Tourneys and Ladders: A Response to David Sirlin

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David Sirlin just published an article on his design blog regarding the newly released competitive mode for Overwatch. In it, he highlights some of the problems with the format, problems that result in a lot of draws. Sirlin approaches them from the perspective of tournament play, which is his forte. He asserts that the fundamental issue with the game types in question is that the number of rounds they require is even when it really should be odd. It’s a simple solution, but when you analyze the dynamics of that game type, it really isn’t so simple. And there’s a bigger problem than that because of one of Sirlin’s underlying assumptions: that the competitive mode needs to have a tournament format. But Overwatch competitive mode isn’t a tournament – it’s a ladder. And there’s a huge difference. Continue reading

Casual vs. Hardcore – Settling the Score

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There’s an idea that’s been haunting video games for years now. It permeates every corner of gaming culture: you can see it on news sites, reviews, conventions big and small, community forums, design discussions, and of course in the games themselves. It’s a specter that silently and insidiously manipulates the way we make games, the way we play games, and the way we think about games. Sometimes it even makes people go crazy and storm forums with internet torches and pitchforks. And worst of all, it creates artificial divisions between people who could otherwise coexist and enjoy themselves.

The ghost? The hardcore vs. casual narrative.

There’s this idea that on one side you have unskilled, nonchalant players who don’t care at all about winning, and on the other side you have these elite warriors who thrill at the thought of dominating their opponents. There’s a spectrum that’s implied, but don’t let that fool you – there’s a war going on between the two factions of gaming, and everything done to appease the casual comes at the expense of the hardcore. Lines have been drawn, and games are either for one or the other.

But the good news is the narrative is a lie! Games don’t have to cater to one of the two camps, and neither games nor people need to carry either of the labels. If a designer doesn’t put himself into a box, he doesn’t have to put his game or his players into a box either. So don’t believe in the narrative. Don’t do it! Even as a player, such thinking can warp your view of a game system and make you believe strange things about it. Take, for example, a self-identified “casual” who took one look at the ranking system in Auro and assumed it meant the game was for “hardcore” players, that he was an outsider, and that the game was for someone else. I mean, games with ranks in them are for hardcore people, right? To prove how tough and badass they are?

The hardcore vs. casual narrative is not a truism. It’s merely a perspective, and it’s a poisonous one that can bring out our worst ideas. Because actually no, ranks aren’t just for hardcore players. In fact, they help to make the play experience better for everyone, “casual” and “hardcore” alike. 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.

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