Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Habits, part 1

In this article, I asserted that your skill can be defined in two ways.  First was a broad definition which meant "fitness," or "capacity to win in a given environment."  The second definition was a more nitty-gritty breakdown, referring to the habits and knowledge that you collect as you play and practice.

I'm going to focus a bit more on the habit element today.  I recently read a book called The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg.  Saying it was a very enlightening and interesting read would be a bit of an understatement.  If you are AT ALL interested in improving your life and understanding forces and feelings that seem beyond your control, find a copy and read it.  It's pretty well-written with easily applicable lessons.  Duhigg's definition of habit made me re-examine the habitual elements that make up skill, so I'm going to spend this post talking about it.

First, Duhigg breaks a habit down into three parts: cue, routine, and reward.  First comes the stimulus that initiates your habit.  It can be nearly anything, from hearing a bell ring to stepping outside your apartment.  Then comes the routine, which is what people normally refer to when they say "habit": it's the action that you take as a result of the cue.  Then comes the reward, which is why the habit exists in the first place; it's something you perform the habit for.

An example of a habit (like you need one) would be setting your keys down in the same place every time you come home.  You close the door to your house, and that acts as a cue to put your keys on a hook near the door.  The reward is the feeling of no longer having your keys in your pocket, along with feeling secure that the keys are in an easy-to-remember, easy-to-reach location.

The purpose of forming habits is so we don't have to concentrate on things.  We don't have to spend mental energy determining what to do with keys when we get in the apartment.  When driving, we don't have to consciously remember to check our left side-view mirror followed by the rear-view mirror, then the speedometer, then the right side-view mirror, then back to the middle, with alternating glances to the road ahead of us... because we're juggling that with making sure we push the gas pedal down far enough, staying in a lane, and listening for directions from the passenger because we haven't been to this restaurant before.  The more things you do habitually, the more you can accomplish in a small amount of time while consciously focusing on something else.

The thing is, habits can continue to exist even when you will no longer get the reward.  The cue will cause your brain to assume the reward is coming, so it goes through the routine whether or not the promised reward comes.  If you are thinking about something else at the time, you may find yourself executing a habit without noticing, only to see you did it for no good reason.

Skills, when it comes to sports and games, are very similar.  You square up into an optimal stance without thinking about it, or you automatically perform a certain blocking motion when somebody throws a certain punch at you.  These things are designed to reward you (better balance, not getting punched in the face, etc.), so when the appropriate cue occurs, you will get the reward while expending no mental energy.  For this reason, bad habits can develop if you compete too frequently against low-level opponents; you will cement practices that help you win against inferior players, then discover that they're quite exploitable when your opponent has more skill.  But you keep doing them anyhow, even as you get punished for the error, especially if you're trying to watch for something else.

Mental habits exist as well.  You can create mental habits to optimize the efficiency of your brain, to generate and retrieve information unconsciously.  A cue will trigger a certain question in your head, or line of thought, or series of associations.  Mental habits, particularly bad ones, can be the trickiest to discover and correct because they don't happen out in the physical world where everybody (including you) can see and correct them.  They happen internally, extremely quickly, and what's more, you have to use mental processes to fix them.  So you are trying to use an inefficient tool to fix itself.

A mental habit means responding to a cue with one of the following: asking a certain question, or looking for a specific piece of information.  This also reflects a belief I've held for some time, which is that intelligence is mostly a matter of software, not hardware.  Assuming your brain is not actually damaged or missing important bits, your intelligence is decided mostly by your mental habits.  If somebody else seems more insightful, more attentive, more clever, more anything, it's not always some ingrained part of their soul that makes them a better human being.  It's likely because, over a long period of time, they have solidified certain habits of thinking that give them certain skills.  Usually, this happens without them noticing (habits are designed not to be noticed!) so they think they "just have a knack" or "that's just how I look at things."  But with time and effort--sometimes a lot of both--you can start thinking like them too.  This isn't to understand physiological and genetic differences; however, studies show that repeatedly activating a certain part of the brain strengthens and enlarges it.

Unfortunately, the older we get, whether as people or as competitors, habits become more solidified as they continue to get used.  Mental habits particularly occur all the time, whether we notice.  We must endure more failure and hardship to defeat and replace those habits, and it doesn't always seem worth the effort.  A lot of scientific literature in the study of habits does have promising things to say in this regard though, so just for the purpose of making yourself a better human being, I recommend reading up on it.

On Friday I'm going to go into more detail on how I think these apply to video games, and how we can use and change habit loops to become better players.  Thanks for reading!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Aggression and Defense

Today's article is short, because I'm still getting accustomed to my residence in Cairo (excuses excuses).  Hopefully it proves interesting anyhow.


Two words people bandy about quite frequently--when describing players--are "aggressive" and "defensive."  Like most nebulous words, nobody really bothers to define them, so discussing them is a tricky proposition.

Competition means struggling over resources, whether you are talking about real life or games.  So I will offer a definition that distinguishes between the two words in terms of resources: aggression means taking action that seeks to eliminate resources from the opponent, and defense means taking action that seeks to prevent loss of a resource.  This definition proves extremely useful for understanding how to play a game well, and what it actually means to try and aggress or defend.

First, you need to define games in terms of the resources you can use, attack, and defend.  Obvious ones are things like your health bar, or active units and buildings, or ammo.  But there are other resources, like space that you can use to safely move, or time to make your decisions in.  Even those available decisions count as a resource.

So part of this means that even if you are not directly attacking your opponent, you can attack his resources in a way that hinders his ability to win.  Therefore, even when you don't plan to hit him or remove an obvious resource (like health), you can be trying to take away a less obvious one.  Likewise, when you are in a position where you must protect resources, you can use attacks that must be guarded against to prevent the opponent from taking any resources of yours, and in this way attack defensively.

How do you apply these concepts in an actual game?

First, understand the only way resources can be taken is if you give them away, use superior offense against defense, or exhibit superior defense that leaves the opponent exposed to counterattack.  You may choose to sacrifice space to retain health, and so give the opponent control over the space you've forsaken.  You may end up trying to block high when the opponent out-guesses you and attacks low.  You may be trying to move at the same time your opponent wants to attack, and so you end up not blocking a hit.

