Inquiring Minds Want to Know: Gating Power Behind Mechanical Skill

A while ago designers at Riot Games suggested that they didn’t intend to make the more mechanically difficult characters stronger. They viewed mechanical difficulty as an opt-in experience for those interested in that particular kind of challenge.

On the other hand, fighting games often make the harder-to-play characters the strongest ones. The Street Fighters series’ Yun and Guilty Gear’s Zato-1 are both top-tier characters–in some versions of those games, dominant characters–who are very difficult to pick up.

I’ve been struggling with which approach is better for a while, and I haven’t come to any firm conclusions. Certainly I find Riot’s position appealing; it’s not obvious that mechanical challenge directly equates to interesting decisions. Furthermore, when the mechanically difficult characters are better they inevitably rise to the top of the tier lists; players will practice as much as they need to to access their power. However, Jay has reminded me previously that getting the mechanics down is part of the fun for some players; they are attaining a kind of mastery that’s important to the game, and perhaps they should be rewarded for it.

Are games with a mechanical component inherently so focused on the physical requirements of playing that we should reward players who are the best at them? Or are mechanics just a buffer between a “real game” that plays out in decisions and a “physical game” that we want to reflect the real game as perfectly as possible?

5 thoughts on “Inquiring Minds Want to Know: Gating Power Behind Mechanical Skill

  1. If by ‘mechanically difficult’, you mean that executing one or more of a character’s moves requires a ‘difficult’ set of button pushes, requiring tricky timing and possibly long chains of actions, I think that ultimately this isn’t what should determine whether someone wins a tournament or not.

    To me, fighting games are ultimately about the interaction between the two players – things like faint, dodge, and parry. You try to learn your opponents patterns while keeping your own dynamic enough that they can’t be guessed. To me that is closer to the essence of a (strategy) game, as opposed to a performance of perfect button presses in perfect timing (though I would say the ‘dance dance revolution’ game series is an exception to this).

    To debate via extreme example – if there was a character that had an ultimate combo that required 100 button presses but guaranteed kill, and everyone tried to exclusively focus on mastering that move, the game would be pretty boring, or at least heartless to me.

    I think it’s better to reward those who can out-think their opponent, one reason being that it’s closer to a real fight. I’m not into any physical fighting, but I’m pretty sure winning is more about the right choice and timing of moves instead of a complex combo of moves that are mechanically challenging. (Of course things like endurance also come into play here).

    1. I really like how you put it, that the interaction with opponents is at the heart of a strategy game. I absolutely agree with that point. At the same time, I think you’ve called out something vitally important–that there are things that can be measured other than raw strategy.

      I actually did study several different martial arts when I was younger. None of them involved anything mechanically difficult as you define it (which is exactly what I meant by the term as well). However, there was a tremendous gap between decision and execution. Even when I understood conceptually that *this* attack required *that* response, and could do the response in a vacuum, it wasn’t always easy to make it happen in a full-speed, unpredictable situation.

      Your example of endurance, if I’m understanding it correctly, drives this point home. There can be factors going into decisions other than raw data; various forces might limit a player’s ability to decide correctly, or limit the ability to put a decision into effect. It’s possible for a game to operate on a level other than pure strategic considerations.

      As I think about it, *some* mechanical difficulty in inputs might serve to model this. It’s harder to execute even simple moves in a real game than in practice mode, and it gets harder still when the match is close-fought. Mechanical difficulty could, if implemented correctly, pose the same challenge as nerves do in a physical battle: can you keep it together under pressure? Or will you get sloppy, falling back on simple attacks and easy defenses?

      I’m reminded of Mike Tyson’s greatest line. A reporter mentioned to Tyson that his opponent had a plan to beat him. Tyson responded, “they all have a plan until they get hit.” Most games don’t involve actually getting punched, but mechanical difficulty could help impose the challenge of executing a game plan under pressure.

      Perhaps that’s the answer–that whether mechanical expertise should be rewarded depends on the role it’s playing in the design? In some games it’s doing work, such as by modeling something that a person in the real/fictional world would have to be good at to succeed. Where mechanical expertise is a requirement that’s extraneous to what makes the game interesting, the designer needs to think about why it’s there in the first place.

      1. Good point, at least in theory, about mechanical difficulty representing real difficulty in the “real” versions of the activities being modeled. Problem is that moving a joystick various directions quickly is a pretty bad model of any real martial art, though it does model the ‘nervous’ factor (and the response time factor) a bit, so maybe it’s OK after all.

        A shooting game that used a fake gun as a controller would be a good example where the mechanical difficulty is closer to the real thing (though I am not into those games much).

        1. That’s a fair point. We may be bumping up against a limit on what’s feasible; board and video games can only get so close to the experiences of actually being struck or exhausted. Any simulation of those factors will probably have to be pretty removed from the real thing.

          1. Yeah. Ultimately, we have to admin that most of us play games for the simple reason they are fun. Reminds me when there was research shown (many years back) that Chess master’s abilities didn’t apply much to other domains, which to me was a surprise since I assume you had to be “smart” to win at such games.

            Though “fun” is a bit too specific, since (well written) games can put us through other emotions, such as sadness.

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