Balancing Multiplayer Games, Part 4: Intuition

Here's the wicked problem of game balance: you definitely do not know how to solve your game, but you must  somehow balance it.

By solving, I mean you cannot determine how to play your game optimally. In this article on solvability, I covered what playing optimally actually means. For games with a pure solution, it means a set of instructions that's the best way to play. Knowing those instructions means there are no more decisions or strategy in your game. For games with a mixed solution, there still could be strategy, but you'd have a far much more interesting game if no one knew how to play optimally.

If you can solve your game, your players can definitely solve it. If you can’t solve your game, your players might still solve it. In any case, we know you can’t solve it because that means you  didn't make an interesting enough game in the first place.

How in the world can you balance something when it’s impossible to know the best ways of playing it? If you aren’t worried about this, then you don’t understand how distressing the problem is. The techniques I discussed in the previous three articles will help, but they remind me of what art director Larry Ahern said when he was preparing to draw all the backgrounds in The Curse of Monkey Island. He said that by following the rules of composition from classical painting, he believed he could get results that were "not terrible." But, he said, going from not terrible to great was something he hoped he had within him, and that it's not exactly possible to get there by following someone else's cookbook of rules.

Picking The Top Players

Let’s back up to an easier problem. Imagine I gave you a room full of players of a certain game and I asked you to determine who the best player is, and who is second best. How would you do it? Answer: you would have them all play each other.

What if I don’t let anyone play the game, though? I’ll let you interview the players or have them submit written answers to your questions about how they will play the game and what they know about the game. Can you determine the best players from this method? I bet you will do only slightly better than monkeys throwing darts to determine the answer. In all my experience running and competing in tournaments, I can say with some authority that there is little correlation between ability to win and ability to explain yourself.

Why are the best players not necessarily able to reveal themselves as best through interviews or speaking? I claim there are two reasons:

1) Spoken and written answers have extremely narrow bandwidth.
2) It’s impossible to access many of our own skills with conscious thought.

Both of these ideas have to do with the concept of the mental iceberg.

The Mental Iceberg

Imagine an iceberg that represents your total knowledge, skill, and ability at something, for example in playing a certain competitive game. The small part of the iceberg above the waterline is what you have direct conscious access to; it’s what you can explain. The gigantic underbelly of the iceberg is the part you do not have direct access to, and yet it accounts for far more of your overall skill than the exposed tip. When we interview players or ask them for written answers about how they might play, we are only accessing the tip. If one player’s iceberg has a larger tip (they tell a better story about how they will win), it’s entirely possible that their hidden below-water iceberg is much smaller than another player’s, and that’s really what matters.

The above-water part of the iceberg represents what you can explain or consciously understand. The huge underside represents your vast unconscious.

Narrow bandwidth

The amount of information you can convey in a written or spoken answer is actually very small compared the storehouse of knowledge and decisions rules you have stored in your head. Also, spoken and written language encourage linear thinking, while your actual decision-making might be a more complex weighting of many different interconnected factors. In a written answer, a player might say “move A beats move B, so I will concentrate on using move A in this match.” But really it might depend on many factors: the timing of move A, the distancing, the relative hit points of the characters, the mental state of the opponent, and so on. Players cannot communicate these nuances in an explanation the way they can enact them during actual gameplay.

No Direct Access to Parts of Our Own Minds

You don't know most of what's going on in your own brain or body. This concept might be hard to swallow at first, but it should be incredibly obvious if you think about it for a moment. You are not conscious of how your digestive system works. You do not have direct access to how your cells make and break the bonds of ATP and ADP to give your body energy. When you see a frisbee travel across the sky, you are not aware that your eye moves in a particular pattern of jerky movement called saccades that are common in all humans (you believe that you smoothly follow the moving object).

One study estimates that the human brain takes in about 11,000,000 pieces of information per second through the five senses, yet the most liberal estimates say that we can fit at most 40 pieces of information in conscious memory. There is A LOT going on behind the scenes, and we do not have conscious access to it, even though we are still able to make decisions that leverage all that information. (Wilson, p.24.)

Blindsight

The medical condition of blindsight is a particularly telling example. Blindsight is blindness that results from having damage to a certain part of your visual cortex. There are actually two different neural pathways for vision, and people with blindsight have only one of these pathways blocked. The result is that they are blind, meaning specifically that they don’t consciously experience seeing. Even though they claim to see black, they can still make decisions based on eyesight. In one experiment with a blindsight subject named DB, experimenters showed him a circle with either vertical or horizontal black and white stripes. Even though he can’t see so he has no idea whehter the stripes are horizontal or vertical, and sometimes become agitated when asked to guess, his “guesses” were correct between 90 and 95 percent of the time. In other words, people with blindsight can perceive the world more accurately than their conscious minds can explain. (Blackthorne, p.263.)

