“It’s easy to learn, but difficult to master!”
One of the unicorns pursued by designers of competitive games is to create something that is enjoyable (and competitive) at all skill levels. However, there’s a tricky balance to maintain, because if you skew it too much towards the most advanced players, then only those willing to place countless hours towards honing their skills can enjoy the game. On the other hand, if you cater too much to the beginner, then the overall competitive depth of the game may suffer as better players find that there is less for them to do as they improve. What’s more, some players want to feel like they always have a fighting chance, while other players want to feel the sheer power of a superior opponent bearing down on them, something that tells them how deep the rabbit hole goes. Leaning towards any of these options isn’t inherently wrong, but I think trying to appeal to as many different types of players as possible is an admirable goal in itself.
I’ve been thinking a good deal about what it means to enjoy a competitive game. In Part 1, I wrote about how, while the classic image of the competitive gamer is the “Spike”—someone who prioritizes using the most effective and efficient strategies to win—the current esports/competitive gaming field is comprised much more of “Timmy-Spikes”—people who love to win, but prefer to win with style and flash. What I’m about to say might sound obvious, but I think there are two unifying factors for players of all skill levels and of different philosophies when it comes to enjoyment of video games that involve facing off against opponents both human and AI.
- Players love to feel powerful
- Players hate to feel powerless
It’s pretty simple, but I think that there’s a lot that can be extrapolated from these two statements.
Whenever I read comments and forum posts about competitive games, there are certain recurring complaints. “This game doesn’t let me play the way I want to. “In this situation, there’s pretty much nothing I can do.” “It’s not fair that this game lets people worse than me win.” Now, some of these complaints might just be rationalization of one’s flaws or simply the act of making excuses, but I find it worthwhile to think about these statements in terms of notions of power/powerlessness.
Let’s look at some examples.
- Take the classic idea that “throwing is cheap” from the early days of arcade fighting games. Why was it considered a dishonorable tactic? It’s because, for many players, the act of blocking makes them feel powerful (or at the very least safe). The ability to just block high/low and stop/weaken the opponent’s offense is a simple and easy way to make a player feel better. Throws destroy that false sense of security, creating a sense of powerlessness. It’s up to the player being thrown to learn how to deal with it, and of course many have over the years, but that feeling of vulnerability (and the fear of vulnerability) is why so many throwers got punched over the years in arcades.
- One of the complaints about Heroes of the Storm from other MOBA players is that the leveling system, wherein all players on a team gain levels at the same rate instead of having it determined on a per-player basis, means that individuals cannot become the stars of their team. Similarly, while Street Fighter V has its supporters, one criticism from detractors is that the combo system SFV isn’t complex/difficult enough to allow for players to distinguish themselves. In other words, they feel that the game is shackling them, stripping them of power at moments when they wish to feel most powerful.
- In Starcraft II: Legacy of the Void and previous versions, the Protoss race is usually the cause of much ire (or should I say “Aiur” dohoho), and they’ve been described as a “coin-flippy” race. The idea is that there is no skill involved, that it’s merely a 50-50 guessing game for a lot of their strategies. For enemies of Protoss, this is the reason they’re strong and annoying. For users of Protoss, this is why they’re weak and frustrating. When you break it down, hinging your success or all-or-nothing strategies is the epitome of the “power/powerlessness” dynamic.
Power can take on many forms. Training is power. Knowledge is power. Good teamwork is power. Outwitting the opponent is power. Overpowering the opponent is, well, a show of strength. Even in pay-to-win games that don’t reward skill but rather how deep your pockets are, the very idea that you can just outdo your opponent because you have more money can be a power trip. Different players experience feeling powerful through different means, and it’s why they likely gravitate towards their chosen games.
For instance, I believe that part of the reason Super Smash Bros. Melee and Starcraft: Brood War have such loyal scenes that considers most other games inferior is because they have many ways to make players feel powerful. They both require constant practice to keep one’s skills at a serviceable level. Both games are clearly stratified in terms of skill level, as knowledge to and access of specific non-obvious techniques creates a divide between those who know and those who don’t. Perhaps most telling of all, in both games, even simple movement, e.g. controlling your army to compensate for Brood War‘s poor pathing or utilizing dash dancing and wavedashing in Melee for basic neutral interactions, involves “advanced actions.” At the same time, these are also the reasons why many prefer to play other games.
As much as a robust player base is needed for a strong competitive scene, one of the challenges of trying to make a competitive environment more accessible is that, ironically, players who are trying to be “competitive” might not realize what it entails. Street Fighter V took the route of simplifying controls and execution barriers so that players could theoretically reach the point where they’re matching wits more directly. The problem is that many players don’t necessarily want that close, intimate experience of trying to out-think the other, making this “simpler” game even more daunting. Nothing’s worse than feeling, in the words of Fatal Fury villain Geese Howard, “predictable.”
Instead of having multiple paths to feeling powerful, such as training technical skill, to dampen the pain of losing on the mental level (or vice versa), new players are left feeling powerless.
I’m not a game designer, so I can’t profess to know the exact mechanics of “fun,” but I believe that one possible key to making competitive games fun for all is that players should be able to have moments where they feel powerful no matter their skill level or experience. Moments of feeling powerless cannot be avoided 100%, but if there are enough instances that can make a player feel like they did something, that might just be enough to soften the negative impact of defeat.
“I lost, but did you see that awesome shot I made?”
“I lost, but my team and I almost brought it back.”
“My opponent really got me in the end, but I could tell they were scared for a second.”
This might very well be why so-called “comeback mechanics” exist in games, like desperation moves in Fatal Fury 2, X-Factor in Marvel vs. Capcom 3 or Ultra Combos in Street Fighter IV. They give something to the losing player when the chips are down, a glimmer of hope to keep them in the game. The tricky element of this, however, is that this can end up actually making winning players feel powerless. The common complaint of comeback mechanics is that they “punish the better player,” and while that’s debatable in terms of the actual effect on the game, that doesn’t prevent people from feeling that way. It might not sound important, and it might sound terribly subjective, but feeling that something is cool, fun, and indeed powerful is subjective already.