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Sunday
Aug172008

Evolution 2008 Results and Stories

The world finals in Las Vegas have come and gone. I spent a lot of time at the event on monitoring the gameplay of the two games I designed: Street Fighter HD Remix and Yomi card game. Both of them are shaping up well, but there was also a Street Fighter tournament to worry about in the middle of it all.

I actually planned to win this year, and it felt within my reach. Winning would have allowed me to write a really great essay, too, explaining my view that more practice does not equal more ability. In fact, I don't really recall playing any matches of ST (Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo) the entire year between Evolution 2007 and 2008 except about 20 minutes before the 2008 event started. You might say that my practice playing SF HD Remix is a good substitute, which is somewhat true, but it's also "anti-practice" because it's a different game with different properties and different matchups. I had to remember not to be thrown off by that.

So if I had zero real practice, why would I think I was more able to win than ever? Because I had a trick up my sleeve. Not winning the whole thing makes for a pretty lame story, but that's what we're stuck with. The trick: perceiving that time has slowed down.

I have always relied on this ability. How is it that my low strongs in SF Alpha 2 seem to beat other people's low strongs? How is it that my dragon punches seemed to hit other dragon punches (doing them 1 or 2 frames later means you can hit theirs...).

I read Josh Waitzkin's book, The Art of Learning, this year. Josh is a US Chess champion (and subject of the film Searching for Bobby Fischer). Josh gave up competitive Chess and took up Tai Chi for relaxation. He then stumbled into Tai Chi Push Hands competitions and has won over a dozen titles in that sport, including world champion titles.

Josh explained that one of the skills needed in Tai Chi Push Hands is to see "more frames" than your opponent. To see time go by in greater detail than your opponent. He mentioned how in a Chess tournament once, there was an earthquake that sent everyone into a panic. This heightened state actually gave him MORE focus though, and helped him win his match. How could he achieve that state without an earthquake though? Later in his life, he broke his arm and the fight-or-flight response gave him an edge to win a Tai Chi match, when most people would have considered him out of the fight. The accident allowed him to see time flow more slowly than usual, and was the edge he needed. But how could he enter this state without breaking his arm?

I have noticed the same things Josh noticed. As a child, I was in a bicycle accident and as I flew forward over the handlebars of my bike, I could see every moment in sharp detail, in slow motion. I have been able to perceive slowed time in fighting game tournmanet matches before, on a smaller scale. This year though, my plan was to focus on achieving this state of mind as much as possible.

Another concept Josh mentions a lot is the ability of the mind to deeply focus, and mental strain it takes to do so. He recounds several tales where he carefully managed his focus, expending it at the right times and pushing himself to have more "focus reserves" than his opponents.

I have said for a long time that fighting games mostly involve double-blind decision making. That means that the moment you decide to jump, you often do not know if your opponent has already thrown a fireball or not. You only know if he threw a fireball a few frames earlier because you cannot instantly perceive the state of the opponent--it takes a moment for the perception to register. The idea I have focused on more lately is that not only is it a double-blind experience, but that the opponent can be more or less blind than you at various points in the match. If he is thrown off, moments of the match can rush by for him without him able to see the details. If you enter deep focus and can perceive time passing more slowly, then you are less blind than usual and can use those nuances to your advantage. But as Josh explains, the kind of deep mental focus required for this is draining. If you push yourself to the limit with it, you might have nothing left for a later match in the tournament. Use it, conversve it, and waste the focus reserves of your opponent, if possible.

The tournament started Saturday. I cared less than ever about which characters I'd play. I wish I could have played HD Remix's T.Hawk or Fei Long or Cammy or Akuma or something, but they aren't quite the same in ST, ha. Anyway, it's more about playing the opponent than the character matchup in this world of slow-time. I was even willing to trade in my usual sloppy style of play for an even sloppier one if it meant I could use my time-ability.

