Learning to Love Handicaps in Competitive Games
May 22, 2013 Page 1 of 6
I'm a huge fan of the N64 kart-racer Diddy Kong Racing. Actually, the N64 had a lot of great racing games. Many people are most familiar with Mario Kart 64, but I much preferred F-Zero X, WaveRace, and even the rarely praised ExciteBike 64.
All of these games shared a similar story for me, and I'll bet that I'm not entirely alone in my experience. Excited to get into this new game, I'd start playing it the day I picked it up. I'd play it a lot -- as all of these were all very tight and challenging games. Somewhere between a few hours and a few weeks after picking it up, depending on lifestyle, I'd get some friends over and play it multiplayer.
There are certainly those social groups that form around these games, playing routinely every night, or once per week, or some such pattern. For those groups, these titles likely lived long, healthy lives -- a long, head-to-head story of competition between rivals.
For most of us, though, the pattern tends to not come together that way. Often, it looks a bit more like this: you'd bring home the game, excitedly play it for awhile, eventually get a friend over to play...
...and you're squarely better than them, to the point where this otherwise great game effectively sucks now. You're so far ahead that you never even interact. It's not fun for either of you, and you'll very likely not play again.
I refer to this as a problem of "skill deficits" -- a difference in two competitors' levels of ability. Very few games can survive this, if any, and it's arguable that those who do aren't worth playing. It's also, in a practical world, somewhat unavoidable. People are going to achieve different levels of skills in games. It's even arguable that the larger the possible ranges of skill-levels possible, the more credit the game deserves. This is what we generally refer to as "depth" in gameplay.
So, while skill deficits are not avoidable, they are manageable. The question is, how are we managing them? Are developers really aware of this problem, and if so, why are some developers making design calls that exacerbate it? Worst of all -- could we be making destructive design calls that damage our games, winning a pyrrhic victory on the war against skill deficits?
Analyzing the Problem
Skill deficits are a problem, but they aren't necessarily a problem of any particular game. In other words, I don't hold the skill deficit problem against F-Zero. In fact, it's important that players of vastly greater skill are able to win by large margins. This expresses the dynamism and depth of the system which most of us agree are important qualities for games to have. Games, it's largely agreed, are systems heavily dependent on learning. If learning is possible, then it naturally follows that bad players turn into good, leaving those who have played less behind.
So skill deficits are a problem that we can't necessarily blame the game itself for. I'll get into who we can blame later, but for now, it's worth having a solid understanding of why skill deficits are actually a problem.
The situation I described above, wherein players end up not playing a great game due to skill deficits is not the problem, but rather a symptom of the problem. The real problem is that the contest element of games -- the "let's see who is going to win" aspect -- is not present.
This contest element is crucial, because it presents the players with a non-pre-determined outcome in which their choices (input) have influence. Surely we can all agree that player input should matter in a game, but if the outcome is predetermined -- as is essentially the case in a vastly outmatched contest -- then your input essentially does not matter.
On paper, that seems like it should be problematic. In reality, it's also known to be problematic. Who wants to play against someone that they truly know they won't win against? For that matter, who really wants to play against someone that they truly know they won't lose against?
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