So I found these super cool guys at Kill Screen who run a column called The Meta. It’s the way they talk about games that caught my attention. Just look at the opening to a conversation they had about animation canceling in games:
“All animation cancels should be destroyed.”
Woah. I can count the people I know who make statements like that on one hand. I love that it’s such a strong position, because even if someone disagrees, the conversation that follows is bound to be interesting. You should definitely check it out.
The fundamental question of the conversation is this: “Is it okay for a game to have unintuitive, unexplained aspects of its technique in the name of skill?” Animation canceling, can of worms that it is, is only one aspect of the issue. And if you’re reading this and saying “WTF is animation canceling?” consider yourself a perfect demonstration of the problem.
But there’s one quote in particular that I want to talk about. It’s a quote that subtly colored the entire conversation, and it exposes some of the biases that we have about how to make games.
Justin Groot: “Aren’t mechanics that make things arbitrarily more difficult essentially the definition of any competitive game though?”
What a question. There’s a lot of baggage implied there, and I want to unpack it. It seems obvious that competitive games need skill, but it really matters what he means by “skill.” Not all skills are compatible with each other, and using conventional skills like dexterity and reflexes has a way of limiting a designer’s imagination, of cutting off all kinds of depth that other skills have to offer. Above all, designers should be purposeful and shrewd about which skills they put into their games instead of relying on whatever skills accidentally made it in.
Gotta Have Skill
Let’s dig into that quote. Groot suggests that for a game about competition to work, there have to be things in it that are hard to do. On the face of it, that’s not wrong. Without some capacity for players to outperform each other, there’s no room for competition. But remember the context for that quote: he’s referencing a Dota 2 technique called “orbwalking,” a janky, unintuitive fingering technique where you alternate your mouse clicks between an enemy to attack them, and next to them to walk toward them. All of this serves to interrupt attacking animations that would otherwise have you moving slower. In other words, it’s a little dexterity mini-game you always need to play with your hands in order to optimize your performance in the game.
In that context, Groot seems to be saying something like “Well, I mean you gotta put something weird and janky into the controls of the game, otherwise there’s no SKILL to it!” And to be fair, orbwalking is legitimately a skill. Drifting in racing games is a skill, and the infamous “snaking” of Mario Kart is non-stop drifting for people with caffeine jitters. Bunny hopping in Counter-Strike is a skill, and Counter-Strike surfers elegantly fly, glide, and vault themselves through digital skate parks that you navigate by sliding around on your butt. Rocket jumping in a first-person shooter is a skill, and Team Fortress Classic players played on conc maps, dedicated stunt tracks where players flung themselves across impossible jumps and onto tiny islands of safety by blowing themselves up with grenades. One against the wall, one in the hand, nothin’ but net.
All of these things are definitely skills, and every single one of them is definitely weird and unintuitive. You can find these things in a lot of our most popular competitive games. So it seems pretty reasonable to think that games need a certain jankiness to function, because you just don’t often play games in which there isn’t any.
This attitude is actually pretty common. We get so focused on adding skill to games that we kind of don’t even care what type of skill it is sometimes. And God help you if you ever suggest that maybe you should take some of those skills out. Canceling League of Legends animations with flash? Lag-stabbing in Dark Souls? It doesn’t seem to matter how bizarre or – let’s just say it – stupid the technique or controls may be, a lot of people are just happy the skill is there at all. So when someone suggests doing away with some impenetrable, oddball gameplay-from-a-bug that requires a tutorial to even know about, the inevitable response is “But if you take that OUT, the game sucks!” along with a salvo of “git gud.” They mastered the skill, so why can’t you? Basically, games gotta have skill.
A skill doesn’t even need to be that janky, confusing, or bug-induced to qualify as “arbitrarily more difficult.” The headshot in first-person shooters is a completely straightforward example. See that guy in front of you? If you put your pixels on his pixels before he puts his pixels on your pixels, you win! Whatever else is going on strategically in this particular encounter, pixels must be pixeled before anything else can happen. And if you can put your pixels on the head-shaped pixels? Extra doubleplusgood.
It might seem to you like aiming in first-person shooters doesn’t really qualify as “arbitrary.” If so, hats off to you, Mr. Golden Arm. But have some perspective! It may seem a simple matter to you, but to people who didn’t grow up riding that bike, it’s some otherwise meaningless sleight of hand. Trying to pixel that pixel can feel pretty frustrating: there’s really no reason why you wouldn’t do it, and the only thing stopping you is moving your muscles in not quite the right way, or – dare I say it – an arbitrary way.
It may feel natural to put headshots into a game already about aiming. After all, it allows people to distinguish their aiming skills in more fine-grained detail – it is a skill. Just don’t forget that this particular skill is not much more than something to do with your hands.
The Skill Smokescreen
So what’s wrong with adding skill to games? Well, nothing really. But you need to be careful about which skills you’re adding to a game, because the ones you choose can lock you into a design paradigm that’s hard to escape. A lot of games lean too heavily on old, familiar skills, and it limits their potential in subtle but tangible ways. A game that asks a lot of our hands often forgets to ask very much of anything else.