The early rounds of the tournament were a good warmup. I don't really know exactly why they help me, but they do. By the time I was to face Mike Watson (former US champion in ST), I felt ready. Mike will tell you that he simply had trouble dragon punching on console sticks (probably true) but in any case, I was able to use my time-power. During a few critical moments, time passed very slowly, and I was even able to notice a couple times when I simulated what might happen if I did X, decided that I didn't like the simulation's answer, then did something else and was successful.

I have never played Ryu as a counter to Honda in an ST tournament, but this year I did and won that match handily. Then there was ST pro NKI and his Chun Li. NKI is a challenging opponent because he now knows more nuances of ST than I do, so it's difficult to beat him with a knowledge-advantage, as I do for many other opponents. Vega seemed like the obvious choice against him, but Bison just felt right. Also, earlier that day NKI said he would prefer to fight my Bison than my Vega, which he meant as a kind of insult to my Bison. I told him maybe he'd get the chance and as luck would have it, he did get the chance. I chose Bison.

I was winning the first round when the evil-NKI paused the game and quit, because his button configuration was not right. I know he did not do this on purpose, but it felt dirty anyway and I wished him bad luck. The tournament director later told me that I should have been awarded a round win for this because pausing the game to change your buttons is expressly covered in the tournament rules and it is supposed to result in a round-loss. Final note on this: NKI is only evil in the contect of this one round, not generally. He is a nice and helpful guy.

I was able to use my power again vs NKI. It wasn't superior match knowlege, but slow-time that I used at a couple key points. Obvservers might not have noticed those key points because most of the match had me flopping around sloppily, looking for openings. The most interesting part of this match was the very long time (30 seconds???) where I did nothing. NKI was doing Chun Li's lightning legs a few pixels away from me and I have no move at that distance that can beat it. My only real choices are jump in, jump away, or do nothing. I did nothing and NKI kept doing lightning legs. It was an interesting "conversation" in that we each made it clear that we would keep doing our own thing. I chose to do nothing here because he is the one on edge in this situation, not me. Doing nothing is easy and it doesn't even require me to be afraid of a suddenly different move from him (there is ample time to react). Meanwhile he must keep pressing the buttons to do lightning legs (that part isn't that hard, but it's something) and more importantly, he must be on edge about whether I will jump in. If I do, he must stop doing lightning legs immedialy, then do up kicks. It's very draining to be on edge for so long, adrenaline pumping to help you react quickly if needed. When that moment is prolonged too long (say, for 30 seconds), it drains your focus reserves.

Anyway, one of us finally did something and the (fake) stalemate ended. He won that round, but I won the match. Next, I was to play Nuki, former Evolution ST champion. Nuki also plays Chun Li. I was completely ready. I was in the zone, activating slow time every match now, and Nuki was next. I saw that bracket had progressed to our match and I stepped up to play. The tournament director then informed me that my match against Nuki would be the next day, on stage as part of the top 8. Nooooo.

I'm supposed to be happy to make the top 8 and excited play on stage (yeah, both of those are true), but I was READY right that moment to face Nuki. 24 hours later might as well be 24 years. Whatever state of body chemistry I had would be gone, and who knows if I could get it back.

The next day, I did play Nuki on stage. I was not worried at all, and believed that I would beat him for sure. Playing in front of a huge audience does not rattle me, so that would not be a factor. I thought Vega was a more logical choice, but I felt Bison was a better choice for some reason I couldn't explain. Character choice wouldn't matter much anyway, it would be a battle of timing and who could see through the fog of double-blind. So I played Nuki...but...at normal speed. I don't know, I just couldn't get it going. No slow-time, no super power from me. Our rounds were close, but Nuki defeated me pretty handily. [Note to people who don't get it: I use "super power" as joke-phrase. I think everyone has access to this phenomenon.]

A few matches later, I was to play Tokido on stage. Tokido won last year's Evolution ST tournament, and it was quite a travesty that I did not defeat him last year. Last year I quickly took him to match point and just one more hit would have beaten him, but he came back to win the game and the set with repeated Vega wall-dives that I could not block. I should have beaten him then and I was sure as hell going to beat him now. His 1-dimensional style of play should be easy to defeat, and I had no doubt that I would beat him.

