Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Timeless Skills

In the world of competition, nobody really stays the best for very long.  There are a lot of hungry players out there, and--particularly in very physical competitions--the younger generation always wants to climb up and take the throne.  I remember losing a match to my friend Jeff and I yelled at him--as a joke--”Why did you beat me?!  I wanted to win!”  And he replied, in a very solemn voice, “well, I wanted to win too.”

If somebody stays the best forever, nobody else gets to be the best.  That’s what that means.  There is always going to be an ebb and flow of players as new strategies are discovered, new techniques, new nutrition, or just as new genetic freaks mature and come stomp on your face with their prodigious ability.  It happens.

But there are some players who seem to have that special something that lets them stay at the top for a long time.  If they can’t remain the uncontested best--thanks to the throng of hungry players beneath them--they manage to stay pretty high up in the rankings.  This is the result of possessing and mastering timeless skills.

How do I define timeless?  I don’t have a clear-cut sentence to describe it.  But things that those “timeless skills” encompass would be fundamentals, adaptability, and focus.

Fundamental is a very similar word to foundation.  It makes sense then that another word you could use for this element of play is “basics.”  Players with poor basics don’t stay good for long, if they ever can find a way to win at all.  This means that whatever the core skills of your game are, you have learned them!  Well done.

There are ways to win without good fundamentals.  The most obvious way is with a gimmick.  I define “gimmick” as “something that can only work when the other player does not know the counter.”  If you can always stop something just by having some experience against it, it’s a gimmick.  Some strategies have counters, but they can be implemented in the form of mix-ups, and you can still catch somebody off-guard even if they know better.  Whether it’s finding something most people can’t deal with and exploiting it, or specializing so much in one single aspect of the game that you can overwhelm many people, you can still find ways to win even if you actually stink.  Focus on general, fundamental skills.

Does this contradict my previous post about playing stupid, and spamming one thing?  It does, but only if you allow that stupid spammed tactic to become the actual core of your gameplay.  If it is a tool for you to learn more about the game’s fundamentals, that’s good.  If you only do the one stupid thing because that’s the only way you know how to win, that’s bad.

I would argue that, in my career, this is something I did early on.  Not only did I rely on the serious punishing power of the Ice Climbers (whether it was my infinite, or other chain-grabs) I also dedicated a lot of my game to basic calls.  So the first chunk of my career sacrificed control and consistency for the ability to guess right four times and kill you.  It was, in fact, pretty gimmicky and damaging to my long-term growth.  If I could coach myself from the beginning, I would definitely do many things differently.  I would emphasize control, precision, and a better understanding of the characteristics of all the moves, rather than trying to master any particular strategy; after all, there will never be a strategy I could come up with that won’t require those things.  So if I had begun with those fundamentals, it would have assisted with whatever specific strategies and techniques I wanted to learn later.  This move from the general to the specific is how you develop a fundamental core that lets you branch out and do almost whatever you want later.

Fortunately, because this isn’t about hating on myself, I did spend some time cultivating the skill of pattern recognition.  It is probably the only reason I ever became good at all.  This leads us into the next element of timeless play, which is adaptability.

Adaptability simply means that you recognize patterns and can change your approach to matchups (whether between players or characters) as you go.  It means that no matter what state the game reaches, it only takes you a few games to get the gist of the new meta.  Even better, if you know your particular game well (for instance, by having good fundamentals!) you will be able to incorporate those new strategies quickly, or at least develop counters to them.  Some players will break for a year, then come back and just magically stay good.  How?  Because they have strong fundamentals that don’t decay, and they are adaptable.

This is not a mystical skill, a “have it or you don’t” kind of thing.  It is developed by looking for patterns and thinking a lot about them.  It is done by being willing to test lots of ideas and gather data.  It’s a mindset, more than anything--you intentionally create new outcomes by giving new input.  You develop the knack for seeing what inputs will likely yield what result.  How do you do this?

In the context of one game, you start to quickly think “I feel like this kind of strategy, or this particular move will be at the heart of success in this situation.”  In the context of many games, you start seeing what moves and skills will become fundamentals, and you get decent pretty quickly.  You can start dedicating your efforts specifically towards the things that will yield success, because you recognize those patterns from other games.  And so we link into the third skill, which is focus.

