Designing video games is a lot harder than people think. Even avid gamers probably have very little knowledge of everything that goes in to making a great game. We’re talking more than just good stories, big name voice actors, or flashy graphics. There are finely tuned design decisions that can be the difference between a game being genuinely enjoyable, and even addictive, or one that ends up collecting dust on the Used Games shelf at GameStop.
Many of these subtle design tricks were revealed in this Twitter thread, started by game designer Jennifer Scheurle, about hidden game design brilliance. We love games here at Goliath, but we have to admit that we had no idea about almost all of these. If you’ve ever wondered what sort of tricks are used to make video games enjoyable, check out this list of brilliant design tactics used my developers.
14. Last Hit Points Worth Extra Health
You’ve all been there — just barely escaping a grueling battle skirmish by the skin of your teeth, a solitary sliver of health left in your character. As you exhale deeply, scour the map for more health, and let your adrenaline wear off, you probably have no idea that the game was designed to create this exact moment.
Many games, such as Assassin’s Creed and Doom, make the last few ticks of health worth double (or even triple) the regular amount. The result is that gamers end up with that feeling of just barely surviving, which is both exhilarating and makes for a memorable gaming moment. In reality, if the in-game hit points worked consistently, you probably would have been dead a couple minutes earlier.
13. Ignoring Third-Person Controls
Some of the biggest and best-selling games feature third-person controls, like Grand Theft Auto or Uncharted. You’ve probably played multiple games that use third-person controls, actually. But what you probably didn’t realize is that the game is designed to ignore your controller input at times.
Officially, developers call it “thumbstick correction.” On a more basic level, it simply exists to keep your dumbass from constantly walking into things. When done properly, the mechanic will guide your player around cars, trees, or rocks, regardless of where you’re pointing the joystick. It helps prevent your character from getting stuck anywhere, and while it may not seem like a big deal (“umm, I just walk around those things anyway”) it creates a much smoother gaming experience.
12. Surgeon Simulator Phone Tricks
This one doesn’t technically make the game play better, but it shows the level of detail that some developers put into their games. In the popular PC game Surgeon Simulator (later ported over to PS4 and mobile), you can dial a virtual phone. There are a few cool Easter egg numbers, but one unique one: you can dial your own phone number too!
If you do, your phone will ring (obviously) and you’ll hear a pre-recorded voicemail message that will give you clues to unlock a hidden level in the game. It was set up by using a dial-up server, so hopefully Bossa Studios will keep that baby humming so more people have a chance to call themselves in a video game.
11. Uncharted Enemies Have Zero Aim
The Uncharted games are often compared to Hollywood action movies, as Nathan Drake regularly goes full Indiana Jones before breaking into a shootout with bad guys of some sort. In the movies, it’s pretty obvious that every single villain has terrible aim, as various heroes in various movies generally manage to escape intense shootouts without taking a bullet.
In Uncharted, that common movie scene is recreated with a bit of clever programming. Whenever you leave cover, the game is coded so that an enemy’s first two shots will miss 100 percent of the time. This helps create gaming moments filled with tension, action, and bullets whizzing by your head that you assume were only inches away from hitting your character. In reality, there’s no chance they will. Other games, like Red Faction Guerilla, design their AI to kill you slowly, giving you time adjust and win the battle. For example, enemies who are closer to you suffer from a drastic drop in accuracy. If they do manage to hit you with a shot, the accuracy just drops again.
These tactics force you to take cover, but give you a sense of a realistic gun battle without being overtaken too quickly by swarm of baddies.
10. Rubber-Banding A.I.
This design trick one is hardly a secret, but it’s featured in some of the greatest games ever made, so we had to mention it. Commonly referred to as “catchup A.I.”, rubber banding means that that games stay competitive, no matter how good one player may be. If you’ve ever wondered by it’s so hard to stay in first place in a Mario Kart game or close out a fourth quarter in a sports game (especially NBA Jam), the reason is simple — the developers don’t want anyone be too dominant because it ruins the fun for everyone else.
The next time your friend makes an epic comeback in the latest edition of Madden or FIFA, just remind them it wasn’t really their superior skill. Just generous programming.
9. Xenomorph With Two Brains
Video games about movies are often pretty bad. Movies about video games are typically even worse. But the 2004 game Alien: Isolation is one of the exceptions. It did a pretty decent job of combining Ridley Scott’s original sci-fi horror franchise with the popular survival-horror genre of games. One of most critically praised parts of the game was the artificial intelligence programmed into the iconic Xenomorph villain.
Gaming studio Creative Assembly actually designed the Alien creature with a “dual A.I.”, giving it two separate brains. One of them knows exactly where you are at all times, and another one that pushed the Alien in random directions. The real kicker, though, is that the first brain sends hints to the second brain to try and track you down. That means any noise you make can be used to find you. The second brain also learns from its own previous mistakes, meaning that if you keep hiding in the same place more than once, the Xenomoprh will find you faster. The end result is a fun, scary game that relies a lot on outsmarting the Alien brain(s), rather than just overpowering it with brute force.
8. Speed Effects in Forza
Speed can be hard to depict in video games. After all, how do you recreate the sense of true real-life speed? The steering wheel vibrating slightly in your hands and the engine of your car roaring in front of you. The landscape flying by as the tires screech against the pavement. Those are hard feelings to depict for gamer loafed out on their couch, with nothing but a controller in their hands.
