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The Problem With Innovation
November 19, 2012 2:29 AM   Subscribe

With the recent release of the new instalment of first-person shooter goliath Call of Duty, Activision is poised to make another cool gazillion dollars or so. In fact, the game is popular with many gamers except for one significant group -- the professional ones: "The new games can bring all kinds of changes. Guns fire differently. The physics of the world have been tweaked. This makes it challenging and fun for casual players, but it’s a nightmare scenario for pros. The most important thing for professionals is to be able to practice and play the same game, with the same rules, for years and years to hone their skills. (Imagine if they completely changed the rules of Major League Baseball every year, using different balls, spacing the bases further apart, adding a fourth outfielder.)"
posted by bardic (57 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
Press (X) to play a tiny violin.
posted by Mikey-San at 2:43 AM on November 19, 2012 [71 favorites]


Isn't this representative of the gaming industry as a whole, which is moving away from catering to specific hardcore gamers, and is instead creating simpler games with more a mass appeal for casual gamers?
posted by KokuRyu at 2:45 AM on November 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


But the games that are big in "esports", Starcraft, League of Legends, get patched all the time, no? The big tournament fighting games, Ultimate Marvel Versus Capcom 3 and Super Street Fighter 4 have gone through a couple patch cycles, themselves. People piss and moan about stuff being nerfed, or things being OP, or tiers in fighting games changing, but players adjust.

I watch a shitload of "esports", I've watched hundreds of hours of King of Fighters 13 of all things. CoD and MoH just suck to watch, if people liked to watch it, there would bentournaments, and the pro players would keep up with the changes.
posted by Ad hominem at 2:52 AM on November 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


using different balls

On my way home from work when I lived in Atlanta, I used to drive past a batting cage and every so often I'd stop and feed some quarters into one of those old-fashioned throwing arm machines. One perfect pitch after another and because you see the wind-up, hitting a 90 mph fastball wasn't too hard. After a summer or two, I could pretty much hit anything that machine could throw and it was very satisfying, but it wasn't much of a game.

One day, the old machine was gone and a new, shinier one was in it's place. As I pulled my usual bat from the barrel and handed over some bills to be changed the man says to me, "You're gonna need more quarters. This one throws curve balls."

Not only that. It could vary the settings from pitch to pitch. Being able to experience a change-up was really mind blowing. A 90 MPH pitch followed by one at 70 MPH. And then a real, proper dropping curve ball. That was the coolest machine ever and more like "real" baseball and more like a game. But I really sucked at it.
posted by three blind mice at 2:53 AM on November 19, 2012 [17 favorites]


Good thing I have online poker to fall back on.
posted by thelonius at 2:55 AM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


I just learned that there are professional video game players. Does this mean there are people who pay to watch other people play video games? Or does the money come from advertisers?
posted by pracowity at 3:06 AM on November 19, 2012


Yes, the last EVO had 720p streams that cost money to watch. There are also exhibition matches where you might have to pay a couple bucks for the video.
posted by Ad hominem at 3:17 AM on November 19, 2012


It seems to me that having to learn a new game regularly is something that ought to be good for the professional gamer theatre, even if it's tough for individual players. It means that there'll be more scope for new players to enter the arena, enabling them to stand on a more level playing field than if they had to compete against someone whose been playing for years. It should make the competition more interesting, because you no longer have challengers and favourites - everyone's a newcomer so anything could happen.
posted by talitha_kumi at 3:18 AM on November 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


At least it's not Smash Brothers. Smash Brothers enthusiasts are so profoundly reviled for being enormous gaping assholes that they were thrown out of EVO and never invited back after a bunch of them decided that they disagreed with the tournament's ruleset and tried to force the winner to give his trophy to the runner-up.
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:18 AM on November 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


does the money come from advertisers?

gamer hardware endorsements like the "fatal1ty" motherboard are an example... merchandising, sponsorships, advertising.
posted by thewalrus at 3:19 AM on November 19, 2012


At least it's not Smash Brothers. Smash Brothers enthusiasts are so profoundly reviled for being enormous gaping assholes that they were thrown out of EVO and never invited back after a bunch of them decided that they disagreed with the tournament's ruleset and tried to force the winner to give his trophy to the runner-up.