I think focus should go without saying.  But it is a key element of being a great player, and therefore an important element of staying one.  Remaining focused is how you learn, and it’s how you avoid crumbling from pressure.  Particularly if you play a game for a long time, you can easily develop expectations of your own performance.  Moreover, others may develop expectations and impose them on you.  Focus is about deciding what will get your attention, and what will not.  The ability to say, “those expectations don’t matter to me, only the match in front of me does,” is one of the ways that you continue to perform well even as time goes on.

Moreover, focus ties well into adaptability, because it keeps you from obsessing over temporary outcomes--”he knows more than me now, I can’t win, I’m washed up, this strat is stupid BS”--and emphasizing your possible options and adaptations.  I may be able to beat this if I try this, I might be able to catch up if I take a risk here, and so on.  You don’t have room in your head for extra thoughts when you’re trying to learn and adapt, so obviously that means you must focus.

I’d like to point out that I have moved from a specific theme--fundamentals in a given game--to the creation of skills that apply everywhere in your life.  When you start in a specific arena, you want to pick a single thing to master because without learning something, you have no anchor, no rock to base your other lessons around.  It’s your starting point, your home-base, your first puzzle piece.  Over time, you will move from the specific strategy to a more general understanding of how the whole game works together.  Which leads you to master a more general skill of adaptability.  When you can focus and adapt, you can then identify fundamentals of any other endeavor you choose, at which point you start to master the game of life  And one of the most important skills in that game is the recognition that you have more to learn, and it’s the focus on learning that leads to the improvement of performance.

Which, I suppose, is why if I had to include a final skill, it would be humility.  Acknowledging that time goes on, that the other player wants to win, that he could win, that you might be outdone in time, that you always have more to learn: this element is crucial to further improvement and growth.  I see so many people who think “I’ve made it, I’m good, I should be winning now,” but they don’t want to acknowledge they have more yet to do.  You might be the local best who refuses to admit that anybody could teach him anything.  You might become a parent that thinks “mom” or “dad” is equal to “indisputable dispenser of knowledge and wisdom.”  You lock down.  Suddenly, adaptability seems less important than maintenance.  Applying your fundamentals is less important than preserving your apparent success.  You become entrenched in whatever strategies got you to the top, until people develop counters and move on without you.  Stuck in the old identity of being good, you can’t keep up.

Alternatively, you can focus on the learning element of the game and seeing what is at its core, what skills make you timeless.  Then you get to keep playing and enjoying the game, and it cannot move on without you.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Power of Playing Stupid

Let’s kick this post off with a few principles.

1) Fewer things to focus on means you can give more attention to those things.

2) Increasing focus and attention leads to greater learning and understanding.

3) Frustration often decreases focus and performance.

4) Unmatched expectations often lead to frustration; matched expectations diminishes it.

5) An irritating noise is always less annoying when you are the one making it.

Sit and think for awhile on those five principles, and you will understand the power of playing stupid. Or just keep reading, and I’ll give you the walkthrough regardless.

When I say playing stupid, I don’t mean playing badly.  I mean playing in a dumbed-down and oversimplified manner.  I mean a method of play that decreases the decisions you have to make in a match.  In fact, many times “playing stupid” is better described as “appearing to play stupidly." And that's also why I don't say "playing stupidly," for the grammar nerds. Because I'm describing something else.

Let’s say you are playing SSBM, and you decide you are only going to practice using Marth’s d-tilt.  So you sit in place crouching, spamming d-tilt, then wavedash back into d-tilt.  Then you bring up your shield, sit for a moment, then wavedash out into another d-tilt.  You spend the whole game spamming your d-tilt.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.  You lose.

But your goal is not to win.  Your goal is to fool around with d-tilt and learn about it.  Rather than waste time asking useless questions like “what move is good here,” you decrease the decisions you make by forcing yourself to use nothing but d-tilt.  This lets you focus on timing your d-tilts better, and it also gives you tons of data on when d-tilt works and when it doesn’t.  You learn that it doesn’t intercept Falcon’s short-hop at maximum range, but it will catch an Ice Climber’s short-hop b-air out of shield.  You learn that at a certain spacing, the whiffed d-tilt looks punishable but actually serves as a marvelous bait for a dash-dance grab.  Which you don’t do, because you’re still busy d-tilting.