My plan, probably to everyone's surprise, was to play Blanka. This elicited the following reactions from various people in the crowd: 1) "but you don't even play Blanka," 2) "Blanka is bottom tier," and 3) "Blanka isn't even a counter match for Vega, what are you doing?" Well, I do play Blanka, just not many people know. And I do think Blanka is a counter-match. All I have to do is trade my roll with his pokes. Each trade does about 5x the damage to him than me. That means I can roll randomly and get hit back for it a few times, and still be ok. Throw in some bites and crossup shorts, and it should be easy. Oh and by the way, he can't go off the wall because my up-ball beats it 100%.

I traded my roll with his poke a total of zero times. He knew exactly what to do, never went off the wall, mostly sat there doing nothing, and occasionally poked. The game was close, but he won. When an opponent shows a little too much competence in a matchup, I usually like to switch characters. I asked the crowd if I should play Bison or Honda. They said Honda. Choi (legend of ST) was standing just off stage and he advised Honda as well. I said that I was feeling something with Bison. Choi shrugged as if to say "if you say so..." I should have beaten Tokido last year with Bison, so let's make it happen now.

Unfortunately, I had to play him at normal speed. No slow-time powers. Close rounds, but Tokido won handily. That means that the ability I bet everything on never showed up in the top 8 matches on Sunday, and I was only able to summon it on Saturday. Why is that? I don't really know.

Evolution 2008 ST Results
1st - John Choi (O.Sagat, Ryu, N.Ken)
2nd - Nuki (Chun Li)
3rd - Alex Valle (N.Ken)
4th - Tokido (Vega)
5th - Sirlin (Vega, Bison, Ryu, Blanka and almost Honda)
5th - Kusumondo (Honda)
7th - Justin Wong (O. Sagat)
7th - Shirts (Dhalsim (he usually plays O.Dhalsim but switched to N.Dhalsim)

After the tournament, Tokido told me he expected me to play Vega against him. I said, "Play a mirror match against your Vega, your only character? I don't think so. Blanka is a counter." He then told me that in a recent Japanese tournament, he was defeated by Komodo Blanka and that he was very upset. He practiced relentlessly against Blanka so he would not lose that match again. I frowned, wishing I had known that. Then Tokido said, "but why switch to Bison? It is Vega's advantage." I told him that I have played that match in tournaments for over 10 years. I have only ever lost it to 2 people in all that time, and Tokido is one of them. I am not afraid of the match." Tokido seemed to think I should be though. Maybe he is right.

There's an untold story about Tokido here that you'll have to hear another time. But let's just say that after seeing change in the entire game in SF HD Remix, Tokido approved all-around and agreed with every one of them.

So there you have my story of getting 5th place (aka not winning). For a more important story of Choi winning, read this. Choi's story speaks for itself and there's little I can add to it, but I will say one thing. I saw him playing CvS2 on stage against Ricky and Ricky won the first game. A few moments into game 2, I said to the people next to me that Choi would win this first round (meaning defeat Ricky's first character and come out ahead). He did. As he did, I saw that he was in full force. I am an "expert" at watching Choi play in tournaments. There's something about his choices in gameplay that have always excited me. So I recongized the pattern that was about to come. He was going to beat Ricky. He was going to beat everone. He was going to win CvS2. The people around me said no way in hell is he winning CvS2.

At this point, I left the main hall and went to eat. I had to care about staying on schedule physically and I would rather eat on time than fight the 1,000 spectators in food lines once CvS2 ended (my match with Nuki was coming up later). Besides, it's CvS2, a generally boring game of short, short, into super. So I left. I later found out that Choi won and that everone considered it exciting because it was so surprising. Well I was not surprised at all. From just a few moments of one round, I saw that no one would be able to touch him that day. (Though I didn't expect him to win ST also...). What I didn't know was why, but now we do.

--Sirlin

Tuesday
May272008

World of Warcraft Arena Balance and Sirlin

Here's an amusing post on gameriotby Vir that mentions me. The comments are entertaining too. It's about the balance in World of Warcraft arenas, and making the game into an e-sport.

