Saturday, May 2, 2009

It's not how you win or lose...

But winning is way more fun than losing!

Sorry for the delay, as always. I have a valid excuse this time, though. My birthday was yesterday! So, that being the case, I went out and had a good time with some old friends. I feel old, I'm 28 now.

I was hanging out at my house one day and a friend of mine was playing some game (I think it was R6: Vegas 2, might have been CoD: WoW though, I wasn't watching). It had been a long time since I had been greeted with so many shouted obscenities over a video game. More importantly, I hadn't heard it in person since I was a teenager. Every time I heard him shout, it was the same kind of exclamation that I use when I hurt myself tripping over something, or when some serious life circumstance screws me over. And here this guy is, shouting curse words at the game like it's his girlfriend and it cheated on him or something.

I don't think this is something uncommon because when playing anything online you tend to see it. I have quite a few lovely private messages in my XBL menu because people could not beat Seth's jumping fierce and got hit by it over and over. Most of them have to do with the size of my penis or other parts of my reproductive organs.

So today I'm going to talk about how to control your emotions.

I am a pretty emotional person. Although you can't really tell in these cold, lifeless walls of text, I am not a person very rooted in hard logic. As a kid, I had a lot of rage and I took it out on other kids. I was a really violent 3rd grader. As far as relationships go, I tend to devote myself very fully to my romantic partner, and their respect is very tied to my emotional state. I've had a lot of practice turning myself from being a really angry, emotionally unstable kid to being a well-balanced adult (okay, maybe 'well-balanced is the wrong word...)

Usually this kind of emotional outburst has to do with some deeper underlying personal problem. I think that a lot of people are slow to admit that they have problems, but chances are if you are one of those people who have large emotional outbursts, there is a problem. If you take that as an insult, don't. If we have some kind of personality flaw, we can fix it. A problem is just waiting for a solution so we can improve and grow.

In this case, the problem is likely the belief that we are better at something than we actually are. There have been some pretty big scientific studies on this. The studies basically show that the higher your skill level is, the more likely you are to be able to recognize skilled play. The unfortunate thing is that the lower your skill is, the less able you are to recognize skilled play. This basic concept applies to pretty much everything, from math to humor to video games.

The idea is that a person with who fails will often not understand the reasons behind their failure and will feel cheated. When you feel cheated in some way, you get upset or angry.

A good example of this is in Ninja Gaiden (the original NES game) when the game starts making flying birds that hit you as you are jumping with no warning, or foes that attack you instantly as you are landing on a platform. Both of these enemies knock the player into a bottomless pit, forcing you to start over. If you don't know how to deal with the birds you will almost certainly feel cheated. An expert player would probably just chalk up getting hit by one as a personal failure, and keep trying.

In this particular case, I would say that the game designer should not create unforgiving situations like the birds that hit you into bottomless pits.

However, many players are put into more normal situations present in most games, and when they fail those, they get upset or angry. Most video games present some sort of challenge to the player, and when that challenge isn't met, you're expected to fail and try again. Alternatively, competitive games are won based on player merit (some luck is involved, but player skill is usually the main factor) and the losing player should not feel as though the other player is cheating them by winning.

In general, the first step is to take responsibility for failures. A certain friend of mine spent thousands of minutes over his cellphone plan, then got the bill which was very large. He complained at the phone company, and then at cellphones in general! I explained to him that he had no one to blame but himself - that he should have purchased a better plan, or used fewer minutes. This is obvious! The phone company is not responsible for his actions - they allow him the use of their service, and they offer usage plans to accomodate different amounts of calling time. Now he is on an unlimited plan, which is probably a smart play for him.

In the same way, if you are failing at something, look within, because the problem is usually yourself and not anything or anyone else. This is not a reason to get depressed or upset with yourself because you failed. It's an opening for improvement! If you lose to an aggressive dark templar rush in StarCraft, you learn to build detection early, or scout better, or wall off ramps to your base with supply depots so you know the attack is coming. If your opponent defeated you in a fighter with a very strong wake-up game that you couldn't defend against, you should work on improving your skills at getting up from the ground safely or perhaps work on keeping from getting knocked down in the first place.

