Breaking games at tradeshows: Tales of a jerkface

Sometimes the builds you can play at major tradeshows are pretty fragile.

During my time as a game journalist, I broke tons of games at tradeshows. Tradeshow demos are shaky at best, and most of them have just gotten to “good enough” the night before the show. (I should know, our game Gunsport has been in this state several times, and broken as a result.) When I start to feel like I'd rather be doing something other than what the game asks, I start testing the boundaries of the game world, and that's when the trouble starts.

And so it goes that, over the years, I've made many a producer cringe, as I did the thing they didn't expect, and turned their game into a broken mess. Most of the time it's a soft reset, or a crash, or something else like that. Pedestrian stuff!

Sometimes, something truly interesting happened in the course of breaking a game. What results can be funny, enthralling, or even profound. Here are five examples of the more spectacular game breaks I've been involved in.

Crysis

I was at an event round about 2006 for a chip manufacturer – probably Nvidia? I can't remember. But what I do remember is that Crysis was there, being showcased for having all the graphics. I was invited as press because Crysis was not yet out, so this was a pretty rare opportunity to play the game in a pretty small place. They had sent over a couple producers to monitor things, but by and large you were pretty free to just play around. It was mostly a showcase for graphics cards, new screen displays, and other tech gizmos, but right in the middle of the space was the game.

My pal Frank Cifaldi and I decided to give it a go. We did some of the normal stuff for a bit, but with the game being rather early, it wasn't as compelling as it would later be. And so it happened that in the course of playing, we noticed something – there were a lot of tall mountains around, which you couldn't walk up very far before sliding back down. But if you jumped with the right timing, the game wouldn't necessarily slide you down the mountain all the way. We made a decision: We were going to climb the mountain.

We set to work on the tallest mountain we could find. We would switch off hitting the jump and direction keys, because it was incredibly tiring after a while. And the occasional tree would give us a bit of rest, like a save point. We could lean the character against a tree so he wouldn't slide down all the way, and we could shake our wrists out a bit. Occasionally we'd mess up, and fall way down again. It all felt a bit sisyphean.

Once we had been doing this for 30 minutes, the producers gathered round. We apologized. “Sorry, this is just a thing we do, don't be offended.” “No, please keep going, we want to see what happens!” they said. We kept going. After somewhere between 45 minutes and an hour, we reached the top. What we saw beyond was a huge expanse of… basically nothing. It was a beige blankness, just the skybox and a bit of the downslope. We pressed on. We slid down for a few seconds, before hitting “ground,” though there was nothing around. Just an invisible mesh upon which we ran.

The gun started to get a trail behind it. The skybox started to glitch out. It felt like we were breaking through to the other side...of something. At a certain point after running for a while, as the producers stood around looking serious, we decided to look back at where we came from. It was a tiny world recessed into the backround. We turned again to keep going away from the action, and after a short time we hit an invisible end of the world, and fell, infinitely, to our doom, leaving a trail of guns textures behind us.

Contrast

I got a call from a PR friend, that they needed press to come out for a demo of Contrast. I hadn't heard of it, but came out as a bit of a favor I suppose. It was by a developer called Compulsion Games. I hadn't heard of them, either, but thought why not, what else am I doing? I got round the hotel where they were showing the game, and it turned out to be a lot of the developers there, as it was a pretty small team. They all seemed nice enough, so I warned them that I do happen to break games from time to time. They said it was alright, they'd rather see how I move through the space than restrict me.

So I start playing. It wasn't really jiving with me (sorry guys!), so I started jumping round and being a big jerk with the main mechanic, which allows you to travel along shadows. I wound up getting up on to this light pole were I wasn't meant to be. The dev next to me said “uhhh,”and I kept going. I jumped across to another building, triggering a cutscene. The dev was now holding his mouth with his hand, staring at the screen with concern. Cutscenes started to trigger rapid fire. I entered a room from above, which was completely empty. “What's supposed to happen here?” I asked.

