Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Gaming Industry, Q1 2009

I'm kind of at a loss to post about things today, but I can at least bring up some boring business stuff going on in the gaming world and my thoughts.

Despite the economy in America basically being awful, the gaming industry sure couldn't tell. We've experienced around a 15% overall growth in sales since last year, and the trends show no sign of stopping, which is pretty great for everyone.

The gaming market is, as pretty much everyone knows, really leaning towards the casual side of things. The Wii is kicking serious ass in the market right now. February was one of the biggest non-holiday sales months for video games in, well, forever. The big killers in the market have been the Wii and DS. The Wii literally sold over twice as many units as the 360 last month.

770 thousand Wiis in one month. I'm sure that Nintendo wasn't necessarily shooting for this big of a market share, but they have the market by the throat now. It's all because the Wii is made for everyone. Even my 60+ year old aunt has a Wii and plays Wii Fit. She's never even heard of Street Fighter or Metroid Prime, but she loves playing the Wii. That's some crazy stuff.

So I gotta ask, what's the secret? What's the trick to making games that are this successful? Nintendo isn't using anywhere near the same model as World of Warcraft, and yet their sales figures put Blizzard's to shame, at least when it comes to number of installed users.

I'll tell you guys what I think. Gamers like me (and maybe some of you guys too) are becoming a minority. Even though it might be a little scary that the hardcore market might shrink a lot in the next decade or so, I think it's great that we are getting tons of new blood. It's getting easier and easier to understand video games, and that means that we'll get a lot of new buyers of all types of games, not just casual ones. After all, parents that play the Wii will foster kids who play 360, and kids will fuel the hardcore market just like they always have.

I mean, Street Fighter 4 is making a killing in stores right now (it's already platinum, lol) and SF4 is a hella hardcore game.

As the expert nerds that we are, it's up to us to set a good example for newer casual gamers. I can't stress enough that if we want to survive we're going to have to learn to get along with the new guys that don't know what the differences between Mortal Strike and Shadow Bolt are, or for the more reasonable, Sap and Gouge.

Casuals are just nerds waiting to happen. So if you see some casual noob asking what's the difference between a hex and a condition is, help them out. They're our future! Eventually we can get them hooked on 25-man raids and standing roundhouses into Ultras.

As I mention all the time, it's a good idea to put the right ideas in the head of our casuals too. Politeness and courtesy are the best ways to make sure that we get fewer 14-year-olds shouting obscenities into the mic on XBL.

I can dream, right?

PS: I don't actually play WoW, but I know a ton about it because I'm nerdy like that

Friday, March 20, 2009

You Must Gather Your Party

Again, super nerdy reference title.

Today we're gonna talk about guilds. Running a guild, guild recruitment, and those sorts of things. If you're a small business owner this might be of some use to you, but I am really focusing on the guild type of organization. I'll try to keep things semi-broad but the focus is on guild organization.

Furthermore, I'll be focusing on high level guild organization, aimed at getting people focused on accomplishing goals such as raids or PvP. If your guild is more casual, some of these hints will still help you, though.

There are a couple things you need to know about how to make your guild successful. The first is that you must develop a large, strong reputation and secondly that it must be a good reputation. This is actually a long-term process that pretty much determines whether your guild succeeds or fails. If your guild is well-known but has a bad reputation that can also work to your advantage, but it has major downsides as well. I don't recommend it.

One way to develop reputation of sorts is to have one or two (preferably one) people devoted to community excellence. By that, I mean someone who is extremely good at some task in the game and who will talk about it at great length on forums or even blog about it. The more well-known this person is, the more attention your community will get. It is somewhat likely that your guild will not have one of these people, because they are hard to find. I recommend making one instead.

By this, I mean having one spokesperson whose goal is to post up large amounts of useful information about the game (or if you're like me, about things totally unrelated to the game, as long as it's interesting). Instead of having that one person be responsible for finding out all of this information though, you instead have many people gather information about as many nuance things in the game as you can. Then these people can write guides and articles and such. Then your guild can submit these guides through proofreading and peer review (to ensure quality) and finally submit them to the world.