But let's broaden things up a little and say you lost at something you could have won at. There are a few possibilities:

1) You actually aren't as good as you think you are. Occasionally I lose in a serious tournament to a player I think I should have beaten. I will say that probably at least half of those times my opponent might have been at my skill level or better, but I could not tell in the chaos of the match. This happens a lot in Soul Calibur, since there isn't a lot to separate good players and bad players, barring some combos that you don't actually need to learn. Even then, you may know some pretty nasty combos, but have poor actual gameplay skills.

In this case you should look deeper at why you lost. A lot of my previous posts talk about the deep hidden meaning in competition, and previously unspoken mysteries about timing. There are many mental things you will need to discover, and while reading about things can help, practice is very important too. If it's possible, practice with the person who beat you.

2) You made a lot of mistakes. I played in a SF4 tournament at Sakura-con, which was pretty fun except I got wiped out in the first round to a Ryu player who was clearly worse than me. Most of my friends and all the 'real' SF4 players affirmed the truth as well, that I played better but ended up losing. The big reason this happened was due to mistakes. This is where practice really shines. Practice helps refine your skills and makes them more consistent. Sometimes in crunch time you'll choke up and make mistakes, but if you practice your heart out you'll perform tons better even if you choke.

Sometimes practicing is boring (didn't I write an article somewhere about discipline?) but it's what turns you from a good player into an excellent one.

Okay, getting challenges out of the way, I started on a point earlier that I want to revisit, and that is that blaming other things for your problems is bad. This is not something that you can just stop doing, even though I explained earlier how wrong it was. You have to actually take the steps and say, "I am going to stop blaming everything else." Once you do that, then you have to actually stop. You won't stop right away of course, but the goal is to catch yourself doing it, and say "That was bad, I was wrong." Eventually you will find yourself doing it less and less, until you stop entirely.

Controlling your emotions in those situations is a similar point too. Although you can look at the root causes of blame and pride, this is a small thing a prideful person can do to balance themselves a little. Don't get upset at things, don't stress yourself out like that so much. If you feel the rage coming on, remember to stop yourself. Or if it's depression, likewise think that failure is just a step on the road to becoming a better person. You'll get mad or depressed still, but it'll happen less and less. If you can improve yourself in other ways, you'll also find yourself becoming better at controlling your anger.

This topic was really scatterbrained because I wrote it in spurts over about a ten hour period. Sorry!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Risk versus Reward

A pretty lame title and a really long time since posting. I should be doing this daily, I gotta kick myself into writing more.

This is about risk and reward. Specifically, it's about whether to take risks or not in competitive gaming. This topic is pretty wild because always I smack myself thinking about some matches in say, StarCraft. In fact, StarCraft is the biggest game where this skill is useful. In some games, taking 'risks' is so well-rewarded (like Guilty Gear) that you pretty much want to expose yourself all the time because the reward for even getting a hit blocked is so good. In other games (like Killer Instinct), doing anything is so bad that you almost never want to do anything risky at all.

This is not a guide to taking risks in real life. Real life is not zero-sum and you pretty much always want to err on the side of safety in RL because the risk of loss is very bad. In games where you lose real investments (like EVE) you also want to generally play low-risk, as it benefits you more in the end. Some people might like playing high risk, but this is overall a bad thing in real life. If you go gambling at a casino (slot machines, craps, etc.), you might win money and lose money, but the odds are skewed against you. If you are playing competitive games for money (even poker and similar games with high chance vs. skill ratios), then this article applies to you, though.

So I watched a ton of SC matches prior to writing this, and I have a lot of poker-playing friends. Most of them are not as good at bluffing as I am (I am a master liar!) but they are far better at playing the odds than me so I am generally not good at poker.

Sometimes in games you'll want to play safe, even when the odds say you could play more dangerously and come out ahead. A good example is when many ages ago, I was playing Guilty Gear 2, which is a real time strategy-fighting hybrid. I had the advantage in terms of control points and I had a big unit advantage. I could have pushed for the win, or I could have defended and built up some mana to make more and stronger units - but at the same time my opponent could get mana to defend. It is a tough choice to call, and in the end it is probably better to attack and press the advantage. However, in this case I chose to defend and in the end, I won that game by holding my advantage and using it in little pushes to weaken his forces rather than devoting myself to a serious attack.

