Monday, May 10, 2010

Games are Complex - A Case in Point

The purpose of this post is to just take a moment and consider how much complexity can there be in a game that looks quite simple from the outside. Of course I could always take a game that looks and is complex, like a simulator or heavy strategy game, but for those you can really tell their complexity by just looking at them (or their manuals). Besides, I have relatively little experience with them, especially recently. Instead, I'll tackle something I'm quite familiar with, and something that might surprise at least some readers. Let's just call it the Monday morning shock effect.

I'm going to talk about fighting games, a genre which includes quite popular titles such as Street Fighter, Tekken and Soul Calibur. On the outside, these games look relatively simple and straightforward. Each player controls a character on the screen, moving and performing attacks using their controllers and trying to deplete the other player's life bar before losing their own. But let's take a look under the hood. Just poking around inside the game (using Tekken 6 as an example) we can see that each character has in fact more than forty different entries on their command list. These are the button combinations the player needs to press to perform a particular move or canned series of moves. Before you can even consider becoming a good player with one character, you need to know these combinations.

This is hardly mastery though. Moves in fighting games have lots of properties that are not listed in the game. One of the things serious players quickly need to become familiar with is frame data. First of all, frame data tells how many frames (1 / 60th of a second) a particular move needs to come out. Second, it tells frame advantage or disadvantage in three situations: the move is blocked by the opponent, the move hits the opponent or the move hits the opponent who is also performing a move (think of it is interrupting). Just so you have the basic idea, if I do a move that puts me at a disadvantage of 12 frames if it's blocked, then I cannot do anything during those 12 frames, meaning you can get a free hit with a move that comes out in 12 frames or less. So that's four additional numbers for each of the 40+ moves (in reality, you don't need to know the exact numbers for all moves) to learn.

Of course, all this stuff is learned not by reading and memorizing, but by reading, applying in practice, then reading some more and applying, until all the relevant information sticks. Oh, and in addition, you also need to figure out how far a given move reaches and is it circular or semi-circular (i.e. can the opponent avoid it by moving sideways). For argument's sake, let's assume you have learned all this stuff for one character. Then what? Well, there are 39 other characters in the game, and if you play competitively, you can run into any one of them. And yes, in order to be a competitive player, you need to know their moves, frame data and all, as well. Granted, you don't need to know everything about a character to fight against him effectively, but knowing at least the most important moves really helps.

The best way to do this is to first play against someone, then read, then play again, and read some more, until you get the hang of it. This can take a lot of hours for just one character, and the only way to do it is to play against a human opponent. These days you can play online, but as a reminder, when talking about games where fractions of seconds are of importance, even small amount of network lag can make a big difference in how the game is played. So in order to really play the game, traveling becomes a necessity. All this for what gain? Well, most of us just gain the thrill of competition out of it. Of course if you are really, really good you can even make a living, at least if you live in South Korea, the world capital of eSports.

To summarize, to fully understand the system in Tekken 6 (yes, just one game), you need to know the properties of about 20 moves or more for each of the 40 characters - that's around 800 datasets to learn - and of course you still need to figure out how to make use of all this information. Oh yeah, when they update the game to the next version, this information changes, so you need to keep up. So, how hard did you say your college math course was again? Naturally not that many players want to achieve this level of mastery - they just want to mash some buttons and never understand what's going on in the game. Then again, some people just memorize the facts the night before a test, to forget everything in the next week.

This kind of complexity and infinite learning curve is in fact pretty typical for really competitive multiplayer games (for a classic example, think Chess). Their learning curve is in fact pretty exemplary: starting to play is easy, and new things are learned when you need them - when you lose to someone, you need to either figure out new tricks for yourself, or research their tricks and learn some counter techniques (best do both!). Finally, playing competitive games like this is a strongly social activity. Once I have a hard copy of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (I've read it via ebrary, which I must say is a good example of horrible usability) I might run an even more through analysis of how the learning principles in that book match with competitive playing of fighting games.

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