Game Developers are the Masters of Smoke and Mirrors

The incredible techniques that make the impossible a reality

Game Developers are the Masters of Smoke and Mirrors
Photo by JJ Ying / Unsplash.

Video games are incredible. They transport us to new worlds, allow us to partake in otherwise impossible situations, and empower us in our every day lives. Games can make us feel like a part of something bigger than ourselves, permitting us to connect with total strangers in a way never before seen in human history.

Whether we’re wrangling horses and robbing banks in Red Dead Redemption 2 or scoring a clinch goal in Rocket League, experiencing video games is a special and wholly modern adventure. It’s easy to forget, but every encounter we have in our virtual worlds is made up of code. Every bank we rob is made of numbers, every goal scored dictated by a set of rules. These regulations are set in place by people, and — naturally — things aren’t exactly as they seem. Making a game is incredibly difficult, with a AAA title taking an average of 5 years to develop. Due to this, sometimes thinking outside of the box is necessary in order to get the product out the door and give people the brain-food they desire. Some of these tricks are extremely technical, exploiting screen clears to get rid of bugs or utilizing oversized End User License Agreements (really) to launch games correctly. Other tricks, however, sit right under a player’s nose, without them realizing they’ve been fooled at all. While the initial reaction may be that of animosity — who likes to be deceived? — in reality the artifices at play are ingenious and a testament to humankind’s unique ability to adapt and evolve past a problem with insightful and distinctive prowess.

Assassin's Creed Valhalla. Source: Ubisoft.

Skin of the teeth

We’ve all been there — caught out in the open while enemies rain hellfire down around us with a flurry of lead and grenades, watching our health bar slowly chunk away as our character is pelted with an impossible amount of bullets and debris. Every pained grunt of our character reminds us that we’re one step closer to death and being launched back to the checkpoint. As we rush to find cover, we see our health bar at its lowest, meaning that one more hit would send us to the grave. Thankfully, we barely make it out alive, behind cover, able to heal our character and collect ourselves as we plan for a counter attack, our heart thumping in our chest. That exhilarating feeling of barely making it through an attack is no accident, however. Many of the biggest titles in the industry such as Doom, Assassin’s Creed, and Bioshock all utilize this mechanic to make those encounters feel that much more tense. Developers will intentionally extend the last few drops of health your character has to allow you to feel as though you made it by the skin of your teeth. In reality, if hit point percentages always stayed consistent, it’s very likely you would have died minutes earlier and would have had to redo the confrontation.

Uncharted 4. Source: Naughty Dog.

Invisible guidance

This isn’t the only developer deception at play when you’re participating in a hostile encounter. Naughty Dog’s adventure epic Uncharted — known for its waist-high wall cover shooting sections — utilizes enemy A.I. to make a player feel like they’re in one of the adventure movies the game is trying to emulate. When a player leaves cover, the enemy accuracy shifts to 0% for 3.5 seconds (around two rounds,) giving the player a few precious moments to fire their shot without tearing away the illusion of being fired at. This also allows the developers to curtail the enemies to their specifications. The lighter class soldiers will have a slower firing rate as well as have an extended period of 0% accuracy as compared to medium and heavy soldiers, giving them an air of being more difficult with something as simple as a few behind the scenes number tweaks. The way Nathan Drake moves throughout the world during those firefights in Uncharted isn’t even left completely to player agency. Uncharted, as well as many other third person games like Red Dead Redemption 2, employ what’s known as “thumbstick correction” in order to create smooth animations. Thumbstick correction is responsible for maneuvering players around objects they’re about to collide with, as well as stop players from running off of ledges and plummeting to their deaths. It’s often heavily employed when a character has to push their way through large crowds, especially during interactive cinematics. The way the character sidesteps the NPCs (non-playable characters) in frame — without the player’s input to do so — is thumbstick correction at work. While it may not create the same tense feelings the health mechanic will, it subtly guides players through worlds without fully stripping agency from them and is imperative in making the playable character and their allies feel real.

Thinking worlds

Playable characters interacting with NPCs and enemy A.I. aren’t the only time these tricks are applied however. Sometimes the world building itself is left to contrivance. Bethesda’s legendary Skyrim employed what’s known as “Radiant Questing” to organically flesh out their incredible landscape. Radiant Questing refers to the “Radiant System” present in Bethesda’s game engine, which recognizes a player’s individual skills and progress. The system then rolls out quests appropriate to the player’s actions. Radiant Questing is a two-fold trick. One; it’s able to mold quests to the player character and their play style without them ever realizing the game is changing, and two; it assigns quests based on areas the player hasn’t been to yet. When the player is set to find an ancient sword, the game will (more than likely) direct the player to a cave or stronghold they hadn’t previously discovered. By forcing the player into unknown areas, Bethesda both extends playtime as well as guarantees that the player will see every inch of their envisioned environment.

