Challenge in competitive games is a tricky beast. While it’s largely the case that the challenge of your experience is determined by the skill of the players you’re competing against, the game design itself contributes to the challenge you experience as well, and not just by being obtuse and clunky. The neatest way to express this is through the concept of the skill curve.
Fundamentally, a skill curve represents how the player’s skill changes in relation to something else, such as hour of the day, background music volume, Cheeto consumption, or, most practically for our purposes, hours invested in playing the game. This is a related but distinct concept from that of a difficulty curve, which is only useful for describing single-player experiences due to the uncontrollable factors inherent to difficulty in a competitive setting (ie: other guys).
A steep skill curve indicates an easy-to-learn game and a high upper limit a game where a player will be able to develop his skill to higher levels– potentially, ideally, to develop indefinitely, if he wants to spend thousands of hours getting better at a video game. A surprising number of people do. Skill curves tend to bow downwards but trend upwards consistently overall, since the player learns most intently when he first encounters the game and slowly picks up more and more granular facets of optimal play as he continues.
The ideal of the competitive game is to have a skill-over-time curve that increases rapidly at the start and then maintains a consistent increase in skill over the rest of the time axis. In practice, however, designs that have high skill ceilings tend to have harsh initial learning curves (you spend 90% of your total time playing the game getting called n00b), and designs that lead to high initial curves tend to have low skill ceilings (You spend 100% of your total time playing the game getting called n00b). This trend becomes apparently in comparing classic and recent games within the same genre, such as the Quake series vs the Modern Warfare series.
There are a few models for consequence in competitive games. The oldest and grandest of these, and one which is shared between all competitive games on some level, is simple: You lose (good day sir.) Unlike in single player games, there’s no difficulty in determining what happens when you lose, or how far back in the narrative to send you, or devising appropriate punishments for failure. The punishment for failure is failure. You can start another game, but the loss remains a loss, even if you weren’t really trying. The purest use of this model is seen in competitive board games like Go and Chess. There’s also the structure of ‘points’, a sort of miniature version of failure or success; the number of points are tallied up at the end to see which player or team has the most failures or successes in order to determine the overall meta-winner. I find this structure a bit curious, since it’s really just making a game out of playing a game a certain number of times. These structures tend to make the most sense in serious competitive settings such as leagues and tournaments, where they help to ensure weaker players can’t succeed through sheer dumb luck.
I have observed two other secondary forms of consequence, time-outs and setbacks. There’s some overlap between these, but underlying both is the threat of ultimate failure.
Time-outs are used almost universally in team-oriented games; commonly as a penalty for infractions in sports, but more often in video games as a consequence of dying. Dying is curiously absent of sting in most multi-player games– it isn’t necessarily failure, as while it’s almost always better to stay alive (if possible), calculated sacrifice of players is a fundamental part of most team-based games. How viable this is as a tactic depends on how severe the penalties for death are (in Texas you get sentenced to double death). For instance, when playing the infected side in Left 4 Dead, sacrificing yourself to damage the enemy team is a primary gameplay mechanic– one of the classes even specializing in explosive suicidal attacks. Conversely, when you’re playing as survivor, the loss of even one player is disastrous, reducing your team’s chances of reaching the goal by more than half and, even if they do manage to make it, severely reducing the number of points they get towards victory.
Setbacks are any consequence which makes the goal of achieving ultimate victory more difficult to attain. To use Left 4 Dead as an example again, any time the opposing survivor team progresses further into the map (and, conversely, any time you fail to progress as the survivor team) it is a setback to your ultimate goal of winning the game– normally achieved by surviving more frequently and in better condition than the opposing team.
Intuitively, we would suppose that being forced to sit and wait before playing would be frustrating, since it would force you out of the action of the game, but in practice it’s more often setbacks that are frustrating. Time-outs give the player an opportunity to reflect and to observe the rest of their team, experiences which can be invaluable at learning to play a game well, whereas setbacks just, well, kind of suck. No silver lining on that crappy copper cloud.
Indeed, one of the greatest distinguishing characteristics of Left 4 Dead is just how much it’s willing to force you into time-out. While it’s rare to have more than 20 seconds of down-time in other games, simply getting hit by a lone enemy attack will often leave you helpless until your teammates come to save you or you die. If you do happen to die, you stay dead for the rest of the map. You’re relegated to the position of watching the tattered remnants your team limp their way to safety or, more often, fail to do so. If this follows shortly after them incompetently leaving you to die, this really is gaming schadenfreude at its finest.
It’s not a coincidence that I’m using Left 4 Dead as a frequent example here– not least because I absolutely love the game, but it’s also an intriguing and unique model of challenge and consequence in competitive gaming. Rarely does one see two sides that are so asymmetrical, not only in general gameplay mechanics, but particularly in their usage of challenge and consequence. Frankly, I cannot think of any other game that does such a thing. It’s no surprise, under such circumstances, that the game has run into numerous balance issues, but this is common among innovative titles. It’s just unfortunate that the developers haven’t put more effort into developing this as a balanced competitive title, since there is literally no alternative with similar gameplay on the market.
I lied, there is no conclusion. I really just wanted to share my thoughts on the subject, and writing this up has certainly helped me to sort through them. All I can hope is that someone will read this and think about it and that maybe new and exciting models of challenge and consequence will be born of it.
Remember: Consequence means that what we do matters. Certainly I understand the desire to reduce frustration in players of your game, but maybe it’s worth worrying, just a bit, about what other sensations you undermine by doing so.