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Counters: Natural vs Artificial
by Christopher Gile on 09/17/12 02:14:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


This is a cross post from here:

There are basically two kinds of counters in games, natural and artificial. Natural counters are things that naturally remove the advantages of another strategy. A good example of this is in the game League of Legends there is a character Ashe who is very good against another charter called Udyr.

She is good against him because she attacks from a fair range and has an ability that whomever she is hitting is slowed a considerable amount. Udyr is a melee champ that needs to run up to hit but does not have abilities to jump on her and get in melee range of her and so she can just slow him and kite him around all day.

Artificial Counters are things in games that counter things because the game told us that is how it works and you are just going to have to remember that. A good example of this system in action is Pokemon. Dragon type Pokemon are weak to Dragon and Ice type attacks, and this is just how it is.

They do a good job of piggybacking the weaknesses and strengths of types onto common understanding of these things in real life (Fire is weak to Water) but no amount of logic will help you remember how effective Steel type attacks are on Water Pokemon if you just don’t remember.

A game that uses both of these is Megaman. In Megaman X Spark Mandrill is weak to Megaman’s Shotgun Ice attack, it freezes him in place and you can just take pot shots at him until he is dead. It doesn’t have this effect on anything else, and there is no reason for you to really think of it, but it is very effective nonetheless(artificial counter).

Sting Chameleon is weak to Boomerang Cutter, and it is good against him first because it just does a bunch of damage to him (artificial counter) but also because the attack moves up and you can hit him while he is on the top half of the screen which you can’t really get at with other attacks(natural counter).

League of Legends currently 100+ champions (kits of abilities) but League of Legends can add new champs without a significant toll on the burden of knowledge. When a new champ comes out you just have to learn what they can do and then what he is good/bad against can be naturally and easily figured out from there if you ever need to fight them (5 things: 3 abilities, 1 passive, and 1 ult).

The next champ they add will have the same burden of knowledge. Pokemon has 17 types (not counting ‘???’) and if they added a new type you would have to memorize the offensive and defense effectiveness of it in terms of the 17 old types types and itself (35 new things), and the next type added would have even more to remember (37 new things).

Games have to balance depth of strategy with the burden of knowledge (they are not opposite things like positive and negative but burden of knowledge is a cost of complexity and complexity is the most common way to add strategies to a game). If a game has only 1 strategy it is boring, on the other hand if understanding the basics of how the pieces interact takes 50 years (and that is just understanding how they interact and not strategy on how to move them) then no one is going to play that game because there is a good chance you will be dead before you get a handle on how to take your turn.

Systems that use artificial counters need to group their elements (like into types) as to not incur this explosion in the burden of knowledge which effectively keeps the number of elements lower then a system that uses natural counters. Games that use a natural counter mechanism can add more mechanisms into a game then games that use artificial counters without feelings overwhelmingly complexity. The downside is making natural counters is harder to do.

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Robert Boyd
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"League of Legends currently 100+ champions (kits of abilities) but League of Legends can add new champs without a significant toll on the burden of knowledge."

Adding a new champ doesn't significantly increase the burden of knowledge. But when you have over 100 champions, each with their own set of stats, skills, and different ways to build them, that's a HUGE burden of knowledge placed on a new player even when dealing with natural advantages. For that matter, that's a huge burden of knowledge placed on someone who wants to come back to League of Legends after an extended absence.

Also, Riot frequently changes the relative power of abilities & champions (and occasionally even completely changes the effect of an ability) so not only do you need to learn about each champion, but you also have to keep up to date on what their current version is like.

Christopher Gile
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You are right and I didn't mean to say that LoL doesn't have a huge burden of knowledge, but what I am trying to say is that the way the game is structured allows them to add a very large number of unique champions while keeping the burden of knowledge relatively low (relative to 500+ abilities). It allows them to have 100+ champions that feel unique, (though there is bleed over between them) the majority of which are tournament viable, because the mechanics don't force you to memorize every champ in relation to each other only in relation to themselves. There are other ways to reduce the burden of knowledge, like make things visually clear, but natural counters is a modular system that can allow games grow through the strict addition of a new module and not the remaking of every part other part of the game.

Eric Schwarz
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I do think you're on to something with this. It doesn't just apply to counters - any game mechanic which arises out of intuitive knowledge, understanding and logic will be easier for players to understand. This is why, say, visual communication is so important - a physically strong character should look big and mean, with lots of muscles, while an acrobatic character should be lithe and slim. This is pretty basic stuff of course, but we can intuit so much more from basic properties of characters and objects in-game than from all the detailed statistics and "artificial" relationships in the world.

I'm not sure one is better than the other. Sometimes the complicated interplay of various statistical information, like in a good JRPG, can make for some great gameplay. Intuitive mechanics tend to lend themselves more to action games because players need to be able to quickly assess and respond to threats or obstacles, and it makes sense for a developer to use every possible method to communicate necessary information to players. Most games rely on a mix of both. Pokemon has artificial counters in one sense (complex type relationships) but they are highly intuitive as well (water beats fire), for example.

