The Skill Mezzanine

Over the past few years, there has been an upswing in video games geared for competition (or at least modified to be competitive). Starcraft 2, Street Fighter IV, the new Mortal Kombat, the concept of “eSports” is managing to achieve more success around the world than had been seen previously, with the notable exception of South Korea where Starcraft competition already managed to achieve a good deal of competitive success.

Many of these new games are sequels, and they emerge in a gaming environment far different from their predecessors. In some cases, as with Starcraft and Marvel vs. Capcom, it’s been over a decade since their most immediate ancestors. Online play has filled the long void that was left by the death of arcades. Facebook games and other bits of entertainment which fall under the heading of “casual” have made video games a common part of many people’s lives. There are now more people playing video games than in previous decades, but many of them do not devote themselves to games, particularly ones that foster competition. One of the results of this has been a move towards easier controls, reducing the number of things to do, simplifying actions, increasing the influence of random chance, and just making games where people can more easily feel like they’re accomplishing something.

In doing so however, there is a backlash created among those communities, because what this means is that, compared to those older games, they seem a little…softer. More forgiving. This in turn can be interpreted as an affront to the competitive spirit, especially for those games which dare to call themselves competitive, because it is giving a break to the weaker players. Many times, criticism will come in the form of questioning a game’s “skill ceiling.” The argument goes that if a game is less demanding on a fundamental level, it will result in a game where the best of the best will be unable to distinguish themselves from the masses more commonly known as “the rest.” Certainly this scenario is not out of the question, but what I’d argue is that those critical of these games’ skill ceilings often misuse the term and that they’re arguing against something quite different. For if the “skill ceiling” is the absolute limits of competitive skill, and the “skill floor” is the bare minimum to even understanding the game, then what those people are really arguing against is the lowering of a kind of “skill mezzanine,” the first space up from the skill floor and the minimum amount of skill needed to compete and win matches against others who are also trying to do the same.

“One guy was clearly making more mistakes than the other but he still won. This game is awful.” Putting aside the fact that weaker competitors are often capable of beating stronger ones simply because of how “skill” is nebulous and but one of many factors in competition (mental state being an arguably more important one), such an argument can be summarized by the idea that the game is too forgiving of mistakes, and that because a weaker player is more prone to errors, it rewards them unfairly. But a game that punishes mistakes less is not the sign of a lowered skill ceiling so much as it is evidence of a lowered skill mezzanine, and this is because even if the best players are the ones who are closest to touching the ceiling, the players worse than them do not have to aim for that ceiling as well. Their goal could simply be to touch the feet of those better players, and a more forgiving game means that they can accomplish such a task more easily, no matter how high the ceiling may be.

The higher the skill mezzanine however, the tougher it is for people to reach basic competitive competency, which has the effect of weeding out less devoted players. What remains, if numbers are sufficient (and there is always the danger of that not happening for a game), is that the only people left are the ones who have been able to overcome some very unforgiving limitations.

One of the consequences of mistaking the skill mezzanine for the skill ceiling is that people conflate the concept of game limitations that were overcome through skill with the idea that game limitations necessarily generate skill. Veteran Starcraft competitor and commentator Sean “Day 9” Plott often emphasizes that imposing restrictions can be a useful method for improving one’s gameplay. In that sense, the rules of a particular game can be seen as a forced limitation rather than a self-imposed one. But it is also a mistake to believe that those specific limitations should be the standard by which all other games are judged, to confuse the concept of limitation with the particulars of execution. Soccer is the most popular sport in the world, and is praised for the amount of mental and physical skill required to play it at a high level. One of the most basic rules, the one that gives soccer its internationally more popular name of “football,” is that a player is normally not allowed to touch the ball with their hands. This simple yet profound limitation (hands being vitally important to the survival of humankind) encouraged people to find ways to move the ball with the rest of their body, and as the game has developed over the course of generations, soccer players discover new methods and refine them. But one cannot say that, because soccer developed into “the beautiful game” in part due to the limitations on hands, that all other ball sports should also ban the use of hands.

There is nothing inherently wrong with criticizing a game’s capacity for competition, because there are games that are objectively more competitive than others. Chess is far more complex than tic-tac-toe. One game can indeed have a lower skill ceiling than the other. But I think it is important for people critical of a game’s skill ceiling to be able to distinguish between it and the skill mezzanine in order to discuss a game’s competitiveness.


One thought on “The Skill Mezzanine

  1. I think most of the people who worry about “skill ceilings” are intermediate players who want to be able to show off to their friends. Their egos will be more gratified by games that require large amounts of arcane knowledge and that do nothing to help beginners learn.

    Competitive games are fun to me because I feel like the skills I learn from them apply to real life. Ideally, the reverse should also be true: skills from real life should apply to the game as well. If you can outsmart me, you should be able to win even if it’s your first time playing. Now, of course that’s impossible, because every game has a barrier to entry, but I think it’s a goal that game designers should strive for.


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