Thinking on Your Feet

Blizzcon is in 3 weeks.  Typically the “hate train” lasts only 2 weeks in the collective consciousness of the internet mob.  Interesting to see where this ends up, and who gets sucked into it.  (Related: I do believe in ethical purchased, but ethics are personal… so to each their own.)

I was at the rink the other day watching some kids take a practice, talking to another coach.  I also played a couple times this week (another tonight), then took a pint with the guys afterwards.  For anyone that’s played any sport at a competitive level, there are points of reference in a game where you know people understand the fundamentals, or they understand the meta.

I’ll use hockey here, but this applies to any sport.  There are rules that govern how the players participate – # of players, positions, timing, offsides, points, and so on.  Anyone can learn those rules.  Then there’s the skill level of the sport, how fast can you move, your level of agility, or reaction time.  Elite athletes spend 12 months a year on this, close to 6 days a week.  It’s a job, and there’s always someone hunting to take it from you, so some motivation!

Then we get to vision.  I’ll take a sidebar here and discuss chess.  The really good chess players have memorized key positions and plays, and they reference them with each turn, selecting the move they think best fits.  It isn’t just one chess piece, they are seeing 5-6 into the future, setting up their long term plays.    It may seem to be a long game, but most times you know who’s going to win after 10 moves and the rest is just playing out the game to it’s natural end.

Back to hockey (or any other group sport).  There are key positions and plays that exist, and the coaching staff has a preference for their team.  Some prefer a stretch pass game, where they beat on speed.  Others prefer a 2-1-2 game of passing for an open one-timer.  Dump and chase.  Drop passes.  The somewhat new 1-3-1 PP.  Then there’s the defensive structure to counter those plays.

Hockey (soccer/rugby/basketball too) are fluid games, in the sense that the amount of time you have to adapt to a play is very small.  This makes the game generally more dynamic, and inserts a level of randomness compared to something like US football.  For people who understand the sport at that level, they can see plays coming well in advance.  Not so much a goal (since the goalies have a say in that) but in the opportunity of scoring.  Without that understanding, people still have a sense of awe to what happened because a clean play transcends a sport.  Who doesn’t appreciate a long-ball alley-oop in basketball?


A lot of games have this reactionary model.  It’s why team-based competitions focus so much on practice of plays, and paying attention to their opponents.  True, actions-per-minute have a dramatic impact on success, but the wisdom to read a play, adapt, and execute a counter is amazing to watch.  The hiccup here is that a game has a limited shelf-life, or for the longer-term ones, the rule sets change over time.  The level of expertise/wisdom for a game therefore only lasts a short window (LoL/DOTA are a different conversation.)

It’s hard to build a game with the level of depth required to stand out.  Battle-chess can never really stick around because it’s not player driven, and the strategies are extremely limited.  FPS games have inherent limitations due mainly to map memorization, they need more horizontal options to add that complexity (see Titanfall).

Now there’s a ceiling and a floor for this concept.  The floor is the minimum understanding required to participate.  Games with incredible complexity often require a serious amount of player knowledge to even play (most CCG, EvE, or P&P RPG).  That limits the potential playerbase.  The ceiling is the point at which good players are separated from amazing players.  The closer that spread, the shorter the ceiling.  There aren’t a whole lot of games out there with low floors and high ceilings, which would cast the largest potential net of players and spectators.  Say what you want about Fortnite, but the floor/ceiling in that game is a WIDE spread, and adaptive play is essential for people to success (without aim bots).

Game design is hard.  Great game design is a rare event, that requires a spectacular team and vision.  And like a great sports play, by playing a great game you just know from a quick look that it’s going to be a good time.

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