Developers share tricks and secret hacks that make games work
Did you know all the horses in Assassin’s Creed 1 is built with really fucking human skeletons? Or that Titan Quest used invisible squirrels as timers in the game? All of this is true and is more proof that games are mostly wild collections of code and hope that have more in common with miracles than they do with software.
Video games shouldn’t work at all. This is what I’ve learned from reading stories shared by developers about making games and all the tricks and hacks used to make these things work. These stories of hacked solutions have always existed, but a recent viral tweet about invisible squirrels being used as timers in the game has led to a new wave of stories emerging online that once again show how video games are mostly held together with tape, magic and some sticks.
For a good example of this, let’s start with a tweet from Charles Randallwho worked on the original Assassin’s Creed. He shared two interesting developer hacks about hidden arms and damn horses.
It turns out, i Assassin’s Creed, the team didn’t have the budget to create a special custom skeleton rig for fellow assassin Malik. So when the character loses an arm, it’s actually still there, but right on the inside. Randall explained that if you cut the camera into his model, you’d probably see a “tiny little curled-up arm inside the bicep.”
Another, wilder AC1 hack involves the game’s horses. Randall explained that horses in the game were created from “twisted damn” digital human skeleton triggers because the team’s technology at the time only worked properly with bipeds.
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“Cheers to the amazing animators and riggers who managed to make that guy look like a horse,” Randall tweeted.
On Twitter, game developer Luke Parkes-Haskell shared a simple fix used in Fable: The JourneyKinect only Fable spin-off released back in 2012. According to Parkes-Haskell, the team ran into a problem right before the game aired.
The Problem: Certain grass and water materials were not rendering correctly in the game. Instead, players will see the game’s standard gray checkerboard textures used by the developers during development. But when time ran out before launch, the team came up with an elegant and quick solution. They just changed the default dev texture from grid gray to flat green. Problem solved and game shipped.
Dark Table shared a story about how they worked in a studio where the engineers were unable to give the designers timers or any way to delay triggers or sequences. They did, however, have access to falling objects that contained physics and collision. So they hacked together their own timers by dropping in-game boxes off-screen from different heights to trigger events using the objects’ collision.
While they didn’t feel comfortable sharing the name of the studio or the Dreamcast game in question, Dark Table shared a fun story with Kotaku about testing the game on 50hz TVs.
“I think the primitive physics system was frame rate dependent,” Dark Table explained. “So when they first tested on PAL TVs (50hz) instead of NTSC TVs (60hz), all the timers in the game were slightly off. I think this was actually when the engineers first discovered what the designers had done (and it was too late to change it).”
Rolf Klischewski, a developer who worked with The Settlers III, shared how the team was able to ship the game despite massive desync issues when playing online. After spending weeks looking for a solution, one day the error message confirming a desync had just stopped appearing. According to Klischewski, the CEO praised the coders for their hard work. But then he revealed what really happened:
“Few of us knew that one of them just had REM with the error message.” In other words, someone added some text to the code to make the error message go away, which doesn’t really solve the problem, but it allows you to send the game. It’s the game developer equivalent of placing some duct tape over the “check engine” light on your car.
Artist and game developer Alex Zandra shared a story About a little motorcycle game she did the signature roguelike progression. As she told Kotaku, her track building system used pre-built vertical levels and then placed them together to create a seamless track that players would then race across. All this happened while loading the level.
However, there was a problem. Every single time a level was generated, it would place an extra, unintentionally large wedge section at the very end. Realizing that rewriting the code to fix this tricky bug would take too long, Zandra went with another, less “elegant” hack.
“I just left it in and instead made some code to destroy the odd block out,” Zandra explained.
“Technically when a level begins, the weird oversized ramp block is there at the end, but luckily it’s too far ahead for the player to see and my extra code finds it and deletes it before it even hits the screen. Not exactly elegant , but it works!”
Sometimes these game development hacks can be summed up in a few words or a single tweet. However, Nate Purkeypile, a former Bethesda developer, had a more involved and wild video game hacking story to share about the fantastic Fallout 3 DLC, Point Lookout.
