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.

1 comment:

  1. I expected a little bit stronger framing about innovation. Maybe using some theories/models/or math to explain how the shear possibility space is filled with more ineffective things than effective. And how in rule based, goal based, skill based systems, this will always be the case. So as players blindly explore by essentially hitting buttons randomly to see what works, they will develop in a very predictable, short-sighted way.

    Sure we can study things conceptually to cut down on this blind-busy work so to speak. But thinking like this is hard and most people simply can't do it.

    I like what you said about the copy cats. Most people just flat out copy without understanding deeply, because at the end of the day if you just press the buttons like they do you'll at least look like they do.