Although you may seem skeptical about this, let me point you in the direction of World of RogueCraft which is one of the more well-known fan-made videos about WoW. Although Mute was certainly one of the brains behind it, he had the backing of a whole guild full of video capturers, voice actors (Mute isn't even the one doing his own voice, btw), and most certainly testers and information gatherers. As a result, Rogues Take Zero Skill is a huge guild and very well-known.

Oh, and RogueCraft was made in 2006, so some of the information is outdated and of course, the gear is outdated, but the point remains that the video is incredibly popular.

Yes, he really is killing people in Ironforge, and yes those really are IF guards aggroing on him.

Anyway, your game is probably less big than WoW, but even if you are playing WoW or a similar game, you can provide information that isn't easily available to everyone. If you can provide it in an entertaining way such as that, your guild will have no trouble with a good reputation. If your guild isn't good at making movies, there are still options such as forums, blog posts, or podcasts.

Another really good way to raise popularity is to have the aforementioned guild mascot/figurehead be very active in your server's help channels. Information and kind words go a long way, and people remember both him and your guild tag. If you have multiple people who help out there, you will develop a rep for being helpful and cool. If you are simultaneously a good PvP or raid guild (or whatever you decide you want your guild to be good at) you will get people clamoring to join your guild in no time.

As mentioned above though, you should make sure that any 'helpers' are actually helpful. Train them as best you can so that they know lots of niche things about their area of specialty. The more secret knowledge they know, the more effective they are. If they give poor advice, elitist jerks will correct them in the help channel and it can lead to arguments, which makes you look bad.

In general, public opinion of your guild needs to be positive, and the best way to do that is to eradicate elitism in all of its forms. Elitism is horrible for reputation. People will remember you if you're excellent, but they'll remember you with hatred and contempt if you're elitist. Don't talk down to noobs and don't let your guild do it either. If you want to promote positive attitudes, have them all read my article on elitism. Even if they think noobs are stupid and not worth their time, it is absolutely essential that your guild not present that attitude because it really does separate you from everyone else.

Starting arguments in the public realm is another way to really make you look bad, and it can make your guild look bad. Train your guys to avoid "proving" anything in a public domain. If people don't believe you, that's fine, just leave them be. Also, if someone posts something wrong in a public chat or forum post, correct them politely once and that's it. If they start to lash out, apologize for offending them and drop the argument. Don't get involved with that stuff.

The byproduct of all this is that you will get polite, respectful people who want to join your guild. Elitist jerks may see you, but most of them will stick with more elitist jerks - it's actually fairly rare to see 'nice' guilds that get a lot of people who will make you look bad.

The (debatable) downside to this is that the overall skill level of your guild will be somewhat low at first. Fortunately, you did a lot of homework and made the core of your guild very competent and knowledgable. Your guild has already written a ton of guides and put out a lot of useful information and people really like you. You've been preaching tolerance and respect. In the end, this means that you'll be able to train new recruits because they will be much more willing to learn from you. So while you will have to teach a bunch of noobs how to heal properly and move with the group and DPS very very slowly, the end result is that they will get good at it and your guild's overall skill level will get pretty high.

Training new guys has to follow the same sort of tolerance, though. Establish a good method of teaching and mentorship - get both your new and old members involved in the process, and always give positive reinforcement. Never be negative, even if your new guys suck. When you suck, you don't want to keep going and you want to quit. If you think you did a few things right, even if small, it makes you think that you can eventually get everything done right.

Single out people in your guild too for improvement. By that, I mean reward guild members who have improved greatly - much needed gear upgrades or gold or whatever is good in your game. Don't emphasize too much on the people that did great and focus on the people that are improving a lot. And even if you have people straggling, again, tell them what they did right, then show them what they can do better. Don't show them what they did wrong (showing what you can do better is the same thing, only nicer!)

