Is it your responsibility as a game designer to create a system where it is difficult to cheat?

This conversation has people flip flopping depending on which side they sympathize with, the player or the designer. But since this post is directed at designers there should be no defensive stance on this. I will say this loud and clear for all to hear;

“It is your duty to limit (eliminate) confusion, complication and misuse of your game and its mechanics.” — cK Leach

Bottom line. There will always be cheaters and liars and the more tightly sealed your game is the more apparent cheating will be.

Math = Power

Math is the answer. Whether it’s a mechanism or a player that checks and balances, mathematical deduction usually produces any back handed actions to be visible. I’ve found that if you as a designer found ways to exploit your own game, fix it. If not, play testers will exploit it for you. In that case, fix it! That is the point. If there is a hole and fixing it will break your mechanism(s), then you didn’t really work out all the wrinkles. It’s just sloppy game design. No game is really cheat-proof, don’t get me wrong, but making cheating visible is a lot easier than people think. Isolating scenarios that are too perfect is one way to do it, which often leads to pigeon-holing. Another way is to have there be exception. Exception in gaming, as well in our world’s set of rules, is how we’ve come to understand the limitation of said system and how it’s patched to water tight for the most part. I use the word exploit specifically because an exploit isn’t always a cheat. Though the two words seem to be synonymously they are not the same. One can exploit a hole in a game to better their outcome. This isn’t always cheating. Cheating seems to lean more towards breaking or bending the rules/confines of an given environment to better the outcome …. see what I did there. I know the argument and I hear you loud and clear. Look at it this way. If there is rule that allows for a player to take advantage of or access a certain criteria, and it’s within the confines of the games’ law, then by all means it’s not cheating. At least not to the designer. They designed the game that way, so that’s how it’s played. If it’s used over and over again or incites rage from other players because it ruins the balance of the game, then yes, I can see an exploit becoming more of a cheat or a cheap. That’s why my argument about using math to isolate said scenarios is so important.

For more ways on how to exploit games just search YouTube

For instance, any game where numbers are involved, there is always some variable that cannot be used to acquire a desired outcome. If that outcome is too frequent or non existent in theory and then shows up to be a game changer, cheating/exploiting is definitely a factor. I like to believe the more complex anything is the easier it is to have gaps. Now there are times when a perfect storm would arise, a moment when all the planets would align and even the developer with hundreds of thousands of hours play testing with thousands upon thousands of people may not have calculate. It could happen. I’m not saying that. But when the developer knows, and for the most part any serious player knows when a moment like that comes up it’s due to a miscount, a missed card, a missed action or a sly act, it’s flagged right away. Then it becomes a situation of back tracking to find out where the miscalculation was and who was to blame, intentional or not. Errors should be easy to track because at the end of the day it comes down to numbers and numbers can be easily controlled by math. Math is the answer.

Solving = Cheating

Is counting and “solving” games considered cheating? This, I suspect, is a sub-set to this conversation and personally I don’t think so. In a perfect-information game cheating doesn’t exist without it being blatantly apparent. It’s more so the responsibility of all players to be conscious of the game play and possibilities. Does the blame directly lie with the game designer? I don’t think so, nor should it. The act of cheating should be marginalized to the point it breaks the game. There a lot of solved games out there.  And technically any game can be solved if you know all the variables regardless if they are visible at the time. Perfect play and all that jazz. It’s almost like both players are playing at the same time but they are not necessarily playing against each other. A lot of solitaire games with fixed starting points and simple movements can be solved via reverse engineering. I’ve played my share of puzzle games and it has always come back to order. How can you arrange pieces/number/men/cards in the order they need to be to get expected result. I may be rambling a bit but there is a science to design. Deduction, strategy, tactics, it’s all about calculating probability and maximizing that chance of an expected outcome. Or minimizing the risk of unknown factors. Math. Math is the answer.

At  the end of the day we, as designers, have to do our best to lock down the possibility of cheating. And no matter how hard we try it’s a long, arduous battle to try and keep a game streamline and not have it susceptible to being solved or exploited. The more complicated the games gets the greater the chance of grey areas going unseen by both sides. These grey regions are where the mathematically inclined like to work their magic. Card games in general are notorious for cheaters and we all know someone who knows a way to beat cheat at a card game. The funny thing is, if those conditions are known then it’s easy to point out. I’d hate to have been in a game for 2hrs where someone’s been skimming the whole time and eventually edge me out just because of some exploit AFTER all the numbers are tallied. Math …. *shaking fist* Math is the answer.

Winning = Respect

To turn the tides from designers to players just for a moment. It’s obviously clear that no matter how hard one designs a game with iron clad rules and almost impossible loopholes, a designer cannot get around human nature and the almost innate need to best the system. Systems, like rules, are too regimented at times leaving those involved and invested restricted in their freedoms. And when it comes to the human factor in a game, that is something even the most rigid of game mechanics can’t ignore. I had recently read a post about how players are finding new ways to cheat in games. Similarly to how casinos have not tried to eliminate/limit the dealer (human factor) as much as possible there is still the factor of the player. There have been card sharps (card sharks) since poker and other card games have been invented. Unless the game has changed or the rules have changed, little will help card sharps or mathematicians from besting others by playing the best hand, or making the best play, or using the best route to success. Even if it means a little underhandedness.

You’d think that if a human went up against a computer in any game the human would lose. This is not always the case. We’ve seen humans beat computers in all types of board and card game challenges. This has only proven how masterful the human mind works and how it can deduce probable outcomes from the information it’s provided. The computer, though many, many times faster does the exact same thing. So now you have people playing people online and using another tab or their phone to calculate moves based on the current game’s information. As you will read in the article I’ve linked above it even happens at Master Level events.  Local tournaments are one thing, but at an international level people are still trying to finagle a way to best their opponent. It’s not like they’ve solved the game. It’s more like they’ve pulled a thread in the tightly woven rules and weaseled their way through. All for fame and riches? All for accolades and a place in history? Scary. Even among the local friendlies, players still use sly tactics to get the upper hand their opponents. And it’s all just bragging rights. Doesn’t make sense, right? Well, to humans it does and that’s why mathematicians have found ways to help combat this strain of short-handed success by creating programs that recognize patterns. Matching player patters to that of a computer program has helped tournaments keep a close eye on not just the winners, but how the winners are winning. Because it’s all numbers there is a finite amount of options any player has at any one time. And if the quickest way to success is evident by a machine and can be matched up to a human player, it may be more than just coincidence or skill that has this player walking through to the finals. And in the end it’s all math. Math is the answer.

So developers, fix your games and players, stop your shit. The lesson of the day is don’t cheat because it ruins it for everyone, including math.