is according to whom?

    I also enjoyed the discussion about take backs in board games. This is always a contentious issue in my board game group as people are of very different minds about it. Another one is what to do with dice that are cocked, or fall off the table… are they rerolled or not? These are issues that experienced board game groups should probably figure out on their own because they are not the sort of rules that most board games are going to cover, and then it becomes unclear whether a person is cheating or not. Occasionally you do see a game that factors these sorts of things into the rules though. Space Alert is a real-time cooperative tactical game where the players (kind of like in FTL) are trying to fend off threats from outside and inside the spaceship. They do that by playing cards to move, and operate different types of actions (charge up energy, activate shields, fire weapons, etc.). You only have about 10 minutes to figure things out though, so it’s very easy to make an error. The game allows you to say, oh I played the wrong card, and correct it, but then you “trip up”, and every subsequent action is delayed. So the game explicitly allows a do-over, but extracts a penalty in return.

    Sorry, this comment ended up incredibly long, but it’s an interesting topic!

    Reply
  2. Tony M

     /  January 15, 2014

    My son always used a money cheat when hes played Civilization. To me, it seemed to defeat the purpose of playing Civ. For me, Civ is a strategy game. The fun is in mastering and manipulating the different levers of the game to win.

    But later I realized that for my son, Civ is a story telling tool. He tells the story of the rise of the mighty Egyptian Empire, and its wars with the evil Spaniards. Endlessly tweaking cities to manipulate production and income is not part of the story, and therefore irrelevant. Roads are for esthetics, not economics.

    As he got older, he learned to play Civ without cheats. He played Civ V “properly”. Funny thing is, he got bored with it very quickly. He didn’t spend hundreds of hours with the game like he did in his more naive “cheating” days.

    Reply
  3. There’s an aspect that you guys skirted around but never really touched, the concept of player “buy-in”, basically how much the player is willing to meet you halfway. I think that’s a fair (rough) dividing line in terms of what kinds of behavior you should consider cheating or not. The designer has some goal in his design, and anything that the player is doing that is reasonable-mans-standard trying to pursue that goal needs to be accommodated. But I think the designer’s responsibility to eliminate possible exploits / cheats decreases the farther you get from that realm.

    I often find it helpful to think of degenerate cases when approaching a problem. It occurs to me that the degenerate case of randomized “crafting” mechanics is basically Mastermind (Make thing you win! What combination makes thing?)

    Reply

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