Theory: Rubber Bands

Many games have “rubber bands”–mechanisms that help a player who’s fallen behind catch up–designed into them. Done right, they keep matches entertaining throughout their duration. Done wrong, rubber bands make good play meaningless. It’s important, when adding one to your game, to make sure your rubber band is one of the good ones by using it to create new, interesting decisions for both players rather than simply punishing the leader.

Rubber Bands Done Right: Street Fighter 4 Ryu’s Metsu Hadouken

Street Fighter 4’s catch-up mechanism is the “ultra” move, a high-damage attack which a player can only use after taking a beating. Ultras are a classic rubber band: if a player is getting crushed, the ultra can even the score. They’re also, in at least some cases, very good rubber bands; when they become available they bring a suite of new, challenging decisions for both players.

Ryu, one of SF4’s characters, has a really well-designed ultra in his Metsu Hadouken. This ultra is a gigantic fireball that does a great deal of damage if it catches the opponent off-guard. It ticks the most basic comeback mechanism box, in that it allows the player using it to catch up.

Ryu winds up for a Metsu Hadouken in Street Fighter 4
Ryu winds up for a Metsu Hadouken in Street Fighter 4

However, the Metsu Hadouken doesn’t do a great deal of work for its player. If he or she just panics and tosses it out there, the opponent can easily block or avoid it. Players need to outwit the opponent and create an opening for this mega-attack, with all the decision-making and strategizing that entails.

The opponent also has decisions to make when the Metsu Hadouken charges up. Experienced players know that there are a limited number of setups that are guaranteed to make the Metsu Hadouken land. Priorities shift as the opponent reevaluates Ryu’s options in light of whether they do or do not lead to the Metsu Hadouden.

Landing or avoiding the attack, however, is just the surface issue.. Would it be better not to use the Metsu Hadouken to catch up, but rather to save it as a way to close out the game after non-ultra-aided comeback? Since the Metsu Hadouken does more damage as one takes more damage, maybe waiting would be best even if there’s a guaranteed setup available right now? Which setups are likely to work against this opponent, in light of his or her behavior and the character he or she is playing? If the opponent knows which setups are most likely to work, what will he or she do in response? The more understanding one has of Street Fighter 4 and its strategy, the more complicated using and defeating the Metsu Hadouken become.

David Sirlin has argued that ultra combos are a problematic element of SF4, and this has led to some internet discussion to the effect that he hates rubber bands in general and ultras specifically. When one goes back to the original source, however, one finds a more nuanced argument: that comeback mechanisms can be good when applied in moderation, that SF4 may need one in light of its overall design, and that there’s a balance between the elegance of designing a game that doesn’t need rubber bands and the advantage of tapping into their appeal. I agree with all of that. My argument is not that catch-up mechanisms are always good, but rather is that if one is going to include a rubber band Ryu’s Metsu Hadouken is a good source of inspiration.

This, then, is a catch-up mechanism done right. It does its job, but only for players who deploy some skill. Both sides have new, difficult decisions to make when the rubber band draws taut. As one improves new layers to the strategy surrounding the mechanism are revealed, no matter which side of the fireball one might be on. The Metsu Hadouken lets players catch up, but it does so in ways that reward skill and good play.

Rubber Bands Done Wrong: Wii Mario Kart’s Blue Shell

There may be no more hated item a player can pick up in all of gaming than the infamous blue shell. Players despise it, and with good reason: the blue shell negates good decisions rather than creating them.

Here’s how it works. Wii Mario Kart is a racing game. The blue shell hunts down whoever is currently in the lead, and stops that player dead in his or her tracks. It’s possible to avoid the blue shell, but it’s exceptionally difficult, so much so that many players don’t think it can be done–indeed, they don’t even try. Getting hit doesn’t ensure that one will fall back in the standings, but anyone who is anywhere nearby will be able to pass. It isn’t uncommon for the leader to drop back to the middle of the pack after a blue shell.

Abandon hope, all ye targeted by the blue shell
Abandon hope, all ye targeted by the blue shell

Everything the Metsu Hadouken does right, the blue shell does wrong. Are there decisions for the player using it to make? Very few; as a general rule, if one is not currently winning one uses the blue shell as soon as one gets it. Decisions for the leader? Almost none, since the blue shell can only be avoided in specific situations which rarely obtain. Even when they do the decision is completely binary–do you try the trick, or not–and “try” is essentially always the right answer.

There is, of course, a way to be almost completely safe from blue shells: don’t be the leader. In a racing game, however, it seems perverse to incentivize players not to try for first place. Mario Kart doesn’t become more exciting or skill-testing if the players are grinding their way slowly around the track, jockeying for second.

Hence, the effect of the blue shell is to undo the leader’s work while leaving almost no possible response. It punishes racing skill; the better one is, the more

likely one is to be the target of an unavoidable attack that leaves one in 4th place or worse. Blue shells are a rubber band, yes, but in carrying out their function they commit grievous design sins: they discourage good decisions and promote a boring style of play.

If you’re looking at your game and thinking players need a bit of help catching up, a rubber band can be a good way to solve your problem. Just make sure that it makes the game more interesting–for both the followers and the leader. Use it to ratchet up the tension and give players new ways to show their skill.

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