The “Real Fan”

Though I don’t talk about it often here, I enjoy watching Starcraft, be it Brood War or the current Starcraft 2. Currently, competitive Starcraft 2 is enjoying something of a boom, with tournaments and teams popping up all over the world, from Korea to Ukraine to Las Vegas. This past weekend, one organization tried their hand at a new tournament broadcast format: pay per view.

Typically, Starcraft 2 tournaments are free to view online in some capacity, with additional content available at a cost, such as higher quality video, additional video streams, or recorded match videos you can watch after the live event is over. Major League Gaming, known as having the most exciting Starcraft 2 tournaments in North America, decided that they would have a supplemental event called the “MLG Winter Arena” and that it would require $20 to view live. This barrier to entry in turn caused a large amount of discussion, whether or not $20 was simply too much, business models for eSports organizations, etc. I personally did not pay to watch MLG Winter Arena, especially given that there was a second big tournament going on at the time.

One comment I saw cropping up repeatedly had to do with being a “real fan.” The idea was that if Starcraft 2 tournaments were so important to you, why wouldn’t you prioritize them? For those who can’t afford it at all, there’s no choice, but for those who can, isn’t the product worth its value (tons of big names, very good production values, promises of extremely intense competition). I had the money, but I didn’t use it. For me, as much as I love spectating, Starcraft is not my primary passion or hobby, and if given a choice between spending money on something anime/manga-related and spending money on SC2, I’ll typically lean towards the Japanese comics.

That’s not to say I’m not willing to spend money on Starcraft at all. I felt that the convenience of being able to watch matches any time instead of adhering myself to the Korean time zone was reason enough for me to subscribe to GOMTV’s Global Starcraft 2 League. But I didn’t get the premium package, I got the light one. All of those nice perks offered for the extra money weren’t worth it for me, and I’m glad they gave me the choice. That’s one thing that GOMTV correctly recognized that seemed to get lost in this flurry of discussion: Starcraft fandom (or any fandom in general) does not exist in a binary setting where it’s either one or the other. People can like something, but there may be a limit to how much they like it, especially if money is involved.

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.

And Then He Bunker Rushed Shabranigdo

(Don’t worry, this is from last season so it isn’t a spoiler.)

Vistas: Streaming for Profit – Crunchyroll vs.

I’ve got a new post over at the Vistas blog, this time about the differences in paid services provided by two different streaming sites with two different ideas of what its users should pay for, Crunchyroll and Feel free to comment either there or right here on Ogiue Maniax.

Impatience and Experience and Competitive Gaming Sequels

I am, perhaps by nature, not the most competitive person around. I like to win for sure, and I like to improve my chances of winning when in competition, but I have never had that win-at-all-costs attitude which defines the most successful players in any game or activity. Still, I have spent time in and observing many communities, particularly in the area of video games, and I’ve come to notice a number of trends which all seem to stem from the same fountain of human behavior and irrationality.

When it comes to “professional gaming,” there is no example more prominent than the Korean Starcraft scene. It is by far the most refined and successful example of video game as competition. Finally however, Starcraft 2 is right on the horizon, with a beta version out. I have not had the fortune of playing this game, and in fact I have not played the original Starcraft in well over six years. But as much as I am inexperienced in the scene itself, I am still fascinated by its growth. To that end, I have been listening to podcasts about the SC2 beta, particularly the “Team Liquid Beta Podcast,” recorded by Sean “Day[9]” Plott and his friend Tristan. Sean Plott is a very famous American player who is known not only for his skills behind a keyboard, but his incredibly analytical mind. In episode 3 of the podcast, he addresses an idea which has been floating around, the idea that Starcraft 2 is less suited for competition than its predecessor, and makes too many concessions to neophytes. And it very well might, but as Sean points out, it’s rather curious that people would be so quick to jump to conclusions on a game which isn’t even officially out yet, a prototype which can very well experience drastic changes. Herein lies the logical irrationality I spoke of.

Through the hours of effort put into it by players in Korea as well as in every other country which houses competitive spirit for Starcraft, many discoveries have been made over a decade that have pushed the game to points that would seem unbelievable to fans of the past. It took time and effort and I think everybody who likes this game is likely grateful for a number of these progressions, if not all of them. But the mistake that the players of the beta make here, and it’s a mistake I can point out despite never having played the game, is sheer impatience. The error of reasoning in this situation is the idea that just because the community is so experienced with its predecessor and the process of discovering concepts and techniques to foster and push competition, that the same progress not only could happen in the sequel at an accelerated rate, but that it should happen.

