Thursday, June 12, 2014

Emergence: Gaming the System, or Glitches: A Slippery Slope

With the recent announcement of the Halo: Master Chief Collection and also Smash 4 looming on the horizon, there's a familiar subject bubbling near the surface of every competitive player's mind: button glitches.

In Halo, we know BxR, BxB, RRX, et cetera.  In Smash, L-canceling and Wavedashing were big deals.  (I know technically wavedashing was not a result of a glitch, but rather a physics exploit for how the game handled aerial movement... That argument is not quite relevant for the points I intend to make.)

While each of these mechanics were great for displaying a skill disparity between players, none of them were intended by the game's design and emerged as a result of abusing holes in the game engine.

So a big question comes forth, are button glitches a bad thing?

Personally, I support the removal of unintended button glitches in subsequent titles (or through patches of the current title) when they are found.  You're probably thinking, "wtf this Audley guy's an idiot then" -- but wait.  I wholly support methods to reduce/remove recovery animations through INTENDED gameplay mechanics.

Putting the ability to trim recovery animations in the hands of a player is one of the best ways a developer can allow players to separate themselves in terms of skill.

The BXB and BXR in Halo 2 were great examples of this in action, though they were originally unintended.  Reload, when used, always took over priority of any current action; when used after a melee had connected, it erased the recovery frames.  Firing or Meleeing again would interrupt a reload animation, nullifying the reload and allowing players to chain together multiple hits.  It was a great way for increasing the interactivity of melee range between players and enabling players down in health to out-skill their opponents to kill them...

But the problem was that it was neither intentional nor intuitive (primarily due to players not being able to see much of their own animations in first person view).  It was a glitch.  A similar instance occurred early in H4's lifespan with "Superman" grenade throws, where sprinting during the wind-up animation of a grenade throw would cancel the wind-up and force the physics engine to calculate the grenade's trajectory differently (and therefore throw it much faster/farther due to the faster animation).  Again, this was an unintended glitch and was quickly patched out of the game.

If BXB or BXR were to return in a future Halo title, it could be made clear through better HUD animations that the recovery frames are being dropped or sped along when a player attempts to reload during a melee attack...or, alternatively, attempting to Reload during a Melee attack with certain weapons could eject the clip and have the player quickly retract their arms back to them, enabling them to either complete the reload animation or begin a new melee once the arms have retracted, with the necessary frames ending up as less than a standard double-melee animation, with a drawback of the player now having no ammunition in their gun (this option would remove the existence of BxR in exchange for making BxB an intentional, intuitive part of the game, with a drawback designed into the game for the faster animations.)

In the case of RRx (and RRXYYRRX) -- such a button combo doesn't belong in the game; however, I've spoken in a previous blog about a method using a bloom-like mechanic (without the randomness of Bloom) in order to allow players to choose their own gun cadence...  I'll paste it here so you don't have to go hunting...

"This implementation of randomness is completely unnecessary, as it only serves to limit the individual's capability for outplaying, rather than to facilitate the potentially intended goal of assisting less skilled players in scoring kills.  If the designers wished to include a cadence to assist newer players, the "bloom" should've been replaced by a sort of on-board aim assistance for the gun.  As the rate of fire increases, the computer's "processing speed" decreases, reducing the aim assistance and bullet magnetism of the gun and making the bullet actually fire more accurately in regards to the player's reticule.  In the case of high levels of player skill, the players can shoot at the max rate of fire without being punished for their level of skill.  In the case of lower levels of player skills, players can fire at cadence with moderate accuracy and still be able to score kills in a consistent number of shots." - Fighting Chance: Randomness in Competitive Gaming (and Sports)

The above suggestion would allow players to fire at their own rate without the requirement of unnecessary button combos, and leave gun battles determined by how well a player aims, rather than how well he pushes additional buttons.  So once again, players still have a window through which the brighter talent can shine, but without the secret to doing so being buried in word of mouth and internet tips sites; it's clear through playing the game.

Although it's not a game I mentioned in my opening, DotA also has a mechanic that was unintended design-wise, but as a result of the engine the original game used, played a huge part in the shaping of the competitive scene and global balance of the game.  I'm speaking, of course, of denying.  If you talk to a serious DotA player about denying, they'll likely praise its existence.  I mean, you can keep melee characters from getting gold or experience as easily and it's very clear how powerful the rammifications of denying are.  Heck, you can even keep your opponents from getting full credit for killing a tower.

But there's a problem: The core gameplay goal in Defense of the Ancients is to work with your army to kill the opposing army's base.  Why the fuck are you killing your own units?  It's wholly unintuitive emergent gameplay.  League of Legends took the polar opposite approach and left lane dominance entirely in the hands of champion interaction, which mostly leads to players reaching their necessary items much quicker, but reducing the ability for a player to stop another from reaching their items unless you are just leaps and bounds better than the opposing player, or focusing on shutting them down hard (or more recently, lane swapping 2v1 to avoid them being able to do anything in that lane.)  Neither of these are ideal solutions.

