The Virtuosity Scale

scale

One thing to think about when designing a game is trying to figure out what “degree of virtuosity” you want to allow. I mean this in a bit of a prescriptive way, which I’ll explain.

Some games offer you a huge number of possible choices per “turn” or per “moment”. Having a high degree of range of motion means more potential for creative actions. You can literally do something that ten onlookers watching hadn’t even considered. I’d say abstract games with a big grid like Go are good examples, but also complex real time games like StarCraft or Team Fortress 2 certainly qualify here, too. We’ll say that these games have “high virtuosity”. Continue reading “The Virtuosity Scale”

Asymmetry in Games

 

asymmetry

A few years ago, I had written an article called “Debunking Asymmetry“. I think that that piece makes some mistakes about how it framed some of the problems of asymmetric forces in games.

Quickly, a definition – “asymmetry”, in this context, refers to the player or players having different abilities from the start of a match. A Street Fighter II character, a StarCraft race, or a Magic: The Gathering deck all would qualify (for the purpose of this article, I will just use “character” to refer to any of these, as a shorthand). Continue reading “Asymmetry in Games”

Uncapped Look-Ahead and the Information Horizon

chess

I write a lot about how bad output randomness is for games, but today I want to write about a problem common in many deterministic games – specifically ones that lack hidden information.

Why doesn’t everyone just play chess, if it’s so great? The answer is that chess, or other ancient abstracts like Go and shogi, or even modern abstracts like the Gipf games, Through the Desert or Hive – these games really aren’t that great. They are all largely “look-ahead contests”, and people pick up on this, consciously or subconsciously, and it makes them all kind of annoying to play.

 

Look-Ahead

Here’s the process of look-ahead in action: what will happen if I make move X? Once move X is made, what will happen if the opponent makes moves A, B or C? If he should make move A, then I can make moves D, E or F… and so on. It’s literally scanning through every possible (or reasonably valid-seeming) move that you can. Games of chess, at least at novice and intermediate levels of play, tend to come down to simply who does more of this. One way to put it is that it’s a matter of quantity, not quality. Continue reading “Uncapped Look-Ahead and the Information Horizon”

Toys and the Adult Mind

toys and the adultI’ve been thinking about this idea for awhile now that for adults, toys have inherently way less value than puzzles, contests and especially games do. A friend of mine made a point that fantasy simulators, a kind of toy, could have significant value for adults if they were just vastly better than they are now. This is, I think, what everyone assumes to be the case. However, I think even with massive improvements, exponential improvements, toys still could not compete with games.

This idea of “Virtual Reality” is kind of central to everything most people do and think about and imagine and create when it comes to interactive entertainment. It’s always been the be-all, end-all solution to the problem of “what would be the most fun thing to do?”

I’ve loosely rejected that premise for years now, but I think until recently I also accepted that perhaps a super-sophisticated real-world simulator – like a real-life The Matrix kind of thing – would be probably similar in intellectual value for use by a human as chess would.

But here’s the problem: once you have your Matrix thing – what are you going to actually do? Crash a car? Run around in the woods? Shoot a bunch of people? Jump off a building?

How long is it interesting to do those things in Grand Theft Auto? Ironically, the most interesting thing I can imagine doing in a The Matrix simulator would be to… do the same things I do in real life. Have an interesting conversation. Watch a great film. Play a great game. In real life, I spend very little time doing the kinds of things that one would do in The Matrix, and not because it’s unsafe, but because it’s uninteresting.

Efficient Complexity

The problem with humans is that we’re way too smart. Think about the human adult’s relationship with a ball. If one is around, we might kick it around or toss it in the air, but engaging with it doesn’t compete with almost anything else we spend our day doing. Most adults spend 0.01 to 0.001% of their free time, on average, bouncing or throwing a ball around, because there are just way better things to do. Bouncing a ball around, even throwing it back and forth with another person, is just too simple. We “get it” about how a ball works in space.

bouncyball-30-lgSome have a fantasy about taking one of those small rubber super-bouncy balls (the kind you can find in 25-cent vending machines) and bouncing it as hard as you can in a small room. At first, it seems like this would be pretty exciting, but actually, most of the excitement of this comes from novelty, and maybe a small remaining bit of excitement comes from danger (I might break a window, or hit myself in the eye or something). In terms of what’s actually happening, even in this very extreme version of “ball bouncing around”, nothing will really surprise us.