Let’s go back to headshots. The primary skill of a headshot game is the arbitrary flick of the wrist. It’s such an important skill that many players take great pains to have their mouse sensitivity just so, their desk space with ample enough room, their mouse precisely the one they’re used to. If they flick their wrist just a little bit wrong, too bad so sad.
Is head-clicking the only skill? In all likelihood, no it isn’t. Maybe there’s some team tactics going on where players have to push together. Maybe you have some kind of capture-the-flag dynamic going on where teams need to split their forces for adequate map coverage. But whatever else is going on, head-clicking tends to be the single most important skill. If you can’t head-click, you don’t get to play. You can be the most cunning, tricky bastard in the whole game, but none of that matters if you get your head clicked before you can do anything.
So what happens if you take that skill out completely?
Let’s imagine a head-clicking game where heads are clicked automatically. A person comes onto your screen, you look at him, and the game takes care of the rest. What does that game look like?
Probably pretty stupid, if we’re being honest. Players are getting shot down the moment anyone looks at them. Battlefronts of territorial control are locked in an eternal stalemate as players dispense with the enemies who showed up a moment before them, only to be similarly extinguished by the next generation of auto-head-clickers.
But as silly as this looks, let’s keep looking for a moment. This is what any player actually wants the game to look like, for just them anyway. This is head-clicking’s ultimate end-game, and every hour of practice is another step toward making this a personal reality. So if you suddenly give perfect head-clicking to all players, that axis of skill goes away. What’s left? How else are players going to distinguish themselves from all the other aimbots?
In order to have further avenues of skill, other interesting ways to deftly navigate a system to your advantage, there has to be a system there in the first place. And a designer who focused too strongly on the head-clicks can’t be sure that very much of a system is there at all. Maybe there’s a few weird tricks that ended up in the game by accident, but relying on accidents to make your game great is like standing in the middle of a storm and begging for lightning.
This approach severely impacts the development of a game’s design. Part of designing a competitive game comes down to watching how people play it and seeing how your system holds up. If everyone starts doing the same few things every game, there just isn’t much there for players to explore and learn about. And the designer needs to actually see that in action to know it’s happening and intervene.
But there’s a cheap way out out of that. There are in fact many ways. And head-clicking is one of them. You see, if you just raise the execution skill-cap as high as you possibly can, you can get fine-grained skill differentiation right now. If you give players busy-work for their hands, that’s a concrete skill barrier you can see.
Head-clicking (any kind of aiming, really) and other dexterity challenges all serve as a giant smokescreen for system depth, and not just for the players – game designers can blind themselves to a system’s lack of depth elsewhere. Since players are all contending with their physical abilities, trying to push the limits of what they can do, there’s less room to contend with the system, to explore what they should do. And that part of the game quickly falls off the development radar. As long as the game’s already “got skill,” it’s easy to lose sight of just how interesting the system itself may or may not be.
What Else Is There?
The quest to put “skill” into games is often heavily biased toward more obvious and straightforward execution skills, and once you have skill in that one ultra-narrow channel, you no longer feel like you have to worry about other kinds of skill. The result is all too often a game that looks suspiciously like something we did last year, or last decade. What is it that makes designers lean so hard on those janky tropes? Simply put, it’s because they’re easy to understand, and they’re a pretty quick fix.
You see, coming up with ideas for adding other kinds of skill to games is actually really hard. Just imagine: a designer is trying to make a system where the answers to its problems aren’t obvious, one that’s hard for humans to see right through, and he’s using a human brain to do it. That is mind-fuckingly hard. But finger-dexterity mini-games? That’s way easier to get my brain around. Double-blind guessing and mind games? Heck, I could shoehorn that into any game! When you consider the difficulty of inventing from scratch a system that addresses a more cerebral skill set, using those kinds of shortcuts is comparatively easy. But in a way, any time you see a designer resort to that, that designer stared into the unmitigated truth of a shallow system – and blinked.
What would it look like if they didn’t? It’s hard to say, because so many designers give up. And why not? It doesn’t really feel like giving up, and it produces an acceptably playable result. What good could come of trying something new?
Well, let’s find out. Let’s look at Dungeon of the Endless as an example. I mean look at this game:
Look how easily this could’ve been a game about lining up your pixels with the enemy pixels and pushing a button called “GUN.” Look how easily it could’ve been about occupying your hands with twitchy fingerings. If you’re not familiar with this game, that’s probably the first thing that occurred to you – you’re saying “This looks like a game where you move with WASD, maybe a gamepad, and click to shoot at bad guys.” Your first thought was that this game is like all the others.
But moving and shooting isn’t what Dungeon of the Endless is about at all. For one thing, there’s no micromanagement to this game whatsoever. Battles happen practically automatically. You tell your gunners where to be, and… that’s it. They take care of the rest. If there are enemies in the room, they shoot at them all on their own. You can’t make them dodge. You can’t tell them what enemy to kill first. You can’t even tell them where to stand in the room! What gives? Why didn’t they put any SKILL into this game?