I think you have to have the mindset of a ten year old to play that game. I know my son loves it.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:24 AM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Maybe I'm not a good enough player (I'm actually really bad) to appreciate the subtleties but to me, each iteration of Call of Duty has felt and played much like the last; in fact I thought this was a common criticism of each new version. I would be interested to read what keeps changing and how that's bad for these professionals, but without specific examples the analogy to "changing the rules of Major League Baseball' seems a bit hyperbolic.
posted by Flashman at 3:28 AM on November 19, 2012


It seems to me that having to learn a new game regularly is something that ought to be good for the professional gamer theatre, even if it's tough for individual players. It means that there'll be more scope for new players to enter the arena

People make that point every once and a while when a new 2d fighter like skullgirls or Persona 4 Arena comes out, they argue everyone should adopt it and start staging major tournaments, just to level the playing field. Street fighter has been around for so long that the same handful of people have been the best in the world for like 10 years now.
posted by Ad hominem at 3:34 AM on November 19, 2012


Press (X) to play a tiny violin.

Ugh I hate Quicktime events.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 3:36 AM on November 19, 2012 [24 favorites]


Flashman, the biggest change year to year is maps. The field of play generally change each year, although there are some holdouts like the Nuketown map that is in again. Additional changes are to the weapon damage, range and accuracy which will kick weapon familiarity square in the arse.

It is true that sometimes you get an iteration that is dull and extremely similar to previous editions. I felt that way with Modern Warfare 3 when it came out. While a matter of preference, I felt I wasted $60. I didn't play MW3 ever again after the first week of ownership.

Black Ops 2 really does a number on the formula by changing the entire load out method. You still create custom classes but it is based on a 'pick ten' system. Grab whatever you want until you've used up 10 points. You aren't forced to grab an item just because they gave you a slot. I have a load out with no weapons at all except a knife. It really allows extra freedom to play as you want.

So while this may not be some earth shattering change, it is enough to alter everyone's play style in order to compensate for the changes in the opponent.
posted by JakeEXTREME at 4:00 AM on November 19, 2012


I think you have to have the mindset of a ten year old to play that game. I know my son loves it.

Hah! No, to play in Smash Brothers tournaments, you must adhere to a strict set of rules, play without items and using only a small subset of characters, and usually only on a particular level which is totally flat. Nobody sucks ALL THE FUN out of a game like SSB fanatics.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:20 AM on November 19, 2012 [5 favorites]


Virtual world problems?

Oh, wait, this isn't Reddit. I get confused.
posted by humboldt32 at 4:23 AM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


After they unveiled the Power Glove right at the start of that one SMB3 tournie, it was all downhill from there. I mean, how do you top that?
posted by robocop is bleeding at 4:29 AM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


If professional games every became the economic engine driving the game, then the games would change for them - but until then, the average consumer is king.
posted by Flood at 4:33 AM on November 19, 2012


I enjoy watching e sports. I've tried watching COD and I think it sucks as a spectators game, yearly changes or not.

One advantage that halo and tf2 have over it is its a lot easier to see who is who at a glance. Football teams have uniforms for a reason. Two different colors of camo doesn't count as a sports uniform.
posted by empath at 5:13 AM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Press (X) to play a tiny violin.
posted by Mikey-San


The tiny violin is only available to folks who purchased their game from GameStop. From Target they got a tiny trumpet that would play taps. Other sound effects are available too, but those are released as pay-to-play content, including the sound of dogs barking Christmas carols. Unfortunately, every bit of DLC also comes with the sound of Vince Zampella and Jason West rolling in a pit of money laughing maniacally.
posted by Nanukthedog at 5:25 AM on November 19, 2012 [18 favorites]


I feel the same way about Microsoft office
posted by roboton666 at 5:28 AM on November 19, 2012 [6 favorites]


Oh, wait, this isn't Reddit. I get confused.
Dang. And I even had a great "TIL: Professional Gamers exist, and are winey little btards." to go with this.
posted by Blue_Villain at 5:33 AM on November 19, 2012


1. Release new game version targeted to professional players.
2. Sell (potentially) a few thousand copies.
3. Profit(?)

1. Release new game version targeted to non-professional players.
2. Sell millions of copies.
3. Profit!!!!
posted by BozoBurgerBonanza at 5:35 AM on November 19, 2012


But the games that are big in "esports", Starcraft, League of Legends, get patched all the time, no?

