Friday, February 29, 2008

Different Types of Gaming Skills and Their Competitive Values

Games teach. We learn from games and we obtain new skills from games; some skills being more useful than others in our everyday lives. Games can have educational value that ameliorates one's mind, teach social skills through interaction with online players or smart A.I. characters, and be artistically and philosophically engaging to alter one's view of the world. These types of skills, however, are discussion for another time. Here, I will try to categorize the different types of competitive skills that can be gained from playing video games and list them in order of value, defined as how useful the skill is in competitive games and how much of it is intrinsically carried into another game.

1) Strategy
Strategic skills involve overcoming mental challenges, making decisions based on situations on hand, and outsmarting the opponent with mind-games. This is the most important and useful gaming skill. It is a mental skill that you can take with you into other games and stays with you until a very old age when you lose control of your cognitive abilities. Games built entirely around strategy, with no need for the other types of skills, happen to be the best games and longest surviving.

One such example is Chess, which takes about five minutes to understand how the game works and learn how the different pieces move, but takes a lifetime to master its strategic depth. Chess is a game of perfect information, stripping away luck from the equation, and is a turn-based board game, removing the need for physical mastery. Being a game of pure thinking and strategic planning, we find that it caters to players of all ages, from elementary school kids to old men sitting at parks. Other similar games are Chinese Chess, Go, Checkers, and Othello. There are also some great strategy games with imperfect information such as Mahjong, Poker, Bridge, Spades, Hearts, Big Two, Scrabble, and Stratego. Without perfect information, there is an element of luck thrown into the mix, but as long as players have complete control over their actions (actions during a turn are not based on a dice roll or a random card draw) and there is a fixed pool of resources (144 tiles in Mahjong, 52 cards in a deck, 100 tiles in Scrabble), then strategy is not compromised by random luck.

What does this have to do with video games? Competitive games that put primary focus on strategic skills tend to have longer lifespans. One such example is the Street Fighter 2 series, whose simplicity is its strongest asset. Being a fighting game by nature, it is played in real-time and involves a lot of twitch-based combat, but with its relatively simple system and tight controls, its barrier of entry is far smaller than more recent fighting games. As much as I love them, games such as Marvel vs. Capcom 2 and Guilty Gear XX Accent Core are too execution heavy, thus the best player is the one who practices their combos the most, not the one who has the better mind-games. In the Street Fighter 2 series, however, the game is not too fast-paced, has little effects clutter, and has a simple universal system, therefore putting emphasis on spacing and zoning, reading the opponent's moves, and tricking the opponent into a defenseless position. The newest iteration of the game, entitled Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo: HD Remix, will put further emphasis on the strategic elements of the game by making execution easier, and I absolutely cannot wait for it.

Another popular game with focus on strategy is Counter-Strike. Of course, it's a first-person shooter and it involves twitch-based gameplay, but it's not as important as what weapons you take into combat and tactical teamwork. And a more recent example of a great strategy game is Defense of the Ancients, which removes all the things that made real-time strategy games too convoluted and twitchy (e.g. resource gathering, structure building, and micromanagement) and focuses on the core mechanics such as teamwork, flanking, and character match-ups.

Strategic skills are the most important skill to master. Most gaming tournaments center around strategy-based games and you can expect these games to have a long lifespan, so all your time invested in them is not immediately wasted. As most games are based on the same elementary concepts, an understanding of controlling space and pressuring the opponent will help you win many games.

2) Twitch
Whereas strategy represents the mental elements of a game, twitch represents the physical elements. Twitch skill is based on execution of complicated controller commands and quick reactions to circumstances. Although the aforementioned games are primarily focused on strategy, all three contain twitch elements such as Street Fighter 2's execution of combos and complicated moves (e.g. Zangief's Final Atomic Buster, Guile's Double Somersault), Counter-Strike's shootouts and bunny-hopping, and Defense of the Ancient's click-combat and operation of its user-interface. In fact, there are genres based entirely around twitch gameplay such as shoot-em-ups, music and rhythm games, and most block-dropping puzzle games. These are the games that test your reflexes and improve your hand-eye coordination.

