Guessing right: why you need to

I recently made a post on a message board about the importance of guessing games in strategic gaming, and thought it'd be nice to elaborate on such a point here.  In context, someone stated that he'd rather win in a fighter game (Street Fighter 4) by good fundamental play (referring to spacing, reaction, and combo skill) than win by what he perceived as random guesses.  My response: there are always guesses to be made.  Reaction is absolutely more valuable than prediction, but the ability to predict your opponent is vital.  It will be necessary at certain points, and I argue that it is necessary for any strategic game to be good.
Let me start with the specific situation.  Just for a hypothetical scenario, we'll use the character Ryu.  Nobody is more about fundamentals than Ryu is.  He has no specialty.  He relies on attack strings, good reaction, and good spacing to prevail.  Once he commits to something, everything he does is clearly beatable or else easily punishable by someone who knows exactly what's coming.  On the opposite end, consider El Fuerte, whose game relies almost entirely on guessing games.  Everything about him relies on trying to knock the opponent down once, at which point his okizeme (anti-wakeup game) is more expansive than any other character.  He forces you to constantly guess what he's going to do and you have almost no time to react.  Everything about him is higher risk than usual though, since he has minimal stamina.  When you lose to Ryu, it's pretty clear that you lost because you took too many risks and couldn't manage to establish a dominant position (at least not enough).  When you lose to El Fuerte, it's equally clear why you lost, but this time it's because you guessed wrong too many times.  However, going back to Ryu, you still cannot win against him unless you guess right sometimes.  One side has to take an offensive risk at some point, and that's the crucial moment when the entire round could be determined.  You have to know what he does to space you out so that you can prepare with the proper counters to get in and do your damage.  Once you have the life advantage, you can consider whether to turtle against him, but you have to get some damage in at some point to win (otherwise a draw is the best scenario if he never hurts you, either).
What if guessing was never part of the equation?  What if the game relied purely on reaction to your opponent?  The most basic form of a strategy game is rock-paper-scissors, so let's use that.  In that game, you constantly have to predict your opponent at every move.  Both sides have to commit to some kind of offensive move simultaneously without the knowledge of what the opponent will do.  What if the game was given an unlimited amount of time and once a decision is made, you clearly can see what it is?  This is the only way to take guessing out completely, and it's pretty obvious what can happen when you do so.  Obviously, you just make the move that beats the opponent.  This means that there's no motivation to make a move, and every motivation to wait for the opponent to move.  Both of you just end up sitting around until the opponent does something, and since neither one will do anything, you're stuck staring at each other.
The Zax clearly never learned how to play this game.

Apply this back to Street Fighter 4.  Eventually, if neither side attacks and neither jumps (since both are almost completely defenseless in that state), one side has to approach the other and an attack has to be made.  Ryu has a simple time with this: he only has to do a crouching mid kick and cancel into a Hadoken to space El Fuerte away back into a neutral position (with some chip damage on top of it).  El Fuerte cannot grab to stop that, so he has to be able to run and use one of the many moves that come out of that, again predicting how Ryu will react to that.  One of the moves he has is to simply stop, baiting out a punishable reaction from Ryu.  Another attack move can hit on either side, forcing him to guess which side to block or attempt a focus.  If Ryu focuses against it, both sides will at the very least gain some meter which can be used for more elaborate/powerful exchanges.  Of course, because the reaction time given is very low, El Fuerte can anticipate the focus and do a grapple move Ryu will be unable to stop once committed.  Ryu's answers to the grab can be a counter-grab (if it's a natural grab), duck if it's the forward-running grab, or jump/backdash if it's a back-running grab.  This scenario doesn't really change much once he's knocked down, because all of them can be done instantly when he gets back up.

There is however, one clear flaw in this scenario.  If the opposing player could have instant reaction speed, meaning he can respond at the very frame he needs to, Ryu clearly has to take 0 risks.  He can wait for El Fuerte to act because he needs to.  The point I make with this is that fighters must always strive to ensure that every character is able to bring up some kind of guessing game with speed beyond human reaction.  Once a human is able to sit back and react to absolutely everything, then that player never has to take any risks and the game becomes entirely uninteresting.  The other player also won't take any risks because he knows the opponent will respond appropriately to each one.  You end up with a Zax scenario with neither side doing anything.  Any game needs to have a place for prediction to be interesting for long.
What about games that do not have a real-time element?  What happens when a game is entirely turn-based?  Theoretically, either black or white should win 100% of the time in Chess because there does exist a perfect series of moves.  There are two things that can make such a game interesting: complex strategy and/or randomness.  In the case of Chess, it is the complex strategy.  Nobody has been able to even program a computer with perfect knowledge of a game, let alone a human player being able to beat every human every time.  Chess has been around for centuries, so it's safe to say the complexity of the game is deep enough that humans cannot grasp it enough to reach that uninteresting point.  On the other end, we can look at another classic board game of Risk.  There is clearly a best strategy for that game, but the game becomes interesting from the random dice rolls that occur.  You do not necessarily know what's going to happen.  You can influence the odds to be in your favor, but it always comes down to the dice in the end.
For a turn-based game that encompasses both of this and brings all of this stuff full-circle, I turn to poker.  All players have some level of hidden information and most formats involve some form of public information.  Just to name one for an example, I'll use Texas Hold-Em.  The randomness involved is how the cards go.  The players will get their own personal cards and there will eventually be 5 community cards if the hand is played out.  The basic strategy is that if your personal cards make up a very strong hand with the community cards, you will be betting that your hand is better than everyone else's (having the very best hand for the community is known as "the nuts," by the way).  Of course, you don't know for certain what everyone else has, so unless you have the nuts, there's always the possibility of being beaten.  Again, this is influencing the odds in your favor.
The true strategy, the yomi, works in how you bet and how well you can place your opponent's cards.  Theoretically, if you know what cards your opponent has at all times and they don't know yours, you know when you should pick a fight.  How you bet, in addition to the rest of the things you do with your body (your "tells") sends a message to what you have in your hand.  Every player has the option of just giving up the hand if they feel they won't be beating their opponents.  It's not unusual for a player to actually give up the better hand because they got the impression their opponent's hand was even better than that.

Any competitive strategy game needs a place for prediction.  There needs to be motivation for aggressive actions while also having a near-equal place for defense.  Everything needs to have something that beats it.  Every good game will exercise this on various levels, although some end up getting decided before the actual outcome.  Real-time strategy games (as defined by that specific genre, such as Starcraft) and shooters rely on your position being better than what your opponents took, and all if skill level is equal, that position will hold throughout the game until you simply end up winning.  What kind of guessing games you prefer is entirely up to you, but every game needs it to be of any good quality.


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