Speaking about LoL: it gets patched every 2 weeks, which generally includes a new character. However, most of its patches are relatively minor--tweaks to how strong a character gets, how far they can aim, etc. The core game mechanics, and the 'feel' of the game, remain the same from year to year.

Let's take a look at an early version of some patch notes for a recently released patch:
Amumu

Bandage Toss range lowered to 1075 from 1100.*

Elise

Cocoon now reveals the target in addition to stunning them.
Neurotoxin's AP Ratio increased to .03 AP from .02 AP.
Spider Form's bonus damage ratio increased to .3 AP from .2 AP
The bandage toss nerf is a 2.7% change. The changes to Elise are in the form of fractions of a percent.

While total reworks aren't unheard of (Karma, stealth/Evelynn), it's only because the mechanic (stealth, dodge) or champion (Karma, Eve) are deemed so useless/broken (or so confusing/frustrating, in dodge's case) as to warrant a change.

There are also inter-season reworks (one is being teased right now) that change a lot of things--making different strategic choices for the behind-the-scenes stat pages, for instance. But even these stat pages tend to have a relatively small effect on gameplay (the current 'top' skill in Offense, that takes a lot of investment of points to get to, increases damage on low-health targets by a whopping 6%) and essentially serves as a boon for people who know what they're doing. They're also changing the items you buy in-game (with fake money, not real money), but again, that really doesn't change the core gameplay so much as open up your options during a game.

Despite all the changes, the characters tend to 'feel' the same, and the goals are the same, and the maps are almost never changed. You don't have to re-learn the game, just need to remember some new math.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 5:39 AM on November 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


and the maps are almost never changed.

That is one thing I noticed as a very very casual observer. There seems to be only one map every played.

I think there is an important distinction between LoL and other games mentioned. LoL is free to play. The owners of the other franchises are going to want to periodically sell new versions to make money. Will we an even bigger shift away from big release games like Starcraft towards F2P games like LoL and TF2, espcially in tournament settings?. I tend to think we will.
posted by Ad hominem at 6:48 AM on November 19, 2012


(RANT WARNING ALERT PREPARE FOR INCOMING RANT)

Yeah, I'm not very comfortable with the idea of "esports" generally. It was okay when it was people standing in front of cabinets playing games that were more or less frozen in stone. Now that they can be changed all willy-nilly it's become an evolving sequence of finding subtle play exploits, that get fixed, leaving players to find even more subtle ones until eventually you reach one that's deemed by the developers as in spirit to the play or too much trouble or too foundational to fix. If you're already inhabiting that particular strategy number on the exploit roulette wheel when its number comes up you win, at least for a little while, until everyone else moves their chips there too.

So it remains, and so the game at high-levels becomes "about" taking advantage of that particular exploit, which is still obscure to casual players and so removed from normal play that ordinary people never have reason to take advantage of it, or even know it exists, because they're still playing more against the game itself or other casual players than people seeking to gain professional, i.e. monetary, advantage from beating others. Because there's nothing like dragging MONEY into the picture to refocus a game about ruthlessly winning at all costs damn the boiler, sense of fair play, or any fun at all.

Spamming some move that, to invent a wholly fictitious example that I'd wager will sound familiar to any listening pro players, does slightly out-of-scale damage relative to stamina because it's numerically advantageous to do so, that might work for pros trying to maximize victory outcomes, but it probably only matters to players who are already highly optimized in their play habits, and so only play one of a handful of character styles anyway.

So the professionals end up effectively playing a different game from the ordinary players, which is okay for them but makes watching their games A: tiresome to spectators who don't have the time or effort to pick up on all these increasingly insular and masturbatory nuances, and B: an inscrutable gnomish puzzlebox to people trying to join the ever-more rarified and exclusionary ranks of the pro players, whose talk becomes jargony and increasingly refers to esoteric factors that have been discovered ultimately through obsessive observation, reverse-engineering or even outright disassembling the game. And incidentally, these players are either all communicating with each other and distilling out a purified disdain for normal players, or else are jealously hording whatever play exploits they have acquired, to use while they can, so as to both preserve their advantage against other players and so those exploits don't get ironed out of the game in later updates, which event has the power to immediately turn Jonny Bigshot shooting up the ladder into just another in a long line of people whining about how their character/strategy/prefered playstyle has been "nerfed."

