Pressing The Advantage
In all strategy games (ie. games that are designed around skill and interplay rather than optimization) there are ways for players to win and ways for players to lose. Knowing the rules and finding the methods to win is key. Putting yourself in situations where you have more going for you than against you and working to maintaining that situation is a general concept called pressing the advantage.
There are many ways to press one's advantage. Here are few examples.
- In a game of rates and attrition (RTSs, RPGs) or games with significant "slippery slopes," one action that gains a small advantage can be enough to ripple forward in time and determine the overall victory. With such games, after slowing down or interrupting the opponents progress pressing the advantage can be as simple as maintaining steady progress on your part. In some games, once you get far enough behind, you'll never catch back up.
- Another way to press your advantage is knowing where your stronger skills/abilities are and playing to them. If you have fast reflexes in an FPS, you can proceed boldly through the map while still being able to beat opponents to the draw. If you're good at adapting in an RTS, you can try and scout your opponents forces so you can adjust your plans accordingly. If you have a deep knowledge of a fighter, you can attack with moves/tactics/strategies that require the opponent to have a equally deep knowledge to counter you effectively.
- With games that have dynamic decay, you can wait or force your opponent to use up their resources so that they will be less effective at countering your moves. If you can make your opponent run out of ammo in Halo or Advance Wars, the situation can change significantly in your favor.
In games with core interplay loops such as fighters (attack-block-grab), one interesting way to press your advantage is to put your opponent into situations where they have less and less options especially if removing these options takes out entire points/types of options from the core interplay loop(s). In a fighting game, at the beginning of the match, each players can perform a wide range of moves like attacks, blocks, jumps, taunts, etc. Some of these moves are more effective in some situations than others. As long as you don't know which move your opponent will do, you'll have to guess/gamble/double blind your way into an advantageous position.
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Knocking down the opponent in Street Fighter is a great opportunity to press your advantage. When the opponent is on the ground, they can't attack or do anything to harm you. As they're getting up, the opponent is invincible right up until the point (frame) where they're standing up. Depending on a few factors like what character they are and what position you're in, you can effectively force the opponent into guessing between a few options (block left, right, or attempt a revesal attack). By timing a cross-up you can reamin fairly safe from harm while the opponent must fight just to regain their footing. Functionally, it's like playing RPS when your opponent can only throw Rock and Paper. Of course, Sirlin explains this very well in the video and the slipper slope article linked to above.
The Evolution Of Interplay
Now we've laid enough ground work to detail how interplay evolves from mechanics to gambits. It's important to note that the following interplay structures are created out of function. When a player seeks victory through the game rules, at the very least, they much use the game's mechanics. And it is mechanics that make up the base or foundation of all interactivity and strategies.
- MECHANICS: All levels of strategies are composed of actions/mechanics. It is on this level that the core interplay loops described in part 4 and part 5 of this series are most evident.
- TACTICS: Tactics are general conceptual ideas meant to gain some kind of advantage. Because the concepts are so general, executing a tactic doesn't requires any strict use of mechanics. Instead, performing a tactic is very flexible. Some examples include... be aggressive. Play defensively. Spam projectiles. Don't get grabbed. Don't let them get the snipe. etc.
- STRATEGY: A strategy is a specific plan of action with the purpose of creating an advantage over the opponent. Strategies can very short consisting of a few actions, or they can encompass large strings of maneuvers. The key difference between a strategy and a tactic is the specifics. Instead of a general idea like "don't get grabbed," a strategy include specifics of the encounter including factors like positioning, skill, character matchups, and specific mechanics. For example, the Ice Climbers (ICs) in Super Smash Brothers Melee and Brawl have a terribly overpowered ability to coordinate both of their efforts to lock an opponent in an infinite kill combo (see here and here and here). The tactic when fighting against the Ice Climbers is "don't get grabbed" but the strategies would be more like...
- When the ICs approach don't shield. Jump and attack while retreating to keep your distance, or attack in such a way that allows you to continue jumping.
- With Pit, use the arrows to break up the synchronization between the two climbers. Also use a short hop Angle Ring attack to approach so that any incoming Ice Shot or Blizzard attacks will be reflected. If the ICs shield the Angle Ring, their shields will be consumed by the sustainable multi hitting attack.
