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”.

On the other hand, there are games where every turn, you’re choosing between a small number of either possible or strategically feasible moves. Most card games tend to fall into this category. Blackjack is a great example, where the choices are literally only “hit” or “stay” every turn. Poker is slightly more virtuosic because of the ability to scale your bet freely (although it’s still heavily on the non-virtuosic side).

 

Low Virtuosity

Games with low virtuosity are usually about eking out a slightly higher win rate than your opponents over a number of games. As any poker player will tell you, it doesn’t mean that much to win one game of poker, it’s about coming out on top over a number of matches. Blackjack experts display their skill by deciding to hit/stay correctly just a slightly higher percentage of the time than an average player would.

Here is a chart which represents the full amount of “learnable skill” for a given game. So, as you begin playing, you have the amount of skill at X, and then when you’re intermediate, maybe you’re in the middle, and when you’re advanced you’re over to the right.

chart1

Generally, games with low virtuosity tend to have a lower skill cap, and are more about squeezing the tiny remaining bit of skill out of the last few percentage points. Players will quickly zoom through the early and middle phases and quickly hit the “high skill” section, gaining between 95 and 99% of the skill in the game.

chart2

Games in this category that are successful – games that people really play – tend to be heavily reliant on randomness to blur out that last 1% and make it feel more like it’s maybe 5 percent, 10 percent, or much more. This is largely where the game placebo effect comes into play. In people’s defense, it’s very difficult to tell how much of the reason your friend beat you is that he has higher skill, and how much of it is just randomness.

These games have low depth and deal with this by making the task of accessing that depth really difficult through output randomness, which is basically inefficiency.

 

High Virtuosity

Games with high virtuosity tend to have a feeling that you can “do anything” in them. They have a free, toy-like feel to them that allows you to do things like run around, stop on a dime, “micro-manage”, etc. They tend to have continuous space or at least some kind of continuous resource (betting or bidding in many games is a source of virtuosity). In these games, the chart looks more skewed to the left, with players never really able to access most of what’s possible in the system.

chart3

While low virtuosity has the appeal of feeling simple and elegant, high virtuosity has the appeal of feeling “free” and allowing for expression. They also tend to be better at “simulating something”.

They also allow one player to make “virtuoso” plays – insanely brilliant plays that utterly dominate the game. There’s a large degree of romance for extremely lopsided outcomes in games… whether it makes for good game design, or not.

Unfortunately, high virtuosity games tend to be oppressive to play. They tend to overload the player with too many choices and sometimes require years of practice before the player feels even a basic competence. Further, because they’re so loose, many decisions tend to be a little bit loose, or random, in terms of the feedback they give you.

Ever notice how you can sort of slap a “bidding system” onto any game, and it sort of works? Well, the reason designers generally don’t do that, even though it would kind of work, is because of loose feedback. There’s too much resolution and no one can tell whether the winning $305 bid that won the match could have been a $300 bid – it’s too unknowable.

 

Solution

You want the “skill spectrum” of your game to be efficient. You don’t want there to be a ton of headroom on the high end that no one ever accesses, and you don’t want players to zoom through 99% of your skill range and fight over that last 1%. You don’t want players to have to play a best of 11 (or worse) to find out who’s actually playing better.

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It’s also not desirable to allow players to do too many obviously bad choices. That’s a ton of noise that players have to filter out. It’s terrifying for new players and taxing for everyone.

You want a game to be just free enough so that players can use creativity in their choices, but enough structure so that those choices make sense, better answers are knowable, and play is channeled in an efficient way.

How many choices is that? Well, it’s hard to say. I can say with certainty that if your game has only three to five options per turn, that’s probably too few. And if it has more than around eighteen reasonable choices per turn, that’s likely too many. The sweet spot in between there is going to change from system to system, and there may be exceptions, but this is a decent guideline that I think will be helpful in at least understanding the concept. With only three choices, there’s really not enough room to show much skill in a single turn, because, well – there’s only three choices. Think of it like “multiple choice” tests.

On the high end, how did I get eighteen as a rough number? Well, it’s mostly kind of just… experience, really, although I think people will agree that if you have more than some number like eighteen actual, legitimate things to choose from, that’s veering back into the “Go” land of too many choices.

It’s easy to create an elementally simple thing. It’s easy to create a giant box of toys. What’s hard is to create a finely balanced machine that gives the benefits of both, and the downsides of neither, and that will be somewhere in the middle of the virtuosity scale.

 

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  • Jake Forbes

    Great topic, Keith. It’s one I grapple with as both a designer and as a eurogame player. Uwe Rosenberg is a designer whose larger efforts are pretty far to the left in the high virtuosity camp. With Agricola, he hit a sweet spot where seemingly overhelming choices are constrained by the theme — harvest cycle and punishment for not feeding. His spiritual successor, Caverna, I find falls off the deep end with these abundant choices not being constrained so freedom can turn into flailing. Innovation is a card game with a high degree of virtuosity that is very tough to measure skill, but I still find it satisfying because the extreme variability from such a simple set of components is its own kind of elegance. It’s a dangerous path for the reasons you point out, but I do love to chase that feeling of freedom of choice that’s like catnip to a mechanics nut.

  • Jereshroom

    Glad to have more game design vocab!

  • Al Leduc

    “I can say with certainty that if your game has only three to five options per turn, that’s probably too few.” Interesting, I’d consider this to be closer to the sweet spot for a board game. Having too many meaningful decisions slows the game play down too much as players will suffer from Analysis Paralysis. Personally, I like the feel of 2 or 3 meaningful decisions.

  • gerryq

    Indeed, if chess was played with a very good computer referee, and the referee selected five moves it thought were reasonable and your move was to pick one of them, it would be quite like real chess except for the opening!

    It might be better in this sense: no game would be spoiled by a player making a terrible blunder and dropping a piece or such like.