But the thing is: all this is the very nature of the beast. What is "skill" in competitive video games, ultimately, other than raw reaction time, and finding a magic set of exploits than works for you and isn't so bad that they don't either get fixed in an update or else drive players off? One person's masterful strategy is another person's cheese. And yet, it's possible to balance out the various play options to such a degree that it's a coin flip between them as to who wins, or else simple rock-paper-scissors, decided at the character select screen. How interesting is that, really?

Now I realize that last paragraph is unfair. There are interesting games that don't succumb to this, that find ways to either design out of that pit or at least obscure its walls enough that they remain interesting to play or watch. But I think a lot of developers who aspire to make professionally-competitive games don't even realize that this trap exists; they're playing their own game, their code is their character, and the fickle players are themselves the ones who decide who wins.

But anyway, these are the reasons why professional fighting games, or Starcraft, or League of Legends, or World of Warcraft area, or what have you are far less interesting to me than classic arcade gaming, or better yet professional pinball. Don't get me wrong, there are just as many cheap exploits and overly-optimal strategies there as in anything else. But the randomness, and yet un-randomness, of the ball's movements makes the play honest in a way that video games find it difficult to match. Even if you take away the complex rulesets, the game is still about hitting as many targets on the table as you can before draining. It's kind of a niche area, kind of on the outs, so you don't have as many players trying to squeeze their way into its ranks, which leads to greater comeradery between competitors. And the players have been in this for far longer, and tend older, than esport players, which leads to greater emotional maturity. Which means you can better empathize with the players, because there's less chance you end up rooting for what turns out to be a total wanker.
posted by JHarris at 6:51 AM on November 19, 2012 [7 favorites]


It's funny, because I realized recently in Glitch that it's entirely possible to play MMOs with the exact opposite strategy: make a playing style that is as flexible as possible in order to get ahead by beating others to the punch and profit whenever a change is made within the game by the devs. It's one of those major differences between games where you can stock up on resources and games where you're just playing with skill; games where you can hoard (or level flexibly, or do anything else that changes the point you're at when you enter the game on any given day) can really reward that flexible/creative/economic gameplay strategy, whereas other games... don't. And it makes me wonder: is there an equivalent for these sort of games, a way to hone one's flexibility so that when a game changes so that it's possible to adjust better than one's opponents?
posted by NoraReed at 7:03 AM on November 19, 2012


is there ... a way to hone one's flexibility so that when a game changes so that it's possible to adjust better than one's opponents?

At the risk of being glib: "trolling", defined as intentionally playing suboptimally and f***ing around for the lulz, is a reasonable way to explore the game space and discover things that might become the new overpowered thing after a patch. But that's also a good way to discover hideously broken things that one can use in a current version of a game.
posted by Several Unnamed Sources at 7:20 AM on November 19, 2012


This with the exploits: reminds me very much of GT5 Academy: top players where there using glitches like driving with 2 wheels on the grass strip (for some reason you get quicker) or swiftly changing from 5th of 4th gear and back in a turn to "help" moving the rear of the car. In a real car your gearbox would explode of course.
Pages and pages dedicated to things like how to use the brake and the accelerator at the same time etc. Or how setting some level on the springs would actually gain traction in the game (and destroy your car in real life).
At the end I stopped playing GT5 at all when I realized it all boils down to glitch optimization.
posted by elcapitano at 7:49 AM on November 19, 2012


I thought the professionals were the actual soldiers who fire weapons in combat. Shows what I know about the gaming scene.
posted by dgran at 8:45 AM on November 19, 2012


It's funny, because I realized recently in Glitch that it's entirely possible to play MMOs with the exact opposite strategy: make a playing style that is as flexible as possible in order to get ahead by beating others to the punch and profit whenever a change is made within the game by the devs.

Don't know if you've heard, but glitch is done for.

So the professionals end up effectively playing a different game from the ordinary players, which is okay for them but makes watching their games A: tiresome to spectators who don't have the time or effort to pick up on all these increasingly insular and masturbatory nuances, and B: an inscrutable gnomish puzzlebox to people trying to join the ever-more rarified and exclusionary ranks of the pro players, whose talk becomes jargony and increasingly refers to esoteric factors that have been discovered ultimately through obsessive observation, reverse-engineering or even outright disassembling the game.

