Our site takes its name from “metagaming,” 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.
Here at The Meta (i.e. in our internal Slack channel), we spend a lot of time
arguing over evaluating different kinds of metagames, but one recent discussion around a very specific mechanic nearly drove us to digital fisticuffs: the animation cancel.
Here’s a quick rundown. Whenever a character carries out an action in a videogame, the motion of said action is animated. If Ashe shoots an arrow in League of Legends, she draws back the string of her bow, lets the arrow loose, follows through on her shot, then pulls another arrow from her quill. The way League works, though, Ashe’s full firing animation is long. With the time you sit there watching Ashe set loose a single arrow, you could be moving elsewhere on the map. By inputting a move command the moment the character fires, a player can cancel the backswing animation and resume movement quicker than if they only clicked once.
It’s a small way to gain an incremental advantage over a less-skilled opponent, but it’s also a subtle and non-intuitive technique, so its value is hotly contested. And hotly contest it some of The Meta’s staff did. Here’s a transcript of our conversation:
Roy Graham: All animation cancels should be destroyed.
Josh Calixto: It’s such a stupid mechanic. Unforgivably important in way too many games.
Roy: Yeah. I say that as someone who abuses it relentlessly in almost all the competitive games I play. It sucks.
Josh: It’s not even abuse if it’s a necessary skill.
Will Partin: …anyone want to come to the defense of the animation cancel?
Daniel: Me! I will.
Chris Breault: It’s cool in games like Devil May Cry or EDF. Get that good twitchfeel.
Daniel: Yeah, something that’s going to be competitive benefits from cancels because animations encourage prediction rather than reaction. Both are important and cancels allow both to exist.
Josh: Can I get an example? Because most of the time cancels are simply used to do more actions in a smaller timeframe, as opposed to being useful for mindgames. Like the Genji melee right-click dash combo.
Roy: I think the difference here is fighting games vs. mobas or fps. I can see their value in Street Fighter or whatever. But they’re just this dumb efficiency thing in other genres. No mind games.
Here’s an example of animation canceling as a mind game. Puck (the fairy thing) has an ability called phase shift that’s instant, and Queen of Pain (the succubus) has her ult, Sonic Wave, which has a cast point of .45 seconds. So there’s a .45 second window in which Puck can react and avoid all damage from the wave, since Puck’s ability’s cast point is faster than that of Queen of Pain’s. But the Queen of Pain loses here because there’s some back and forth where the QoP is canceling the animation on the Sonic Wave to bait the Phase Shift, but Puck successfully dodges the real one.
Josh: Sure, but just because animation canceling exists doesn’t mean it’s an ideal mechanic for mindgaming. It’s extremely meta. Also, I guess the situation you’re talking about here is a bit different in that, again, it doesn’t seem to be a way of doing three actions in the time it usually takes to do one, which I think is animation canceling at its worst. Orbwalking works the same way in League. Once the projectile comes out, you can move your character in the time that would have otherwise been wasted watching the attack animation go through. It’s such a weird mechanic to exist in the game, and there’s almost no way of learning about it except for Youtube videos and hearing about it through friends. And yeah, there’s value in that, but it’s the kind of thing that makes these games really impenetrable.
I think you could make the case for animation canceling as a mind game, but it’s harder to defend the mechanic when it’s just an optimal input method that games the system. Just make those interactions easier to read.
Justin Groot: Aren’t mechanics that make things arbitrarily more difficult essentially the definition of any competitive game though?
Josh: Why is that?
Justin: Like, basketball has dribbling. Yeah it makes it harder for a new player to move with the ball and yeah it’s arbitrary, but it opens up a whole world of skill.
Josh: But dribbling is a clear rule of the game. It doesn’t require outside knowledge of the game; it’s not “meta.” I’ve compared dribbling to last hitting in mobas.
Justin: I guess I have trouble seeing the distinction. Last hitting and animation canceling are both mechanics designed to make things arbitrarily more difficult. Your completely uninformed player doesn’t know about either. Isn’t the only difference that the tutorial mentions one but not the other?
There are intricacies to the rules of dribbling—you can’t start again after you stop, you can’t put your hand under the ball—that are opaque to beginners, just as there are actual physical techniques and tricks to using a dribble effectively that go beyond “you have to bounce the ball on the ground.”
