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Pre-Evo Thoughts: Video Games vs. Chess Analogies

Introduction: “It’s like Chess, but…”

One of the most common ways to try and explain the appeal of competitive video games is to make a comparison to chess. Starcraft is “real-time chess.” Smash Bros. Brawl players used to explain the importance of decision-making by saying the game was more “chess-like” compared to Melee. While I haven’t seen it myself, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone called Dota 2 “chess where each piece is controlled by a different player.” Making the connection is essentially shorthand for highlighting a game a “thinking man’s endeavor.”

The accuracy of the comparison is often limited to the most basic similarities, and tends to fall apart under greater scrutiny. Despite that being the case, however, I find that there is another kind of chess comparison that can open up greater understanding of how we view competition through games. Namely, if we think about not just the western version of chess, but also the many variations of chess and chess-like games that exist in the world, then it can help us understand and appreciate the unique qualities of video games that are from the same series but have differing gameplay.

As a note, I am not an expert on chess or any chess-like game. There will not be any high level examples, and most of the comparisons will be based on descriptions I’ve found from others. I’m also knowledgeable but not amazing at any competitive games I mention, so keep that in mind as well.

Chess vs. Shogi: Similar Games, Different Dynamics

Chess and shogi (“Japanese chess”) have a lot in common. Both are turn-based games played on large, tile-based boards where the goal is trap the enemy king in an inescapable situation. Both have different types of pieces, each of which have different rules for moving, with the most common pieces (the pawns) having the fewest choices and the strongest pieces being much rarer. However, there are differences of opinion as to which game is better, and they hinge on a few key elements.

The queen: chess’s mightiest warrior

Chess pieces have more freedom of movement compared to ones in shogi. Chess has two rooks and two bishops on each side, who can move as far as the board (and any interfering pieces) can take them. It has two knights who can jump in that characteristic “L” shape. And it has the queen, which can move across the board in eight directions. In contrast, shogi pieces can cover much less ground. Not only is shogi board bigger (10 x 10 as opposed to chess’s 8 x 8), but players get only one rook and one bishop, and there’s no such thing as a queen. Shogi has pieces that chess doesn’t, but all of them are much more restricted in terms of their mobility.

The gold general in shogi is extremely powerful, but no chess queen

The result of this difference is that chess emphasizes the center of the board as a major point of contention because the pieces simply have more movement options. Shogi pieces take more turns to get from one place to another, but this also means skirmishes can happen all over the board. Also, whereas the king in chess is seen as a relatively weak piece because it can “only” move one space at a time, in shogi the king is a fearsome fighter because of its relative versatility.

Example in Esports

In spite of their similarities, chess is a game where greater range and possibility of movement produces one range of play, while shogi’s shorter range per piece produces another. They’re actually different enough that a person can love one but hate the other. One can find a similar relationships in other games in the same “families,” of which I’ll be listing a couple below.

Take the Street Fighter series and the Marvel vs. series, for example. Movement in Street Fighter games are traditionally very restricted. One walks back and forth and maybe has the ability to do a small dash, but jumping is a risky commitment and the game stays very grounded. In Marvel Vs. games, however, characters can make massive leaps, fire large beams that cover most of the screen, and dismantle each other quickly. Even though they’re both fighting games, tweaking certain elements means one could be great in the former type but awful at the latter.

Even games within the same series can be as dissimilar as chess and shogi. When discussing what makes Smash Bros. Melee such a beloved game among its fans, one common reason given is “movement options.” Not only do platforms allow for vertical movement, but a plethora of advanced inputs exist for players to practice—wavedashing, dash dancing, ledge dashing, etc. Other games in the Smash Bros. franchise, such as the more recent Super Smash Bros. for 3DS & Wii U (aka Smash 4) have nowhere near as much range of movement, but small steps matter more. Melee top player Mang0 has mentioned in the past that walking (as opposed to dashing or wavedashing) is under-utilized in Melee. When looking at Smash 4, walking is incredibly common.