StarCraft is much the same way, but in SC's case because units can be microed, attacking is almost always good (in GG2, you can only micro your 'hero' who is more a fighting game character than a unit) and defending is much harder. You almost always want to be attacking if you can spare the attention to do it, although you want to use attention for base building and so on too. As I mentioned in my article about nothing, though, sometimes it's better to spend as much attention as you can on army building and focus on defense.

How do we choose these times for attacking and defense? In fighting games it is really easy because it is easy to tell what the opponent's options are. In strategy games it is a lot harder. You've got to use scouting and such to tell where your opponent is - if he is defending, you've got to work on expanding or building up forces - you don't want to attack an opponent who is defending. But you aren't going to know that for sure, so you've got to use the best information you can. Use scouting and intuition as best you can.

Sometimes intuition is your best friend, but you've also got to know choice scenarios. A good example is if your opponent is attacking, and you don't have enough forces to defend. This happens a ton in high level SC. Defending is stupid here - you should go right for the throat and attack at a weak spot to try and deal as much damage to him as he would do to you. This is super common in high end SC - a weaker player will take the advantage from a stronger player by waiting for the attack, and attacking hard at a weak spot. In this way, the match stays even, or the weak player takes the lead, since he invested less army.

In the same vein, sometimes if you see the opponent poised to launch a counter attack (his army is placed where yours is weak, rather than where it is strong) you might want to feign an attack, but then pull your guys out and wipe out his army, hopefully while protecting whatever it is that he was attacking.

I should also bring in some poker philosophy too since it is really relevant here as well. Baiting is practically the name of the game in poker, you should almost always pretend you are dumb and weak. It lets you get away with really strong, winning hands because everyone things you suck and will just call on whatever.

If people can't read you very well (expert lying!) then it'll screw with their risk versus reward ratio. I am not so good at this acting like a moron thing, but I am fairly good at hiding whether or not I am bluffing. Bluffing is always risky, while playing on a strong hand is 99% not risky. Therein lies the problem, though - sometimes when you're bluffing you screw up and lose big, so you gotta know when to take that risk.

When the first call goes down, if you are planning on seeing what people have, you need to do something crazy to make people think you've actually got something good. I'm not saying necessarily you raise. If you do, you shouldn't be too gutsy about talking about it - be as soft-spoken as possible.

Screwing with people's scouting is a good way for them to make bad decisions, like folding when you're bluffing. That's the point of bluffing, obviously.

Predictions will do you in, though. At some point, some fool will call your bluff if you keep raising quietly, especially if you are in the lead. So, of course, you need to raise quietly when you are strong sometimes too. Mix it up?

But yeah, this is less about mindgames and more about decision-making. If you think the people at your table have been properly conditioned, then you can start bluffing. Otherwise, it's intuition time.

I might as well talk about conditioning. I talked about it a little in my mind games article. The idea behind conditioning is simultaneously that you learn the opponent's habits and punish them (they're already conditioned) and that you give them new bad habits to exploit.

A good example to this is when I played Fuerte against my friend Mark (in SF4). Mark got owned over and over by crossup splash (he'd never fought against anything like it before) until I mentioned to him how to block crossup splash. I did one more crossup splash, then did a really ambiguous front splash, followed by many more. He was totally confused and had no idea what to do.

If you always do a certain (typically low-risk) move after a certain sequence of moves, you can royally screw with your opponent's head by doing something unsafe that beats the counter to your low risk move. The simplest idea to this is to do a series of moves, then truncate it somewhere and throw instead. You could also mix in some slow, unblockable move. You could also play very safe, then randomly bluff (in poker). These sorts of conditioning methods let you 'predict' your opponent's moves for free.

Conditioning works on almost everyone, even people who know the power of nothing.

In StarCraft though, conditioning is harder. You're generally better off doing 'little' things that end in a big advantage unless your move is some sort of surprise free win attack (like dark templar rush). If your opponent knows you really like things like dark templar rush or barracks rush, you can give him a scouting tax if you decide not to do those things (since they will have to play towards preventing them). This requires a lot of foreknowledge, though, which is probably less available information to you than the amount of scouting and knowledge in a SF match.

So in SC, you really have to know when to make those gambles work. If you put your cash into a DT rush, you really have to have intuition and know the opponent isn't going to run detection early.

Someone will ask me "how do you get better intuition?" My suggestion is to play fighting games, that have lots of decision points.