Intelligence and what that means for game design

Before I begin I need to define the terms tactics and strategy, since I believe I have slightly different definitions than most people.

Tactics – an action taken for the purposes of advancing towards a goal, that is not the result of conscious thought.
-See lion, run away/throw spear (stay alive)

Strategy – an action taken for the purposes of advancing towards a goal, that is the result of conscious thought
-Think up a way to kill that damn lion (stay alive)

I hope this has been clear. Now take a look at this beautiful picture.


A very small amount of the light that is being outputted from this computer finds its way through your pupils and to your retina. There it creates chemical reactions that cause electrical signals to be sent to your brain.What you see as me, and it is me in this picture, is the sequence of electrical signals that happen to flow through your brain. You have never seen this picture before, and thus have never had the exact sequence of electrical signals coursing through your brain as exist now, and yet it is still extremely trivial for you to identify the subject as human, and as the same person as in the background pictures. This is because your brain is good at recognizing patterns in the images that it receives, and the electrical signals it receives here are similar enough that it can appropriately interpret them.

The reason you can do this is simple:
Hybrid Poplar grove, (Populus) Cottonwood, Boardman, Oregon, USAwaveSharkslightly cartoonish game style


If your eyes are conveying these images to your brain, the optimal responses, where I define optimal responses as most evolutionarily beneficial responses, are going to be very different when looking at these different subjects. When given only electrical signals from chemical reactions caused by photons hitting your retina your brain must figure out “That’s a tiger!”, and your brain must do this quickly or there may be drastic evolutionary punishment. I did steal this picture from google, so it’s possible you’ve seen this tiger before, if so focus on one of the other pictures. My point is, despite never seeing the tiger or the people or the forest before, you don’t even think about how difficult it must be for your brain to identify accurately what it is looking at, because these shapes and colours combine to make very easy patterns for your brain to recognize.

The first step in intelligence is in recognizing important patterns in the world around us. The more detailed the pattern the more intelligence required to “decode” it. So far, even squirrels can mostly keep up, maybe not with the human emotions part but squirrels can probably recognize squirrel emotions better than we can. The second step is in the formulation of useful tactics and strategies in response to those patterns. That can be as simple as this: “That’s a lion, run away”. Alternatively “That’s a lion, push my friend forward and then run away”, which is morally dubious but altogether more intelligent. It can also be, “A geographic area like this is bound to have lions, I’m going to take this stick and sharpen it, then carry it around as defence”, which implies the ability to recognize trees, usage of tools for sharpening, utilization of weaponry, and ability to compare terrain, all of which is still considered almost trivial to us.

My Dad used to use the term pattern recognition when talking about hockey. The idea is that effective play is in recognizing what’s about to happen, and anyone who’s played any competitive sport understands the concept of someone “playing fast”, or “being sharp”. Having done a lot of Jiu Jitsu I can say that half of being good at jiu jitsu is knowing techniques and being very good at them, but the other half is being fast to apply those techniques, or “being ahead of your opponent”, even if just by a tenth of a second. The reason that a black belt in BJJ can easily tap out a white belt again and again is because the black belt is:
1) Much quicker to recognize what position they are in, and what position they are about to be in
2) Much more likely to know a beneficial technique from the position they are in
3) Probably a lot better at all techniques than the white belt

These guys are pretty good white belts, but compare that to:

Jesus those guys flow to different positions quickly. Now here’s a breakdown of specific high level technique used twice on the former UFC lightweight champion, from a different match obviously.

Likewise all legitimate striking martial arts have four things they stress from their practitioners.
1) Recognize what your opponent is trying to strike you with (pattern recognition) eg. jab
2) Have a useful response to that (tactics) eg. parry, slip
3) Disguise your offence as much as possible (tactics) eg. mill hands to disguise eventual punch.
4) Tailor your offence to what your opponent is giving you (pattern recognition) eg. hands dropping, so throw the head kick

Fighters don’t necessarily need to be intelligent, although the stereotype of the stupid fighter has been far from my experience, because someone doesn’t need to be smart to “fight smart”. But to compete at a high level, or really even do well at a very low level, you can’t just go out there and start flailing, you need to move with intelligence. There really is no comparison between what happens in the UFC and what happens when animals fight. We can clearly see that one is more evolved than the other.

