Sunday, 14 September 2014

Cheaters never prosper, except when they do.

I'd like to start this post with a quote from my youth;

"Up, Down, Left, Right then hold A, B and C whilst pressing start" - Sonic The Hedgehog (1991).

I've been thinking a lot about cheating lately, especially as I am a videogame cheater in “almost” every sense of the word. I hope you will take a few minutes to understand my motivations before condemning me to the pit of gaming despair that houses an 8-bit Judas Iscariot and Denis Dyak.

For years I've been trying to get my significant other to game with me, I'm primarily a single player gamer and grew up with no siblings, so I can't think of anyone better I'd want as my Player 2. She's no real gamer but I've had a few successes over the years. I managed to get her to Play Final Fantasy VII to the end, some World of Warcraft for a while and even got her playing as Shiva in Resident Evil 5 (which means I had a better experience in that game than most of you). So with my initial underwhelming experience with Borderlands 2, I grudgingly accepted her request after I had just completed it, to "have a go" because she liked "the funny little robot".

This turned to be one of our most successful games. Spending night after night coming home from work and playing through the whole game together was a joy, then the 2nd play-through to increase our levels, then all of the DLC, and we even maxed out our levels again after the Level Cap boosts. So, what does this have to do with cheating? Both of us going back to the original Borderlands, that's what.

As you may know from some of my recent posts, I now game on Steam as my platform of choice, so when my wife recently asked me if there was any more Borderlands I suggested we go back and do the original. I decided we would play through it on Steam. It meant we could have our own screens as opposed to the split-screen we were locked to previously.

I also managed to easily transfer my Xbox Borderlands saves to the Steam version too, and it was at this point, I became a dirty stinking cheater in The Borderlands!

Technically, just moving my save from one platform to another was cheating, and more-so in that, one of applications which allowed me to do this was a save-game file editor called WillowTree. The functionality I wanted was purely to load an Xbox format save file and save it as a PC style save. (There are numerous guides online if you want to do this). But as I looked into the software, I noticed I could actually edit my save in great depth. I could change what weapons or equipment I owned, what level my character was, how much money I had, the number of skill points I had and more. And because this was purely a case of changing numerical values in some cases I was able to go above and beyond what the game even allowed, and I could extend my attributes beyond this virtual world’s restrictions. I could easily create a new character at level 1 and have the best weapons, all my skills mastered and more money than I could ever need! Having already completed the original Borderlands several times already I wasn't super excited to go through it again, but wanted to just so that I could play with my wife (oh, ha ha). I and now had a greater reason to go back to it.

By cheating I had now given myself more than I had access to in the game before and I actually wanted to play it again.

So, before I was ready to jump into the game with my wife, I figured I'd try some stuff out, as I know from several tweaks before, you can easily break a game. So I did exactly what I said above, I turned everything up to 11! I went online to search for what the best guns and equipment would be and injected them into my game. I maxed out all my skills, I added more money than I had sense (literally, why do I need money if I already had the stuff it would buy?). But I left my level at 1 so I could see “some” progression.

And let me tell you, I owned in The Borderlands, My gun could one-hit-kill the baddest of bosses in the game. My Action Skill (Bloodwing, a Friendly NPC pet I could get to maim my foes) did most of the work, so all I ever needed to do was wander from quest to quest, getting my experience and levelling up. I played for 2-3 hours and I was slowly realizing that despite my incredible power, I was bored.

And then it happened. I teleported to an area from one of the DLC packs and it must have triggered something inside the games code to refresh my achievements, because I unlocked one, then immediately another, then 5 more then 20! Even though I didn't actually earn them! That upset me.

So it just goes to show Stan Lee (not Uncle Ben) was right.

Achievements matter to me, I don't care about comparing them but I like them because gaming is my thing and I'm quite a nostalgic person. I like that they point me towards doing things that I may never have even known was doable (thanks Fallout 3 Achievements). I also like to have something where I can look back and remember, “hey yeah. I did that”. But here, I've earned the achievements illicitly, if I allow this it means that my personal gaming history is tainted and I can't trust it.

When I'm old and senile and these are my only links to the past, I need to trust them. So now I have to complete the actual achievement or I will be a grumpy old man (because that isn’t inevitable anyway).

So, by cheating, even for a “good” reason, I removed all the game part of the game. Why was I earning money if I couldn't spend it, why was I levelling if my experience points gifted me with naught, and why even bother questing if all I got was experience I couldn’t use, or equipment I didn't need? Yeah, the dialogue in Borderlands is class, but I'd done it already, several times over. The fun part of the game was in fact the grind and the hunt, yet I had taken it all away. On top of all that I actually almost ruined my own gaming experience across the whole Steam platform. Imagine if (like some compulsive cheaters do) I'd started the game for the first time with these cheats on!