Instant Decisions

Another clue to this concept lies in decisions that we make extremely quickly. Consciousness does not coalesce instantly; it takes somewhere between 0.3 to 0.5 seconds to form. I know that that sentence is highly controversial amongst brain researchers, but I think it’s generally safe to say in times shorter than that, we have not yet formed enough of an awareness about what’s happening to be conscious of it. And yet, experiments show that we make decisions based on outside stimulus faster than this. For example, when people are asked to grab wooden rods as they light up a certain color, and the experimenter cleverly lights up one rod, then as you are reaching for it, darkens that rod and lights up a different one, he can measure when your hand made the course correction to go for the newly-lit rod. The course correction occurs almost immediately, much faster than 0.3 seconds, and yet the subjects believe they course correct only at the last moment, after 0.5 seconds. In fact, they don't even consciously percieve that the lights on the rods changed until after they made the course correction! They are making decisions before they are conscious of what is going on.

Tennis is more real-world example of this. Tennis pros can serve the ball at 130mph, and the distance between baselines is 78 feet. That means it takes 0.41 seconds for the ball to reach the opponent. New York Times writer David Foster Wallace said:

The upshot is that pro tennis involves intervals of time too brief for deliberate action. Temporally, we’re more in the operative range of reflexes, purely physical reactions that bypass conscious thought. And yet an effective return of serve depends on a large set of decisions and physical adjustments that are a whole lot more involved and intentional than blinking, jumping when startled, etc.
(New York Times.)

 

Tennis pro Roger Federer has explained in interviews that he doesn’t like to be called a genius at the game, because he doesn’t think during the incredible moments when he returns balls few other players can. He acts before he is conscious of the situation by leveraging his unconscious skills.

Heuristics We Use But Can't Explain

Baseball gives us another important example. How do fielders catch fly balls? It seems like a very complex math problem with variables for speed, trajectory, gravity, friction from air resistance, wind influence, etc. Should fielders run as quickly as they can to the general location where the ball will land, then make adjustments as they solve these equations somehow?

No. The best way to catch a fly ball is to use the gaze heuristic, as described in the book Gut Instincts. The method is to look at the ball, start running, and adjust your running speed so that the angle of your gaze remains constant. You will then reach the ball just as it lands, and you’ll be in the right place. Experimenters found that the best professional baseball players use this method (and so do dogs), but that most of the players don’t know that they use it, and are unable to explain any method they use to catch fly balls. (Gigerenzer, p.10.)

This example shows that it’s very possible for the correct answer to be hidden in your mental iceberg’s underbelly, but it’s not necessarily a representative example. I chose it on purpose because the underlying decision process can be simply described, which allows me to describe it to you. But what if they underlying decision process relies on a complex weighting of variables that isn’t easy to describe? This is another clue that explanations of how to solve complex problems are just tips of the iceberg, and not necessarily accurate.

Before we get back to solving our mind-bending task of balancing a game that we can’t possibly know how to play optimally, I’d like us to look at two cases outside of games where experts solved very difficult problems. The different methods they used are applicable our problem, and to solving any other highly complex problem.

The Case of the Greek Statue

From an example in the book Blink, the Getty Museum of California was considering purchasing a 2,600-year-old Greek statue for almost $10 million. To determine if it was a fake, the museum had its lawyers investigate the paper trail of the statue’s ownership and whereabouts over the last several decades and had a geologist named Margolis

...analyze the material composition of the statue. The geologist extracted a 1cm by 2cm sample from the statue analyzed it using an electron microscope, electron microprobe, mass spectrometry, X-ray diffraction, and X-ray fluorescence. The statue was made of dolomite marble from the island of Thasos, Margolis concluded, and the surface of the statue was covered by a thin layer of calcite -- which was significant, Margolis told the Getty, because dolomite can turn into calcite only over the course of hundreds, if not thousands, of years.


After 14 months of analysis by the lawyers and scientists, the Getty was ready to buy the statue. And then the trouble started. When the Getty was nearing the unveiling of the statue, a few art experts saw it and each of them had an immediate reaction that something was wrong. They didn’t know what, but they thought it was a fake.

One of those experts was Thomas Hoving, the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. When Hoving saw the statue, the first word that popped into his head was “fresh,” which he thought was an odd word to describe a statue that’s thousands of years old.

 Thomas Hoving

Thomas Hoving

The Getty was worried, so they shipped the statue to Athens where they invited art experts to a symposium to look at the statue. Most of them said it was fake, too. “It’s the fingernails” or “it’s the hands” or “statues don’t come out of the ground looking quite like that,” people said. They didn’t know just why, but they knew. Then the Getty’s lawyers discovered that some of the statue’s ownership documents had been faked. The geologist (who was so proud of his examination that he wrote an article about it in Scientific American) discovered that it was possible to convert dolomite to calcite in just a few months using potato mold.

How did Thomas Hoving know something instantly that the lawyers and scientists could not discover after 14 months of investigation? He knew because he had an enormous mental iceberg of knowledge and expertise in this exact area. He dug up statues himself in Sicily. He also said:

In my second year working at the Met, I had the good luck of having this European curator come over and go through virtually everything with me. We spent evening after evening taking things out of cases and putting them on the table. We were down in the storerooms. There were thousands of things. I mean, we were there every night until ten o’clock, and it wasn’t just a routine glance. It was really poring and poring and poring over things.


