Friday, September 6, 2013

When Weaker Players Innovate

Every now and then, I see a good player use a bad character in some game.  And, as it turns out, they perform better or more successfully than people who dedicate themselves exclusively to that character.  When you ask, “who has the best X,” where X is the character in question, it’s tempting to say that those better players have a better X.  That’s not exactly true.  But it does raise interesting questions.

Side note: by “weaker players,” I don’t actually mean people who genuinely stink at the game.  Just people who hang out, very distinctly, in a zone well beneath the top.  They might actually be reasonably competent, they just don’t have that oomph that puts them in the spotlight.  In fact, the only reason you’ve even heard of them is probably because they use a wonky, underplayed character at a higher level than average.

The thing is, you can be better at a character by being more advanced with them, yet have worse results.  You might know more sophisticated punishments, and have very clever resets or baits, and know the intricacies of most matchups way better than the high-level player that outdoes you.  The questions this should raise for people is, “what skills do these better players possess that lets them outplay somebody who is more advanced with that character?”

How do you know you should be asking that question?  When you start exclaiming, “why does GreatFella hit with this basic set-up so much, when LowTierSpecialist2k9 doesn’t?”  When you go, “wow that was really stupid, I can’t believe it worked.”  When the better player keeps landing little combos, little one-two combos or setups that give them consistent edges.  Or when they consistently utilize the game’s universal mechanics, like dodges and rolls or burst in Guilty Gear or X-Factor in MvC3, intelligently.  When they make amateur mistakes with the character, but get away with them anyhow.

These things tell you, “they have mastered certain skills or aspects of the game that let them win regardless of character.”  And so you should ask the question, “what skills are these?”  This is especially true if you are the weaker player in question!  It can be easy to throw up your hands and say, “it’s not fair this stuff just works for him.”  You might cling to a belief in some innate unfairness in the universe.  You might just assume randomized, chance stupidity on the parts of everybody else; the players just happen to randomly stop playing right when BetterPlayer87 sits down, but they play the matchup correctly against you.

These feelings are pretty normal and expected, honestly.  It really sucks to invest lots of time into something, and have somebody come along and do it better with less investment.  It’s kind of like a slap in the face.  It makes you ask, “why not me?  Why can’t I do that thing?”  It hurts and it sucks to feel that way.

I experienced that quite a lot in SSBM.  Chu Dat was the premier IC player for a long time.  His game sense, intuitiveness, and consistency were absolutely absurd.  He used outdated techniques and made lots of inefficient choices, and for some reason, he stayed near the top of the game until he faded out of the scene from inactivity.  And this was a big slap to me, because I didn’t seem to have that crazy knack he did.  I tried to optimize everything, and discover all the nuances of the character.  We’d have conversations about the Ice Climbers, and he would sometimes just stare at me like I was speaking Swahili.  It hit me that he knew less about the character than I did, and that he was still 100x better than me with them.  It took me a long, long time (and inactivity on his part) before my general skills and basic abilities in the game were on par with his, and my character specialization could take me over the top.  And I was still missing certain abilities that he had!  I could punish way harder, and I knew more tricks.  But when it came to his insights, his spacing, and his consistency, I still feel like I don’t quite match him in those regards.  And I kept playing for years after he quit.

That sucked.  But on the other hand, it led me to studying his videos relentlessly, trying to figure out what thought process he used that made his decisions magically work.  It was a process that improved me tremendously; I just kept asking, “what made him choose to do this here?” and “what is it he’s doing that makes even his basic decisions so much more powerful?”

While I was asking those questions, however, I also had to ask myself a follow-up question: which of the specialized, character-specific skills are giving the lesser player (me) good mileage, and which ones are superfluous?  Sometimes I got so carried away with being fancy, tricky, and advanced that I actually sacrificed good foundations and fundamentals.  And it happens to others; they waste time and mental energy on things that don’t end helping in the long run.

There’s another thing point to consider.  Sometimes you see bad players come up with great ideas that they can’t execute.  So the ideas look bad, and later on, a better player might steal it (or happen to come up with as well) and make those ideas shine.  Why?

Because of fundamentals.  In most games, even the right ideas require good execution.  You can steal an idea or a notion or a strategy fairly quickly, but you can’t just steal somebody’s actual ability.  You must develop your own.

What’s also funny is that bad ideas, with perfect execution, can look good.  So whether the ideas are perfect, or optimal, often doesn’t even matter.  What matters is that it’s a better player trying to implement it.  The underlying execution and mechanics of the superior player makes every idea look good.  They will have to fight somebody of equal, fundamental skill before you can tell whether those decisions, ideas, or strategies actually make a difference, positively or negatively.

You will find, often, that even a flawed idea executed with confidence and precision will exceed a great idea done poorly.  You might notice it when you read a book or watch a movie with a great premise that you don’t enjoy.  The idea sounds cool, but it can still be executed poorly.  On the flip side, you may end up enjoying a generic, clichéd work in the same genre more, because of its execution.

If anything, there’s a lot to be said for people who improve their fundamentals by practicing the things that are clichéd and overused.  First off, you don’t have to spend any extra time trying to learn and develop the idea; it’s been done to death, so a lot of the legwork is done for you.  More than that, being able to execute things successfully even when thereś nothing new behind them does say quite a lot about your fundamentals; for example, can you still surprise or entertain an audience when they know what your general message is?  Can you make them feel suspenseful and excited even though they know the hero will win at the end?  And when you’re playing a game, can you still win even without the power of innovation on your side?  It’s kind of weird to think about, but I recommend you do so anyhow.

Thanks for reading.


I definitely don't think there's anything wrong with innovation and gaining an edge with crazy, secret technology. And in the heat of competition, I don't advocate people throwing up their hands and saying, "I can't win the way he does, so I'll just stop." Do what it takes to win. If it means you must come up with your own methods then by all means, do it.

I personally tried to play the tried-and-true way in SSBM for a long time. But there are many skills I just couldn't grasp, and I had no intention of giving up just because I couldn't play like other people. So I developed my own style, and it (to this day) relies on lots of silly tricks and traps that honestly wouldn't work if people knew more about the Ice Climbers. But there was a point where I started discarding that craziness in favor of basic fundamentals when I practiced. I advise most people spend at least some time doing the same.

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