For the record, I'm available but I don't think Blizzard will call. ;) For one, they might say that fighting game balance doesn't apply to their game, and that I don't know their game. Shrug. The same concepts seem to apply to Puzzle Fighter, Street Fighter, Kongai, Yomi card game, and the other projects I can't tell you about. Balance is balance and the same issues show over and over.

And second, I don't think my article two years ago won me any points there. Even though much of what I complained about has indeed been acknowledged and addressed, I don't think my tone went over well.

Anyway, thanks Vir.

--Sirlin

Tuesday
May132008

10-Man Raiders: Second Class?

World of Warcraft has made so many positive steps since I wrote the single most read article ever on gamasutra.com (literally). Most of my concerns in that article have been addressed. Back then, the PvP's honor system was so grueling that it actually endangered players' health. These days, you can create a level 70 character with any gear you want in fair competitive tournament setting. Impressive. Back then, "raid or die" with 40 people was the overriding design ethos. Today, there are no more 40-person raids and even the 25-person raids can all be done in 10-man versions.

You can hear some information about this in this video (which incidentally has less than a third of the views of my interview on the same site, sorry for the uncalled-for cheap shot).

Anyway, I just couldn't let this video go. I don't get why World of Warcraft has taken so many steps towards being reasonable and yet can't take the last, logical few. The key point here is that 10-man raids will get worse rewards (one tier lower in WoW-speak) than the 25-man versions of the same dungeons. Kaplan (lead designer) explains that 25-man raids are much harder to coordinate, have more logistics to worry about, and are more work. No argument there, I think we all agree with that. But this is the *reason* that they need to have better rewards, he says. That sounds a bit backwards.

To put this another way, there are two versions of each raid dungeon: the 10-man version and the less fun one. If they had the same rewards, not enough players would play the less fun one. So...why even have the less fun one? Shouldn't players be encouraged to play the content that is the most enjoyable to them, rather than encouraged to play content that is more logistically difficult to coordinate? (10-man versions can be tuned to take just as long, of course.)

Kaplan has moments of clarity in this video where he explains that both sizes of raids should have easy dungeons and hard dungeons. The size of the raid is not a judgment call on your worth, it's simply about how many people you feel socially comfortable hanging out with. Either one can be hard or easy, depending on the specific dungeon design. Yep! (And either can have the same rewards? No, apparently.)

Then in the same video Kaplan mentions that they considered solutions(?) like having the final 25-man raid on Arthas *unlock* the 10-man version. (What??) Or maybe when you get to the end of the 10-man version, Arthas just isn't there. Perhaps he left a note behind: "Hey guys, this is Arthas. I only value players who play in large groups and I'm a little grumpy about whole no-more-40-man-raids thing. I won't even fight second class citizens such as yourselves."

I think Kaplan knows on an intellectual level that 25 is not better than 10. (He flat out said it, in fact). He might also know that 10 is not better than 5, that 5 is not better than 2, and that 2 is not better than 1. They are just all different. Each one of those sizes can have tasks and challenges of extreme difficulty. Each one can have endless time-sinks. And yet the 40-man values of WoW's past still echo today. "Yeah, yeah we'll *have* 10-man raids, but they can't have equal loot!"

One last thing I'd like to point out is the years-old argument that players who enjoy large raids would enjoy them regardless of the loot. For the majority of raiders, this is false. I know it's false, you know it's false, and Blizzard definitely knows it's false. The last place I'd look to find people motivated by intrinsic rewards is a 40-man World of Warcraft raid. (Dear both of you who really do enjoy big raids for the own sake, even with no rewards. You are not like the others.) The actual case is that the vast majority are motivated by gear-rewards to spend time in dungeons that they would otherwise not choose to play in. If I'm right about this, why not let the rewards be equal so that they can play 10-man raids and have more fun? And if I'm wrong about this, why not still make the rewards equal? In that case, 25-man versions will be full to the brim anyway because raiders love the intrinsic rewards of completing a logistically difficult task, after all.

