Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Complexity vs Depth in Games

A popular argument these days in game design is whether it's better for games to be more complex or not.  StarCraft 2 is a great examples of a game where this argument comes up frequently.  StarCraft 2 met with much criticism upon release because fans of StarCraft 1 complained that StarCraft 2 lacked "depth."

In order to really understand the issue, first, we need to talk about what "depth" is.in terms of competitive games.  I believe a fair definition of "depth" in this case is how much room the game allows for players to distinguish themselves in terms of skill as measured by success.

For example, a game like tic-tac-toe lacks depth because there is not much room to distinguish one player from another in terms of skill.  The game doesn't have nearly enough possible states, so it can be played perfectly.  The small number of possible states also means that the average player can follow this perfect line of play without much experience.

A game like chess has a lot more depth, because there are a huge number of possible board states, so it's nearly impossible for a human player to play perfectly.  It's fair to say that the rules of the game are relatively simple by today's standards, though.  A player can learn the rules of the game fairly quickly, and mechanical execution is trivially simple.

Competitive real time games like StarCraft 2 include the element of mechanical skill while still requiring strategic skill since they occur in real time.  Mechanical skill introduces another layer of depth since it adds another dimension in which players can distinguish themselves in skill.  In fact, the top professional players of these sorts of games tend to be young (15 to 20 years old) since they need to have quick reflexes and nimble hands.

StarCraft 2 was criticized upon release for removing certain mechanical skill requirements that existed in StarCraft 1.  One example is unit production.  In StarCraft 1, a player had to quickly cycle through all of his production buildings to order units to be produced.  In StarCraft 2, a player could select all of his production buildings at the same time and the game would automatically distribute unit production among those buildings, removing the need to cycle through all the buildings one at a time.  Players complained that this removed depth from the game.

It's pretty clear from our definition of depth that this design decision removed complexity and consequently some depth from the game.  Players who were better at cycling through buildings to produce units while juggling all of the other game tasks were able to gain an advantage.  But what these players forgot to ask themselves was whether this is good depth.  Is this an interesting skill that people like to see?  Should the winner of the match bet determined by who cycles through buildings better?

Removing this sort of complexity allows the winner to be determined by more interesting skills, such as strategic decision-making and actual micromanagement in combat.  There is still clearly more than enough depth in the game for professional players to distinguish themselves in skill, as seen by the endless shifts in who the top players are.  Players are continually developing new strategies and builds to counter the current top players.

Thus, Blizzard appears to have made the right choice.  Complexity for the sake of complexity is not necessarily good depth.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Skill Ratings in Games

In competitive games, rating player skill is a very hard to solve problem.  Not simply because player skill is a very broad concept, but because players have unrealistic views of their own skill level.

Skill in a game can best be approximated by a player's ability to influence the outcome of a game favorably.  This can take the form of anything from mechanical skill, to the ability to communicate.  Sometimes, you'll see players who are mechanically skilled but socially inept be unable to succeed in team based games.  Then they end up complaining about their teammates and blaming their teammates for their losses.

Players tend to overestimate their own skill level in a Dunning-Kruger fashion.  The majority of players think they are well above average in skill, which is a clear impossibility.  Part of this comes from players not wanting to accept responsibility for failure.  It's much easier to blame other players or circumstances when you lose.  Another part of this comes from most games being designed to make the player feel good about how well he does.  Games reward you for every little thing you do right.

I have seen countless posts on various gaming forums for countless games in which players complain about the skill rating system in the game because they feel that it does not work in some fashion.  There's actually quite a lot of math and statistics behind modern skill rating systems that show that they actually do work.

Nowadays, game developers have resorted to hybrid progression / skill rating systems, which allow players to have the convenient excuse that they simply don't "grind" progression as much as the other players who are at a higher level.  Players who play a lot and are truly competitive will reach their appropriate skill rating, whereas the players who play less can pretend that their lower skill rating is due to them playing less.  Of course there is some truth to this, since skill improves with practice.

If only the masses understood skill.

Saturday, May 16, 2015


I'm really impressed with how far T-mobile has come in the last few years. I was hesitant to switch to their service because they used to have a pretty weak reputation, but now their coverage is fine.

On top of that, they offer non subsidized cell service, so the monthly rate is really low as long as you buy your own phone. Today I realized that they even allow free tethering so you can use your cell phone as an access point for your tablet or laptop.

Those were the biggest complaints I had about the other carriers, so now I'm sold on T-mobile.