An often controversial element of gameplay that unexpectedly trumps all others. Depending upon who you ask, it may or may not be considered cheating. A Game-Breaker is a legitimate element of the game used in an unintended way. The Meta Game ends up revolving around who can get the Game-Breaker (or use it on the other) first, resulting in Gameplay Derailment.
A Game-Breaker can boost a pre-existing strategy or character and make it overwhelmingly powerful against things it would normally be balanced against — Scissors crushing Rock, so to speak. One fan term for it is "cheesing".
For example, in a game where the player's capabilities are meant to be limited by their access to currency, an easy trick that reaps a lot of money for little effort can become a game breaker. Or a particular gun having extreme firepower, high accuracy, and a high ammo capacity; or a Fighting Game character having a fast, unblockable move with very high priority (the ally equivalent to the SNK Boss). In games with a choice of playable characters, one may be much easier than the others and allow for skipping parts of levels that other characters would have to wade through slowly.
Another example is the potentially convoluted win/make-then-sell exploit, which is common in games with customizable items. A borderline example may be the trick of saving your game before a random item appears and reloading until you get the particular item you want, also known as Save Scumming.
Patches will often seek to rectify this. However, this often leads to an outcry among players who favored the original tactic. Worse, sometimes the nerfing of one Game-Breaker results in another Game-Breaker being discovered as a result, prompting the developers to consider whether they should apply a patch for the second one, or undo the previous patch so the two Game Breakers will balance each other out as they used to.
Game-Breakers are often controversial and subjective. Rarely do people actually agree on what is and is not game-breaking. Heated debates (or worse) over Game-Breakers spread like wildfire on the Internet, or even around the house. It's obvious that the extremes of the Munchkin or the Scrub are wrong. However, there are techniques whose power is hard or even impossible to call.
Banning glitches and "unintentional" moves is usually a difficult thing to do. Sometimes it can be hard to tell whether something is a glitch or not, sometimes a glitch happens so often that you'd have to go out of your way to have it not happen, and other times it can be argued that a glitch adds more depth to a game rather than less.
The upshot is that you should probably take most of the below examples of multiplayer games with a kilo of salt. (No, not that kind of salt.)
Unlike video games, many Tabletop RPGs (except most modern ones) have a built-in check in the form of the Game Master, who can override published rules for the sake of everyone's enjoyment; thus, with a good Game Master, no Game-Breaker is possible (unless the game is SenZar). However, this naturally carries the corollary that, with a bad Game Master, the game comes pre-broken. Just what is and isn't game-breaking is, again, controversial, and many GMs have to deal with a limited player base; too heavy or too light a hand may alienate players and destroy the Game Master's plan.
Compare Disc-One Nuke and Sequence Breaking. A Lethal Joke Character may be one of these, as will the One-Man Party if the game's balance is easily skewed. Lightning Bruisers are also common candidates. Some Boring, but Practical moves/tactics may border on this. That One Attack, when available un-nerfed to players, usually becomes this, as will any particularly powerful Min Maxers Delight. The Obvious Rule Patch is typically a response (but not necessarily a typical response) to the presence of this trope. Contrast The Computer Is a Cheating Bastard, as well as Skill Gate Characters that appear this way to newbies but can be taken apart by experts. Difficult, but Awesome characters can also be this when they're so overwhelmingly powerful when mastered that there's no way to beat a skilled user. Often overlaps with Tier-Induced Scrappy.
Oftentimes, your average Cheese Strategy will use this to grand effect, particularly if the game-breaking aspect of it is something that even the least-skilled or least-knowledgeable player would still be able to figure out, but just because something is a Cheese Strategy doesn't make it a game-breaker, nor vice-versa. Only if it is a truly-unbalanced mechanic would they intersect.
A power-up that would be a game-breaker, except that it only appears when the game is essentially over, is Purposely Overpowered — note that most examples of these tend to be single-player affairs, where there are no other opponents to become offended over it. For stats that, once boosted to a high enough degree, make the character into a Game-Breaker, see One Stat to Rule Them All.
Note that this is not another word for 'overpowered'. To be a true game breaker, the ability or character in question must be so hideously unbalanced that it makes people just quit the game in disgust. It's so powerful that there are only two kinds of people: the ones that use it, and the ones that lose to it. That's why people quit in disgust: it destroys all semblance of choice, and quite possibly all semblance of fun. Your available tactics are now limited to one—the one that works. And what if you don't like that tactic? What if it's a gun in a game where you prefer swordplay? What if it involves Attack! Attack! Attack! when you're more of a defensive turtler? What if it requires you to play the Mighty Glacier but you're a Fragile Speedster player? Well, then, it sucks to be you. You can play the game the way you want to, and lose... or you can follow the crowd, and maybe win. Small wonder some players Take a Third Option and Rage Quit instead.