The lawyers and scientists had a large “iceberg tip” in this case. They had lots of explanations why the statues were real. But if there’s anyone in the world who has a tiny iceberg underbelly when it comes to knowledge about Greek statues, it’s laywers and scientists. Hoving’s iceberg tip was small (he just had a feeling), yet his iceberg underside was enormous. (Gladwell, pgs.3-11,184.)

Can you imagine trying to detect fake statues by asking Hoving to give you a theory of fake statue detection? What if his theory left out lots of things he unknowingly uses to solve the problem? What if his theory is actually wrong, and doesn’t reflect his methods at all (because he doesn’t know them himself)? That’s the inherent problem with requiring that any expert synthesize a theory of his own expertise.

The way to solve a complex problem is to develop an enormous iceberg underside. Is that just saying that you need “experience,” though? Experience is kind of a dirty word to me. George Bush has “experience” as a president and with foreign affairs. Do you want him running the country (or anything else)? Meanwhile Lincoln had hardly any experience. Experience is only as good as the person who has it, and even besides that, we usually use completely the wrong scale to measure experience.

If you have the experience of “shipping 10 games,” for example, that’s great but it doesn’t have anything to do with the particular type of experience--the particular iceberg of knowledge--that is involved with balancing a complex asymmetric game. Before we try to develop this iceberg, let’s look at one more example.

The Case of the Space Shuttle Disaster

Imagine that your problem is that you must determine how and why the Space Shuttle Challenger crashed. You are on the investigative committee, looking for this answer. What is the best way to solve this problem? Is it to be an extreme expert in aerospace engineering? Is it to be an expert at investigating disasters? The answer is to first live the life of Richard Feynman, then solve the problem.

I think Feynman is one of the most brilliant people who ever lived, and he demonstrated his ability to solve complex problems in many fields outside of his own field of physics. Feynman was not an engineer, but the shuttle problem required an engineering analysis. He was a fish out of water on the investigative committee, and had no experience doing anything like that. What he did have experience doing was analyzing problems in general. Taking in vast amounts of information, organizing it in his head, figuring out what mattered and what didn’t.

 Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman

Feynman took nothing at face value, ignored the rules of the committee, questioned everyone he could, ignored authority figures and the politics of the investigation, and instead focused getting real information. His very first interview was a marathon session with the engineers who designed the shuttle’s rockets. They had the iceberg of knowledge he needed and he knew how to get at least a piece of it out of their heads and into his own. By ignoring illusions like who had important titles or who supposedly knew anything and instead focusing on who actually had the relevant icebergs of knoweldge, Feynman—and no one else on the commission—discovered that the real problem with the shuttle was lack of resilience of the rubber O-rings during cold weather. (Feynman, pgs.113-153.)

If you are going to solve a complex problem, the two best ways are to be like Hoving or to be like Feynman. When I worked on Street Fighter, I was like Hoving. I have a mountain of knowledge about that particular game, so my expert opinion, even if it expresses itself as just a feeling, is worth a lot. On other games I worked on such as Kongai and Yomi, I was more like Feynman. I know how to solve balance problems in general, but there are playtesters who have bigger icebergs of knowledge about how to play the game at an expert level than I do, so I question them, watch them, and rely on them.

Developing the Iceberg

How do you actually get the iceberg of knowledge in the realm of balancing competitive games? Ideally, you want the Feynman-type of ability that can be applied to many types of problems, not just a very narrow domain of one game.

The problem with developing this type of knowledge is time. If we are instead trying to become expert players (rather than expert game balancers), we have access to a very fast feedback loop. Play the game against people better than us, see what worked and didn’t, adjust, play again. A game of Street Fighter takes only a couple minutes, and even an RTS game takes less than 1 hour. But creating a game and seeing how its balance turns out takes years. It’s a very slow feedback loop, and extremely few people get to even participate in it directly.

I think that there is a way to gain the necessary knowledge though. Here are the games I studied:

1) Street Fighter. I'm knowledgeable about more than 20 versions of this game.
2) Virtua Fighter. It says version 5 on the box of the latest one, but really, there have been at least 15 versions of this game if you look closely.
3) Guilty Gear. I know about 8 versions of this game.
4) Magic: The Gathering. This game has changed (with new sets of cards) about 3 times per year for over 10 years. I followed it for several years.
5) World of Warcraft. I played that game for two years before it was released and I couldn’t even guess the number of mini-releases over that time. Maybe 50 or 100.

That is A LOT of data about how changes to a game’s balance out. You can study what the exact changes are from one version of a game to the next, then learn how those changes actually affected the game’s balance and how they players perceived the changes. I actually count those as two separate things, and on Street Fighter I had two separate main advisors: one who knew the most about how a change would affect the game system itself, and another who knew the most about how players would perceive changes.

You have to put in real, effortful study on following games like the ones I listed above, though. Just being along for the ride doesn’t necessarily get you much. Also, experience working at a game company is almost a detriment here, because game companies I’ve worked at don’t spend any time looking at things like “exactly why did Virtua Fighter change this move’s recovery to 8 frames?” Instead, the focus is on actually implementing and shipping games.

