Game Mechanics: Lock Picking

Whether it's dedicated picks, paper clips or bobby pins, lock picking is an aspect of many games. In skill-based games, it's a great way of rewarding players (depending how well they've developed the skill) and for survival games, it's a way of providing an extra reward for players who are willing to take the risk of opening a lock in a dangerous area.

But there is a problem with lock picking – almost no-one picks locks in the real world.

Lock picking is a highly skilled, and sometimes time consuming, way of opening a lock. Picking uses defects caused by the manufacturing process to allow the person picking it to move the individual parts of the lock (the pins or the flags) which are usually moved by the key. Picking has been known for centuries and many lock manufacturers have built in counter measures to make picking locks far harder.

video game mechanics lock pickingA much more common way of opening a lock is with a device called a "pick gun". Confusingly, a pick gun doesn't actually pick the lock, but makes all the pins in the lock jump up at the same time so that the lock's defects allow it to be opened with ease. Lock guns require very little skills and are quite fast.

Another common way of opening a locked door or container is to bypass the lock completely by inserting something via the letter box (mail slot) or the door jamb which opens the latch from the inside. You're probably seen movie characters using a credit card to open a door in the past and although a credit card isn't really suitable for the job, it is a good example of bypassing a lock.

If you're not worried about someone knowing that you've opened a lock, you can destroy it. Drilling the lock out if the most common method of destructively bypassing a lock, but snapping and pulling are two other methods which don't require electricity and are much quieter.

So what is the most common way of opening a lock? Criminals favour a good, swift kick or jimmying the lock, while locksmiths tend to drill them out (so they can sell you a new lock) and law enforcement officers simply batter down doors. Note the lack of picking here.

video game mechanics lock pickingConsidering that picking a lock is so rarely done, why do game developers choose it as the default way of opening a lock? For some games, it makes very little sense. It would be far easier for Fallout 4's Lone Wanderer to kick in a 200-year-old door rather than pick the lock (which, 200 years on, would have probably decayed to the point of being inoperable), for example. For other games, such as Dying Light, breaking open a door or container would be less desirable at times due to the noise that would make (which would attract the zombies), but why not give players a choice of smashing open a lock or opening it quietly?

Things could be expanded further but giving characters different tools or consumables. Drilling the lock could be an option, providing your drill has the power and the bit hasn't broken, along with pulling, if you have the screws, or snapping the lock if you have a snapping bar and the strength to use it. In stealth games, a broken lock could alert the enemies to your presence so bypassing the lock, again the method you choose determining the noise generated and how long it takes to get it open and limited by the skills and equipment available.

Considering the options available when it comes to opening locks, and that opening locks is such a great way of rewarding players to take the time to engage in this activity, it's a shame that picking is the only option offered. It would be fantastic to see more games which offered players a wider choice, and rewarded them for learning and using the best approach.

Nick Bown is Screenjabber's Technical Director and occasionally finds the time to write as part of the Games team. Hailing from a time when computer games came on tape and consoles had wood effect cases, Nick has been gaming for a while and regularly enjoys PC and console titles. As a hardware nerd, he can often be found tinkering with the innards of gaming rigs and servers or explaining the difference between L2 cache and system RAM to those keen to take their gaming hardware to the next level!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Please tick the box to prove you're a human and help us stop spam.


No one has commented on this page yet.

RSS feed for comments on this page | RSS feed for all comments