Saturday, 9 July 2016

Game Design #67: Character Skill vs Player Skill in Videogames and Wargame Implications

I recently came across a blog on game design. It's more PC/videogame focussed, but an interesting article caught my eye "Game Design: The Nature of Grinding."

Whilst the topic of grinding is interesting for me as a PC gamer, it's not so relevant for wargaming. What did catch my eye was a subtopic  - Character Skill vs Player Skill.

Player Skill. In a PC game, this might be things like reactions, dexterity, estimation, awareness. In tabletop gaming, reactions and dexterity might not be important. Knowing the capabilities of your/enemy troops, the impact of terrain etc might be more important than dexterity or reactions.

Character (Army Building) Skill. This is the stats, numbers and special abilities behind your characters or units. This could be the rating of a unit in movement, melee, shooting, morale as well as extra special traits, abilities and powers.

In a PC game, in a RPG/MMO character skill might dominate.  A level 1 hero might not even be able to damage a level 50 hero faster than the level 50 can heal himself; the level 1 might get one-shot by a single attack. Player skill plays little to no part in such a fight. In a fighting game or a FPS like Quake, players might have identical  access to characters and weapons and it comes down to player skill as to who will triumph.

Basically, I made a connection between the balance between army building (character skill) and decision making/tactics (player skill).  In games like Warmachine and  WFB/40K in days of yore, army building (character skill) was very important .  Certain army "builds" and combinations were extremely effective, to the extent they hard-countered certain opponents who had little to no chance of success despite being ostensibly balanced in "points."   
"But wait - isn't army building a skill?"
Yes.  But it does not occur during the game itself. It was possible to build a killer combo army based on a list you copied from a forum post, and win without being a particularly good player (or even being good at army building yourself). If you had the ability to use google and the ability to buy expensive or "flavour of the month" units, success could be yours - i.e. computer literacy and financial clout > wargaming skill.   

In contrast, in Infinity the Game, the pre-match "army building" was less important than in-game decisions.  In Infinity, poor decisions are harshly punished and you cannot rely on the stats of a unit or its ability to hard-counter certain foes to to bail you out after a poor decision.   I often complain that as Infinity gets increasingly complex, it is more about "knowing your unit/opponent's abilities" (i.e. remembering and understanding very complex rule interactions) rather than "where and when to move and shoot" when the game was simpler.  That said, even the act of knowing skills/interactions is arguably still an "in game" skill rather than one that can be performed independently before the actual game gets underway.  Infinity players used to have a quote "It's not your list - it's you." (I.e. inferring it is your own decisions during the game that wins or loses you the game, not your army list)

Character Skill and Player Skill - "Skill Threshold" and "Skill Ceiling"
A unit or army with a low skill threshold (easy to learn/use) means one that is easy to pick up and play.  One with a high skill threshold (aka steep learning curve) tends to be difficult to  learn and perfect.

An army or unit with a low "skill ceiling" tends to mean one that is easy to use but has limited potential - there is little difference between a good player and an average player.  A unit with a high "skill ceiling" is one that appear brokenly overpowered in the hands of a skilled player, but tends to be only average in the hands of an average player.

An example from the PC game "World of Tanks" - the KV-1 Russian heavy tank has a low skill threshold. It is slow, well armoured, with a good gun. Just keep the front facing the enemy, drive towards them, and pound them into the ground with your superior armour and firepower.   It can bully most equal or weaker tanks with ease.  It is very newbie friendly but can struggle against higher-ranked foes.

In contrast, the T-67 has thin armour, and a weaker gun.  However it has excellent speed and camouflage.  In the hands of an average player - it is weaker than a KV-1 which can deflect its shots and shoot it to bits.  However in the hands of a good player it can dominate a game, using its speed and stealth to rip apart enemy tanks unseen while using its speed to quickly move to optimum firing positions.  It has a higher skill threshold (steeper learning curve) but in the hands of a skilled player it's skill ceiling is almost limitless.  Even as the bottom ranked tank, it is still very dangerous.

To use a wargaming comparison, back in the day I recall (at least locally) in Warmachine, Khador with its powerful and tough units tended to be easier for beginners who want to push forward and bash stuff; sneakier and trickier Cryx tended to be harder to play but are more rewarding to veterans with lots of ways to sneak/combo through and win.

So character skill is bad and player skill is good, right?
I didn't say that, no. There's a place for both. It's just something we should be aware of.

I think it's important for games that have factions that are tricky-but-rewarding; difficult to learn but powerful when played right. 

I also think games where character skill dominates (i.e. army building by google to create an unbeatable army) may detract from the gameplay experience itself; however the list building process can be rewarding and fun (and profitable for the miniatures company).

Also, it's soothing for a player to be able to blame defeats on the "character" - i.e. "my army was always going to get stomped by his Tau" rather than their own lack of gameplay skill:  "I sucked and made a terrible move on Turn 2."  As an aside, I think luck needs to be balanced to take this mentality into account - i.e. loses can be blamed on luck whereas wins are your skill. Unlike chess or checkers, we can always blame bad rolls. However a single d10 is less predictable and more unpredictable than 2d6 even though both deliver 10 possible outcomes. I've probably already done an article on this - i.e. how much "random" should a game have - and if I haven't I should.  Again World of Tanks have addressed this in their PC games with "RNG" - a random +/- 20% deviation from the norm - even if your shot is perfectly aimed (player skill) and your gun should outmatch and penetrate the enemy armour, does not mean it will.  The more luck and randomness, the less impact player skill has.

Character skill (aka army/list building) also appeal to min-maxers and perfectionists who want to get the army "just right."  It gives competitive players another area in which to excel and gives lots of interesting things to do when "offline" away from the gaming table.

Again, this is not about "this is right and this is wrong" - it's more about "why" we make design choices.


  1. Also handy for driving sales.

  2. I tried to jump into Infinity many times (beacause of some cool looking models) but whenever I read Infinity forums i say "pass". I think that even BattleTech is more player friendly. The main "skill" for Infinity player is time you must "spend" to even have competitively playable army.

    1. The game is brilliant at its core. The decision making is second to none. But yes, the learning curve is near vertical. Each expansion has added more special rules - sometimes a single rule has 5-6 variations each of which can interact with other rules in complex ways.

      It's not "making" a competitive army, it's remembering what everyone in your army can do; let alone what everyone else's special skills etc are.

      I DO recommend having a look at their quickstart rules and sans all the extra rules, the core mechanics are interesting and fun and can apply to many other genres like modern warfare, WW2 etc.

      I think Corvus Belli are frustated RPGers - in fact, some RPGs like Savage Worlds have more streamlined combat mechanics....

  3. I know I keep mentioning X-wing here, but I feel like this is something x-wing does well in this area. Sure, good optimized lists have an edge on poorly or mediocrely done ones, but the game is very tightly balanced where a lot of the skill is lining up shots and maneuvering around asteroids.

    "I think it's important for games that have factions that are tricky-but-rewarding; difficult to learn but powerful when played right. "
    I've noticed recently Overwatch does this sort of thing pretty well. I think the trick is making it powerful enough to be worth extra effort, but not so good as to make the "begginer" factiosn/units worthless to try. Overwatch does just that.

    This trade-off between list building and in-game skill is something I've been considering in my own design of my skirmish level miniatures game (Feint Wars). I tend towards more wanting in-game a little more, but it's in the nuance of where to fit my game I need to find.

  4. A game where character skill and player skill are equally important is League of Legends.
    You have a Champion that you play in the game but you also have a selection of Runes, Masteries and Spells that you choose before the game.