I also think that you can’t really fake this. There is no way I could have accumulated the knowledge that I have if my motivation was to be better at my career. My motivation is that I am actually interested in things like this. Thomas Hoving was actually interested in art history. You have to live an authentic life in your chosen area of interest to develop true, deep knowledge of it.

Garcia vs. Sirlin (Analysis vs. Intuition)

In Street Fighter, there is no possible way to create a "balancing algorithm" that will tell you if Chun Li's walking speed should be faster. How good is faster walking speed compared to damage on her fierce punch, compared to priority of her ducking medium kick, etc? You could do a year of math on that and still be more wrong about it than my guess in two seconds.

I was very aware of this when I designed Kongai, and I tried to make it as difficult as possible to compare the relative value of moves because of their varied effects. I wanted valuation (the ability of players to intuitiely know the relative value of moves in specific situations) and yomi (the ability of players to know the mind of the opponent) to be the two main skills in the game. And then I encountered garcia1000, a Kongai player who came from the poker community. While my goal as a designer is to facilitate valuation and yomi, garcia's goal as a player is to play optimally without needing to make any judgment calls on those things at all. He want's to compute the odds and solve the game. You could say that he's my worst nightmare, but he is work is also fascinating.

Garcia started by creating several endgame problems in Kongai. He chose very specific situations, Character A vs. Character B, all other characters are dead, life totals a certain amount, fighting range set to far, item cards given, etc. He would give very specific situations (which were much simpler because there are fewer chioces during the endgame), and then invite other testers to work out the solution for optimal play. Each specific situation took dozens of pages of forum posts to settle. They would also show amusing things such as optimal play giving a 3% edge over the more obvious plays, in one case. It was also amusing that the math reequired to solve these endgame situations was far more complicated than the math I used to set all the tuning variables. (Because I mostly used intution....)

What you have to keep in perspective though, is how limited these endgame solutions are. You could know the solution to dozens of them and you wouldn't have solved even 0.00001% of the game. The number of possible game states is very large indeed, and each of these endgame problems that took dozens of pages of posts to figure out solved only ONE gamestate. If I had used rigorous math to solve Kongai during development, I could have been working on it for 100 years.

Trusting Intuition

If you have this iceberg of knowledge, or if you’re like Feynman who can rely on the icebergs of others, you should still know two things about maximizing the value of intuitions. Intuition by experts is better at solving complex problems than analysis, but:

1) The intuitive expert will be less sure of their answers, while incompetent people will be very sure of their (wrong) answers.
2) Having to explain yourself diminishes your ability to draw on your intuition in the first place.

This is too large of a topic to go into depth on here, so I’ll give only a short summary. There’s a wonderful study on incompetence that shows that people who are incompetent at a task (logic, humor, grammar, etc.) grossly overestimate their own ability at the task and are unable to detect expert performance in other people who actually are skilled at the task. The reason is that the very knowledge they lack to do the task is the same knowledge they need to evaluate themselves and others.

The result is that you will definitely have to deal with the loud complaints of incompetent people who are quite sure of themselves, and who might even have a well-developed tip-of-the-iceberg of reasoning, but no underside to their iceberg at all. I suggest somehow gaining enough authority that your vague feeling on a balance issue is able to trump their loud complaints. You might even try explaining why that is best for the game.

Several studies show that explaining yourself wrecks your intuition. If you see a person’s face, then must identify that person later in a lineup, you will do much better if you do NOT have to explain the face in detail beforehand. Your explanation is imperfect because the bandwidth of words is so narrow, yet your knowledge of the face is nuanced. The story you create about the face overwrites your actual knowledge and makes you perform worse in the lineup test. Other studies show that requring an explanation of thought process makes test subjects less able to come up with creative solutions for problems.

While balancing Street Fighter, I had the luxury of not having to really explain myself to anyone, and that was a great advantage. Note that I happily explained everything after the fact, but I’m talking about in the heat of development. If I wanted to try a balance idea, and I wasn’t exactly sure why I wanted to try it, I could. I did not need to convene a meeting and lay out a logical plan that people voted on. I could just do it, and test it.

There was a brief period of disaster where a new producer tried to track every single task I planned to do in the balancing process. I was reluctant to submit any list of future changes because every day, the landscape changed. Tomorrow I might learn how to implement something that I thought before was impossible to implement. The next day I might learn that a recent change removed the need for some other future change, based on playtest results. Every day, the thing I worked on was whatever thing I felt was most important that day.

The agility that method allowed was amazing, and it's the only way I can imagine doing things. I think it’s pointless to track my work in the way that producer wanted to because doing so gives the overall project no advantage, while it damages my ability to draw on my intuition. Game balance has not been on the critical path of development on any game I’ve ever worked on, meaning there’s always some other thing that pushes out the ship date. In balancing, you keep doing it and doing it until someone says you have to ship.

My advice to not explain yourself and to have the authority to ignore incompetent complainers unfortunately sounds like a recipe for creating an ego-centric dictatorship that ruins a project. Yet the best way to leverage intuition is to gain that kind of power on a project, and then not use it much. You want your subordinates to do their best jobs without having to explain every little thing to you either, after all. (Alternative: you could work at Valve where no one is anyone else's boss. Yeah really.) 

