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Rock Paper Scissors - and why games don't really get it
by tony oakden on 11/20/12 05:36:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
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The Rock Paper Scissors and why games don't get it

I was inspired to write this blog after reading this excellent post about Richard Garfield and Magic the Gathering. It's topical for me because this is the game most of my students are playing at the moment, and Richard has a lot of inciteful things to say as to why the game is so successful. But one thing he says niggles me a bit. “Rock-paper-scissors’ structure — where every element of a game is strong against a different element — is incredibly helpful to keep in mind while balancing”.

OK so what’s wrong with that? On the face of it it’s true. In the game rock paper scissors (hence forth abbreviated to RPS) every move is potentially a winning and a losing move. So you choose your move knowing that there is an even chance of either winning or losing, play against another person and it’s fun, my kids love playing it.

What game designers often claim is that because RPS works so well it makes a great template for a game design where every element in a game should be balanced by another element. So weapons are balanced by rate of fire, reload times, pitted against matching armour etc.  Great effort is put into making sure that weapons and armour have weeknesses and strength so there is no "one size fits all" winning strategy.

But is it this balancing which makes the original RPS fun? Well there is a big difference IMO between the way this system is used in most computer games and the way it works in the original game. In RPS players go simultaneously and they play blind.  In other words you have no idea what the other person is going to play. 

How can that be fun?  The game play comes from the fun of playing with another human and trying to double guess what they are likely to play next. In fact there are tournaments for RPS where players go for big prizes and some people are clearly much better at the game than others even though on the face of it the game is pure chance.

I’d suggest it’s because some people are much better at reading the emotions of others (much like in Poker) and much better at predicting what someone else is likely to do. That’s what makes RPS fun, not the perfectly balanced game design, which on paper at least, looks pretty dull.

My problem is that when game designers take inspiration from RPS they usually don’t retain this core play element, the simultaneous blind play against a human opponent. In computer games the player usually chooses the weapon or armour after seeing what the enemy has.  It becomes a tactical choice in other words.  

So the game play comes down to nothing more than the player learning what weapons and strategies work in particular places and sticking to that optimum strategy. Personally I don’t think this is interesting and it’s one of the principle reasons I don’t play RPG any more.  

I'm not saying weapons and armour shoudn't be balanced or that all games should make use of blind/simultaneous play.  But I think we need to be a bit more careful about how we reference Rock Paper Scissors in our discussions. 

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Kasan Wright
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Whenever I refer to RPS in terms of using it for game balancing, I'm always thinking of how it's used in Street Fighter. Street Fighter has lots of great RPS moments, especially during the wake up game. There is no one, surefire way to always win any interaction in SF, it's a constant mind reading game of RPS. To some degree, even selecting a character to play as in SF is an RPS game in and of itself (when playing online at least).

I would consider these uses genuine, double-blind RPS moments and they tend to work well in continuous, action-oriented, skill based games like SF and Call of Duty.

If we're talking about balancing interactions that are turn-based I usually don't think of these in terms of instant, hard-counter RPS, but instead as cost-benefit considerations that play out over a longer period of time based on evident or assumed information.

For instance, the opponent is in "State A" (normal state). If I do "Action B", then it has clear pros and cons (e.g. the cost of the action vs. the damage done). From there, the opponent will be in "State C" (damaged or vulnerable) and will have to either do "Action C" or "Action D" each of which has their own pros and cons (average cost recovery or low cost counter attack). Depending on what they do, my state and action opportunities will change, etc.

While there is no simultaneous double-blind, there are clear trade-offs to doing one thing or another dependant on what the opponent does. Over the long-term it can feel like a very strategic level RPS where certain strategies counter-balance other strategies and keep the game from having one dominant, always win strategy because you just don't know how the opponent will respond so you constantly have to readjust to counter strategies.

I think this is one of the reasons I tend to use the RPS analogy myself when talking about game balance.


tony oakden
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Yes I think PVP games can come the closest to RPS in terms of gameplay. Probably because they exhibit many of the same double guessing and double bluffing strategies. Beat-em-ups are a pretty good example of RPS working in a computer game. RPS doesn't work so well in single player games because single player games tend to be about solving a succession of predefined puzzles.

Svein-Gunnar Johansen
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One of the reasons RPS work in fighting games is that you are at all times carrying the rock, the paper and the scissors. In role playing games, particularly ones that favor specialization, you may find that you are only able to carry one of the tools at any one time.

An example of a role playing game element that works partially based on RPS is the Red-Mage job in Final Fantasy XI. It is the "jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none" job of the game. It succeeds by being able to carry all the proverbial tools at the same time, but they are comparatively weak (paper does not beat rock 100% of the time) compared to the specialized jobs. It gives you an increased pool of things you can accomplish, but a decreased chance for successfully pulling them off compared to a specialized job that might carry a paper that beats rock 100% of the time.

In a strictly mechanical game (for instance in a board game) this would not work well, but in an interactive computer game, it can work if the decreased percentages can be compensated for with player skill.

Luke Phillips
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I do not like the idea of competitive games based on chance like a RPS game where decisions are simultaneous, especially for video games where you cannot read the persons emotion because they are a stranger with no face miles away.
RPS that wasn't simultaneous that only involved learning the best strategy wouldn't be fun either though. However, I enjoy playing chess and chess has a prefect strategy, the only problem is that nobody knows it because it's too complex.
So I believe a really complex game would be fun, or one that involves some chance (simultaneous rps) as well as time to react to stimuli (opponents strategy)

Chris Toepker
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Agreed, and may I add: I have never been satisfied with the RPS analogy, especially for M:TG. The first thing is on the surface where you have five different things instead of three, which makes for a better dynamic (blind or not). Secondly, there are actually inherent weaknesses, which are every bit as important as the strengths. Because of personal experience, I cannot help but relate the five colors to the Five Elements of China where one thing leads to another, yet across from it is its nemesis. This makes the blindness both incredibly empowering and frighteningly...well, blind. Finally, the RPS syndrome is also used to criticize games for being too simple. My favorite example is Ubisofts "End War." Critics conveniently read the tutorial copy and concluded the game overly simply because tanks beat transports, transports beat helicopters, helicopters beat tanks. Sadly, they seemingly completely missed two important aspects which speak to the blind aspects you mention, IMHO. For example, the other units (two kinds of infantry, artillery and "special" ops like air strikes) do not fit into an RPS mode at all, and how your opponent decides to pursue them in the game is something you have to figure out right quick. For another example, in the multiplayer game your army is persistent and you can invest bettering some units over others. When you go up against someone else, are they pursuing assault tactics, tactical (artillery), airborne or something else? Both make for a finely tuned, totally empowering and yet ultimately frightening blindness.

Peter Eisenmann
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I think the main, or rather the sole, intention behind introducing the whole RPS thing into video games is to make sure there is no single "best" unit, weapon, tactic. Which is one of the most basic gameplay principles for any sensible game experience.