5 Video Game Developer Tricks – Games are clever.

So after my recent post about games being stupid, I found out about a tweet from game design expert and all round clever person Jennifer Scheurle.  She asked developers to share the secret mechanics they’d put in their games to promote a certain feeling or reaction from players.

It turns out that games may be really rather clever thanks to some smart thinking from those smarty pants designers.  From a feeling of intensity to keeping you engaged in a game you may not enjoy, it seems that some game designers have thought of great ways to manipulate the player’s experience from behind the scenes.  Here are just a few of those tricks.

Rubber banding – Racing games

forza horizon 3 beach photo
This is less common in modern racing games, but more arcade style racers often have it.

Let’s start with one that many gamers are aware of.  Rubber banding is a trick used in racing games to ensure the race is somewhat close, regardless of the player skill level.  Should the player get too far ahead, then the AI opponents get a little extra speed and control to keep up and maintain the tension of the race.  On the other hand, should the player fall too far behind, then the reverse happens, giving the player a chance to catch up.  In my opinion this isn’t such a bad thing in most single player racers, but does paint something of a false picture of your own ability level if you choose to take your skills online.

Mario Kart 8 Delux
This THING combined with rubber banding is pure evil.

Now, I haven’t played a Mario Kart game for a long time, but I can imagine that rubber banding + blue shell = utter rage.  Does the AI get to use the blue shell?  If so I can see this being a horrible way to end a race.

You live longer when your health is low – DOOM, amongst others

Doom shotgun
Get shot in the face and somehow survive even longer.

There’s nothing quite like surviving a boss encounter, or wading through a horde of enemies with just the last sliver of health remaining.  “I can’t believe I made it!” you might think.  “How did that last explosion not kill me?!” your brain my cry.  Well there’s a good reason for it in a number of games apparently.  That last little bit of health lasts longer than the rest.  The ones mentioned in the above thread are Assassin’s Creed and DOOM.

Don’t worry about your lack of face, friend.  You’ll live longer with less blood inside you.

As your health drains away, you can suddenly take a few extra hits before finally succumbing to your assailants.  This is to give you that “just made it” feeling of barely making it out alive more regularly than you might by just playing as normal.  A cheap trick perhaps, but one that can certainly make encounter exciting.  Until you know they’re tricking you anyway.

Two Brains – Alien: Isolation

Alien Isolation motion tracker
It won’t find you.  Unless its secret second brain gives you away.

I love this one.  Alien: Isolation was trouser-browningly terrifying at times, with the titular xenomorph liable to appear at the most inopportune moment.  I’ve mentioned before that my wife yelled “OH SH*T!” whilst watching me play this as the alien slithered out of a vent right in front of me.  The xenomorph’s AI was praised in many reviews, for constantly giving you the sense of being hunted, and that the alien was using its senses realistically in an effort to find you.  Imagine my surprise when I found out that the alien has TWO BRAINS!

Alien Isolation
It doesn’t even have eyes! It should be easy to sneak around!

This is an interesting AI trick.  The alien has two brains, one that knows exactly where you are, and one that has no idea.  The first brain gives hints to the second about your location.  This prevents the alien for making a bee-line for you whilst also avoiding it from wandering off aimlessly.  This maintains the tension of being hunted and prevents you from ever feeling truly safe.  The downside is sometimes you can be caught out when you thought you were well hidden.  And occasionally you can be standing out in the open and not be spotted.  Not flawless but still pretty cool.

You get buffs the first time you play online – Gears of War

Gears of War 3
Don’t worry if this is your first time.

Gears of War can be pretty tough in competitive multiplayer.  Take it from me (I’m terrible), it’s quite possible to play a match and get absolutely nothing from it which can be pretty disheartening.  As it happens, the developers found this to be true as well.  According to them, 90% of players would not play online again if they didn’t get any kills in their first game.

Gears of War
Extra buffs for if your buff soldier isn’t buff enough.

To counter this and to try to keep players invested, in your first online game, you get additional health and damage over your more experienced opponents..  This advantage obviously helps you feel successful and to carry on playing.  These bonuses gradually get reduced over time to ease you into the game proper.  A nice idea, but it may suffer from the similar rubber banding issue of expecting to be far more skillful than you are, and getting destroyed once the training wheels are taken off.  On the other hand, the gradually reduction in bonuses may help players get used to the game over time.  Either way, it’s a nice way of keeping weaker players playing.

Coyote Time – Platform games

Mega Man 10
Don’t worry about falling to your death Mega Man.  Wile E. Coyote has got you covered.