Regarding League of Legends, I think that, as Robert pointed out, there is a lot of intuitive knowledge in using a specific character, and players can make the most of their abilities based on simple properties like "how big is the effect?" and "how long does it last for?" But, from the other side, attacking an enemy without knowing his/her exact ability setup and probable equipment selection is also often suicide. You can only infer so much in that kind of game - not a bad thing by any means, but I'd say DotA-style games lean towards knowledge rather than intuitive mechanics.

Shane Murphy
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You've drawn an interesting distinction, Christopher, but your taxonomy is imprecise. I also have reservations about some of the points you've made.

I assume that -- in spite of your examples -- you do not mean to suggest that spatial relationships and modes of movement are prerequisites to natural counters; that would hardly give Pokemon (and other games without spatial relationship mechanics) a fair shake.

Rather, I believe you mean that for two given moves/characters, "A" and "B," an artificial counter takes the form "A defeats B." On the other hand, a natural counter takes the form "A has properties 'X,' 'Y,' and 'Z.' B has properties 'Q,' 'R,' and 'S.' Properties X, Y, Z function -- independently or in combination -- in such a manner that Q, and/or R, and/or S are counteracted or disadvantaged." Allow me to presume, for the sake of continuing my post, that my summation is correct.

In the examples you give of natural counters, A defeats B as surely as if had A functioned as an artificial counter. Thus, the only difference between the two classes of counter, as you have described them, is a small hurdle of interaction and intuition: to perform a natural counter, the player must properly understand how his tool (A) works, and be able to intuit how it might affect his adversary (B) given the adversary's evident mechanical properties.

This leads to one argument in favor of artificial counters: accessibility. In Pokemon, the player can readily apprehend the function of each of his moves through basic reading comprehension, and perhaps a trial usage or two. The artificial counter requires only memorization. The natural counter requires experience, intuition, execution, and memorization. Furthermore, people learn and remember classes of associated data more easily than they do isolated quanta of information. You skew the math a bit in comparing Pokemon with LoL: sure, you only have to learn 5 abilities when a new champion comes along, but to use them as effective counters -- natural or otherwise -- requires specific knowledge of the capabilities of each of the other 100+ champions. Learning 35 (or 37) new interactions when a new Type is introduced is a cakewalk by comparison, and it puts a greater number of different Pokemon at the player's disposal.

Also, it's unnecessarily reductive to imply that a game (like Pokemon) which uses an artificial counter system in necessarily less deep than one where natural counters predominate. Between switching mechanics, weather effects, and multiple moves per Pokemon, I'd say that franchise exemplifies an artificial counter system that still has a lot going on.

Thanks for writing this. I've checked out some of your other stuff, and I like the things you think about.


Christopher Gile
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I didn't mean to imply that all spatial based games use a system of natural counters, as I said Mega Man uses artificial counters and it is a spatial game. This implication was just a result of it being easier to illustrate how natural counters can completely shut down another tactic in terms of spatial situations as opposed to those that are number or concept based.

Going back to Pokemon, a properly built Breloom is the natural counter to a lot of pokemon who aren't built to deal with him because being poisoned heals him (this also prevents other major status conditions) and he can just use 'Spore' to put enemies to sleep, put out a substitute and hit them without any chance of getting hit back.

That explanation wasn't great, and requires a lot more detail and examples to really show why it is hard to work against it and what does work against it. In my LoL example, it is just that he doesn't get to punch her, end of explanation of why he is bad against her.

I would disagree that the artificial counters system is intrinsically easier to remember though as I have beaten all of the Pokemon games and still have to look up type effectiveness, or even what types certain pokemon are. The fact that they use the art to screw with you for some pokemon (Sudowoodo) just means that you can't rely on visual or contextual clues and have to memorize the type effectiveness of every type and the types of every pokemon. This is a lot, and I fail to see how "a trial usage or two" doesn't also apply to a system of natural counters.

I think you are right about accessibility being a big advantage of artificial counters (so long as it is clear what they are) as it allows the developer to simplify an aspect of the game, and the memorization problem can be mitigated by piggybacking the counters onto common understanding of the elements (fire vs water). But the downside is that this simplicity does come at a cost depth as no one really wants to play a turn based version of Rock Paper Scissors.

Richard Vaught
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I could be mistaken, and probably am, but this seems more like an issue of internal consistency in the game world. I mean, in your game world, if water is stronger than fire, than water should always be stronger than fire. If the player discovers, either though explicit instruction or intuition, that this is true then all situations where water is stronger than fire become 'natural' counters.

In the Pokemon example, the problem isn't whether or not it is a memory game, it is whether or not the games rules are internally consistent, and are these rules communicated to the player in a meaningful way. I get what you are driving at with your 'natural' and 'artificial' counters, but to my way of thinking, that is looking at the problem at a much higher level than it needs to be addressed.