Understand that resource importance is relative.  Sacrificing space--to avoid an attack--is typically less important than taking a hit, or losing a unit, or whatever.  And also understand that you can trade resources by switching between defense and offense.  Give up space, allow the opponent to extend into it, then damage him when he isn't prepared.  If he's in stun, or has to retreat, or he's dead, you can reclaim the space you gave him.

Superior defense can lead to claiming resources after an aggressive move has failed.  Using successful evasion or blocking can lead to counterhits when you find holes in the opponent's aggression.  And any time your aggression--or defense--has a hole in it, by actively pursuing that you are taking a risk that the opponent will crack through and claim or eliminate resources.  Non-risky aggression can be just as useful in protecting yourself as defense even when you don't care that much about taking resources at all.

Look at how you play in a given game.  If you're a defensive player, which resources are you protecting?  Are you focusing too much on keeping one resource safe that you abandon another, and give the opponent more to work with?  Do you focus too much on defense to the point that you fail to claim resources when they are available to you?  If you're aggressive, do you know how to switch to defense at unexpected times so you can bait the opponent?  Does your offense have too many holes in it, and can you switch to safer aggression to reduce the risk of losing resources when you attack?

I hope this makes you think a little differently about the way you play your given game.  Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

What is skill?

When you spectate a game, how do you know which player is better?  Which one has more skill?  What does it mean to have more skill in the first place?  And when you train, how do you develop skills of your own?

In the past, I've talked about games being simulations to develop survival skills.  They exist as artificial environments to test your fitness.  But the first thing to remember is that fitness is context-sensitive.  We can imagine a massive, beautiful, neurologically complicated and well-muscled beast that runs 100 km/hour and kill a hippo by kicking it in the face, and call it fit.  But then you could just stick it in an environment where it freezes to death in five minutes, and that would no longer be the case.  Meanwhile, its competitors are small furry creatures who don't freeze to death, that can't kill anything at all, unless you count waiting for things to die because of wind-chill factor, and they win.  They are more fit for that environment.  Unappealing as they might be compared to the hypothetical Adonis-esque beast before it, the only question is this: which one is better at surviving in its niche?

In the context of a game, fitness and skill are one and the same.  Fitness is the measure of your ability to survive in an environment, and skill is the measure of your ability to win a game.  Then, depending on the environment/game, there will also be a higher or lower degree of luck involved as well.

So right there is one definition of skill: skill is no more and no less than your ability to win.  This includes mental and physical components; a developed body counts--in my definition, anyhow--as skill, because it's something you consciously develop in order to help achieve victory.  You intentionally develop your body to be more "fit" for a given environment; the body type you need for Greco-Roman wrestling is not the optimal body you would need for, let's say, Trampolining.  Intelligently developing your musculature is as key a component of winning as spending time on the court or field or ring or ice or couch or ergonomic office chair.

So, to repeat: skill is the ability to win, and being a consistent winner is typically the way you demonstrate having the most skill.


Let's look at a different side of skill though, the aspect you're probably more used to thinking about.  When you say "developing a skill," you might mean "having an excellent screen pass" or "excellent micromanagement" or "

First, remember that you can't consciously think about more than one thing at a time.  You can rapidly change what you are thinking about--which usually occurs at the expense of mental efficiency and accuracy--but there's no moment where your conscious brain focuses on more than one thing at a time.  But then, what do you do if a game requires you to notice a lot of things?  Simple: you develop habits.

Skill, when discussing task performance, is the accumulation of necessary habits.  The skill of a golf-swing, for instance, involves a lot of tiny adjustments and nuances to a motion that is not initially natural.  So you work on each part of it individually, develop each as a habit, until the golf swing is whole.  If you try and consciously focus on making each element of that swing correct every time, different parts of your body will have a tendency to rebel when you aren't looking.  You will end up swinging the club into the ground, or twisting your wrist into a position you are more accustomed to causing you to slice the ball.  You'll swing with your arms instead of using rotary power, causing your body to jerk and then you slap the top of the ball and clip it into the ground.  Or you'll do any of the million things that can go wrong with a golf swing.  It will seem impossible to execute, when you're trying to hold a bundle of distinct elements in your head at the same time.

When you see the advice in movies where some stereotypical wise mentor says you must "clear your mind" and "don't think, just act," they are correct.  Eventually, all the proper elements of skill become cemented in your mind, and trying to consciously think just gets in their way.  The only problem is that, in those movies, they give the advice to novices or beginners so they can win by the time the movie is over.  That is, to be blunt, very stupid.  You have to develop skills and habits through repetition and training for them to develop permanent residence in your unconscious mind.  Then you can do things without thinking about them.

What conclusions can we draw about skill development?

1) It will take time.  Sorry.  Habits take awhile to form.  The catch is that if you pick the most important habits first, and you develop them well from the start, you will become good (relatively) quickly, and you'll become very good in the long-run.  When people say "develop a good foundation," that is what they mean.

2) Spreading out your learning is bad.  Picking one thing to habitualize at a time is the most important part of developing new skills.  Trying to get good at everything all at once is difficult (if not impossible) and it just hurts your development.  It's also extremely discouraging.

3) Getting out of a rut means finding destructive or inefficient habits and replacing them with better ones.  Little things you don't even notice happening can work together to undermine all your efforts.  If you want to break free from a slump, or past a plateau, this is probably the #1 reason why.

If you want to translate this to the rest of your life, feel free.  Living life well is a skill in itself, and it's nothing more than picking good habits you consciously choose to develop.  Mental habits, physical habits, behavioral habits--they all contribute to the "skill" of living life well.

Thanks for reading!


Life update: there may or may not be a blog post on Friday, because I'm going to be in Egypt until the end of the year, and I'm flying away today!  But then again, I'll have plenty of time to think and write on the plane, so even though I'm losing like 11 hours I should still be able to have something for everybody.  Thanks again.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Why Tournament Play is Different From Casual Play.