To summarize, challenge should lead to rewards. (A separate gate of time-spent can also lead to rewards since this is an MMO. I'm not ruling that out.) Challenge can come 25-man or 10-man. If you accept all that, the final step is that it's true for 5 man...and 2 man...and 1 man. You can have just as much challenge (and require just as much time spent, if you like) in any of those sizes. Different players will have a sweet spot group-size that they prefer, and no size is really second-class. The value judgment shouldn't be on group size, but rather that we judge inclusive design as better than exclusive design.

If there were challenging 2-person dungeons that I could play with my girlfriend, I'd still be playing World of Warcraft today. I get the feeling that if I made it past a gauntlet of virtually impossible monsters in a 2-person World of Warcraft dungeon that the final boss would disappear and say, "Sorry, but the princess is in another castle."

--Sirlin

Monday
Apr072008

Mad Science and Kids

I went to a children's birthday party today (they were about 7 years old) and I arrived late so I missed the introduction of the performer. She had the patter of a magician and she appeared to be doing magic tricks, but I soon realized she is not a magician at all: she's a scientist. She dazzled the children (and the adults!) with super-absorbent substances, chemicals used in fireworks that burn bright colors, refractive lenses that give light sources a rainbow effect, a Tesla coil(!), and more.

During all this I thought maybe she is a UC Berkeley science student who did this stuff as part of a class project. But something was wrong about that notion, because she's just too damn good. It's rare to see someone so thoroughly excellent at performance AND knowledgeable about science. She has stage presence and she really connected with those kids.

Her name is Dora Wedekind, and she's the Operations Manager at Mad Science of Mount Diablo. And she's making a difference. I think I can summarize Dora's work by just telling you one small thing she did. She brought up the word "conductor" and asked the kids to say what they thought it meant. Eventually she gave her definition, that it's a material that lets electricity (meaning electrons) travel through it easily. She then took out her trusty Tesla coil (after having explained that it, well, has a lot of electricity at the tip!) and asked them what they think will happen if she puts it near a piece of plastic. (Nothing.) What about a piece of paper? (Still nothing.) What about a piece of metal, like a pie pan? Wow! A cool-looking arc of electricity.

But what will happen if she puts a piece of paper on the pie pan? Will the electrons from the Tesla coil go through the paper into pan? Or will the paper stop it? "Who thinks it will go through the paper?" she asked. "Who thinks the paper will stop it?" And finally, and most importantly, "Who doesn't know? It's ok not to know. That just means we have to try it to find out!"

Indeed. And there we have the character of science explained in terms that 7-year-olds can understand. Sometimes we don't know things, and that's ok. It means we have to really look at how the world works to find out the answer, rather than just sitting around guessing. These kids wanted to know. I wanted to know. We all wanted to do some science.

So, will the paper block the arc of electrons from forming? I looked around the room as she asked this, pretty sure that the adults didn't know either. I started questioning it, too. I'd think that paper would not be enough to stop the arc, but did I know for sure? Not really. Well, it turns out the paper doesn't stop the arc. And if she leaves the Tesla coil in one place for long enough, it even burns a hole through the paper. She then showed what happens if you try this with magician's flash paper instead of regular paper: you get a big exciting burst of flame as the flash paper is entirely consumed! And while we're at it, let's look at that happen through some refractive glasses to see the interesting rainbow effects that surround the flame!

Dora is the real deal. She's "sparking imaginative learning," and not just because that's the tag-line of the Mad Science company. She's getting kids interested in learning and science before they become adults and forget how to be curious anymore. It makes me wonder: are the rest of us contributing enough?

If you're interested in getting Mad Science to get your kids interested in science with after-school programs, workshops, camps, or whatever else, you can check out Dora Wedekind's branch (Bay Area, California) here:

http://www.madscience.org/locations/mtdiablo/

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with Mad Science in any way. I'm just a random person who went to a birthday party. And an amateur scientist.