In DotA's case, there's room for skill disparity, but poor clarity in design.  In LoL's case, there's clarity in design, but less room for skill disparity.  Infinite Crisis approaches a middle ground for this.  Killing an enemy minion gives you the full reward for its death, straight to your character.  However, if a minion dies without being killed by a champion, it drops "credits" onto the map which can either be picked up by a player on the opposite team, or "stomped" by a player on that minion's team.  Stomping credits denies the gold gain from the minion to the other team.  While it removes the experience denial, it increases interactivity of the lanes.  In lower skill games where players aren't landing last hits, they can still acquire gold (making the game less punitive for new players).  In games where players are both very skilled at last hitting, however, it still leans toward League of Legends' methods in that there's little room for the better player to come out ahead.  It does, however, allow melee characters who aren't being zoned to punish ranged characters that miss their last-hits more easily.

So what's the perfect solution to denying?  Believe it or not, I don't have an answer to that.  I think Infinite Crisis is a good general direction, but more sweeping changes to the balance between melee and ranged champions through core gameplay systems would be required for a perfect adaptation; that's a discussion for another time.  The point here is: Intuitive mechanics go a long way for the health of your game, even at the cost of skill differentiation.

The Super Smash Brothers franchise recently saw a huge revival in its competitive scene after Super Smash Brothers Brawl removed some key techniques the top players relied upon to dominate the scene.

Wavedashing is the most prominent of these.  Wavedashing, in simple terms, is air-dodging toward the ground immediately after jumping so you slide along the ground.  While Wavedashing, a player is still treated as "standing" and not actually dashing, so they are essentially in a neutral state, and still able to perform any ground move.  Players could wavedash and shield, sidestep, or use their standing grabs/smashes while quickly sliding toward an opponent, or even play edgehogging mindgames by facing away from a ledge and wavedash backwards to grab the ledge as an opponent tried to recover.

While wavedashing was not technically a glitch in the game, but rather a physics exploit (much like skiing in the Tribes series, which became an intentional, core part of the design in future Tribes titles).  Because of the freedom Wavedashing gave players, however, Nintendo elected to remove it from the game going into Brawl.

Nintendo took a very heavy-handed approach to their method of removing the mechanic from the game.  In Melee, air-dodge direction was determined by the analog stick when the air dodge was pressed.  In Brawl, Nintendo changed it to be based on physics; the character's air dodge is based off their momentum.  Additionally, characters' traction (determines how far they will slide) upon landing was also changed to clean up the movement exploits.

Rather than outright removing the option from the game, Nintendo could've elected to shift it into an intentional one -- leaving the stick-related air dodge direction (and ability to slide once colliding with the ground) and simply name it "Sliding," introducing "Sliding" as a character state where the game would not view the wavedashing character as "standing."  From here, the moves considered too exploitive during a Wavedash could be disabled, while others remain enabled (could leave backwards-sliding enabled for edgehogging mind games).  While I'm not versed enough in Smash to know exactly what the biggest culprits are, it just seems that making waved-err-Sliding an intentional part of the game (much the way Dynamix handled Skiing in Tribes) would go a long way into appeasing the competitive crowd while bringing in some intentional balance control into how the mechanic affects play in both casual and competitive levels.

As a competitive gamer, I can always appreciate when a gameplay mechanic or a spell in a game offers players the ability to show how they are better than an opponent through their utilization of the mechanical skill or their decision making to utilize the mechanic rather than a less optimal one at the time...but from a design perspective, the goals of said mechanics need to be both clear and intentional.

As an example of another mechanic that bothers me: In League of Legends, characters like Shen, Gragas, Sejuani, and Alistar can flash during the animations of their E, E, Q, and Q respectively, and have the effects of the spell take place at the location to which they flashed, rather than where the spell was cast.  As a competitor, that's fantastic.  As a player, it opens up the ability to surprise the opposition.  As a designer, it's bad gameplay.  The player can intentionally (or accidentally) miss an ability, but still get the effects for it by recovering with their flash, in a method that is neither predictable nor readable by their opponent.  It's unintuitive and it doesn't allow counterplay (because flash is instant, giving no chance for the players to flash-dodge the ability after the user has flashed).

Audley Enough, Riot had a similar problem with Thresh's Q (Death Sentence) allowing a player to flash during the wind-up frames and fire the hook from the new location.  To me, this one makes more sense than the former.  In the latter case, you're still gambling with your flash.  You're merely changing the ORIGIN of the skillshot, rather than outright changing the impact zone.  Players may still dodge as usual, and have time to react with counterplay options such as built-in character dashes, their own flash, or even the S key to stop in place and dodge a leading hook.

The above examples violate both consistency and clarity of design.  It's not consistent which skills can be flashed during, nor is it clear when a player is or can flash during their ability, and although their inclusion seems to be the result of bugs, Riot has made no steps to add clarity or consistency with other spells (Why can't Malphite flash during Unstoppable Force?) nor to clean up the bugs that allow those abilities the freedom to "miss" and still get their effects through the use of a summoner spell.

So if you're one of the players excited about the announcement that engine-related button glitches like BXB and BXR and RRX are returning in Halo 2's Master Chief Collection incarnation, and as a result begging 343 to put those same button glitches into Halo 5, stop for a second and think, "How can these mechanics, which were technically bugs in the past, be made intentional so that even Little Dimmy Timmy down the lane can utilize them?"

While competitive merit is important, you must also keep in mind that Clarity of Purpose and Consistency in Design go a long way in improving the new user experience, and more players playing your game is even better for longevity than a few really good players still playing it.  That said, it's never a bad idea to try to explore the middle ground first in how to take what makes a mechanic good for competitive play and tweak it to make it understandable for players who are still learning the game.

Audley out.  No catch phrase this time.

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