If you're interested in competitive gaming at all, odds are that you've tuned in to a livestream of some big event at some point.  With the stream comes the chat, and with the chat comes the free exchange of opinions and ideas.  Much of it is trolling and cheerfully intentioned bandwagoning trash talk, and then some of it is legitimate ignore.  A tiny percent includes people who know what they are talking about.

It is a basic fact of all endeavors and all professions that the majority of participants are not particularly skilled at what they do.  The 80/20 rule--that 80 percent of the output or knowledge or wealth or whatever are performed, possesed, controlled, or whatever by 20 percent of the people--seems to be a pretty common law.

Most of what you read in a stream chat is misinformed.  For that matter, most of the opinions you read on anything are misinformed.  This isn't an elitist indictment of ignorant sheep-type masses.  It's simply that most people don't know much about most things.  And part of that is simply because there's a lot to learn about everything, and every person is ignorant about a lot of topics.

The worst thing to be ignorant of, however, is your own ignorance.  And since this blog is not about the shortcomings of human tendencies, but it's about competitive gaming, I want to try and relieve a little of that ignorance today.

Tournament play looks much different from regular friendly play for a variety of reasons.  Since most people don't reach the top of tournament play--which is the whole point of a tournament, really--I want to talk about it a bit, if only to give you more appreciation and credit to the higher level players of whatever game you enjoy spectating the most.

1) If you are a high-level player, odds are your opponent is high level too.

I'm not sure how this gets forgotten.  But when you read stream chats and you listen to people speculating about somebody "losing their touch" or "not being good at all," you have to consider that when they get absolutely bodied in tournament, it's usually because they're playing against one of the best of the best.  And when really good players get on a roll, they can make other good players look like total chumps.  One of the hallmarks of being a good player is getting lots of mileage of your opportunities (whether through execution in fighters, or position/spawn control in shooters, or whatever).  So sometimes being off your game even a little can have catastrophic consequences in tournament play.

2) Tournament play is more stressful.

This should be obvious.  But because it's hard to genuinely appreciate emotional and mental situations until you've actually experienced them, most people don't get it.  They think they do.  But again, most people are not in the group that achieve great things in games.  It can be because they have other life responsibilities, they are willfully ignorant, the game is that difficult or the competition is just that steep.  Whatever the reason, most people don't know.

Stressful situations, the kind that trigger flight-or-fight and release chemicals into your bloodstream and affect your thought processes essentially turn you into a different person.  We differ during conflict.  And when crowds are yelling and strong opponents are sitting next to you and everything being on the line, you experience the rush and flood of hormones and chemicals that affect your brain and body.  Sometimes they help.  Sometimes it affects you negatively.  It can make you more jumpy, more impulsive, more likely to go with your gut reaction (which you usually must spend years of training to condition to be a smart one, rather than a self-destructive one.)

3) Hit confirming becomes more difficult.

It's easy to think that you'll just execute your normal combos and strategies, but the truth is, an opponent that challenges you and pushes your mind will force you to think about things beyond surface level.  So rather than know, every time you throw out a move, whether you're going to be continuing a long string, its/

Depending on the game and the opponent. you may be looking for completely  So when people drop apparently free openings, just remember that a lot more is on their mind.  They can't assume that every hit will connect, and without that assurance it can be hard to recognize your opportunities.  They can be worried about some big, salient threat and not even see their little poke connect until it's too late, and by that point they've failed to convert.  It's part of the nerves and part of having healthy respect for your opponent.

4) It's easier to spectate than to play.

When your attention is free to purely analyze and observe a match, if gives you the chance to see things the players miss.  For the same reason that players will record their matches to see themselves from the outside and try to learn, when watching you are free to spend time thinking about what options would have worked in a given situation, what a player might have meaning to do instead of some big goofy error, or whether your mommy hugged you that day.

5) People make big dumb mistakes in casual play all the time, they just don't remember them.

Players drop game-winning combos or make game-losing mistakes ALL THE TIME.  But when you are sitting and playing 30 games in a row with the same person to train or have fun, those start to blend together.  But you only get a few chances to succeed in tournament, and dropping them consequently stands out much more to you.  And, of course, to people watching.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Respecting the Opponent

I first started thinking hard about this topic when I made this post, to address the notion that being angry about a loss is the same as showing disrespect to the opponent.  Unfortunately, it wasn't very well written, nor had I thought things through fully.  I prefer to leave these things online in unedited glory, so future generations can bear witness to my follies.

Before discussing this, let's define "respect."  I define respect as "acknowledging value," and showing respect is externally acknowledging value.  You can have respect for somebody without showing it, just as you can have no respect but falsely present it.  Respect involves an element of honesty, because you can't acknowledge value unless you truthfully assign it.

Second, I also want to distinguish between one's value as a person--which is assigned by the way they conduct themselves and treat others--and one's value as a competitor.  They are not the same.

There are very wonderful people in this world.  They'll give you the shirt off their back, help you with any problem, be honest and good and true to you in all situations, and deserve extreme respect as people.  And sometimes these great and terrific people really suck at video games, and--often because I respect them so much as people--I will not falsely respect them.  Likewise, there are some really talented jerks out there.

My perspective is that you should not bundle your identity as a person with your identity as a competitor.  How you treat others and act around them is not tied to how good you are at getting headshots, or how proficient you are at executing one-frame links, or how well you predict opponents, or anything like that.

People have a tendency to group character traits together to form a simple, comprehensive picture of somebody's personality.  They associate one trait with another, whether for better or worse, just because it takes less mental effort.  Some people may think that because you are good at a game, you are funny, always right, very cool and attractive and not at all a scumbag for any reason.  But they may pattern-match the other way as well, and if you're very skilled but shy, they'll line you up in the archetypal elitist jerk category, when really you're just bad at talking to people and you get embarrassed by praise.  It can go either way.

My first piece of advice regarding respect and value is this: don't fall into this trap, and don't bundle different kinds of value together.  It's better for your self-esteem, and it helps keep your interactions with others honest.

