Designing for Accessibility and the Inversion of Peak Effort

So awhile ago I wrote a little thing about the concept of Peak Effort, which is that, given equal motivation, top players of various competitive games put in a relatively equal amount of effort, even if the returns for their effort aren’t the same. The hardest games to play at a high level are often those with the most hype communities or biggest prize purses (higher motivation). If that still doesn’t make sense, read the article real quick, I’ll wait.

Okay so — I was having some conversations about fighting game accessibility and everyone wants to make it easier for players to “be good”. That always seemed odd to me, not due to some meritocracy-ish reason, but because it didn’t just make sense for a reason I couldn’t put together. If accessibility so important, why are hard games super popular? If super hard, games are so accessible, why are so many more people accessing them than other games?

Well I got it, I think.

The difficulty of getting into a game at a competent level is based almost exclusively on the community/people you play with. You can’t design a game where it’s easy to get into high level play because the best players, on average, will be putting it waaaay more effort than you. If you manage to truly offset effort, you’ve probably shot the chances of your game being taken seriously in the foot. It’s sort of an inversion of peak effort. The better people are at your game, on average, the harder the game will be to get into.

So what can you do, as a designer? Well, lets look at Street Fighter and Smash bros. I’m going to say something a lot of design people will probably find crazy.

Smash Bros is not intuitive, nor is it elegant. It is not ‘Accessible’ in the way people assume it is.

Besides having a button to do Specials and control unity between characters, the game is pretty obtuse. Just getting into the game, you have the reliance of smash attacks to kill people — something that does not have a discrete button. Recovering properly is hard. It’s super easy to fall and die on accident. Knocking someone off the screen is not intuitive. The concept might be, but what’s required is not. Nor is even surviving! Then when you get better you got things like tilts and fast falling and multiple kinds of jumps, some of which sometime take super brief inputs to perform… And then you got all the CRAAAAZY Stuff and glitches that I won’t even hold the game responsible for. In highschool, my friends made me play Smash 64 and I was pissed off because of how complex the game was and how impossible it was for me to do anything significant. When a friend forced me to play melee, the skills me and him developed put up the same ‘skill barrier’ street fighter did.

… So why is Smash Bros more accessible than Street Fighter?

Well the short of it is the communities. While the competitive Smash Community could be described as a bunch of manbabies, Smash has a huge community of casual players , while almost everyone who plays fighting games knows what the hell they’re doing. You can easily find someone to play Smash with you at your skill level, but if you’re getting into fighting games, you’re always going to be dealing with people who know everything. You can find groups of players who will even be playing Marvel vs Capcom casually together and it’ll be indistinguishable from the casualness of Smash. They’re little bubbles of accessibility where no one is trying hard enough to ruin it for everyone.

The real difference is that Smash makes you care less. Items, four players whimsical attitudes and generally a source of “hilarity” and “craziness”. You rarely can’t do the thing you want, you only don’t know it’s there. The game is “fun” to play when you’re awful. While in SF, you FEEL the parts of the game you’re missing. You know what a hadoken is and can’t do it. You’ve seen the combo videos. You play online and you can’t do anything. Playing street fighter at a low-level isn’t particularly fun. When you lower the skill barriers earlier on in a game, what you’re doing is trying to hook the player in. As long as players are having fun at low levels, you can almost be as unintuitive as you want (though I would not recommend it).

Designing for accessibility is hard, dawg.

6 thoughts on “Designing for Accessibility and the Inversion of Peak Effort

  1. I have sort of had a nonstandard experience with Smash Bros Melee. My first time playing Melee (or any fighting game of any sort) happened to be with tourney going players. After the past couple years I’ve only played mostly on 10 stages, I don’t know what most of the items do, and I still get surprised whenever someone uses Fox’s reflector for actually reflecting projectiles.

    In the past few months, I’ve tried picking up conventional fighting games by playing a smattering of SF4 on PC, UMVC3 on a friend’s system, and some of that Touhou fighter (so creepy, but local play is better than online). Saying this, I feel that getting into Smash bros is a lot easier than getting into other fighting games. From what I remember about learning Melee:

    1. Teams made it possible for me to play with experienced players without it being too imbalanced. One good player and bad player on each team. This way I could learn what kind of shenanigans to expect from good players without losing 50 times in a row.

    2. Simple controls meant that I could do whatever I wanted to do. I couldn’t wavedash or shorthop, but what did I know back then? If I want to hit them light I pressed A. If I want to hit them hard I mashed the yellow stick. In other games, I still frequently flub dragon punches. Shoryuken is one of the most iconic moves in all of fighting games, but I can’t do it reliably.

    3. Making combos weak made the game feel more welcoming. Yeah, I was still getting my ass handed to me, but at least I’m not getting knocked down every time I stand up or losing a whole character for making three mistakes.

    Just giving my impressions as a noob…

  2. Oh but no means do I think traditional fighters are MORE accessible and definitely not more intuitive. I think their almost comedic un-intuitiveness is what makes Smash look way more intuitive by comparison. The four player mode really is what allows a ton of people to hang on. I couldn’t, but I’ve observed that behavior plenty.

