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Waypoint-guided missiles snake through a maze of abandoned farm houses and
corn fields. The satisfying explosion, constructed from dozens of fiery,
mushroom-cloud skull sprites, leaves nothing at ground zero.

Few weapons in any video game can match the awesome destructive power of X-Com: UFO Defense’s Blaster Launcher.

So imagine my surprise when the carefully routed missile suddenly veered off course toward the lower-left side of the screen, only to magically reappear at the next waypoint. I’d uncovered a glitch.

This bug allowed me to “teleport” these catastrophic rockets to any point on the map — even inside of closed rooms, a feat which would otherwise be impossible. Clearing Battleship class UFOs suddenly got a whole lot easier.

Am I a dirty cheater, or am I exploiting a glitch through emergent gameplay?


X-Com: UFO Defense is littered with all kinds of exploits. Players can walk through some walls, reduce base expenses to zero, and cause enemies to shoot at themselves. Even I’m guilty of profiting from a bug where the game revives dead soldiers post-battle.

Does making use of these holes in the code constitute cheating? Considering that X-Com is entirely a single-player game, the only person being “cheated” would be the player himself. And if he’s willingly exploiting game bugs for his own enjoyment, is there really cause for concern?

300px-Mutalisk_HarassOn the other hand, taking advantage of glitches such as this seems little different than Doom’s famous “IDDQD” cheat (i.e., god mode). Those types of exploits go against the “spirit” of the game by offering a quick out from a difficult challenge.

Not all bugs simply make a game less challenging for the player — they can also create specific advantages in a multiplayer environment. Especially in competitive games like real-time strategies and first-person shooters, a glitch can introduce emergent gameplay unforeseen by the developer.

Blizzard’s Starcraft shipped with several bugs that players exploited and developed into commonly used tactics, such as Mutalisk stacking, a technique used to overlap air units on the playing field. This allows players to hide their numbers, more easily dodge attack, and strike with deadly, focused-fire precision.

Professional Starcraft players regularly employ winning strategies built upon these types of exploits. Their popularity with fans has even caused Blizzard to incorporate the stacking bug into the upcoming Starcraft 2.

Starcraft isn’t the only competitive space in online gaming which has transformed exploits into accepted emergent gameplay. First-person shooters like Counter-Strike, Half-Life, and Quake popularized bunny hopping, a technique used by players to move faster and jump higher (as well as become more difficult to target) than the game normally allows.

I’m also inspired by the recent discovery of Modern
Warfare 2
‘s javelin exploit, a technique used to detonate a grenade upon death. Microsoft’s and Infinity Ward’s decision to ban offending Xbox and PC players is particularly eyebrow-raising. How do we decide whena glitch constitutes cheating?


Ars Technica raises some interesting concerns
we should all ponder. Unlike the open-platform tradition of PC games,
the online services provided by Microsoft and Infinity Ward create
a closed system where gamers cannot alter play through exploits. I believe that policing our games through this
top-down approach does not benefit video games and could be squandering
innovative gameplay discovered by dedicated players.

Are glitches cheats? Not necessarily. A bug only provides an unfair advantage in a single-player game because the programmed AI is unlikely to make use of the exploits. In a multiplayer setting, all players have the same access to glitches. We’re not talking about hacks but oversights within a game’s code. Players are merely exploring their sandbox for winning techniques.

New and casual players are at a disadvantage, though. They likely won’t have knowledge of game exploits and this can impart a frustrating experience, something that developers are keen to avoid. On the other hand, these genres usually have a learning curve for the competitively minded player, anyway.

Just as I first experienced Starcraft’s Lurker hold, a technique used to prevent burrowed Lurkers from attacking until an optimal time, I’m confident that as players become more interested in a title, they’re going to discover glitches one way or another.

Less hardcore players may be turned away, but this is exactly why developers should let players define game parameters. An open-platform system is the only way to ensure that both casual players and those who wish to push game boundaries can be happy.

I believe that the positives of glitch discovery outweigh any potential
negatives. Both competitive RTS and FPS games have codified exploits as viable
strategies to the benefit of the game as a whole. These bugs have not only inadvertently
added new gameplay layers, but also generated new conversation about what could
be possible (and fun!) for players.