Being a Game Designer does not mean you know ANYTHING about Competitive Game Design

This is going to be extra rambly since I’m writing on a bit of a time limit.

I was thinking recently, due that Gamasustra debacle, that I don’t think I’ve EVER read an article about a competitive game that wasn’t offensive that wasn’t written by someone who is good at the game. The worst articles have also almost always been from game designers. I don’t think enough respect is paid to competitive game design as a discipline. It’s easy for a designer to walk in, thinking he has all the tools necessary for analysis at hand, to look at a competitive game and cling to the patterns they’re used to seeing and make totally misguided conclusion. It’s like how bird’s s see in the ultra violet (though see less red), and we don’t. Very plain birds often have very vivid colors in the ultraviolet spectrum. If we saw two species of black birds and saw that they could both easily identify their own kin, without knowledge of their ultraviolet patterns, we might assume many other systems of identification — mannerisms, smell, whatever. This could lead us to radically wrong conclusions on how they operate. When we understand their ultraviolet patterns, a lot more becomes clear and obvious.

Competitive gameplay is the ‘ultraviolet’ here. Competitive game design entails a different set of goals and design patterns and methodologies than other games. They’re not alone in the unique approach they require, but they are not often made and when they are, even rarer yet are they made well. Social gaming, for example, requires a different view on design to understand, but since we are all exposed to them and literature about them, most of us walk away with at least a passing understanding of the genre. I’m going to try and illustrate some differences with competitive games and try and explain why it’s so hard for game designers to make helpful conclusions about them without strong competitive experience.

I could come up, fairly easily, with a number of game systems and general ideas for a single player game. I could flesh out the basic mechanics without much of a problem and come up with a basic plot idea that could work in any big budget game. Ideas are cheap, and this isn’t impressive. The devil is in the detail and the bigger reaching decisions, while important, are made or broken on their execution. It’s easy to have an idea, but very difficult to execute it. Competitive games are in some ways inverted. A lot of people who could also easily write up a basic 5 page design document, could not find the same success with competitive games. Most of the time when I read an idea someone has for a competitive game, I mostly see that it would never work. There will be no juiciness to the system. Most of the ideas will be superficial. There will be no interplay between the game systems. Some things will actively hurt the game. In competitive games, the broad strokes of your basic design idea MATTER a LOT. The execution doesn’t even matter as much as a single player game (It matters quite a damn bit, but in a single player experience the execution is almost everything).

Pretty much every non Blizzard RTS falls into this. They come in with some high minded ideals and with some big gameplay concepts, in the same way one would construct a singleplayer game, and when they make the multiplayer, the game collapses. Relic managed to squeeze some juice out of smaller, more tactical minded games with fewer real units, but this was the exception, not the rule. Fighting games on the other hand stick VERY tightly to formula. Unless you’re some licensed game, straying from the formula too far is suicide. It’s taken a lot of time to refine the basic formula that exists and theirs still huge amounts of design space in how characters and say, meter or movement systems work. FPSs also follow very closely to the basic models that have existed since the 90s. Small changes cause huge effects, and thus, initial design decisions have to be careful (even amazingly super careful if you’re doing say, anything turn based, or god forbid, a board or card game, where one wrong decision can force you to scrap huge amounts of work and playtesting on the rules). So why is this more important?

Well in competitive games, unlike singleplayer experiences, games are designed in a ‘top down’ model. You design the game for the highest level of play you possibly can consider as a designer. Then you try and future proof it for the level of play that might occur that exceeds your expectations. Then you try and sand down some of the rough edges that bother low level players without damaging that high end game too much You try and keep the game reasonably fun at all levels, but the focus is that high level play. This is the Blizzard model and the model for most fighting games.. You try and make a rich, deep, game for the best and most motivated players, hoping for a ‘trickle down’ effect. You give a deep experience for your core audience and hope their excitement attracts players. Starcraft 2, an amazingly hard game to play, is extremely popular, due to all the tournament footage and hype that the game attracts.

In a single player game, you focus from the bottom up. Maybe the middle up. A few games (God Hand) will do it from the top up too, but thats the exception. Games differentiate themselves with their low level big ideas and then generally blend together a bit. God of War, Dante’s Inferno and Lords of Shadow have different setups and systems to try and make them unique, but we all know they all blend together to end up roughly the same game (God of War being the best of the 3 due to polished excellence not withstanding). Singleplayer FPSs might have various ways to upgrade your self. Upgrading guns, just picking them up or injecting your self with the psychic-essence-of-creepy-little-girls, but in the end we’re playing an FPS, using rough equivelents of the same weapons and are mostly doing the same things we always do. That’s fine, because most of us aren’t going to try and master most of these games to an extreme level and those of them that ARE worth mastering (Say DMC, Bayonetta or some earlier NES games) pay enough attention to high level play to maintain fun. But the thing is, you don’t have to be aware of any of the deeper stuff to enjoy the game or make conclusions about it’s design. That high level stuff for most games is just a bonus. You can speak on a deeper level about the game if you know about it, but you can still determine a lot even just by playing the first level of most modern games.

