Hello everyone! For those of you who might not know me well, I have always been fascinated by and involved in competitive gaming. This is the first post in what will be a series on gaming. My posts will likely be focused mostly around the philosophy of game design.
For a little bit of personal background, my first exposure to competitive gaming was through chess, with most of my weekends in elementary and middle school spent at chess tournaments. More recently, I’ve played Super Smash Bros Melee (SSBM) and League of Legends (LoL) at moderately competitive levels, though much more LoL than SSBM. As a result, most examples I give will probably be from these three games, though I will be making an effort to make my points understandable to people with little or no exposure to these games, or competitive gaming in general. With the introduction out of the way:
As the title suggests, this first blog post is about my thoughts on how competitive gaming has and will continue to develop in the future as a result of technological advances. To make this discussion easier, I will first make a distinction between two types of games that I will refer to as discrete and continuous games.
Discrete games are characterized by well defined options in gameplay and tend to have turn based gameplay. I think it’s easiest to understand this concept through examples. Historically, most competitive games, such as chess, checkers, and go, have been discrete games. They have well defined rules, and with that, a clearly limited set of possible options at any point in the game.
In contrast, continuous games are characterized by having fewer hard limitations and are played in real time. Most video games fall into this category. As an example, consider SSBM. Characters, while limited by their individual design, move and act constantly. All fighting and real time strategy (RTS) games are very good examples of continuous games. While these games certainly have rules (for example, character movement speed), there is a clear difference between these sorts of limitations and the turn based play present in discrete games.
There is also a dichotomy between games of perfect information and games without perfect information. Games of perfect information, as the name suggests, are characterized by all players having knowledge of every possible move at all times. For example, chess is a game of perfect information, whereas poker is not, as a result of hidden cards.
Technology has had a massive effect on competitive gaming. It has massively changed how people study discrete games of perfect information, while allowing the creation of continuous games. Computers have allowed discrete games of perfect information to be studied in a way that was never possible before. For example, checkers has been completely solved. Chess endgames with 7 or fewer pieces have all been solved. There are chess programs that can beat the top players. Before the computer age, chess players’ knowledge was far more limited. Players were forced to innovate by creating their own lines of play. Nowadays, anyone can buy a chess database, throw a position into the database, and games between top players in which that position has occurred will pop up. This greatly accelerates how quickly people can learn the game, while allowing people to avoid creative thought. All 10 of the players who have earned the International Grandmaster title (the highest title in chess other than world champion) at the youngest ages were born after 1980. Six out of the ten were born after 1990. My point is not to discredit these players’ absolutely incredible achievements, but I do think it is fair to argue that this trend is very much a result of technological advancements. There have also been a number of scandals around players illegally using computer programs during tournaments.
While we are very far away from solving chess, and even farther from solving go, it seems theoretically possible to solve all discrete games of complete information as technology improves. Furthermore, even before these games are completely solved, I would argue that something is taken away from these games with the creation of computer programs that are stronger than human players. The issue is not specifically that computers can beat humans, but rather the result that, eventually, there may be no room left for human creativity within these games. Currently, humans are probably still better at certain types of analysis in chess, and human intuition gives some advantages (intuition in competitive games will likely be a topic for a later post!), but with our continually improving technology, chess programs may soon be completely superior to humans. While it would be a shame for chess to devolve into memorizing computer analysis, this isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
While technology has, in my view, removed some of the beauty in such classic games as chess, it allows the creation of continuous games. As a result of play occurring in real time, the computer analysis used in chess and checkers is not possible to the same extent. While there have been advances in developing AI for continuous games (which will also probably be discussed in much more depth in a future post), it is much more difficult to create such programs. In addition, no matter how good computer programs ever get at continuous games, this occurrence won’t have the same effect as it has on discrete games of perfect information. You will never be able to input an exact situation in LoL, or SSBM, or any other continuous game into a database in the same way you can with chess. The continuous aspect results in an infinite number of possible positions that is impossible in discrete games.
Continuous games include another aspect that is absent in discrete games: technical skill. It doesn’t matter how quickly or precisely you move a piece in chess. In contrast, top SSBM and starcraft players are performing hundreds of actions per minute, while still having to think about all the strategy in the games. Whether the inclusion of technical skill is good or bad is a matter of opinion, it does mean that human vs human competition will always be interesting to watch in a way that is impossible with discrete games of perfect information. Top level play will always be more than the memorization of computer analysis, as may occur with discrete games of perfect information. While this may seem strange to many people, this makes continuous games much more similar to traditional sports.
In conclusion, I believe that continuous games have much higher potential to continue to have competition that isn’t ruined by technological advancements. Sadly, such seemingly eternal games as chess may not stand the test of time. While technology has hurt many classic games, it allows us to create new games with unique depth, and new strategic and competitive beauty to relish.
Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed the first post in this series!