Josh: But there’s a rulebook that makes those things clear. Also—the reason those exist typically has a design rationale. You need to dribble or else it would be too easy for one player to just run the ball across the court uncontested.
Justin: Sure and I guess what I’d say is that the “rulebook” in a competitive videogame isn’t the tutorial the developer puts out but the rules of the game itself. You can’t “break” the rules of a videogame because the rules are what define the game.
Josh: Yeah. Because if it’s possible to do in-game, then it’s allowed by the game’s ruleset. But the thing is, at least to me, that there is rarely a design rationale for something like animation canceling. And—probably even worse—there’s nothing to indicate it as a possibility except tutorials and word of mouth.
Justin: I would guess the design rationale is essentially “this is a skill that players can develop to differentiate themselves from inferior players.” And again I think you overestimate the transparency of traditional sports. Like when I played basketball for fun as a kid, I developed this habit of leaning down and watching the ball when I dribbled. Nothing in the rulebook would have corrected that. Somebody had to point it out to me.
Josh: Right, I’m not arguing for technique as being a bad thing, because I think technique should be encouraged. Just that the rules shouldn’t obscure routes to technique. Because a lot of the time in these games, technique basically involves breaking the game’s mechanics. I think there are a lot of techniques that are clear, like Lee Sin’s “ward jump.” He can jump to any ally unit, so if you put down a ward you can dash to it. There’s no friction between the game system and the technique. It works the way it says it’ll work.
It’s funny because this entire thing is basically what makes Melee such an awesome game, in that it uses a LOT of mechanics that seem to break the game’s rules, but that’s what makes it great. But I think it’s false to assume that Melee‘s mechanics need to be as obscure as they are for the game to work the way it does.
Justin: I disagree pretty profoundly with basically all of that. (Laughs) First I think the distinction between technique and rules you’re making is misleading—”don’t look at the ball when you dribble” may not be mandated by written-out rules but it’s certainly mandated by unspoken physical rules, in the sense that looking at the ball just doesn’t work. Technique emerges naturally from rules. I also think that difficulty and complexity are foundational elements of competitive games, and the obscurity of routes to technique is a natural side effect of that. In other words, every competitive game, whether you’re talking about basketball, pole vaulting, or Dota 2, is harder than it appears. The fact that those mechanics seem irrational or opaque to a newcomer is natural and unavoidable.
And I do actually think that what makes Melee great is the bevy of obscure and difficult techniques that are necessarily obscure because they are 1) so numerous and 2) so difficult and circumstance-specific. That’s what enables Greatness. You can’t have great players if you don’t have a sufficiently difficult and complex game.
Josh: I think the distinction only becomes important in the context of videogames, because of the fact that it’s almost impossible to know what’s possible in a game’s internal system unless you get that through another person.
Justin: That’s the same in sports! Like, you can read the rules all you want, but you’ll still have so much to learn…
Josh: I’m talking about the degree though. Like, shoot the ball and you get 2 points, but it takes years of practice to be able to shoot well, sure, I get that. I’m talking about details like, “the referee is part of the court”—if knowing that nuance was a core mechanic of being good at the game.
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.
Justin: I think I get what you’re saying. It’s more about the logic behind it. “Does this mechanic make sense.” But I’d argue that anything of sufficient complexity isn’t going to make sense to a newcomer.
Josh: I don’t think it will be immediately clear, but I think it will make sense. Like, I think there’s a difference between the ward jump and the animation cancel, which are both non-intuitive techniques.
Roy: There’s a difference of understanding I think Justin’s underplaying here. To use the basketball example, a newcomer understands the goal of “throw the ball into the hoop.” And even if they are bad at throwing said ball, I think it’s easy for them to understand the path towards that goal. Whereas the Genji combo would never occur to a new player, it’s something they have to be informed about.
Josh: And techniques like shooting a basketball properly don’t break the rules of physics, as they present themselves to you, in the context of existing in a physical space. That’s why it took such a long time for people to “discover” new mechanics in Melee, because they basically broke the game in ways that ended up becoming actual techniques. I think there’s a place for that, and I don’t think it’s inherently bad. But I think it’d be helpful to skew towards technique that fits within the context of the game rules as outlined. It’s a UX thing, essentially.