It also annoys your opponent.  We’ll get to that in a minute though.

After awhile, you come to realize that using nothing but d-tilt doesn’t let you win against good players.  You start to see situations where d-tilt can’t possibly work.  And you think to yourself, “why would I d-tilt here?  I could just jab him out of the air, or dash-dance into a free grab.  Brute forcing the d-tilt is a dumb idea.” Not d-tilting seems obvious, like there's no decision to be made. You feel like you're just doing the obvious thing.

And then you realize that you have just started to understand more about your character.  Before, you might have guessed ‘d-tilt will work” when it wouldn’t, or “f-smash will work” when it wouldn’t.  And you would screw up, and then move on and forget as you tried other stuff.  But now you can see, as a direct result of your experience from playing stupid, just how useful d-tilt is.  Moreover, you’re much better at timing it and abusing its properties than you were before, because you’ve gathered so much data.  Playing stupid on purpose makes you smarter.  Particularly if you’re willing to learn from it.  Hence, points one and two from the beginning of the post are applicable.

Spam the move or the strategy and learn about it. Focus on it entirely. Ignore being smart, and play stupid.

Does this apply in tournament play?  Absolutely.  Playing stupid--or at least appearing to do so--makes people mad.  It looks like you are messing with them and not taking them seriously, which--to a competitor--is often quite insulting. They wonder if you seriously think you can beat them with a single move.  They wonder if you honestly think that they are so bad or so stupid to keep falling for it.  When they do get hit--because, for instance, you know way more about d-tilt’s properties than they do--they go into confusion mode.  Why aren’t they winning when they know what you’re going to do?  Why aren’t they beating a player who is clearly not that great?

Points three and four; they expect to beat a player who plays stupidly, and failing to match that expectation creates frustration, which leads to decreased performance and focus.  Frustrated players will often try to bulldoze through things that irritate them.  They will also think, “I could be winning if I wasn’t making these dumb mistakes.  He’s not good!”

I may be generalizing from my own experience.  I get frustrated when I make mistakes or lose to somebody using one move or one strategy over and over.  I feel insulted and annoyed.  I then will screw up the counter by mistiming it, which makes me angrier--”I would be winning if…”--and that just tilts me farther.  Obviously we know better outside of the game, but in the heat of the moment, it’s really difficult to control.  This is what got me thinking on this path to begin with. There is a sixth rule which I didn’t mention at the start; any emotional reaction taking place inside of you could happen to other players and can be manipulated.

And finally, you won’t get annoyed by your own stupid play, especially not if you’re doing it on purpose. Back to the fifth rule: irritating noises are less annoying to the person making them.  Irritation isn’t just about a grating high pitched sound or an uncomfortable sensation; it’s about wanting it to end and its constant re-occurrence.  So it’s hard to get mad if you intentionally play stupid, because it's your choice and you can stop when you want.  It’s also better to play stupid on purpose than play stupidly on accident.

Let’s talk a bit more about the strategic value of playing stupid.  Let’s assume your opponent maintains focus, comes up with a solution, and is able to counter your dumb strats.  There is still an expectation that you only know how to use one strategy or move, or that you will pick it in eighty percent of instances.  This is where the enemy becomes conditioned, where they continually set themselves up to counter your stupid strategy. They do so automatically. They watch for it constantly, because that's what they know to be looking for.  And you start to see, “obviously I can’t use X here, he’s obviously expecting it, so I should…” and bam, you are playing the game.  You are reading the position and picking strong options, rather than mixing up for the sake of doing so.

