Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Guessing Game

Usually I will use this silly blog of mine to post some random crap I have been doing or thinking, sometimes in the form of a video but more often in the form of a rant. As much as I would like to think that this space is above the popular and socially acknowledged communication mediums also used for this sort of thing (including crap like Facebook and Twitter) I know that most of the time it probably isn't. Most blogs, including this one, will only ever bring up topics of interest to the author, and while they may be more expository and informative then some fool on Facebook exclaiming how drunk they got last Friday, they really are just more concentrated versions of the same thing. I am interested in things->I write them up onto a place->you digest them and contemplate their meanings. I would like to think they are somewhat less egotistic than say ... the average twitter post ("Hey! Look what I am doing. I am oh so happy!") but I am not so courageous to actually make that claim without some form of quantitative evidence. As much as I may try to justify my actions and fill these posts with things that I believe to be interesting, I know that deep down, even subconsciously, they are but bundled up expressions of the same deal.

The difference is I don't care who reads this.

So, with that out of the way, I will now do exactly what I described above. Often spurred by 'discussions' with certain friends of mine, the concept of what I describe as 'mechanical skill' has been fluttering around in my brain more often than not, for various reasons. This has been further punctuated by random interesting reads in the field of AI such as this, which form part of my weekly research for my PhD. The idea of implementing AI techniques that mimic those performed by human players is an interesting area of the domain, especially in terms of leveling the playing field and creating realistic agent behaviours. It is also ... simply refreshing to see that other people are out there that think like I do concerning the topic, proving that I am at least not entirely crazy (or that there are at least two of us who are). This is especially the case in regards to the amount of criticism I get about my PhD from certain supervisors of mine.

Still, the mechanical skill necessary in games is an interesting game design topic, primarily because it can determine two important factors of a game: the game's learning curve and its overall difficulty or skillcap. Mechanical skill relates to the accuracy, speed and appropriateness of the user's input with the peripheral/s controlling their game play. In simpler terms, how good you are with a touchscreen, gamepad, joystick, keyboard or mouse. Games of all types have varying degrees of this mechanical skill. If you compare something like Angry birds to Tekken 6, you can see this difference factor quite clearly. One has only several button presses a minute whereas the other has tens, if not hundreds (depending on how good you are or how hard you are facerolling).

Eddy Gordo (right) - The epitome of mechanical skill

However, a higher degree of mechanical skill doesn't necessarily equate to a more difficult game. You would hardly call chess a game of extreme mechanical skill, yet it is a game that is viewed to be incredibly complex and skill based to the point where large amounts of money are still being devoted to making the ultimate chess playing AI. Some games of high mechanical skill, such as Starcraft 2, are more to do with sustained repetition and speed of execution. Others, such as Street Fighter IV, are more reaction based with timely input of button combinations at opportune moments. First Person Shooters like Quake 3 have a mechanical input control that can be seen to require extreme precision, above all things. Even Guitar Hero (and clones) has a strong mechanical skill factor that requires some nimbleness and dexterity on the user's part. They are all incredibly skillful games that lean heavily on the mechanical skill side of things, some warranting e-sport status around the globe.

There are others though that may not rank so highly on the mechanical skill side of things, but still considered somewhat skillful games. Racing games and DotA clones fall into this category, some of which also have e-sport status. In a racing game, the number of actions per minute and timing of actions may not be so different from one person to another, yet clear proficiencies in games like Trackmania are obvious in the online community. Here, experience and understanding of the game's physics are more important. In League of Legends, the input and actions of an amateur player may be little different from that of a pro, yet a clear distinction in their skill differences can be seen in other areas (teamwork, knowledge, itemisation, ability to last hit etc). While most, if not all games have some form of mechanical input which inherently requires some degree of skill, not all games have the same depth of input required by the player. This aspect alone is what turns many people on and off certain games. People like your mum.

The learning curve of a game has a significant mechanical skill component to it, many of which can seem demanding at first. Street Fighter 3: Third Strike introduced a parry system that was far ahead of its time and considered too difficult to adapt to, even for veterans. To a person learning to play an FPS game, competency of aim with a keyboard and mouse comes only after many hours of practice. Hitting buttons on a controller is easy enough. Hitting them in reaction to certain events, especially in sequence, comes only after many failed attempts. An example of this can be seen in my attempt to learn how to play Street Fighter IV. Embarrassingly, there was a time when I was so terrible at this game (I still am) that I couldn't even pull off a Super/Ultra combo without repeated attempts. Of course, having endless chances to pull off a combo like that doesn't happen often in the game itself, so it is absolutely essential that a player can perform something like that first time and everytime they input it. Failure to do so results in losing. Even in League of Legends, playing a new champion has subtle differences in mechanical skill as you learn things such as their attack animation, abilities, attack ranges and hitbox size. This may cause you to tunnel vision somewhat when playing them for the first few times, adjusting to their components slowly over time. The first time I played Urgot, I found his control to be bewildering and irritating. Now? It is something I have gotten used to and not generally a problem.

Chogath's hitbox is both a blessing and a curse. It is enormous. Just like your mum.

When it comes down to it though, all human mechanical skill in the moment to moment game play can be based on one's own uncertainty and ability to guess. Whether this be correcting your mouse aim ever so slightly, blocking immediately after dashing, tapping right repeatedly around a corner or getting in range to throw your Ultimate, everything we do concerning mechanical input in games is based on our feedback response with the games output and our desire to make the game state more desirable for ourselves. Often, we don't know what is going to happen, we are merely assessing the visible situation and positioning ourselves in such a way to perform whatever we have in mind most appropriately. This comes in the form of the duration of a keypress, the velocity of a mouse move, the distance of a drawn skillshot and the placement of a cursor. We perform these tasks effortlessly without even thinking, but they are such a crucial and fundamental component of how we play games that they are often disregarded completely in their design. I know this as it is especially the case in the design of game AI.

Basically, I guess this is what I am trying to say: games should focus more on making the mechanical processes required to play them easier for new players. However, this should never, ever be interpreted as making the game easier to play. A game that is somewhat easy to play mechanically will require other areas through which skill can be injected, and if not available, can cause serious problems in terms of player motivations. If anything, it should be seen as the potential for making even more complex control schemes that can be both unique and demanding for players, but developed in such a way that they can adapt to them slowly over time. Then, and only then, will we see humanity pursuing the development of the next chess, instead of consistently simplistic games becoming increasingly playable by everything and everyone.

Including your mum.

Note: Somewhere in here is my usual rant about FPS games and skill. I am sure you can find it.

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