Competitive Multiplayer: Collective Misunderstanding pt.3
Wednesday, September 14, 2011 at 7:26PM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Balance, Checkers, Chess, Competition, Depth & Complexity, Emergence, Interesting Choices, Learning, Motivation, & The Mind, Metagame, Super Smash Brothers
Since writing part one and two of this series, I've come across another inspirational radiolab podcast. As always, the podcast is free. So, you should give it a listen to best understand the article that follows. This time, the title of the episode is "Games." Click the link and listen to 21:50-41:40.
The radiolab team did a particularly elegant job of explaining a very complicate idea. Basically they were able to address the core impact that complexities, emergence, metagames, and interesting choice game design has on actual gameplay including the excitement of spectating. These topics alone each have their own article series on this blog, yet Abumrad and Krulwich were able to effectively explain it all in one go.
To re-illustrate, working up to the highest level of Checkers competition is like having your freedom and variety funneled through a cone (see image below). The more Checkers skill you acquire, in this case knowledge skills, the more your viable options and winning strategies shrink. Because the design of Checkers is so simple (lacking the depth, complexity, and variation of Chess) thre are dominant strategies that are known and played by the masters. Two grandmasters can end their games in a draw almost every time. These players know the game so well that playing is often an exercise in repeating known move sequences as if copying instructions out of "The Book." So, for players who want to win, there's nothing new to think about. Nothing new to try. And little unanticipated challenge. For spectators, there's even less to get excited about.
It gets better.
The shrinking range of creativity, expression, and variety is a fear that many gamers have of competitive gaming in general. Like so many real life fears, this one is born mostly of ignorance. Sure, there are some games that "break" under the immense stress of competitive play where even with community and tournament rules, these games suffer from a narrow possibility cone. However, many games are not like this. The podcast and many gamers feel that to be a good competitive game you cannot be like this. And even when it seems like the posibility cone is shrinking for a game, there's always the hope that the cone will expand again like with Chess.
My advice? Instead of giving up on a game when things start to look samey, one note, repetitive, or uninteresting, fight through it. Trust in the power of emergence and metagame development to change the way the game is played over time. Imagine a counter to the dominant strategies and work to develop them. Or if you don't want to do any of the work, having a little hope goes a long way in shaping your attitude so that you'll more easily recognize and appreciate any positive change when it does come.
The image above illustrates this idea. When you first get into a game, your expectations are at their widest. Before you start learning the specifics of what can be done, anything might be possible. But as you compete and learn the rules, which determine what you can and cannot do, the range of possibilities shrinks gradually. When a game becomes dominated by a few strategies many consider such a game unbalanced, uninteresting, or simply broken. In the diagram above this stage is represented by the point where the two cones touch. There's not a lot of room there. 
As the radiolab podcast makes clear, you have to learn "The Book" before you can comprehend "the novelty." Put another way, you have to learn a game's complexities (rules) thoroughly before you can understand the vast and unique freedom there is within the limitations. The more you know the better you can see the uniquely defined world that opens up. You not only have to study to compete at a game, but you have to study in order to understand and enjoy it the most as a spectator! So it is with all games, sports, and competitions.
I wish I knew this years ago when I had a conversation with a fellow Smash Melee player. This player really enjoyed the type of freedom in Melee that came from wavedashing and L-canceling. Because these features were removed for Brawl, he was upset that movement was more limited. I remember him asking specifically "how are limitations a good thing [in a video game]?" Now, we can see that there's a level of understanding and appreciation that only comes after one pushes all of their expectations and desires through the narrow possibility cone created from a game's rules. After all, rules are inherently restricting. And interplay, a core element in gameplay and interesting choices, is about imposing limitations. Without limitations games wouldn't be interesting and they wouldn't be games.
In part 3 of my series "Interesting Choices: Interesting Gameplay" I presented two views on the topic of when a competitive game gets "good." Some players think a game is only good before everyone learns all the specific rules, strategies, and matchups. Other players think just the opposite. Strangely enough, I don't think the first group appreciates games for what they are. This may seem like a condescending statement, but think about it this way. Who really appreciates a book; the person who looks at the cover and maybe reads a chapter, or the person who reads to the end? This is more than an issue of opinions. A book is a singular artistic effort. Those who do not read it all do not appreciate the book as it represents a single effort. It's only by doing the work and reading every word that you can first experience the book and then appreciate it. The same can be said for players who dislike it when players learn a game for as many of its complexities (specific rule) as they can to develop the metagame. It's only after the cone starts to widen again that you can appreciate the game for exactly what it is; a large set of rules that influences possibilities in a unique way. 
Your pre-conceived expectations will never be as varied, detailed, creative, or as contextually meaningful as the experiences you'll have when you step into the "box" and see the world on the other side.
In part 4, we'll look at actual comments from gamers and try to understand their attitudes and thoughts. 
Article originally appeared on Critical-Gaming Network (
See website for complete article licensing information.