Competitive 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.
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. 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.
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.
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
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.