Second, and this was the point I took forever to address in my thread on Smashboards: anger can manifest for a variety of reasons, and does not always correlate to low respect for a competitor.  The thing about externally expressing anger is that it makes almost everybody very uncomfortable, so they try to discourage it, even when it's not intended as disrespect.  They may label an explosive incident as a sign that the person is a poor loser, or spoiled, or thinks he/she is better than his/her opponent.  This is a bit unfortunate, especially if somebody we ought to respect as a person has a troubling issue--and it's not related to being a poor sport or spoiled brat--but they are labeled unfairly.  That is a form of disrespectful behavior as well--you treat somebody worse than their actual value merits.

Then again, one could argue that knowingly causing discomfort to people around you is disrespectful.  So it's a little cloudy.  Ultimately, I feel the whole scenario ties back to advice number one though; a lot of anger issues (when it comes to gaming) comes from associating self-respect as a player with self-respect as a competitor.  It's part of why people can become so heavily invested and emotional even though it's just a game.  I think it's natural for that to happen, and that passion and emotion is part of what gets people to become amazing at their chosen endeavor in the first place.

At the end of the day, it's pretty much agreed that exploding in anger every time you lose is not only uncomfortable but unhealthy, and it just benefits everybody to deal with the issues behind it.  Nobody's surprised if somebody is devastated after a really rough loss in the finals of a tournament, but the more explosive outbursts aren't ever pleasant to be around.  I've been on the receiving and giving end of those kinds of outbursts, so you know what I'm talking about.

Third, and relating to point two, try to acknowledge the opponent's feelings somewhat.  You shouldn't tip-toe around people with bad attitudes (since it only encourages them) but if you want be a respectful person, it goes beyond just acknowledging value.  You need to acknowledge that a person's state of mind matters and you might want to adjust your behavior accordingly.  When somebody is in a sour mood, you can go out of your way to exacerbate it, or you can do things to mitigate them.  It depends on the kind of person you want to be.

In-Game Respect

What about when it comes to how you play the game?  Is there a specific way you should always play to show respect to the opponent?  What about certain behaviors like flashy/inefficient play when you know you're going to win?  Or zoning out and going auto-pilot on lesser players who, for their part, are giving 110% just to scratch you?  What counts as disrespectful play?

I have some guest words from Taj--the hidden boss of Arizona Melee and #1 Mewtwo player in the world--and he had some useful insights to share.

"To respect something in sport, is to acknowledge the opponents "potential" to effectively counter something you would deem to be either too basic or too obvious.

Respecting your opponent as a competitor is to acknowledge their capability either through their status or from direct observation. Thinking things like, "He will expect the third repetition of this move," or "His reactions are really fast! I need to make sure I don't swing big."

Respect is essentially just acknowledging someone's prowess and acting in a way that suits that assessment. Another few examples would be recognizing when you've lost, not playing certain matchups due to the opponent's strength, or even showing acts of desperation in a match to win.

The first example I give also ties to honoring the opponent, but my third example is often perceived as negative to most people even though the thought of acknowledging that someone is stronger than me and the only way I can win is by dragging the match down to my level carries the acknowledgement factor."

Taj addresses some interesting points.  First off, we share a similar definition, wherein respect is honestly acknowledging the opponent's skill level and using tactics that reflect that.  Against really good opponents you might try to go for what's guaranteed and safe, not try to overextend, and avoid gimmicks because you acknowledge they are savvy enough to stop them.  You won't do stuff that's unsafe because you assume they will know how to deal with it.  Instead, you take ground where you can get it, take no opening for granted, and play it cautiously.

His last paragraph, however, is interesting because sometimes gimmicks and gambits are ways of respecting your opponent.  You acknowledge they would probably beat you in a head to head fight--this is why lower-level players try and go for cheese and gimmicks against better players, trying to topple them quickly.  It's because they know that if the game drags on, their opponent's superior fundamentals and game sense will overtake them and leave them unable to win.  So if the lower level player wants to win, he HAS to go for the desperation gimmicks.

What about deliberately taunting the player by playing suboptimally?  It might be an attempt to make your opponent look stupid and weak and embarrass them, so you're trying to disrespect them as an opponent and a person.  Or you might just want to put them on tilt so they don't play as well, so in a roundabout way you're showing you acknowledge their strength as you try to get them to play poorly.

And what about coasting through matches against weaker opponents?  What if the other person's skill level doesn't merit any real effort on your part?  Isn't it on them to not take that kind of thing personally, and honestly acknowledge that they are well below you in ability?  Then again, they are taking time out of their life to enter this event, and it's hurtful to have honest effort be met with apathy or even disdain. This kind of stuff can get confusing.

I try not to take any strategy personally unless I know the opponent is only doing it to bother me or boost their own ego somehow, especially if it's at the expense of his own victory.  Players that camp me just to try and get one extra stock before losing, players that spam a move I find annoying even though they know I'll eventually punish it and destroy them, these people are just trying to put me in a negative mood, or say they got an extra stock just to make themselves feel better.  I feel disrespected in cases like this.  Not only are they annoying me, they're kind of wasting my time.

But when a strategy is honestly beating me, even if it's lame and boring, or flashy and suboptimal, the end is that it's my job to defeat the way the opponent plays.  If I can't, then I don't have the strength and value of a competitor required to deserve more.  As mentioned before, part of showing respect is honesty, and being honest with myself is part of that.

This subject is, truthfully, pretty tricky.  People can feel disrespected and slighted over a variety of things that aren't intended as such, and because how you perceive (dis)respect is based on your experiences and values, and how people show (dis)respect is based on their experiences and values, it can be a big messy issue.

The best and healthiest scenario is this: we keep a healthy distance between our values as people and players, we give due respect to opponents as people, and honestly acknowledge and accept our own value as players.  If you don't require somebody's full attention and efforts, then don't demand it, or just try to become good enough until you do.  And afterwards shake hands, say good game, thank them for the time they spent playing you, and don't make excuses to devalue an opponent's victory.  When the majority of people in the community behave this way, you end up with a healthy and positive community.  As long as you orient your behavior towards that, you'll generally find people respecting you back.  You also might develop thicker skin and a good sense of humor in the process.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Innovation, Part 2

Earlier this week I was pretty vague and general regarding what it means to be innovative.  I'd like to fix that today by going into more details when it comes to different gaming genres.

