Thoughts on Design - Simulating Skill

by Dr Taliesin Coward

If you stop to think about it, most games simulate skill of one form or another. At the very least it’s a necessary part of the control scheme used, where players use either a keyboard and mouse setup, an even more abstract gamepad, or a wheel or joystick at best. Gamers aren’t driving cars or flying planes, they’re pretending to. Nor are they beating up legions of goons with phenomenal martial arts skills: they’re jabbing away at a keyboard and issuing commands.

And yet it works. Perhaps for the simple reason that the better one gets at something, the easier it becomes and the less aware one is of the actions employed. To take a common example, one simply needs to contrast the experiences of learning to ride a bike or drive a car, with when you’re actually competent. What took a lot of effort and concentration at the start can be smoothly done with little more effort than deciding that’s what you want to do. So too with games: compare a newcomer who is all fingers and thumbs, and struggling with the controls, to a person who is well in the flow, and not even consciously aware of the controls– they simply know what they want to do and do it without thought. That is, at a sufficiently high level, many skills simply become an extension of the person’s will, requiring – subjectively at least – only the person’s inclination to execute. The ‘how’ vanishes from conscious awareness.

This perhaps underpins Sid Meier’s comment that designers pretend that the player is good – really good at what the game is getting them to do. Using flight simulators as an example of how this went off the rails, he said they went from being fairly easy and accessible, letting players jump in and shoot down a lot of planes and have fun, to gradually getting more realistic, more complex to the point where the players went from feeling ‘I’m good’, to feeling ‘I’m confused’. That is, the more accessible games simulated the player being skilled at flying a plane, whereas the more realistic ones demanded that the player become actually skilled (which, could often lead to confusion, as can be attested by anyone who has played a flight sim where every button in the cockpit actually does something – and usually something important).

That said, I’m not intending to examine how people become skilled at games, but how games themselves approach and simulate skill. While many games employ a mix of methods and the real-world is not so neat, for ease of discussion we can group approaches to skill in three main categories: 1) altering the outcomes without changing the abilities; 2) adding new abilities, and; 3) modifying how abilities behave. While the following discussion centres around combat in particular, this is merely to illustrate points which can be more generally applied.

1) Altering outcomes without changing abilities

If you pick up just about any role-playing-game, chances are that it employs this system. This is a fairly widespread approach to simulating skill, and one brilliantly suited for games where the control scheme is geared towards making decisions, rather than executing them.

In classic RPGs, for example, players do not actually control combat beyond issuing simple commands. They make the decision to attack, block and so on, and the game does everything from there, and calculates whether the action was successful or not. As the player character’s skill increases, the game simply modifies the numbers. Attacks may do more damage, blocks are more likely to occur, and so on.

In terms of game design, this clearly has roots in tabletop RPG games where players state their intention to take an action, and then role dice and do a ‘skill check’ in order to see if the skill was successful.
This type of system will appeal to different gamers. For those who love playing with numbers and statistics, and obsessing over the best way to min-max, this is ideal. For gamers who prefer a more action-oriented approach, the appeal is limited as, while it may simulate the end results of more skill (doing more damage), it certainly does not simulate the actual feel of being skillful.

While classic RPGs may rely nearly exclusively on this system, it has become very common to see elements of this approach employed in more action-oriented games, especially those which describe themselves as having RPG elements. That is, while the player is more directly in control of the action (aiming, attacking and dodging) the stats are tweaked by the player’s skills. For example, in The Outer Worlds, whether or not the player hits their target depends upon their aim. The amount of damage done, however, is highly dependent upon how skilled the player is with that particular class of weapons.
Done properly, this can give designers the best of both worlds, allowing them to appeal to a broader range of gamers. For the gamer, it can also add depth, allow customisation, and encourage them to engage more with the games underlying systems. I’ve had a lot of fun tweaking just how my character developed in games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, The Outer Worlds, and Cyberpunk 2077 to name just a few.

While this approach can give designers ‘the best of both worlds’, it is not without its problems. This is especially obvious where it has been added to create ‘depth’ to a visceral action game, and results in a barrier that feels artificial: where the player knows that, no matter who good they get at the game, how quick their reactions, they simply cannot statistically beat a particular opponent until they reach the correct level. An example of this occurs in Assassin’s Creed: Origins, where the series started to introduce RPG elements into the series. Difficulty-wise, there was no actual difference in fighting a low level enemy and a high level one in terms of attack patterns and animation. The only thing that changes is how much damage the player does to them, and how much is received in turn. Should the player decide to tackle a foe many levels above their own, no matter how good their actual skill at the game the result is either frustration (where one hit will kill the player), or tedium (as it takes so long to do any real damage to the opponent).

2. Adding New Abilities

Another way games simulate an increase in skill is to literally increase the number of abilities at the player’s disposal. As players increase their character’s level, they gain access to bigger, flashier, more impressive moves. This is a definite favourite amongst more action heavy games, and some excellent examples of this method being well employed occur in the Batman: Arkham series, and the excellent beat-em-up The Lord of the Rings: the Return of the King (ROTK). As the player levels up their character, they can choose to unlock various moves. This might be the ability to instantly counter and kill an attacking foe, break a shield, destroy a weapon, or stun an entire group. While this type of approach does simulate the effects of skill in that it allows the player to do more, it also demands an increase in skill of the player themselves. More abilities means more options, but more complexity.

