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Analysis:  BlazBlue  & The Learning Curve

Analysis: BlazBlue & The Learning Curve

September 9, 2009 | By Andrew Vanden Bossche

September 9, 2009 | By Andrew Vanden Bossche
More: Console/PC

[Columnist Andrew Vanden Bossche digs into Arc System Works' BlazBlue to find questions about learning curves, how communities share knowledge, and the designer's role in helping players succeed.]

Have you ever tried to get your mother to play a video game? I attempted this many times in my youth. For her, it was like one of those nightmares where you're driving a car and the breaks don't work. For me, it was a unsuccessful fight to suppress my instincts as a backseat gamer (Shoot the monster! Shoot him! Now jump. JUMP!). I am very thankful for her patience.

Learning how to play a video game for the first time can be like learning how to walk on the moon. Experienced players know generally how their actions will be interpreted by a new game, since most games are built up out of commonly accepted conventions which makes it easy to try something new.

It takes minutes to adapt to a new game if you know what to expect. As a result, it’s easy to forget how hard games are to learn in the first place.

This I why I'm glad I picked up BlazBlue. It reminded me, for the first time in a long time, that videogames are hard. Knowing nothing but the basics can get a player through the game’s lethargic AI, but the computer can’t compare to a human opponent. There are a huge number of concepts and gameplay mechanics that aren’t even relevant until you get really competitive.

This isn’t limited to just BlazBlue. Nearly all fighters have a high level of play that, as it were, forces you to learn to walk all over again. It’s such a leap to competitive play that the game even includes a DVD of combos and strategies to help players along.

What I found particularly interesting is that nearly all of the deeper strategies came from fansites and players rather than official sources. Designers tend to leave the community to their own devices, but there’s more to this than just letting the fans do the work.

The Game Inside the Game

The arcades are dead in America, but even when they were thriving competition was limited to the local kids unless a big tournament was involved. Now that online is a regular part of console gaming, it really brings the depth of fighting games to everyone. Plunging into the deep end, however, can be a pretty big shock.

Online showed me just how much I had been missing. I’m rarely surprised but always impressed when people manage to break games, so I can say that I was somewhat prepared for how large the gap in skill was going to be. But what surprised me was the relationship players had with the guts of the game.

The fighting game community has its own exhaustive vocabulary, so technical it becomes easy to forget that it describes kicks and punches. They’ve researched the frame by frame information of each character so that everything happening every 1/60 of a second is accounted for.

What is interesting is that this isn’t above and beyond what the designers of BlazBlue were expecting. They created those frames knowing how they would be exploited, not to mention all of the dozen or so little techniques of offense and defense that you'd never need to know to beat the computer but suddenly makes the difference between life or death when you're up against a human and you need every shred of advantage you can get. They created a game about maybe half of which is too advanced for the average player to even be aware of.

It was as if I hadn’t even been playing the same game. And in many ways, it wasn't. Skill changes the game dramatically. Self learning has its limits. If I was more persistent, there might have been a point at which my Mom figured out how to run and jump and all that good stuff. But at this point, knowing the basics and being able beat the game, she wouldn’t have anything left to learn.

In a single player game, this is all you’d ever need to know. But in a multiplayer game, going above and beyond the computer is the only way to get better. That's why such dedicated communities form over these games. The only way to play better is to learn, and the game has nothing more to teach. Games like BlazBlue don’t even make an attempt to convey more advanced concepts to players. The average player isn’t fighting with his friends anymore, he’s fighting with a massive pool of players online.

Teach Me, Mr. Arc System Works!

This raises an interesting questions: should designers be more involved with their community? It is rarely productive to look for in-depth information through official sources. These tend to barely have any info on the actual game, let alone on how to play it. It’s the fan sites that have the hard data.

BlazBlue has a very friendly single player mode, but there’s no transition between this and fighting real people. Nothing tells you how to combo, or what playing against a real life opponent is actually like. BlazBlue explains how to perform all the moves and blocks and techniques, but does not explain why or when or in what circumstances they should be used. It’s the sort of thing that a master perfects, but a beginner doesn’t know where to start with.

What's with this love 'em and leave 'em attitude? Wouldn’t it be nice if the creators were involved with the community not just when it comes to balance and bug fixes, but to discussions of how people play the game? The fact that sites like Dustloop and Shoryuken exist shows that people are interested. Of course, it’s definitely true that figuring out the game is part of the fun, but for a casual player, the game itself doesn’t provide the instruction necessary to even grasp higher level play.

It's not like I expect Arc System Works to have personal trainers (although I kind of want to see that now). Metal Gear Online tried a mentor system that was supposed to allow experienced players to train new players, and while it can't really be called successful, it was a pretty interesting concept. A tutorial about the basics of competitive play, integrated in the game itself, might make the plunge a bit easier.

There isn’t much a computer can do to teach someone how to play a multiplayer game, since the experience depends completely on the players. But giving players tools for learning and instructing others is the next logical step. A senior BlazBlue player took a shine to me and brought me into a much higher level game that I learned a lot from, and a feature that encourages that effectively could go a long way towards introducing new players.

How To Help Us Help Ourselves

Moving into competitive play is like going from learning how to walk to running a marathon. Marathons look easy at first, right? All you have to do is:

1. Run
2. Do it for a long time

Of course, getting the human body into the condition where you can do that is a little harder, right? This is the difference between reading the frame data and having the reaction speed for that knowledge to matter.

Not everyone can be a master. The lifetime of one game isn’t nearly enough to develop the skill to be the best. The people who are great at games like BlazBlue have been playing fighting games for a long time.

This is the dilemma of information. Figuring out frame data and interpreting it is half of the game for the community. It's not for everyone, but for those who enjoy it, it's everything. I have fun figuring stuff out. But I also have more fun when I know what I’m doing. Many games require players to have this knowledge to make the most of them, but aren’t that good at teaching it.

In The Orange Box's commentary features, Valve designers discuss how they are always subtly teaching their players how to play by building concept upon concept. Of course, Valve’s multiplayer-only game, Team Fortress 2, doesn’t have the opportunity to do something like this. But they do have a few interesting features, like the deathcam, that let players learn from their mistakes.

By the same token, BB has a feature that lets you record movies or download them from other players. All of this is great, but it might not be enough.

Finishing It Off

It may eventually come to pass that what is done now through wikis and forums becomes integrated in the games themselves. Independent communities will never die and they have advantages that won't soon disappear, the game itself should provide more tools for this sort of discussion and experimentation

Companies like Valve and Blizzard update their games constantly and are in constant communication with their community. At the moment, though, this communication is focused primarily on issues of gameplay balance. It's the biggest concern that players have is how their game works. Especially in these very competitive games. So it's what they take to the table when discussions happen.

But will we see this (quite wonderful) back-and-forth relationship extend from game design discussion to gameplay discussion? Moving from just 'buff this, nerf that', to really talking about how people play the game.

[Andrew Vanden Bossche is a freelance writer. He has a blog called Mammon Machine, which discusses video games and things that you do on a computer that aren't video games, and can be reached at [email protected]]

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