Is larger range of movement and prerequisite to a better game? The answer is that it’s largely a matter of personal preference, as opposed to any sort of objective standard. Take this 2007 post from the chess blog The Only Winning Move:

I do think [shogi] is probably more complex than chess …

Naturally, “more complex” doesn’t necessarily translate into “more fun” …. I much prefer Chess…. My favorite Chess game, in fact, is one of Bobby Fischer’s, which he describes as a “lightningbolt,” in which he absolutely castrates a fussy opponent who spends so much time setting up the perfect defense net that Fischer is able to just zap him with an unexpected sacrifice. That kind of thing happens a lot less often in Shogi, and this makes it less thrilling … Chess seems more integrated and elegant to me. It’s a beautiful thing in the hands of skilled player. I never get the same feeling of being in the presence of beauty watching Shogi players at work….

All the same, at the end of the day I would rather play Shogi – and that’s simply because it’s mindfood….

Chess is more fun to watch, and more fun to play for amusement. It’s a truly beautiful thing when done right – and thus better appreciated as a spectator sport. But I ultimately like Shogi better.

And Still More

If the chess vs. shogi comparison seems too simplistic in terms of how games of a similar genre can differ, keep in mind that there are many variations of chess-type games out there as well. Xiangqi (“Chinese chess”), for example, is famous for having a very explosive mid-game, as well as obstacles to get around in the form of rivers. Perhaps your preferred game resembles xiangqi more than chess or shogi.
Let’s Appreciate the Differences

Games can be “chess-like,” but it’s potentially better to bring that up relative to other forms of chess so that discussion can be more fruitful. The examples I’ve given do not map perfectly to chess and shogi, but the point is less to find a perfect analogy and more to show how games that can look the same on the surface can produce very different games that can carry different appeals to their respective player bases.

 

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The Safe Appeal of Fallen Champions

After a small drought of first place finishes, famed Smash Bros. Melee player Mang0 of Cloud 9 Gaming recently took home the gold medal at Royal Flush 2017. The tournament’s viewership was fairly modest throughout the tournament, but by the time grand finals rolled around the viewer count spiked to an impressive 73,000. While Mang0 is a perennial crowd favorite for his flashy, yet intelligent play and his devil-may-care attitude, I think there was another factor at work drawing eyeballs to his Mother’s Day victory: the appeal of a dominant champion turned underdog.

People love an underdog, as the saying goes, but there’s often an emotional investment to trying to cheer on a player or team with the odds stacked against them. For every Boston Red Sox or Chicago Cubs breaking their decades-long curses, there are many more across various competitive fields that wither and die in the early stages without achieving anything. Is it really worth cheering on someone who loses in the first round of a tournament every time? If it is, there’s typically some other element to consider: regional loyalty, character loyalty, etc.

But when it’s a known commodity, i.e. a former champion with a record of winning but who’s fallen off more recently, then there’s a different appeal at work. Think of Michael Jordan on the Washington Wizards, an aged George Foreman, or JulyZerg in Starcraft: Brood War. In each case, they arrived to make up for a loss of physical prowess with skill, experience, and ingenuity, but in their pushes for victory one thing was certain: though they fell behind, there is historical evidence of an “it” factor: the will to win, and the potential to snatch victories from the jaws of defeat.

In a certain sense, cheering for former champions become a case of trying to have your cake and eat it too. People cheer for underdogs, yes, but they also like to cheer for winners. When you have a former great, you get the best of both worlds. They’re a comforting pick because, even if they lose, a person can simply look back in time and say, “But I know they have what it takes!”

Mang0 is not the same as the examples I gave above. He’s still a top 3 player in his game, and slumps are often exaggerated in the world of eSports because the concept is so young and people think 3 months is a long time. However, if it were a true veteran of the past who enjoys legendary status such as Liquid’Ken, the “King of Smash,”  then I believe even more spectators would have flocked to Royal Flush.

