Game Developers Explain Some Of Their Favorite Ways To Trick The Player

Illustration for article titled Game Developers Explain Some Of Their Favorite Ways To Trick The Player

Games lie to us all the time. Recently, some developers took to Twitter to share a few of their ones, revealing design tricks used in games ranging from Surgeon Simulator to Bioshock.


In the latter, for instance, the first bullets fired at you by enemies always missed. You might have thought you were just an ace at dodging machine gun fire, but really the designers were giving you a head start because, let’s be honest, getting nailed from behind by an enemy off screen is never fun. To this point, Bioshock 2 director Jordan Thomas said that the series’ Big Daddies move slower when you aren’t facing them to prevent players from dying in utter confusion as to where that giant drill arm came from.

The thread came about when Jennifer Scheurle, the design lead on Opaque Space’s Earthlight, called on other developers to share examples of the small ways they tried to manipulate players’ perceptions, citing the way Assassin’s Creed and Doom make your last shred of life slightly more durable than it should be in order to keep things tense without triggering defeat.

The instances designers came back with varied from small things like how bullets in the Serious Sam games favor hitting enemies over objects in the environment to how the dog in Fable 2 will respawn off-screen running towards you if it ever gets left too far behind or trapped in some weird pathing maze.


In Shadow of Mordor, designer Rick Lesley said he started out adding health back to Uruks during duels in order to try and make the fights last longer. Since a well timed combo from the player could end things in a few seconds, Lesley wanted some way of prolong the tension and make the duels feel more epic.


Of course, a trick like that that’s transparent to the player understandably might make people feel cheated, so for the final game the Shadow of Mordor team decided to stick with less intrusive fixes like adding intros and giving the fights cinematic flourishes.

Games are in many ways elaborate illusions, and like any good magic trick, revealing the secret rarely makes it better. After all, who wants to play through their favorite game like Neo from the Matrix, seeing the world broken down into purely mechanical terms where nothing’s surprising or special?


One of the things that kicked Scheurle’s inquiry off (which she’s subsequently incorporated into a developer talk she’ll deliver later this week) was Hellblade’s in-game declaration that dying too many times will erase the player’s save data. This turned out not to be true, leading some to call it a lie or hoax. But Scheurle’s point was that every game tries to play with people’s expectations and instincts in order to shape a more interesting and fulfilling game experience.


And in Hellblade the threat of permadeath does just that, making otherwise not super difficult fights into an anxious struggle for survival. Even after dying several times, I was always worried that the next one would be my final undoing, helping to replace my frustration over failing to progress with a sense of drama and suspense.

Kotaku staff writer. You can reach him at



Here’s some more from the reddit thread.

  • In System Shock and other shooters, the last bullet you have has multiplied damage.
  • Enemies in Bioshock will deliberately miss their first shot to give the players a chance to dodge.
  • Many platformers (I think Braid was one quoted) have a window where even if you fall off of a ledge, you can still jump.
  • Assassin’s Creed and Doom have more health associated with the last tick of the health bar, to make you feel like you barely survived.
  • Shadow of Mordor grants additional health to dueling Uruks to increase the length of the fight for the sake of spectacle.
  • Silent Hill: Shattered Memories removed one physical sense of an AI every time you respawned in a nightmare run, slowed down enemies if you looked over the shoulder, and only tow enemies were allowed to chase you at once while the rest had to flank you.
  • Thumper’s time signature corresponds to the numerical value of a level
  • Suikoden spawns less enemies in the world map if they’re walking in a straight line while spawning more if you zigzag (the former is good for getting to a place quickly and the latter is for grinding)
  • Gears of War provided significant buffs to new players in multiplayer that tapered off with a few kills (to encourage them to replace multiplayer).
  • Half Life 2 has ledges and railings set as ragdoll magnets to enemies will fall over them more often.
  • Ratchet and Clank scaled enemy damage and hid enemies based on time played and total deaths of the player.
  • Jak and Daxter would trip players to mask the presence of loading
  • The Bureau/XCOM, enemy AI gets more aggressive if the players don’t move every 15-20 seconds
  • In Thief: The Dark Project, your sword increases your visibility, meaning you need to choose better stealth or better preparation for being caught.
  • F.E.A.R bent bullets towards things that exploded
  • Enemies in some LEGO games have a hit or miss chance. If a projectile misses, it’s offset and has no collision. This is done to make fights more hectic.
  • Alien:Isolation has the Xenomorph learn player habits (if the player hides in lockers a lot, it learns that)
  • The Xenomorph has 2 brains - one that will always know where you are, and one that controls the body and is given hints by the first brain.
  • Far Cry 4 reduces the damage and accuracy of NPCs based on how many are near a player.
  • Enemies in Left 4 Dead deliberatly target players the furthest away from the group or have had the least aggro.
  • Hi Octane displays different stats for different cars even though they all have the same internal stats.
  • Enemies in Arkham Asylum do not perform 180 degree turns so the player can be stealthy.
  • Elizabeth in Bioshock: Infinite throws resource to the player based on the player’s current state.
  • The last phase of a boss fight in Furi has a lower difficulty and is more visually impressive
  • Guitar Hero rates you out of 5 stars, but won’t give you lower than a 3.
  • Enter the Gungeon has the AI warm up. The longer a play session is, the harder the AI gets.
  • Good PC shooters mimic analogue controls as follows: holding movement key during a frame=1, pressing or releasing=0.5, pressing and releasing during same frame=0.25 1/2
  • Counters to your current class in Overwatch sound louder.
  • Spec Ops: The Line changed stuff in the environment suddenly to make the player question his perception.
  • Firewatch counts silence as a player choice in dialogue conversations