Lastly is you have to have some resolution for when people screw up. I mean conduct-wise, not performance-wise. Performance can be trained, but conduct is hard to fix. Generally, if someone presents an attitude that is not suitable for the guild, I would recommend having a talk with them and ask them why they acted the way they did. If they seemed unrepentant or claimed to be 'in the right,' I'd probably give them the 'be nice' lecture (basically this whole article). If they tried to make excuses, I'd kick them. It is so crucial that you keep your guild in harmony, and anyone who tries to prove themselves 'better' than other people is really not a good idea to have around, regardless of other merits.

Even if your guild 'sucks' at first, the end result will be grand. Your guild members will be happy, well-liked, and popular. High level guilds might try to grief you, even.

Feel free to comment if you've actually gotten this to work. I mostly know these things from failures of myself or other guild leaders/officers, and I have never run a guild based on these principles. I have used these techniques in real life (!) though, so I know they work.

As an end note: If you do this in EVE, make sure that it isn't blatantly obvious that you're using this article as a reference, to prevent someone from infiltrating your guild and disbanding your alliance. Make your own policies, but definitely don't include the dispute resolution paragraph - or else, when someone slips up (and everyone who isn't genuine does) they will lie to get through it!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Mental Focus and Concentration

You know how in stories and movies, where the hero gets beaten up and even though he looks like he's down, somehow his strength of will pushes him on?

Yeah... this article isn't about that.

This article is first and foremost about focus and concentration. One of the things we don't think about when we're playing games is how much we can think about at one time. Some people insist they are gods of multitasking, but they are woefully predictable when I play them in Street Fighter. Focus is all about preserving that mental resource and using it when it's most important. Concentration is the same thing. I'll be using those terms more or less interchangeably. Hopefully that's not too confusing.

StarCraft is probably the most focus-intensive game in existence. Other games have focus costs to play them, but they are not as hard as StarCraft. In SC you must make many decisions at once, and you are free to make as many focus-intensive decisions as you can - the more you can make at a time, the better you are at StarCraft. Speed chess is a focus-intensive game too, and any fighting game is also very taxing on mental energy. But SC uses mental energy far more than any other game currently played in competitive leagues (when SC2 comes out, it will still be true - SC will still be harder).

Focus can be thought of like a mental "mana bar." If you're doing something in a game, it takes up focus that you can't use to do other things. We gain focus over time, although if we keep doing things that take up focus, it will keep getting used up. This sounds weird, but it is actually fairly true. If you enter a high focus decision point where you must use a lot of mental energy deciding on what to do (and otherwise do nothing), using up all of your energy at that point will actually keep you from making smart decisions for a second or two. Usually if we are forced to make a choice at that point we resort to our instincts, which are easier to predict. Our instincts can still be right in this scenario but we are sort of leaving things up to chance.

One of the things I've noticed over the years is my absolute lack of this skill. My concentration level is far, far lower than other nerds. I have many failings in gamer skill such as relatively low dexterity, but my biggest weak point is low concentration. Many of my friends absolutely destroy me at this. I think my younger sister who is a non-gamer has a higher concentration level than I do. I make up for this in other ways (particularly with a good propensity for decision-making and a very fast OODA loop), but my lack of concentration basically screws me out of being a pro StarCraft player.

Like any RPG stat, we can level up our concentration/focus through practice. The best ways to do this is to play games with very high focus requirements. The best is StarCraft, and speed chess is also a good test. Guild Wars PvP also has tremendous concentration requirements if one is playing an interrupt class or a healer. World of Warcraft and other MMORPGs can build concentration if you play a reactive class such as a healer too, especially if you are a healer in a 25-man raid guild.

All of these examples require a lot of time investment into other skills and in the case of MMORPGs, grinding in order to get to the level where you have tests of focus. There are other games that take very few outside skills to practice. Most of them are probably familiar to you.