I still saw the value in cheating, because, as I said, I had played this before and I did want to get more out of it than I had previously.

So I started looking for those uncrossable lines in the game, the parts where I had felt limited in my first play-through and then gifted myself the difference. For example; in borderlands you get a skill point after each level (from level 5 onwards), which you can delegate amongst branches in your chosen class's skill tree. But even with the DLC which added several levels you can never max out all abilities, in fact you’re a good 1/5th off. So I gave myself the extra 27 points, meaning that I still needed to work towards full completion. I gave myself a few $k in money in order to get some starter guns and as I level up I improve the guns I enjoy playing with so I can keep them with me. After dong this and starting to play the game with my wife I'm loving it game like I never had before, it's became new again.

It's clear to me that cheating should only really be done at that point where you are done with the game, the point where you have no intention to get any further value from the base product. At that clear point where you say to yourself, "I have totally completed this game" but I want more freedom to have a go at the bits I missed out on. Personally, being quite techy, I just liked seeing what could be done within the engine, and having played the game to a ridiculous amount, I felt I had truly earned the right to mess about with it.

And with that in mind, I came to the conclusion that these kinds of tweaks really should be available en masse and as standard in pretty much all games. I haven't seen a good implementation of unlockable cheats since Goldeneye. Halo had similar unlockables to Goldeneye, like Big-Head mode et cetera but it didn't really feel like it was that much fun. The GTA Series has had a good attempt with a myriad of available cheats, but that was more cheat code style than something you earned and could easily pick from a list.

I think what I'd really like to see are cheats where the game testers are sat around a table towards the end of the development cycle just brain-dumping all of their “I wishes” for the developers to then implement into a nice menu of unlockable extras. Perhaps it's because this would need to be so late in the development cycle and with so many current games seemingly rushed to market, these ideas get left on the cutting room floor. Or perhaps it's just that games like Borderlands (and other loot collector games) work because of the mechanic and that getting to a point where you could just unlock everything would break the mechanics for other players. Also, how would the developers know where to put this point of total freedom? It really needs to be at the point where the majority of players get bored. For me that was after fully levelling up one character but some just play the story once over, some play for an hour and some people are still playing the game now trying to get that level 69 ultra-rare weapon.

Perhaps the current method is the best way. Let people cheat by having to modify the code and on their heads be the repercussions of these actions. I believe cheats should always be allowed to a degree, but never at the expense of tainting another player’s experience. Because of this, I understand the requirement to ban cheaters too, but I would like to see the developers showing enough care to make it clear what will cause a ban and to what degree. Developers should perhaps offer a method of redemption for those who want to have a go with cheats (for example, by just making a play area for cheaters) because, let’s be fair, some intended cheats may even create modes which some players find more enjoyable than the default set.  Some of the best games today started as modifications of others, and I'll be willing to bet that the devs who made them started by wondering what would happen if they changed a single value to affect only one attribute.


Cheats used to be so commonplace that Konami had a default code for pretty much all of their games. It was so popular it was even used in several non-Konami games and can be used today on numerous websites. But it was a different time back then. Back then cheats had more of a place than they have today because you couldn’t save and come back later. If you didn’t have the skill or time, the only way you could see some of a game was with a cheat code. Imagine spending your hard earned cash on a product where you could only ever see the first three levels! Cheats added necessary value for most consumers.

In today's games, cheats add very little value to a product. I've heard that less than 20% of the people who buy a game actually complete it. So unlockable cheats would really only benefit a dedicated portion of those 20%. With the cost of adding these things vs the potential return you get for it as a development studio, you are catering for a niche of a niche. Is it worth it? No. But I suppose by that logic, why even bother making the final level of all games? You could just leave that out and still please 80% of your audience, so that'll work out just fine won't it?

Because most modern games don’t have cheats built-in, we need to actually modify the games’ code in order to get the specific benefits and tailor the experience to how we would as individuals prefer it.
Cheats have value, but they must be carefully controlled because you can damage an experience by having too much freedom. Without having optional access to total freedom we stifle creativity and work to prevent the next generation from creating such compelling games as we have now. As we head towards the Oculus Rift taking over the world and graphics being almost able to simulate reality we are need to encourage creativity. Else we risk heading into a world where VR just becomes a second-life. Imagine coming home from you day job to carry out virtual tasks in a realistic looking farm so you can grow carrots and sell them for virtual currency.
   
What do you think? Is cheating Ok or is it pure evil? What about rodeo of digital content we are riding? What about the ways developers are finding creative methods of dealing with it? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.



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