How to play like a game designer: Metagaming

A guide to game exploits for the average gamer.

Now that I've discussed how to interpret level design and use items and NPCs to your advantage, you may think that I've told all there is to tell about high-level gaming. But now we're going to talk about the elements of a game that the designers never planned: bugs and exploits.

Usually the territory of game testers, exploiting bugs and glitches is a technique that some gamers have turned into an art. Let’s talk metagaming.

Play with the enemy AI

Until we get Ex Machina-level AI, the single player and multiplayer experience will be worlds apart. AI follows repeating patterns based on what it was coded to do. While the game may introduce enemies with different or more complex AI, the overall pattern will never actually change.

One common exploit is called "kiting" or leading the enemy to a position that's more advantageous to the player. It's a common tactic in MMORPGs and the Dark Souls series where enemies only aggro to a certain invisible distance from the player or their spawn point. After that, they walk back to their spawn point until the player attacks again. This tactic can be repeated until the enemy is dead. Another way of using kiting is to exploit the enemy's pathfinding. If an enemy cannot follow onto a ledge, the player may be able to get some free shots in.

Identifying the AI's pattern is key to finding exploits. Maybe one enemy is weak to spamming a quick attack. Or perhaps enemies are vulnerable when positioned at a certain angle around corners. These enemy vulnerabilities may not be purposefully coded in by the game designer, but they are still usable by the player.

Try to go places you weren’t meant to

Mario Kart 64 has a pretty famous exploit where you can jump from one part of Rainbow Road to another. It’s relatively challenging to pull off, but if you do, you’re miles ahead of the other racers.

Exploits can also just be running into an incline to see if you can climb it at a certain angle. I was able to get to the top of the Throat of the World in Skyrim with a level 1 character by doing this.

Try researching speedrunners. Speedrunners are a rare breed of gamer that turn a playthrough of a game into an intricate layer of exploits—all to shave minutes or even seconds from their playtime. In games, there are more efficient ways of playing if you care to try. Though speedrunning is one part playing the game flawlessly, it might just be two parts breaking the game. And that leads to our final topic.

Break the game


In some games, there are tricks to get money fast or customize a weapon so that it is grossly overpowered. Games like The Sims used to have literal cheat codes used by the developers which were inevitably discovered and leaked.

“Save scumming” is one of the more boring methods of getting the things you want. In games with items that randomize upon entering a room (like with Fallout 3 and Borderlands), a player can simply load as many times as possible to get the desired item.

Roguelikes have bumped up in popularity. They can provide almost infinite replay value. However, with that elasticity in gameplay, there are also more opportunities to exploit features like item combinations. In Binding of Isaac, for instance, there’s are entire threads dedicated to different ways to break the game.

Keep in mind - breaking the game can result in some pretty unpredictable results, and you may want to just report a bug to the developers if you feel it doesn't benefit the game. In a world where games can be updated after release, exploits such as the Fallout 3 money trick are often nerfed.

Whether it’s to add challenge or erase it, to report bugs or to exploit them, metagaming one of the core features of playing a game like a game designer. Wield this power wisely.

For more insight into game design and how you can use it in your quests, check out these articles on level design and items and NPCs.

Published Aug. 23rd 2015
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