Turned out, I wasn't supposed to be able to do that – shocker – but in addition, I'd breezed through several cutscenes due to my advanced location, including one that killed off the boss that was supposed to be in the room where I was. Thus, there was nothing to do, and the game had me stuck there, in an empty room with odd burlesque ladies animating in the background. By the end of it the dev was holding his head in his hands. They were so close to release, the poor guys.

Compulsion Games has gone on to make We Happy Few, so I think we can all agree that their newfound success is 100% attributable to me, can't we?

BlackSite: Area 51

BlackSite: Area 51 was a middling title from Midway, off their old Area 51 license, which was originally an arcade lightgun extravaganza. My pal Harvey Smith was recruited midway (ha ha) through the project to save the story and overall design, but it wound up being a far cry from what he'd intended, and when I was on my way to attend this press demo, I pretty much already knew it.

I sat down at the kiosk, and told the producer, “Sorry, I break games sometimes, and I don't want to because I know a guy who worked on this, but… you know.” To which he replied with a wink; “Oh, don't worry. You're not gonna break it.” Such confidence!

So I get into the game, and it immediately feeds me a prompt to go right. Well, what do you think I do? Can you imagine? In your heart of hearts, what would you do?

Naturally I go left. There's a mountain there. I walk through it. I walk through everything. Collision is but a memory of the past. I look at the backs of all the textures. I walk round toward the right where I was meant to be, and shoot all the enemies, who haven't seen me, from behind a wall.

I look at the producer. I realize at this point I'm being a *tiny bit* of a jerk, but his smugness and my smugness clashed. “I thought it wasn't breakable,” I said. He looked me right in the eye and said, “Well, you weren't supposed to go left!!”

Alone in the Dark

This is one of the best moments I've ever had in any video game, bar none. So good in fact, that I have never played the final version of the game it happened in, so as to not ruin its purity.

Atari came round to the Game Developer magazine office, where I was working at the time, with a few new games. One of them was Alone in the Dark. They were showing us the various things you could do in the game; the crafting system, the combat, the driving section. It was the driving section that did it.

The producer who was demoing said “this bit's really hard, I've never beaten it.” It was an impressive mess of natural disasters, and twisty turny obstacle avoidance. But he was actually doing quite well, all of a sudden. He got excited. “I think I might beat it!” he said to all of us. The PR lady looked worried. “Maybe we should stop,” she said, “we don't know what's beyond this.” “It's fine,” he said, “they understand,” referring to those of us in the office.

Now, in fairness, I didn't break this myself, as I wasn't playing, but I feel that maybe my presence contributed? The producer managed to pass the driving bit that he'd never passed. A cutscene began. It was incomplete, and without sound. Our protagonist got out of the car. He started yelling (silently) at a woman and a man who he had caught up with. The yelling (silently) intensified. He pulled out a gun. But the gun hadn't actually been rendered yet, so he was just pantomiming holding an invisible gun. He put it to his head. He pulled the invisible trigger. At that very moment, he recoiled back, and fell through the floor, waving his useless limbs in the air as he fell, as we watched the whole world retreat into nothing above him. It's the most existential moment I've ever seen in a video game, and I don't want to ruin it with the truth of what happens in the “fixed” version of that scene.

Sonic The Hedgehog (2006)

So this one wasn't me, it was my friend Frank, who I mentioned earlier, but it's a good endcap to this whole thing. Frank and I both broke games a lot during our journalism careers, but I have to give this one to him as the ultimate break. We felt we had a bit of a magic touch, really, and sometimes it would strike without warning.

In this case, Frank just wanted to check out the new 3D Sonic the Hedgehog at E3. This was June 2006, just a few months before the game's release. He chatted up the producers a bit, asking what they liked about the game, and whatnot. He warned them the game may break if he plays it. They looked a bit worried.

The game starts. He gets to the start screen. He presses A. The game crashes to the system menu. The system resets. The system soft locks, frozen on the reboot screen. He says “uhhhh.” The producer says “uhhhhhhh.” They had to replace the dev kit because it actually locked up. Capital breaking there, Frank. I tip my invisible hat that I do not own to you. Long may you reign.