Animation Canceling, Skill and Complexity – A Response to The Meta

So last night I was shown a news article written by The Meta, a website part of Kill Screen specializing in writing about esports, metagaming and the culture surrounding them. The article in question was this: “Is animation canceling the best or the worst thing to happen to competitive gaming?. It was written as a sort of dialogue between the site’s staff, with the writers weighing in their opinions and the discussion and topic just spiraled and pivoted all over the place, starting from animation canceling and then jumping to complexity, non-intuitiveness, competitive game design, game rules, player skill and technique until the whole argument ended pretty much abruptly but with the two main debaters deciding to agree with each other.

*Before I continue, in case you’re unfamiliar with the terms, I’ll be referring to complexity as the amount of mental knowledge and things a player has to hold in their mind and learn to do, while depth is the variety of states and outcomes and meaningful plays a player can make. Most designers I’ve seen have used different semantic definitions with slight variations but I think we all know what we’re talking about when we use these terms and mean the same thing nonetheless.

First off, that entire post was mired with bad, unclear definitions and served as an example of the effect this has on our discourse on games. The very first line describes “metagaming” as:

The application of knowledge from outside of a game’s intended ruleset in order to improve one’s ability at a game. Metagaming takes on all kinds of forms, from the min-maxing of character stats in RPGs to community-optimized “netdecks” for games like Hearthstone and Magic: The Gathering.

Right there we’ve got some critical words thrown in that really change the definition from what it is commonly used among designers and players to something slightly more broad. “Intended ruleset” imply that trying to cheat the game’s system with workarounds and loopholes is part of metagaming, but it’s not. Those are advanced emergent techniques of games. Metagaming is about the game surrounding the game. The examples they used in the second sentence are perfect. These are things you do outside of the game to apply inside of it, it’s got nothing to do with intended rulesets (which in and of itself is a misnomer; rules are by definition designed, there’s no such thing as “unintended ruleset”).

Anyway onto the rest of the article. They get into some talk about animation canceling with most people agreeing that it’s bad and stupid before the arguments begin. The first thing that’s again muddled because of unclear definitions is animation canceling itself. You have people having two different ideas of it: one is about maximizing your APM efficiency while the other is about using animations to play mind games and lure in players. The first one is what animation canceling is (and also how they defined it at the beginning of the post), the second one is a skill used in all twitch-based games with different mechanisms which is stopping an action you were about to perform and trick your opponent into performing the common/appropriate reaction to that action. In the case of the Dota 2 example they used, it’s cast time canceling (canceling the usage of an ability during its cast time), which is different from animation canceling.

Then came one of the biggest offenders. Justin asked:

Aren’t mechanics that make things arbitrarily more difficult essentially the definition of any competitive game though?

No Justin, no, that’s not essentially or in any way what defines competitive games. Competitive games are about competition! While how you go out to build and design them is up to the designer, just adding mechanics that makes thing arbitrarily more difficult is certainly a bad idea. You don’t want to make things difficult for the sake of it. Ideally for competitive games there needs to either be a skill ceiling so high that no human can possibly ever hit it (like chess and fighting games) or have no skill ceiling at all (like most esports and physical sports) and to achieve that you don’t need to keep adding mechanics just to make things more difficult at all.

An argument over basketball’s dribbling rule was discussed as a part of this. Dribbling isn’t just a mechanic added in there to make things difficult or challenging or whatever, it’s a systemic rule that defines how the game’s supposed to be played. Without that, there would be no basketball, the game wouldn’t even make any sense. It would be like saying the death timer in MOBAs are a mechanic added in there to make things more difficult! It’s a rule to make a coherent playable game. There was no comparison here to be made and why it was brought up in the first place baffles me.

Player skill is also discussed somewhat. The thing is, everything they talked about are indeed part of skill. Animation canceling is also a learnable skill. The discussion about whether or not it’s stated in the game’s tutorial/rulebook is of less importance than whether or not that skill is appropriate for the game and related to its other skills. That discussion meanwhile never happened. You can add as many mechanics that add to a game’s complexity and skills as you want and make them crystal clear to the player too and it won’t matter if those have nothing to do with each other. I mean, think about this; why not have a solvable match-3 puzzle when you want to buy something from the game’s shop? It adds more skill to learn and lets “good players differentiate themselves from inferior players”, but even the idea of that makes no sense on a very instinctive level.

The most important issue for me in this amalgam of topics was about complexity though. Now a short disclaimer here, I had played Dota for around 8 years (even I can’t remember how long ago it was) and I remember I tried to get into League of Legends a number of times. I think I have maybe 3 accounts there that have been completely forgotten. Why? Because the game was just way too complex and daunting to learn, and that was despite me already knowing all of the shared systemic mechanics from Dota (I have since stopped playing Dota as well, primarily because of toxic players though). I don’t think this needs to be repeated but, complexity on its own is bad. Depth is what we as players and designers want, and again not to repeat what’s already been said many times over, achieving greater depth is very hard without adding more complexity. And here came another big offender of The Meta’s post:

You can’t have great players if you don’t have a sufficiently difficult and complex game.