This is not the only time I have seen this impatience in action. For years I was and still am a big fan of the Super Smash Bros. series, and have played every incarnation of the game. I pride myself on being fairly good at Smash, albeit not at the highest levels of competition, but I have a keen understanding of the whole deal.

While the original Nintendo 64 Super Smash Bros. did well enough, it was with its Gamecube sequel, Super Smash Bros. Melee, that a competitive community truly began to form. Like Starcraft, the players, full of desire to win, created and discovered new techniques which pushed the game to unforeseeable levels. And just like Starcraft, when a sequel in the form of Super Smash Bros. Brawl appeared, people were quick to compare it to its predecessor (as one could only expect), and just as quickly pass judgment on it, decrying it as lacking the “advanced techniques” and overall suitability for a competitive game, and making big and bold declarations after the game had only been out mere weeks. Again, the same flawed reasoning appeared. “With all of our experience in Melee, advanced techniques should be getting discovered at a fraction of the time it took originally! We have more people and we don’t have that period where people were just messing around!” In addition, players were quick to establish a set of “tournament rules” at blinding speed, stifling the idea of discovery for discovery’s sake with the desire to simply win at “legitimate” competitive venues.

Why is there such impatience when it comes to competitive sequels? I understand well the idea that a follow-up to a popular competitive game will be compared to the original. It’s all but inevitable. And I also understand that people want to make sure their skills translate from one game to the next. But still, I can’t help but feel that this impatience can only hurt a competitive scene. Discovery happens not only when you cut away the fat, but also when you expand and explore, and such things take time, even if you have years and years of experience.

There is actually a game in which I have devoted myself to competition before, and that is Pokemon. I have played Pokemon more than perhaps any other game series, participating in tournaments and discussions and spending days and nights thinking of possible teams and avenues of victory. And though my main focus is on exploration and discovery and trying to find holes in the “metagame,” I have seen the state of competition as it applies to the Pokemon series, from the early days of Red and Blue all the way up to the recent generation starting with Diamond and Pearl, and two things are always clearly inevitable as the scene transitions from one version of the game to the next. First, we bring with us all of our old ideas about what makes a team strong, and what we predict will be the vanguards of victory and competition. Second, those theories are smashed and obliterated as we realize that, as similar as the games are to each other, subtle differences can have wide-reaching effects in the most unpredictable of ways. And it’s going to happen again and again and again.

There is no specific point at which you can officially decide if a game is worthwhile for competition or not, and it is very possible that initial reactions will be validated. Still, impatience brought on by the “pride of experience” is an incredibly dangerous thing to any competitive scene, and the sooner people realize this, the better.

Easy Doesn’t Mean Boring

After having beaten and reviewed Megaman 10 on its Normal difficulty, today I revisited the game on Easy Mode, playing alongside someone who doesn’t have quite as much experience with the series and so doesn’t quite have the same tolerance for abuse built in. What I discovered was that even for someone who had already finished the game on a more difficult setting, Megaman 10 is still a very fun game and having my mind somewhat at ease (though not entirely of course!) let me more fully appreciate the finer aspects of the gameplay, particularly the controls. It just really reminded me how Megaman is known for good controls despite the titular character’s sub-par leaping abilities.

I think it’s very easy to make the mistake of thinking that the fun of Megaman games is in its challenge when the NES-hard style only plays a partial role in the overall experience. It might be the one you remember the most, but it’s the rest of the game which keeps you coming back.

The fact that easy mode is fun to play with multiple people has gotten me to thinking about other games which have tried to encourage people of varying skill levels to play together without fear of reprisal, be it from those same friends or from the computer. A recent popular example is New Super Mario Bros. Wii, which allows for 4-player simultaneous action and a unique system which allows players to “skip” sections while other players handle a particularly troublesome area should they choose to do so. It’s not perfect, but it keeps things moving along, and you can tell that they put a lot of consideration into this mechanic. A more classic example is introducing luck into a game. With just the right amount, it can make things exciting, and cries of “unfair!” can sometimes just entice those same complainers to play even more. I should know, mahjong can have that effect.

