Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Eulogy for JUSTIN BAILEY - How Achievements Killed The Cheat Code

This is Part Four of a four-part series of posts on the ways Achievements have changed modern gaming. Click here for parts one, two, and three.

The Code. You remember it, I'm sure. It was the only way to get through Contra - that merciless destroyer of tiny 8-bit men. It's been immortalized in song. Hell, it was part of the company's brand identity, back in the day. One suspects it was intentionally designed to lodge in the human brain, given how easy the memory is to summon up even now, with its series of pleasing symmetries. Up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, (Select if you've got a friend), and Start. The Konami Code. The holy grail of Cheats.

Or maybe you were a PC gamer. You've got your own set of holy words burnt into your brain, then, pulled from the early Internet, maybe even copied down from an old BBS. Fire up your shareware copy of Doom, let 'iddqd' and 'idkfa' fly, and breeze your way through the legions of hell, invincible and loaded for bear. Sure, it was cheating, but who were you hurting? Demons. And who gives a damn about them?

But, honestly, cheat codes weren't really about 'cheating'. Sure, sometimes you wanted to see that impossible-to-reach final boss or skip past your least-favorite level. But more often than not, you put them in because you could. Because they did something weird to the game, something interesting or funny or just different. Every gaming magazine of the era knew to address that impulse with their own Cheat Codes section. There was freedom in 'breaking' the game, in playing it in a way outside the proscribed instructions. And that's not even taking into account hacking or modding the game files, or sticking a Game Genie on the end of the cartridge to directly mess with the game's code in unpredictable, weird, awesome ways.

Because 'cheating' implies someone being cheated. You could, if you had a particularly moralistic view on gaming, say you were cheating yourself, I guess, by turning your fragile character into an indestructible juggernaut of death. Fie upon those who ruin the sanctity of Kirby's Pinball Land, right? But really: who was being hurt?

Fast forward to today, and I ask you: When was the last time you used a cheat code? It's been a while, right?

The most obvious reason for the fall of the Cheat Code is the rise of online gaming. If you're competing with someone and he or she cheats, you've been screwed - and the designers who put the cheat in the game helped do the screwing. You can even stretch this justification to cover cooperative or open-world online games... There's an assumption in those games that all players are operating from the same playing field (with cheats, despite being part of the game code, being clearly outside that).

But what about single player games? Or the single-player components of games with multiplayer? Cheats have seemed to vanish here, as well. Vanished, or been replaced with Downloadable Content.

The answer is, almost none of our games are truly 'single-player' any more. Diablo 3 courted controversy last year when it required an always-on Internet connection to be played, even in its nominal single-player mode, but the trend has been developing for years. The meta-game of Achievement hunting has turned even the most private and introspective of Xbox 360 or Playstation 3 games into pseudo-multiplayer affairs, with the games themselves reporting your movements to the Great Scoreboard in the Sky. And if you cheat in your games, if you alter the parameters of the world to give yourself an advantage, or skip annoying content, or just to do something silly, now you're cheating EVERYBODY. And we can't have that.

We don't control our games the way we used to. Digital distribution and online multiplayer have raised a lot of questions about what it is, exactly, we're buying when we drop $20 or $40 or $60 on the game. Do we own the rights to all the content on the disc? What about locked DLC, on the DVD but out of our reach without publisher permission? Do we have the right to alter our games as we see fit, or do we have to worry that 'cheating' will get our licenses revoked, our purchase taken away from us*? If we cheat in our single-player game and earn an Achievement, are we breaking the rules of a larger meta-game, and can we expect to be punished for that violation by having our accounts banned, our access to online features blocked? Meta-game elements have been a huge boon to game design and game marketing, but they've leached some of the beautiful freedom out of the past-time.

And, perhaps most worryingly, we have publishers selling what once would have been free. Cheat codes being sold as DLC. Microtransactions to speed up tedious content. In the old days, the only "price" for this content would have been the knowledge that you were a 'cheater'. (Maybe the game would even mockingly call you one). Now, it's two or three dollars, and a little bit of our control over the games we play.

But then, I guess it's not really so different. The player seeks a desired outcome, and so they input a special series of keystrokes, and, voila, it's delivered. In the old days, it was a cheat code.

Today, it's your credit card number.

*It's worth pointing out that Blizzard, despite my picking on them here, have always been fans of in-game cheats for single-player content, usually with amusingly tongue-in-cheek codes like WhoIsJohnGalt or AllYourBaseAreBelongToUs from Warcraft III. Their Real-Time Strategy games are almost certainly the most prominent examples of games with old-school cheat codes on the market today.

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