It’s been awhile since I talked about games, so here’s some stuff I’ve been thinking of lately. One of the biggest sources of head-butting in all games is, of course, offense versus defense, spear versus shield. Which is stronger, which is better, which is more fun to watch, etc.
We almost always prefer aggressive play because it makes things happen. We want to see action and resolution and generally, a majority of people would rather not wait. This is hardly a surprise and there’s nothing wrong with it, even though there is something to be said for the delay of gratification enhancing the payoff.
But this is more about how the offense functions, from the mind of a mostly defensive player (myself). What makes defensive play challenging? How does one’s offensive play challenge it and gain advantages? How do we know which is stronger in a given game? To start, I want to break down the concepts of offense and defense.
An offensive action will serve a few primary purposes: either it targets resources (an attack), it tries to unbalance the defender for a future attack (a setup) or it attempts to provoke a response from the defender that it can then exploit (a feint). The attack tries to damage the opponent directly. The setup tries to damage position so future attacks are more likely to succeed. The feint tries to trick the defender into damaging his own position. Feints and setups are similar (they target position rather than directly targeting resources), but a feint focuses more on the defender’s personal response than one’s own action. If the defender doesn’t fall for the feint and takes no action, it typically gains the attacker nothing and may expose them. However, if the defender doesn’t intercept a setup, taking no action, it gives the attacker an advantage.
What are the types of defensive actions? You have counter-attacks, where you try to intercept aggressive action and target resources. You have guarding, where you focus strictly on preserving resources by negating an attack. You have escapes, where you attempt to nullify all aggression by abandoning the defensive position. The defender also may have access to feints; as with aggression, feints get the opponent to try and capitalize on an opportunity that does not exist, and thus damage their own position, permitting you an escape or a counter-attack.
Guarding and escaping are categorized differently because one tends to maintain ground while the other abandons it, though both are attempt to preserve resources.
So with all that in mind, how do aggression and defense interact mentally? And what makes one stronger than the other in a given game? When is aggression safe and effective? When is defending more safe and effective?
One factor that comes into play is, “does the offense or defense need to make more decisions to succeed?” If the offense can commit in advance to a long string of actions, and the defender must guess right multiple times during the string to avoid damage and loss of position, then the offense benefits. He gets to make the defending player constantly choose, and with more choices means more opportunities for errors and openings.
In fighting games, you often see high-attacks, low-attacks, and also throws. This means the defender is watching to know which direction they need to block (high or low), and when they need to stop blocking and counter the throw in some way. If the low-attacks are insanely fast and high-attacks are hilariously slow, the defender will block low all the time, guess when watching for throws, and simply react to high attacks; this type of gameplay doesn’t demand much mental commitment from the defender. However, if the high-attacks and low-attacks are both fast and link into one another quickly, the defender must constantly make choices on which is coming, and be aware of everything happening at all times; at some point, because of limited reflexes, the defender may need to guess in order to simply avoid damage, and the offense gains an advantage as a result. If those moves are also safe and hard to punish, then the offense would have a huge advantage.
So we come to the factor of “how much does one need to commit to take a given action?” This relates heavily to an option’s safety; a safe attack might gain you resources, might encourage the other person to whiff a counter-attack, and doesn’t overextend you. Thus it lacks commitment, keeps you safe, and offers the potential for gain. Lots of safe options tends to make you strong, because you are never so committed to an engagement that you can be punished for taking those actions. On the other hand, a high level of commitment in your move means that there’s no going back and covering other options afterwards.
The side that needs to commit more tends to be weaker and more exploitable. Pretend you are in a situation where your only defensive option is an unsafe special move, a reversal that leaves you wide open for punishment. If you pick the wrong time to use it, you will suffer tremendously. Your opponent, on the other hand, gets to poke your defense with safety, feint with impunity, and there are only a few tiny places where your reversal will actually break the lockdown. In such a situation, your position would be horribly weak, and offense would have the advantage; he forces you to try and make choices and commit at the exact right moment, but he himself is only committed and open in a few tiny instances.
On the other hand, if the offense lacks safety on most attacks, and lacks feinting options or setups, letting the defender only watch for a few specific things and then punish them? The defender rarely needs to commit, and only needs to worry about making a small number of choices. Thus, defense would be favored.
You also want to take into account the punishment for failures and wrong guesses as a factor; this creates the concept of risk/reward into account. How much do you get for successfully cracking the turtle shell? What is your reward for seeing through the offense and landing a good counter-attack? Do you have high odds of failure, but also a tremendous benefit for breaking through? Ideally, a well-balanced option scales the level of commitment with the amount of payback. One shouldn’t get high reward from very safe options, and one shouldn’t have to take tremendous risks to get next to nothing. If that is the case, then odds are your position (whether offense or defense) is weaker.
When it comes to being a successful offensive player, your goal is to constantly generate a high level of respect for your different options. Whether you are trying to positionally unbalance the defender or mentally unbalance the defender so they cannot respond to your actions properly, you need them to feel threatened from a variety of different angles. On the other hand, if they can easily predict the type of action you will take and the timing of it, then no matter how strong you should be, you will have a difficult time breaking the defense.
If, for instance, the opponent has no reason to believe you will ever feint--because you actually don’t ever feint--then you have failed to generate respect for one of your options. This means you reduce the decisions they need to make to successfully deal with you, and thus weaken your own offense. On the other hand, when opponents are constantly wondering what you will do next because you could conceivably do anything, their reflexes diminish, they become more impulsive, and they will panic. Or they might lock up and stop doing anything, afraid that everything is a trick and a feint, letting you attack and setup with impunity. Even if you have a specific preferred style, it can only take the smallest amount of mixup to make the opponent think you could do anything. This lets you kick them with one shoe over and over while they wait for the other one to drop.
In order for offensive mix-up to work, you must generate respect for a variety of options, and you must accurately gauge how much the opponent respects those options. This is important. You can’t try and bait out a flawed counter-attack if the opponent refuses to do anything but guard while waiting for something unsafe. If the opponent refuses to respect a certain element of your game and consider it a threat, then you have to make them.
If you want to be a good defensive player, you flip the script. You must give the impression that you always see things coming and that nothing will legitimately work on you. You also cannot afford to become overly focused on the wrong aspects of the offensive player’s game. Giving too much respect to one option’s power leaves you blind to the others. You have to be ready to act and ready to wait, at the same time. The more options they have (and the more those options require distinct counters), the more difficult this becomes, and the more iron-clad your mind needs to be to avoid unbalancing yourself.
The first step to doing so is making sure you understand where the offensive player is forcing you to make decisions. If a given moment requires that you choose between a counter-attack or an escape, then you can’t afford to let that moment go by without making your choice, hoping for the attack to end. You also have to understand that the decision to wait is a decision in itself, and that biding your time is a fair option; however, it has to be one you make consciously while selecting the right moment to evade or counter. Otherwise you aren’t biding your time, you’re giving the offensive player free reign to do as he or she pleases.
The second step is to constantly make sure you’re giving each option proper respect. You can’t allow unfulfilled threats to hang over your head while another one eats you alive. The challenge of the offensive player is to create illusions and phantom threats so the real threats pass through; the challenge of the defensive player is to see through those to the reality underneath.
That’s most of what I have to say on the subject. Thanks for reading.