Perhaps you've experienced this before. One day you come across other gamers that play that game you know and love. Let's call this game Know&Love. Since Know&Love was released you've played it if not every day then surely several times a week. You know this game like the back of your hand. You've beaten every level and played every silly way you could think of. You've played against your friends and/or family and proved that you were the best around. So when you finally sit down to play against these stranger gamers you expected similar results. In the end, not only do you lose, but you lose badly. You couldn't even land a good blow, pop a balloon, get more than a few lucky kills, or knock the opponent off the stage. Thinking back on your beat down on your way home you realize that you don't even know how you got beaten so badly. You realize that your opponents were playing on another level. Know&Love looked and sounded the same, but the way they played was unlike anything you've ever experience.
That's you and your favorite game.
Some have described their favorite competitive multiplayer video games as being quick to learn yet taking years to master. Others pride their game of choice for being deep or intricate. None of these qualities are what give a game the potential to have that next-level of play. Neither are they what make a game a candidate of a healthy tournament scene. In fact, communities are probably the most important factor for a game's tournament popularity and lastability. This is more of Scav's area of expertise. Visit wavedash.net for his thoughts on communities and grass roots gaming. For this article, I'll focus on the design elements and features that turn a simple game into a system that's virtually impossible to master...ie. a system that can be taken to that next-level.
Part of the issue lies in our perception. If we don't think a game system is capable of rich interactivity and strategies, then it's that much more surprising when we witness that next-level play. Most likely, the reason we can develop such myopic ideas of how a game can be played or, what's even more brash, how a game should be played is because game design and video game systems are really complicated. Just thinking about how rules and individual features can affect the interactive possibilities between hundreds of factors in thousands of combinations is beyond most "hardcore" gamers let alone more casual individuals. What most can grasp is the relatively simple concept of the skill ceiling.
It's easy to understand generally where the skill ceiling is in the sport of Basketball. For every missed shot, foul, turn over, or bad pass, just imagine a player not messing up. Shooting 100% is the gaol. Though no player comes close to having stats like this, understanding that it's possible is a way of understanding the skill ceiling. This in turn shapes our perception of the ideal player.
But the reality is, not only does this ideal player not exist, but there's a whole rule book of complexities and additional factors that players have to deal with every game. On a basic level, basketball is all about putting a ball in a hoop. But there are hundreds of rules in place to shape the sport around the somewhat arbitrary concept of "basketball." Though no player is perfect, how a player adapts to their abilities, lack of abilities, and the many rules of the game opens the floor to a much richer concept of an ideal player. In other words, top level basketball players can't and don't expect to shoot 100%. Instead they find ways to use their skills to make the most out of every play. Sometimes this means drawing a foul. Other times it means passing or shooting.
It's the same with video games. Never missing doesn't quite describe some of the best Halo players. By understanding how video games are made (game design) we can see exactly what features allow pro players to compete on a level beyond the obvious.
For the record, next-level of play doesn't necessarily include hidden mechanics or glitches. The way I defined next-level play partially takes into account one's perception of how a game is played based on playing and understanding a game. Any developer can hide mechanics from the player or fail to find powerful glitches. The point is understanding that next-level play is "hidden" right in from out our eyes not because a developer decides to be cryptic, but because we fail to fully understand the emergent complexities of a game system.
From here, we're looking at elements or features of game design that layer together to create interactive gameplay systems. This layering together of a few simple rules and/or properties to create countless possibilities is emergence. Some people use the word to describe game breaking, developer "unintended," "discovered" abilities. While these abilities certainly quality as emergent actions, emergence more accurately refers to every action and possibility a game can create. Only the strictest of old school adventure games and puzzle games don't feature a modicum of emergence (example: Z-Rox).
The following is a list of individual features or game design layers that increase the potential for next-level play.
- In many ways the dexterity skill ceiling of a game is limited by the controller or input system. Since the beginning of video games, we've used buttons. Buttons are simple in that they're either on or off. Pressed or released. From buttons, any other type of control method tends to add greater ranges of control. The greater the range of control, the more subtleties there can be. When interacting with a more complex system/controller, people tend to simplify their perception of it. This is why motion controls have so much next-level potential and also why they're so misunderstood.
- From the Wiimote to the Balance Board to Move and Kinect, motion controls significantly expand the potential for a higher dexterity skill ceiling across all of its facets. The 3D motion control can test the speed of countless motions in any direction. Power can be measured. Harmony becomes even more complex because motions involve more of one's body. Efficiency and Stamina become more important as well. Going far beyond the capacity of buttons, it's easy to see why many underestimate motion controls.
- Remember the 4 qualities of mechanics design? Individual. Intuitive. Direct. And dynamic. Because mechanics are the bridge between the player (the real part of this model) and the game (the virtual part) looking very closely at mechanics involves understanding how the control design and the game design come together. This is why half of the qualities listed above deal with controller design (individual and direct).
