People are not very conscious of how they learn. It's rare to find someone who actively investigates how they learn, and it's even rarer to find someone who can express how they learn in a clear, concise, and cogent manner. Video games are very complex interactive systems that we learn. Even pro players tend not be able to explain the intricate, deep strategies they use let alone more difficult subjects like gameplay dynamics and balance. As I've explained in part 1 of this series, a person's wealth of learning approaches and experiences are applied to video games and academic subjects alike. In the absence of a coach or a teacher that encourages one to develop a variety of playstyles, gamers tend to refine a limited playstyle and represent that style in competition. At this point, we must look at what happens when multiple playstyles are expressed simultaneously.
This is a comical flowchat of a common playstyle using Fox in Melee.
In a lot of games, like many sports, when one player or side is aggressive the other side can be forced into a defensive style. This is an example of the most basic and most common playstyle interplay. Recall that interplay as I use it means to stop or counter a game element/player's moves/options. Most games favor offensive strategies over defensive ones. Even if there's only a slight advantage for the attacker, it's enough to encourage players to press their advantages and attack.
While the offensive/defensive playstyle interplay may be obvious, there's still move interplay between these two playstyles. In some games you can counter an aggressive attack with an aggressive attack. Everything from trading hits in Street Fighter, matching blows in Smash Bros., to colliding missiles in Bangai-O Spirit are good examples of offense on offense interplay. When two players play defensively by both defending, running away, or staying outside of each opponent's range of attack a range of outcomes typically result. The game state becomes a stalemate and one player will switch to an aggressive playstyle. Or the quality of each player's defense will be tested. Make one mistake and the opponent will gain an advantage.
The specialist brings a unique playstyle to a competition and unique interplay possibilities. Becoming an expert in a particular move or strategy can be very limiting and dangerous. On the other hand, specializing can be very focusing and effective no matter what style your opponent uses. Think about it this way. If you master a particularly effective attack in a fighter, that one attack can be used offensively or defensively. So even when your opponent pressures you into playing on the defensive, you can still operate comfortably in your style of choice. On the flip side, if a player specializes in a purely offensive move/strategy and the opponent puts them on the defensive for the majority of the time, then all of the invested specialization may never come into play. Likewise, if your opponent knows more about your specialty than you do (or if they specialize in a move/strategy that counters yours) your entire playstyle can be countered completely.
In some team games, players working as a team can be separated and isolated so that they are forced to play individually (without support or backup). In this way, teamplayers can be greatly influenced to play solo. Likewise, soloist players can be forced to work together with their teammate or risk doing additional harm to their allies. Team battles in the Super Smash Brothers series are great for this kind of playstyle interplay. For example, my brother and I have worked out a highly effective double-teamwork playstyle. When it's just us 2 vs. 1 opponent, we can quickly do a lot of damage and score ringouts. The problem is, the opponent usually has a teammate standing by to make things a 2v2 situation. So, we've developed a range of strategies that turn 2v2 situations into 2v1 situations. One such strategy is to keep one opponent at high damage without killing him/her. This way we can easily hit away that opponent forcing him/her to spend time recovering while we focus on the remaining player. For another example, when I'm the last man fighting on my team versus two other players, I try to force my opponents into close proximity so they have an equal chance of harming each other as they do harming me. By forcing my opponents in this situation, I can stress their team work while resorting to my soloist playstyle.
Another interesting example of playstyle interplay happens when one player chooses to become a learner not of the game but of the opponent. When matches are a "best out of 3+ rounds" sometimes it's advantageous to learn a few critical things about your opponent's playstyle especially when you can't win a round anyway. To counter a learner playstyle, an opponent can adjust their playstyle, but ultimately, any decision that's made is reflective of the opponent. In other words, you can't help but be you. Being conscious of the fact that you're being watched doesn't change your core decision making tendencies. The best thing to do to counter a learner's playstyle is to end the round as quickly as possible.
The interplay between The One "True" Style and Playing to Win playstyles is more subtle than the playstyle interplay discussed above. The key to the one "true" style is having a range of styles, being able to adapt to the situation, and to read the opponent. So, if the opponent forces you into a particular playstyle, that's all a part of the adaptation of the one "true" style. You should be flexible and more than happy to change things up to gain/maintain your advantages. Likewise, playing to win is a state of mind and a willingness to do whatever it takes within the game/tournament rules to win even if that means locking the opponent in an inescapable combo and riding it to victory. If you take away options from an opponent playing to win, they'll simply do whatever else it takes to win. Attitudes and mental resolves cannot be countered through gameplay/player choices.
If it fair that someone can get their entire playstyle countered? Is it interesting to when players play completely safe and defensively an entire match? How much skill should be required for a player to counter one style with another? How do we design a game around a certain type of gameplay without emergent playstyles and optimized strategies turning the game into something. Everything beyond this point is an issue of balance.
As a designer one must consider the following question about playstyles...
- How many playstyles do I want my game to support?
This question may seem simple, but it's not. Assuming you know what kind of game you're making, you should be able to determine the different playstyles players will be able to exhibit. Most competitive games tend not to tolerate griefing for example. Halo 3 gives players the option of booting teammates that have betrayed the team with friendly fire kills. Depending on the server arrangements for PC games, players can be kicked from matches or servers for cheating/griefing. Many console and handheld games now have penalties for players that grief by dropping out of online matches.
There are many different ways to eliminate a playstyle from a game entirely. If the game is a single player game or a 1v1 competition, then you don't have to worry about teamwork playstyles. If your game is a series of simple double blind encounters (Rock Paper Scissors) then you don't have to consider aggressive, defensive, and playing to win playstyles. If you create a game that is very simple and/or is about optimizing your execution (Speed, the card game/Guitar Hero) there might not be enough options and significant player choices to develop any distinguished playstyles.
For the majority of game systems, it's not a matter of completely eliminating specific playstyles from the potential gameplay. Rather, it's about limiting and balancing specific styles against each other. If you think about it, a game system needs to be able to support different playstyles in order to make each style more distinct and meaningful to the player. For example, if the only thing you can do in a game is attack, then all possible player choices are equally aggressive. This design would make the player who loves aggressive playstyles indistinguishable from all other players. In the same way that a diverse or well rounded cast of characters tend to develop better stories (lead/supporting/foil/static/round/guest characters etc.), we typcialy want our games to support a wide range of playstyles so that the resulting matchups clash with a lot of variety.
In part 4, we'll look at how individual design decisions affect the balance of gameplay through extreme playstyles, how different games balance extreme playstyles/strategies, and how I would fix various balance issues in some of my favorite games.