[‘Design Diversions’ is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Andrew Vanden Bossche. It looks at the unexpected moments when games take us behind the scenes, and the details of how game design engages us. This time, a discussion of 'trying to play game designer' while teaching a significant other how to play games.]

Do you go easy on your friends? How about your partner? Or your kids?

Or do you instead compete with the fullest of your abilities?

My friends have never gone easy on me. I have friends that like to play cheap and friends that like to play fair, but I don’t have friends that play with mercy. After an afternoon of death, I will come to hate them, but they’re playing the right way. Mercy is dishonesty, a sycophantic plays tyle, and gamers only get better at games with practice. Still, I gave up on more than one game because my friends were too good at it for me to have fun.

When I started playing Arc System Works' fighting game BlazBlue with my girlfriend, I didn't want to brutalize her for her inexperience; I wanted to build her up into a competitor. But in trying to balance competition and love, I accidentally traumatized my girlfriend with an electrified frog.

Back to Basics

She picked Noel, a gun-wielding girl that fights only at close range, while I picked Rachel, a snooty vampire princess who floats around just out of reach flinging an arsenal of projectiles, one of which is an electrical frog named George the XIII.

If it hadn’t been for the frog we would have been great; Rachel is elusive, but Noel is powerful. The matchup forces each player to work harder at staying in good position; Rachel out of reach, Noel in her face. The the floaty annoyance of Rachel and her condescending voice is balanced by the satisfaction of thrashing her with point-blank bullets.

When my girlfriend picked up the controller, it was the first fighting game she ever played. She played PC RPGs like Baldur’s Gate growing up; I had a console and played a little bit of everything. Fighting games run on an enormous library of assumed knowledge, passed down from fighting games since the dawn of Street Fighter.

Of course she picked up the basics in no time, but imagine how impossible it would be to learn the basics while playing against someone serious. That is an important thing to know: many moves I do perfectly under normal circumstances I choke on in real matches. But if I hadn't learned the moves first, I'd be dying to fast to even learn how to play in the first place.

So what could I do? I wanted to play seriously and my girlfriend wanted to reach the point at which she could leave me defeated in tears. If she felt like I was going too easy on her, she’d feel annoyed and patronized. But if I beat her too badly, especially while she was still learning the game, not only would it get frustrating and boring, but she wouldn’t even be learning how to play the game. Pro fighting game players actually play this way, by training opponents into anticipating attacks incorrectly and making mistakes that they would normally know better than to make.

Playing Like a Game Designer

All games are played against humans. In a single player game, it just happens to be a team of hundreds of human beings who aren’t there at the moment. Unlike my friends or online adversaries, game designers understand mercy. This is because while I play a single-player game, I have to be taught. Designers must make their game fun and challenging at the same time, let me learn at my own pace, and most importantly, teach me how to play right.

It is possible for well made games to fail simply because they don't teach players correctly. Examples of this range from RPGs with inaccurate ability descriptions to ambiguously shaped hitboxes in fighting games. A game has to be challenging enough to keep a player's interest but not so hard that they are defeated before they can learn anything new. The ideal game is one that plays like a human of a similar level of skill.

And so in my matches against my girlfriend, I found myself trying to play game designer. I relented from pressure. Getting caught in a combo isn’t very fun, because the whole point of the combo is to keep attacking without the opponent being able to do anything. The caught player feels bored, frustrated, and helpless. This might last for a few seconds at most, but in a fighting game that’s a very long stretch of time, enough to feel like an eternity. Each round held more opportunities to learn than if she died right away.

I also tried not to create impossible situations, merely difficult ones. Fighting games are similar to tennis in that the way you tend to win is by forcing the opponent to make a mistake. Rachel is particularly adept at this. She's considered a zoning character, which means that she's able to control the space of the 2D levels by filling them with projectiles. The way a good single-player would teach how to deal with her is by starting off with one attack and then gradually adding more and combining them with others, so that's what I tried to do—and subsequently failed at.

Frogger

It all came down to the frog. Tossing the amphibian is a bit slow, but it was easy to sneak one in while Noel was locked down with Rachel's zoning. The electric frog hops and ribbits slowly in the direction of Rachel’s opponent and then suddenly bursts into an electrical storm when it gets near. If the frog is hit it dies, and if Rachel is hit it dies. But the problem was that Rachel was already great at zoning without it, and in fact the frog was slow and innocuous even I sometimes forgot about it. My girlfriend would only notice George the XIII when it was too late.

It happened so often that my girlfriend panicked whenever she saw the frog: she’d suddenly jump backwards right into it, or stop in the middle of an attack to move away and not have enough time to recover. The frog is tricky to deal with, but because she had to deal with the frog and everything else at the same time, and she never figured out how to deal with it because made it impossible for her.

I hope that the lesson learned here is not how to make your girlfriend want to beat you with her controller. It’s that it’s just as possible to teach a player to play badly as it is to teach them to play well. Single player games have the burden of teaching players every step of the way, but pre-programmed opponents only have so many tricks. How do you teach a player how to deal with a constantly learning and adapting opponent?

In fact, predictable or utterly random computer opponents teach worse playing skills. Since they don't learn, the same technique that defeated them once can be used for the rest of the game. A human, on the other hand, will learn quickly to stop behaving foolishly.

Blazblue itself is an offender in this regard, since it teaches the basics of the game but no practical skills and its computer opponents are laughable on even the highest difficulty. There is a whole wealth of skills in online games now, from frame data memorization in fighters to micromanagement in games like Starcraft, that learning about the deepest parts of the game might only be possible in nebulous forums or word of mouth.

With the Internet age, designers are making more of an effort to involve themselves with the community of gamers they're creating. Blazblue makes a valiant effort, and Starcraft II has challenge maps meant to teach unit utility and micro skills. That these skill exist is a wonder of the video game community, but the difficulty of introducing them to new players is a real one.

Valve’s DOTA II promises a system for players to act like coaches—something that Metal Gear Online attempted once upon a time. As games are increasingly played like sports, it only makes sense that they’re taught like them. Is it possible, though, for games to teach skills that are applicable against humans?

[Andrew Vanden Bossche is a freelance writer and student. He has a blog called Mammon Machine, which hasn’t been updated for an embarrassingly long time, and can be reached at AndrewVandenB@gmail.com]