(Highlights include two rams literally bashing their heads against each other)

When animals fight, there’s a lot of flailing and clawing. Most animals have teeth and so the fight is a lot of clawing and biting. I’ve never seen a whole lot of depth to it. When humans fight, they don’t even fight, they call it having a war, and they use guns, planes, boats, coordination between different people using radios, and other things. When people fight unarmed it looks the same as animals fighting, when the people don’t know how to fight. The more experienced the fighters, the less the fight starts to look like it belongs on National Geographic.

(highlights include them swinging with zero power and no head movement, yet still somehow both missing each other)

(highlights include a nice timed fight-ending knee to the body as the other guy was shooting in for a takedown)

There’s an old saying in jiu jitsu: “When you’re a white belt, you do stupid things. When you’re a blue belt, you stop doing stupid things. When you’re a purple belt, you capitalize on stupid things. When you’re a brown belt, you force people to do stupid things. When you’re a black belt, you can do whatever stupid things you feel like,” which is very true in my experience. The thing about MMA is that you start out getting your ass handed to you, but soon, with the other fairly new people, you start to block their jab, and if feels good. Then you figure out a combination that lets you land your leg kick, and it feels good. Then you go for a takedown and get stuffed a million times in a row, but after a while you start to time it out and start to get it consistently, and it feels good. On the ground this one guy keeps choking you out with a triangle choke, so you stay after class training defence with someone for a long time. Next class he goes for it but you posture up and get a pass out of it, and that feels amazing.

Now you could argue that all of this feels great because it feels bad to get beaten physically by someone else and conversely it feels good to beat someone physically, and I’d be the first to admit that there are a lot of different reasons why fighting feels good or bad, including physical pain. However, that feeling I get when I time someone’s right hand with an outside slip and land a liver shot before jabbing to create distance again doesn’t just feel good because they were trying to hurt me, it feels good on a purely intellectual level.

Which brings us finally to gaming. I define depth in a game as the extent to which the game rewards playing the game with intelligence over rewarding physical ability, or rewarding luck/randomness.

In sports, physical ability takes many forms, such as weight, strength, speed, height, reaction time, durability, and others. You can be the most skilled offensive tackle, with great hand placement, perfect reading of your opponent, perfect footwork, etcetera, but if you weigh 140 lbs you’re still going to get crushed on every play. Likewise, don’t even try to play the center position in basketball if you’re not 6’8 or taller. There is no depth in being taller, it’s unambiguously good, just like being stronger and faster. What this means is that sports have less depth than they naturally would. There may be a lot of depth to playing center, but it doesn’t really matter because being 7 feet tall and bad is still better than being 6 feet tall and really really good.

In gaming there are considerably less physical attributes that are valued. The only two that come to mind are reaction time and coordination. This might seem like a good thing, but it’s not how many different physical attributes are valued, its to what extent they are valued. Even if height was the only physical attribute that mattered to play basketball well, and everything else was how you react the the flow of the game, height is so damn important that basketball would still place a massive premium on it. Likewise, many competitive games place a massive premium on coordination and reaction time, to the detriment of their depth.

As a quick aside, eyesight and hearing would be more important if games were higher definition aurally and visually, but as of right now a typical person has good enough vision and hearing that they can be thought of as not limited at all.

I can’t stress this point enough, ANY rewarding of physical attributes, whatever they may be, diminishes the reward for skillful play, and thus diminishes the effective depth of the game. Therefore, any evidence of collective physical attributes is evidence of a poorly designed game. This might be controversial, and I’ll get to that later. With all this in mind:


For some reason it’s ridiculously hard to find pictures of NBA players next to regular people. Also, Dr. James Naismith, the man who invented basketball, placed the net up so high specifically so that height would not be rewarded. LOL.

gsp terrellOwens

An MMA fighter and a football player. Notice that both do not have the physiques of everyday people.

When I did my search for professional gamers one thing absolutely stood out over everything else, they were all young. I don’t mean all under 40, I mean half of professional gamers look younger than me and I’m 22. For some examples of what I’m talking about:

proGaming1 proGaming2 proGaming3

These weren’t even cherry picked, I basically just searched “professional gaming teams” and this is what happened. I know that the pictures aren’t of the highest quality, but Jesus do these people look young. I’m absolutely willing to bet that the average age here is 20 or less. Some of these people look like they’re still in high school. I want to stress that I absolutely did not pick these pictures because they prove my point, these are absolutely representational.

