Practical application presents yet another problem for our examination of interesting choices in terms of informed decisions. Take a competitive multiplayer game that's very emergent and very complex like the fighting game Super Smash Brothers Brawl. It takes minutes to test out all the buttons. Hours to experiment with all the characters. And a day or so to figure out which levels and characters fit you best. Even under tournament rules that bans all items and most levels, can we say that after a few days of work a player will know all the rules/moves of Brawl? It's hard to say.
Sure, it's not hard for such a player to be familiar with the moves of his/her character, the opponent character, and even the unique features of a stage. We all know that after hearing "Falcon" a "PUNCH!" will surely follow. This much is obvious. However there's more to moves in Smash than this. Every move in Smash has 20+ different properties, or individual variables that define how it interacts in the game world. Many of these properties are not binary (either it has it or it doesn't). So, to learn a move completely does one have to memorize a spreadsheet of numerical data? Is this problem like the problem I outlined in my article Dynamic Clarification where I argue that it's unnecessary to know exactly how a game is programmed, which includes rules, moves, and their properties, to analyze its dynamics? Well, we're not talking about a mode of critique here. Knowledge is power, and competition wouldn't work well without it. The more specific knowledge we can gain about a game (even down to how it's programmed) the better.
I say, even if a player can't express their knowledge in discrete numerical values, as long as they know the rules well enough to play effectively, that's all we can ask for. In other words, I don't need to know that the first hit of Pit's 3-hit up-tilt attack hits on frame 2 only on a hitbox the size of a small dot at his feet and does 3 damage. I just need to know how close I need to move Pit so that this first hit is in range and perhaps that it's faster than 99% of all attacks in the game. If I learn the few attacks that are faster and can beat it out, I'll have sufficient knowledge of how to effective use the up-tilt. But is sufficient knowledge enough to make an informed decision and therefore an interesting choice? Perhaps, but before we can answer these questions, we have to consider how the developing metagame complicates a game's knowledge base.
My series titled Metagame Meditations examines what a metagame is in great detail and part 10 of my series Appraising the Art of Combat defines the term. Loosely defined, a game's metagame includes all devised techniques, behavior trends, and cheats/exploits/glitches. Basically, after the game is printed and shipped, anything about the game that can be learned, whether functionally useful or not, is part of its metagame. Even when there are no new rules or moves added to the game, new combinations and applications of moves count as novel discoveries. Some new techniques are universal to all characters in the game like glide tossing or skid canceling shield grab in Brawl. These techniques usually get specific names too. So the big question is, how does emergent or developed knowledge factor in to our analysis of interesting choices?
The core idea we're unpacking here is relative knowledge. Using my more strict definition of metagame, the evolution of strategies and trends that mainly revolve around counters and interplay barriers, if you do not keep up with the metagame of a competitive multiplayer game you are almost guaranteed lose to someone who does. Surely discovered counters and interplay barriers directly affect the attractiveness, riskiness, and the value scale of potentially all choices one can make. Just about every move in Brawl has changed in its usefulness and function in some way over the last 3 years. Some moves became less viable, useless, and then all of a sudden more powerful than ever like Sonic's Spin Dash/Charge (or Sonic's whole character for that matter). Other moves started off over powered, and now are more balance because everyone has gotten used to it and found their own counters like Metaknights Mach Tornado.
Do we factor undiscovered techniques into what it takes to make an informed decision? No. Just because a technique is possible in the game doesn't mean anyone knows about it or can execute it in a match. Furthermore, some techniques are character specific. So if your opponent doesn't know about a technique, can't pull it off, or doesn't play the right character you don't need to know about it to make an informed decision. This is what I mean by relative knowledge: a knowledge base that's dependent on the match conditions and a game's metagame.
As I've explained in the article linked to above, the web-like development of a sufficiently complex game's metagame is impossible to predict. Because games like Brawl have more emergent possibilities than can ever be explored even by millions of players putting in hundreds of hours each, we can draw conclusions about interesting choices:
- The knowledge base of a game changes according to the metagame. This affects multiplayer and single player games alike. The knowledge base affects what constitutes an informed decision, dominant strategies, and the attractiveness of options.
- Though the knowledge base may be in a constant state of flux, it's possible to look at the interesting choices of a specific developmental period. Narrowing one's scope to a region or smaller will limited the scope of the metagame that applies to the cases to be analyzed.
- One does not need to have knowledge that has no effect on the the match at hand to make an informed decision.
- Though a game's knowledge base can be very intricate and technical, it is sufficient for one only to have a practical grasp on the information. The specific stats don't matter. As long as you understand the relative strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities for the match up at hand.
When does a competitive game "get good?"
There are two competing ideas out there concerning when a competitive game "gets good." Some feel that a competitive game is only good when everyone doesn't know all of the rules/complexities yet. Because knowledge is power in complex multiplayer games, the metagames of such games tend to vary wildly at first. This is because when a game is released players rush to find new, powerful tricks and techniques that are most effective on unknowing opponents (i.e. everyone else). Everyone just dives right in exploring whatever move, tactic, character, or strategy they can find.Since there is so much to learn at first, there's a good chance that your opponents will not know about the crazy technique you happened to discover.
This unpredictable, rapid coverage and expansion of game knowledge can be exciting and equally frustrating. After all, a new technique can seem vastly over powered to you if you have a limited understanding of the game. You might think that a move is one-sided, unbalanced, or broken when you first encounter it only to realize it's not so good later. It's like losing to ROCK over and over in Rock Paper Scissors all because you didn't quite realize that PAPER counters ROCK. If only you knew! If only someone told you! Some think that this big-bang-style rapid expansion of knowledge (or design-space exploration) is the most interesting part of any multiplayer experience. In this stage of a game's metagame (which can last years) anything can happen. There are surprises everywhere. Everything is new.
Some feel just the opposite claiming the real competition only starts when the rapid acquisition and expansion of the knowledge base stabilizes somewhat. These gamers might be less thrilled from losing to a technique they've never seen before. These gamers might be less comfortable with the idea that they're entering a competition without "knowing all the rules" so to speak. These gamers love strategy, so informed decisions are a must. They want surprises in execution not surprises in their fundamental understanding of the game rules. Since making interesting choices depends on being well informed, these players prefer waiting until the metagame stabilizes.
In part 4 we'll investigate exactly how complex a game must be before it is sufficient for interesting choices emerge in the gameplay. We're making up an fictional-thought-experiment RPG mechanic by mechanic.