What’s in a List? Thoughts on the Smash 4 Backroom Tier List v3

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Recently, the granddaddy of all competitive Super Smash Bros. sites, Smashboards, released their third Smash 4 tier list. The significance of this version is that it’s the first tier list that did not come in the middle of patches or DLC, so it provides our first big look at the status of Smash 4 in a stable environment.

Overall, I have no major qualms with the tier list, and my go-to characters—Mewtwo and Mega Man—are right where I think they should be. Some characters might be a little too high or a little too low, but I don’t have any horses in that race. However, I’d like to talk about two topics: theory vs. results, and the most controversial characters among the tier list voters.

Theory vs. Results

One of the frequent struggles when it comes to bringing together tier lists is the balance between theory and results. A character can look great on paper, but actually using them and winning with them is another matter entirely. On the flip side, even if a character is winning consistently versus everyone else, this could be simply due to a gap in knowledge.

For likely a multitude of reasons, the Smash 4 community at large seems to have a hard time marrying theory with results to the extent of other fighting games. For example, the tier list above has Bayonetta at #1, but it wasn’t long after the list was announced that people were commenting that the results don’t support the position. This isn’t to say that they’re necessarily wrong, but always get the impression when looking at and joining in on discussions about character viability that people either overshoot or undersell the influence of a character’s theory with respect to what they’re capable of.

Some of the reasons I think it’s hard for Smashers to get the right balance of theory and results are as follows.

  • The game is full of Nintendo icons, so there’s often the desire to argue in favor of your beloved character
  • As a result of the above, players will often theorycraft from a biased perspective. This is difficult to avoid, and is not inherently bad because of how it can motivate people, but leads to a lot of broad leaps and assumptions.
  • People become distrustful of theorycrafting and instead lean towards results, which have defined parameters (wins, losses, championships).

This leads to people taking extreme stances about the importance of results vs. theory, where one is touted as significantly more important than the other. However, I believe that the ideal tier list is one that uses results to theorize further beyond what results currently show us. They should be less a snapshot of what the actual current metagame is like, and more an image of what we think the game will become given the information we have.

Disagreements on Character Viability

In the Smashboards post about the tier list, it’s possible to order the tier list in order to see which characters garnered the most disagreement in terms of placement. The top 5 (not counting Miis) are Samus, Bowser Jr., Pac-Man, Olimar, and Wario. According to the tier list, these characters are supposedly mid-tier at best, but it’s still worth noting that there were some who thought highly of them nevertheless.

One of the reasons for this might just be that the voters come from all over the world. Different regions are known for having strong players for characters that one might not find elsewhere. For example, Duck Hunt was considered a pretty bad character until three Japanese Duck Hunts made their way to the US and took some big names. In the case of the five characters above, Olimar is a major influence in California, Florida, New York, and especially Japan; the ranked fourth best Japanese player in their region is an Olimar named Shuton. Similarly, Wario is a major presence in Europe thanks to France’s Glutonny, with a lesser but still significant mark being made by Wario player TheReflexWonder.

Pac-Man and Bowser Jr. have been on a progressive downward slide because their most prominent players, Abadango from Japan and Tweek from New Jersey respectively, have long since put them on the backburner. I believe that there must still be those holding out hope that Pac and BowJow have what it takes to cause the occasional upset (and they still do sometimes!).

Samus is the major enigma. She has never been considered strong in Smash 4, especially compared to her armor-less counterpart, but even after a number of significant buffs she received through patches there’s still not the sense that she’s any good. And yet, enough players voted her as being at least mid-tier that there has to be some strong belief in her potential. I think what causes such disagreement as to her character is that her toolkit is actually very diverse and her physical properties all appear to be strong but dysfunctional, and how much a player can overcome that dysfunction (as they have with Shulk) remains to be seen.

