Friday, April 18, 2014

What Makes A Game Competitive?

I spent most of my competitive gaming life playing SSBM, and if you browse enough different places online, you’ll see mixed reactions to the game. The main question is “why are you trying to make a party game competitive?” and I suppose that’s a pretty fair question.

Of course, the moment you stop talking to competitive gamers and start talking to other people who maybe spectate or participate in “real sports,” they will then ask you why you’re wasting time competing in video games where you just sit on your butt. It doesn't seem very competitive, it seems like a waste of time. The very notion is ridiculous to them.

And if you ask people who don’t have time to play or watch sports because they have three jobs, they will ask why everybody is wasting their damn time kicking and throwing balls around when there is real work to be done. Fair is fair, I guess.

But let’s take a step back and assume that competing in games and sports is an okay way to spend our time. How do you decide which games are worth it? Which ones count as “competitive” and which ones would it be silly to spend your time on? I don’t think it’s terribly complicated, but it starts a lot of curious internet arguments.

First things first: different games test different skills. The main reason we pick certain games to compete in is because we find them to test skills that we enjoy executing. I guess you can try to make value judgments about the different people who prefer different skills, but really, it's heavily a matter of preference. For some reason, we decide that we really want to get good at a thing. Somebody out there wants to get good at sinking trick-shots in billiards. He or she thinks it's super cool.

If you get enough people who want to get good at the same game or skillset, and you come up with a useful ruleset for testing and comparing their skills, you have a competition. Simple as that.

Now, the one you like just might not be the one somebody else likes, for a bunch of different reasons. Somebody might prefer the snail’s pace of measured strategic planning. Some people prefer the twitch-reflex, snap judgment scenario. So finding something worth competing in is, more often than not, about finding skills you like practicing and executing. That says more about you than any inherent quality in the game.

Another thing that people discuss when arguing something’s competitiveness is its skill ceiling. What is the best you can conceivably become? Can you even reach the skill levels that are theoretically possible? If it’s high enough, it means there’s always something to practice, something to strive for.

I accept this a bit, but not entirely. It’s definitely useful to have a high skill ceiling in a certain element, as a method of continuously measuring improvement and distinguishing players. But sometimes if something has an attainable skill ceiling (meaning two players may, at a given moment, perform evenly) but you need to consistently execute it, then you are simultaneously being tested on that particular skill along with your consistency under pressure. Which itself is an ability tested across almost all competitions that I know of. So an unreachable skill ceiling, or an extremely high one, is not inherently indicative of competitiveness. It certainly contributes though.

Sometimes the skill ceiling doesn’t come from individual skills being particularly difficult, but managing multiple skills at a given time. That creates a synergistic overall skill which itself is hard to achieve. I think when your game has this, it also allows more for the creation of styles, where you can achieve victory while emphasizing mastery over different parts of the game. That leads to the different players who can be aggressive, defensive, calculating, intuitive, wild, methodical, or whatever, yet still achieve comparable success. That definitely helps when it comes to expanding the depth of the game and whether people find it competitive.

The biggest thing I can think of is that games which are more competitive tend to have consistent winners, or at least consistently high-placers in competitions. If you have a game, or a ruleset of the game, that consistently demonstrates that certain players have more mastery and ability in the game, then the game can be considered competitive to some degree. If totally different people are winning and placing highly every time, it either means that the game itself is not competitive, or the people involved are all insanely close in skill.

I think that’s really the tell-tale sign. If it’s possible to consistently outperform other people at a game, it means it’s possible to excel in skill. At that point it’s a very simple question of do I enjoy the skills being tested here? If two players can both hit the skill ceiling, but under pressure one of them can always edge the other out, then it’s a sign that a non-specific skill like “handling pressure” is one of the most important abilities. That’s fine too, provided you (and enough people to create a meaningful field of competition) accept that going in.

Heck, even if you can get to a given level of “perfect play,” it’s not necessarily so terrible. The game doesn’t need to scale upward indefinitely if the journey to mastery is satisfactory. Then again, that does mean we probably won’t want to watch it on TV or anything. The only meaningful competitions would be lower-level ones since the best play would be a stalemate, and we’d know what top-tier play would look like. We would also know that it could never be exceeded. That would definitely make it less exciting and interesting for spectators (though on a personal level, you might find getting good at the game or skill to be gratifying).

But the long and short of it is if you prefer the pace, or style, or skills tested in a game, it has a way of distinctly measuring different levels of skill, and it’s possible to become a consistent winner through mastery, then your game probably has competitive merit. At that point it’s really just preference.

Those are my thoughts. Thanks for reading.

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