There are several key things you must do and keep in mind if you want to start advancing your skill in a clever and interesting way.

1) State your goals and objectives.  Be as clear as possible when doing so, and strip away ALL assumptions.  Slowly work your way back from your ultimate goal and try to create as small a "tree" of goals as possible.  Then,

We often include extra steps that don't really matter, inhibit ourselves based on assumptions, and stay trapped by how the game is "supposed" to be played.  If you can remove those assumptions and use only the game's hard objectives as your guide, then you will be on the path to coming up with clever ideas.


Consider the (poorly named) MOBA genre.  They are 5v5 affairs and people in many of these communities are very hard-set on how to play the game, on how to compose the team and what to pursue and when.  But many of the things people blindly stick to are not actual victory conditions.  The common meta-game in League of Legends, for instance, is to have a tank in top lane, a mage in mid-lane, a tank-type in the jungle, and a ranged physical damage dealer with a support in bottom lane.  But what are the RULES of League of Legends?

To destroy the opponent's Nexus.  To do that, you must push and take towers.  To do that, you usually need to fight your opponents and defeat them or push them back long enough to take objectives.  To defeat them or push them back, you need to be stronger, and so on.  As you specify the major goal, smaller sub-goals arise.  Do not make the mistake of adding goals that are not explicitly necessary, or you will impede your thinking.

The lowest sub-goal that one can count as an explicit necessity towards victory is becoming stronger than the opponent.  If your team is capable of acquiring more money, higher champion levels, and then succeed at taking towers, it does not MATTER if you have a jungler or a ranged carry or a mage, provided you are able to defeat the other team in battles and then take their towers and eventually their nexus.  Everything else must serve this idea.  As it turns out, having a balanced mixture of damage types, multiple solo champions that don't split experience, and a solid tanky front line capable of initiating is a very strong setup!  But it's not the actual victory condition itself, so slavishly obeying it won't help you learn more.  How can players break from the "normal" way of play and explore more interesting ideas?

Ways people achieve this is to pick champions that don't fit the "role" of their lane, but counter a character that is ordinarily sent against them.  That way the opponent can be shut down and the unconventional character can be stronger than normal, allowing the team to win fights before the other team can recover.  The rest of the team is then structured to cover for the unconventional character's weakness or emphasize their strengths, and thus have a net advantage over the other team.

The real goals are: Win fights and/or push while you're stronger than the opponent, and win the game by destroying the towers/nexus.  If you want to innovate, don't define yourself by any goals beyond that.

2) Stats matter.  If you want to develop an idea, it's not enough for it to be original and surprising, it needs to be SOUND.  And the soundness of an idea can usually be traced to its numbers, its statistics, and its attributes.  It needs to have core elements that outperform other ideas, or can be applied in instances where the others cannot.

It's also worth mentioning that, if you have a lot of hard data in front of you, it can let you look at things more objectively and analytically than you would if you had the game in front of you.  It tells you how things SHOULD be in an optimal environment, and can clue you in to where to improve.


In fighting games, people make a horrendous mistake when they claim that "it's not the character, it's the player."  It is, generally speaking, a combination of both.  If we're playing a version of Street Fighter where Ryu and Ken are completely identical, but everything Ken does has two extra frames of startup, two extra frames of wind-down, does 80% the damage of Ryu's moves, moves at 80% of Ryu's speed, has 80% of Ryu's health, and so on, and then has absolutely no special characteristics to compensate, he would be worse.  Period.  There would be no POINT to playing Ken other than to show a Ryu player how awful he is.  And if you just played Ryu instead, you would always perform better than if you were Ken anyhow.  Game designers generally try to avoid this situations, where characters have strengths and weaknesses that balance them and make them varied.  Game designers aren't perfect though.  Sometimes characters suck.  Sometimes though, they just LOOK like they suck, and are secretly good.

So to start, look at stats.  Look at moves with frame advantage you can exploit, moves with frame disadvantage to avoid.  Check the priority on moves relative to other moves.  Do you have a move that normally kind of stinks, but has this wonky hitbox you can abuse to win in unexpectated situations?  Can you COMBO off that goofy hitbox, or does it happen to shut down somebody's conventional approach option?  Do you have this move that is pretty bad, but has a weird timing that lets you sneak it in every now and then?  Does it work against safe players, risky players, players who think they know your frame data?  Examine how your character ACTUALLY works compared to the others, and play based on that.  You'd be surprised how many people don't break down the components of a character, and stubbornly play the "right" way when it's terrible.

The other thing to remember when it comes to stats is that it's not about having stats that are the *best,* it's about having ones that are *good enough to use.*  Particularly in conjunction with your character's other attributes.  I might have a move with worse priority, but my character has better maneuverability; even though you outrange me, the question could be "can I get in range to land this move first," or "can I bait you into whiffing then counterhit?"

Generally speaking, if you want to advance a character in a fighting game, you ask lots of questions.  You dose those questions with a lot of effort and intellectual honesty, and--surprise surprise--the answers you get will typically serve you well.

3) Replicate your accidents.  Accidents, surprises, and anomalies can often clue us in to how things work better than normal, common occurrences.  And being able to replicate something surprising (especially if it works to your advantage) can put you far ahead of the pack.  The more contrary your strategy runs to general experience, the harder it is for opponents to adapt.


In a fighting game you might find that a move randomly beats another one out.  In Melee you might accidentally dodge one attack by having a hitbox that bends your character around it... then you start replicating the accident and now people constantly find you dodging and counterattacking instantly.  In a MOBA, you might find that two abilities interact strangely and give you an advantage, so you reproduce the effect repeatedly in a matchup to win.  In an FPS, you might glitch a grenade through a wall... then test it, and find it lets you storm a position that's normally impossible to break against competent opponents.

When weird stuff happens, don't just shrug and say, "huh, weird."  Try and solve it, then try and integrate it should it appear useful.

4) Don't over-rely on gimmicks.  A gimmick is a strategy that DOES NOT and CANNOT work once the opponent has knowledge of how to beat it.  If you have a strategy that can be worked into your game with intelligent setups, and it doesn't get shut down just by knowing it *could* happen, then you aren't using a gimmick.  But if it can be checked for and defused every time, it's a gimmick.  It might be tough to spot and defeat, making it a very STRONG gimmick, but it remains a gimmick nonetheless.

