Handicaps are not a very hot topic in the gaming industry. We hear a lot about single player games/campaigns. Though reviewers typically don't have enough time to sufficiently cover multiplayer games such modes and features get decent mention. Still, hardly anyone talks about well designed handicap features in multiplayer games. This is completely understandable. When we pick up that controller to compete most of us want the conditions to be as fair as possible. With online competition, no body cares if you suck. Eventually, matchmaking programs will hopefully separate the pros from the noobs. With local play we tend to play with friends making us more likely to be on a similar skill level. If that doesn't work, we can always restrain ourselves and go easy on them.
Such a mentality is problematic because it in many ways ignores the the core meaningful interaction of multiplayer games in the first place. The reason why we love playing against people instead of computers is because all of the decisions and actions made in a game reflect the player. By that logic, if one competes against an opponent's skills, then we have a new way of thinking about game mechanics and balance which includes handicaps.
Think about it this way, winning isn't everything. Though the goal of competition is to win, getting to know the opponent is an important part. In fact, I'd go as far to say that completely shutting down an opponent in competition is still a legitimate way of interacting with them. In other words, exerting your control over the game to crush an opponent is part of the game (see aggressive playstyles here). Because of situations like this, anyone who wonders how their skills stack up against an opponent can have an extremely difficult job lining up the data.
In an action game, one skill type from a player can be used to negate another type of skill from the opponent. Or a player can use one skill to augment the effectiveness of another skill type. In this way the dynamics and interplay of skills can be as intricate as the core game system. So what if we could level out the playing field between two players by targeting and equalizing (as much as possible) a specific type of skill? This is an innovative way to think about handicaps that we can also apply to game mechanics.
Let's look at Planet Puzzle League for the Nintendo DS. This game is a remake of Panel de Pon that was first released on the SNES. I played the Americanized version (Tetris Attack) as a kid, a bit of it on the N64/GBC in the form of Pokemon Puzzle League, and now I own the GBA and DS incarnation. It's my favorite puzzle game. Being a huge puzzle game fan and competitor, let's just say that I'm very good at the game.
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In a nutshell, with most puzzle games we can assume that the most important skill to have is knowledge. Understanding the combo/chaining system and having a catalogue of formations in your head is highly valuable. Next, there's a significant action element to the gameplay. By eliminating blocks, others will be suspended and fall in different ways. Catching the falling blocks in time by lining up similarly colored blocks is key in making "skill chains" (as aptly coined by the game creators). So, timing is the next most important skill. Because the field is frequently being filled with randomly arranged blocks, adaptation is useful. And finally, dexterity and reflex can be used to pull off amazing moves under the strictest of situations. However, it's generally better to rely on careful planning rather than blazing reflexes thus maintaining a balance between real time and puzzle (strategy/knowledge) gameplay.
Now we have Matt. Matt is a gamer who has never played any version of Planet Puzzle League. One day, I played against him in some local wifi versus matches. So how did it turn out? After many back to back matches, Matt actually won a few games with the handicap. Surprisingly, the unique handicap features of Planet Puzzle League allowed us to reduce the effectiveness my substantial and overpowering knowledge skill advantage and to increase the amount of adaptation needed to execute at a high level of play. In other words, I had to give it my all to compete with a beginner. It all came down to some clever item-handicap design.
Planet Puzzle League handicap system gives players the option to compete against each other with different play conditions/rules. The most significant handicap option involves turning items on for the weaker player and off for the stronger player. Essentially, the random item blocks give the weaker player field advantages or harasses the opponent's field. There were times when I had a clear set up, and then all of my blocks were rearranged. Or just after sending over a large block of garbage to Matt expecting to win the game, he would reflect it right back on me.
Here's the list of items from the wikipedia entry on Planet Puzzle League with additional notes from me in bold.
- Fever blocks, indicated by a flame symbol, cause all the player's clears during a fixed period of time to be chained together. Lowers the amount of skill (mostly knowledge and timing) required to make chains.
- Tri-Color blocks, indicated by a symbol of three squares, cause the variety of colored blocks in a player's playfield to be reduced to three colors for a fixed amount of time: red, blue, and green. Increases the likelihood of accidental chains. Appeals to lucky players.
- Reflect blocks, indicated by a symbol of an upward-pointing arrow with a bar on top, cause a player's garbage to be sent to the opponent. Turns the table on the battle. Forces the opponent to fight against their own power.
- Twitch blocks, indicated by a symbol of circular arrows, cause the opponent's playing field to shake, changing the blocks' colors constantly. Forces the opponent to adapt.
- Paralyze blocks, indicated by jagged line symbol, cause a row of blocks in an opponent's playfield to become inaccessible for moves for a fixed period of time. Forces the opponent to adapt.
- Fog blocks, indicated by an "X" symbol, change some of an opponent's blocks into un-clearable gray blocks for a fixed period of time. Forces the opponent to adapt.
The unique thing about having to adapt is that beginners and pro experience it similarly. The more experience/knowledge a seasoned player has, the harder it may be for him/her to adapt. On the other hand, the beginning player is doing nothing but adapt to the game system that's new. By reducing the effectiveness of knowledge and increasing the effectiveness of adaptation, my matches with Matt were more of a battle of who could stay on their toes and outplay the other. It was only on this level playing field that we could more clearly compare our skills and have a blast at the same time.