Victors Fresh Fish - Borderlands style Chest

why games cheat the player

I’ve now consumed multiple articles and YouTube videos about the concept that games lie to/trick/cheat the player. The titles are often a bit misleading as it sounds negative that games would cheat the player, but of course games do that, though it is most often for the sake of creating a better experience for the player – of course players might not see it that way if they catch the game cheating them.

I’m writing this article to delve into some examples of how and why games would cheat the player.

Everything You Know Is Wrong

Sid Meier had a keynote talk at GDC 2010 about this very concept, again with a title that was quite dramatic called Everything You Know Is Wrong. His main point was that humans are flawed and game designers must take these flaws into account to create good experiences for humans.

Games are most often meant to be fun and designers will help the player out to keep playing the game as it is meant to be played. When designing games it is important to realize that the interpretation of the game is happening in the mind of the player, and not the designer, so if the player expects something to happen and it does not, the player will be surprised and maybe frustrated if they can’t figure out why there is a disparity.

Sid Meier’s Civilization

A lot of games will lie to the player by actively cheating on their behalf so they don’t get frustrated, by helping out the player without telling them, and saying it’s fair but giving them the high ground. In Sid Meier’s talk he described players not understanding the concept of chances for his game Civilization, when players were given a 3:1 or 4:1 chance to win they expected to win all the time, and not just at the given odds. Meier said that humans feel statistics, so the players felt like they were supposed to win, and Meier gave the players better odds without telling them so the outcome would fit the human intuition. Players also showcased the Gambler’s Fallacy where they thought they were due for a win if they had lost several times in a row and so the game designer had to obey and consider this in his algorithms. Fundamentally players felt like they’ve earned everything good happening to them, but everything bad was because the game was cheating them. 

Early days of WoW

Another way game designers can cheat the player is how they dispense rewards and punishments. It is much better to reward the players for playing as you want them to, than punishing them for not doing it.

A great example is in the early days of World of Warcraft where Blizzard wanted the players to take a break from playing and then keep coming back, so they created a Fatigue system that punished players for playing too long by reducing XP gain over time, and people hated that. The developers flipped it so they instead rewarded them with a Rested XP bonus for coming back to the game after being offline, which is essentially the same thing, but it feels much better for humans to get a carrot than a stick (ref1).

Examples of games cheating

Additional examples of games cheating on behalf of the player in various ways:

  • In Celeste, and many other platformers, there is a grace period where the player can actually still jump even after having slid off a platform. So instead of dying and having to restart from a checkpoint, the game gives the player a slight advantage (ref2).
  • In Bioshock the enemies will always miss their first shot at the player, to give them a warning shot and allow them to orientate themselves before engaging in the fight (ref3).
  • In Doom the player will take a lot less damage when at low life, to make them use the Glory Kill system to gain life and stay engaged in the fight (ref4).
  • In Xcom2 the player will get a lot of bonuses, without being told so, when playing at low difficulty and only the hardest difficulty actually shows the real chances (ref5).

summary

Games do cheat their players all the time, but it is most often for the sake of the players and their human flaws. These lies are told by the game designers to help the players enjoy the game as it is meant to be and give them the best possible experience. Often the goal is to keep them entertained, but sometimes the goal can be more greedy i.e.. in the case of keeping people spending money on gambling or in F2P games. As with many aspects of design, these tricks can be used both for good and evil, so it’s up to the game designer to realize their power and use their lies ethically.

 
Jannick Hynding Lund
Jannick Hynding Lund

Producer and game designer - Partner at Vizlab Studios

Vizlab Studios Logo