Now, obviously if you've got a gimmick that your opponent doesn't know about and you figure it's got good odds of winning you the game, you should use it.  But centering your game-plan around a gimmick and hoping people won't know how to fight it is just putting an expiration date on your skill and success.  Heck, the guy sitting next to your opponent might know what to do and just tell him, and then you're screwed.


A rush in an RTS that can be scouted and shut down without deviating from normal build order counts as a gimmick, and relies on the opponent not noticing what you're doing (or if he does notice it, how to counter it).  If you have ways of forcing or tricking the opponent to build against a different kind of attack, then your gimmick falls more into the range of actual strategy and deception.  If you want a Chess comparison, the Scholar's Mate (a four move checkmate) would be a good example.  Not a perfect one though, because White has opening lines afterwards that are not actually terrible and it doesn't ruin your life if the other guy stops your plan.

5) Synchronize your strengths with your strategy's.  Do not try to play the game in a way that doesn't fit with your skillset.   There is obviously nothing wrong with expanding the things you are good at, but centering your style of play around a critical weakness will keep you from ever finding out if a strategy is sound or not.


In a fighting game, your character has a fast move and you have rather quick reflexes, and this allows you to interrupt moves most other people can't.  So rather than try and just guess or zone people the "normal" way for your character, you put yourself in situations where you can interrupt their moves based on reaction, and acheive success with your character that others have extreme difficulty duplicating.

6) Ask "is there more I could be doing in the time I have?"  Particularly in the RTS genre, being efficient with your time is everything.  Being elegant and taking care of more options with individual actions, or simply increasing the actions you can take in a given amount of time, can open up opportunities for you that others do not have.  In this vein, if you want to further your knowledge, you should actually check the math and stats on what you're doing to see if it's genuinely optimal.


In SSBM, there's a lot of room for people to add fast-falls or time moves closer to frame perfect that they don't explore because of 1) the difficulty and 2) because they generaly win even without it.  But then you encounter somebody who HAS spent that time optimizing and finding where they REALLY have an advantage, and you suddenly don't know what to do.  Be the second person.

7) Develop counters to your own strategies.  Don't just stop when you've found something neat.  Ask what could be beating it, and prepare counters to that.  This is what allows you to give the impression of being unbeatable and one step ahead of everybody.


In a MOBA, if you develop a toon/hero/champion/character/whatever to a higher level than most others, you may find that they will pick your character first so you don't get to use him.  So obviously, having a counter for yourself will give you the major advantage in the next game of a series.


I hope that helps you understand a bit more about the mechanisms behind becoming innovative and creative in your chosen game.  The final point is to never stop asking questions about your game.  What more is possible?  Where else can you optimize?  What makes something work in this situation, but not in others?  Use it to expand your knowledge of the game in total, not just the areas you specialize in, and you'll suddenly find yourself having realizations and ideas past the normal without even trying.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Life Update, and Innovation

Life update:

This past weekend held an exciting event in Ann Arbor, Michigan for Super Smash Brothers Melee.  Big House 2 hit its entrant cap of 128 people, many of which were out-of-state and out-of-region entrants.  Not bad for a game that's ten years old, and it wasn't even one of the really big ones.

The stream--if I recall correctly--also reached around four thousand viewers at peak.  Quite a few intense matches and the whole thing was run very efficiently and on-schedule.  If you know any gamers, you'll know that's typically an anomaly ;)

For my part, I participated with the gentlemen of VGBootcamp (this is their twitch.tv channel, and this is their Facebook page) providing match commentary, analysis, and terrible jokes all weekend.  So apart from having a sore throat, I also had an amazing time getting to talk about my favorite game for sixteen hours while thousands of people were forced to listen.  It was basically a dream come true.

And today I'll be getting my wisdom teeth removed.  If there is no blog post on Friday, that's why.  But I'll try to get something out for you guys anyhow.


Today's topic is innovation in competitive gaming.

Creative strategies are exciting.  They're a big part of what keeps a game alive for many years--in an industry where the whole point is to constantly generate new entertainment content, a robust game that can handle a wide variety of strategies represents a very small group of games.  Those games tend to last for years, because people find strategies, develop them, perfect them, find new ones as counters, learn those, and repeat the cycle.  Games that last for many years--particularly ones that can't be patched, or simply are not patched because the devs don't feel like it--gather very hardcore followers devoted to exploring every nuance of the game.

Games that are not robust just don't last that long: people find the best strategy, perfect it, then get bored of executing it repeatedly.  Patching the game can help this, but if the game itself isn't terribly interesting, all it does is create a new best strategy.  So it helps, but people eventually get tired of that too.  And too frequently patching a game sometimes causes players to feel like there isn't any point to keeping updated, since the game is just going to change anyhow.  Competitive games that last awhile carry many happy surprises for their fans, and also offer opportunities for people to invent strategies all their own.

The thing about successful innovation is that it's rare.  There are lots of strategies available to you in many games, and most of them are terrible.  They may be creative and outside-the-box, but they don't actually go anywhere.  People spend a lot of time spending energy on unsuccessful strategies.  So when somebody does find one or two that work, the majority of people latch onto it, happy to not be wasting their time.  They want to be good at the game.  Having a good strategy gives you the chance to practice mechanics and see success.

But why is it so difficult to find new ones?

First you have to understand the game in order to start exploiting its rules and nuances.  This takes time and a healthy degree of intuition or some ability with analysis.

Second, just because you come up with a clever idea doesn't mean that you will execute it properly.  Great ideas executed poorly don't work.  Inferior ideas, done perfectly, can still win.  So when somebody comes up with a great idea, they have to try it over and over again in the face of failure.  Instant success is not likely to be forthcoming, because--just like the original "best way to play"--it will take time to master.  Whether you're talking about characters in fighting games, build orders and timings in RTS games, weapons, maneuvers, and positions in FPS games, and so on.

