How video game designers use trickery to make sure you have more fun

January 1, 2018

Game designers are magicians in their own way. The tools may be different, but the goals are the same: to provide a sense of wonder and excitement that transcends mundane reality. And like magicians, the ways game designers achieve this effect often involves lying right to your face.

Video games are filled with numbers, stats, meters, and gauges, and players interact with them by moving characters through digital worlds, clicking on boxes, defeating enemies, managing resources and so on. Through these mechanics, games build an implicit dialog of trust with the player over time: “These numbers I’m showing you are true,” the game says, “and you can rely on them to make your way through my challenges.” The secret, however, is that many times what the game tells you is a complete fabrication.

Many examples of the deception players experience right under their noses were exposed when Jennifer Scheurle, lead designer of virtual reality game Earthlight at Opaque Space, tweeted out an open-ended question asking developers to reveal the hidden mechanics behind some of the best moments in games. She received a flood of responses, each one revealing how designers lie to or omit information from the player in order to manipulate their emotions.

Like how Doom messes with your perception of health to make you feel like you survived harrowing encounters by the skin of your teeth:

Or how Half-life 2 makes sure something cool happens as often as possible whenever bullets miss you:

Or how initial surprise attacks in Bioshock aren’t deadly at all:

These are just a few choice examples of the many found in that treasure trove of a Twitter thread, but there’s one constant found in all of them, regardless of game or genre: none of the tricks developers use are meant to punish the player or make them feel like a loser. In fact, many are there to provide the illusion that the player is on the precipice of failure while actually giving them a leg-up on the competition.

One of the most important tools a game designer has is the ability to play with perception. Through visual tricks, audio cues, interface tweaks, along with the code running under the hood, designers can create the illusion that a player is in complete control—or make them feel like they have no control at all. Game designers can even mess with numbers in a way that makes players feel luckier than they actually are.

For instance, a game called Peggle requires players to drop balls down a series of complex grids in an attempt to hit and remove each stage’s orange-colored pegs. As the balls fall, they bounce and react according to angles and physics. Except… they don’t—at least, not all the time. According to statement made by Peggle designer Jason Kapalka in an article on Nautilus, “the seemingly random bouncing of the balls off of pegs is sometimes manipulated to give the player better results,” especially in the early stages. Adhering to proper physics may be realistic, but it can be discouraging to people who are just starting to learn the ropes. Tweaking the player’s ‘luck’ ensures that they’ll keep going.

Similar decisions were made in the strategy game Civilization to keep players from getting frustrated. Using actual probability sounds like the right thing to do, but it upsets players when real-world math doesn’t line up with how their brains perceive that math should play out. For example, if Civilization players were told they’d win a particular battle 33% of the time, they’d get frustrated if they tried it three times and never won. So designer Sid Meier opted to go with perception of how the statistics would play out over the reality; according to the article, “if your odds of winning a battle were one in three, the game guaranteed that you’d win on the third attempt.”

Game designers exploit luck not to defeat players, but rather to make them feel good about playing their games. In a sense, these not-so-random numbers actually appear more fair than true randomness, and seasoned developers know when and how to fudge the numbers for a more fun experience.

Because that’s what the end result of all of this deception really is: fun. People come to games to be challenged, yes, but to also experience emotional highs and lows, along with the narrative provided by the story and moment-to-moment gameplay. And like a magician faking out a hapless volunteer with a rubber knife, game designers lie and cheat to surprise, delight, and above all, keep us glued to the edge of our seats.