Let’s say, though, that we want to make this interesting – let’s litter the room with dominoes, army men, and fine china. This is, indeed, increasing the amount of complexity in the room, and so it should now be more interesting.

But it’s weird. How much more interesting is it? In a way, it takes way more time to add in that complexity than it does for us to understand what will happen when activate it. So yes, it’s more complex, but in order to make this room interesting, we’d have to put millions of agents in there or something. Humans are just way too good at understanding physics. I can’t even imagine a room with enough stuff where what would happen would surprise me. It’s all just physics at different frequencies.

Another example might be the portals in Portal. Even though we’re talking about teleportation here – a total breaking of the currently understood laws of physics, human beings totally understand it within minutes of play, and then using portals is every bit as normal to us as walking or driving or any other method of moving from A to B. Playing with Portal as a toy is fun for a similar amount of time as playing with a ball.

Meaningful Complexity

So why is Portal interesting, then, if the actual portal mechanism itself isn’t enough to be interesting? The reason is that the missions in Portal provide context for that complexity. Puzzles give a system a goal, and then goal then serves as an anchor which now gives relative meaning to every bit of complexity in that system. Now a spacial relationship can become interesting, because there is a goal which gives positions meaning.

Both “massively increasing the complexity of GTA” and the “the “bouncy ball in the room full of china” has the same problem of horrible inefficiency, because nothing in those systems is giving anything context. Nothing “matters”. Okay, so I broke a bunch of china. So what? What does that mean? The way china breaks isn’t actually interesting. Or for the Matrix thing – what are you going to do that’s actually going to be interesting? The best you can do is something that’s novel or spectacular – both of which are values that have extremely short half-lives.

In Portal, though, we have a goal – solve the puzzle. So now each bit of complexity we add actually means a lot. In fact, it means so much, that we have to be incredibly careful about what we add to it. In toys, you don’t have to be particularly careful about what you add, because nothing means anything. In puzzles, contests or games, every bit of complexity can have massive impacts on the system – this is what makes it extremely hard to make a great game.

In short, here’s another way to frame it: imagine a chess board sitting in that room full of china. You can grab your Queen, and throw it as hard as you can against a wall, bouncing it all over the place. The complexity that’s there is huge – tons of physics operations are happening, something might break in all kinds of different ways, etc – way more inherent complexity than could ever happen on a chessboard while playing chess. Yet, playing chess is vastly more interesting. This is because the complexity that is there for chess is both large and has meaning.

This combination of “large possibility space and has meaning” is the reason, I think, that games have the greatest potential for delivering value to adults. They can have massive emergent complexity, and yet all of that complexity can have meaning. Puzzles and contests are necessarily limited in their potential for complexity, and toys don’t have a goal.

To add one caveat – toys are sometimes also “creation tools”, and to the extent that they are, they no doubt have huge value that’s absolutely on a par with a game. However, if you think about it, when you’re using Garry’s Mod or Minecraft as a “creation tool”, you’re actually adding a goal, turning it into a puzzle of sorts.

I should also mention that for children, even understanding the basic physics of reality is profound and interesting. It takes them a long time to really get a grasp on such things – the example of the baby being amused by “Peek-a-Boo” is a good example of how much our brains really do change as we age.

For us adults – forget about virtual reality, fantasy simulation, and the like. We already have the ultimate form – games – we’re just so focused on stuff like fantasy simulation, technological spectacle and other novelty that we haven’t really been trying to dive in to find their potential.

Version 1.2 – Updated Nov 2015.

 

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Debunking Asymmetry

street-fighter-2-7

Note: I consider this article to be out-of-date. I have written a newer article on the subject which much better reflects my updated views. However, I’ve kept this article up, because of the excellent comments section (definitely check that out).

