Monday, July 5, 2010

Let's Talk About Being Good: A Rant

What is skill?  How do you define being "good" at a game?

I've got a pretty simple definition of what it means to be good at something.  How good you are is determined by how often and to what degree you succeed at it.  That's it.  I think it's a nice, universally applicable definition that can apply to pretty much any game.

Let's say you've got some guy, a professional bowler.  This guy can bowl a perfect game every time he goes into an alley.  You'd agree with me that this guy is pretty good at bowling, yeah?

Let's get peculiar.  Let's say this guy bowls by throwing the ball over his head with both arms at the pins.  He just chucks the ball as hard as he can down the lane.  Every game he scores a 300, perfect consistency.  His methods are unorthodox, yes, but wouldn't you agree that he's still technically bowling well?  In fact, no bowler in the world--that I know of, which isn't saying much--can get those scores so consistently, so he'd arguably be the best in the world.

Now let's say that it's illegal in the sport of bowling to throw the ball that way (maybe it already is?  I don't know).  You have to use an underhanded roll, and any other kind is against the rules.  This guy is no longer good at bowling, because what he does is not technically bowling anymore.  He's good at throwing a giant sphere of plastic polymer with deadly accuracy, but he's not good at bowling.  This is important, because games are defined by their rules, and if he isn't playing the game anymore, how can we say he's good at it?

Or let's take a look at the movie Happy Gilmore.  Wouldn't you agree that the eponymous main character is good at golf?  Sure, he swings the club like a maniac and has a hockey-stick-shaped putter, but at the end, his score is better than everybody else's.  He also--during the movie--becomes consistent enough to beat a bunch of golf pros who are significantly more orthodox than he is.  So he's consistent and he wins.  By my definition (which I don't think is very terrible) he's a good golfer.

I bring this up because there's a mentality in the Smash community--and a lot of other gaming communities that I've experienced--that there's a "right" way to play.  There exists some weird kind of skill, called "real skill."  Some players win, but they don't have "real skill."  Doesn't this seem silly to you?  Somebody plays by all the rules of the game, has access to the same tools, beats other people, but somehow he's actually worse.  He doesn't have "real skill."

In Smash, what is this mythical "real skill?"  Is it the ability to hit all your L-cancels?  I don't think so.  There's a stigma attached to being a technical player who doesn't adapt well; we say things like, "they're technical but they still aren't good."  Is it the ability to read people?  Well, not really.  You can't really say that's "real skill" if you can't back it up.  You can't prove you knew what the other guy was going to do if you walk into it on accident anyhow, can you?

So "real skill" probably exists, but it's really tough to define.  We know it when we see it.  Certain players have it, some don't.  Hungrybox, for instance, does not have "real skill."  I'm not sure what he has, but that's not it.  He wins tournaments, takes top 3 at just about every national, beats almost every character with his Jigglypuff, but let's be clear, he does not have "real skill."

Why not?  Well, he doesn't SHFFL.  He clearly doesn't have any mindgames.  He just spams one move and waits to rest you.  Admittedly, the many other Jigglypuffs that can't SHFFL, have no mindgames and tried to spam b-air and rest haven't had nearly the same level of success as HBox, but that's not the point.  He's not ACTUALLY good.  No "real skill," remember?

I'm not sure how he beats people who have more "real skill" than him, actually.  I guess he has a lot of fake skill?  So much of it that it overwhelms all the "real skill."  Which, as we've established, [i][b]Hungrybox does not have[/i][/b].  Someday we'll find the real secret behind why he wins so much, and we'll be happy because it will give us something to add to the list of what real skill is not.  (I think this is something that separates SSBM from crappy games like golf.  We have "real skill.")

Let's talk about skill!  Being good means having skill.  So what is it?  (Not "real skill," we can't really define that.  But we know it when we see it!)

Well, there are lots of different kinds of skills, so I like to think that your overall skill is determined by combining the individual skills you possess.