Games in the Forza series, along with other high-end racing games, have subtle tricks to convince gamers their car is going faster, and we’re talking about more than just an on-screen speedometer. With a combination of pulling the camera in tightly, cranking up the engine sound effects, and adding various lighting effects that make a gamer feel like they are entering “tunnel vision.” Along with the camera effects, cars get harder to control as speed increases, which also adds to the feeling that you’re really driving at 105 mph from the comfort of your living room.
7. Gears of War Noob Buff
Venturing from a solo campaign into a game’s online multiplayer can be an intimidating task. No matter how smart the A.I. enemies are, they will never be as good as other humans. It’s a pretty normal occurrence to jump online and get absolutely dominated at first, especially in games like Call of Duty that offer better unlockables the longer you play. The developers of Gears of War saw that players who went through their first online match or two without recording a kill would frequently never return to multiplayer.
Their solution was simple and smart, although also a bit unfair. Brand new online players would get a huge damage increase in their weapons, at least for the first few kills. The satisfaction of not getting completely rekt in your first multiplayer match was often enough to keep gamers coming back for more. Before long, they would have the same unlockables as everyone else, evening up the playing field.
6. Tutorial Decides Settings
Here’s a very simple one. Have you ever had to go into a game’s settings menu to switch the X-Axis controls from regular to inverted, or vice-versa? Or, in layman’s terms, whether you have to press up or down on the stick in order to look up. Everyone has their own presence, and some gamers will even switch depending on the type of game being played (flight combat simulator vs. first-person-shooter, for example).
Game developers realized that pausing to change the setting is a needless break from the immersion of their games. So almost every first-person game now includes a quick tutorial at the very start that asks the gamer to move left and right, jump, and look up. That last part is important, because whichever direction you move the stick to look up changes the X-axis controls setting. It’s so simple, yet so brilliant.
5. Pac-Man‘s Ghost Settings
Pac-Man was one of the first real hit video games, becoming an arcade sensation before being ported over to home consoles like the Atari and the NES. The quest for a high score actually became one of the earliest examples of competitive gaming. The most serious players eventually noticed that the ghosts don’t move randomly around the maze, but follow a certain pattern.
Namco eventually revealed that Blinky (red) is programmed to follow Pac-Man. Pinky (pink) is constantly trying to get in front of Pac-Man, cutting him off. Inky (blue) does a bit of both, and sometimes moves completely at random. Clyde (orange) starts by mimicking the moves of Blinky, but wanders off into a corner if he gets too close to the yellow dot eater. This programming may seem irrelevant, but it actually created an extremely addicting game, with the right combination of randomness and predictability to please both casual and hardcore gamers.
4. Skyrim Places Quests to Force Exploration
As technology gets better, games get bigger. We’re not only talking about filesize, either, although that’s definitely happening too. We are referring to the in-game maps, which are regularly massive open worlds with thousands of virtual acres to explore. One notable epic map is in Skyrim, and it’s so large that you’d probably never see it all except for the fact that the game developers have a trick up their sleeves.
Using a system they called “Radiant Quests,” game devs Bethesda coded quests to force the player into random, unexplored locations of the map. Even better, was that the game still used NPC voice acting for many of these “random” quests, with only the location or the needed item changing. That meant the quests still felt like a natural part of the story progression, even though they were located at random in order to show off the epic landscape that Bethesda created.
3. Only Render What’s in Sight
This is an old trick, but it comes with a cool GIF that we felt needed to be included. Basically, it takes a lot of processing power to render a virtual environment, especially as human players are moving/looking around the map in random unpredictable ways. In an effort to preserve that processing power for other things, game developers quickly realized that they could program their software to only render whatever the gamer was directly looking at. It’s kind of like the “Draw Distance” setting that many people are probably familiar with, but taken to another level.
As shown in the GIF below, many games (especially large scale ones like Skyrim or Horizon Zero Dawn) will only render what’s in front of you. Even then, the stuff around the edges might not be quite as sharp as the environment directly in the middle of your view. This is one of the tricks that helps game look sharper and more detailed, even on home consoles that typically don’t have upgraded specs. Why did later N64 games look better than early ones? Because developers figured out tricks like this to maximize processing efficiency.
2. Off-Screen Enemies Are Nerfed
This is a trick used in plenty of games, but perhaps most notable in classics like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and more recent hits like Devil May Cry. Whenever you are approached by a large group of enemies, it can feel overwhelming. Surely, you would die a swift and violent death if they simply all attacked at once. But they don’t, and there’s a technical reason for that.
The enemies in Ocarina would allow attack if you specifically targeted them, while the rest simply waited their turn. Devil May Cry took that system one step further and actually used the camera to nerf off-screen enemies. In short, if an enemy wasn’t actually in your field of vision, it basically moved in slow motion. As soon as you turned around, the enemy would be there almost ready to attack. It created a sense of frantic combat, but didn’t result in a string of frustrating deaths. That’s the enjoyment sweet spot.
1. Coyote Time in Platformers
This little design hack has probably result in more saved gamer lives than anything else on this list. Many of the most popular games in the early days of gaming were platformers — think the Super Mario Bros., Sonic the Hedgehog, and Crash Bandicoots of the world. Many of these games required pinpoint jumping accuracy to make it from one platform to the next, and eventually any platformer worth its salt added “Coyote Time” to its coding.
Basically, Coyote Time was a invisible feature that gave gamers a teeeeeny bit of an extra window to make crucial jump, both for taking off and landing. It was comically named after cartoon character Wile E. Coyote, who routinely had issues with the laws of physics while trying to catch the Road Runner. Games without Coyote Time were often dismissed as “too hard” or “not fun.” Developers who managed to get it right would end up with games that are still beloved today.