    Smash just creates a generally more pleasant enviroment, while SF rubs your failings in your face. :|

  3. There are several little things that stand out to me about this post. First, I’m not sure what you mean by ‘accessible’ because I’m seeing it being used in a couple of ways. Do you mean accessible in that the game is friendly towards a party environment or in that it eases the player into getting better at the game? Smash is accessible in the former, but very much not the latter. There’s a huge lack of gameplay to teach you how to play Smash competitively, and if it was merely a two-player game it would be immensely unfun being a newbie playing with someone competent because all the competitive stuff is harder to grasp.

    This leads me to my second point: I think there *is* something a game designer can do to help the player get better at the game, and that is making a decent learning curve/flow. Yes, playing competently is very much dependent on how much time you put in the game and someone who is more dedicated will almost always be better, but games can be designed to have a smooth progression towards achieving competency. Although not a multiplayer competitive game, Bayonetta does a great job of getting the player to learn the game if they continue to play because the beginning of Hard difficulty starts up about where Normal difficulty ends. It sets a bunch of challenges for the player that get progressively harder.

    I actually think many fighting games are very easy to play competently compared to some other genres because learning the game is encouraged, it is usually fun to play these games at any level of skill, and execution of moves gets steadily more difficult instead of having to grasp one huge element of play before proceeding to another tier of skill. An example of a genre that is really hard to play competitively are FPS’s since you won’t be good at the game until you learn how to aim and until then you’ll suck.

    Ultimately, what can make a game accessible to competitive play is teaching the elements of play in small enough chunks to give a player a chance to learn the game progressively instead of needing to take in everything at once, or one big part of the game at once. As far as accessibility to the initial game, well that’s a whole different thing from accessible competitive play. Maybe Street Fighter needs more party modes.

  4. One thing I think Smash does very well, is teaching you the practicality of your different moves. When you play adventure mode, you get exposed to different scenarios (like ‘smash the targets’ in Melee) that let you learn what moves are good for things like hitting your target at range, or increasing your vertical mobility.

    Now I don’t pretend to be knowledgeable about fighting games, but I don’t know of anything else that does that, that well. The only other game I have a rudimentary working knowledge of is the new Mortal Kombat (which I own because out of the available options, it appeared to be the most ‘accessible’ for myself and my friends to play socially, I know it’s not the best in the way of balance) I can mostly play two different characters, both of whom I sat down with, looking at the move list, and played several matches with each move to learn what situations it was good for. This large up-front time investment left me incredibly un-incented to learn new characters, which impacted my ability to enjoy some of the features of the game. While I acknowledge that it was my decision not to put more time in that was the cause of this, and if I really wanted to get good I would need to play and practice, it does represent one of the accessibility issues for new players.

  5. If we’re talking specifically about fighting games, to me the big issue comes down to move lists. Smash Bros. is cool. Every character has 8 things they can do on top of a jump/double jump, move forward, dash forward, block, roll (and if you really want to count, air dodge). None of these require anything more complicated than hitting a direction and a button at the same time, and they’re generally set up in an intuitive fashion (A for melee, B for stuff from their game of origin, anything with up as a component will attack upwards, or make me move up, etc.). You can pretty much work out your entire range of options and the situations to use them in immediately after picking up the controller (if all you’re trying to do is connect, the whole build up damage, smash away concept IS pretty obtuse).

    The closest thing to a fighting game that I can actually play well are Bushido Blade 1 and 2, where again, working out how to actually win is tricky (deflect opponent’s sword for a solid opening, one-hit-kill), but you have a very limited, intuitive moveset: BB1 has high-middle-low attacks and a parry button, BB2 has vertical and horizontal attacks. Both have modal stance changes, but you can’t really switch mid-battle, and the only thing either game really has beyond basic chains of these buttons on their own is a tap-forward-and-attack lunge (which can only be done by itself) and attacks while running (ditto)… and sub weapon/dirt throwing which is so obscure and situational it’s hardly worth mentioning. 90% of the time, all you can do is some combination of low/high/middle or vertical/horizontal attacks, in very short, limited chains. There’s a little kludging to work out what gets you a little chain of attacks and what makes you withdraw to your ready stance giving your opponent a chance. As fighting games go though, it’s still very easy to feel out what all your options are, and since it’s such a stiff, slow-paced game with one-hit kills, you can process what you’re doing wrong pretty darn easily.

    Most fighting games though have move lists, totally unique to each character with 100+ different things you can do, generally with no sensible connection to their inputs (duck+get ready to aim an attack at someone’s ankle+walk forward+medium strength punch=throw a fireball? PERFECTLY LOGICAL!) and half the time even if you have full documentation of those inputs, it’s written in crazy fighter-veteran moon language, and relies on basic input methods no other type of game even uses (hold this, slight pause, hit this… personally even “forward, down, down-forward” is something so unnatural to me I’m probably not going to pull that off).

    Personally, the most traditional fighting game I can play half-competently is the Soul Calibur series, which still has the insane move-list spam, but is better than average (at least with some characters) at following some basic input logic. I might not actually know 90% of Nightmare’s moves, but I know anything I do in combination with this button is going to translate to a vertical slash of some kind, anything in combination with this is going to be a quick attack not relying on my weapon, etc. So I can pretty well bumble through from there.

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