What Genre Takes The Most Skill? Or Rather, Who Cares?

One of the more common pissing matches in today’s videogame culture is the matter of which genres take the most “skill”.  Basically, if you can prove to everyone that “my favorite genre takes the most skill”, then you can take some sort of nonexistent high ground that doesn’t mean a fucking thing to anyone outside of the GameFAQs forums.  It’s the videogame equivalent of “who are the best athletes in the world?”, and while it’s a debate that is all in good fun, it’s really something which should have died a long time ago.  Because in this case, the debate tends to have a very destructive impact on the quality of game discussion, particularly in the videogame circles where rank and score mean everything.

The misnomer is guided by the common belief that everything that makes a game deeper—anything which creates greater separation of skill between the best and worst players—makes a game more fun.  But even by the early eighties, we already knew this was bogus.  Prior to the advent of the optical disc, most video games were confined and restricted by incredible limitations on storage space, and game developers had to be incredibly conscious about what choices made the final cut.  Certainly, games like Chrono Trigger and Super Metroid were heavily marketed on the merits of their thirty-two-megabit cartridges, and heavily marketed on the idea they were bigger and more massive than competing games.  Regardless, the goal in game design was simple: Your limited content had to be more engaging than the limited content in competing games.  It’s what the business model of short, intense arcade games encouraged, it’s what the limitations in the hardware encouraged, and it’s what has always made sense.  Whether your game is confined to a single screen playing field, a small two-dimensional universe, or an entire virtual metropolis, it’s about making sure your highs are more interesting than the highs in other games.

Of course, as we all know, those limitations have largely evaporated, and where companies were once restrained by limited hardware, they’re now most commonly limited by a lack of raw manpower and resources.  On top of this, we now have entire schools of thought dedicated to the idea that human players can act as the difficulty curve, allowing players to push each other over the course of years and even decades.  So where the general rule of thumb in the eighties and nineties was that you became a videogame expert by being a little good at everything, there is now a broad consensus that the clear separation of depth—the criteria for what constitutes “skillful play”—can be determined and distinguished through individual games.  And the last decade of competitive videogames—those surrounding the world of e-Sports, score hunts, and speedruns—have now shown us that if you set up the correct criteria for competition, you can find a clear separation of skill between the best and the worst players in just about any game.

The easiest example worth deferring to is Bejeweled, a game which may very well represent everything that could ever be wrong with a match clear puzzle game.  It is a game which will never be worth anyone’s time and energy, and yet, there is a significant separation of skill between the best and worst players.  We have now built an entire culture of videogame competitions that operates around a similar train of thought.  Games such as League of Legends and Dota 2, which are by all means complete disasters of game design, now have a separation of skill so immense that teams of players are being salaried in the pursuit of building the best five-man team in the world.  On top of this, intense competition now surrounds the fastest completion time in a game like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, in which the defining tactic is to glitch out the game’s opening dungeon so that you will warp to the game’s climactic sequence.  People now invest hundreds and even thousands of hours chasing records in these singleplayer games, many of which were meant to be explored at the player’s leisure or simply to be played once and then maybe once more in the future.

In the process, we have created a culture of competition where people believe this intense competition is a validation of a videogame unto itself.  So basically, to argue your game is worth playing purely on the merits of “skill” and “depth” is to create an unwinnable argument where the fans of these games all sit in a room and talk over each other’s heads.  Who are you to tell someone who has poured thousands of hours into a single videogame that their favorite game does not require skill?  They are playing a game which requires them to expend all of their available energy in pursuit of the small, inconsequential leaps of faith which are necessary to continue climbing the leaderboard.  In the mind of these players, they are most certainly playing a game with “endless depth”.  So you aren’t going to tell a fan of Dota 2 that his game “takes zero skill” when there are people being salaried to play the game, and that even mundane and aesthetically disinteresting things like “creep pulling” and “denial” are hugely important facets of the game.  Because, quite simply, when the goal is to become the best in the world, every little thing can count and most certainly will count.

But at the end of the day, it is a point of view which entirely misunderstands the role of skillful human input.  There’s no reason to care whether a game merely creates a depth curve.  In a day and age where even ordinary, throwaway games can feature significant separations of measurable skill and depth between their best and worst players, and in a world where mediocre and even bad games see cut-throat competition, the goal inevitably falls back on the same lessons that the medium’s infancy once provided: Your skillful elements need to be more interesting than the skillful elements in competing games.  The highs presented by your skill curve need to be higher than the highs in other games.  You need to provide a wider range of skills to master—a more challenging game—and those skills need to provide more satisfying feedback, adding up to more complex and stimulating interactions.  After all, we can most certainly measure the fastest runner, the highest jumper, or even individual skills in a sport like the best passer, and you will most certainly find a pronounced separation of skill and depth in all of these.  But we all know the sport that combines all of these things, alongside things like bone-crunching hits or rim-shattering dunks, is going to be a hell of a lot more fun.

The skillful elements in a videogame are just one means of making your game interesting, and they are not some end-all of game design, which is why it is so futile to argue which game or genre requires the greatest range of said skills.  If game design was about creating the most significant separation of depth and skill possible, then videogames could be significantly more deep and complex than they are today.  Of course, the simple fact is that no person of any skill level would want to play them, because the interactions would be so inconsistent and the visual feedback would be so largely incomprehensible that there would be minimal pleasure to be derived from them.  The only pleasure would come from extrinsic factors—the competition surrounding the incomprehensible game, the goal of understanding the incomprehensible game out of mere sport—and the intrinsic enjoyment to be had from the “game” would be nonexistent.  It would be a bad form of complexity leading to a bad form of depth.  And if it is purely the complexity of a concept which intrigues you, you might as well pour years into learning an academic discipline or an interesting or otherwise more valuable skill.

So there is no sense in worrying about whether people think your game requires skill and there is no sense in fighting over it.  What matters is whether you find that game engaging, and whether the skillful elements provide a satisfying sense of accomplishment is merely one means to that.  So go ahead and compete, play for rank, and explore the “endless depth” associated with your favorite game.  Just make sure that the pleasure derived from the game comes first, and that you judge that skill curve in the same way that we have always judged games: By whether it is fun.

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