In part 1 of this series we established that engaging with gameplay challenges is the best way to get the most out of gameplay experiences. We do this in two primary ways, by learning more about the game and then by executing. To enjoy engaging with gameplay we generally stay within our personal sweet spot of difficulty (flow zone). As we improve, the sweet spot shifts, and it doesn't stop shifting until we reach the level of mastery. Regardless of the options, modes, features, or challenges games provide, we always have the option to strive for mastery. Even in the most simple games where the challenge is very straightforward there's a lot to execution and mastery.
I need to make it clear that nearly everything I say about execution applies to real-time games and activities. Most turn-based games only stress learning by minimizing all timing, dexterity, and reflex stressing challenges while focusing entirely on stressing knowledge skills. Most complex, real-time games have a nice balance between learning and execution. Players generally progress by learning a new element or rule, practicing a bit, and then executing while folding the new in with the old. And finally, simple, straightforward real-time games focus almost entirely on execution. For example the DKART games my brother and I made were specifically designed to focus on one facet of skill per game. For the dexterity, timing, and reflex games we minimize any kind of learning or memorization players could do, and we kept things simple to focus entirely on execution. The idea was, we wanted to measure what you're made of, not what you could be made of if we gave you more time to learn the rules.
Upkeep and Breakdown
Execution is the manifestation of your current skills, not the skills you hope to acquire. I've written a lot about skill on this blog, but I've mostly done so in a theoretical way by measuring and considering our maximum levels of skill. In practice, our skills breakdown. Whether from physical fatigue or mental fatigue when put to the test the execution of our skill generally loses effectiveness over time. Our muscles tire and cramp. Our adaptation stops. Our reflexes slow and become dull. And our timing lags.
Our skills break down under continual stress. It's easy to experience this with activities of high stress. Just try sprinting as long as you can or playing Dragon Force on Guitar Hero. You'll quickly find your limits doing activities like this. While executing high stress activities the execution of our skills quickly breaks down; so quickly that it's hard for us to understand the intricate dynamics at work inside of us. Put another way, we go so fast from feeling great to being completely ineffectual that we don't get a chance to chance to learn the story of how we fell apart.
It's through the continual stress of simple low skill challenges, or upkeep, that the breakdown of our skills is drawn out. The slower the breakdown, the easier we can observe and understand the parts and dynamics of the execution process. In other words, when we slowly lose effectiveness by executing relatively easy activities over time we get a much clearer idea of our limitations including how the breakdown of one facet of our skills affects how other facets compensate and how the overall execution is affected.
When most facets of our skills break down (dexterity, knowledge, timing, or reflex), that's when tier 2 adaptation skills can be most stressed. As I described in part 1, the human machine is a dynamic, complex execution device. One of the more beautiful aspects of execution in general is that it's an end not a means. In other words, execution is all about getting the job done, not about how you get the job done. Even as our skills break down there are many ways to continue executing well. As we make adjustments, compensate, and adapt we become intimately aware of how we work. The breakdown of skill due to challenges of continual execution is a lot like the hiccups of the mind that I call suckcess. The biggest difference being, suckcess deals completely with mental/knowledge skills, while the break down of skill deals with the rest of the skill spectrum.
The following is an example of how my basketball skills breakdown:
At the beginning of my regular basketball practice I'm full of energy and ready to shoot some free throws. My technique is as follows: balance ball in right hand, bend legs, steady with left hand, flex legs, bend right elbow forward, and follow through. It feels great when all of the parts fire on cue and in proper order. When I get in rhythm, my shots are very accurate (whether they fall into the net or otherwise). Shooting free throws is a very straightforward exercise. Yet, as I continue to shoot, my consistency begins to breakdown in unpredictable ways.
After I throw an air ball, I know my skills have significantly broken down. I reevaluate my technique: balance ball in right hand? Good. Bend legs that are tired; my balance is off. Steady with the left hand; I didn't know that my leg balance changes how my left hand works. Flex legs; yup, very tired. Bend elbows; I can feel stiffness from when I injured my elbows many years ago in high school. And follow through; my wrist tries to compensate because my entire balance is off. Just to execute a consistent free throw, I have to understand how my skills break down and how to adapt. Sometimes recovering from the break down means shooting a higher arc. Sometimes it means changing my follow through. Sometimes it means taking a break.
It's the same situation when playing videos games. Though many gamers minimize the physicality of playing video games, there is a lot more to controller design and controller interactivity than most realize. Refining my free throws, Chopin etudes, or my Pit in Super Smash Brothers Brawl all require an acute awareness of my mind and body. In many ways, because of the breakdown that occurs from the continuous execution of simple challenges, difficulty of challenges changes in ways that deep, complex games cannot (or at least not very clearly). And besides difficulty considerations, bodily awareness is a valuable experience in itself.