You can improve your strategic skill by watching others play and talking to expert gamers, but twitch is a skill that can only be improved through your own practice. Having an expert Guitar Hero player tell you how to effectively perform hammer-ons or play the fifth button does not help; you have to actually try it for yourself over and over again until you get the hang of it. Practicing your twitch skills does help you when you make the jump to other games. Since all first-person shooters involve pointing an aiming reticule over an enemy model, learning how to do it in one game will give you an automatic advantage when you play another shooter. Likewise, learning how to perform quarter-circles and charges in one 2D fighting game will help you jump into another 2D fighter with a low barrier of entry.

Ultimately, strategy has more overall value than twitch skills. You lose your physical capabilities much sooner than your mental capabilities, and since twitch is a physical skill, you find it quite difficult to master twitch games before the age of 10 and past the age of 30. You'll see strategy-focused games played by people of all ages, but twitch games are mainly played by the young adult crowd who not only has the physical proficiency to master the game, but also has the time to invest in practicing the game.

3) Knowledge
Knowledge is another mental skill, but it is different than strategy. Strategy is based on the how, knowledge is based on the what. Strategy involves making informed decisions and outsmarting the opponent, but knowledge simply involves knowing more than the opponent. For example, knowing the map in a first-person shooter definitely gives the player the advantage over someone who's playing the map for the very first time. Knowledge can be gained simply by playing the game for a while and obtaining observations from other players; it does not require as much analyzing as it does to obtain strategy or as much practicing as it does to obtain twitch skills. Whereas strategy and twitch have essentially no limit, your knowledge of a game caps out when you find out everything the game as to offer.

Knowledge is an undeniably significant skill to have, but unfortunately, it is game-specific. Knowledge of the Valhalla map in Halo 3 is only useful in the context of Halo 3; it is no longer a useful skill when you're playing Call of Duty 4. Generally, knowledge is reset with every new game you play. The only time when that is not true is when you play another game of the same series and familiar characters, weapons, maps, or system make it into the sequel. However, with every new character, weapon, or map that is added to the new game, you must rethink and alter your knowledge.

4) Willpower/Time
Willpower is a bit of a mental skill and a bit of a physical skill, but mostly, it is a time-based skill. This skill applies mostly to role-playing games. Willpower is the skill to drudge through long amounts of simple and unsophisticated gameplay to level up your character or find a new item. It is the skill to endure, or maybe even enjoy, a grindfest or a collectathon. And it is arguably not a skill at all as heard through the phrase, "It's a test of will, not a test of skill."

Role-playing games give the least competitive value for amount of time put in. The time spent in willpower-based games do not reflect the skill level of the player, but the skill level of the virtual character. The character will grow in statistics and learn new moves, but the player's skill level remains stagnant throughout, growing not much further than what he started out with when first picking up the game. Though there is some strategy and some twitch skills to be gained in role-playing games, the emphasis is mostly on willpower, time, and knowledge of the game. Unfortunately, when jumping to a completely new game, all that is reset and lost in the process. Willpower and time are skills that are not carried over to new games and thus, has the least value.

Despite being a useless skill, games based around willpower manage to be incredibly popular. Perhaps, fans of RPGs don't like exercising their minds and their bodies when playing games or they just don't care about competitive gameplay. RPGs are designed for a different type of gamer, someone who enjoys aesthetics and narrative over competition, someone who plays games for relaxation or social endeavors, someone who likes exploring or the simple act of achieving.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

User-Generated Content

If 2007 was the year of the peripheral (Wiimote and its various add-ons, Guitar Hero and Rock Band instruments, Scene It? and Buzz! The Mega Quiz's game show buzzer controllers, and The Eye of Judgment's PlayStation Eye and trading cards), then 2008 is the year of the user-generated content. More and more do we see video game companies adopting a Wikipedia or Youtube model, buiding the tools that allow users to create content for the game.