The games I have in mind are puzzle games. Tetris, Bejeweled, Hexic 2, and Puzzle Fighter all have very high concentration requirements. I prefer competitive games, but even Tetris and Bejeweled in their single player modes can improve your focus with practice. If you play tons of Tetris and are good at it, your play will get faster and faster and you will get better and better at putting pieces in the right places even when they fall at the speed of light. This is the exact same skill needed to be good at StarCraft. If you are a SC player who is a little burned out from practicing build orders over and over to get better, Tetris is a good place to get mental exercise and is pretty relaxing too. Even if your game of choice is not an extreme concentration game, having a higher reserve of focus is very beneficial and puzzle games are one of the best ways to do it without having to grind a priest to level 70.

There are other ways to improve your level of focus, but they only apply to very specific tasks so they will not improve your concentration skill very much outside of the game you are playing. The main way to do this is 'chunking.' I'm not referring to throwing up or hitting an opponent with an explosive so that they blow up into bloody chunks. I'm referring to taking a block of memory and condensing it into a bite-sized chunk of data. If you chunk correctly you will access the memory to do a chunk of complex tasks, such as setting gateway waypoints or doing complex air combos.

A bit of an anecdote here: I was hanging out with a bunch of friends and I was very, very drunk. We decided to play some games of Melty Blood: Act Cadenza, a game that I was pretty decent at. My skills in that game were chunked so well that I would hit confirm into very long, flawless air combos on hit, and blockstring mixups on block, even though I was so drunk I could not walk straight. In fact, one of my friends reported that I was not even looking at the screen while I was doing air combos. This is not to say that my chunking skills are particularly good or even that I am an amazing Melty Blood player (I'm not) but that those skills were so ingrained into my brain that I could do them even with close to 0 focus available (as a side note, I had a very hard time hitting people as one might imagine, but when I did, combo time!)

Chunking is something we actually do naturally through practice. This is why most martial arts require you to do many punches and kicks in a row, day after day. If we practice to do those punches and kicks, eventually they stop being awkward and start being easy, and soon we don't even think about the specific motions of the punch or kick and just think "I'm going to do a side kick" or "I'm going to do a backhand." If we want to chunk something, there is only one way to do it. We must do it over and over and over until it becomes routine. It actually isn't enough to just do it until we can do it exactly. We must do it until we are doing it naturally, without really thinking about it.

My Melty Blood skills were fine-tuned due to being able to play a large variety of players vastly worse than me, making every battle 'combo practice.' If you are fortunate enough to have a lot of people you can play at your game who are much worse than you and who are willing to get beat up by you a lot, use them for practice of difficult techniques. If you can't do that, you'll have to go to your game's training mode and practice dilligently. However, I feel that the best way to practice is to have the ability to train in a 'live' environment, because that allows you to improve your ability to not think about what it is you are doing.

There is a downside to chunking though - once you've chunked a lot of things such as combos or board positions or build orders or block patterns, it gets harder to train up your focus using those methods since doing them uses up less focus. It's still incredibly valuable (usually essential) to practice chunking things, but if you chunk your build orders so much that they become easy, you should probably play Tetris to improve your concentration. Even Tetris has chunking though, because once you get good at the game you learn exactly how to place pieces to make the best moves. Once you're there though, the game still keeps getting faster and faster so even if you have things down to a science, you must still do that science faster and faster and faster!

Tetris is a good game!

There is another problem with chunking. The main issue is that it is boring. Once you have something learned to where you can do it every time, it ceases to be fun to practice any more. Our brains like learning new things, and forcing our brains to do old things over and over is a very good way to get bored. As I said before, practicing with many bad people is a great way to learn various expert skills without feeling bored. The problem is that they will probably get bored of being owned by you. Feel free to lose a match here and there to give them the idea that they might have a chance of winning. It's perfectly okay, in the long run, if it means they will continue to serve as 'combo practice.'

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Book of Nothing

The title of this article (and most of my articles, actually) are nerdy references, so props if you get them.

Anyway, this article is about nothing. It's going to be really, really long. I'm serious.

The readers most likely to benefit from this article are gamers or competitors in general. Martial artists have a lot to gain here, since this isn't something you learn until you are a high ranked black belt in your discipline. Most competitors in most types of games will benefit from this. People who participate in contests (track and field, Guitar Hero, weightlifting) will not benefit much, though.