Conclusion

Balancing a game when we know we can’t know how to play that game optimally is a deeply troubling problem. Logical analysis often fails at this type of complex problem because it doesn’t take into account all the nuances that our unconscious minds and intuitions can. To solve this balance problem, or any similar problem, we should build up a vast mental iceberg of knowledge and experience in the field. I don’t mean fake experience like working at a game company or getting your name listed in credits though, I mean real experience which only comes from effortful study. Use your own iceberg of knowledge in the form of intuition and seek out others with vast icebergs of knowledge and rely on their advice. Finally, somehow acquire enough power on a project that you don’t let your valid feelings about what to do get trumped by loud disagreement from incompetents and don’t let your intuition be destroyed by anyone who demands constant explanations of your every decision.

Playing to Win Overview

You can read the whole Playing to Win book free here.

This article is an overview of the basics in case you want a shorter version.


"Playing to Win" is for people who are trying to win at games. It's not for people who aren't. For those people who are trying to win, they should make (tournament-legal) moves that help them win rather than moves that don't.

You wouldn't think that would be even slightly controversial, but somehow it is. Even though playing to win is the most important concept in competitive games, it's also widely misunderstood. Let's untangle that now.

The Scrub Mentality

"Scrub" is not a term I made up. It sounds like kind of a harsh term, but it's the one that was already in common usage in games to describe a certain type of player, and it made more sense to me to explain that rather than to coin a new term.

A scrub is not just a bad player. Everyone needs time to learn a game and get to a point where they know what they're doing. The scrub mentality is to be so shackled by self-imposed handicaps as to never have any hope of being truly good at a game. You can practice forever, but if you can't get over these common hangups, in a sense you've lost before you even started. You've lost before you even picked which game to play. You aren't playing to win.

A scrub would disagree with this though. They'd say they are trying very hard. The problem is they are only trying hard within a construct of fictitious rules that prevent them from ever truly competing.

"That's Cheap!"

Scrubs are likely to label a wide variety of moves and tactics as "cheap." For example, performing a throw in fighting games is often called cheap. A throw is a move that grabs an opponent and damages them even while they're defending against all other kinds of attacks. Throws exist specifically to allow you to damage opponents who block and don't attack.

As far as the game is concerned, throwing is an integral part of the design—it's meant to be there—yet scrubs construct their own set of principles that state they should be totally impervious to all attacks while blocking. Scrubs think of blocking as a kind of magic shield which will protect them indefinitely. Throwing violates the rules in their heads even though it doesn't violate any actual game rule.

A scrub would not throw their opponent 5 times in a row. But why not? What if doing so is strategically the sequence of moves that optimize your chances of winning? It's "cheap," though, throwing is cheap. And it's not just throwing, it's also a long list of somewhat arbitrary maneuvers. If you keep a scrub away from you by zoning them with projectile attacks, you'll probably be called cheap. If you do one move over and over, that's cheap. If you get a lead, then do nothing for 30 seconds so that you can win by time-out, that's cheap. Nearly anything you do that ends up making you win is a prime candidate for being called cheap.

Let's specifically consider the case where you do one move over and over. This goes right to the heart of the matter: why can the scrub not defeat something so obvious and telegraphed as a single move done over and over? Are they such a poor player that they can't counter that move? And if the move is, for whatever reason, extremely difficult to counter, then wouldn't you be a fool for not using that move? The first step in becoming a top player is the realization that playing to win means doing whatever most increases your chances of winning. The game knows no rules of "honor" or of "cheapness." The game only knows winning and losing.

"It's Not Fun To Play That Way"

This might be true, or it might not be, depending on the game. The scrub mentality is to make this claim for basically all games though so beware of that.

Some games don't hold up to high-level play. That's sloppy design in my opinion. A solid game holds up to experts playing it as hard as they can against each other. That way, the game can be fun for beginners and experts.

When a game doesn't hold up to expert play, it's degenerate in some way. There's only one good move or one good character, or one good strategy, or something like that. The game offers what appears to be a lot of fun options, but you don't actually get to do those fun options against experts, even if you are an expert too. So for this type of game, playing to win really will make it less fun, but that's not a problem with the players who are doing their best; it's a problem with the game. I wouldn't fault players here or complain to them that they are playing in a boring way. I'd complain to the game developer or play a different game.

There are plenty of games that become more fun as you get better at them, rather than less fun. With a good game, getting better and better at it reveals more and more depth to you, rather than exposing the game's shallowness. Games like Street Fighter or StarCraft are like this. My own games are also all designed for competition.

* * *

Consider two groups of players who play a non-degenerate game: a group of good players and a group of scrubs. The scrubs will play "for fun" and not explore the extremities of the game. They won't find the most effective tactics and abuse them mercilessly. The good players will. The good players will find incredibly overpowering tactics and patterns. As they play the game more, they'll be forced to find counters to those tactics. The majority of tactics that at first appear unbeatable end up having counters, though they are often difficult to discover. The counter tactic prevents the first player from doing the tactic, but the first player can then use a counter to the counter. The second player is now afraid to use the counter and they're again vulnerable to the original overpowering tactic. (See the Yomi Layer chapter of my book on Playing to Win or this more visual summary on yomi layers.)