That's basically how i feel about any professional sport. At times i put on football on the tv since it reminds me of family growing up, but i'm amazed people pay money to watch it. Seconds of action followed by inane talk from commentators, shots of players walking around, repeat for hours. This is coming from someone who played a few years in highschool of sports. It's okay to play, not great, but watching is one of the most boring things i've ever done. I can't bring myself to care if even the team from the state i am in wins. The only time i get any feeling is when i hear a name that seems familiar (Chris Kluwe because of his support of marriage equality and that he's in the band with someone i rented a house with many years ago, and Vick, the dogfighting idiot who i'm amazed that every time they say his name they don't bring it up).

In fact, i'm amazed that professional sports people can get away with basically anything, dog fighting, rape, gun violence, and it's shrugged off. Imagine if esports was this way? Thankfully there have been some decent knocking down of people saying and doing bad things recently.

One thing i'd like to point out, esports has a great opportunity to be one of the most gender equal sports out there. There was a post not long ago about a trans person winning a big one, and it really does come down to skill, not size or gender.
posted by usagizero at 9:31 AM on November 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


What is "skill" in competitive video games, ultimately, other than raw reaction time, and finding a magic set of exploits than works for you and isn't so bad that they don't either get fixed in an update or else drive players off? ( JHarris )

My StarCraft playing son would tell you the pros are astonishingly clever in varying their strategy to uncover weaknesses in opponents. Similar to the batting cage example three blind mice provided earlier, the unskilled are simply incapable of handling the variety of pitches, or the Greg Maddox who can continually keep the batter off balance.

But the games that are big in "esports", Starcraft, League of Legends, get patched all the time, no? .... players adjust. ( Ad hominem )

My StarCraft playing son has also told me that there is an entire generation of professional StarCraft players who never upgraded to StarCraft II, and the majority who tried were unable to succeed in pro tournaments at the new level. So now we have one set of pros who can't play with graphite racquets (as a tennis analogy), but incredibly their tournaments still draw huge attendance as they play with the old wooden racquets, and many amateurs also refuse to switch to graphite because they enjoy playing the old game.

I just learned that there are professional video game players. ( pracowity )

And now you learn: there are professional video game broadcast play-by-play commentators. $100K/year easy.
posted by surplus at 10:03 AM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


dog fighting, rape, gun violence, and it's shrugged off

You know Vick, like, went to prison, right?

With the recent release of the new instalment of first-person shooter goliath Call of Duty

Modern Warfare 3 came out not so long ago and I hated it with a passion. Which was fine. Lots of people hated it. Because it was a bad game. So that didn't bother me. What does bother me is Black Ops 2. Why? Because Black Ops was such a good multiplayer PC game with a wide variety of map types and style. And Black Ops 2, while a far superior game technically than Modern Warfare 3, squanders that technical superiority by deciding that there is room for only one type of gamer in the Call of Duty universe; the 14 year old ADHD twitch gamer who wants to run 'n gun with a submachine gun and considers not moving for more than approximately 1.37 seconds to make you a "gay camper" who has no skill.

Every single map is exactly the same now; a maze of twisty little passages, all alike. If you stop moving for more than an instant, you die as swarms of enemies come at you from behind and the side. You're like a shark who can't breathe if you aren't swimming forward.

It's sad, really. But I guess they have the data to back up the idea that this is what people want.
posted by Justinian at 10:37 AM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


The people who play the Call of Duty games are a big reason why another big group of people (hello!) don't play them.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:39 AM on November 19, 2012


Given Black Ops 2 made 500,000,000 on its first day, I fear your assessment of the relative sizes of the two camps needs some adjustment.
posted by Justinian at 10:40 AM on November 19, 2012


What is "skill" in competitive video games, ultimately, other than raw reaction time, and finding a magic set of exploits than works for you and isn't so bad that they don't either get fixed in an update or else drive players off?

Coming at it from a fighting-game perspective, I'd say that things that contribute to skill are reactions, execution, situational awareness, tactical thinking, strategic thinking and encyclopaedic knowledge of the game. There is a lot of crossover between all of those elements with some enabling or hampering others to some degree or another but I do think that they're useful categories.
posted by MUD at 10:42 AM on November 19, 2012


I made no comment as to their relative sizes. Call of Duty games are the Michael Bay dumb-as-shit-but-really-pretty segment of gaming, and their online communities are shitholes on the par with the worst stories about the various DOTA clones. There's plenty of people who want nothing to do with either of those things.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:42 AM on November 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


Unfortunately the alternative right now is Battlefield 3 which, while better, has problems of its own.
posted by Justinian at 10:45 AM on November 19, 2012