This article is about nothing. I mean that. The art of nothing is a magical thing because when we are competing against someone, we are of the mind to do something as much as possible. But sometimes the best choice is to do nothing. And that is the focus for today.

When I think of game strategy, the value of nothing is very close to my heart. If nothing is good in a game, I tend to think of it as a good game, since so many games focus on doing a lot of things as quickly as possible. If nothing is a good choice, it means that there is a good balance between offense and defense. Obviously in a game like Killer Instinct, nothing is far too good and doing something is very very bad. This is also very bad too.

When you boil down the strategic option to do nothing, we have to analyze exactly what 'nothing' is. In StarCraft, it is a very bad idea to never be doing anything, but there is certainly value in 'doing nothing' at times. Even if we narrowly define nothing, it is usually a bad idea to do nothing in StarCraft.

In order to be doing nothing:
1) You must not be doing anything that affects the opponent
2) You must not be spending resources on things that sacrifice your defense (teching and expanding in SC are not 'nothing')
3) You must be able to defend yourself instantly in the event you are attacked

The first point is true because if we are attacking or otherwise harassing the opponent, that is not nothing. The opponent is threatened and he will likely respond. A good example of doing nothing though is when you are not quite threatening the opponent, you feint an attack, such as whiffing jabs or fast kicks in front of the opponent in Street Fighter. This can intimidate the opponent without actually attacking him. Also, if the opponent does an attack, your 'nothing' defense becomes a counter attack and interrupts his attack. Of course you cannot be predictable, or else you are in fact doing something and your opponent can try to hit you out of it. So if you are doing nothing, you must in fact be doing nothing that your opponent can strike at you for, even if he predicts your something - because your something is actually nothing, his counter will miss and he will leave himself open.

Point one also has to do with attacking resources. If we are not attacking we are not spending valuable resources on attack. If we have some kind of energy that we use to attack or a number of units we must send to attack, we are losing resources when we are attacking. In many cases an opponent who is defending may overpower us in resources or have the endurance to withstand our attack even if we expend our attacking resources. We must either attack in ways he does not expect in order to bypass his guard, or we must do nothing until the situation changes - he attacks foolishly or we gain more resources. In this way, building units and amassing an army in a defensive position is nothing until the time either we or our opponent attacks, because we are flexible - we can decide to expand or tech or do other things if it becomes needed.

Point two is that we are not spending resources. If we build a resource up to gain a powerful advantage later, we are vulnerable in the meantime. This is not nothing, for if the opponent were to attack, he would find us unprepared and vulnerable. This is why teching and expanding are not nothing. If we expand, we are vulnerable until our expansion is completed and has paid for itself. In the meantime, we are down on resources and the opponent may decide to attack us before our resources have become an advantage.

If we have weakened the opponent, we can use that opportunity to build resources. If in Street Fighter I knock down my opponent, I may take the advantage I gain there to move away from my opponent and use special moves in order to get super meter faster. Instead of attacking my opponent, I spent that opportunity moment to gain resources. This is not nothing, even though my opponent could not retaliate. A good example of nothing was if I moved close to the opponent but out of throwing range and did nothing. If my opponent were to attack me, I would not be harmed and could attack back. If they do nothing, I have only a little time to react and keep the advantage. Since being knocked down is a bad situation for them, if I do nothing and they do as well, the opponent gets out of the bad situation for free. Doing nothing can be a disadvantage in this case.

Likewise in StarCraft, if my opponent and I exchange in battle and my opponent is weaker afterwards, it may not be a good idea for me to do nothing. I should convert that advantage in some way to make more advantage, whether I decide to tech or expand or attack, I should do something because the situation is in my favor. My opponent's ability to defend is weaker so I should make the most of my situation. Sometimes though it is prudent to do nothing, if it is not possible to tech or expand and my opponent can retreat to a strong defensive position and even the battle up. In this case, as before, the best option is to attack in sneaky ways the opponent is not defending against or tech or expand in order to turn your advantage into more advantage.