Not to be confused with Game-Breaking Bug, for when you can literally "break" the game by crashing the underlying software or leaving your saved game in an Unwinnable state, or Game Changer. The narrative equivalent of this trope is Story-Breaker Power.
- Any game with a finite number of states and which does not make use of randomness may be mathematically solved, resulting in a guaranteed win or draw ("perfect play") for whoever has the correct starting conditions. "Perfect play" does not mean "good play", it means being able to see every potential future state of the game and choosing the absolute best move at each point. Thus, there really is only one way to play these games "perfectly," except when choices are pretty much equivalent. Once a strategy for perfect play is discovered, the game can be considered completely broken, unless played by naive players. The most well-known example of this is Tic-Tac-Toe, which any skilled player can play perfectly to a draw.
- Connect Four has been solved, and becomes a first player win for perfect play. To two sufficiently advanced programs playing the game, the game comes down to who wins the coin flip for first turn.
- Checkers may be the most popular solved game. The game has 500 quintillion possible states. No human can comprehend all that. From a sufficiently advanced computer's point of view, Checkers is as trivial as Tic-Tac-Toe. Perfect play results in a draw. Because humans lack this perspective, we cannot play Checkers perfectly and don't grow bored of it like we do Tic-Tac-Toe.
- Chess and Go, the quintessential games for geniuses, are both in principle solvable by computation, as both games have a finite board and no random elements — though it would require a computer many orders of magnitude better than anything available now. For some perspective, there are about 10^120 possible chess games compared with about 10^80 atoms in the observable universe. Go is worse because it branches out much more, making the options explode too widely to analyze with the methods used for Chess in any reasonable timeframe, with no obvious way of pruning 'bad' choices quickly.
- On a double-meta level, the strategy-stealing argument, which can prove for many games that perfect play isn't a win for player 2, without anyone having to figure out what perfect play actually constitutes. It works on any game where the players start in the same scenario, and getting an extra turn can never harm you. Notably, this does not include Chess or Go, as there are scenarios in Chess where every possible move weakens your position, but passing isn't allowed, and Go traditionally gives player 2 some extra points to compensate for the known advantage player 1 has.
- Additionally, as Go's metagame has evolved, the points given to player 2 has risen over time, as players have found going first to be more and more advantageous.
- Tic-Tac-Toe, Connect 4, and Chess also help introduce some ideas about why a game might be easier or harder to solve. Consider Tic-Tac-Toe. At first, it seems like the first player has 9 options for where to place their first mark, but that isn't the case. The play space is symmetrical. Each corner square is functionally identical, as is each side square. Thus, there are really only three options: side, corner, or center. Suppose first player chooses the center square. Now second player only has two options: corner or side. The number of meaningful choices in the game is surprisingly small, and it can be broken with a brute force search through those possibilities with a sheet of scrap paper.
- Connect 4 has a symmetrical seven columns the first player can place their piece in, so really they have only four choices for first turn: center, one away from center, one away from the outside edge, and outer edge. If they drop into the center, the second player has the same number of choices (4), but if they drop into any of the other columns, then there is now a difference between all of the columns and second player has 7 choices, and so on. It takes a computer to use brute force to go through that many possible moves.
- The chessboard is not symmetrical, and there is a difference between moving the king's bishop's pawn one square and the queen's bishop's pawn one square. White has 8 distinct pawns that can move to one of two squares and two knights that also could move to two different squares each, for a total of 20 possible initial moves. Black has the same options, for another 20 distinct responses. That's four hundred possible states for the game after both players have had their first turn: after both players have had two turns there are 197,742 possible states, and after three, 121,000,000.
- So far, we've looked at board games. In theory, however, there is no reason that a hypothetical computer with enough power couldn't solve a competitive video game or develop a perfect speed run or max score run if the game has no random factor. Time and distance and options in video games by definition are finite and discrete.
- Consider Pac-Man. Every ghost has a simple script that tells it where to go, which famously gave each ghost its personality. The speed of Pac-Man and every ghost, as well as the duration of each power-up and appearance of each bonus item, was determined from the start of the game. Thus, a hypothetical computer could solve the game for whatever a human determines is perfect play, such as obtaining the maximum possible score before the Kill Screen or else getting to the kill screen as quickly as possible.
- Remarkably, six humans have indeed managed a perfect score in Pac-Man, so a fair definition for a perfect game of Pac-Man might be, "Get the maximum possible score in the shortest amount of time, as measured in frames."
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