Notice that the good players are reaching higher and higher levels of play. They found the "cheap stuff" and abused it. They know how to stop the cheap stuff. They know how to stop the other player from stopping it so they can keep doing it. And as is quite common in competitive games, many new tactics will later be discovered that make the original cheap tactic look wholesome and fair. Often in fighting games, one character will have something so good it's unfair. Fine, let him have that. As time goes on, it will be discovered that other characters have even more powerful and unfair tactics. Each player will attempt to steer the game in the direction of their own advantages, much how grandmaster chess players attempt to steer opponents into situations in which their opponents are weak.

The group of scrubs won't know the first thing about all the depth I've been talking about. Their argument is basically that ignorantly mashing buttons with little regard to actual strategy is more "fun." Or to be more charitable, their argument could be that the game becomes less fun if they use tactic X, or character X, or whatever. That might be true temporarily until they figure out how to beat whatever it is, but ultimately the experts are having a more nuanced exchange, more opportunity for expression, for clever plays, for smart strategies, and so on.

The scrubs' games might be more "wet and wild" than games between the experts, which are usually more controlled and refined. But any close examination will reveal that the experts are having a great deal of fun on a higher level than the scrub can imagine. Throwing together some circus act of a win isn't nearly as satisfying as reading your opponent's mind to such a degree that you can counter their every move, even their every counter.

And if the two groups meet, of course the experts will absolutely destroy the scrubs with any number of tactics they've either never seen, or never been truly forced to counter. This is because the scrubs have not been playing the same game. The experts were playing the actual game while the scrubs were playing their own homemade variant with restricting, unwritten rules. The actual game really should be more fun if it's not degenerate.

"That's a No-Skill Way to Play"

Complaining that you don't want to do X in a game because "it doesn't take skill" is a common scrub complaint. The concept of "skill" is yet another excuse to add fictional rules and avoid making the best moves. Curiously, scrubs often talk about how they have skill whereas other players—very much including the ones who beat them flat out—do not have skill. This might be some sort of ego defense mechanism where people define "skill" as whatever subset of the game they're good at and then elevate that above actually trying to win.

For example, in Street Fighter scrubs often cling to combos as a measure of skill. A combo is sequence of moves that are unblockable if the first move hits. Combos can be very elaborate and very difficult to pull off. A scrub might be very good at performing difficult combos, but not good at actually winning. They lost to someone with "no skill."

Single moves can also take "skill," according to the scrub. The "dragon punch" or "uppercut" in Street Fighter is performed by holding the joystick toward the opponent, then down, then diagonally down and toward as the player presses a punch button. This movement must be completed within a fraction of a second, and though there is leeway, it must be executed fairly accurately. Scrubs see a dragon punch as a "skill move."

One time I played a scrub who was pretty good at many aspects of Street Fighter, but he cried cheap as I beat him with "no skill moves" while he performed many difficult dragon punches. He cried cheap when I threw him 5 times in a row asking, "is that all you know how to do? throw?" I told him, "Play to win, not to do 'difficult moves.'" He would never reach the next level of play without shedding those extra rules in his head.

In a tournament, winning the match is what counts. It doesn't matter if you used throws or dragon punches or if you run out the clock while running away, or whatever else. It doesn't matter if you "played in an innovative way" or if you "didn't do anything new." Don't be overly concerned about whether you are playing with "skill," but rather if you are playing to actually win.

Using Bugs

If an expert does anything they can to win, then do they exploit bugs in the game? The answer is a huge yes—for most bugs. If you think "no" is a reasonable answer, then you haven't thought this through yet. There is a large class of bugs in video games that players don't even view as bugs; they aren't even aware that they are bugs.

A Tame Example

In Marvel vs. Capcom 2, Iceman can launch his opponent into the air, follow them, do a few hits, then combo into his super move. During the super move he falls down below his opponent, so only about half of his super will connect. The Iceman player can use a trick, though. Just before doing the super, they can do another move—an icebeam—and instantly cancel that move into the super. There's a bug here which causes Iceman to fall slower during his super at the same speed he'd fall during his icebeam, even though the icebeam didn't fully come out. The player actually cancels the icebeam as soon as possible: ideally as soon as 1/60th of a second after it begins. This lets the Iceman player connect with every hit of the super.

Is it a bug? I'm sure it is. Getting the movement property of a move you instantly cancel is a pervasive bug in many Capcom fighting games. Would an expert player use this? Of course. No one would even think twice about this, it would be absurd to ban it, and it would also be absurd to not do it because it's "cheap."

A Substantial Example

In Street Fighter Alpha2, there's a bug in which you can land the most powerful move in the game (a Custom Combo or "CC") on the opponent, even when they should be able to block it. If you weren't blocking low at the moment they activated the CC, you can't crouch in time to block it. A bug? Yes. Does it help you win? Yes.

This technique became the dominant tactic of the game. The gameplay evolved around this, play went on, new strategies were developed. Those who cried cheap were simply left behind to play their own homemade version of the game with made-up rules. The one we all played had unblockable CCs, and it went on to be a great game. How CCs were intended to be doesn't really matter: in the game we have available, they work how they work, and taking advantage of that is necessary to win.

