“How Hard?” More Like “Hard How?” – A Response to The Meta

meta-heading

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. Continue reading

Beyond Game Balance: When to Hang Up the Nerf Bat

Nerf Bat

Want to start an argument? Start talking about religion or politics. This works especially well if you have several outspoken people in the group to get the ball rolling. If you want to maximize the vitriol, make sure that nobody involved in the conversation knows anyone else very well, so that nobody has any common ground or any context for the things people say. People will misunderstand and talk past each other to the point where nobody will make any progress, and the conversation will end with everybody hating everyone else. Mission accomplished!

So how do you start an argument on the internet? …well, pretty much the same way. But do you know how else to start an argument on the internet? Start talking about game balance. Now, there’s a topic to get the blood boiling, and you can’t get through your average forum thread without several salvos of “lol nub” and “git gud.” What’s interesting is that this conversation bears an uncanny resemblance to the religion or politics conversation. Everyone comes from a different place in their understanding of the topic, but in their experience theirs is the right one. There are plenty of people talking past each other, there’s plenty of dismissal, and everyone is definitely outspoken.

But who’s right and who’s wrong? It’s easy to write the whole thing off as opinion, and yet people win and lose games using this information, so there must be some objectivity to it all. In fact, the premise of a competitive game is founded on a form of objectivity: generally speaking, the winner is incontestably better than the loser. So these players have good reason to believe they’re right. Their experience playing the game is dedicated to learning this stuff. Players trying to eke out any advantage they can over their opponents will, as a matter of course, find things that help them to win more easily. But a player who hasn’t gotten there yet might find the same new techniques overpowering, at least until he learns a little more about how they work and how to counter them. Even the best players often advance their knowledge of the game, and by proxy so does the rest of the community at large. This is a sign of a healthy game-system – if people at all skill levels are still adjusting what they think it means to be a good player, that means there’s still undiscovered depth for players to chart.

But in the meantime, how do we sort out all these conflicting viewpoints? How can the same character be both too strong and too weak? Who is right? Well, would you believe… everyone? That may sound like a plea for, “Why can’t we all just get along?” but it’s absolutely true. The reason it’s true, however, is because we asked the wrong question. We shouldn’t be asking “Who is right?” What we should be asking is, “Who is the most right?” Let me explain. Continue reading

Smash Bros: What Makes a Party Game?

Party Ball

Super Smash Bros. is a fascinating series for many reasons. The first is that it’s one of the only fighting games to really break the mold and do something wildly different from other 2D fighting games. It changes the entire goal of the game from one of hit point depletion to one of damage accumulation and a sort of sumo knock-out. It links the short-term game arcs into a meaningful long-term arc to a degree that many fighting games don’t. Getting knocked away farther and farther distances as your damage goes up changes the way you interact with your opponent in a much more fundamental way than a “super meter” can.

That fact alone is a significant reason for its questionable status among gamers, which brings us to the second reason it’s so fascinating: many gamers don’t even consider it to be a fighting game. Of course, a claim like that begs the question “What is a fighting game?” And if the answer to that is “A one-on-one match where on-screen avatars punch, kick, and throw thirty-six different variations of fireball at each other until one person runs out of hit points,” then no, Super Smash Bros. is not a fighting game. But it’s only the last bit where SSB fails the litmus test. There’s still plenty of punching and kicking and fireballs happening on screen – it’s just that the goal is inverted and made more elastic. It’s a consequence of video game genre names being more focused on thematic elements than how the game actually works. I mean, is there any shortage of “fighting” in Dota 2?

Ultimately, the format of the game isn’t the biggest reason for SSB’s questionable genre status – it’s the word of the creator. In another fascinating aspect of the story of SSB, game director Masahiro Sakurai has often gone on record saying that he had always intended Smash Bros. as a “party game,” and each and every time community forums have violently exploded. “See?? I told you it was a party game! It’s not like actual fighting games where it’s about skill!” “No way, Smash has skill! Just look at wave dashing!” It’s an old argument, one not always even fought on the same terms, but the one thing that at least the competitive players seem to mostly agree on is “No items!” The randomized items that appear all over the place give SSB a wacky sort of flavor. They create the vibe of a party game, but do so at the expense of the competitive integrity of the game. So when Nintendo’s position on SSB is that it’s “a kind of ‘rough’ party game,” they’re sending a message to fighting game enthusiasts that SSB isn’t for them. However, I think in doing so, Nintendo has drawn a false dichotomy: the idea that there are party games, and there are competitive games – there is no overlap. However, that doesn’t need to be the case.

Continue reading