In non-RTS type situations though doing nothing can sometimes be good even if you seem to be at an advantage. A good example is in fighting games or a martial arts tournament, if you are ahead in score (health, in fighting games) it may be the best option to do nothing. If there is a time limit, being ahead in score means you will eventually win unless your opponent does something. If you are well-prepared to defend the attack, you should prepare to avoid their attack and defeat it with a powerful counter attack instead of pushing forward to attack.

The reason why is because when you are ahead in score or life, your opponent can still fight back at their full strength. Being behind in score does not stop your opponent from attacking in every way they would otherwise be able to do. For this reason, you should wait for an opening or weakness in order to press advantage. When the opponent is losing, they often get upset or angry and try to attack in order to tie things up. You can take advantage of this by being prepared and defeat his attack before it ever happens. This will put you even further ahead in score and make your opponent feel even more helpless.

Part number three is quite obvious in that we must be able to defend ourself or else we are not really doing nothing, we are doing something. It is obvious - if we are doing nothing, we must be able to easily be able to do something as soon as our situation changes. On the one hand, we must be able to defend ourselves, and that is the most important thing. But we must also be able to attack. If we are doing nothing, our opponent may think we are defending. But we are not! We are ready to defend or attack at a moment's notice! If our opponent plans for a sneaky way to get around our defense he may leave himself open. This is the time to attack! If we can gain the upper hand in battle we should surely leave our position and strike quickly before the opponent can change his fate.

But doing nothing also gives us a discerning eye to recognize bait, so make sure that you are not attacking at nothing, for you will surely fail. When in doubt, always attack with things that do not cost much resources. If the opponent counters that attack, you have knowledge of how he planned to counter you, and you likely didn't spend much resources on your attack so you probably have many options left. Once you know how the opponent plans to counter you can then ready yourself to defeat that counter. Best of all is if we pretend to attack at their bait, but do not! Then the tables have turned, and we have baited them into countering nothing! Then we defeat their attack decisively.

But the greatest advantage of nothing is that it makes us aware of things. If we are not worried about what we are going to do next, we can mentally make ourselves aware of what our opponent is to do next. Then we can formulate a plan of action. If we are doing something, our concentration is divided, but if we are not doing something, we can focus much more on what the opponent is doing. This is a concept I'll talk about in much greater detail later, since it is key to success in competition (especially StarCraft, heh).

Nothing is not present in all games. In most RPG-type games, doing nothing is very bad. This is because there are not many immediate counters in RPGs, so even if we know the opponent will do something, we cannot wait and counter it - we have to implement a method to defeat it, and that means doing something, such as crippling the opponent's attack or preemptively attacking in order to defeat the opponent quickly. Many times in these type of games battles become a matter of whose attack is stronger, and not the mind games of the battle. This is unfortunate, since mind games are needed for a strong competition. Still, even in some RPGs like WoW, doing nothing is not very viable but there are many different strategies, and even though nothing is quite bad in that game, there are still many options for defeating the opponent's strategy. Even then, a game where nothing is not viable deprives a player of a key strategic option.

For a game that is very strategically deep and intense without having nothing, look at Puzzle Fighter, or perhaps Hexic 2. These games are very strategic and interesting, but nothing is a bad idea. Obviously WoW is also a good example, even if its strategic depth is not as high as Puzzle Fighter's. For sports, tennis is a good example of a game where you cannot do nothing. Football is an example of a game where nothing is usually a bad idea but there are some times where it may be useful (especially at the end of a quarter). Other games like soccer or basketball are good examples where nothing is a fairly good strategy.

One other thing I would like to address before I finish is whether running away ("kiting") is nothing. I am inclined to say no in most games. If you cannot immediately attack or defend, retreating is not nothing. In some games, like City of Heroes, running away is probably safe to consider as nothing, since you are free to attack or defend in most cases even if you are running away. Likewise, withdrawing from a battle in a martial arts competition is probably also still considered nothing although in the strictest sense, you cannot use your legs in the same way as if you are not moving.