Now some people might argue that this is simply because young people play more video games, but there is so much money in professional gaming that I don’t think that really applies. Besides, if that were the case we’d see people start young, but then stick around for years and years. To be fair, there is the occasional “old” gamer, where old is the ripened age of 30, but for the most part professional gamers all look like this.

It might seem odd to look at this group of people and think of them as physically gifted. We do this because we are used to thinking of actual athletes as the gifted ones. Instead, look at the gamers with the knowledge that the games they play value low reaction times, finger dexterity, and coordination above all else with maybe some value placed on eyesight. Starts to make sense eh?

This is not to say that “professional gamers are just as much athletes as actual athletes are”. Far from me thinking that this legitimizes e-sports, I think its evidence of terrible game design. The crazy thing is that gamers actually think that this is a good thing.

I got into a slight argument with my roommate about headshots in first person shooters. I told him that it was bad game design. He told me that it required skill, and therefore was essential. I told him that if I was designing a multiplayer first person shooter I wouldn’t include headshots. He didn’t agree.

Here’s the problem with headshots: there’s no reason ever not to do them. Seriously, as long as you can move your mouse/thumbstick with enough precision and accuracy to get the headshot you should always do it. There is no decision involved, headshots are automatically better. I really can’t stress this enough but THERE IS NO DEPTH INVOLVED IN AIMING FOR THE HEAD OF YOUR OPPONENT WHICH MEANS YOU ARE REWARDING PEOPLE WHO CAN AIM FOR ABSOLUTELY NO DEFENSIBLE REASON.

Likewise with Starcraft and MOBA style games, which are deserving of thorough looks design wise, professional gamers are praised for their APM, especially in Starcraft. What is APM you ask? It stands for actions per minute, and is basically a measure of how many keys, specific mouse movements, and button presses are performed in one minute. The best players average around 300, which is an absolutely insane number.

Look impressive, isn’t any fun. The real game ought to be about flanking your enemy and scouting him out and, you know, actual tactics and strategy. Instead the game is mostly about who can click the most.You might think that this is an unavoidable problem with the game, and that we either have Starcraft with it’s massive rewards for finger dexterity or we have no Starcraft. You would be forgiven for thinking that, in a game that already requires such a ridiculous amount of twitchiness, that Blizzard would take every opportunity to reduce this.

HAHA NOPE! Take this lovely quote from from David Kim, the man most responsible for balancing the game, “… the pro players, they want the game harder so they can show off their skill better.”. Okay that is suspicious but doesn’t mean anything by itself. Let’s take a closer look at how they’ve decided to do this. “The solution that we currently have …is we can look for opportunities where the general use case, the 90% use-case, is easy to use versus the ten percent that is so hard,” I’m not loving the sound of this. “So one example of that is for the Cyclone ability [Lock-on]. If it’s auto-cast, then normal people, whatever they kill is better and easier to use it that way. Whereas pros, maybe they want to save it… So maybe they can turn it off and use it in a better way.” Alright well micromanagement isn’t fun and sounds like it will involve even more clicks, but I suppose there could be some depth to that, maybe a little timing tactics?

“… trying to give units more active abilities, like making taking auto-cast away from the Swarm Host and stripping away the Protoss Immortal’s Hardened Shields passive ability, and replacing it with a temporary active ability.” That’s a quote from a article, and it’s a perfect example of needlessly increasing complexity for zero actual depth increase. They took away an auto-cast and a passive abilty just so that players would need to actively do something that was formerly done for them. There’s a reason that Starcraft 2 is a dying game. I could, and maybe will, write a post about how having an asymmetrical RTS is asking for failure, because anytime a player learns a beneficial strategy there will be calls for everyone to “nerf” it, and really don’t benefit from denying players 2 thirds of the possibilities before the game even starts, but all that is irrelevant.

I’ve strayed somewhat from the original point of this post, which was about intelligence and how it relates to games. I guess my thoughts are just too scattered, so let me make it up to you with a video of someone who’s godly at a game that requires a lot of depth, and relatively little dexterity.

If you’ve never played NGB you have no idea how ridiculously hard that fight is on the easiest difficulty. He’s playing it on the hardest. The game forces the player to react to pay attention and react quickly and properly to all of Alma’s attacks as well as the crabs. Likewise:

A nice pacifism run. So simple, yet so much depth in movement. Geometry wars has been probably my major influence when it comes to the game I’m designing now.

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