There are three main levels of entry in these user-creation tools. At high levels, the users must have advanced programming skills, understanding of game design, knowledge of computer languages, and a means to get media (sprites, models, graphics, sounds, music). High-level user-creation is just one step below actual game-making; the difference being that high level user-creators don't have to build their games from scratch. They are given a basis to start with, that being a middleware engine, modding tools, or a very competent programming environment. For example, GarageGame's Torque Engine is a powerful and free middleware engine that has built-in 3D graphics, physics, terrain, and collision detection engines, freeing the creator from many technical complications and allowing them to focus more on the game design. In the modding world, we have Valve's Half-Life 2 and Epic Game's Unreal Tournament 3, which is not unlike using a middleware engine. Finally, you may argue that a multimedia environment like Adobe's Flash is a high level user-creation tool with its easy to use animation and tweening tools.

These tools have existed for a while, so what will make them gain popularity this year? The answer is free support and professional distribution channels from the big game companies. Valve announced that they're releasing Steamworks for free and Havok is releasing their popular physics engine for free to PC game developers. Meanwhile, Microsoft has the X-Box Live Arcade, which is a great distribution channel for small game developers, and now they have the XNA Community Club, which is an even better channel for independent developers. Finally, Sony has the PlayStation Network and Nintendo has WiiWare.

Despite better support and better distribution, those high level tools have huge learning curves, requiring advanced technical and artistic ability in order to successfully build a game. Thankfully, we are also seeing a higher support for mid-level user-creation, which doesn't require any knowledge of programming or any artistic skills. Mid-level user-creation uses in-game media such as graphics and sounds, and employs a user-friendly, what-you-see-is-what-you-get interface. Examples include map-making and scenario designing in real-time strategy games or games designed specifically for this such as RPG Maker and Fighter Maker. We're seeing a lot more of this in games such as Super Smash Bros. Brawl and LittleBigPlanet's stage builder, Blast Works's game builder, Second Life's item creation, and of course, Spore's creature creation. All these tools give players a place for their creative output and at the same time, extends the life of the game since it remains interesting and fresh as long as new content is being created. Users want creative outlets, whether it to be make a name for themselves in the community or to create situations that they would enjoy playing in, and they will happily do what is normally the developers' jobs. Meanwhile, the developers can go on and work on their next game and the whole ordeal is a win-win situation.

Last but not least is low level user-creation, which unlike mid-level, does not require a separate mode in order to create. The creation is wholy integrated into the game itself and users can create by simply playing the game. One such example of this is the previously-blogged-about Google Image Labeler. Every time players match a word for a specific image, that keyword becomes an off-limit word that the next team cannot use for the same image. Thus, the more an image is played, the more off-limit words it obtains, and the harder and more interesting the game becomes. What we have here is a very easy and simple game at start, but a difficult and exciting game in its later life.

Mid-level and low level user-generated content undoubtedly extends a game's life, but mid-level is somewhat of a niche market. Most players would give it a try, but only some would be dedicated in creating content and only a few of those would be creating good content. How much more powerful would it be if more games took a low-level approach?

How about a MMORPG where players can shape the world? The world becomes more beautiful and has more trees if the players perform good deeds, or it can become engulfed in darkness and riddled with monsters if players are evil. Maps and obstacles can change, enemies and enemy placements can change, behavior of non-playable characters can change, and so on. What if you can kill a ruler of a kingdom, only to have him replaced by a Draconian dictator, thus changing the game's story? What if monsters evolved over time based on their survival statistics?

Of course, all these suggestions are difficult to program, but it'll be interesting to see more games where we can play the creator and the audience at the same time, where we can design by gameplay.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Google Image Labeler: Letting the Community Do the Work For You

I did my Master's Thesis on ludological design -- the incorporation and application of video game elements into other media -- so it pleases me whenever I find similarly inspired work. I'm about a year and half late to this, but I recently discovered Google Image Labeler. The concept is deceptively simple and ingeniously effective.