I can't play SS4 or MVC3 well at all, although I enjoy playing the story mode on easy for a few minutes or so. But I LOVE watching my skilled friends play, and I love watching the tournaments. Especially with commentators (good or bad, sometimes the dumb ones are entertaining) it really brings the depth of the games out to me, in a way that I can't comprehend from casual playing. Of course I've loved speed runs forever, which I guess you could compare to sports like 'running fast" or "running, swimming, jumping and shooting fireballs/rockets fast."
posted by kittensofthenight at 10:47 AM on November 19, 2012


For further reading, I recommend the video lecture from GDC - The Game Design of Starcraft II: Designing an Esport. Starcraft II may not have exactly succeeded, but the design philosophy is solid.

I don't know a ton about esports. I don't play them, I don't watch competitions. But I do know the principles behind designing for one. Call of Duty is not designed to be an esport, so I'd be surprised if there's professional tournaments that aren't just put on by Activision or your local Gamestop as advertisements or fan-service events. The big advantage of a game like Call of Duty becoming an esport is that it is a huge brand, which means more viewers and more advertising dollars, which means bigger competitions and higher winnings. Think of it like esports is an industry trying to break out into the mainstream markets.
posted by subject_verb_remainder at 11:03 AM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't think it's all that different than other professional sports in that the game that professionals play is very different from the one that I can play.

It doesn't really matter to me if we use a wooden bat or an aluminium, if I have the latest pads that are custom fit just for me, if my cleats have been chosen by an expert for the field and conditions of the day. I'm simply not able to play at a high enough level for it to matter much. There are also a bunch of very technical rules that just don't apply to the game at amateur levels as evidenced by the recent NFL official's strike. Some of the rules don't matter because they're minor things that don't really come up unless everyone there is a pro, some of them don't matter because the stakes simply aren't high enough. I don't need instant replay for the games played in back yard.

The difference is that there is a TON of money tied up in professional sports like football and baseball. CoD tournaments, not so much. It would be like if the NFL made most of it's money from the games that kids play in their backyard, you can bet that the rule changes would all be to make that part of the game more fun rather than make it more fun to watch.

Not only that but if I don't like a new rule laid out by the NFL, I can simply ignore it. That isn't true with CoD, professional or not, everyone plays the same game.
posted by VTX at 11:18 AM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


One thing about pinball above that I felt I should mention, another thing that helps it to become less insular, is how every machine is different by the game's nature. Very slight adjustments to table incline, post positioning, playfield gloss and tilt sensitivity make the process of getting good at a specific table a bit different from that of getting good at a particular title. So players can't afford to find a specific niche and focus on it to the exclusion of everything else, or if they do they'll have to be prepared to retrain themselves each time a different machine comes up in tournament.

Professional pinball recognizes the large role that physics plays in the game and actually tries to intensify it, to make the game more random in a physical way. Typically outlanes will be opened up, machines will be adjusted to high inclines, and the "video gamey" aspects of modern tables, like video modes, pseudo-random awards and extra balls, will either be diminished in importance or disabled entirely from operator settings. Also, old electro-mechanical tables turn up in tournaments along with late Williams or recent Stern machines, games with sometimes radically different notions of what a "good ball" means.

The result, to watch videos of pro pinball players on YouTube, is a game where even the very best players "brick out" frequently. That helps to humanize the game, I think.
posted by JHarris at 11:34 AM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Actually, the last remaining starcraft 1 leagues have switched to starcraft two and the players are already dominating tournaments after just a few months.
posted by empath at 11:40 AM on November 19, 2012


Imagine if they completely changed the rules of Major League Baseball every year, using different balls, spacing the bases further apart, adding a fourth outfielder.

Forget it Jake, it's Calvinball.
posted by kirkaracha at 2:19 PM on November 19, 2012


It might be interesting to change professional sports slightly every year. Vary the game a little bit, give more players a chance to shine. It would be terrible for stats guys though.
posted by JHarris at 4:16 PM on November 19, 2012


It's funny, because I realized recently in Glitch that it's entirely possible to play MMOs with the exact opposite strategy: make a playing style that is as flexible as possible in order to get ahead by beating others to the punch and profit whenever a change is made within the game by the devs. /// And it makes me wonder: is there an equivalent for these sort of games, a way to hone one's flexibility so that when a game changes so that it's possible to adjust better than one's opponents?
posted by NoraReed at 7:03 AM on November 19 [+] [!]