Justin: Okay, let’s take the Genji combo for a second. I don’t know the specifics but I understand that it probably lets you kill people faster. So to me it seems like, in basketball, your goal is to throw the ball in the hoop, but there are all sorts of tricks that allow you to throw the ball in the hoop more accurately and faster, that would never occur to a new player. In Overwatch, your goal is to kill people, and the Genji combo is a trick that lets you kill people better and faster. Yeah it would never occur to a new player, they’d have to be informed, but you could say the same about a follow-through. And it doesn’t really break rules, because the fact that it’s possible at all means it’s within the rules of the game, as presently defined.
Josh: So I’m more specifically talking about the kind of complexity involved in making that jump. I’ll take the example of the ward jump again, just because I believe it’s the best method of implementing something like this. With his W skill, Lee Sin dashes to an ally unit. Beginners only really think of fellow champs and fellow creeps as their ally units. They never think of wards as being ally units, but they are. It’s not obvious, but it’s clear when someone explains it or you try it out yourself. Someone says “you can jump to a ward” and it just makes sense.
Justin: Look, I am willing to concede that more complexity does not equate to better design. But I do think that a minimum level of complexity is mandatory for a truly lasting competitive thing of any kind.
Roy: Well, sure. The Pong competitive scene did not last long. I guess we’re arguing about where that line is.
Justin: Overwatch gets away with ditching the reload canceling that is a key fundamental thing in Cod4 and other games because it’s complex in other ways. BUT! There’s a danger in pruning complexity all over the place, because you risk dropping below the threshold where a good player can leverage skill to beat an inferior player, which is the whole point.
Josh: I think what we’re talking about is purely about the way complexity is applied. I think the strength of lots of physical sports is that most technique is implied. you can be great at basketball with no coach and no internet access, just other people to play with.
Roy: Yes! Exactly that.
Josh: …not whether complexity is good or bad.
Justin: I could buy into that. So here’s the million dollar question, Josh and Roy. If you remove orbwalking, what do you replace it with? Or do you accept that fights are that much less determined by skill?
Josh: I don’t think you need to remove orbwalking – Riot Games already did it on the League of Legends character Kalista: when she starts an attack she can’t stop it, so animation canceling is impossible.
Justin: Right, you showed me that! She skates around like a goofball, I dig it.
Josh: But her nuance is that she can jump if you buffer the movement before the next attack. There’s one example of how that would be possible. It’s arguably even MORE complex than your average animation canceling, but it’s actually much clearer within the game’s system because all of that information is there for you to see in the game.
Justin: Well… It’s essentially super-orbwalking: the same mechanic, but you move further.
Josh: But it’s an explicit part of the character’s design
Chris: I think it feels better to move around in a game when you play a little game to do it, like dash-shielding in EDF. And ultimately the question is what makes the game better, not what’s friendliest to new players.
Josh: I agree.
Justin: Yeah, like, Melee movement feels great.
Josh: I’m not saying that’s bad, homie, I’m saying does that make sense within the game’s internal system? Or does it seem to break it altogether?
Chris: If people who are really good do it consistently, then yes it does make sense.
Josh: Which is a design nuance.
Chris: If everyone at a certain level of competition can do it, it’s not breaking the game.
Josh: I think the Kalista example is kind of the pinnacle of what I’m talking about.
Dan: There’s a risk-reward thing built into cancelling too, because in order to get the benefit you have to be able to hit that pattern repeatedly.
Justin: So here’s what I think is the main question: “Is opacity/non-intuitiveness enough of a reason on its own to trim complexity?”
Josh: I don’t believe those things are mutually exclusive.
Justin: So to you, in what way is opacity different from non-intuitiveness? Maybe I have my definitions mixed up.
Josh: If every highly technical interaction was as clear as Kalista’s jump or Lee Sin’s ward jump, mobas would be better.
Justin: I’m trying to determine how to lay our disagreement out in the simplest possible terms.
Dan: “Are animation cancels fundamentally unclear? If so, why?”
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 fucking dope!
Justin: So I think you converted me, actually. I Agree With Josh!
Josh: Cliffy B to the rescue!
Following this conversation, no one ever disagreed about anything ever again.