- The individuality (or mapping) of a mechanic to a single button, stick, or motion is important for creating a clear and simple relationship between the action the player expects to do and the result. If the A button only JUMPs and nothing else, the player can expect the character to JUMP or do nothing whenever the A button is pressed. As soon as a mechanic loses its individuality, things become more complex. There are countless ways for a game to put multiple actions on a single button. Taps, holds, double taps, repeated taps, taps on specific timing, player states, etc. Understanding these complexities only gives you more power to execute and play on a higher level.
- A gameplay dynamic is a system in which one action has a range of influences on gameplay elements, features, and/or challenges. Depending on the type and number of dynamics, a game's gameplay can be very deep and/or complex. Overlooking any of the resulting effects of a dynamic action sets yourself up for an inaccurate perception of a game. Such an inaccurate perception can obscure next-level play from one's awareness.
- In Advance Wars, every move not only changes the position of a unit (the dynamic of space) but it consumes fuel. Every attack or counter attack a unit makes consumes ammo. In a fog of war battle or during a rain storm, vision becomes limited. Since you can only attack targets you can see, having limited vision is harder to deal with. Unless you keep all of these factors in mind you can easily find yourself out of ammo, out of fuel, or out of range at a key moment in battle. The best players keep all of these dynamics in mind.
- The beginning of gaming featured games with simple mechanics and relatively simple timing challenges. In Pong, players only have to move their paddles into position to hit a slow moving ball. In Donkey Kong, Mario's JUMP mechanic isn't very variable. Mario can only JUMP a set distance and time horizontally, and vertically. Simple, right?
- With more complex games on more powerful systems, timing becomes a lot more complicated. Hitboxes are more accurate than ever, which is essential technology for allowing a wide variety of attacks and dodges that act like how they look (form fits function, remember?). Every single attack in Street Fighter or Smash Brothers has many parts to its timing. For a given attack there are start up frames (the animation of the character before the attack becomes dangerous), attack frames (the dangerous part), and recovery frames (the animation moving back to a neutral position). Understanding these 3 parts of a mechanic allows you to build strategies around each. For example...
- Moves with very little start up frames can be used to interrupt opponent's attacks. If you can't good reflexes this can be highly effective.
- Moves with a lot of active frames are dangerous for a long time which allows players to throw these attacks out early aiming for the move to connect with the middle or tail end of the active frames. This concept is called throwing out meaty attacks.
- Moves with a lot of recovery frames leave you vulnerable if you miss. But if you understand exactly how vulnerable you are after using such a move, you can execute it while staying just beyond the range the opponent can actually counter attack you. This strategy greatly increases your ability to bait your opponent into falling for a trap. This is the essence of folding moves together.
- The greater the range of timings in a game (∑T), the more potential there is for subtle and advanced uses of mechanics. Many of my next-level Kirby strategies in Melee involve using the subtle animations of my attacks to dodge counter attacks.
- Video games are often programmed in states. If Mario ducks, that's a state. If Mario gets hurt, that small period of time when he's invincible is also a state. Running. Falling through the air. Big Mario. Every change in the player character is changes a state. Sometimes these states are player controlled (the direct result of using mechanics), and other times states are determined by level or enemy elements. Regardless, state design increases the potential for the next-level of play by adding additional complexities to a game. Like in my article about the third hand, states can be understood and manipulated to create all kinds of advanced techniques.
- In Street Fighter 4, pros use a technique called option select. Basically, because the characters have different states that interpret the same set of inputs as different moves, players have figured out how to input two sets of moves simultaneously in such a way that the game picks the best option for the situation and executes. If this technique sounds a bit like programming, that's because it's very similar.
- For another example, in Smash Melee and Brawl, players can dash back and forth rapidly. For a split second after changing directions, you can actually see that character stands up right before dashing in the opposite direction. For this fraction of a second, the game puts the character in a standing state. With really sharp timing and fast fingers, you can actually input a standing attack in this small window of opportunity. The result is more horizontal mobility using moves that one could otherwise only do from a stationary position.
- The concept of "playing to win" is all about understanding the concept of value scale. The rules of the game create the value scale or the relative effectiveness an action has toward achieving a goal. Most multiplayer games only have one goal which makes the value scale fairly simple. If the number of kills determine the winner after a set period of time, then a weapon/attack's ability to do damage determines how valuable it is. Sticking with this example, we also want to prevent from being attacked. So if a move is fairly powerful but really risky, then its value goes down somewhat. Playing to the value scale is playing to win, which may be very different from how you think a game is or should be played.
- While it isn't exactly a gameplay element or feature, the value scale is what puts the risk-reward balance into perspective. Smart players will do everything they can do execute strategies with as little risk and as much reward as possible. This trend includes using techniques like hit-confirming.
If you're thinking that most action games have one or more of the above gameplay elements/features to support next-level play, then you're absolutely correct. Even if a game isn't very popular or doesn't have any kind of multiplayer whatsoever, the potential to do crazy advanced things is there as long as it has the above elements. The more elements, the more potential. If you don't believe me, just type in "speed run" with the phrase "tool assisted" along with your favorite video game into youtube and see what happens. If there are any videos, what you see should amaze you.
In the near future I'll put together posts and videos of next-level play from games that many may underestimate. Once your eyes are open, there's no more living in the dark.