The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. Source: Bethesda.

What you don’t see doesn’t exist

Envisioning an environment is a monumental task in and of itself. Game worlds have become colossal landscapes, full continents filled to the brim with content to explore and discover. Gone are the polygonal, gray, sparsely populated cities in games like Grand Theft Auto III, replaced by the luscious mainlands of the likes of The Witcher 3 and Horizon Zero Dawn. Rendering these massive terrains can be a logistical nightmare; Horizon Zero Dawn’s map is somewhere to the tune of 4 miles wide, while The Witcher 3’s map is an unbelievable 86 square miles (136 square KMs). Displaying something that huge presents some obvious problems due to software limitations, and the way developers work around this is pretty incredible. Games such as Horizon Zero Dawn use all kinds of interesting workarounds to run as glamorously as it does. For example, as the player pans the camera in Horizon Zero Dawn, the game derezzes the terrain previously viewable and only renders what’s viewable in the camera field. This drastically negates the load on the system’s RAM and allows those beautiful vistas to be viewed with little to no chugging or frame drops. It does so nearly instantaneously, so the player has no idea the ground they were on just a minute ago no longer exists. Horizon — along with most open world games — also employs countless texture trickeries to conserve memory. If the player were to zoom in indefinitely in Horizon, they would find the beautifully textured 3D assets of the numerous trees littering the landscape would change from a hyper realistic vision of a tall tree swaying in the wind to an ugly, flat, 2D texture. This process can be called “LOD’ing”, or “Level of Detail”. It’s an incredibly complex process, as there’s a very thin line between “optimizing performance by utilizing distance” and “that bush is jarring and distracting.” Most games utilize LOD’ing in some fashion, but open world games take it to the most extreme. Without LOD’ing, games would chug to a grinding halt as most gaming consoles aren’t powerful enough to fully render miles of 3D assets and terrain. Still, the player will be mostly oblivious to the quality of this rendering.

Super Mario Odyssey. Source: Nintendo.

Impossible jumping

The unconscious nature of these developer tricks are key to their execution. If the player is able to easily see through the facade, it becomes that much more difficult to keep them invested. Part of the draw of video games are their ability to make it feel like you’re doing the impossible, exploring unimaginable places and completing unfeasible actions. These actions, however, are often not entirely our own. Platformers enable us to make incredible leaps, use problem solving to navigate environments, and utilize level design to progress within the game. It feels incredible when a jump is performed precisely, the player character landing exactly where needed, especially when a game has incredible controls like Castlevania or Super Meat Boy. Unsurprisingly, developers have multiple ploys to delude players into thinking they’re just that good at platformers. One of these ploys is “Coyote Time.” Coyote time, named after Wile E. Coyote as he stays suspended in the air for a few seconds before falling, is exactly that. Most platformers employ coyote time to curb the difficulty of jumps. If the player is a few frames too late as their character approaches the edge of a ledge, coyote time allows for them to hover for a frame or two before falling, giving the player the ability to make the jump in time. To the player, it feels as though they timed the jump perfectly, but in all actuality they were a split second too late. Another popular way to cheese jump mechanics is what’s known as “jump buffering” or “input buffering.” Basically, jump buffering gives the player a small buffer (a few frames) to hit a button early, but still complete the jump as intended. If a player is falling and knows they have to leap off the ground as soon as they land, some platformers allow for a split second of early input to still complete the instruction. It makes the player feel like their timing is impeccable, as well as create a satisfying mechanic, despite the fact that they jumped the gun early on their second leap.

Modern magic

Many of these tricks are pretty industry standard, and the list is seemingly endless. These are just a few examples of what developers do to make our games in the best way they can. Whether a player knows it or not, they’re experiencing the combined efforts of ingenuity and problem solving. Developing a game (or anything, for that matter) is akin to mathematicians thinking divergently to solve an equation. When people engage with a video game, they are activating code, and while the worlds may be unlike anything we have seen before, sometimes even more lifelike than life itself, at the end of the day they’re an amalgamation of math, coding, engineering, and human innovation. As long as developers are creating these wonderful worlds, they will find unconventional and unexpected solutions to the obstacles that present themselves. These ingenious solutions are responsible for making gaming feel like a unique, fair, and conquerable hobby. The pioneers who devise these answers are consistently creating a stronger, more stable foundation for the industry as a whole. Despite the fact that we are being gulled into the intended experience, those who create these resolutions are experts in their craft. The hope is that we revel in their expertise and allow ourselves to be whisked away to the worlds designed for us, purposefully ignorant of the smoke and mirrors at play, instead appreciating the fact that we may never know exactly how these programming magicians achieve their tricks. With any luck, we wont dig too deep, rather permitting ourselves to just sit back, relax, and believe in the magic.


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