A Bug Too Far

Some bugs are actually too problematic for you to use. This is generally not up to you, the player, to figure out though. A tournament organizer's job is to ban what needs to be banned—ideally as little as possible. If something is banned in a tournament, you shouldn't use it even if it helps you win.

When you play a competitive game, you want to be playing the same game everyone else is playing. When you make up your own scrub rules about not throwing or whatever, you aren't playing the same game as everyone else anymore. Likewise, if you use tournament-banned things to your advantage, you aren't playing the same game as everyone else either. You're just cheating.

When tournament organizers determine what (if anything) is banned, they should choose only bans that are enforceable, discrete, and warranted. To learn more about those concepts, read the chapter of Playing to Win on What Should Be Banned.

Unequal Access

One example of bugs you should expect to be banned are bugs that only one player is capable of using. (Not because they picked a certain character, but rather because they are player 1 rather than player 2). In some fighting games, there are bugs that can only be performed by player 1. Even if they aren't that powerful and wouldn't normally be banned, they are candidates for banning purely because both players don't have equal access to the bug.

Stops Gameplay

Bugs that turn the game off, or freeze it indefinitely, or remove one of the characters from the playfield permanently should be banned. These aren't about something being too good, but rather preventing there from being any gameplay at all.

Too Good

This is the most dangerous category. Scrubs will say practically everything is too good in any game. In my experience, 99% of claims that something should be banned because it's too powerful are just wrong. That said, 1% of the time, there's something that's actually too powerful. Something that is game-breaking in how powerful it is, but if you get rid of it, the rest of the game is fine. We'll hope that tournament organizers have the wisdom to tell the 99% case from the 1% case and only ban the rare thing that seriously deserves it.

 Akuma

Akuma

The character Akuma in Super Turbo Street Fighter is a great example of that rare case. Akuma is a secret character, requiring a long, annoying code to even pick him. He's a boss character that was clearly not intended to be fair at all.

Akuma is the best character in the game. That alone means nothing as far as banning; every game with characters has a best character. The problem is that Akuma is miles and miles and miles better than all other characters. He has a 9-1 or 10-0 matchup against every single character. It's very likely he's significantly more powerful (maybe by an order of magnitude) than any character in any game you've played. Just to give an example, he can use his red fireball repeatedly in such a way that you're stuck blocking until you die. You can even hold the joystick towards him and you're still stuck blocking it over and over. If you fixed that, he's still be 9-1 or 10-0 against everyone though.

This example is so incredibly extreme, that the entire community immediately realized Akuma needed to be banned when the code to pick him was discovered. This isn't because the entire community was scrubs. It was because Akuma is more similar to a game-breaking bug than he is to an overpowered character. The real bug is that he's pickable at all in multiplayer modes (note: 14 years later I fixed that bug in the online "classic mode" of Street Fighter HD Remix by disallowing him in online matches).

You should use whatever you can to win, but just be aware that the are rare cases where something is so broken that tournament organizers will need to ban to have a functioning game.

Playing For Fun

If you play in such a way as to maximize your chance of winning, it means abusing everything "cheap" that you can. It means frustrating the opponent, using bugs, and anything else you can think of that's legal to do. When all this comes together, it gives you a deeper kind of fun than is possible at lower skill levels.

That said, it's also fun to just mess around. It's fun to explore new characters, new strategies, and to do silly things. This type of stuff is actually really useful even if your ultimate goal is to win. You can read more about that in this chapter of Playing to win.

It's also totally fine to mess around with no intention of ever becoming really good. You don't have to try to be the best at every game you play. I certainly don't try that, it would be exhausting. But when I see someone else trying to be the best, I admire it, rather than condemn it. If that makes the game fall apart, I hold the game developer responsible, not the player.

But if you want to win—if that's your intention—then you need to leave behind whatever mental baggage you have that would prevent you from making the moves that actually help you win. By doing that and practicing and learning, you can walk the path of continuous self-improvement that Playing to Win is really about.

Playing to Win: Mailbag

Playing to Win has generated a huge amount of discussion over the years. It's been featured in the new player section on the forums of way more games than I can even count or remember. I've gotten lots of messages from people who thanked me for opening their eyes to a new way of thinking, or for putting into words what they couldn't quite articulate.

That said, there are some questions or disagreements that have come up again and again.


But I really have a tactic that's unbeatable. It's more fun if I don't use it and play against other people who don't use it.


Do you really have such an unbeatable tactic? I find that highly unlikely. I often heard this said for games where there were plenty of tournaments, and they weren't dominated by any particular tactic, so it would be pretty incredible if the person asking this had the secret way to win tournaments no one else knew about. In that case, they should go prove it by winning those tournaments. What's far more likely is that they just don't know how to beat whatever it is and they should learn more about the game. Stopping your development by soft-banning the tactic is pretty scrubby. If you're doing that for short-term fun, fine, but it's not in line with Playing to Win.


What about using the map hack in Starcraft, or a packet interceptor, or a macro to cast your spells faster, or turbo buttons in an online fighting game?


