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.

1 comment:

  1. Wobbles you should work in game design. You have a lot of great ideas on how games should be to be fun and satisfying because of your roots in Melee. Also, would you ever consider making videos for Melee or maybe or perhaps ice climbers videos for all us aspiring ICs mains?

    -Juan

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