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Building a better shovel: depth in competitive videogames

Building a better shovel: depth in competitive videogames

For a term that gets thrown around so much in videogame criticism, it sure is hard to come up with a clear definition for “depth.” What makes a competitive game deep? It’s not raw complexity: you can make a real-time strategy game with 400 complicated soldier units to choose from, but if one is superior, players will only build that one. Nor is it sheer difficulty: a game where you try to guess a random number between 1 and 10,000 is difficult but hardly deep. And it’s not as simple as a combination of the two qualities, either. Adding “Spock” and “Lizard” to Rock-Paper-Scissors makes the game more complicated and difficult (in that you have to remember more interactions, e.g. Lizard poisons Spock), but no deeper.

Frank Lantz, NYU’s leading game design scholar, is working on a paper that attempts to define depth in competitive games and establish a framework for quantifying it.

“What we mean when we say a game is deep,” he says, “is that it is the type of problem that rewards cleverness. Where the process of coming up with solutions rewards insight, imagination, creativity—and cleverness.”  

Games that reward these qualities have what Lantz and his team refer to as a long “strategy ladder,” a progression of optimal routes to victory at each level of play. By the time you get to the top of the ladder in a deep game, even describing the optimal strategy becomes incredibly complex.   

Developers can only define rules, not control gameplay directly

Rob Meyer, a designer at Avalanche Studios, links depth to heuristics, the rules of thumb that help guide play.

“If the heuristics are too weak or too strong,” he says, “the game lacks depth. It’s when you have to weave this tapestry of different heuristics to exert skill, decision-making, execution—that’s what allows you to have this tiering of players.”  

But, if you’re a game developer, how do these definitions help you? How do you design a game with a towering strategy ladder or a tapestry of interlocking heuristics?

These questions are complicated by the fact that developers can only define rules, not control gameplay directly. Strategies and techniques are up to the players. And when you’re making a real-time multiplayer game, it’s hard to anticipate all the possibilities. Richard Terrell, a developer, critic, and self-described Super Smash Bros. researcher, learned this lesson when he helped build the local multiplayer game BaraBariBall. When unintended techniques emerged during testing, the team had to decide which to keep and which to remove.


“You have to look at how hard it is to do, while considering how effective it is,” Terrell says. “We found one trick where, when you tossed the ball, it was full-charged every time. There was a playstyle and strategy that got erased if you could do this. So we took it out.”  

Both Meyer and Terrell describe development as an organic process, embracing some emergent techniques while abscising those that cannibalize other aspects of the game.

“You’re creating these interactive, weird digital things,” Meyer says. “Very few games end up being anything like what their original conception was—you discover all these unintended little quirks about the system that you can explore.” Designing a deep game is less a monolithic act than a long, winding journey, with decisions to be made about the correct route to “depth” every step of the way.

Even for prominent, well-established competitive games, maximizing depth is a perpetual concern. Greg Street, lead game designer on League of Legends, describes one recurring question as “How do we add depth to a champion that isn’t making very interesting decisions?”

He gives the example of Vladimir, a character with an ability that at one point was used whenever it was available. “If you could have a dipping bird hitting ‘Q,’ that was the right answer. Whenever we see something like that, we try to fix it. The answer to ‘when should I use my Q’ should almost always be ‘well, it depends.’”

League of Legends’ Vladimir, courtesy of Riot Games

Still, Street cautions that the pursuit of depth must be tempered by attention to clarity, accessibility, complexity, and other factors. “We could create a lot of abilities that had invisible effects,” he says, “you can argue that the onus is on the player to read what the enemy is doing and decipher their invisible attacks—but it’s frustrating! You don’t know what’s going on. So even though it might add depth, it’s not worth it.”

Plus, an increase in mechanical complexity (or decrease in clarity) does not necessarily translate to an increase in depth. Super Smash Bros. Melee, with its bevy of obscure glitches and engine quirks, is more mechanically complex than Smash 4, but Terrell thinks the newer game is just as deep, or perhaps even deeper. “[In Smash 4,] it’s not just a race for the fastest characters, which is why Fox dominated in Melee. You have so much more design space for different characters to be strong.”

Depth may be synonymous with diversity—a diversity of skills to master, a diversity of decisions to make, and a diversity of viable strategies

Terrell also emphasizes the increased complexity of Smash 4’s edge-guarding game and the carefully-calculated trichotomy of post-hit reactions (air dodging out of hit-stun is fastest but leaves you vulnerable, attacking out of hit-stun is slower but threatens your opponent, and jumping out of hit-stun is slowest but provides the most safety thereafter), but it’s clear that the newer game’s diversity of strategies is a factor he considers very important. Likewise, Street emphasizes the importance of balancing to ensure that many champions and items in League of Legends are viable at any given time. He uses the metaphor of a wall set between the player and the goal:

“You could have a ladder to climb the wall … you could also have a shovel to dig under the wall. If the ladder is super fast, and the shovel is super slow, then the ladder is the obvious choice, and we’d say there’s not any depth there. The decision the player is making is super shallow.”

In that way, depth may be synonymous with diversity—a diversity of skills to master, a diversity of decisions to make, and a diversity of viable strategies. As for how to design a game like that, Lantz, Terrell, Meyer, and Street all seem to agree: one step at a time.

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