I can’t even comprehend that properly, but assuming he meant “You need your game to be complex and difficult for it to be able to differentiate between great players and bad ones.” that’s just patently false. There are many games that have low complexity and achieve this. You need depth, not complexity. I think we all can agree that Mario is an easy game, yet watch speedrunners finish that game in mere minutes and see how much better they are. If you want a multiplayer competitive example, look at football (soccer for Americans), a game anyone barring physical disabilities can get into. The only way what was said can be true is if we’re being generous and interpret “complex” in the colloquial sense as a synonym of difficult and by “difficult game” meaning a game that has a high skill ceiling.

The absolute worse thing to be said in that discussion though was this little bit about complexity:

Justin: Okay, how about this. Learning to shoot a basketball is very complex. It means mastering all these obscure quirks of how your hands work, the trajectories that maximize your chance of making a shot, etc. Having a good shot in basketball is something that is exhaustively coached, because it’s so much more complex than it appears. It’s really easy to make a videogame that is way less complex than basketball, in other words. It’s extremely hard to make a videogame that is MORE complex. So in my opinion, if a game like basketball is your benchmark, more complexity is almost always better.

Josh: I’m not saying that complexity is bad.

The parts in bold are just obviously wrong and I think what I’ve discussed so far should already give you an idea why. First off, shooting in basketball isn’t complex in the sense we use the word in game design. Again, if we’re being generous and reading “complex” as “has a high skill ceiling to master”, then yes, it is that. But making a highly complex video game is incredibly easy. Just keep adding stuff and increase the mental load the players will have to hold and bam, you got yourself a complex game. Hell, it’s easy to make all the existing MOBAs much more complex than they already are. Add new characters, add new items, make the maps larger, add new rules and resource types, etc. the list goes on.

The last line though is what has been irritating for a very long time now. It’s this elitist attitude that somehow more complexity is better. “Since the game is complex and hard to master, and I’m good at this game, then I’m better than you.” is a very real sentiment I feel ooze from proponents of this even if they never say it outright. These are games and they should be celebrated as enjoyable and inclusive activities, not unapproachable things meant for the elitist club with an implicit “you’re dumb and not good enough for this” thrown against outsiders as well. Elitism aside, players shouldn’t want complexity, they should want depth and a reason they currently talk as if they want complexity is either because a) they don’t know the language of game design, or b) the only deep and engaging games they’ve seen have been complex. The latter case is my suspicion of what’s happening more likely, and thus they equate the two together.

The rest of the discussion among The Meta’s staff was devoted to bringing in-game examples for their respective positions and while I don’t want to go into any detail into them, there was again one last line that again made me cringe that I felt needed addressing:

Justin: I will be the first to say I love animation canceling. Loved it in CoD4. Love the way orb walking feels.

Josh: So do I! But I don’t think that means there’s not some clearer way to execute it in the context of game design.

Justin: So what would be a game-wide mechanic that both replaces this and is more clear? My suspicion is that there isn’t one, and I think that’s our disagreement. Well… thinking about it now, maybe there is. Like in Gears of War, they replicated the reload cancel mechanic with a visual minigame that let you reload faster if you timed it right. You could hypothetically have something like that to tell you when to orb walk.

Josh: Yeah, and that was f***ing dope!

Give game designers some credit man, if you can’t find a systemic change to get a specific result in your game, you shouldn’t be designing games. Aside from this little rant, I felt the important question was again missed because of bad presumptions. Should there even be anything to replace animation canceling? That’s the question that should have been asked. Let’s hypothetically remove the entire thing for a moment (a little bit more on this in a moment), how much of the core game will be changed? Not much I’d say. Now for the sake of our focus on esports and high level play, how much of on impact will this make in differentiating the good players and teams from the bad ones? I doubt much at all, because the core skills of these games aren’t about slight APM efficiencies, they’re about strategy and tactics and those are what made Navi a three-time The International finalist. It’s not what these games are about, and they’re not what even games in general are about. You want meaningful choices and decisions in games, not things you know are optimal. Now the esports game roster is full of games with lots of this, but why have something that doesn’t drive the game forward, adds complexity, hampers the player with more APM (that is meaningless) and is detached from the core skills of the game?

About animation canceling in particular, you also got to remember the historical context behind it. I’ll wager that it probably wasn’t even a designed mechanic. Back when the old RTS games like Warcraft 3 were being made they probably added the backswing animation to make the game look and feel better and while coding the game’s logic, they decided to have the damage proceed at a certain time after the attack was initiated followed by a backswing. Meanwhile the units would listen to player input commands all the time, overriding what they were doing. This then allowed players to tell their units to move after an attack’s damage had gone through but not before (otherwise no damage would be dealt) and that’s how the mechanic was born! Now Dota and League were both born out of that same game engine and kept them as features. Fixing this is easy: just don’t deal the damage/shoot the projectile until the full animation is played, or better yet, keep it as it is but don’t let listen to new inputs until the backswing animation is done. Something Heroes of the Storm has done is made the backswing so fast and the attack speed high so that while it’s still technically doable, animation canceling loses whatever minor impact it had further and removes itself from the list of things players have to learn to play well, thus lowering the complexity of its game and making it more approachable.

To wrap this up, I’m seeing our discussions surrounding our games to be flawed. Our gaming critics do fine work when it comes to cultural critique and narrative criticism, but using this as an example, talks about gameplay and games themselves are often held back by poor understanding of terms and sometimes sweeping claims that can only hold everyone back. Special thanks to Richard Terrell for linking The Meta’s post and inspiring me to right this. I’ll be happy to read your thoughts in the comments!

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