This is where, I think, the real hidden point of this post reveals itself.  Which is you should never try to “play like a good player.”  Don’t copy without understanding.  Don’t think, “good players wavedash and good players dash dance before going in.”  Good players pick winning options.  And sometimes the winning option is to play like an idiot because you know more about your idiotic strategy than the other person.  Sometimes the basic, simple play is best.  Sometimes you just walk up and hit the other guy.  Sometimes you do the same thing over and over again because he can’t handle it.  Rather than go out of your way to prove you’ve got an amazing repertoire of tricks, save them for when they’re needed.  If stupid play will win, be smart and play stupid.

Thank you for reading.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Skill Differences

You don’t have to read this article to continue with this blog post, though it’s interesting.

I’ll summarize it for you; one high-school football team in Texas beat another team ninety one points to zero and that’s like, kind of a lot.  But what’s interesting was the response.

The players and the coach all sat down and felt pretty badly, but the guys feeling badly about it were the winners.  I’m sure the losing team didn’t feel too peachy either, but what interests me is that you would normally expect the people who won, especially by such a large margin, to feel pretty good about themselves.

It turns out, the coach felt the opposite.  “I don’t like it," he said. "I sit there the whole third and fourth quarter and try to think how I can keep us from scoring.”

And then a report gets filed against his team for bullying.  Not because his players taunted anybody.  Not because they were ex-Marines who sneaked themselves into a game with high-schoolers so they could flaunt how strong they were.  But because they won too hard.

I wanted to dismiss it as ridiculous.  And it is ridiculous to cry bully, because--according to the article above--there’s zero evidence that the Aledo team did anything to rub the victory in anybody’s faces.  They didn’t cheat or use underhanded tactics to gain the win, and won with no malicious intent; that means that a charge of “bullying” is right out.  For what it’s worth, the losing team’s coach didn’t file the charge.  It appears to have been done by an unhappy parent who didn't want their kid feeling bad.  But it did get me thinking a bit.

There is a reason that we create leagues, circuits, and divisions.  Besides elements of physical safety (in the case of age groups), it’s done to try and keep the competition closer.  It is frustrating to play somebody a few light-years out of your league.  You barely have the opportunity to learn because they crush you quickly and decisively.  You have to imagine that it’s not much fun for the winner either (unless they really like easy victories).  It’s tough to learn from experience when your participation in the game is damn near negligible.  You can do your best--heck, some of my most motivational matches have been overwhelming losses--but if somebody really is that much better than you, you have to ask “what are you even doing here?”

Now, this particular case is interesting because it highlights lots of ideas I write about.

Where to start?  These kids aren’t professionals.  They’re another high-school team.  This means that the #1 NFL team didn’t drop into town just to slaughter some little kids.  This is an ostensibly even playing field, in terms of age and experience.  So one of the most important things we have to address is “how do you respond when you lose?”  Do you complain that your opponent was too good to be playing you?  Even when they’re just a rival high-school that’s your age?

I’ve seen it happen.  People want a higher placing in a tournament, so they worry about when they play the best players.  To them, it’s all about “who will I beat, who will I lose to, and what order will I play them in?”  And though I think it’s cool to try and get the highest placing you can, but it feels like something’s off.  Because the goal should be getting better, not making sure that you get 7th rather than 9th at a local event.  If you want a higher place, beat more people.  If you get seeded against the best player early, try and beat them!  Measure your performance against them and see if you play better, not if you place better.

In this particular context, this idea should go like this: if you have another group of high-schoolers, and they are that far ahead of the competition, your first question should be “what are they doing to win and how can I do it too?”  That’s assuming that you care about winning and improving (and since it’s Texas high-school football, the answer is yes, you do care).  What drills do they use?  Is it pure athleticism or teamwork that’s giving them an edge?  Is it both?  How do they train those skills?  Can these skills be emulated?  Is the coach incredible and making amazing calls during the game?  Are they just cheating?  What’s the big secret?

This is where you start to realize what your actual standpoint is.  From this series of questions, I can foresee a few different outcomes.

--It’s discovered that Aledo has an intense and rigorous physical training regimen far above what most high-schoolers are willing to endure.  Parents then accuse them of being too Spartan and that they should tone it down.  This makes you ask, “you mean that you care enough about who wins the football game to file a bullying report, but you don’t care enough to have your kids work harder?”

