In response to cheap shots

I’ve been playing a lot of NBA 2k12 recently, working my way through the game’s masterful My Player mode. Before every game, there’s a broadcasting feature in which the game shows your player’s season averages, highlighting the things that you’re good at (my point guard led the league in steals this past season, for example). Occasionally, the game’s processing circuits will go a little wonky and a variety of strange animations will distort the view, basically a modern-day killscreen.

The idea of killscreens makes sense to me, and logically, they should still exist: you should be able to exhaust almost any game to its breaking point or at least run into odd oversights/glitches, even in the current high-powered gaming generation. Games like NBA 2k12 and it’s My Player mode seems particularly susceptible to these issues.

I have played a little over 150 games with my current character, in addition to various drills and shoot around sessions. That’s a lot of gameplay, but more importantly, that’s a lot of processing. In essence, the animations, voice overs, and on-court action in NBA 2k12 are the result of a random number generator. There are only so many public announcer voice overs for the on-court play and scenario specific events that eventually, you’ll run into repeats and redundancies, especially when you play the game to its extremes (ie, logging hundreds of hours).

You run into similar situations with the actual on-court play: once you’ve played the game long enough, you start to see inconsistencies in the action. After playing ostensibly the same game hundreds of times, you approach almost every iteration of animation that the programmers designed, and logically glitches and inaccuracies occur. In NBA 2k12, for example, you see coaches walking onto the court during play or a foul being called with no physical contact between players. Though not proper killscreens–those have likely been, if not completely eliminated, mitigated to only extreme cases–these incongruities serve as reminder of the physics and logic system governing the game you’re playing.

(The most infamous of these, picture above, was the literal death of EA’s NBA Live series. During the beta test for NBA Elite–EA’s rebranded NBA series name–Andrew Bynum’s character was frozen at center court with his arms extended. The programming issues were so pronounced and expansive that EA killed off the series, which is supposed to finally return next year.)

Yesterday, Killscreen Magazine published an article titled “In Defense of Cheap Shots“, which addressed these glitches in a competitive online setting. To wit:

I play a lot of SCEA’s baseball simulation MLB: The Show–a lot–and I’m the cheapest, most exasperating opponent you’ll ever meet. What I mean is that when I play The Show, I don’t play by the rules of baseball any more than Mayweather abides by polite conventions when he boxes. Just as a sport is a game version of some other Real Thing, a sports simulation is doubly a game: we aren’t playing the real sport, but a videogame about the sport. The rules of the videogame are not the rules of the sport.

The author explains the various ways in which he cheats the game’s logic system: exploiting a glitch that gets opposing players thrown out of games and relieving pitchers with random players, chiefly among his habits.

Anyone who has played a sports game online knows these gamers. In Madden and NCAA football, they’re the player that has found the nigh unguardable passing pattern. In the NBA games, they’re the guy who knows how to force back court violations or exploit a bug in the ability to steal the ball. In old NHL games, it was holding a slapshot as you crossed the face of the goalie, only to score an easy goal. Much like in NBA 2k12, once you’ve played the game exhaustively, these glitches become not only apparent, but exploitable, almost at will. It doesn’t make them any less cheap or frustrating when someone utilizes them.

The author’s justification for his play style makes sense initially, but falters on closer inspection:

The sim fans may be annoyed to play against someone like me, but the alternative is positively exasperating: If you play a simulation “realistically,” every little clipped texture, every moronic AI move, threatens to ruin the source of your enjoyment. Those mistakes should be the reason you enjoy the game to begin with.

This reasoning is sound to an extent. I’ve become increasingly frustrated with my digital teammates in NBA 2k12 as they continuously make boneheaded plays and glitch themselves into turnovers. That kind of AI malfunction really removes you from the game and frustrates what is otherwise a smooth experience. As such, exploiting the few glitches that the game affords offsets the various negative incongruities that are souring your gaming experience.

But in online play, the biggest problem afflicting modern sports games–inconsistent AI–is removed or at least significantly reduced (minor issues typically prevail, but nothing game-breaking). No longer are you playing as a single character, relying on the autonomous random number generator to make plays. Instead, all success and failures falls on your shoulders. It’s the perfection of what the single player experience is supposed to be.

The real issue with players who exploit those cheats–and make no mistake, everyone who plays online understands the glitches and can utilize them, but most choose not to–is the reintroduction of game-breaking glitches into a system that, if played honestly, removes the logical inconsistencies of the single-player digital landscape. The author argues that randomly generated events, such as one of your players arguing a close call and being tossed from the game, ruins the playing experience, but it only does so when the problem is exacerbated. Players really do get thrown out of games for arguing with umpires, so when it does happen (which the author postures happens on 10% of close calls, the likes of which probably only occur 4-5 times a game), it forces the player to react and manage the game in a different way.

Ultimately, it boils down to where you draw your enjoyment: the journey or the result. For most gamers, simply playing the game truthfully and managing the subtle quirks that make it interesting is the real joy. But what you come to understand from In Defense of Cheap Shots is that the author culls most of his enjoyment out of winning, and perhaps more annoyingly, from trolling fellow gamers.

I’ve never understood hackers or people who endlessly exploit a game’s glitches. At that point, you’re no longer playing a game, the likes of which include setbacks and “random” occurrences. Instead, you’re manipulating a number generator to always come up Milhouse.

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