The result is that people may stumble upon an amazing idea early on, but not actually execute it properly.  They might be missing one tiny piece of the puzzle that keeps them from succeeding, and conclude the avenue of thought was a worthless distraction.  And it ends up taking a slightly more clever or more mechanically sound player to take that strategy to the level it belongs.

The third problem is that developing new strategies and techniques takes time.  Even if you're pretty confident that you've got a winner on your hands, it can take time away from maintaining and improving other skills.  Players at the top--particularly ones that earn money or maintain sponsorships for being there--may not have the time to spend on innovating things, since innovation comes with risk.  The players that don't deal with that risk aren't top players, and because they aren't top players, they can end up running into problem two.

The fourth problem is that it takes a lot of time to come up with an idea, but a lot less time to steal it.  So you can go to the trouble of developing new strategies that a better player will just steal and execute more effectively.  On the flip side, people can just wait for a smarter player to come up with something and steal it.  That can backfire (if there's some nuance to the idea, it's actually likely), but players try it all the time.

The fifth problem is that if people see you developing your strategy, they can start preparing counters in advance.  So you may end up practicing your awesome secret technique on your own, only to find that it needs live-fire experience.  And the experience your opponents gain from it can have them prepared to shut your new trick down, and you will have a tough time knowing if it's a sound strategy or not.

The sixth problem is that when you fail at innovating, you look stupid.  Very few people say, "clever idea, shame it didn't work out," but a lot of people will say, "what a dumb idea."  And even though that shouldn't be a reason, it's still a powerful deterrent.

There are ways to get around these problems though.  The first and second problems are not even problems; they are simply barriers, and you address them by practicing more.  Practice conventional tactics and understand them, develop your mechanics, and try to see underlying weaknesses while you do so.  Think while you train.  Time you spend practicing basics and understanding fundamentals can also be spent thinking how to apply them in new ways.  Don't believe that a clever new idea will circumvent the need to practice; become a solid player in all areas regardless.

If you're a top player and you don't want to lose--because you would be risking external incentives--then a coach can be the guy that does all the outside-the-box thinking for you.  Either that, or simply find smart people and ask them to come up with wacky ideas that you can test.  Then make sure to give them credit, since that's probably what they want more than anything.

When it comes to people stealing strategies, there is no way around it.  It's inevitable.  If you establish a new metagame around your awesome innovative idea, people will take it.  You might stop being the best afterwards.  It's part of the competitive cycle, and must simply be accepted.  Having accepted it, you can be free to just come up with more new stuff. And if you're genuinely a superior player, you will win anyhow.

As for the sixth problem--facing criticism when things don't work out--just remember; most people don't understand the game very well.  Even when they are otherwise intelligent and wonderful human beings, they may still belittle strategies they don't understand.  If they don't see and understand the theory and idea behind some clever piece of work you've constructed (even when it doesn't work out) you should just ignore them.

On Friday, assuming I'm not still completely out of commission, I'm going to extend this topic to discuss where it fits into different genres, with some more specific examples.  Thanks for reading.

Friday, October 5, 2012


Games are simulations.  They assist us in learning and developing ourselves so we can survive and thrive in whatever landscape we find ourselves in.  And humans actively create new simulations to develop new skills.

But something interesting ends up happening happens.  People forget the original reason for participating in competitions and games, and start prizing victory at the expense of other factors.  Factors like their health and social lives.  It's strange; if a game exists to develop skills to survive, but then you sacrifice your health for the sake of it, you have defeated the original purpose of the game.  Why do this?

I've spent the past few articles talking about the origin of games and competitions--purely because I find it interesting--but the reality is, we don't need to obey that origin any more.  Things are the way they are now, and the truth is, we don't need games to survive quite like we did before, because the face of suvival has changed.  How should we view games now?  How should we look at winning?

The real answer to the question is, irritatingly enough, "it depends."  It depends on the reason that you play the game to begin with.  We know why we have a tendency towards games and competitions.  But, once we become aware of those tendencies we can make more conscious choices.  So the question "how much should I care about winning" can only be answered by asking "why do I play?"  The answer to the first depends on how much winning serves the second.

Some people look at games with the perspective that they really should reflect nature, and you should approach them with a do-or-die attitude where winning is everything.  And this makes sense, to a certain extent.  If we agree that games are meant to be simulations that teach you how to survive, then honing the will to survive and win may be the most important element of it all.  That attitude will carry over into other situations, and may give you the drive to press on when others might quit.

But again, the problem is that going at the game with the desire to win at all costs can hurt your life outside the game.  And then using the skill that you're developing hurts the whole point of learning the skill.  From a survival perspective, this is rather unsound.

There is also the school of thought that says, "it's just a game."  I've been over this here.  Even though I have just spent two weeks arguing that games developed as simulations for "real life," that is simply a descriptor of their origin.  "Real life" has, for many people, changed.  And therefore, so should our attitude towards games.

Does winning matter?  Sometimes, in the context of your life, it really does.  You are playing to earn a scholarship to get into a university, get a degree, play on a major team.  You're playing on a major team, your contract and popularity and financial well-being depend on your performance.  The reasons can vary, but sometimes winning has actual, hard consequences.

And sometimes it doesn't, but you manically pursue it anyhow.  If it's too important to win and you fail, the experience of losing might be too negative for you to keep going.  If you love the game, your desire to win could end up hindering your enjoyment of it.  So do you stop caring when you lose, or just get better and always win?  Many variables exist, but this is the essence: define your own purpose for playing the game in the context of your life and adjust your attitude accordingly.

I'll talk about myself for a bit, since that's the subject I'm most of an expert on.  I play games to understand myself.  I use them as a lens to analyze my behaviors and tendencies, to see what I think, how I behave, and why I think and behave that way.  Games are useful in this regard because they offer pretty clear feedback when you're doing something wrong or not.  And if I'm succeeding at something when somebody else doesn't, I just ask the question: why?  What am I doing, what am I focusing on, that lets me succeed?  Likewise, when somebody possesses a skill I lack, what is it that gives them that ability?  These questions interest me.

