Cheat Codes

By Shamus Posted Monday Feb 12, 2007

Filed under: Game Design 26 comments

Here is something that I’ve noticed:

The availability of useful cheat codes in any given game is inversely proportional to the likelihood that you will need them.

A game which has clear objectives and allows the player to explore the gameworld freely and save anytime they like is going to have lots of cheat codes. These cheat codes range from bestowing a preposterously large arsenal to the simple yet effective “god mode” – the videogame trump card which renders all enemy arguments mute.

A game that gives you vague objectives that can only be fully understood by making repeated attempts, which makes the player race against the clock, or which forbids saving except at select intervals, this will have no cheats to aid the player in overcoming or bypassing the inherent frustrations of the game. If there are cheat codes, they will be for things like giving your character a humorously large head, or making them wear a funny hat.

I don’t know why this is. The more DIAS the game is, the more likely that there will be no cheat codes. Console games are by far the worst offenders, although guilty parties can be found on both sides of the PC / Console divide. I’ve played many games which were brutal, unforgiving, and which offered the frustrated player no recourse but to surrender hours of their time playing the same scene over and over again until they meet with the game’s exacting standards. They can either slave away in this state of non-entertainment, or they can give up and leave the remainder of the game unplayed.

The ESRB is so eager to let me know if the game will torment my ears with bad words, or if my eyes might be scalded by the sight of boobies, but they never tell me what I really want to know: They never warn me that I need to pick up an extra controller or mouse while I’m buying the game, to replace the one I’m inevitably going to smash.

ESRB Timesink warning label.


From The Archives:

26 thoughts on “Cheat Codes

  1. Skeeve the Impossible says:

    or if my eyes might be scalded by the sight of boobies
    very few games even have boobies. But why would you refer to such a wonderful thing in such a derogatory manner.
    This makes me wonder why I was the butt of all the gay jokes in D&D

  2. Teague says:

    The first really bad case of this I remember was with the first X-wing game. The game was a series of missions linked by a story, but the story couldn’t progress unless you completed each mission with certain minimum criteria (beyond, you know, living through them). This was rendered more frustrating by me having previously played the first Wing Commander game, which had diverging storylines and appropriate missions based on how you fared.

  3. Phlux says:

    Teague: Funny you mention it. I was just thinking the same thing, and a few days ago I reloaded my copy of X-Wing Alliance to try out the game with all the new graphical enhancements being done by the team. It’s pretty neat playing a star wars flight sim with high-poly ships for the first time (battlefront 2 doesn’t count as a flight sim in my opinion)

    In that game you have a mix of family missions and rebel alliance missions. I was stuck and had to repeat the first rebel alliance mission about 15 times, because XWA has this absurd fetish with throwing the most difficult part of a long mission at the VERY END when you’re out of ordnance and low on shield and laser power. In this particular mission you have to do something very mundane like blow up a few containers for practice, then go to another area, blow up a ship that doesn’t fire back at you, and then go to ANOTHER area and attack a large capital ship that shoots down all your torpedos if you fire from a distance and launches fighters to kill you.

    Oh and you get to fly this whole mission in a Y-Wing…so that makes it extra not fun.

  4. Hal says:

    This is why I still get PC Gamer. Helps me to know whether a game will be impossible to play before I shell out the cash on it. I don’t care to invest in other gaming magazines, but usually the online reviews are sufficient to flesh that out, too.

  5. Deoxy says:

    “or if my eyes might be scalded by the sight of boobies”

    Skeve, that’s known as “sarcasm”. He’s making fun of the ratings people (and prudes in general).

    And, despite being a bit of a prude myself, it was quite a funny turn of phrase. yoink.

    And the original topic is dead to rights, too. Fortunately, on the PC side of the house, EVERY game has cheats… it’s just that sometimes, they go by the name “hex editor” or “memory editor” instead of “cheat codes”. :-)

  6. Shamus says:

    Deoxy: Skeeve was actually throwing my sarcasm back at me. Skeeve is my brother in the real, actual, true-world life.

    The gay jokes thing is pretty much par for the course for us, and is more or less where this DM of the Rings came from.

    And yeah: Nothing can stop the HEX editor. It’s a sad thing for a game when deciphering and editing the save game files is easier and more fun than playing the game itself.

  7. Shamus says:

    Hal: Yes, PC Gamer is helpful, although I find I need to calibrate their reviews. Those guys play games all stinking day, so if one of them mentions in passing that a game “gets a little tough in spots” I read it as “this game has insurmountable challenges which will test the durability of both your sanity and keyboard.”