Like anyone else who grew up playing videogames, I have a great romance for “videogame-style asymmetry”.  What I’m referring to with “videogame-style asymmetry” is a quality that games such as StarCraft or Street Fighter have, where you “choose your character” or “choose your race” before the game even begins.

This kind of asymmetry is so beloved for a number of reasons, all of which I understand on a deep level, having experienced and immersed myself in it for my entire life.  However, after years of grappling with it, I’ve disappointingly come to realize that this kind of asymmetry is less than ideal for game design.  I am sad to have come to this conclusion, but I’m comforted by the fact that as always, I’m only talking about guidelines for ideal game design.  So, this doesn’t mean you can never make a game with videogame-style asymmetry, it just means that if you do, you should understand the costs.

I should qualify that this is distinct from “inherent asymmetry”, as is the case in the children’s game of “tag” (where one person is “it” and the other must escape), or even the popular videogame Counter-Strike.  To illustrate, in Counter-Strike, one team is always “the terrorists”, and they have a distinct objective.  The other team is always “the counter-terrorists”, and they always have a different objective than the terrorists.  It’s not as though teams select whether they’d like their team to be Terrorist or Counter-Terrorist and you could end up with a mirror match or something; there are no CS “matchups”.  And CS still has high levels of asymmetry due to the fact that you can choose your guns, which means it might be SMG versus Shotgun (although in practice, most of the time it’s M4 versus AK).

Beyond that, though, There aren’t many popular examples of more “strong” inherent asymmetry.  One that comes to mind is the boardgame 2 de Mayo, a two-player game wherein one player is the French, who have tons of forces pouring in from all directions on the map, and the Spanish, who have limited forces in the middle.  They have asymmetrical amounts of power, but also asymmetrical objectives: the Spanish simply have to survive at all until the last round in order to win.

Red are Spanish, Blue are French.
2 de Mayo: Red are Spanish, Blue are French.  Each have a roughly equal shot at winning due to asymmetrical win conditions.

The difference between “inherent asymmetry” and “videogame asymmetry” (maybe a better, albeit less-catchy term for it might be “componential asymmetry”) is that with inherent asymmetry, you don’t get to “configure the game”.  Sure, you can choose who will be the French/Spanish, or you can choose who will be “It” in tag, but it’s more like choosing who goes first than the process of selecting a character in Street Fighter. Continue reading “Debunking Asymmetry”

The Greater Value of Competitive Games

109698-221223-SC21jpg-620xCompetitive games should be valued by all of us, even those of us who don’t play games competitively.  This is because whether you’re playing a game competitively or not, a competitive game is, put simply, a better, stronger game. More importantly, a competitive game is also more one that’s more fun to play.

For the purposes of this article, I’d like to define “competitive games” a little bit more specifically than it is colloquially defined, although my definition is still consistent with the definition you’d expect.

 

A competitive game is a contest of decision-making that is both deep enough and balanced enough to withstand serious play for at least 10 years.

 

A few notes on this definition. The “10 years” number is totally arbitrary, and only given as a broad, general example to represent “a long time”. Preferably, a good competitive game lasts longer – the longer, the better. I simply mean that to be a competitive game at all, you have to hold up to serious play – play that is actively seeking truly optimal moves – for more than a few years.

Also, don’t think that because I’m using the phrase “contest of decision-making” that this contest can’t include other elements such as execution or randomness. I personally feel that better games use less of these elements, but that’s beyond the point of this article.  It’s simply meant to imply that these are, broadly, “strategy games”, and certainly games of skill.  So, a completely luck-based competitive activity, such as the card game War, would not qualify.

Finally, as with most of my writing, this article is really directed towards coming up with solutions for games that have not yet been designed.  It is not primarily meant to be a lens through which to observe currently existing games, although to some degree it can be used that way, and I will use it that way to illustrate my points.

