Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Do You Have the Skills?

"ALL SKILL" promises the tagline of a high-octane shooter, but what does that even mean? Gamers love to talk about "skill", and which games test it. Unfortunately, what exactly they define as "skill" is one of the murkiest aspects of game discussion, and miscommunications about these definitions sit at the root of heated debates about the evolution of games, particularly when it comes to difficulty and accessibility. What is skill, and how can you think more clearly about the role that skill plays in games?

What Are Skills?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary has two interesting definitions of skill for our perusal. They both show us key parts of the skill discourse in gaming, but in different ways.

  1. the ability to use one's knowledge effectively and readily in execution or performance
  2. dexterity or coordination especially in the execution of learned physical tasks

The first definition talks about the conversion of knowledge into execution. In the context of a game, this is mostly about effectively making good decisions based on the knowledge that you have, and it's about making those decisions in a timely fashion. These decisions are usually difficult; after all, Sid Meier famously said that "a good game is a series of interesting choices", and choices can't be interesting if they're easy! So, a skilled player is more adept at making those choices, whereas an unskilled player will often be overwhelmed by the game knowledge required and/or the art of converting game knowledge into game actions. Often, games feature several cause-and-effect chains which connect in unpredictable ways, and puzzling out how everything works together is part of learning the game.

The second definition exposes a small weakness of that Sid Meier definition: not all games are about decisions. Guitar Hero and Dance Dance Revolution don't have many decisions, and while there could be some strategic consideration involved in the game of Tag, it usually comes down to a contest of athletics. Whether these sorts of games deserve a different category or not, the second definition clearly applies here: "dexterity or coordination". This appears in games like first-person shooters and fighting games, along with the rhythm games mentioned already. Reflexes and precise movements are examples of the second definition of "skill".

I suggest my own working definition for "skill", which is "learned competence in a field". It's competence, you have to learn it, and it has a specialized field. You can have cake-baking skill, reaction skill, strategic skill, and all sorts of other skills. The Ludite wrote an interesting article a few years ago that talked about the different types of skills that games test, and it's well worth a read.

Skill and Ego

Acquiring skill implies some level of mastery. You gain skill by learning, and that learning brings you to a more powerful understanding of the thing you're learning. It turns out that when people learn, and when they get mastery, they're proud of that mastery. This means that players relish the opportunity to show off that skill, because it makes them feel good to display their mastery. What this adds up to is a simple fact: the concept of skill, and how games incorporate it, is a deeply emotional topic of discussion. This also means that discussions surrounding it are often fraught with tension. Games are extolled and derided for the skill they reward, or the lack thereof, and it can even be the prime selling point for a game!

This emotionality also means that skill-testing helps to build an emotional connection with the player. Through the culmination of several activities, repeated over and over until the player is able to succeed at them, the game layers momentary frustrations and excitement into a deeper bond with the player. There's also a stronger motive at play when it comes to skill-testing: it gives players the chance to prove their worth by learning the game and overcoming obstacles. When you conquer an obstacle, you feel your own sense of value increase because of the accomplishment, and that's a particular type of powerful emotional reaction. For a moment, you become a hero in your own internal story.

There's plenty that could be addressed about the intensity of those obstacles and the pacing of players attempting to overcome them, but at the end of the day, that's the most fundamental truth: games focused on skill are about putting obstacles in front of players. They're tests, and once players pass those tests, they feel proud and heroic in some way.

What to Test?

Since skills are one of the primary emotional connections that many players have with a game, you have to carefully choose what kinds of skills you want players to cultivate. This is an area where expectations hang over the entire topic. Name a genre, and you'll find that its most devoted players frequently expect a specific set of skills. Many MOBA players expect orbwalking, fighting game players expect precise joystick motions like the "quarter circle", the "half circle", the "shoryuken" motion, and "charge motions", first-person shooter players look for tricks like bunny-hopping and rocket-jumping, Magic players expect risk management and deckbuilding (along with intensive number-crunching), and so on. Discuss the idea of removing these from a game of that genre, and you'll generally meet strong opposition from die-hard fans. They're identifying marks of the genre, to them.

I think this points to the foundational role of specific skill-testing in game design: because skill-testing is about emotional connection, the skills you choose to test create the palette for your audience, and they anchor your player. "Oh, it's one of these games." The genre you place a game in creates expectations, and the skills you test reinforce those expectations. For example, when I play the board game Pandemic, I'll usually step in and remove the rule that requires players to keep their cards secret. Since players are always explicitly allowed to talk about their cards, the rule turns into a test of players' memorization skill, which interferes with my expectations for Pandemic as a strategic game built around making decisions based on known information. However, this isn't the same as the idea that genres are ironclad and incapable of change! Sure, you might look at fighting-game players who throw a fit at a game that removes quarter circle and dragon punch motions, because it's "not a real fighter", and conclude that you just shouldn't change some things. On the other hand, you might decide that you're going to test rhythm game skills in a roguelike game and create a smash hit!

And everyone has preferences. I prefer my shooters and fighting games to be more focused on tactical decisions over mechanical skill, which pushes me away from technical games in the genre (i.e., most of them) and towards games that reward awareness of the game and in-the-moment decision making (e.g., Overwatch or Fantasy Strike. To me, having to also accumulate mechanical skill puts barriers in front of my ability to play the actual game, extending my tutorial to a lengthy period of time. That said, I'm not the only audience out there, and I know, for example, that there's players out there who won't even bother with the multiplayer of a fighting game, choosing instead to focus on combo modes and single-player arcade modes. Know who you're designing for, and let that inform the choice of the skills you want to test. Don't be afraid to change something that seems fundamental to the genre, but know why you're doing it and who you're trying to get the attention of.

Most importantly, don't think of games as "high skill" versus "low skill", because the issue is so, so much more complicated than that. When you talk about games in that way, you flatten the discourse and stifle not only your own understanding, but the understanding of others. This is a philosophy I'll come back to again and again: put careful thought into your discussion and avoid flippant perspectives. And that, in itself, is a very useful skill.

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