Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Subtractive Playstyles, Part 1: Theory and Method

First, a Shaolin proverb, slightly paraphrased:

"I do not fear the ten thousand kicks you have practiced once. I fear the one kick you have practiced ten thousand times." The meaning behind the proverb is simple: a bunch of awkwardly performed kicks are no match for a single one done with utter mastery.

Second, an interesting article on game design courtesy of David Sirlin: http://www.sirlin.net/articles/subtractive-design.html

I recommend you read it, but if you don't want to, this is the main point some of the most powerful and interesting games have, at their core, very few elements to them. This is because the developers took time to deeply explore those few elements, polish them, and ensure that they were perfect (or near to it). Anything that detracted from those elements was then removed or changed to complement them. He mentions two of my favorite games, Portal and Braid, and I felt gratified because I previously thought--in significantly less concise and enlightening terms--the same thing about them. At their heart they are simple games, but the gameplay they deliver is top-notch; their simple components can be twisted and shaped in countless ways because they are well-developed. That is why those games are deep, entertaining, and acclaimed.

I've learned a lot of lessons about competition and life from playing Smash: consistent performance is key, find ways to turn disadvantages into advantages (and when you can't do that, play in a way that keeps those disadvantages from becoming an issue), honing the basics is an absolute must if you want to be a top pro, and so on. In light of Sirlin's article, I thought about a theory behind how any player can practice, improve, and become high level players. I feel that many people get discouraged when they hit a wall, and the reason most give up is because they do not know how to push past it. They don't have a method for improving, so they practice and train haphazardly, go nowhere, and eventually quit from frustration.

In other sports, there are countless coaches and teaching methods designed to make players improve. For instance, if you don't know why your golf swing is bad, hire a coach and he'll (hopefully) be able to tell you what you need to do to change it. This kind of resource is significantly harder to find for competitive gamers. I really like Melee and I don't want people to quit; playing it seriously against a skilled opponent can be a lot of fun and it sucks when players stop for the wrong reasons. You decide the game isn't for you, fine; you have other life issues that take higher priority, no problem; you really want to get better but don't know how and the game stops being fun, that's bad.

It's really hard to find a concrete method that says "here is how you get better," because every player is at a different point in their development. So all I can really do is offer basic recommendations; hopefully it helps.

Let's go back to the proverb and the article by Sirlin. The most terrifying kick to a Shaolin monk is one that its user has practiced ten-thousand times. The deepest and most entertaining games are ones that have a few elements that are explored and polished as much as possible. I believe that the reason the best players are as good as they are is because they have mastered a few key areas of their respective characters. Then, they try to make the match take focus on those areas as frequently as possible, and stay away from situations outside their mastery.

That said, the method for improvement is simply put: pick a single, important aspect of your chosen character, and train it exclusively until it becomes as flawless as possible. Once you have done that, choose another aspect of that character, and train *that* until it is flawless. Keep doing this, and your game will expand. When you play important games (tournaments and money matches), do your best to keep the game within your areas of mastery.

Think of it another way. When you play a match, a bunch of different situations crop up. You and your opponent will both be on the ground, making it a ground game. Then, one of you will be in the air, turning it into air versus ground, then vice versa. There will be aerial combat where you are directly above the opponent at 12 o'clock. There will be combat when you'll be beneath him, above him and in front, above and behind. There are times when you edgeguard and the opponent is high, times when he is low, times when he is even with the stage; likewise, you will be edgeguarded in those circumstances as well. There are a lot of different situations in any given match, and if you want to be good, it makes sense you need to be good at controlling those situations.

Now let's make up a number and say there are 10 skills you need to master to have a good Fox (it's probably higher but that's not important at the moment). Let's also say that you get... 400 points to split among those skills, and they max out at one hundred. Most players would then have about 40 in every skill. That's below average at each of the skilsl you need to be good at Fox. That makes you a below average Fox. With training you get more points, but right now, you're crummy everywhere.

Now imagine a player who has 100 in two of his skills, then 25 in the other eight. Same 400 points, but he's an absolute master of two of the necessary Fox skills. Any time he is using one of his two good skills, he's a champ. When he isn't, he's garbage.

If you were that player, you would try to make sure that when it counted, you were applying those skills and not using your others. Your game would only have two components, but they would be perfect. As long as you could keep the game going at your pace, you'd be untouchable.

Let's say that player gets more skill points; say he gets... eighty. He could evenly distribute them (100, 100, and eight 35's), or he could invest them in a single skill (100, 100, 100, a 30, and six 25's.) Which is the better choice? He could have another skill that he can always perfectly rely on, and then try to make the game revolve around his three skills. Or, he could continue to have eight below average skills, and keep trying to stick with his two mastered abilities when he plays seriously.

I would argue that the first option is far superior. When you have a useful skill perfected, it becomes a reliable tool that wins you games. The more reliable tools you have, the higher your odds of victory. If you take your unreliable tools and only make them slightly more useful, you guarantee nothing. Even more than that, when you have a skill heavily ingrained into you, it takes very little energy to use it. That leaves you with the energy to concentrate on other parts of the match. If you are constantly expending energy to use skills that may not even work, you weaken your own mind.

The conclusion: focus your training. Pick an important part of your game that needs work and focus on THAT AND ONLY THAT. Once it is mastered to the point where you can rely on it safely and comfortably, select a new part of your game to train.

In part 2, I'm going to talk about some of the problems and issues that arise from this style, as well as ways to deal with them. Part three will be case studies, examples of these playstyles in the Smash community :)


  1. This was very insightful, I love how you said the pro smashers want to be able to use the things they've mastered as much as possible and staying away from things they don't have much experience on.

  2. This whole article reminded me of Drephen's sheik ;)