The Executive Barrier

Hey guys, remember that Platforms and Pitfalls podcast? Well, 3 casts in a row have failed to properly record, though I was only on the last one of those. Fortunately I remember a chunk of my talking points about the “grind” that many people feel exist in games (Even non-RPGs). So I’m going to cover some of that information and some new stuff. This will probably be a bit sloppy and meandering, but if you’ve read this blog before, you’ll realize this is pretty standard. Anyways…

The executive barrier exists in many games. It is the requirement a game puts on those poor fingers of yours for you to succeed or win. This concept exists in most real time video games and is usually how difficulty is manifested in a game. Mastery of manual execution and improvement is one of those things that makes the brain release happy chemicals for hardcore gamers. The industry has strove to find ways to emulate this feeling of success and mastery without actually requiring the player to possess any real skill. This is both interesting and useful for often disappointing for the hardcore! Firstly here, I want to write about competitive gaming.

Starcraft, Quake and Street Fighter

What do these games have in common? For one, they’re all successful competitive games. Secondly, they probably have the most competitive player base of their respective genres. Halo may get more players, but Quake’s community is ravenously competitive. Starcraft and Street Fighter (outside of Japan at least) stand alone in their genre. Thirdly, all three games have a very high executive barrier to play competitively. In fact, to some extent all three are hard to even play at ANY level. Many would argue against that inaccessibility. So have many developers! Yet few have managed to make much of a dent and even when they do, the executive barrier is merely masked. Games like Halo and Smash Bros are not easy games to play well, but are easy to pick up. In many cases (like the entire RTS genre), the competition fails in it’s entirety. One would think that the most accessible games would be the most popular, but this is unintuitively false in most cases.

The strength of an online gaming community rests on its most competitive players.

A community without a competitive backbone stagnates and dies. Even more so, deeply competitive players are needed for a game community to sign. Rivalries and new opponents spark interest and push tactics forward. Cool new tactics make casual or spectating players go “Wow! I wanna do that”! They keep the game relevant and in peoples minds. You should know how this works, even from silly little Facebook games. Not even evil ones, just the fact that you are driven to play Bejeweled Blitz again because someone just beat your score. Competitive players and communities cause this same effect at a greater level.

So why the executive barrier? Games can be difficulty strategically and be mentally taxing! Well oddly enough, and you’ll have to take my word for this, it is exceedingly rare that players who are more focused on the mental aspect are deeply competitive in real time genres. I don’t wish to say these people don’t exist — I know quite a number of them — but they are not in enough number to drive a communities growth and survival. Your typical competitive monster enjoys the dexterous demands of games. We can see this by looking at what games are hugely popular competitively. We can even look at Smash Bros and see what that community valued (high difficulty techniques in Melee), despite it’s lower end of accessibility. But more importantly, competitive players seem to enjoy multiple avenues of improvement.

A lot of players talk about wanting to play a game for the STRATEGY. Some people don’t care at all for that and go play DDR. But the deeply competitive player seems to do it all and while they may (and often do) have a preference for one avenue of skill, they seem to enjoy it all. Even at a lower level of play, multiple avenues of improvement allow players to always have something to improve at. Raising APM in Starcraft, movement techniques in Quake, or combos in Street Fighter. Or they could work on strategy and knowledge. They can, in the most successful games, work on one of a vast array of avenues of improvement. Improvement is addictive in a lot of ways.

Artificial Reward

Artificial reward is a tool to reward a player in a way that is pleasing to the brain. The improvement described above can be used to The most obvious example of this is RPGs. Improvement is ‘given’ to the player through a game mechanic. Rising numbers for a casual player (non competitive ‘casual’ not Wii ‘casual’) can be very very rewarding. The entire MMO RPG genre is based on a combination of this and the social aspect. One or the other can bring someone back to the game, creating something that is very sticky and satisfying for a lot of players. The reward system is also clever. Consistency of rising levels combined with inconsistent rewards from drops create a really good effect, as anyone who’s read about a Skinner’s Box would know. Many of these games are also not necessarily devoid of skill or real rewards. There are many super competitive WoW players and while the grind might not be their favorite part, they can still enjoy other aspects of the game. Many games are now also relying on the so called ‘visceral’ feel to make people feel like they achieved something. Play God of War or Call of Duty — while these games have their hard points, even easy conquests feel like an accomplishment sheerly through presentation. This can be pretty shallow, but rarely does it detract from fun. Such presentation is usually only a net gain, besides when it feels forced and artificial. Even IWBTG accomplishes this. The game is presented to seem harder than it is. While it is truly a hard game, it is a VERY beatable game. People still ask if anyone has ever beaten it, which is funny because thousands of people surely have. Even the fixed screens are used to give a discrete reward, compared to scrolling which is vague. Since each screen is so hard and usually has something funny happen, each new screen is it’s own reward. Bringing up IWBTG leads into…