When you sign in to play the game, you're automatically paired up with an anonymous partner. Over the span of two minutes, random images appear on screen and each player types in associating keywords. The object of the game is to come up with a matching word with your partner, thereby rewarding points to both players and bringing up another image. Meanwhile, on the side of the screen is a list of off-limit words that players cannot use, similar to the idea of Taboo. If you haven't figured it out yet, the game wasn't designed for pure entertainment; there is an ulterior motive...

You're doing work for Google.

The images are tagged with every keyword you match. And common matches end up being the off-limit words, thus preventing narrow results and permitting a wider range of tags. The Image Labeler is a great example of emergent design, creating a system for which the community produces the results that were once monotonously and unreliably inputted by users. And most importantly... it is fun.

You earn points for every matching word and your points are accumulated over time. At the end of each game, your score is compared to the all-time individual high scores, immediately giving you the incentive to try to reach the top. Constant display of high scores enforces the competitive nature of gamers and the short length of each game makes it so addicting. I frequently found myself saying, "I'll just do another one. It's only two more minutes." Before I knew it, I had played five more games. Google thrives on our competitiveness; the more games we play and the better we get at it, the better their image search becomes.

As gamers have learned from X-Box Live achievement points, a simple number representing their virtual accomplishments is something of value and is held in high regard by other members of the gaming community. It's amazing how something as arbitrary as an accumulative number, that originally didn't have any impact on the real world, can be so significant. Perhaps, gamers are so conditioned to equate worth to numerical figures as is common practice in role-playing games. Perhaps, it was always the hope that these virtual points would be transferable to utilitarian rewards. Whatever the reason is, the big companies didn't want to disappoint the ladder audience. Microsoft eventually turned that false hope into a reality, putting up items that players can spend their points on, and it's not a stretch to think that Google will go the same route with their Image Enabler points.

Increasing that self-representative number is fun, but the simple act of matching words is also incredibly engaging. Although the meta-game of getting the highest score is entirely competitive, the game itself relies solely on teamwork. In order to win, you have to think like your teammate. Since your teammate is randomly chosen and remains anonymous, this can be quite hard for the first image you both receive. But overcoming that first obstacle, you learn a little bit about your partner... he notices shapes first, she is very color-oriented, he associates abstract images of people to specific famous personalities, she prefers to point out verbs before nouns, he makes variations on the off-limit words, and so on. It's satisfying to get into your teammate's head, to form an ESP-like bond to someone you've never communicated with, to interact in a synergistic relationship... all within two-minutes.

By combining image tagging with a ludological structure, Google's created a system that produces intuitive and more reliable results. Individual tagging, on the other hand, is ultimately biased on the part of the user and can be easily abused. Not to mention that the Image Labeler is designed to encourage users to come back for more, iteratively improving the process along the way. Everyone else, catch up! I'm looking at you Flickr.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Here comes a new challenger!

Hello and welcome to Theory Fighter, a blog dedicated to intellectual thoughts about the video game medium and the industry. Here, I will discuss the potential of the medium as an art form, how games change the way we think about the world, what other media can learn from video games, and some of my personal thoughts on good game design. Games are a young medium, ripe for academic and philosophical discourse, and I intend to contribute my two cents for what it's worth (hint: a whole two cents).

Now, a little background about myself. I've studied in the ways of the computer programmer, so I tend to have more of a technical bias in my observations and preferences. But it doesn't mean I value technology over artistry. I am also a part-time digital media artist, so I have a certain understanding and respect for aesthetic design, storytelling, and experimentation. I immerse myself in entertainment media every day -- video games, comics, toys, books, movies, television, music, the web -- I often find myself overwhelmed by my thoughts and I started this blog as an outlet for my maniacal theories. So thanks for stopping by and stay tuned for more.