- Always aim for both Climbers. Even when they're synchronized, the CPU Climber is always slightly behind the actions of the player controlled Climber. This gives you a way to desync their actions because an attack that's barely shielded by the player can still hit the CPU climber. Also if both climbers shield the attack, it will recover from shield stun later than the player character.
- GAMBIT: From a neutral state where both players have access to all of their moves/option according to the core interplay system, you're goal is to gain advantages using mechanics, tactics, and probably some kind of strategy. When the move(s) of a strategy are risky maneuvers, such strategies are called gambits. Generally, the riskier the gambit, the bigger advantage the player will gain if successful. Players can risk time, resources, field control, health, points, or any number of elements. When gambits are planned well enough, the opponent must anticipate and/or guess what gambit you're going to use to be able to counter it successfully. For these reasons, a well designed gambit is functionally like a double blind encounter, which can bring the gameplay full circle back to the same kinds of win-lose-draw dynamics of the core interplay system. In this way, a game's depth (interplay/interactivity) can evolve into a new sort of game (interplay system) that's built upon evolved gameplay.
When gambits break down or aren't executed well, players must adapt and fall back to their strategies. If the situation changes so that one's specific strategies don't apply, tactics become the next viable approach. And if tactics break down, gameplay can always revert back to the simple interactions of its mechanics. Understanding how games are played on a highly competitive level requires understanding how the gameplay and strategies can evolve and devolve stressing different facets of the core design in the process.
A Matrix is a specific kind of approach or string of actions that's made up of strategies, gambits, and/or slippery slopes that continually reduces the opponent's viable options until all of the opponent's choices are either completely locked out or can be countered without the aggressor needing to enter double blind encounters. Matrices don't exist in games like Rock Paper Scissors, but they are very common in games with core designs rooted in the dynamics of space and time. The concept of a checkmate is one of the best known matrices. The end game of chess is all about locking out all possible moves against a single enemy piece. It doesn't matter if any of your other pieces are threatened in the process. Because the King is the most important piece, attacking and protecting it takes priority. Whether you eliminate all the possible spaces the opponent's King can move, or the opponent's own pieces get in the way of their King's escape, checkmates are all about locking out the 8 squares surrounding the king. Read more about checkmates here.
Not all matrices in Chess are about toppling the opponent's king. A complete matrix is one that works to achieve a significant victory. Many of the examples of Chess tactics presented here can be beginning of complete matrices. If any of these tactics/strategies were used as a means to put the opponent's king into checkmate, the matrix would be complete. Another way to think about matrices is when a player thinks several moves into the future to ensure that any possible counter move (most likely a reactionary counter) by the opponent makes things worse and worse for them.
Because Chess is a grid based game that's all about moving around the board, its matrices are easy to visualize and understand (see image above). With the pieces arranged, you can essentially count squares and project how far any piece can move in one turn to figure out if there is a matrix at work and how effective it is.
The matrices in Advance Wars (AW) are very similar to Chess because of the grid based movement/space design. Because of the complexities in the core design of AW like the damage chart, understanding the effective of its matrices is inherently more difficult. Instead of moving one piece per turn, you can move all your pieces/units each turn in AW. Instead of each piece being able to capture any other piece in one move, each individual unit in AW damages each other unit by a different amount (see damage chart linked to above). Instead of being able to move the most important piece (the king), the HQ in Advance Wars is stationary and must be defended from capture at all cost. Despite these stark core design differences, it's possible to create intricate blocks, pins, forks, etc. in Advance Wars simply due the the dynamics of space, the limitation of movement, and the interplay of turn based time.
Building matrices is all about understanding the interplay systems at work and the limitations of the core dynamics (space/time). The Super Smash Brothers fighting game series can support matrices based on the dynamics of 2D side scrolling space (ie. gravity), the commitment lag/animation of moves, knock downs (which are similar to knock downs in Street Fighter), and various other environmental and nuanced factors.
I've covered all the information I felt was necessary to fully grasp the concept of interplay in all its many facets. Coming up are a series of detailed examples that will reinforce all of the concepts we've learned so far in this series.