In order to avoid becoming too complex and overloading the player, a few general rules can be gleaned from games which implement this type of system well. Firstly, there is minimal overlap between abilities. Each is fairly distinct and useful in different scenarios (instant take-downs, disarming foes, crowd control, shield breaking and so on). Of course, this means that the developers have to include scenarios which encourage the use of the skills.

Secondly, the commands to activate the abilities need to be easy to access, execute and memorize. For example, in the ROTK, all its combos for use against heavily armoured foes start with a heavy attack, and all for unarmoured enemies start with a light attack. For games operating off a combo system, one solution is to simply extend the basic combos that players have learnt (so the first combo might be AAA, while the second is AAAA, and the third AAAAB and so on). Another solution is to make certain abilities context sensitive. In ROTK there are three different combos called ‘Orc Bane’, ‘Warrior Bane’ and ‘Bane of Sauron’. Each allows players to parry then instantly kill a foe (Orc, Easterling Warrior, and Uruk-Hai respectively). The commands for each are identical, but which combo is executed depends upon the type of foe. So instead of having to remember three different inputs, players only have to remember one.

Another technique which allows the game to massively expand the available abilities without overwhelming the player is keep the commands and purposes of the abilities the same, but alter the animation and how the attack behaves for each playable character. Using the Arkham games as an example, while Batman, Catwoman and Robin all look, feel and ultimately handle differently, they share a near identical control scheme which makes it extremely easy for the player to swap between them: once you’ve learnt one character, you simply have to learn a few minor differences. This is the same for ROTK, where Aragon plays wildly differently to Gimli or Samwise, but shares common controls.

3. Modifying How Abilities Behave

This is essentially an upgrade to an existing ability or the player’s capacity to perform actions. In short, it simulates skill by either improving the effect of the skill, or reducing any associated cost (such the amount of stamina or mana it takes to perform).

For example, in the Arkham series, players can upgrade Batman’s ability to throw batarangs with first the Twin, and then the Triple Batarang upgrade. This doesn’t change how players issue the command, but allows the players to simultaneously target two or three foes at once. In ROTK some ranged attacks can be upgraded so that they go from launching simple arrows, to flaming arrows, to flaming arrows that pass through multiple foes (or even multiple arrows if you’re playing as Legolas). In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, players can increase both the amount of stamina and mana available as they level up, as well has decrease the associated costs of performing combat actions or casting spells. It could even be more subtle: in Cyberpunk 2077, one upgrade simply reduces the amount of time it takes to reload.

In each instance there is no new command or ability that needs to be learned. What is happening is the abilities the player already has either to become more effective, or they can be performed more times and with less need to manage a particular resource. That is, the game is actually making itself easier. As this mimics the process of what happens when people become more skilled in reality, it has perhaps the most potential to ‘just feel right’.

While this is a huge advantage for designers who want to give the player the sensation of becoming more skilled, it also introduces its own complication. There’s the chance that the game may become too easy, so players no longer feel challenged and lose interest.
A simple way to avoid this, is to make the enemies tougher. While this usually works (not to mention that it makes sense for the harder enemies to be further into the game), it can actually negate any sense of increase in skill. This was a problem with Skyrim, where the strength of an enemy was linked to the player’s level. In order to avoid this sensation of a ‘flat difficulty curve’, it’s important that games still throw the occasional low level opponent at the player so, so they can get a sense of how far they’ve come.

Another option is to change the nature of the challenge. The use of a scoring system which rewards players for how well they did in combat does just this. It no longer matters that the player can defeat the foes, the challenge then becomes how quickly, efficiently, or stylishly it can be done. In the Arkham games, for instance, players get points not only for how many and what type of enemy defeated, but for length of combo, number of gadgets used in the combo, number of different moves and abilities used, with a bonus for doing everything without getting hit or breaking the combo. Needless to say, this can become incredibly complex, and can remain an enjoyable challenge even for the most seasoned players.

Pulling it all together

If I had to single out one game which, more than any other, actually simulates the experience of becoming highly skilled, it would have to be Platinum Games Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. To do this, it borrows elements from all three styles, with upgrades that effect base numbers, introduce new abilities (combos which for the most part are extensions of patterns already learned by the player), and modify existing abilities to make them easier to use. Note that I am not saying that it is the best or has the best skill system. As an action game, it’s unlikely to have the min-max appeal of something like Neverwinter Nights. I am saying, however, that it does brilliantly replicate the sensation of becoming highly skilled.

Having pondered why this is so, I believe the answer is that in the first place it demands the player should develop a high level of skill themselves. However, as the player actually gets better at the game, the game allows the player to upgrade their abilities, allowing them to absorb and dish out more damage, and enter blade mode for longer (a state where time slows down and players can aim their sword swings). All of these actually make the game easier, and in doing so enhance the player’s sense of how skillful they are becoming. It is this interplay between actual skill, and simulated skill that makes it so compelling.

In conclusion, there are many different ways that a designer can simulate an increase in skill. While each has their advantages and challenges, just how a designer chooses to approach the topic depends on both the limitations of the style of game they are attempting to make (for example, whether players are directly controlling the action or not), and the experience they are trying to provide. Do they want to encourage a player to pour over statistics and numbers, trying to discern the best character build? Give players bigger and better toys to play with? Challenge them to master the skills they’ve already got and reward them with the sensation of becoming an unstoppable master? All of these will change just how, and in what combination, designers approach simulating skill.

Reference List

Sid Meier’s Psychology of Game Design GDC Oct 17, 2016 

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