 

Non-Competitive Games

Most “videogames” or “boardgames” that most of us could name would not fall into the category I just described, which is probably obvious. Here are some of the reasons for this:

  • Excessive randomness:  We all draw a line in the sand somewhere at how random is “too random” for us to be interested in playing a given game.  Similarly, there is a line somewhere where a game is too random to be played competitively.  At some point, a system is sufficiently random where the impact of skill is too negligible for people to want to invest seriously in it, at least without some external motivator like “betting on real money” or huge cultural attachment.
  • Too Solvable/Shallow:  Some abstract games, and most videogames tend to fall into this category.  Essentially, if people can figure out what the optimal strategy is pretty quickly, that’s a problem, because the decision-space shrinks up and players have nothing left to explore and no room to “get better” than other players, which is the basic core of competitive play.
  • No Support:  Boardgames tend to suffer this problem, since they can’t be easily “patched”.  Indeed, there’s a tremendous cost to issuing new “editions” of boardgames, and most games never get popular enough to warrant this cost.  Most boardgames that get new editions do so because it’s been 20 years since the last edition, or there’s a new publisher, or they wanted to upgrade the art.  Very few boardgames actually issue new versions because they want to improve balance or gameplay – David Sirlin being one notable exception, and he gets a tremendous amount of grief for doing so. The boardgame world is not quite ready for this idea of editions for pure game-balance reasons yet, it seems.
    For videogames, it’s cheaper to support your game years down the line, but still, many developers either don’t value doing it, or possibly can’t afford to do it, and it never gets done.

 

David Sirlin's "Puzzle Strike" got this upgrade pack which improved game balance.  I haven't heard of many other boardgame people doing similar things yet, unfortunately.
David Sirlin’s “Puzzle Strike” got this upgrade pack which improved game balance. I haven’t heard of many other boardgame people doing similar things yet, unfortunately.  Classically, both Puzzle Strike and the card game Dominion are “competitive games”, but PS is designed to be played competitively and that that’s what makes it better than Dominion

 

  •  Technical Stupidness: Weirdly enough, lots of modern videogames that would otherwise be competitive aren’t getting balance patches.  Maybe someone else can fill me in on what the excuse for this is – there might be an excuse that exists, but there is certainly no justification.

In short, a large reason why so few games are really competitive games is because there’s a lack of will to make sure games can be competitive in the first place.  I’ll now explain why it’s basically it’s everyone’s interest if more games (contests of decision-making) are competitive games.

 

 

“Competitive Game” versus “Pro Gamer”

If you’re a person who plays games, chances are you are not a person who plays games competitively. That is to say, you probably don’t devote hours per day to “practicing” your favorite game, you probably don’t enter into tournaments, and you almost certainly don’t make your living playing games.

Since you are probably not such a person, and you probably do not plan to ever become such a person, you may well believe that whether a game could be classified as shouldn’t be of great importance to you. If I only play Game X about two hours a week, then I won’t ever get to the point with it where I realize that it’s kind of broken and degenerate play emerges.

The thinking is, I’m only really seeing 5% of what this game is really about – only 5% of its strategy space – so who cares if the guy who sees 50% or 80% realizes it’s broken?  The answer is that your brain cares.  The tip of an iceberg still has a direct relationship to the iceberg and all of its qualities.  A game that has a small usable decision-space will feel that way to a player, even if he or she is only barely scratching the surface of the strategic possibilities.

I’ll illustrate with a fictional example, comparing two theoretical spaceship deathmatch games: Game A and Game B.  In both games, you’re in a small space arena with another player, and in the center of the screen there’s a black hole which draws both players towards it.  The objective of both games is to knock the other player into the black hole, and both games have 4 buttons:  turn left, turn right, accelerate, and turbo (a fast accelerate).  The screen loops around at the edges, like Atari 2600’s Combat.

 

Picture something a bit like Spacewar!, but without any shooting.
Picture something a bit like Spacewar!, but without any shooting.

 

In Game A, when players press the accelerate button, they reach their ship’s top speed instantly and stay at it until they let go.  Also, the Turbo button makes you go exactly twice the speed of accelerating, for one second.  If you hit the opponent while turbo charging, it gives them the exact same amount of inertia in the direction you were moving every time.

In Game B, acceleration ramps up slowly, and Turbo has a slight exponential effect.  So, if you use it while going slowly, it might bring you to 110% of your current speed, but if you use it while moving quickly, it might bring you to 200% of your current speed.