I also heavily dislike mysticism.  Things tend to happen for reasons; when people say, "that's just the way it is," or settle for an unhelpful answer without going into the mechanics behind it, I get kind of irritated.  Our actions and feelings have purposes, and there's a reason behind the purpose, and when you understand them, you can cut away clutter and uncertainty and go straight to the heart of what actually fulfills you, what makes you feel alive and whole.  We don't always know the reason for things happening a certain way, but we're also remarkably uncomfortable admitting it.

So why try to win?  Because the path that leads to victory contains information that helps me become more aware of myself; learning more about myself helps me learn more about others.  By learning this information I can share it, and others can refine it, and continue the cycle.  What I know about myself so far is that I have a deep-seated desire to be competent, to be respected, and to create and establish things that people will attach to my name.  So when I play games, I instinctively try to dominate, to be known through teaching, and to innovate to push understanding of my game forward.  It wouldn't work very well if I played more established games and sports (since their territory is so well-covered), but video games give me more opportunity to achieve that goal.

How much is too much?  Well, if doing something stops serving the purpose that I pick for it, I try to quit pursuing it.  If I do something for my enjoyment, but pursuing the thing makes me unhappy, I try to re-evaluate my methods.  Strangely enough though, because competition and games are the framework I use to analyze my own behavior and emotions, I don't actually mind if trying to win leads to a negative experience.  You can't understand trends without data, and I can't understand what makes me sad, frustrated, and angry without experiencing sadness, frustration, and anger.

However, I do have other goals for my life.  I'm not going to overuse stimulants and fry the reward neuro-circuitry of my brain, because that hinders my long term plans.  To an athlete that plans to live past the age of thirty, I feel like similar concerns should apply.  There is almost never a point where victory in the game should outweigh concern for your future (or current) well-being, because even though the game ends, you will continue living and developing.

Find your purpose for competing.  Define the elements that matter to you, and then refine your actions so you can experience more of them.  Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Modern Competition, continued

We've looked at why people play sports and games, and why they are legitimately valuable to our development.  But why do we care so much?  How did they get so big?  Why do we love them even after we've long stopped playing them?

Since it's really the number of spectators that determines how big a sport or game becomes, let's look at the main reasons people cite for being spectators:

1) They enjoy displays of skill and human potential.
2) They feel pride in a region, city, town, school, or country.
3) They played the game, understand it, and enjoy it because they appreciate the efforts and skills involved on a personal level.

Each one of these reasons has some clear root.  Why enjoy, appreciate, or admire skill and potential?

Well, people who are skilled and have abilities demonstrate fitness; that is, the ability to survive in a given niche.  People value fitness, because if we didn't value it, we wouldn't pursue it, we wouldn't obtain it, and we wouldn't survive.  We also value people who demonstrate fitness; we follow them and listen to them, because if they show a capacity to survive and thrive, by attaching ourselves to them, we increase the ability to do so.

Imagine if we didn't.  Imagine if strong and fit members of a group were not admired, or sought after, or emulated by others.  That group would pursue things that would either hurt their survival, or just not contribute to it.  The ones that didn't seek fitness--or at least value it enough to associate with people demonstrating it--would not be likely to survive.  Therefore, that tendency wouldn't be likely to survive.

What about patriotism, and group pride?  Likewise, it makes sense--from the perspective of genetics--to value your group above others.  People who support the group are likely to contribute to its survival, and in turn their own survival because, well, they are in it.  If they don't see the group as valuable to their survival--or more specifically, see benefit in abandoning the group--the odds of cooperation and support go down.

This might be a bit of a stretch.  After all, we consciously know that sports are not the same as an actual competition for survival (sports riots notwithstanding).  But we do know that, even when sorted into groups randomly, people display preferences for their own groups.  We also know that many chemicals released in the brain, and many physiological processes that we undergo in the throes of competition are the exact same ones we see in survival scenarios.  So even though this link is speculative, I'm not that hesitant to make it.

The third reason, appreciation for the game because you've played it, is kind of a combination of group-appreciation and fitness-appreciation.  The respect is enhanced by being aware of the skill required, and you resonate with the players more because in a sense, you form a group with them.

As for how sports became so big, it--and this is just a guess--may have just come down to the above factors, along with marketing and social proof.  The game is fun, and people value the best players.  Recognizing that the sport is popular and people attach value to the celebrities, companies will endorse them and hitch their wagon to rising stars, hoping spectators will associate the products with success.  Money from sponsors allows the sport to grow, to finance players, to help them get better, to make a living playing the game.  And as the game gets bigger, people without a previous stake in it will start caring just because other people do!  It gets bigger, more money becomes invested, the sport grows, and so on.  And as the field becomes more competitive, being at the top becomes more impressive.  And since it's a way for people to prove their own value to others, individuals, groups, and institutions have a reason to invest time and energy into it, stimulating growth further.

But when people play the games, even though they are just simulations and ways to stimulate personal growth, people become really attached to the outcome.  They care about winning.  Crazily enough, they care about winning these simulations so much that they'll forsake relationships and damage their own health to do it, completely short-circuiting the original goal.  And this is even true in games that are small-scale, without monetary or social benefits attached to them.  Why care so much about winning?

A few things come into play.

First, the simulation reflects your desire for fitness and survival.  Wanting to achieve and demonstrate fitness manifests itself in the desire to win.  This is enhanced by the presence of fight-or-flight survival chemicals and hormones; even though it's just a simulation, your brain decides the activity is important, and responds accordingly.

Second, even if you just start out having fun, as you invest more time, you become more interested in seeing a return on the investment.  So there's a combination of ego appeasement and loss-aversion at play; you want to feel good about your ability to succeed when you try, and you don't want to "lose" the time you spent training.  So you care more.

Third, any time there are real-life factors at stake--money, gainful employment, or social standing--your survival depends on it (in a sense).  So caring about winning in that case is very natural as well.

And finally, you may have nothing but an ego investment related to someone or something else.  Social pressures can exist even if you otherwise would not care.

But here's the money-making question: how beneficial is it to you to want to win?  Not from a survival perspective, or evolutionary psychology perspective, but one of practicality.  How much should you want to win?  How much is too much?  And what does striving for victory even get you?

I'll go into that on Friday.  Thanks for reading.