The Mixed Approach and management of the Executive Barrier

Many games realize now that you can mix artificial and real rewards in a single game. This is controversial among competitive folks (myself included) who often hate artificial boundaries or time sinks, but competitive players are the most likely to deal with one thing they don’t like to do something they do like. League of Legends combines MOBA gameplay with a leveling system. This helps maintain a community and a player base that spans various skill levels. Even bad players have something to look forward to. TF2’s hat and item bullshit in theory exist without hurting the actual game (though in practice…), but give casuals something to look forward to each week. Since your drop limit resets each week, players are prompted to at least play weekly! Blizzard also worked this into their Laddering system with Starcraft 2. By putting players into smaller “Divisions”, they allow improvement to be easier to track. Bonus pools (Google it) give an intensive to come back and help ‘artificially’ inflate your rank. WoW succeeds at this with many high level raids and PVP activities that are level and skill intensive. Many games also go for the visual flair. Single Player wise, DMC or Bayonetta are both hard AND flashy. Competitively, Street Fighter’s ultras are clearly to appeal to the ‘cool’ factor of casuals and the fact that you get it by losing insures you always have a chance to try it. Many designers also realize that if they cannot reduce the executive barrier safely in their game, that they can streamline it. Starcraft 2 is a great example. Many players scoffed at features like Auto Mine, better path finding, Multi Building Select and Unlimited Sized unit groups when they were announced, claiming they would detract from the skill of the game. Blizzard was careful though! They instead included new micro and macro mechanics that were designed to feel great. Better spells and abilities across the board and more ways to harass and micro units. What they streamlined out were skills that made the game less accessible. Constantly sending workers to mine and managing 10 different construction buildings is hard and REQUIRED to play at a basic level. Now a player can play in bronze and actually play the game. He might not use his chronoboost, or call all the MULES he should and thus will still loose to better players, but his matches against other Bronze players will be less of a farce.

As a designer what one would want to do is not stifle the executive layer — that would just stifle the motivations of many of your most important players. Instead you want to streamline it. You want to make paths of improvement be more apparent. You want to prevent the player from being crippled when merely playing at a low level. You want to prevent what feels like ‘roadblocks’ to improvement. In a perfect world, where you care about accessibility, you would try and make it so the executive barrier is more of a slope and, at it’s most extreme levels, an optional one with limited, but definite rewards. There is no ultimate point to all this, just trying to cover some of the Platform and Pitfalls information while covering some other information. At the very least I hope you can see why many games are moving in this direction and why execution in games is not an element that could simply be excised without loss.

An Aside on Skill

This isn’t exactly related to the above, but I figure I might as well type it up now anyways. I’ve had a lot of people refer to Super Meat Boy as a game with a lot of “luck”. While I would argue that some aspects of the game introduce more “luck” (note the quote marks) into it than necessary, by and large, the game is not about “luck”. The ideas that it is a matter of luck as to whether you will ultimately succeed at all the trials in front of you in a row is a misunderstanding of the concept of skill. It is true that you can “luck” your way through an area or that you know you can do something but you have to wait until you are “lucky” enough to do all these somethings in a row, but this “luck” rests purely on you. This “luck” is merely variance in your skill.

So what is “skill”? Or rather, what does it mean to “grow in skill” or “improve?”

  • To increase performance. Lower times, faster scores, bigger combos, more wins. Most people’s definition stops here.

What is variance? It is the chance yo have at succeeding at any given task. For example, through luck, one could juggle 3 balls for a few passes before luck runs out. As you improve, your performance increases (you are smoother and last longer), but this is also related to variance. You become less likely to fail. Eventually a juggler gets to the points where 3 ball juggling possesses virtually no variance. In theory they could juggle indefinitely. Chances are they would fail eventually, but for all intents and purposes, their skill at that task is high enough that the variance is practically 0. When you improve at a sport, let’s say golf… you don’t just hit the ball further, you hit it further more consistently. You require less lucky shots to do what you are theoretically capable of. In Super Meat Boy, most stages are beaten before variance reaches 0. This is the “luck” people feel, but it is different from actual luck. Bejeweled Blitz requires a lot of luck, because if you don’t start with or make an early multiplier, you’ll never get a high score. That is not under your control. That is real luck. The luck elements in Super Meat Boy include missiles and evil meat boys and the like — homing, somewhat unpredictable elements — but even these can be bested consistently with a proper plan. I think the problem with Meat Boy is people get through most the game purely on their luck. It’s also possible in IWBTG. They never learn to play properly (which, unlike IWBTG, is actually important in SMB)! In Super Meat Boy, learning the plow through stages for the best time shows you how all elements are put together to interact in predictable ways that are often favorable to you. If you tip toe through the levels or rely on alt characters too often, you cripple yourself until you get stuck at the more demanding areas of the game. I’ve had people bitch about the length of The End, but if you’ve played the game properly, you’d realize The End is made up of the fairest and most reliable jumps in the game. No homing BS or anything. But to the player who has gotten by on luck, it’s all the same. Do not confuse luck with your own failing. It might be hard to tell if it’s you or a game, but if you’re talking about Super Meat Boy, it’s you. There are some unfair and arguably poorly made bits in the game, but not for the reasons of “luck”… only for being too demanding.