This seems painfully possible to me.  And it lends itself to a mindset that many people seem to have, which is this: even though difficulty and competition are relative, success is absolute.  You can’t fail without sucking and being garbage.  So this twists into a corollary, something even more counterintuitive and ridiculous; if losing makes you bad, then you can become good by getting the people who beat you not to play.  No improvement necessary!  The spirit of competition lives on in a hideous grotesquerie of its former self.

I don’t know if I’ve ever stated it explicitly before, but “the best” does not equal “good” and “the worst” does not equal “bad.”  They imply one another, but are not equal.  Sometimes the best player is just the least awful.  If your game ever dies out, and only five devotees remain and all are nearly perfect, then a nearly-perfect fifth place is still technically the worst.  Keep these things in mind the next time you obsess over winning without thinking about how well you’re doing.

--Aledo just teaches the kids skills more efficiently.  The parents demand that their own coaches be fired and replaced, which is sad because even coaches can learn too.  Or they demand that Aledo’s coach reveal his secrets and training methods, because is unfair for his players to have a coach so head-and-shoulders above everybody else.

This is a little overreactionary, but at least it’s less self-damning.  They want the kids to get better, and if there’s a method of improvement, shouldn’t it be public so everybody can get better?  Doesn’t that raise the level of competition?  Doesn’t that give every kid a fair shot to test their mettle?  After all, it’s really crummy if one team is worse, not because of a lack of dedication or talent, but because they can only train on old and busted equipment.  That’s a pre-game resource imbalance, which destroys the idea of “fair competition.”  Life is luck-based enough as is; do we want to keep testing your fortune?  Is a criteria for winning “be lucky to have Aledo’s coach for your own”?  In the context of teaching (and not in-game shotcalling) don’t coaches just constitute an informational and motivational resource?  Arguments can be made on this score.  They’re not even super terrible arguments, either.

Although I think interfering parents who start making demands on behalf of their children are a bit silly one way or the other, I am almost always on the side of knowledge-sharing.  So if I am a coach with magical teaching techniques, I will gladly share them.  I will sit and teach somebody a matchup that I am about to play against them in tournament if they ask me.  Why?

Two reasons.  First, I want to be better than the other person.  Secret knowledge and facts feel more like “secret-club” passwords than anything else to me.  I want my opponent to be as good as possible.  I want to outthink them and trick them in the heat of the moment, not abuse their lack of knowledge.  Not only does that teach me bad habits and undermine my improvement, it feels crummy.  “Well, would I have been able to beat him if he knew X?”  Maybe not.  Maybe it was the only thing keeping me in the game.  In which case I could have (and maybe should have) been better.  So I’ll make somebody as good as possible, because that forces me to be better.  Then again, I don’t really go the extra mile to tell somebody how to play better mid-set, because I wouldn’t expect them to do it for me.  It’s kind of weird.

The other reason I share my secrets is because I’m pretty confident most people won’t actually listen.  People generally find a lot of reasons to stay as they are.  Tell somebody why they’re losing, and they’ll tell you they “have” to play that way for some reason.  They will tell you that your advice can’t possibly work, which is interesting since they sought it in the first place.

From a different article on the same subject:

“Aledo ISD Superintendent Derek Citty said this is not Aledo-versus-Fort Worth.  ‘We want their kids to succeed, just like we want our kids to succeed,” he said.

Take two seconds to play a quick game of “spot the contradiction.”  Winning a competition means that somebody else loses that competition.  That’s the point.

In this case, the superintendent is one of three things.  1) He’s in PR damage control and spewing nonsense to make people feel better.  2) He understands that, in this case, success means “gets to have a meaningful competition involving effort, challenge, and growth.”  3) He honestly feels both teams can actually win a game of football and is therefore spewing nonsense.

Number one is understandable for people in a public position.  Number two is a healthy attitude for all of us to have, particularly in the world of sports and games.  It’s the attitude that leads you to investigate yourself, to better yourself, to learn and grow and all that good stuff.  Coincidentally, if you do those things, you will usually find yourself playing better and winning more games.

But not all players can win.  In a tournament, one player or team gets to walk home saying proudly, “I’m the winner.”  Nobody else can.  So if we love competition so much, is it because we want everybody who isn’t that person (or team) to feel crappy?  No.  It’s because there’s more to sports, games, and competing in simulations than winning.