One really good example of a game that fosters play between beginners and experts is the Smash Bros. series. With its 4-player simultaneous action, you can get a lot of people in on it at once. More importantly though, its “Time” setting, which has everyone fight until a preset time limit, allows everyone, win or lose, to play the same amount per match. Contrast this with “Stock,” where once you lose all of your lives you are unable to play anymore. For a new player, this can be very boring as you watch the better players continue to have fun while you just sit there unable to participate in any manner except verbally (or blocking the TV and knocking away controllers if you want your ass kicked).

What’s kind of funny though is that a good deal of people, particularly overly competitive individuals, seem to have trouble understanding this idea of having games and game modes which allow everyone to derive enjoyment in roughly equal portions, as if they don’t comprehend enjoying the game as anything but a bloody battle to the top. While there are games which take the balancing factor too far (recent Mario Kart games are kind of notorious for this), I think overall games can benefit from just having things everyone can enjoy, even if it’s having both COMPETITIVE PRO KOREA MAPS and BIG GAME HUNTERS for Starcraft.

Speaking of competitive gamers and such, it seems like almost every community makes the same mistakes, but I’ll leave that topic for another time.

Let’s Talk WCG USA Starcraft Finals Again (They’re at an Anime Con!)

A few months back I made a post mentioning the fact that the World Cyber Games USA finals would be held at the New York Anime Festival from September 25-27. A few weeks ago, the finalists were all decided via online tournaments, and there’s quite a few recognizable names. I’ll be there to watch for sure (unless it interferes with, say, a Tomino interview or press conference), as not only am I interested in seeing who gets to fly to the WCG finals, but also because this is a rare opportunity to combine two interests into one exciting event.

Anyway, the finalists.

Jacob “LzGaMeR” Winstead
Made it to the Valor Tournament Round of 16.

Adrian “KawaiiRice” Kwong
First-time WCG USA finalist.

David “Louder” Fells
3rd Place Winner at WCG USA 2008.

Geoff “iNcontroL” Robinson
WCG USA 2007 champion and moderator for Team Liquid, iNcontroL also appeared as a contestant on WCG Ultimate Gamer.

Greg “IdrA” Fields
The ESWC Asia Masters of Cheonan 2009 Champion, Idra is the only active Non-Korean professional Starcraft player in Korea and is known for his strong Terran vs Zerg.

Daniel “Nyoken” Eidson
WCG USA 2007 2nd place finisher.

Sean “Day[9]” Plott
2005 WCG USA champion and considered by many to be the best Zerg in the United States, as well as the younger brother of Nick “Tasteless” Plott, the English caster for Gom TV.

Bryce “Machine” Bates
Former WCG USA Finalist.

David “KingDino” Kent
Former WCG USA Finalist. A former hacker who has since managed to redeem himself.

Dan “Artosis” Stemkoski
WCG 2007 3rd Place Winner and frequent WCG USA finalist, Artosis runs  SCforALL, a site dedicated to bridging the gap between American and Korean Starcraft fanbases. Known for his strong Terran vs Terran and Terran v Protoss.

I know that watching Starcraft is not every anime nerd’s cup of tea, but I hope at least some of you take the chance to watch some high-level gaming in one of the most intense games ever. And for those of you cosplaying, I will implore you to take a look, just so that when they film the audience pans will be that much more interesting.

Don’t forget to cover your faces.

Hey You Got Your Starcraft in My New York Anime Festival

New York Anime Festival has announced that it will be the proving grounds of the WCG USA finals. As someone who enjoys watching Starcraft AND enjoys watching anime, this feels like the most wonderful kind of Peanut Butter Cup.

While the Starcraft scene in America pales in comparison to South Korea’s, where it’s treated as a legitimate sport full of pride and rivalries and an official Air Force Starcraft team and most importantly fangirls, it is still full of good players who are always seeking to push their game and the game in general forward. The winner here gets to fly to Chengdu, China for this year’s World Finals.

I know sometimes people, including myself, will say, “Hey get your irrelevant topics out of my anime convention!” and Starcraft is an AMERICAN game played mostly by Koreans (I know how racist that SOUNDS, but what I mean is that you can’t even use the IT’S A PART OF JAPANESE CULTURE angle with it). However, I am willing to make an exception. Really.

I hope they get some announcers to liven up the event, and I hope they’re good announcers of course, even if they’re not Tasteless.

Oh, and don’t forget there are other games too. I know some will be more interested in the Virtua Fighter USA finals.

New York Anime Festival 2009 is September 25-27 at the Jacob Javits Center in Manhattan.