James Wallis levels with you

Things not to do in game design #2: cheat

 Yeah, I’ve been playing Puzzle Quest.

The thing is, any single-player videogame actually has two roles. Firstly it provides the player with the context of the game: the setting and set-up. Secondly it provides the player with their opponents. And you, the player, automatically assume that it, the computer/game, is keeping those two things separate. You assume it’s not manipulating the play-space to the advantage of the NPCs you’re competing against. You assume it’s playing fair.

To use a tabletop RPG metaphor, it’s as if the player-characters are facing off against a badass badguy, and in the real world the players are watching as the GM keeps rolling his dice behind his screen and announcing that every single attack’s a critical hit for max damage. The GM can’t do that. The players trust him to play by the same rules he enforces for them. If he breaks that trust he has broken the game, the suspension of disbelief and everything else that makes the RPG experience work.

The difference between that and a video game is the same as the reason why so many businesses make their clients deal with technology rather than people: you can’t argue with a machine, you can only accept its terms or abandon the transaction. (Or hack it, but that’s a whole other nest of worms.) So when a game cheats, or rather when a player perceives that a game is cheating whether it’s actually cheating or not, there’s no way the game—or its designer—can ever win the player back 100%.

Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords (Infinite Interactive, 2007) is a work of genius: a fantasy RPG that uses a slightly modified version of Bejeweled (Popcap, 2001) for combat, spellcasting, gaining experience, item crafting and magic research. Admittedly it’s a work of genius largely borrowed from Puzzle Pirates (Three Rings Design, 2001-2007), which uses modded versions of Bejeweled and other recent arcade classics (Bust a Move, Tetris, etc.) for most of its in-game skill-based tasks, but PQ has one crucial difference: it’s this year’s gaming crack. Removing the twitch aspect of Bejeweled and turning it into a two-player strategy game where the colours of the pieces matter is a jump comparable to the difference between draughts and chess. There are reports of it causing the Tetris Effect in players. It is fantastically good.

I believe it cheats.

I believe it cheats in three different ways. Firstly, I believe the game gives itself better ‘drops’ and more  conveniently timed extra moves than it gives the player. I cannot prove this. Secondly, the captions it flashes up, particularly to announce 4-of-a-kind and 5-of-a-kind lines and their respective rewards, obscure a large section of the play-board. In modes with short time-limits per move (3 seconds, say), this means that the human player cannot see a quarter of the board for a decent portion of their move. However, the computer player can see the board obscured by the caption, and will play on as if it wasn’t there. Thirdly, the magic-resistance percentages are mis-stated. Adversaries with a stated 20% resistance should not be able to turn away a spell 60-70% of the time, but they do.

(I do realise that this is gibberish if you haven’t played the game, and I apologise. Bear with me.)

Point 2 above, may not technically be cheating but it definitely unbalances the play-experience. Admittedly battling against superior opponents is part of what good games are all about, but this doesn’t feel like that, it feels like shoddy design and it is frustrating as hell. Points 1 and 3—I have no idea if the game is actually cheating by design, or whether it’s buggy in a way that favours the AI, or whether I am developing a persecution complex. But I know I’m not alone, to the extent that the game’s programmer has had to issue a public statement saying that no, the AI doesn’t cheat, it’s too stupid to do that.

(I’m just speculating, but… Maybe the opponent AI doesn’t cheat but the world AI, the one that generates the ‘random’ drops, does. If you read Steve Fawkner‘s post above, is it me or is that weasel-wording in there?)

Partly it’s a fault with the way the game is coded. The AI player’s moves, particularly its combo moves, are executed so quickly—and sometimes behind a huge caption—that it’s impossible to tell if they’re valid or not. On the spell-research screen, where the player must rack up a certain number of points before running out of moves, if you lose then the game will just announce that you have no more moves and wipe the board before you can examine it to see yeah, okay, I screwed up. I wittered on about “show, don’t tell” in my big post on story in interactive media a while back. That applies here. Don’t tell us we screwed up, let us see it for ourselves, or we may not believe you.

Puzzle Quest makes it easy for a player to think it might be cheating, because its use of the play-area is not transparent. There are many ways it could have overcome this, but it didn’t. And while that hasn’t stopped me playing the game, it has made me respect it a lot less.

Two points, then:

  • Cheating should never be a substitute for good computer AI. And:
  • If your players think your game is cheating, you did something very wrong.

Coming next: when cheating is good. Coming eventually: that long-promised post on ambient games.

Categorised as: game design


  1. […] COPE: James Wallis levels with you » Things not to do in game design #2 Please read this. James is doing some excellent games writing – and I really do mean excellent – and people really need to understand the genius of Puzzle Quest and the importance of cheating/appearing not to cheat in heuristics (tags: gaming jameswallis puzzlequest heuristics ai cheating player singleplayer) […]

  2. tom says:

    I’m loving PQ, despite the “cheating” (or lack of it). The “4 OF A KIND” dialogue pisses me off more.

    When cheating is good: please talk about rubber-band AI in driving games. If you don’t, I’ll comment. It’s why Mario Kart/Daytona/Ridge/Burnout are fun.

  3. […] (This post is a follow-up to “Things not to do in game design #2: cheat“) […]

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