The genre occupied by competitive DOTA2 and LoL right now emphasizes this sort of flexibility, due to how the game format plays out.

Unlike in Starcraft, where there are 3 races, and most professional playesrs only hone their skills in 1 race, in DOTA2 there are about 100 different heroes to choose from. The game format is 5v5, and a lot of the game turns on the "drafting phase" where both team captains take turns picking and banning heroes from the pool and forming the lineup for their team to play.

You can't have a player, who say, obsessively practices one particular hero and is well known for it, because the enemy team captain will just straight up ban that hero from the pool to start with. In fact, if a team is particularly feared for just 3-4 different heroes in their lineup, it's possible to ban out or pick those heroes yourself to deny them access. Conversely, it's also a common tactic to bait the opponent team out and let them pick their "favoured" heroes anyway, if you have already designed a strategy to beat them at their own game.

The end result is that the truly great players at this game are the ones who are the most flexible, because you need flexible players to play the sort of mind games that go on during the drafting phase. If your players are rigid and only play a small selection of 5 heroes each, it's easy for the opponent's captain to predict your picks and "box" you into unfavourable hero selections. However if you have flexible players, you can adapt to the enemy's picks and bans and turn the draft phase against them. It comes down to a balance of locking in your core picks early so you're guaranteed certain heroes, at the cost of revealing your overall team strategy - which allows the enemy captain to counter-pick you - versus the other strategy of making vague and flexible picks early, which will not give away your overall strategy and thus confuse the enemy, however leaving your "core" picks until later is risky because as the draft phase progresses the heroes you want may get banned or picked out by the enemy team.

What is "skill" in competitive video games, ultimately, other than raw reaction time, and finding a magic set of exploits than works for you and isn't so bad that they don't either get fixed in an update or else drive players off?
posted by JHarris at 6:51 AM on November 19 [7 favorites +] [!]


Unfortunately, and I don't mean this as an ad-hominem comment, this sentiment is mostly expressed by players in the bottom end of the skill curve - from experience. By definition, if you don't understand how a game works, you can't be good at it, and vice versa. It's like someone who never grasped the fundamentals of spin trying to comment on how table tennis or ping-pong is a simplistic game, because you can't predict how the ball bounces off your bat it all comes down to raw reaction time.

There's a reason the top players are good at the game, and it's not just raw reaction time. I play at the top 3% of the skill curve in many games, and there are absolutely people in the top 1% who will trounce me completely. It's like saying Schumacher is just a driver with faster reactions, or Agassi is a player with a faster serve. It's completely missing out the 99% of subtleties involved in playing the game, because they play at a much higher level than ordinary people can imagine.

Even being only in the top 3% of the skill curve (and not even, say, the top 0.03%) when I describe the same game to my friends in the 50th percentile of skill they have no idea what I'm talking about, because the concepts are so advanced: there's a unity of strategy and ideas that cuts across all types of games, basic ideas like tempo, counterpicking, aggression, stalling, information wars, etc.
posted by xdvesper at 4:38 PM on November 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


The framing of this post is a little odd. I don't think anyone is angry about Call of Duty not being played competitively. The article poses (and answers) an interesting question: why aren't pro gamers interested in one of the most successful games available right now, especially when they're adding features (like broadcasting) designed specifically for them? I hadn't considered how important consistency is for competition, but it makes sense.
posted by Sibrax at 4:46 PM on November 19, 2012


Unfortunately, and I don't mean this as an ad-hominem comment, this sentiment is mostly expressed by players in the bottom end of the skill curve - from experience.

No offense is taken. I'm speaking in the general sense anyway -- I have no interest in getting good at most games played as "esports." But understand that this works both ways -- if you practice enough at a game to get good at it, to a degree you have already blinded yourself to some of its flaws, internalized them and patted yourself on the back for getting good at them. I don't pretend this is perfect objective reasoning, but I insist it is at least slightly true, that is a real thing that one must look out for, and I say this as someone who, once in a while, does learn to play certain games very very well. (I challenge any of you to beat me in Rampart or Crazy Taxi, for instance....)
posted by JHarris at 5:27 PM on November 19, 2012


Yeah, one of my best friends is an old-school Mac guy, and every so often we have passionate arguments about Doom vs Marathon. "The flaws in your game suck and the flaws in my game are actually awesome!" tends to come out about halfway through the argument each time. :D
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:35 PM on November 19, 2012


But understand that this works both ways -- if you practice enough at a game to get good at it, to a degree you have already blinded yourself to some of its flaws, internalized them and patted yourself on the back for getting good at them.