Game B has more dynamism to it, more synergistic rule relationships, and therefore more potential depth / possibility space Game A.  Both games are functional, though, and if you’re only going to play it for 20 minutes, it might not seem to matter that game B has more possibility space.  But it matters despite this, because even if you’re only using 5% of the possibility space of Game A, your brain can feel that larger possibility space there, and that’s exciting.

What this means is that even if you only play a given game for two hours a week, those two hours will be better in a system that can stand up to long-term competitive play, precisely because the possibility space is larger, even if you don’t access that larger possibility space, because you can feel that that larger possibility space is there, and that in and of itself is exciting.  You notice that sometimes you get going really goddamn fast, and you find yourself imagining, and you notice that your velocity is passed to the opponent on contact, and your mind starts to imagine the possibilities.  This is how deep games entice us to want to play more.

Essentially, what I’m saying is, competitive games are more fun, whether you’re playing them competitively or not.

 

 

Moving Forward

More companies need to start getting serious about competitive play.  Right now, if you want to play a competitive game, you’ve got a very small pool of options.  I will not be listing all of the options here, but some of the most significant ones.

Blizzard’s RTSes like Starcraft 2 and Warcraft 3 are both very serious competitive games.  Indeed, I probably had more fun reading the patch notes and watching the balancing process happen in both of these games than I did actually playing them.

DotA and other DotA-inspired games (League of Legends being the most notable – and by the way, I hereby formally do not recognize “MOBA” as a genre, but rather one single game design idea; it’s sad to me that when the videogame industry comes up with one new game idea they consider it a “genre”, but I digress) are also examples of competitive games, for sure, although they also seem to have a horrible habit of setting themselves up for failure with a commitment to “constantly add new content to the system”, which means that balance will be impossible.

I have to mention Outwitters on iOS, which is not only my favorite digital game that has been made, but also is making some serious effort to be competitively viable.  I’ve heard rumblings about the game getting too defensive and kind of breaking down at the highest levels of play, but they’ve also been making efforts to combat that, and I really appreciate this!

Outwitters!  Get it for your iOS device.  Or get an iOS device so that you can play it
Outwitters! Get it for your iOS device. Or get an iOS device so that you can play it

Fighting games and certain FPSes (Team Fortress 2 comes to mind) also have had very rigorous balancing processes, and they are solid examples of competitive games.  I feel bad for a lot of fighting games, such as Super Smash Brothers 64, who had literally zero opportunities for patching, but otherwise could have been excellent competitive games.

In the boardgame world, you have Magic: The Gathering, which again is doomed because of its horrible commitment to perpetual content additions. You have a number of other games that could certainly be made competitive, if the developers cared to / were capable of creating balance patches/editions, but for whatever reason, that doesn’t seem to happen.

This is of course not counting famous folk abstracts and card games like Bridge, Go, or Chess, which are all serious competitive games which have existed for hundreds (or thousands in the case of Go) of years. Sports, too. But again, I’m not counting these, because I’m specifically talking about the world of game design, and how we can and should move forward.

 

Let’s Make Competitive Games

I want to make Auro a competitive game. It don’t expect that it will be competition-ready by the time it’s released, but I hope that after a few months of balancing and tweaking post-release, it will be. And even if it isn’t, the point is, I’ll be trying.

That “trying” is really important, I think. When I see that a developer is constantly issuing new balance patches, it makes me immediately excited for a game, and when I see the opposite – a game that’s simply left to wither on the vine – I feel the opposite. I don’t want to get into a game that isn’t actively being taken care of.

Another thing I should mention: just because a game is deep and competitive does not mean that it has to be hard to play or hard to learn. The other half of the battle in game design is making an accessible game. I think Outwitters, and I hope Auro both achieve this. But there is nothing to “being a deep competitive game” that inherently means you’ll be less accessible. You can, and should strive to, achieve both.

A competitive game is a deeper game, and a deeper game is a better game. By shooting to make competitive games, we can make better games, so let’s do that.