The problem he faced was that at one point in the DLC the team needed a mansion to explode. Seems simple enough. You blow it. If you’ve played the DLC, you probably didn’t think anything of it. They blew it up and that was it. But oh… there is so much more to it. Because of how the engine goes in Fallout 3 worked, Purkeypile and the little group do Point Lookout failed to trigger events far away from the player. Everything in the distance you see was just a static object.
The solution to this involved using some already existing technology in the main game: reusing the system used to blow up Megaton in Fallout 3.
Despite the fact that the mansion is right in front of you, Purkeypile explained Kotaku that it “had to be of the ‘remote blast’ object type” used in the destruction of Megaton in the original game. “Otherwise we’d just always have a house there when you’re far away. So this fix allows us to turn off that ‘explosion house’ (it was just a house and NOT an explosion) after the mansion actually blew up.”
Or to put it another way, Purkeypile stated, “So yes, counterintuitively, after it explodes, we turn off the fake ‘explosion house.’
You might wonder why the team didn’t have the resources to create what they needed. Purkeypile explained to me that at the time Bethesda was quite small. And most of them then worked with Skyrim. So the DLC teams had to figure out interesting and cheap ways to use pre-existing technology and assets to solve problems like blowing up a mansion.
Taylor Swope, designer at Obsidian, shared how the team made NPCs appear on screens and screens in the RPG, The outer worlds. It turns out that whenever you see someone talking to you on a screen or screen, the character is actually nearby in a separate room decorated to look like the area they should actually be in when they send the message.
Swope explained to me that this is a common trick found in many other games. For example, I’ve seen this even when I’m not cutting and exploring levels in Valve’s Half life 2.
As for why developers use this option instead of pre-rendered video files, Swope explained to me that it mainly comes down to file size.
“Video files get really big, really fast. So not having to include them in the game files is a plus, says Swope.
“For games like The outer worldsthere’s also a lot of player interaction involved in conversations like this, so the sequence that plays out on screen needs to be able to react dynamically.”
“Theoretically, we could pre-render each answer in a separate video and choose which one to play based on the player’s choice, but then you have even MORE video files to deal with and need to build out a new system just for that. It’s easier to just use the conversation system we have already built and capture the other side of the conversation “live”.
Game developer Logan on Twitter shared a simple solution to a camera problem they ran in while working on their game, Go fly a kite. Using a first-person perspective, the player would spawn while sitting in a bus. However, this caused a strange error.
“Essentially, the player would spawn in,” Logan shared Kotaku “and the player camera would try to move to its ‘docked’ position at the same time, causing the camera to do this 360-degree flip.”
Having the game start with such wild camera movement wasn’t part of Logan’s plan, but it was hard to fix. So instead, Logan simply added a fake 2-second loading screen that plays right when the scene starts and after the real loading screen.
Finally, Georg Zoeller explained on Facebook (which was shared on Twitter with his permission) a large number of wild tricks and hacks used by various teams across a large variety of popular games. Here are just a few of the best they shared:
In MMOs Star Wars: The Old Republic, all exploding barrels are filled with shrunken invisible people, as only NPCs are a valid source of damage. “Yeah, that’s right, someone gets blown to bits every time you shoot an exploding barrel,” Zoeller explained.
“Oh, initially they were complex models with transparency used because for many designers, when you have a hammer, everything is a nail,” Zoeller said. “I had to write a script to find them all because they reduced the frame rate quite badly.”
In the military FPS, Operation Flash point, Zoeller revealed that the designers had “no way to make explosions”. Instead, they launched vehicles such as tanks and trucks onto the ground at enormous speeds to create large explosions. Apparently, on some maps, that’s how they created artillery fire.
Perhaps the wildest was inside Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republicwhere it was one random animal controlling a planet, basically.
“All global quest variables on a particular planet were stored on an ambient non-targetable creature,” Zoeller said. “It turns out that AOE effects can still acquire the creature and kill it, ruining your game if you happen to kill the right ambient creature.”
Sorry, your game crashed because you killed the godbeast from Naboo. Video games are amazing.