An interesting one this, and one I don’t really understand.  This is named for the legendary Wile E. Coyote and his ability to hover in the air before plummeting to his (none) death when running off a cliff.  In many platformers, you can do exactly this.  Your button press for jumping will still work for a split second after running off the edge of a platform, allowing you to jump in mid air to an extent.

Sonic the Hedgehog 2
Go fast without fear of death by gravity.

I wonder if this is related to reaction time added to time taken for the button to be fully pressed.  I can’t really understand why this would exist in most platforming games beyond that, but it’s quite interesting that so many platform games use this, even to this day.

A couple of other ones that I found interesting were in Bioshock and System Shock.  In the former when enemies appear, their first bullet will always miss to give you a chance to react whilst still making the enemies seem like a threat.  In the latter your final bullet in a weapon does double damage to hopefully finish off that enemy you were taking on.  This is somewhat like the “last sliver of health” tweak mentioned earlier.


Do you find any of these particularly interesting?  Better yet, does knowledge of any of these make you view the games or your experiences in a different light?  Let me know!

35 thoughts on “5 Video Game Developer Tricks – Games are clever.

  1. Except the double-brained AI, I’ve known about these tricks for a long time and always treated them as something obvious, just tools of trade used to make games more accessible, less frustrating and, you know, more fun, just as they are supposed to be.
    The trick with making the PC harder to kill when they lose health is particularly interesting because it seems to make games a bit more realistic. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think it’s common for animals and humans to be more deadly in combat after they get injured (apparently, it has something to do with a sudden adrenaline rush). Actually, it’s optional in the Fallout games, as you can pick a perk which gives your stats a bonus after your HP drops low enough.
    Anyway, thanks for an interesting article. Maybe you could write a Part Two somewhen in the future and tell us more about what happens behind the stage :^)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think the 2 brain one is the most interesting of the bunch (although I like the “first shot misses” one too).
      It’s interesting to link the greater survivability approach to realism. I hadn’t considered it in that way!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I suppose it may be down to not wanted to show people too much as it will taint the feeling you’re trying to get across. Knowing that you just made it out of an encounter alive was due to the game being designed that way rather than your skill takes away some of the charm.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. these are neat, while some i’m more familiar with like the last sliver of health or racing rubber bands, learning about the xenomorph having 2 brains it quite crazy. I could only imagine the thought process in coding that AI. Must’ve been quite a journey.

    I think in response to that tweet by Jennifer, she stated that Hellblade by Ninja Theory informs you of a permadeath, but in reality, the game doesn’t enforce it. Pretty crazy, because it’s not really a mechanic per say, but it ends up being just a big mind game between the player and the game. I can count the many times in my play through where I’d panick after dying and having to take on a tough boss again.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I don’t think it was based on other sites also posting about it being false. It was just the games way of messing with you. Pretty cool considering your characters perception of the world and just being confused and doubtful of everything.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post! Very well-thought out! I think what annoys me most is actually the online buffs and to another extent, all the goodies and fast-level-ups you get in free-to-play games. I know I suddenly jumped genres, but I think it’s sneaky how fast developers can hook you in a free-to-play game by providing so many incentives and making it seem so easy to get through the game without paying. Then when progress slows to a crawl, it becomes clear that the only way you’ll win is by paying. And I think it’s easy for many people to fall into that trap and justify their purchase by saying it’s only a buck or two. It adds up, though. I realize this is moot since it’s a free-to-play game so the company has to make their money somehow. But it does so in such a psychological somewhat underhanded manner. I much prefer paying upfront for a game for that reason. Oh yeah, and rubber banding sucks. The worst offender besides Mario Kart is that silly race against Boggy in Banjo-Kazooie. You either feel really bad or really good, and then bam, surprise win/loss.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Psychological manipulation happens a lot in free to play games doesn’t it! Even in fully priced ones now thanks to loot boxes and the ability to skip the “grind” for a price. You look at indie games that manage to make their money by virtue of having a good game, then you see publishers who make money from the game then have to make more because they can.

      Sorry, that turned into a bit of a rant!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. The two-brained aliens thing is actually really neat. I can imagine that type of thing being forwardly implemented in a horror game where you know that there’s a switch inside of an enemy that can be turned on at any time when they’d switch to the “can see you” brain.

    I will add to the chorus of grumbles over the blue shell. What a cheap way to win!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re absolutely right. It should get a fancier name like “The Shell of Spite” or something along those lines. I personally enjoy becoming a giant bullet and destroying everyone on the way to first.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. These were so interesting to read! I was pretty aware of the rubber-banding, and don’t even get me started on that blue shell! UGH! Some of that other stuff is pretty sneaky, though- like winning with only a sliver of health left! Damn, I thought I was just really good! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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