As I said, nothing is a very detailed subject, with many facets. You didn't think I could really write an article about nothing, did you!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Mastering the Game - GMing Part 1

There's a lot of articles about game mastering on the web. I am sort of sad at the content in most of them. Most articles I read seem to think that the person elected to GM is either a novice who has never GMed before, or a retard who shouldn't be GMing anyway. Most guides have some silly idea of how to construct an adventure, and a million really boring plot hooks. Everyone other than Palladium Books has no idea how to instruct someone in the ways of GMing.

I absolve Palladium Books from all guilt - their GM's Guide is actually pretty good even if you've never played Rifts and never intend to.

A lot of people decry the 'really bad' examples of GMing, especially railroading and Monty Haul gaming. Obviously these extremes are bad, but saying that they are bad does absolutely nothing to teach us what to do. I'm going to, in more than one article, explain some of the fine arts of GMing in as much brutal detail as possible.

The first big hurdle to GMing, and the one that is the absolute most important thing, is that you should know the game you are playing. No, I don't mean know how to make characters and how to make attack rolls. I mean you should know exactly how everything in the game works. This is not always possible, but you should start by knowing perfectly what each of the players are capable of, alone and in concert. You need to be able to understand the synergies that occur between each of a player's abilities, and also the synergies between the players.

I know a lot of you are looking at me like "I have to know -everything- they can do?!" I do not think this is an unreasonable thing to say. I really think you should know everything in the rules, or at least everything that will be available to the players in the future. However, you should at the very least know what the player party as a whole can do, in exact detail.

The next question all of you are probably asking, is "why?" I'm sure there will be some arguments here about how the game rules are just guidelines, and the point of the game is to have fun. Believe me, I know this better than most. The first reason why you should know everything there is to know about the game, or at least to a massive degree more than the players, is so that the players don't have to. Your job as the GM is to run the game, to provide fun to everyone else. If you can answer the players' questions quickly, more time can be spent roleplaying and having fun.

Knowledge of what all the players can do in relation to the game also has another point to be had too. If you know exactly what all the players can do, you can design adventures a thousand times better. Knowledge of player abilities lets you give the players a multitude of solutions to a potential problem. Let's say your adventure path involves the players breaking into a manor and stealing a valuable item. Sure, they could charge in and kill everyone and take the loot, etc. But if you know one character has Stealth and Lockpicking and another character has Research, another has Ettiquette, etc. you can really tailor your adventure by letting the player with Research get floor plans to the manor. The player with Negotiation can get invitations to a party at the manor so the player with Ettiquette can get in and run distractions for the Stealthy thief who breaks in and steals the loot. A party mage can detect and notify the thief of possible magical wards and traps, and so on.

This is obvious stuff, and I'm -sure- you're thinking that, but the challenge can be geared very specifically to work in a way you want it to. What's the difficulty in scaling the manor walls? What about picking the locks? If you know the party's abilities you can plan that sort of thing in advance. Sure, they might charge through the door, and that's cool, but at least you were ready in case they got creative.

Combat is the most important reason you need to know though. A certain GM I played for did not know the rules for fly-by attacks in D&D 3e, and I had to tell him that the way he was playing it was wrong. In much the same way, you should know how immediate actions, opportunity actions, and other jargony terms work. You should know how all of the players' abilities work, so that they can make good use of them during the battle. Knowing all of the players' powers isn't so you can design a drop-down list of counters to them, but rather so you can make them feel useful and strong while at the same time presenting a good challenge to them so that they feel accomplished at the end of the fight. That's the difference between being a knowledgable GM and one that is unpracticed - encounters are too hard or too easy. Both are bad!

As soon as one of my players picks a class or ability, I look it up. I also ask them why, so I can hear a decent justification. Not all of us have the advantage of players who will give out all their plans for their character, but the player's justification gives us a good idea of where not to look when trying to find something abusive. I might give the player's explanation a cursory glance though.