Some skills work together synergistically.  They are good skills to practice together because they complement each other.  I could practice shield-grabbing and SHFFL'ing b-air, or I could practice shield-grabbing and then chaingrabbing.  I think that overall I would get more milage out the second combination than the other, because better shield-grabs would help me land chaingrabs, and better chaingrabs would make my shield-grabs worth more.

I also have no qualms in saying some skills are worth more than others.  Some people will practice things like pivoted jab and moonwalk b-air with Fox, then be awful at sweetspotting.  Usually, these kinds of people do not win a whole lot.  They spend their time on skills that lack solid value and it costs them in tournament.  SHDL is great, but finding ways not to get gimped four stocks per match is better.  Being good at gimping them for all four stocks before they can gimp you is pretty good too.

Speaking of gimps, I just remembered something about HBox.  He plays "gay," which trumps "real skill."   I forgot.  Silly me.

Back to skill.  You can agree that some skills are worth more than others.  You may also agree that your overall skill as a player is the combination of the things you have chosen to master.  I think it is then logically sound to say that picking different things to master will lead to different levels of overall skill.  Now, if you factor in that some skills are good against others, and it actually becomes rather difficult to tell who is "better" than somebody else.  Even if somebody wins one particular matchup, they might not be more solid all-around and lose a larger number of matches than the other guy.  (It probably doesn't matter much to you if you're the guy who gets eliminated, though.  Then again, if you don't want the internet to make fun of you, you have to make sure everybody knows the other guy isn't actually as good you, so make sure to post about it a LOT).

But being good at certain things is worth more than being good at others, particularly if your skill choices synergize.  That leads to you being better, which helps you win, which is good.

Unless, of course, you play gay.  What's interesting is that even though--for instance--HBox plays gay, he doesn't camp (apparently you can be offensively gay, which isn't the same as finding gayness offensive).  It's the fact that he only uses a few moves and somehow beats all these other people.  

Let's get serious.  There's a reason I am coming back to HBox so much.  It's because people have an idea that there is a right way to play this game, and a wrong way.  For whatever reason, certain players rarely receive the credit they deserve.  HBox is my case study because no other player has had so much success met with so much communal ambivalence.  There are other players like him though, who don't get credit because they don't play the "right way."  They don't have "real skill."

Pardon me for being so emphatically vulgar, but what the **** does that mean?  They aren't winning?  Clearly they are, or we wouldn't even bring them up.  They aren't playing the game that you want them to?  Who the **** cares?  In fact, if doing things you don't expect and want them to do helps them win, who's going to blame them for doing it?  You?  Of course you would, you lost.  They're not entertaining?  If we wanted the winner to be more entertaining, we would play bonus mode.  They used the same move too many times?  Put the abacus down, pointdexter, because you don't lose stocks for getting Stale Moves.

We do not have rules regarding entertainment.  We do not have rules regarding proportionality in your moveset.  You have 4 stocks and 8 minutes to put more hurt on the other guy than he can put on you and that's most of it.  Nobody says you have to find every playstyle fun.  I thought HBox's combo video was boring as hell.  But the moment you start talking about "real skill," I start questioning your sanity.  This applies to every last player in every last community.  It's up to each person to master skills they believe will win, and when they DON'T win, to figure out what they lacked and then adapt.  HBox can b-air like a champ, rest like a champ, avoids dying four times in a majority of his games, he rests more than most other Puffs and he gimps better than most other Puffs.  Those are his skills and they help him win.  Unless you're Mango, it probably means he wins more than you.

Here's my take on it.  You pick the skills you want to master.  You try and get them to synergize and you try and get them to give you the largest probability of winning against the largest number of people possible.  After that, it's just execution (which is a skill of its own).  If the skills work out and you win, fantastic.  If they don't, get back to training mode and learn from your mistakes.

And don't ****ing john about it.


  1. i think you can't truly become good until you stop throwing your controller after you lose

  2. that means that I've been good since I started playing.
    Try again, anonymous.

  3. Great post. I totally agree.

  4. Great article. I'm going through some of these issues as well..

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