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How Hacking Pushes Innovation in Game Design

Zach Budgor Writer

Hacking and modifying games can lead developers to push the limits.

In the mid-1990s, before he became an acclaimed indie designer, Brendon Chung was a game modder. He would dig into video game programs to tweak code to wreak new havoc in the virtual world. Chung rooted around the install folders of Duke Nukem, Doom, and Quake, building his own maps and figuring out the effects of tinkering with each object.

Developers return to these classic engines again and again because they allow access to data files, which can be manipulated to create new manoeuvers and outcomes in the game.

“Learning how things were built — hacking these games, essentially — was the leap into making my own games,” said Chung.

Today, whenever he encounters a programming challenge while working on hits like Thirty Flights of Loving and Quadrilateral Cowboy, Chung still asks himself, “How do I hack this like it’s 1997?”

Often associated with cyber espionage, the word “hacking” tends to inspire images of criminality. But developers like Chung hack in order to find new pathways to creative game design.

Beglitched screenshot

As an act of unstructured experimentation, hacking set the stage for modern game design. Recent titles like Beglitched, else Heart.Break(), and the upcoming sequel to the multi-million dollar game Watch Dogs even take the correlation a step further, using hacking mechanics as a frame to inspire player ingenuity.

“That playful, creative hacking approach took root in game developer culture,” said Intel’s community manager Josh Bancroft. “Modding introduced a whole generation of players to the idea of making your own games.”

Describing the old-school game engines as “workhorses,” Chung’s latest game was built by reverse-engineering the decade-old Doom 3 engine. Before that, he was using the engine behind 1997’s Quake II.

Starting from the solid framework of classic game engines allowed Chung to work efficiently as a one-man indie studio. For example, when he needed to render motion blur for scenes with moving cars in Quadrilateral Cowboy, he thought back to Doom 3. Not wanting to waste time creating his own blur effect, he simply drew blurry textures over the renderings. Suddenly, it was 1997 all over again.

Quadrilateral Cowboy

The end result beat expectations. “It’s a completely functional bargain-bin motion blur,” said Chung.

The hacker’s mentality in game design goes back to the word’s origin, codified at MIT during the 1960s. The “hacks” at the genesis of modern computer culture were lighthearted — closer to pranks than digital espionage. But engineering students seeking to one-up each other wound up offhandedly inventing videogames in the case of the MIT Tech Model Railroad Club in 1961.

“[The MIT hackers] were just playing around,” said Alec Thompson, an MIT graduate and half of the Hexectuable development duo behind Beglitched. A far cry from criminality, the genesis of hacking was “about being clever with technology, subverting stuff, and finding lateral-thinking solutions.”

Jenny Jiao Hsia, the other half of Hexecutable, said that the see-what-happens hacker approach embodies how she makes games.

“I don’t feel like I’m doing things correctly, I’m just throwing stuff together,” she said.

Beglitched screenshot

Hsia embedded a whimsical aesthetic into Beglitched. She contextualized coding as witchcraft and replaced the typical cyber dystopia imagery of most hacking games with playfulness.

According to designer Zach Barth of TIS-100 and Spacechem, at the heart of the DIY hacker mindset is a sense of play. It is the maker-movement assertion that nothing in the world is sacred and that you can crack open anything to make it better.

Barth’s game, TIS-100, captures this notion as a ghost story told through computer programming. Placing players in front of an arcane computer interface, they must figure out how to navigate it to piece together the larger story. While the game’s programming language is fictional, Barth stressed that it’s completely coherent and functional—usable as C++ or Javascript, but only compatible with the game.

TIS-100 may be a game, but the exploratory attitude essential to solving its puzzles echoes the skills necessary to learn programming in the real world.

Both Bancroft and Chung see the hacker mindset as one of the best ways to approach computer literacy.

Bancroft, whose background is in adult learning, pointed to the utility of “constructionism”, or, “the idea that we all construct our own learning by tinkering, playing and hacking,” he said.

Quadrilateral Cowboy

Chung believes that his games offer a less daunting setting for interacting with a command line interface. While showing his games at expos, he said people are at first quick to dismiss it because they don’t know how to do computer stuff.

Until they actually sit down and start playing.

“I’m secretly hoping that if people start playing around with programming in a less intimidating setting,” Chung said.  “If I can help do that, even just a little, I’d be very happy.”

Ultimately, game designers’ willingness to go under the hood, and help players do the same, pushes innovation in the field. Whether it’s through the adorably accessible gameplay of Beglitched or the nitty-gritty technical demands of TIS-100, the spirit of hacking sets the scene for a creative community exchanging and improving on each other’s ideas.

Chung deliberately leaves his games open to the same kind of tinkering that he cut his teeth on while modding Doom and Quake. The interchange between modders and designers, he said, is crucial to innovation in game design.

“It’s exciting to see how people take what you have and just reinvent it into something else,” said Chung. “We can share and learn from each other, and there’s a lot to be said about that.”

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