So when you’re a game designer who plays, say Starcraft 2 and you notice you get rushed a lot, it’s easy to go “Well, clearly we need a rush timer! Or some sort of safe space!” Like Evan Jones suggested in his horrible Gamasustra article. It’s easy to say that without seeing how that would effect the ‘real’ game or without seeing how such a change is really superficial (If you can’t rush for 7 minutes, then a rush just becomes an all-in attack at the 7 minute mark. You’ve effectively just prolonged the game for no reason). In most single player games, such things don’t have huge cascading effects. Also if something seems fun, or fair, it’s fine, even if it’s actually shallow. It’s probably also better to remove things that seem ‘unfair’, even if they COULD lead to new game play. This just doesn’t work in competitive games and that’s how we’re used to thinking.

In the end you have to be good at some of these games to make something like the,. You need to have experienced that level of gameplay to know what competitive players are looking for. Otherwise you’re relying on luck for your game to succeed. Blizzard had many hands on Starcraft 2, and when asked about the multiplayer, most of them would not say much. Why? Forget Dustin Browder, that’s the job of someone like David Kim, a designer who also plays the game at the highest level. BAS, a high level Street Fighter player was a tester at Capcom.

More respect has to be given to this branch of game design. So people stop accidentally spreading misinformation, and so more people can be educated on how to do it.

4 thoughts on “Being a Game Designer does not mean you know ANYTHING about Competitive Game Design

  1. Since you bring up rushing, I have to point out one of the first things that really made me see the original StarCraft as brilliant. Blizzard observed the effects rushing had on WC2, and rather than approach it as some horrible flaw in the game people were exploiting to break it and win beyond their intentions, they completely embraced it as a viable strategy, and built the followup from the ground up with clear choices to make it easier to do and, more importantly, counter-strategies to cope with it. I mean, there’s essentially no other reason to include bunkers in the game beyond “something to built to prevent rushes from working.” SC2 went the same way with some of the crazy stuff people were doing with mutalisks if I recall… I really need to play multi more there.

    But yeah, that really seems to be the way to go with competitive game design. Test like crazy, spot effective strategies, embrace them, include counters, possibly counters to those counter, repeat. I spent like a full year or two working on The Massive Vs. The Masses doing nothing but testing, and I think a full month of that was just working out the necessity for, and full potential of the Electrify Tracks card. It’s a weird little defensive option that’s almost never of any use after the first turn or two, even then shouldn’t ever do more than force your opponent to waste one of their more versatile movement cards or eat a fairly decent chunk of damage, and honestly I only see it played like one game out of 15, but the game just would not work if it wasn’t in the deck.

  2. I thought I had read something like this before.

    ‘Having played a given game does not mean you know enough to write a critical article about that game.’
    “Being a Game Designer does not mean you know ANYTHING about Competitive Game Design”

    Also see MovieBob’s criticisms of criticisms of (movie)critics:

  3. @yaddayadda

    Yeah I suppose it’s SOMEWHAT similar to what Danc said but I think it’s sorta strangely different to have to tell Designers that their knowledge is not universal. It almost makes things worse in a sense. SOmeone who doesn’t have the tools of video game analysis can make some basic statements about single player or competitive games and not be ENTIRELY wrong (though their perspective is often terribly naive and they don’t see the bigger picture), when a designer often looks at competitive games, they get confused because they EXPECT to understand it and thusly end up looking at all the wrong things. It’s sorta silly!

  4. Probably my favorite article I’ve read of your’s Kayin. Very well said. So much of competitive gaming relies on systems and interactions that aren’t immediately visible and too many designers seem to completely miss those systems. A great example is cover systems in an RTS, they’re almost always implemented with the idea of making positioning more important. They almost always have the opposite effect because they create and force a best positioning where positioning is otherwise incredibly important, but situational. Good unit design places more importance on positioning than a cover system ever will.

    The other problem I have with many wannabe competitive games nowadays is the designers seem very adamant about creating a game where they shape the experience, a trend that works well in single player but fails horribly for competitive games. Rather than create a framework with flexibility designers want to overly constrict players to the intended tactics they want to see and this results in a very shallow and stale game rather than one with player flexibility. The very restrictive class based hierarchy seen in newer class based FPSes is a great example of this or RTSes that lean heavily on ‘hard counters’.

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