In 2003, I was a very serious WarCraft III player. If I recall correctly, I have over 5,000 one-on-one ladder matches logged on my Battle.net account. I watched replays every day and even did some highly amateurish commentaries myself. It’s interesting to note that some of my first-ever “internet game design articles” were WarCraft III design/strategy analyses for sites like wcreplays.com. Continue reading “Why League of Legends Is The World’s Greatest Game”
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”
“Whoops, I have the antidote for the Kragle, how did that happen?”
– Lord Business
At best, my design theory work tends to get mixed reviews. It’s my belief that if any creative work fails to connect with people, it’s the fault of the communicator. As a writer, you’re setting out to connect with people, so if you fail to do that – regardless of your reasons/explanations – it’s your fault. For the past few years, one of the most significant factors in this disconnect I’ve experienced has – to some extent, at least consciously – eluded me.
I’ve always known that many videogames are primarily toys (obvious examples being Minecraft or Grand Theft Auto), but what I failed to realize is that nearly every videogame ever made is essentially functioning at the “toy level” (which I’ll explain in a moment). I failed to realize that even supposed “strategy games” like Starcraft, Civilization, X-Com or Street Fighter are all primarily toys, despite the fact that they have many markedly game-like features and even market themselves as strategy games.
This caused me to raise concerns that failed to connect with people, because I was looking at them as games, whereas everyone else was looking at them as something much more like toys.
In addition, my criticism was actually backwards. I was complaining about the elements that damaged the game, when I should have been complaining about the elements that damaged the toy.
(In case you’re confused, here’s a quick primer on my four prescriptive interactive forms (read more here): the base interactive system with no goals is a “toy“. Add an objective/solution and you get a puzzle. Add measurement and you get a contest. Obfuscate game information (allowing for decisions to exist), and you get a game (a contest of decision-making).)
A huge point of contention has been my position on traditional videogame-style asymmetry. In 2013 I wrote an article called Debunking Asymmetry, which explained the problems I have with asymmetrical forces in games (i.e. selectable races, characters, classes, etc).
The article got a lot of attention from some well-known designers like Jon Schafer, Greg Costikyan, Raph Koster, and David Sirlin (who wrote a dismissive and mean-spirited comment which got upvoted like crazy, despite the fact that it didn’t really address my article’s points).
Overall, though, the consensus seemed to be more or less something along the lines of “you can’t say anything is good or bad”, something that I hear all the time and always found really irritating, and attributed to people being perhaps “anti-progress”. This comment from Shay Peirce somewhat embodies the sentiment as well. Here are a couple of excerpts from his comment:
“There’s no such thing as “correct” or “ideal” game design; there’s just rules of thumb, which may or may not apply to solving the problems of the specific game you’re designing, i.e. the specific experience you’re trying to give people.”
“Finally I’d like to say that your dismissal of the value of self-expression through gameplay style is, to me, breathtaking in its audacity and obtuseness.”
When I read these comments, I was really kind of confused. One of my concerns I raised in the article was what I called “playing designer”. Since the objective in, say, Street Fighter, is to win the fight, then I should choose the best character (or at least, the character I am best with) every single time. In either case, the actual “choice” of who to pick is therefore non-existent/solved.
Only if you decide to sort of step back and ask, “well, would it maybe be more fun for me to choose a character other than the best / that I am best with?” do any of the other choices become viable. In that situation, you are making a design choice – what are optimal rules for this coming match in terms of my experience, which is markedly different from strategic choice in a game, which is always about finding more optimal moves.
I brought this up, but it didn’t connect. Why not? Well, because everyone else was already assuming that of course we all make design choices. We make design choices all of the time in videogames – we’ve grown up making design choices. Early popular videogames like Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy all trained us to constantly make design choices – to make sub-optimal strategic choices for the sake of keeping ourselves entertained. We’re used to making sub-par moves for the sake of “fun”. Sometimes we refer to this as “going for style points”.
Further, we even have a derisive term for people who actually try to play optimally: “min-maxing“. Min-maxing refers to the act of picking the best stuff, especially in a role-playing game such as Dungeons & Dragons. D&D is inherently a role-playing toy, so if you’re “playing to win”, you’re playing wrong.
The “Toy Level”
Most game players and game designers are not thinking about “games” – even “strategy games” – the way I do. They are thinking about them fundamentally as toys, and since toys are so loose and formless, it’s much harder to make clear statements about what works or doesn’t work. I only know of one sure-fire way to fundamentally break toys, which I will get into in a moment.
Another example is randomness, and my positions on that. If you are thinking of something as a strategy game, hard output randomness isn’t desirable. But in a toy? Sure, why not! Well-known designer and theorist DanC once told me that I was (paraphrasing here) “obsessed with attributing value to tools”. His point was that randomness is a tool, asymmetry is a tool; everything is a tool and, echoing Shay Pierce’s sentiment, you might want any of these things in your system.
If you are operating on “the toy level” – which basically every designer on earth with the possible exception of some Eurogame / abstract designers – this is true.
I really enjoyed The Lego Movie. The theme, or controlling idea of the movie was pretty powerful: that the spirit of Legos was creativity, exploration, doing things your own way. The primary force of antagonism in the film was essentially instructions, or the super-glue that holds Lego bricks in place once set. In the first act, the main character lives his life by a strict set of rules, and throughout the story he learns to embrace his creativity. Wild, loose creativity is, after all, at the core of the spirit of legos, and of toys in general.
