Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Yes it's been ages since my last posting. Sorry.

I was thinking today about user interfaces for games. You know: the HUD, hotkeys, mouse or joystick movements, everything. I'm going to start this article with a couple of definitions and statements and we'll go from there.

Interface: The system through which a player executes any action. So again: mouse clicks, hotkey presses, quarter-circles forward + punch, you name it.

Statement: The interface should never keep a player from executing a valid action. If you want to click your Grunt, you should be able to click your Grunt. If you want to move somewhere, the game should allow you to execute your command. It may not be a good idea, but that's not up for the game to decide.

Statement: Some actions or abilities should require player skill. Micromanagement skill is one of the key traits that separate good players from great players in RTS games. If you want to block your opponent's Archmage from running away, then move the Grunt in there yourself and move him back and forth.

However, it's between these two concepts that we find difficulty. Why can't I just say, "Hey I want to block his Archmage, so do it for me!"? I'm going to bring up two big examples for this article, and I'll try to reason out what the best course of action should be for all of us.

First, let's look at fighting games. I recently read an article by David Sirlin, who talked about all the crazy moves one can do in Street Fighter 4, moves that require amazing physical dexterity and 1/60th of a second timing. He spoke of "link combos" that require a move just barely hitting in time. The tonality I got from the article (and you can read this yourself, read the paragraph that starts with "Ok so what's..."), was that there was no reason to add these highly dexterous requirements to a fighting game. I have great issue with that sentiment, and here's why. So these super-difficult combos will rule the game, point taken. Doing a "link" combo is better than doing a regular one. Well, in Warcraft 3 surrounding a hero with 4 Ghouls without the help of Sleep is better than doing it without. It's pretty fucking hard to do, too. No one complains about how hard micro is.

This sends me to a related topic about about automation. It seems that some people have issue with super-difficult moves. Now, things like combos are discrete. You press a certain process of buttons. In many cases, once you connect with a certain attack it opens up a combo for you. I'm willing to bet that many of these combos are repeated. After Low Jab hits, people are probably going to be using the same combo repeatedly. Taken from the prior link, "So Sakura doing low jab, (link), low fierce, short helicopter kick, (link) low short, ex shoryuken, ultra for 50% will be common." So while Sirlin seems to say "What the hell, why are these moves going to be so difficult?" I am fairly certain that no one would like Low Jab to instantly knock an opponent to half health (of course, no resulting combo afterwards to kill the opponent).

However, he does go to say "Of course some level of this is inherent in... fighting game[s]. It's a question of how far to turn the knob". This is really the key point of the article that I'm writing here. Games should require physical skill to compete in, whether it's micromanagement, combos, anything. "Turning the knob" to and from physical skills and mental prowess within the game is ultimately up to the designers of course, but I want to give you all some examples and maybe even advice.

Barriers to Entry

By requiring physical skill to play a game well, you create a barrier between experienced players and novice players. Until you can learn how to micro your army, you're never going to touch Moon in Warcraft, just like how I'll never touch Daigo in Street Fighter until I learn some combos. Now of course there are other tools like mental skill and strategy that separate players, but I want to bring up a key point here: If a game is deep, then a game is deep. Making it harder to play physically has no effect whatsoever on the quality of strategies, how sharp players' minds need to be, or the types of guessing games that may go on inside their heads.

Physical skill comes in two kinds. One of these is discrete. Discrete skill refers to things like combos in fighting games and build orders or building placement in RTS games(sometimes). These are things that are merely learned. There's no real learning curve, there's no rate of improvement. You either know it or you don't. Some of this can be attributed to mental skill: Do you know a build order? Do you know what the combo even is? But again, if we look at Link Combos, we see there is a demanding physical quality to it. You can't make the combo better by being even more dextrous, you either pass or fail. The combo works or it doesn't, and human randomness aside, you either got it or you ain't. This says nothing about the mental agility required to play high-level Street Fighter. I'm simply saying there is a discrete, binary gate of entry into fighting games. Check your bags at the door if you don't know how to combo.

Now, there are non-discrete physical skills as well. This is where "turning the knob" really has influence. Skills like micro- and macromanagement in RTS games and aim in FPS games are not discrete at all. No one surrounds heroes every time and no one has 100% accuracy with the AWP. It's a fact of life. The better players are the ones that hit their shots and surround their opponents' heroes, but a team with slightly worse aim or a player with slightly worse micro can still win if your strategies are better. You're just not going to win at Street Fighter.

Again, these skills say nothing about mental abilities whatsoever. I'm merely making a distinction between two types of physical skill. And to be honest, I don't care how good your strats are, if you can only attack move, I'm going to roll you.

So the question is, how much do we want to focus our games on physical skill? Discrete skills as I described are really not a good way of differentiating skill. It's simply a barrier to competition: Learn it or get out. But with non-discrete skills like micro- and macromanagement people can beat each other either mentally or physically. The choice is up to you on how to favor the game.