I try not to enter Smash events when the competition level isn’t high enough.  It’s not fun for me, and it’s really lame for the low level players that crash into me early.  They want to compete and prove themselves and see how they stack up.  But we know the outcome when they play me.  It doesn’t look like a match, it looks like an execution.  Sometimes the only difference between a player’s skill from one year to the next is how likely it is that I’ll four-stock them.  Congratulations!  This year I could only totally obliterate you seven matches out of ten.  You’ve gotten better.  Still won’t win though.

Does that mean you should be miserable?  Does it make me better than you?  Have you wasted your time if you aren’t the best?  Or at least the best at something?  No!  But we might as well put a better matched player against you in the bracket, particularly when the purpose of this contest is not money--which is where my kindhearted benevolence ends--or seeding points for a bigger event--where the absolute measure of skill across all players is required--but for fun and friendly competition.  In that case it’s about something else entirely.

We can both succeed at the aim of self-improvement and having a meaningful competition, even if we both can’t win the game.  With that as the real goal, keep it in mind before you talk about whether somebody is too good, or whether they need to give others a fair chance.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Depth Part 2 (Games and Sports)

Last week I tried to describe what it means for a game to have depth.  I think I did an okay job.  The most important point I can reiterate is this: the value of competition is in the growth process.  If a game gives you reason to train and learn about yourself and develop skills, then it is more than just a clever exercise, it’s a way to enrich yourself.  Depth lends itself to this, because it gives us a reason to improve and lear.  If a game or competition has given us that, then arguing about whether to categorize it as “deep” or not is missing the point.  But one of the things that the depth argument had me thinking about were some of the differences between ordinary sports and video games.

There are a few challenges that games face, and one of them is what I’ll simply call “grading.”  When a course in school is graded as either Pass or Fail, then no matter how well you do in the class, you won’t be distinguished from other passing students.  If the scores are recorded with a 0-100% range, then we can distinguish more clearly which students have mastered the subject material compared to the ones that barely pass.  If we make sure to measure with decimals, the grading becomes finer, so a student with a 96.35 will be ranked just a bit lower than somebody with a 96.58.

Reality is very finely graded.  This is because a task’s outcome in real life is related to a massive number of factors.  Furthermore, it is possible to be just barely better than somebody at a given task, and have it actually matter.  You can hit a tennis ball a little harder with a little more spin and have it be much more difficult to return.  But because of the way games tend to be programmed, it’s very possible to reach a skill cap early because of the way your inputs are “graded.”

You can hit a combo link, or you can drop it.  You can be more consistent at hitting that link, and you can be proficient at hitting particularly difficult links regularly.  But after a certain point, increased precision doesn’t matter.  Somebody could be more precise than you, but not have that extra precision rewarded.  I.E: I hit a three-frame link perfectly in the middle, not late or early, why don’t I get a reward?.  There is a line between success and failure; sometimes it’s fine, a range of 0-100.  Sometimes it’s pass or fail.  When we design games, we can increase the skill ceiling by 1) making tasks difficult and 2) grading them finely.

It would be an interesting experiment if, for instance, special moves in a fighting game were graded differently based on your precision.  If you executed a stronger hadoken by inputting the motion faster and hitting your punch button at a specific time, that would create a grading system between people inputting hadokens.  Consistently executing perfect hadokens would then be something which differentiates players.

We could take this further and establish a combo and fighting system where, besides having priority and damage and start-up and lag, moves can also be linked with better or worse timing.  Fierce punch into roundhouse can be executed well, and net you maximum damage and stun allowing you to combo into a super.  Or it can be done poorly, yielding lower damage and hitstun and limited followup.  This means that having a consistently maximized combo game is not Pass-Fail, but can be graded from 0-100.  This creates a new way to measure players and a new emphasis for training.

I know some people who wouldn’t like this.  For some, the interesting and “deep” part of a game is entirely in its decision making.  And that’s kind of true.  If it’s always optimal to execute something a certain way, then there’s no decision-making involved.  When there’s no decision-making, there’s no chance to be clever or advance your decision-making skills.  To many, that is the entirety of depth in a game.