Tunnel from Rhythm Heaven
Rhythm Heaven (DS) is an great example of a game filled with simple games that allow players to experience a very drawn out breakdown. See rhythm Rally, Lockstep, Space Soccer, Tunnel (see above), and more. It doesn't get much more simple than this. Yet you'll find that the longer you have to work the harder it is to maintain a flawless level of execution.
Toward the end of my series An Examination of Skill, I detailed what happens to the skill spectrum of a game when the overall game speed is increased or decreased. As counter intuitive as it may seem, increasing the game speed reduces the amount of skill players an exert. Now, shrinking the skill spectrum in this way isn't inherently a bad thing. Though players can use less skill, they also experience a break down of their skills. Think of increasing game speed as a way of speeding up the break down. Whether the game is like Wario Ware in which micro games provide the simple, continuous challenge or modes like DigiDrive's overdrive mode, it's clear that there are more interesting ways to challenge players and stress skill than complex, deep games can present.
Technique vs Strategy
Dr. George Deforest, my former piano instructor, gave me a secret to playing the piano. When I once asked if I could play a particularly difficult note with a finger other than what the sheet music suggested, Dr. Deforest told me as long as I hit the right note with the right rhythm and the right tone I could play the piano with my nose for all he cared. Put simply, the point of playing the piano is to make music using the instrument itself. As long as what comes out of the piano is music how I get the job done is on me. It's the same with video games. Hit the buttons however you like, just make sure to pull off your moves and win.
Controller design is a major component of mechanics design which is how players control video games. So really, it would be foolish to overlook this area of design when talking about gameplay and challenge. Though some would rather forget that they're manipulating a controller sitting in front of a TV, their PCs, or with their handhelds, I think that this kind of immersion comes from becoming familiar with controls and personalizing your method. If you value gameplay for gameplay, you should value making informed decisions about challenges. Mechanics and therefore controller design is a part of what makes gameplay engaging, interactive, and challenging. So ignoring it only restricts yourself from considering a range of possible solutions, which can make games necessarily frustrating.
Being a part of a game's system of limitations and rules, controller limitations are part of the squeeze. This means controls alone can be a legitimate challenge for players to overcome. Once you understand the basics of the controls, you can begin to observe yourself, improve your execution, and create techniques. Like solving a puzzle or overcoming any other kind of challenge, devising ways to execute video game actions is a unique and valuable experience. I suspect that most gamers don't think about controls in this way. They want controller standards for just about every game they play so the don't have to learn controls or think about them. I'm of the opposite stance. I see controls as a way for designers to create unique challenges and experiences just like they do with any other element of a game.
In general, I divide video games techniques into two categories; input techniques and gameplay techniques. Often times these two types can apply to the same technique. Gameplay techniques are mostly specific sequences of gameplay actions or actions executed in a specific context. There's a technique in Advance Wars that I call mech stepping (because I don't know the official name). By using an APC transfer unit, it's possible to move mech units 3 spaces per turn instead of 2 per turn. Being a turn-based game, this technique takes virtually no real-time execution skills. Players simply move the pieces around at their leisure to execute. The entire technique deals with specific gameplay situations.
Input techniques mainly involve methods and tricks to improve the effectiveness of manipulating controllers. You may hit a button a specific way, hold the controller in a different way, or whatever else. The biggest difference between techniques and strategies (or tactics) is that techniques are not plans of action meant to gain any particular kind of advantage. Techniques are about the 'how' of execution, not the 'why.' Yes, techniques can be worked into strategies to gain advantages in gameplay. But the techniques themselves can be pretty neutral.
I've frequency talked about the techniques that I've created or adopted on this blog. Remember Puji and seismic scouting? Remember my secret no-damage-KO technique the Marth Trick? Remember the channel technique I created for Flash Memory? Out of the many techniques I've created, some are very simple, some have names, and some I don't even think about. But all are important.
When I play games I look forward to creating controller techniques. With a strong background in piano, violin, athletics, and art I'm used to creating techniques to improve my performance as I learn. I used to think that devising a technique was something special, only done when I encountered a particularly unique challenge. I thought that shifting up on the violin into 2nd, 3rd, or 5th position was only done when necessary. I thought that crossing over and under hands when playing piano was only for special songs specifically designed for hand crossing. Now my view is the opposite.
Now I feel that techniques can and should be created for any situation if it improves execution. We should only stick with the the default or "normal" method of execution if it works well. Why? As complex and unique and special as challenges are, there can be just as many complex, unique, and special techniques to embrace and overcome them. No controller technique is a perfect fit for everyone. Because our minds and our bodies are very personal (the result of countless unique experiences), our execution should also be personalized with our techniques.
In part 3 we'll touch on how complex ideas can arise from simple systems then wrap things up.