What you describe simply isn't the case for competitive games. Exploits are patched quickly and if they aren't, there are generally rules against using them in play. You might be talking about speed runs and high score runs like king of kong, but starcraft is so far from that its ridiculous.
posted by empath at 5:49 PM on November 19, 2012


Regular sports do this kind of thing fairly regularly too, though. Granted, it's usually not as extreme as "adding another outfielder" but there is the same issue of teams exploiting the game's current settings/rules, and the leagues countering back with new rules (or officiating guidelines)

Among major sports, I really only follow hockey, but it's definitely an ideal candidate for comparison. Over the past 10 years or so, some MAJOR changes have been put in place. And I do mean major. The two-line-pass rule was completely removed. The goal lines were moved. The goal crease has been revamped a number of times. Referees have been given new instructions on types of calls to make.

Why all of these changes? Because teams had more or less figured out how to "break the game" via something called the "Neutral Zone Trap" system. It's a strategy of defense that's so effective, it managed to lower the average score of an NHL hockey game by more than 1 goal per game. (which is HUGE) With so much less scoring, the game began losing its (perceived) excitement, and popularity waned. The league stepped in, changed the rules, and scoring began to increase.

Granted, it's not the same as completely reinventing things every year, but I don't think most games do that either. NHL players often spend time playing in Europe or the Olympics, both of which have (often) vastly different rules than the NHL, and yet players manage to adjust accordingly.

Professional gamers need to nut-up and realize that adaptation is a necessary requirement of ANY profession. Fast Eddie Felson didn't whine and complain (too much) when he had to switch from Straight Pool to Billiards at a moment's notice. Neither should they complain when their ammo magazines run out half a second sooner than usual.
posted by ShutterBun at 6:14 PM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


At the risk of being glib: "trolling", defined as intentionally playing suboptimally and f***ing around for the lulz, is a reasonable way to explore the game space and discover things that might become the new overpowered thing after a patch. But that's also a good way to discover hideously broken things that one can use in a current version of a game.

It's funny, because reading this my first thought was of Ender's Shadow-- the only thing that Bean does when he gets an army is play, as you said, suboptimally, trying to experiment and break the game. Ender'd done that beforehand, of course, but his strategy was a lot more focused, Bean just tried shit.

Don't know if you've heard, but glitch is done for.

I know. That doesn't mean this sort of strategy wouldn't apply to other economically minded games. And, uh, thanks for rubbing it in?
posted by NoraReed at 7:21 PM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Now that they can be changed all willy-nilly it's become an evolving sequence of finding subtle play exploits, that get fixed, leaving players to find even more subtle ones until eventually you reach one that's deemed by the developers as in spirit to the play or too much trouble or too foundational to fix.

Congrats, you've just described Formula One.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:06 AM on November 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


empath, I seem to remember us having this discussion before, in previous threads. I have to say I'm not convinced, not for the blanket case of all competitive games. And I don't think we're talking about the same thing when we say flaw, although really it's difficult to put it into words anyway, and it's possible that I'm confusing some similar concepts. I do wish you wouldn't be so derisive about "high score runs like king of kong," though. I feel like the archetypal Star Trek fan who's been told "May the force be with you."

Everyone who's mentioned the simularities between the state mentioned in my first comment and that of professional sports, and motor sports, well, yes. I was aware of the simularities as I was writing it, but it was a long comment as it was.
posted by JHarris at 2:44 PM on November 20, 2012


We're talking about esports, which is a subset of games, which have a few attributes in common:

They are designed from the ground up as head-to-head competition (ie, teams or players competing directly and simultaneously)

They are designed to be balanced and fair.

Some effort is made to make watching the game enjoyable for spectators.

This excludes a lot of games which people might be competitive about, which were not primarily designed with competition in mind.
posted by empath at 3:02 PM on November 20, 2012


I don't think we're actually in disagreement overall. I'd just add that "balanced and fair" applies to most single-player games played in competition, because the players don't interact with each other, but instead each play from a initial state.
posted by JHarris at 8:26 PM on November 20, 2012


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