  8. Bogan the Mighty says:

    Oh and don’t forget the likes of Grand Theft Auto. It does have plenty of cheats available. I don’t think it has a god mode, but it does let you replenish your life which is the only useful and for missions even that isn’t going to always be helpful. Usually its only helpful on the ones that you don’t need help with. Other than that its a bunch of codes that allow you to cause as much mayhem as possible although that is the only enjoyment for short periods at a time I find those games.

  9. Shamus says:

    The cheat code I’ve always needed in GTA: GIVE ME MORE TIME!

  10. Telas says:

    So did anyone else use Gatekeeper to make sure their Baldur’s Gate characters had just the right proficiencies at just the right time?

    You know a game’s frustrating when someone writes an editor for it.

  11. Ryan says:

    The availability of useful cheat codes in any given game is inversely proportional to the likelihood that you will need them.

    A game which has clear objectives and allows the player to explore the gameworld freely and save anytime they like is going to have lots of cheat codes. These cheat codes range from bestowing a preposterously large arsenal to the simple yet effective “god mode” – the videogame trump card which renders all enemy arguments mute.

    I work in user experience for a major software company, and I have noticed this exact same thing. It comes down, basically, to the usability of the product. Sadly, most game development companies don’t put many resources into that. And most games aren’t *bad*, they just aren’t *great*. Certainly not as great as they could be.

  12. Thad says:

    Actually, Shamus, I think you hit the point with your last comment. In those DIAS games you need more time, but there isn’t a cheat code that can give this, thus no cheat codes for that game.

    (A game hack on the other hand…)

    Not that I’ve played a huge number of games, but the only game I can think of with a time cheat was Prince of Persia, in which you could add or lose time at the press of a button. And considering that the game scoring was based on how much time you had left, getting a high score was simply a matter of skipping to the last level and then holding the add time button for a long time…

  13. Rich says:

    “the videogame trump card which renders all enemy arguments mute.”

    That’s moot. Sorry, I can’t help it.

  14. Shamus says:

    I think mute is perfectly reasonable to use in this context. Arguments can be moot or mute(d). It is not that their arguments (attacks) are no longer relevant, it’s that I no longer hear them. (Take damage.)

  15. Deoxy says:

    Mute can be used in place of moot in some places; this happens to be one of them. Whether Shamus intended that or was just lucky… :-)

    “It's a sad thing for a game when deciphering and editing the save game files is easier and more fun than playing the game itself.”

    Or a sad statement about a person. MoO 2 is pretty much my favorite game EVAR, and I eventually spent some time cracking the saves on that, just for the fun of it…

    (Just for the record, you can edit the skills of the leaders in the game… modding you first leader to give you ALL the best stuff at the highest possible level makes “impossible” into “easy”. Don’t know how I would know that…)

  16. Dave says:

    Another example: I recently played the game “Darkstar One”, which is a pretty average space sim ala Freelancer. I didn’t have any real problem with the game _except_ two missions which you had to do to complete the plot involving shooting down enemy ships with a turret. These were INSANELY difficult. When looking for the cheat codes to help me with these, I discovered that several people were actually offering to play through your turret missions for you, if you mailed them your saves. Think that might be a sign you made the missions too hard?

  17. Andre says:

    I don’t know where else to mention this, but it’s been bugging me for a while. The IMVU ads on your sidebar feature CG pictures of scantily-clad girls that all look dangerously young. And it’s weirding me out to no end.

  18. Richard says:

    I think of this as the “boss monster” problem. The game leads you on with doable, fun missions and levels. Then when you’re about to experience the magnificent conclusion, it throws an enemy at you that’s 10x harder than anything you’ve faced before. That’s when I reach for the cheat codes.

    I have stacks of games that I’ve played all the way through except for the last bit. Some day I hope to find out how they end.

    I do have a counterexample to your rule, though: Martian Gothic. It’s a horror adventure game, quite nifty actually, but it has all the awfulness you mention: limited save points, strictly limited ammo, timed action sequences, and puzzles where you have to think hard while some zombie is clawing your eyeballs out. But it DOES have cheat codes! My wife and I played it through with infinite ammo, unlimited saves, and zombie immunity in some tough spots, and it was fun.

  19. jojo says:

    ummmmmmm i like boobs and sex

  20. bret123 says:

    i wont 6,000 cres

  21. dyrnwyn says:

    I love cheat codes and less games have them now then ever before my favorite codes are the ones that do something completely pointless but really funny the very best are the ones that are extremely funny and useful unfortunately now the only way to acheive things as funny as that is to hack it
    I saw a movie of LoZ Twilight Princess and they used a action replay to replace all the grass bunches in the game with Ganondorf I didn’t stop laughing for an hour.