But I have to disagree on that score.  Depth is about constant improvement, and learning about the nuance of both body and mind when executing and competing.  It may sound strange, but I learned a lot about my own hands and overcoming my tremor through playing SSBM.  The journey of improving my technical ability also related to my understanding of focus and the appropriate state of mind when competing.  Again, this growth process is what matters when we discuss depth and learning, and I pursued this heavily while trying to understand the physical and technical element of the game.

It’s hard to think of times where you would rather hit the ball straight into the net in tennis, or miss your free-throw in basketball, but those are big parts of the game.  You don’t decide, “I will take the shot here” and then get the shot for free because you made the right decision.  The games are physical, so they are based in physical and technical training.  But the body is governed by the mind, so any physical skill counts as a mental one as well.  The understanding of your body is a journey with immense depth of its own.  So even if you aren’t making a strategic decision when you train a technical skill, it can still have depth.

Finely grading performance and execution also opens up the possibility of style variance.  By cultivating certain abilities, you open up certain options.  When those abilities are difficult to implement, there is also risk-reward analysis involved.  You can choose whether you want to try and improve yourself in one area, or play around a limited ability by strengthening other aspects.  This is part of your personal journey of improvement at your game, and one of the choices you make while playing.  Some players are risk-taking maximizers, some are conservative error-avoiders.  Games that let you express those tendencies often are the ones with depth in them.

Certain terms come to mind that can be applied critically to this notion of fine grading.  One is “execution barrier;” you can’t meaningfully play the game if you can’t perform certain tasks.  This is frustrating to people who can see the right choice, but can’t perform it yet.  I don’t think this is a surprising complaint, when you consider the main audience of video games has always been the nerd demographic, a group characterized by (and focusing heavily on) mental ability over the physical.

Another criticism is the label of “artificial difficulty,” leveled towards games which make things pointlessly hard.  Needlessly small windows, unfair knowledge barriers, these things are categorized as “artificial.”  This leads into my next comparison.

The thing is, games are inherently artificial.  Rules are established by people.  In basketball, the ball size is regulated, as is the height of the hoop and the diameter of the rim.  Design choices are intentional (though their consequences are not always obvious).  We can choose to make basketball more or less difficult by changing the size of the ball relative to the hoop’s diameter and height.  But the thing is, sports exist in the real world, where the physics engine has been provided for us.  A game has its own physics engine built so that it can function; that engine is, itself, part of the game.  It forms part of the “rules” of the game’s reality.  In sports you aren’t just playing with a ball and a hoop and a court, you are playing with a body and its interactions with reality.  You can’t play outside the game’s programming anymore than you can play outside the laws of physics.

But we did not design the laws of physics; it’s just there.  We manipulate and exploit it with technology in the game of life, but we’re still bound by those laws.  Complaining about them does no good.  When it comes to a game, however, we get to pick elements based on “shoulds” and principles of design.  We get to decide what will be fun and interesting.  I don’t know if 9.8 meters per second squared is the “most fun” gravitational acceleration, but I don’t get a say in whether I obey that.  At least, not until I can play ping-pong on the moon.

So when I decide to code a specific way of inputting hadokens, I have created the skill cap for hadokens with my own hands.  Whoever first invented tennis did not set the maximum speed of a tennis serve.  That is a skill that people will constantly pushed, whether through better racket technology or a more efficient swing or better nutrition or just genetic freakery.  If I make a vrtual tennis game, I can set the maximum serve speed.  Even if I don’t specifically code one, even if I just let it be an undefined value based on a variety of factors--the timing of a swing and the position of the player relative to the virtual ball--there will still be a definite maximum.  I’m pretty sure that tennis balls technically have a maximum speed as well, but the fact that humans won’t be reaching that speed anytime soon makes the point moot.

I’m not sure what the lesson to be drawn from here is.  If our goal is to make a game “deep,” it needs numerous skills with high skill caps.  Ideally, some of those skills will be cognitive.  There are almost always meta-skills of handling pressure, and managing skill-swapping (when you shift from focusing on one skill to executing another).  These take time and experience, and they are part of the growth process.  At the same time, if we want the game to be accessible, it needs to have a low skill-floor for participation.  You need to be able to make things happen on-screen.