Because all the skill lies elsewhere.
The skill of the game comes down to putting your gunners into the right rooms, and moving them around as needed. It’s about building enough supporting defenses to keep them alive while managing a finite amount of resources. It’s about finding the best place in the level to put your resource generation devices so they’ll be safe, but putting them up early enough so they give you a good return on your investment. It’s about exploring the randomized room layout in a strategic order so you don’t expose a flank to your home base or overwhelm one of your battlefronts. It’s about manipulating where enemies are allowed to spawn to your advantage. It’s about knowing when you can keep exploring to get more resources, and when it’s time to GTFO. Yes, things move. Things shoot. But those kinds of details happen all by themselves and are beneath your notice – you have more important things to worry about.
There’s a lot going on in this game despite the lack of any dexterity requirement, indeed because of the lack of dexterity requirement. It’s a system that would never have existed if the designer had settled for a simple 8-way shooter. Because now imagine a version of this game where you do have to headshot things. That’s a completely different headspace for a designer. Now that you expect the player to aim at things, your impulse is to make things harder to aim at, to raise that aiming skill cap. The design starts to coalesce around hand twitches. And since the player is already pretty occupied with all that aiming, it’s impractical for him to deal with much else in the moment-to-moment gameplay. So… you just don’t put any in. When all the player can reasonably deal with is what’s in this room right now, the game zooms in again, turning back into just a thing shooting some things.
Dungeon of the Endless didn’t settle for that. By formalizing headshots into “just a thing that happens without you having to worry about it,” the game frees the player up to consider the bigger picture. And since that big picture is now the focus for both player and designer, now there’s an impetus to create a whole system to govern it. The rejection of micromanagement exposes the macro level of the broader system so a designer can see just how engaging it really is. It focuses the development on making that system as interesting and fun as possible.
That puts a whole new spin on the earlier assumption that taking out arbitrarily difficult skills makes the game suck. Maybe taking the weird, janky skill out of a game and making it suck is exactly what you have to do. Maybe you need to take your head-clicking game, give everybody an automatic head-clicking aimbot, and start over from there. By making the game suck, you’re exposing that badness instead of burying it in quick-fixes. Only by confronting your boring game head-on, face-first can you see clearly enough to lay a new foundation and truly fix the system on its fundamental level. And as a bonus, by not relying on traditional skills, you’re a lot more likely to be exploring new and fresh kinds of skill in your game, stuff no one’s seen before. That’s pretty rad.
On top of that, you also take that fresh, new skill and make it more accessible. If you don’t take out those janky fingering tricks, they become barriers for people who may like the premise of your game, but are unable or unwilling to figure out the jank. Making a game is not a matter of dumping as many kinds of skill into the thing as you can. Inevitably some skills become more important than others, and fiddly hand-janks always top that list. Players need to be able to, y’know, operate the game in order to explore what it’s actually about. Is your game only about hand-janks? Take them out and you’ll find out pretty quickly.
Lose the Crutch
So is Dungeon of the Endless super amazing? I dunno. I’ve only played it for a few hours or so. If you want to tell me that it doesn’t have the strategic depth of your dotalike of choice, I’ll understand. But what caught my attention was how everything that makes it interesting comes entirely from what the system asks of you rather than the controls. It sits on a solid systemic foundation, and it’s a pretty compelling proof of concept that game skill doesn’t need to resort to muscle memory or janky tricks.
Now contrast that with Groot’s suggestion of how to add depth:
Justin Groot: “Like in Gears of War, they replicated the reload cancel mechanic with a visual minigame that let you reload faster if you timed it right.”
…really? The height of design is inserting little quick-time events into gameplay every few seconds? Sounds more like the mother of all quick-fixes to me.
Let’s not go back down that road, not when games have come quite a way toward minimizing wrestling with inputs. Dota 2 does pretty well on the strategy front, and it definitely doesn’t need to rely on silly stuff like orbwalking for depth. Whatever strategic nuance that it adds, a clever designer can preserve it while ditching the fiddly hand-janks. In Smite, for example, all players automatically orbwalk all the time, and attacking slows your movement speed to compensate, all on its own. In Overwatch, Pharah doesn’t need to fumble around with manually aiming rocket-jumps by twisting all over the place – the simple push of a button executes a perfect “rocket-jump” every time. No weird tricks, no dexterity mini-games, just the gameplay as intended.
I think it’s no mistake that over the years, as video games have gotten easier to control, the potential for systemic complexity has gone up correspondingly. When the controls occupy less of a player’s headspace, there’s more room for considering a system, the game proper. While the potential is there, designers need to be careful to not squander it by taking all those old shortcuts. Stare at that system, do whatever it takes, and don’t blink. It will be tougher to design that way, for sure. But any artist knows that limitation is what drives creativity. If you can’t use “arbitrarily more difficult” controls to prop up your game, who knows what you might come up with instead?