The Future!

Early Smash 4 was an interesting beast because of how, for once, swordsmen weren’t dominant. This meant characters with lesser range could thrive. This has changed dramatically with the rise of Marth and the advent of Cloud (pun intended). Will there be another major shift, even without balance patches? I look forward to seeing players push their characters to their limits.

 

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Yowamushi Pedal: Brains, Heart, and Body

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As a sports manga and anime with an enormous cast, Yowamushi Pedal is home to a variety of characters designed to contrast with each other in terms of personality and approach to competitive bicycle racing. This certainly applies to the first-years when the series begins, as all-rounder Imaizumi Shunsuke, speedy Naruko Shoukichi, and high-cadence protagonist Onoda Sakamichi are all differ from one another significantly. In looking more closely at these three characters, however, I find that they resemble professional fighting game player Laugh’s theory of the Three Fighting Game Player Archetypes. My aim here is to elaborate why I believe this to be the case, and which archetypes apply to these three.

As described by the video above from Core-A gaming, the three categories of players are brains, heart, and body. While this distinction is not exclusive to fighting games or even gaming or competition in general, I find that Yowamushi Pedal with its theme of cycling has a lot of parallels with fighting games. Although fighting games are typically 1-on-1 matches and bicycle racing is shown to be a team sport on the biggest stages, the emphasis on how a human being competes through the use and fine-tuning of their equipment is a point of commonality. At one point, a character in Yowamushi Pedal even talks about how, unlike other sports, you don’t need to be the biggest or the strongest because what matters is how you work with your bike. Replace that with “joystick” or “controller,” and the similarities start to become clearer.

In the training camp arc of Yowamushi Pedal, where the characters compete to see who will represent Sohoku High School in the Inter-High National Tournament, club captain Kinjou purposely messes with the first-years’ bicycles in order to challenge them to work on their major weaknesses. In doing so, he reveals the archetypes that Imaizumi, Naruko, and Onoda embody.

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Imaizumi is a “brains” type, or someone who relies on superior knowledge and study to win. When Kinjou removes his ability to shift gears, it initially throwsImaizumi for a complete loop. Just as a brains-based fighting game player knows frame data like the back of their hand, Imaizumi had up to that point relied on his optimal knowledge of gear shifting to tackle any level of slope while cycling. Although he eventually overcomes this flaw during the training camp, his sheer joy when he’s finally able to reunite with his cherished gear shifters shows just how much the “heady” part of bicycle racing factors into Imaizumi’s approach to the sport.

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Naruko, then, is a “heart” type, who prefers to “feel” things out. In fighting game terms, this is someone who is confident they can outmaneuver you in unorthodox situations and “mind game” you. His advice to Onoda to surprise Imaizumi with a technique in a previous race, as well as his own “Sprint Climb” maneuver, are indicative of a similar quality. At the training camp, Kinjou removes his lower handle bars, thus limiting Naruko’s ability to adapt and be as creative as he’d like. Unable to do things “in the moment” as a result, Naruko is forced to work around it.

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That leaves Onoda as the “body” type. While this might not make sense given how Onoda is the “heart” of the team, that’s a different kind of conception of heart as a spiritual center. Instead, the reason why Onoda is a “body” cyclist is because of the fact that his high cadence is the linchpin of his riding style. Just as a “body” type in fighting games always has things like technical precision and perfectly executed high-damage combos to fall back on, Onoda’s ingrained ability to raise and lower his cadence like the pedals are an extension of his body lets him overcome situations where he might be “strategically” beaten. And just like the other two, when his ability to freely pedal as quickly or as slowly as he’d like is interfered with, he starts off feeling utterly helpless.

Imaizumi the brains, Naruko the heart, and Onoda the body. Together, they create a complete being, which is perhaps why they work so well together. What about the other characters, then? I’ll leave you to figure them out.