--Sirlin

Sunday
Mar162008

Conversation with Halo's Max Hoberman

After Capcom's Digital Day press event, I got the chance to talk with Max Hoberman for a while about game balance. He's lead designer of the newly announced Capcom game called Plunder, and he was lead multiplayer designer on Halo 2 and 3. I explained to Max that all I seem to do is balance things these days (Puzzle Fighter HD Remix, Street Fighter HD Remix, Kongai at Kongregate.com, and my own card games: Yomi and Spellblind). I asked if he had any advice.

His first advice was that no matter how great you are, you need a post-launch patch. Sounds good to me. I asked if he had anything general to say on the subject and he explained that he likes to focus on the fun first. Even in playing board games, if he can make a move that is suboptimal, but increases everyone's fun, he'll often do it. This prompted me to ask if he cares about balance at the highest tournament level, or only about pleasing the average player. He said that due to Halo's rise in various gaming leagues, he had to care about tournament balance in Halo 2 and 3, so yes he does shoot for that.

I also asked how much or little he relies on math and how much he listens to players. He explained a few math things he does, but mostly it's not about math. Even though I have a math degree from MIT, I use almost no math (on purpose) so it was nice to hear he had the same conclusion. *Why* we think this is deserving of an entire article, so I won't try to cover it here. On the subject of whether to listen to players, he was quick and firm in his answer that you generally cannot listen. He said players almost always lack the big-picture understanding of what they are asking for, are usually biased to buffing their own favorite things, and generally make suggestions that make the game more fun for them personally, rather than the larger view the designer needs to take. Listen to them all, understand what they're getting at, then come up with your own solution, he said. We both agreed that it's a strange situation that no matter what you decide, lots of people will feel you did the wrong thing. (This is because some people suggest doing X while other people suggest DON'T do X, so you always disappoint someone.) Them's the breaks.

With no prompting from me at all, he said that balancing a fighting game is far more difficult than balancing a first-person shooter. I said that while I agree, I think most people don't. He said, "Really? Why wouldn't they agree." I explained that I thought first-person shooter players feel their genre is somehow less exalted if it's easier to balance and they might not realize the extreme difficulty involved in balancing vastly different movesets to all compete fairly against each other in a fighting game. Max said it should be pretty clear to anyone that balancing fighting games is harder, and people should get over it. (And of course, play whichever games you find fun, rather than caring so much about which were harder to balance anyway.)

Finally, we zeroed in on the concept of symmetric vs asymmetric games very quickly. Max naturally understood this distinction without me having to even talk about it. (To the readers: in asymmetric games, players each have a DIFFERENT set of moves, yet they must somehow be fair vs each other. Symmetric games such as Chess maybe have many deep strategies, but both sides have access to (almost) identical moves.) I told him about my other blog post on this topic. Max and I agreed that balancing symmetric games is easier, almost by definition. He said it's fine in a first person shooter, for example, if one weapon is not as good as the others as long as it has some use. But it's not really so fine if a fighting game characters is not as good as the others.

Max asked which games my readers came up with in the asymmetric category. He immediately said StarCraft (everyone's answer!), but couldn't think of any other good examples (other than fighting games). I was kind of stumped. I couldn't remember anything good anyone had nominated, ha. Though I do still claim Magic: The Gathering, when treated as a battle of constructed decks.

The most interesting thing (to me) that Max said is that he thinks players really prefer asymmetric games (because it's a puzzle to figure out) but that game designers generally prefer symmetric games. Max himself says he strayed away from asymmetry all he could in Halo and where it does occur in some gametypes, the teams each switch sides to even things out. Considering the difficulty that all of us have even naming good asymmetric games, I'd say Max is right that game designers tend to not make them, and I also bet he's right that designers consider it too hard. And yet...that's all I do!! All FIVE of the games I listed at the start of this article are asymmetric. And 100% of competitive games I've ever planned to do and still plan to do are also asymmetric. I guess I'm way on the other side of the tracks from other designers on this one. One of the main interesting thing in competitive games is seeing how different characters/races/moves stack up against each other.

I hope you gained some insight from Max Hoberman in all of that. I'm literally going to go fill in spreadsheets of balancing information right now, ha.

--Sirlin