  22. Richard Smith says:

    I remember playing Bard’s Tale on the Apple ][e, getting frustrated/bored, and deciphering the game save data, then maxing out my character. I imagined him dispatching rooms full of enemies with disdainful flicks of a finger.

    I’ve still got a few original Playstation games I want to finish, and I’ve got an original Playstation to play them on when I get around to it, complete with the parallel port in the back, and the hardware-only Gameshark to plug in there. I enjoy games like the Insomniac-era Spyro, for the most part, but some of the sub-games, particularly of the timed fly-through-the-rings sort, not so much. I liked being able to sift through the game’s memory to find the memory address used for the timer, then freeze it.

    I don’t like the trend that seemed to start with the original Xbox, where the memory is inviolable, so the best the cheatware companies can come up with is maxed-out game saves, which don’t help much against issues like timers or life counters. Hey, I paid for the game, so why can’t I cheapen the experience however I want to?

  23. NBSRDan says:

    I’ve noticed this phenomenon as well, and there are actually two explanations, not mutually exclusive, relating to designer mentality.
    Cheat codes are a good thing – They eliminate brick-wall difficulty by allowing the player to effectively skip hard segments, they make games accessible to casual and non-gamers when a balance is struck between “big head mode” and “god mode”, and they increase replay value via novelty.
    Vague objectives in a linear game, trial and error, and harsh punishment for failure are all general examples of bad game design. The kind of designer who is stupid enough to design a game this way is also too stupid to realize these problems and compensate after-the-fact with cheat codes.
    The other type of game with this problem – the generally nail-biting difficult game – has quite an intentional designer detriment. “Hardcore” designers often have a mentality along the lines of “play the game MY way or you’re a pathetic noob who doesn’t deserve to play.” These games go to great lengths to ensure that the only way to complete the game is the one exact way the designer intended, because that’s the “true” way to play.
    In both of cases, the designer is of course failing to take into account that the only reason you would want to use cheat codes is because you, the customer, are not enjoying the game.

  24. Sarah Miller says:

    Games with ingame consoles are great: there’s the chance that at least some of the commands available can be used to mess with the gamestate.

    Games with moddability in mind are also great: besides being able to take a look ‘behind the scenes’ or actually make a mod, you’re able to tweak many gameplay aspects to your liking.

    Depending on the kind of cheat code, they can even add replay value: being able to try out how level N plays with all weapons or taking a look at the scenery without worrying about thoose pesky enemies interrupting you would be impossible without cheat codes.

    That being said, after playing a game the way it was intented, I always look for ways to break it… be it by climbing around on scenery, doing objectives in the wrong order or searching alternative solutions to puzzles and obstacles.

  25. Roxor says:

    One question this article raises: Why would you NOT include cheats when they could be useful for debugging or testing the game?

    Take Commander Keen 4-6 or Wolfenstein 3D as a couple of examples (old ones, I know, but they’re what I grew up on). They’ve got buckets of cheat codes, most of which were clearly intended for use by the developers when debugging the game. Heck, most of them are specifically called “Debug Keys” and need to be enabled via a command-line parameter and/or key combination (A-2-Enter for Keen 4-5, can’t remember Wolfenstein’s one).

    I suspect they get commented out (or more likely #ifdef-ed out) when compiling for the release. Leave the debug keys in your game. Players love playing around with them. Including ones which can make things easier when they’re stuck will leave you with much better press from them, too.

  26. Aeshdan says:

    Makes sense to me. The DIAS-type games are designed to appeal to challenge seekers, the kind of gamers who enjoy the thrill of defeating an incredibly hard challenge and flawlessly executing a difficult combination of moves. To provide cheat codes for these kinds of games would undermine their primary selling point. More exploration-based games, on the other hand, attract gamers by the beauty of their art or the intricacy of their worlds or the structure of their plots or the surprise of their mysteries, not by the difficulty of their challenges. Giving out cheat codes for these games lets gamers skip the challenge to get to the things they bought the game for in the first place.

Thanks for joining the discussion. Be nice, don't post angry, and enjoy yourself. This is supposed to be fun. Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked*

You can enclose spoilers in <strike> tags like so:
<strike>Darth Vader is Luke's father!</strike>

You can make things italics like this:
Can you imagine having Darth Vader as your <i>father</i>?

You can make things bold like this:
I'm <b>very</b> glad Darth Vader isn't my father.

You can make links like this:
I'm reading about <a href="">Darth Vader</a> on Wikipedia!

You can quote someone like this:
Darth Vader said <blockquote>Luke, I am your father.</blockquote>

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.