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Game Design: Patches, Iterative Design, and Basketball

When it comes to competitive gaming and eSports, one debate that’s often at the center of developer-player relationships is the decision to either leave a game alone—thus letting the players do what they want with the hope that they will advance the game on their own—or to patch it, essentially modifying the rules for the sake of making it a more enjoyable experience.

I occasionally see discussions about this go to real sports, but in actuality real sports also have examples of both “iterative designs” and “patches.” In particular, basketball provides a couple of interesting examples.

James Naismith square

The classic example of letting players influence the parameters of a game is dribbling in basketball. When basketball inventor James Naismith first developed the game, players were primarily supposed to pass the ball to move it forward. His students were the ones who started dribbling as a kind of loophole around the rules (they were “passing it to themselves”), and Naismith allowed it. Rather than seeing dribbling as a distortion of how the game should be, it was welcomed and ultimately proved to be a skill that enhances the sport of basketball.

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However, decades later a new problem arose. Wilt Chamberlain, One of the greatest athletes ever, Wilt was known for having a critical weakness: he was terrible at free throws. At the time, there was no off-the-ball foul rule, so even if Wilt wasn’t holding the ball at the time, opposing players would chase him down just so that they could foul him. The aforementioned rule was implemented to keep the game from becoming ridiculous. It was decided that watching a bunch of guys run around not actually playing basketball was detrimental to the sport, and while some residual problems still exist, it was also good for the game that just needed another “patch.”

Two different cases of “messing with the rules,” two different solutions. In the case of dribbling, it was welcomed with open arms, but when the optimal strategy was to turn basketball into an absurd game of tag, the rules governing the game were changed to prevent this from developing further.

So, when people talk about how the solution is to leave a game alone and let the players handle it, or that continuous patches and modifications to the game are the key to longevity, remember that neither is inherently right or wrong. It depends on the given situation, the community surrounding the game, and the direction that it would be taken should things either be changed too drastically or ignored entirely. In other words, it’s not wise to let yourself take a polarized philosophy in terms of what makes games, competitive or otherwise, “work.”

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Why is Defensive Play Maligned and Is There Anything We Can Do About It?

Defensive styles get a bad rap in many arenas of competition. Whether it’s Floyd Mayweather in boxing, Jigglypuff in Super Smash Bros. Melee, or turtle play in Starcraft, a strong focus on defense can draw the ire of both players and spectators. Whether or not the defense is the product of immense skill seems to matter little except for the most hardcore or well-informed. Defense is viewed as passive, and passive is viewed as lacking in “hype.”

It’s not surprising that many people share this belief. The impact of aggressive play carries a kind of emotionally visceral thrill that the mental excitement of defensive play can’t quite fulfill, and participants (both in the game and in the audience) are frequently looking for entertainment and gratification. There’s nothing wrong with this mindset, and it’s a bit presumptuous to decry people for liking what they like (as tempting as it is to do so), but I have to wonder if anything can ever be done about this mindset such that a significant number can enjoy or appreciate defensive play.

Esports historian, writer, and commentator Duncan “Thorin” Shields has argued that people’s uses of the terms “aggression” and “passivity” are too simplistic, and that this limits their ability to discuss play styles in games. In fighting game terms, this would be the false idea that aggression can only come in the form of rushdown, constant in-your-face attacking, when there are a whole range of possibilities. I think Thorin makes an excellent point, but that still requires people to take that extra step. They have to search out information, to think more deeply about the games they play and watch, and this is perhaps more than what can be expected of an audience (though perhaps that onus should be placed on players who are critical of defensive styles).

Not that I think people like Thorin should stop what they’re doing, or that it’s pointless. They provide a valuable piece of the puzzle towards increasing people’s appreciation of competitive play, but perhaps there should be an additional step in between, something that can reach people even when their minds are not fully geared towards learning.