To take an example from D&D 4e, say a player warlock chose the Star path on the basis that"Dire Radiance combined with the figher and paladin taunts gives bonus damage a lot of the time." Dire Radiance is a warlock ability that lets the warlock attack an enemy for low damage. If the enemy moves towards the warlock after being hit though, they have a chance to take some additional damage. Since the fighter and paladin taunts basically force foes into melee with the tank character, they have to take damage from Dire Radiance too. But Dire Radiance says "moves towards the warlock." This means that characters can push or pull enemies with other skills to force them to take damage, so it's worth looking for other things that can move characters around besides taunts (the paladin taunt is probably the most exploitative thing you can do with it, though, as an fyi for 4e DMs).

This was just an example, if a lengthy one, about the thought process you need to go through. Whenever you see an ability, the first thing you should do is read the entire text of the ability. The flavor text generally doesn't matter, but it may put some ideas in your head for story ideas later. The important thing is the functionality. After you've read over the ability and its flavor, you should read over the functional text again. Omit the flavor so that you can readily put in your head what the ability does exactly.

Simple things like "gives a +2 bonus to two skills" is easy enough to learn, but "if the target strikes you before the start of your next turn, you make your riposte against the target as an immediate interrupt: a Strength vs. AC attack that deals 1[W]+Strength modifier damage" is a little more complex (that's a damn level 1 rogue ability from 4e btw, wtf). We need to know a whole ton of stuff just to sort out what's going on in that attack. We need to know what constitutes the start of your turn, what an immediate interrupt is, and all that Strength vs. AC nonsense. I would also question the word riposte too, but it's actually not a technical term used by the game system. I'd look it up anyway - you never know.

Once we know exactly what all this technical stuff means, you know exactly how it works. A turn is based on initiative rolls, and it's pretty much impossible to get more than one turn in a combat round. You don't take extra turns otherwise, so extra attacks like this one aren't considered a turn. Then we know that the attack is an immediate interrupt. That means it actually happens before the opponent's attack even goes through. Once the interrupt fires, the opponent gets to continue attacking unless the riposte killed him or otherwise kept him from attacking. This ability also isn't triggered by anything except an attack, so anything that isn't an actual "attack" in its description won't trigger the ability. This ability only works against the target you hit with the initial attack, and not on any other targets. Because immediate actions can only be taken once a round, you can't do this more than once, nor can you couple it with other immediate actions of any kind in the same round. You also can't trigger it during your turn.

Whew! That's a lot of information, but now we know exactly what that skill does. We will never be surprised when it goes off, or maybe we will, but we won't be caught with our pants down when the player tries to say that it interrupts the opponent's action and it never goes off. This knowledge keeps us in control as GMs. It also lets us know what kind of abuses the player might put us through.

Keeping the GM in power is important. It's not because we need to have power trips, but it is because you cannot allow the players to rules-lawyer you. Oftentimes there is a niche clause in the rules somewhere that prevents a rules-lawyer player from running circles around you. If it is there, you need to find it. If players come up with some awesome synergistic combo that IS allowed in the rules, you should have feasibly seen it coming, because you looked at every little ability the players have.

This allows us to act within the game rules and not make up random, on the fly judgments about "you shouldn't be able to do that, I think it's dumb" or whatever. If you have to change something because your players abused it, it makes you look bad and often affects your mental state while GMing. If you made a decision about something ahead of time, then the players see that you're prepared and in control. I know about both sides of this coin firsthand, believe me.

One time in a game I was running I got into a minor conflict with a player about the function of thermal imaging. The player was right in this case (we actually had to look up the real function of thermal imaging to prove the case, as it wasn't really clear in the book) and it caused a small conflict about the outcome of the situation for the players. In the end it settled down, but I looked bad and unknowledgable.

On the same note, I've run numerous games where I have made many modifications in the name of balance. I talked over many of the changes with my players and explained why I felt what I did, and the majority of them agreed with the majority or all of my changes. Later on, when it became apparent that a particular skill was 'must-have' even in the changed rules (it was left unchanged as I felt it was more or less fair) I had to look it over and decided it gave too much benefit and retroactively changed it. While several of my players were using the skill at the time, they agreed with my decision because it was clear I had put a lot of thought into my other design decisions as well.

So this first article about GMing in depth is about knowledge. You need to have it!