Richard Connell’s short story, “The Most Dangerous Game”, is heralded as the best example of the ‘man versus man’ narrative archetype, or so your middle-school literature teacher may have told you. The story revolves around a big-game hunter, Sanger Rainsford who finds himself stranded on a remote island in the Caribbean. He finds a mansion on the island, where another big-game hunter, a Cossack, lives and thinks himself saved; however, the Cossack has other plans in store. Over dinner, the Cossack tells Rainsford that he has grown tired of hunting animals, and now hunts men: the most dangerous game. The Cossack then releases Rainsford into the jungle with nothing but some food, clothes, a knife, and a three hour head-start, after which the Cossack, armed with a gun and a pack of hunting dogs, sets out to kill him.
One of the reasons “The Most Dangerous Game” is so memorable isn’t just the drama inherent in a mano-a-mano fight, but in the fact that the fight isn’t fair. Rainsford is left at a disadvantage, forced to rely on his wits and a knife, whereas the Cossack is armed with a firearm, hunting dogs, and a knowledge of the island’s geography. This imbalance leverages the core conflict, the hunting of another man, and raises the stakes. In the end, they are both seasoned hunters with similar experiences, but are using dramatically different tools. Rainsford’s eventual victory is made all the more meaningful given the lopsidedness of the conflict. This inequity between players is something most competitive online games avoid.
Competitive multiplayer games like Call of Duty, StarCraft 2, Super Street Fighter, are generally off-putting to the average player. They have steep learning curves in regards to competitive play, and contenders must spend dozens and dozens of hours essentially learning through continual failure before they can feel like they are achieving something. They require huge investments upfront, and while clearly the end result is compelling to millions of players, it creates divide between those who play and those who don’t. Like chess, there is a huge disparity between an average-level player’s appreciation and enjoyment in playing or spectating a game compared to those who are intimately familiar with the intricacies and strategies required for advanced competitive play. There is little middle-ground.
These are also games whose designers and players are obsessed with the concept of balance. Everything must be balanced. This is a mantra and a battle cry. In order to level the playing field so that the most skilled player with the most effective strategy wins, there must be no exploits. The infamous ‘noob tube’, or rifle-mounted grenade launcher and players who use it are derided in Call of Duty as it allows for unskilled kills. Combos are broken down frame-by-frame by Super Street Fighter vets to expose the slightest advantages in specific avatars. The need to finely tune and balance the tools available to the players is the lynchpin in the game’s success in the competitive scene.
Yet the games above also suffer for their perfect balance. For new players, first order optimal strategies appears that require little skill in to power out. This is evidence in the use of the aforementioned noob tube or the tactic of zerg rushing in StarCraft. These strategies are effective at low levels of play, but the player becomes so reliant on them that they hit a brick wall once these first order optimal strategies are no longer useful, as the players have not developed the required skills to execute on more complex strategies. Conversely, at high-level play, often a set series of strategies or play styles become definitive. One only needs to look at chess, StarCraft or Call of Duty to see that the only way to become competitive is to memorize the most effective strategies and then learn to execute on them faster and more efficiently than your opponent. Due to this symmetry, these games become about speed and precision, and not tactics and wits.
While clearly there is a place for these balanced, symmetrical games that rely on efficiency and speed, The Most Dangerous Game highlights the drama inherent in a wits versus power situation, one which a handful of games have explored. These games are designed to be purposefully imbalanced, and often dynamic, where the field of play is constantly shifting. This requires players to constantly assess and reassess their play style. For many, video games are more about problem-solving and understanding systems more than they are about dexterous play, and these games speak to that.
The Splinter Cell franchise introduced the multiplayer mode called “Spies versus Mercs” with the entry in to the series Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow (and will be reintroducing the mode in the upcoming Splinter Cell: Blacklist). In this mode, two players are mercenaries armed to the teeth with a first person perspective, and two players are spies working in tangent to achieve an objective. The spies play from third person, and able to traverse areas of the map the mercs cannot, are equipped with gear the mercs are not, but are largely unarmed.
This creates a dynamic experience that is often more satisfying than, ‘who can shoot the fastest’. It also clearly communicates to the player the differences in abilities between players. When a spy dies at the hand of a well-placed mine or a merc fails to hunt down a spy before the time limit expires, it feels less like a personal failure due to lack of skill, and more the inability to successfully predict the other player’s plan, which is easier for most people to swallow as it’s less tied to individual egos. Even if inaccurate, a failed spy can say, ‘well I have no defense against mines, so clearly it’s not my fault’, and disassociate themselves from the failure. The inverse of success however, is all the more thrilling given the apparent, if not actual, lack of power the spies have. This game is the best take on the motif displayed by The Most Dangerous Game of wits over raw power to date.
Another game that uses designed imbalanced to great effect is League of Legends. Now while LoL has barriers to entry stemming from other factors (hostile community and sheer complexity from its current scale), the designed imbalance in the game is one of the things that makes the game interesting to new players and ensures its longevity. LoL creates an incredibly dynamic meta-game by continually introducing new characters. There is a huge selection of characters for players to choose from, but no single character remains ‘the most optimal’ for very long, because players rush to find an appropriate counter. Introducing new characters continually upends these relationships, as old strategies become obsoleted and players rush to find new ones. It’s important to note that this dynamic has led to LoL being the most played game in the world.
Designers clearly understand the important of designed imbalance, and encouraging players to use their wits. Respawn Games, compromised of the core team that made Call of Duty’s online multiplayer such a phenomenon, are looking to introduce purposeful imbalance into their new game, TitanFall. In TitanFall, players, known as pilots in the game, can call down giant mechs to use. This results in the game oscillating between pilots versus pilots, pilots versus mechs and mechs versus mechs all in the same match. Clearly the giant mechs have a sheer power and durability advantage over the human pilots, but increased mobility and other tools ensure that pilots can take down a mech all on their own. Maps are also designed with large open areas where mechs can duke it out, but also more confined smaller spaces only accessible to the pilots. The fact that the developer CoD, one of the seminal skill-based competitive shooters is seeking to purposefully design a competitive shooter with designed imbalances shouldn’t be understated. Anecdotally, the response from people who typically would not be interested in playing CoD online, but are very excited about TitanFall bears this out.
Players don’t largely mind losing to a game when it’s clear to them what mistakes they made and that these errors aren’t significantly tied to pure skill. When a game sets up a scenario where we lose because we simply ‘aren’t good enough’, it’s hard not to take it personally. However we are always thirsty to overcome challenges, and when multiplayer games set up situations where failure teaches the player something new, where clear differences in abilities and tools, and our understanding of use of them are responsible for success and failure, not speed or efficiency, players will dust themselves and jump back in. Not that speed and efficiency aren’t important, but when we play competitive online games, the goal is to *play the game* against each other, not simply play against each other’s dexterity. When games can set-up interesting and dynamic scenarios for us to compete in, everybody wins.