One possibility comes in the form of commentators often found at these events. Perhaps there needs to be a more active push by commentators in general to emphasize the positives of defensive play, and to encourage that more mental (rather than emotional) look at games and sports. One potential problem with this is that it doesn’t apply when commentators aren’t around, and that it still might not convince people’s hearts where it arguably matters most.

Is it a hopeless cause to get people who thrive on “hype” to not sneer at “overly” defensive play? Is there a future where this can happen?

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Fight, Flight, and Fun: Turf Wars and Competitive Splatoon

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The first time I saw Splatoon being announced at E3 2014, I had two reactions. First, “this game looks amazing,” and second, “I could see this game having a ton of competitive potential.” The new and refreshing approach to the shooting genre combined with the inherent concept of space control that comes with having your main weapon, ink, be also your goal and your primary mode of transportation had me envisioning clutch plays and highlight reels that would go down in history.

Since then, Splatoon has actually indeed worked to cater towards the competitive side of its player base, with patches, versus modes, and more, but I was surprised to see that its main format, a “Turf War” where the objective is to cover as much ground with ink as possible, does not have a ranked option, and in fact is considered by many in the competitive community to be an inferior format. I find the Turf War to be closest to the essence of innovation and possibility that Splatoon offers, and I actually feel kind of sad that it’s thought of as being incapable of supporting competition.

Keep in mind that, as I say this, I am not begrudging the competitive players for going with a format they prefer. I am quite far from being a skilled Splatoon player. I also understand that the reasons they might not like the Turf War format are probably valid. The argument is that only the first 30 and last 30 seconds really matter, and that it isn’t relevant to competition if a given way of playing is “against the essence of the game.” After all, Super Smash Bros. is designed for four or more players on a variety of stages with items on, and that competitive community has worked to fight the stigma that its players are playing the game “wrong.” Rather, in a way, what I’m expressing is rather selfish: I like the world of Splatoon where people can both attack and avoid conflict, or in a sense compete and not compete, in the exact same space, even if that doesn’t make much logical sense.

One of the major appeals of Splatoon, I believe, is that it provides a nice aesthetic and environmental alternative to mega testosterone headshot shooter games. Instead of getting bloodied, you get inked. Instead of every weapon being geared towards death and destruction, the question is if they can properly cover the ground in various hues. Theoretically, one can play and even succeed in this “shooter” without even shooting or attacking at all. However, in the ranked modes, Splat Zone, Tower Control, and Rainmaker, the specific mission focuses make direct conflict more of a necessity. You must remove their control, and the only way to really do so is to attack their position or to prevent them from getting close through person-to-person combat. Gone is all potential to compete through pacifism.

I don’t mean to say that Splatoon shouldn’t have guns, or that shooting should be removed from the game. After all, my favorite weapon is the N-ZAP ’89, a replica of the red-colored NES Zapper, because of its versatility in both fighting others and covering the ground in ink. Instead, what I’m aiming for is the possibility that Turf Wars are more likely to provide a space, or a mode, where very different philosophies can come into play without the absolute need to divide them, like Smash Bros. does (“For Fun” vs. “For Glory”). The people who believe shooters are great because you get to go all Rambo on your opponents can get just as much of a kick out of Splatoon as the people who love the strategic space control aspect or those who cherish just being able to run around with a giant roller and not have to point or aim or anything. I know this idea is inherently flawed, and the players themselves don’t necessarily want this, but I still believe that Splatoon can stand as this symbol where wildly different ways of playing can co-exist.

In game studies, there is a distinction made between “games” and “play.” The essential idea is that in games, you have a goal, a motivation or driving force that you aim towards, whereas play is more freeform, ever-changing, unbound by rules. In other words, think of games as football or baseball, and play as Calvinball. While Splatoon is much closer to “game” than it is to “play,” especially in comparison to something like Minecraft, I think my desired image for Splatoon is one that is in the territory of games but leans towards play. Competition is possible, but competing by not competing would also be an available option.

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