I think an interesting way to handle this would be to mimic how we do things in reality--where an NBA game has different parameters than an elementary school basketball game--and actually give competitive games difficulty settings.  Starcraft has something kind of like this, with multiple gamespeeds.  Because units will build and attack and die more quickly if you play on Faster compared to Normal, every aspect of the game becomes inherently harder to manage.  Sure enough, competitive play is done on the “Faster” setting.  It doesn’t just ramp up the difficulty of technical execution, but because you can do more in a shorter period of time, you end up making complicated decisions faster.  This demands a greater understanding of the game on a more intuitive level.  I’m a little surprised more games don’t actually do this when it comes to execution and difficulty, particularly ones striving to be competitive.

Accessibility and the audience are important to consider because gaming is an industry and a business.  Which leads us into another consideration, which is the turnover rate of games.

The turnover rate of sports applies pretty much only to its players.  The regulations might change a bit, but the core of the games tends to remain the same.  You don’t go out and buy MLB 2013 so that you can play the same Baseball as everybody else.  But if you are a competitive fighting game player, you don’t play Street Fighter IV anymore.  You play Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition, and you will play Ultra SFIV when it comes out.

There is an element of skill in developing and understanding new systems.  You end up learning general skills that apply across a genre and how to apply them.  You learn how to innovate and study new matchups.  In some ways, this makes video games more real than real life!  Understanding how to adapt to new systems is what makes humans so successful across the world, and defines who remains successful from year to year in a world of shifting technology as well.  I’d say that the skill of “learning new systems” is a valuable one you pick up by having to learn many different games.  If depth is about the growth journey in a single game, this kind of skill would probably be better categorized as width or breadth in that genre.

The thing is, games compete heavily with one another, not just for viewers but for players as well.  It’s fair to say that they have expiration dates.  Why bother trying to create a deep and long-lasting game that will be played hundreds of years from now, when you can just make a new one?  And, since you’re a business person, sell it.  And then sell the DLC.  In fact, doesn’t making a game with immense replayability hurt your business?  If I consider Game X to be the pinnacle of depth and competitiveness in the fighting game genre, then why would I bother buying Game X 2: X Harder?  More importantly, why would you bother making Game X so good in the first place, if there was a risk of that happening?  That would hurt your sales of future games.

People are heavily invested in the current existence of other sports.  Suddenly changing football would not help sales.  But since e-sports and competitive gaming is not yet a mainstream phenomenon (in the western world anyhow), game companies perceive it as more lucrative to make new games as technology advances and audiences change.  There are things like merchandise and branding and sponsorships which could make a company money, but that’s not the route most companies want to take.  Also, this doesn’t oppose the actual existence of depth in a game, but rather the desire to develop it in the first place.

I don’t know how problematic this truly is.  It isn’t so bad to learn new games and develop general skills--it’s just a different journey.  But it does stink when you feel like you’ve learned a lot with still more to learn, then people abandon your game and you lose your competition and motivation.  A game with depth and long-term investment suffers from the current gaming business model.

There is also the semi-related issue of patching; games can be changed and altered frequently without the players having a chance to continue exploring the gamespace.  Overcoming perceived imbalances and difficulties and seemingly overpowered strategies is part of the growth process of games.  When the makers are too patch-happy, it discourages crafting a deep game from start, and it encourages complaining rather than dedication.  That’s a significantly bigger problem.  Big ugly strategy dominating the scene?  Nerf it and make it useless until a new one rises up.  Why make a deep game if you can just keep forcing players to figure out the new over-powered tactic until it gets nerfed again?  And why try to learn if you can just wait for the nerf or buff to your least or most favorite strategy/character/unit/weapon?  It detracts from the learning process.  Patching is extremely useful in the right context though, which means it requires judgment on the part of the developers and patience on the part of the players.

I feel like I could write more on the subject but I’ll stop here for now.  Thanks for reading.  I hope it has been interesting.