Quick Note on how to Ask Productive Questions!

So I was checking an old design forum I used to read. I see a post by an notoriously awful poster there. Now this guy isn’t INHERENTLY stupid, he’s like a smart numbers guy, but he has totally stupid, inflexible views on things. The threat was (and this is referring to competitive multiplayer games, fyi) “Why do so many games *CONTINUE* to have uncontested skill barriers to entry?” (so if you want, you could probably good the thread but it’s so not worth it). Now if you can’t parse what the question is, what’s being asked is “Why do games continue to have you do things that have nothing to do with your opponent?” If you’re arm wrestling, you’re skill check (Strenght) is competing with your opponent’s directly. If you say, golf, you are indirectly comparing skills. The question is also asked almost sarcastically. “WHY would they CONTINUE to do something THIS stupid?”

If you’re asking that question about something successful, you’re probably being the stupid one. You’re depriving your self of real information to act like your opinions on the matter are so amazingly correct and no one else ‘gets it’ or ‘understands it’. Feeling like ‘no one else gets it’ is a good sign that you’re thinking in an unreasonable way. The poster does not value uncontested skills or execution tests. He goes to refer to the parts that aren’t that as ‘the real game’ (…. says who?). He puts himself in this box where he cant’ understand why games succeed and games that, in his mind, should be popular, fail. PERHAPS IF HE ACTUALLY, REALLY, THOUGHTFULLY ASKED THE QUESTION HE’D GET SOMEWHERE! He’s so stuck in his tiny little box that he’s incapable of actually talking about game design in any real, useful sense.

Why DO competitive multiplayer games test skils like this? Well, there are a number of reasons. For the most part, people don’t want to play games where they feel like they’re just rubbing their brain against someone else’s brain to see which one is bigger. One of the ‘problems’ with contested skills is that it’s so easy to be denied the mental reward of success against a skilled opponent. Theoretically, when outclassed by your opponent, you don’t get any positive reinforcement. In a fighting game though, you get the reward of all the things you’ve been working on. “Hey, at least I hit my combo”. You also get to practice those things without needing another player. The more facets a player has to improve, the more a player is likely to continue. It’s hard to ‘hit a wall’ when you have many different ways to improve your play.

Now the important part of this, is you don’t have to do what everyone else is doing or even agree with how things are implemented. You can go “I wanna make games with nothing but contested skills” (or whatever your pet issue is), but you’re probably not so much doing things “the right way” as much as you are doing them in… a way! And if they succeed in their goal (or even some other goal by mistake), then thats all good. I know I wouldn’t want to play any game this guy would like — not because they’d necessarily be bad, but because that’s not where my interest lies. You can’t tell me the thing I deeply enjoy is somehow ‘wrong’ because it doesn’t embody the virtues you approve of. Well , you can do that (and I do it sometimes), but it has to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek or hyperbolic. If you put your tastes on a pedestal of purity and virtue, you only blind your self. Also, you gotta LEARN about the thing you wanna get rid of or add. How do you compensate for the removed element? Can you wiggle things in a way that allows you to leverage some of the advantages of that-thing-you-hate without embracing it? ASK GOOD QUESTIONS. If something you hate is successful, FIGURE IT OUT, or at least try. If your answer is seriously ‘people are stupid and blind and don’t get it’, then you are a hopeless fool. Even if you feel that way, you should at least be able to muster some sort of respectable answer, even if that answer is as shallow as ‘Strong branding, coupled by mediocre, comfortfood-like gameplay to retain the fanbase”. You can probably do a little better, but it’s something.

As an example, I hate Zynga and those kinds of social networking games. I don’t respect them. But damn, do they do their job well. I could vilify the audience for being fools, but all that does is make me a prick. Understanding how the leverage psychological hooks though is a USEFUL. You can use that information in ways that isn’t destructive. Do you know how well they have peoples attention spans measured and how crisp they have the timings of rewards on? Do you know the amount of metrics they gather to test this stuff? As awful as these games are as games, they are carefully crafted machines. So ask questions and try and give them a real, heartfelt answer — ESPECIALLY about things you don’t like. At the very least it will help you do the thing you like instead!

(side note: No TMT Tomorrow. Holidays and that. Maybe I’ll stream? Who knows.)

4 thoughts on “Quick Note on how to Ask Productive Questions!

  1. I ESPECIALLY agree about asking why people like things you don’t. For example, one of my pet peeves is “luck factor” in games, but I know very well this isn’t a universally despised thing. I was pointed to an article about the very nature of luck versus skills (article titled “Rituals of Alea”), and because I wasn’t close-minded about the issue I now better understand how luck can be implemented in an interesting and engaging manner (e.g. luck manipulation in games, difference in luck factor between card drawing and dice-rolling, etc.).

    I also have a friend who likes Nickelback, Avril Lavigne, and the Transformers movies, so it’s good for me to keep an open mind to maintain sanity!

  2. Tangentially related, but I was having a discussion on barrier-of-entry in fighting games with someone recently (can’t even remember who, actually), and I came to a conclusion that execution checks are not 100% uncontested. There are tons of psychological nuances that your opponent can work with to fuck you up. A flustered person is more likely to make mistakes. Kinda like playing golf (a normally uncontested game), but the other guy has a taser set to a very low voltage and he’s constantly zapping you with it. That was a great analogy btw, just saying.

  3. @Trynant

    Yeah, I’m not a big fan of luck, but my younger self would hate almost any randomness. Understanding why it’s workable definitely helped me out. I remember a friend talking about how to win playing Kongai on kongregate…. “If your plan doesn’t account for your chance to miss, you have a bad plan”.

    @Makaris

    Yeah it’s hard to say there is any uncontested skills in a real time multiplayer game but certainly a big difference between doing motions and doing a mixup. I think whats more important than contesting skill against your opponent directly is the fact that you are doing things within the same game-space.

  4. Interesting post. I’ve had similar thoughts about all the first person shooter games that are common nowadays. It seems that there is an almost universal hatred of those games and the people who play them among members of indie game forums like yours. I myself don’t see the appeal in them, but clearly there are a lot of people who do. And the most popular FPS’s like CoD: MW seem to do their jobs pretty well considereing how much time many people, including personal friends of mine, put into them. What’s your thoughts on that?

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