As I said earlier, I only know one sure-fire way to break a toy. Toys are very low on the ladder of forms, very simple, and thus, very durable. Just about anything you can imagine can work in a toy, except for one thing.
Toys break when you give them a goal.
When you give a toy a goal, it technically becomes some other form – a puzzle, a contest, or a game. The problem is that the loose, scattered bits of rules everywhere that could have made for a good toy is not strong enough to support any of those other higher forms, all of which require way more systemic support to operate properly.
Things end up hobbling along and working, but only because of the efforts of the player to ignore your goal entirely (and simply play with it like a toy), or worse, partially ignore the goal, which requires a lot of mental effort.
This might be OK for the opening introduction to your toy – i.e. the instructions that come with legos – but you should quickly abandon any sense of a real goal as soon as possible.
Some systems are very obviously toys with some goals slapped onto them. Probably the most obvious examples of this would be things like Grand Theft Auto and The Legend of Zelda. In these systems, we have a great big open world with all kinds of stuff to explore and things to do, which is then flattened out into a linear, rote chore by the missions and fetch quests. In GTA, I can go off huge ramps and drive around on rooftops and explode and jump out and parachute into the water – all kinds of fun “play” activities. Nothing takes the fun out of those like a big yellow arrow telling you exactly what to do.
RPGs, too, also have this quality. I always remember being frustrated, even as a kid, that so many weird, interesting, almost tactical spells that technically existed in Final Fantasy took a direct back-seat to something like FIR2, which just nukes them with damage. I mean, the point of Final Fantasy is to get to the end, right? To “beat the game”? We certainly don’t want to die and be “set back” further from the goal, so we should just use the damn fire spell, not muck around with other stuff that might be more interesting.
At the other end of the spectrum, though, you have supposed “strategy games” like Civilization. But now I have to do a weird mental gymnastics routine where I am trying to win, but I’m not trying to win too hard. In Civilization, I should probably look up which of the six victory conditions is the most consistently easy to win and with which nationality, and then just pick that nationality every single time and do nothing else, ever.
It’s funny – that sounds like such an alien concept, doesn’t it? I’ve played thousands of hours of various Civilization games and I did nothing of the sort. I always wanted to “try out” all the different factions and “go for” all the different victory conditions to see. What I was doing was not “trying to win”. I was “exploring the edges”, as one does with a ball or with Legos.
Even with highly competitive games like League of Legends, the reason they have so many characters and so many items is so that you can constantly “explore edges”. It only hurts a strategy game to have that much content, in that actual balance goes way out the window. Someday, when Riot stops issuing weekly balance patches (which makes solution a moving target), the community will quickly settle on the top few team builds, and soon after that, the game will die off, with some other “less-explored toy” taking its place.
When I say that videogames are broken toys, of course they aren’t so broken that they can’t be enjoyed (at least, not the popular/successful ones). Players inherently do a lot of the lifting themselves with toys, so going the extra mile or two to ignore / partially ignore goals isn’t that hard to do, and basically everyone is doing it right now and will continue doing it for some time. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t improve the situation, though.
I think it behooves us all – myself in particular – to understand that everyone else is thinking about things on the toy level, even for highly competitive games. So much of my criticism has kind of been invalid. When I complained about CCGs, or too many characters in Street Fighter, I was wrong. What I should have said was, “these things shouldn’t have goals.”
We also need to get over our anti-toy bias. Players, particularly adults, are a bit ashamed of playing with toys, and I think that needs to change. There’s nothing wrong with playing with toys.
Some might be wondering “how would you do something like Magic: The Gathering without a goal?” There’s a lot of answers to that. I believe there’s a variant of Magic: The Gathering that automates the actual “match” aspect. This might be a start; basically it’s a “deck-building toy” – you build a deck, and instantly get a number or some other feedback that allows you to explore the edges of “all Magic cards”.
The immediate response to that idea is likely, “well, that wouldn’t be fun for very long”. I agree – the problem is that Magic isn’t really that great a toy. The designers themselves weren’t entirely thinking of it as one; if they had, it’d probably have way more edges to explore. Forget completely about balance or depth or dominant strategies or any of the things that one worries about when building a strategy game.
Because toys are a primitive and simple form, it’s not hard to create a functional toy. However, creating a great toy – such as Legos – is pretty hard. Like anything else, you need some “core idea” that ties the entire thing together. Toys can – and should – be elegant, just like any other human creation.
The modern player has been raised in a world of toys. Pure strategy games, like some designer boardgames and my own Auro, can come off to today’s player as unforgiving, difficult, strange or even “feeling like work”. In time, when we have more examples of pure games, I expect this problem to diminish, but for now, I think it’s an issue.
The next thing I make with my development team, Dinofarm Games may end up being a pure, unconflicted toy. Toys are the most common language people speak these days, and part of being a good communicator is speaking to people in a language that they understand.
If we want to make toys, we need to really focus on that. Or alternatively, focus on the other forms. Portal and Professor Layton do a great job of focusing on being puzzles. Guitar Hero and Dance Dance Revolution are great, focused contests. My favorite form by far are games, so I would love it if we could start producing some unconflicted, pure strategy games as well. Outwitters is probably the closest thing to a pure, unconflicted digital game, but even it has asymmetrical forces.
I hope that in the future, developers take the point of The Lego Movie to heart. Stop spraying glue all over your toys.
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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.
- 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.
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!
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.