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.