Playing to win is about self-improvement that can be measured. Becoming a better cook is also a path of self-improvement, but it's more subjective and much more difficult to measure. In playing to win, we have the cold, hard results of winning and losing to guide us. I think it's only useful to consider winning and losing in the context of formal competition, such as tournaments. The things in these questions are unreasonable to be legal in any tournament. By using them, you're not playing the same game as everyone else, so you're playing some non-standard version of the game that others aren't. You're also cheating.

Any reasonable person would consider "no cheating from outside the game" to be part of the default rule-set of any game.


What about kicking my opponent in the shins?


Same as above. Kicking your opponents in the shins is outside the scope of the game, and is not legal in any reasonable tournament. The Playing to Win philosophy only advocates tournament-legal moves.


What about a server that enforces no camping in a first person shooter?


This is probably a case where the tournament rule itself is a really bad rule. There is no discrete way of banning "camping" in a shooter. Camping is the general concept of standing around in one spot and waiting for something to spawn. If you try to define camping as being in one spot for 3 minutes, then players should stand in one spot for 2 minutes 59 seconds if camping is actually so powerful.

This is similar to trying to ban a certain sequence of 5 moves over and over in a fighting game. Does doing 3 repetitions of the set of 5 moves count as ok? 2 reps? What about 1? What about doing the first 4 moves, then omitting the 5th move, but repeating that sequence? Or what if you do all 5 moves but you add in some other useless move to skirt the definition? The problem is there can't even be a concrete definition to completely separate the accepted play from the "taboo" play. The player can play arbitrarily close to the taboo tactic anyway without breaking the letter of the law.

Go ahead and do that as a player. Camp for 2 minutes 59 seconds. It's legal within the rules, and apparently exactly what you should do. If anything, this exposes that it's a stupid rule and that other tournament rules should be devised to fix the underlying problem.


Can tournament rules be squishy and require judgment calls?


You think I'm going to say no to this. YES. Tournament rules can and must be squishy rules requiring judgment calls. The confusion here comes from what we mean by "tournament rules." There's one kind of rule that has to do with how the player operates inside the game system. For example, can they pick the character Akuma or not? And if they do, can they do "a lot of air fireballs" or not? These rules must be discrete and enforceable. They have to be hard rules, exactly defined, and should have no judgment calls involved. "You can't do too many of move X" is not acceptable as a rule.

But, there's a different kind of tournament rule, sometimes called tournament floor rules. These are things that are outside the scope of the game system. They involve things about how humans in real life interact with each other and how they interface with the game.

For example, humans in real life might talk to each other during a game, or just before. What are the rules for that? Can they use racist hate speech? Can they scream continuously at the loudest volume their voices are physically able to produce? This really shouldn't be allowed. If we try to ban it, we're going to run into the same kind of problems that we did above with trying to enforce a 3 minute limit on camping. If we designate certain words they can't say, they can still use racist hate speech some other way. If we set a decibel limit on their voice, they can talk continuously at just below that limit.

But we shouldn't conclude that we can't have the rule at all though. It would be bad logic to say "and therefore we don't limit hate speech or voice volume in any way." If we did that, it has a transformational effect on the event. It suddenly becomes permissible to do the exact thing we didn't want, and we might have produced rooms full of people screaming racist stuff continuously over the course of their match. We have to accept some level of squishiness and judgment calls in tournament floor rules because there's simply no other way to do it. We do not have to settle for that with in-game rules. Those can and should be very precise.

The other gray area boundary is the one between the human and the game interface. Using turbo buttons in an online fighting game tournament is a good example of that. Turbo is a feature of some controllers that lets you hold a button down to repeat it 60 times per second. For purposes of this argument, just assume it gives an unfair advantage, warps gameplay in a bad way, and is illegal in every offline tournament.

If we ban the use of turbo buttons online, can we 100% enforce it? No, we can't. There are some ways to detect it, but it's entirely possible that someone could get away with this cheat. In my long experience with fighting games, this has never been a problem though. People simply don't want to play this way because there's too much reputation on the line if they were exposed. The players good enough to play in tournaments generally don't want to be frauds anyway.

If we said "we cannot 100% enforce this so it must be allowed," we'd create a radically different environment. Before we said that, the use of turbo buttons in tournaments was close to 0%. After we say it, we just forced everyone to use it, so closer to 100%. That's a bad result and we should accept that we cannot have 100% perfect tournament floor rules.

I must stress though, that we should have a much higher standard for in-game rules. The difference is that those type of rules really CAN be rock-solid. Tournament floor rules inherently cannot be perfect, so organizers should do the best they can.


But playing hard against beginners (or my significant other) is mean. I play down to their level so it will be close.


This one is tough. Many people presented elaborate situations which were basically equivalent to them being stuck on a desert island with only one video game and one opponent who is doomed never to improve and claimed that it is more fun not to play to win since it would always be a blowout. In such a case, I suppose I concede the point.

But what about a case where you have ready access to a variety of opponents? It's really up to you if you want to be a Slaughterer or a Teacher. I covered that at length in this chapter of the Playing to Win book.

I hope you got something out of Playing to Win. Remember that you can read the entire book free online, and buy it there too if you like.