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The Danger of Game Options
by Andrew Pellerano on 06/16/14 10:51:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutraís community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

There's a game night at the Folsom St Foundry every Tuesday in San Francisco. Organizers fill the block-sized event space with board games strewn across a dozen tables and hook up over twenty consoles running popular multiplayer games. In such a competitive mecca, could you conceive a scenario where two game experts are not able to play each other fairly?

I can, and it's due to the danger of game options.

I play TowerFall at this game night every time I go. It's a game where you're an archer and you try to kill the other archers. It was designed by Matt Thorson to play like any competitive fighter: matches are primarily about positioning with lots of room for head games, counters, and complex feats of dexterity.


This is TowerFall

Before talking generally about the danger of game options let's dive into a specific case study using TowerFall.

Fighting Game 101: Threatened Space

As a fighting game student you learn about concepts like positioning and threatened space.  Here is a screenshot from the Super Street Fighter II: Turbo tutorial made by David Sirlin, a prolific writer on competitive fighting game strategy.  You can watch the whole tutorial video on YouTube.

Notice the red rectangle, this shows the space Ryu (on the right) threatens with his fireball move.  The idea is that you want to keep players in space you threaten while staying out of space they threaten.  The long reach of Ryu's fireballs means Ryu can stay safely across the screen and out of reach of many of his opponent's attacks.  Consequently, playing against Ryu means learning how to dodge fireballs long enough to close the gap and force Ryu into spaces you threaten.

Let's look at TowerFall's orange archer, about to shoot an arrow.  What area do you think he threatens?

Arrows are small and you know how they behave in the real world so on first guess you might think the threatened space looks something like this:

That's a pretty small amount of space.  In the Street Fighter example, Ryu was threatening a full third of the screen!  TowerFall has way more space to move around in and smaller projectiles.  If arrows threatened like this it would be too hard to hit anything and matches would take too long.  So instead, an arrow in TowerFall threatens this much space:

How does one little arrow threaten all that space?  TowerFall gives each arrow a slight amount of heat-seeking.  If an opponent gets too close the arrow will begin to alter its velocity to lean towards the opponent.  It would be a bad idea for the green archer to go anywhere into that triangle.

Fighting Game 102: The Scrub

The next fighting game concept you learn is the scrub.  Scrub is not simply a derogatory term used to describe players with little skill.  The scrub is well defined in Sirlin's Playing to Win book, available for free online.  From the book:

A scrub is a player who is handicapped by self-imposed rules that the game knows nothing about.

If you were playing TowerFall with a scrub they might complain that an arrow which kills them via seeking is "cheap" or "unfair".  In the gif below the cyan archer's arrow first curves up and then down to kill the orange archer.  This shot is not possible without seeking arrows. Yet it is easy to see why this shot should succeed when imagining the threatened area diagram from earlier.

Now Things Get Ugly

If all the scrub could do at this point is complain, the story would end.  If they wish to continue playing TowerFall they have to make peace with seeking arrows.  Unfortunately, TowerFall does just about the worst thing you could do in this situation.  TowerFall has a setting which disables seeking arrows.

That setting legitimizes the scrub's complaint.  They no longer have to learn.  Instead they can say: "if the game lets you turn off seeking arrows, then it must be a valid way to play."  In their mind, they have made TowerFall a more expert game by removing auto-aim for babies.  In reality, they have undermined a core design tenet of the game.  Remember that TowerFall only wishes to be a game about positioning and head games.  It does not wish to be about parabolic trajectory simulation.

When you allow players to undermine core design tenets, you fracture your player base.  In TowerFall's case, you get experts who play with seeking arrows and experts who play without.  Every kill now comes with a caveat: "In my rules that wouldn't kill me."  The statement drips with superiority.  No middle ground will ever be found between these players, they are simply incompatible.

Balancing Accessibility with Competitive Goals

Matt Thorson was concerned that including the No Seeking Arrows option would fracture the competitive community and in a twitter conversation revealed he almost removed the option as a result.

The reasoning behind keeping the option in is noble.  One of Matt's design goals was that TowerFall be an inclusive game and therefore he didn't want to remove any option which improves accessibility.  A dad who likes to play with his younger daughter might disable seeking arrows for only himself as a way to make the matches more fair.  If the setting weren't available at all, the two might not be able to battle in a way that is enjoyable for dad.  TowerFall also contains about 70 other game options that are pure arcade fun such as laser arrows that bounce off walls infinitely.  Turning off seeking arrows might combine in interesting ways with those other options to create entirely new ways to play the game.

Keeping the option in the game negatively impacts the competitive scene but benefits casual play.  This seems like an impasse.  Matt's clever compromise was to add a button at the top of the settings page which turns on an explicit set of tournament rules -- rules which keeps seeking arrows enabled.  This signals to the competitive community how they are meant to play the game without needing to remove the option entirely.

Unfortunately this solution is not without its flaws.  I occasionally encounter scrubs who wish to play with No Seeking Arrows on the competitive level.  As a fun design exercise, consider what modifications you would make to solve this issue.

Options Shouldn't Mess With Core Design

So far we've gone into great detail on the TowerFall case study but you can probably think of lots of other games that fragmented their player base by providing options.  Here's a few famous ones that come to mind:

  1. Super Smash Bros Melee lets you turn off all items.
  2. Team Fortress 2 allows server mods which increases max players from 24 to 32 and decreases respawn timers from 20 seconds to 5.
  3. A popular Beer Pong rule doesn't count your shot if your elbow is over the table.

In each of these games the main problem is that a game option was added which gives players control over the behavior of a core design tenet.  Items are an integral part of balancing Smash Bros characters, kind of a global move-set that homogenizes the characters.  Take items out and you end up with the current Smash Bros competitive scene, which is playable with only 8 of the 26 characters on 5 of the 29 stages.  Choke points are necessary for tension in Team Fortress 2 maps and those choke points become unbalanced and never-ending when too many players spawn too quickly.  Beer Pong's elbow rule is completely unenforceable without a replay camera and leads to plenty of arguments and animosity.

So Don't Have Options

37Signals, the software development team behind Basecamp, published a book called Getting Real which covers their software design principles.  Many of them are also great game design and development advice.  Here is a relevant section on preferences:

You’re faced with a tough decision: how many messages do we include on each page? Your first inclination may be to say, “Let’s just make it a preference where people can choose 25, 50, or 100.” That’s the easy way out though. Just make a decision. Preferences are a way to avoid making tough decisions.


Gmail hasn't read the 37Signals book

You should strive to have as few options in your game as possible.  It's up to you as the designer to make the right call for the best play experience.  If you are unsure which way to go on a particular option you might need to playtest with friends or spend a week with each option while you develop other features.  Eventually you'll gain mastery of the topic and be able to make the right call.

Takeaway

When designing a multiplayer game be aware that by providing game options, through nothing more than human nature, you are giving your players the tools they need to avoid playing with one another.  You are actively working against the virality and social effects you are counting on to cultivate and grow a multiplayer scene.  This is the danger of game options.

As for the TowerFall design exercise I mentioned earlier, I think the best solution would have been to create two top level game modes called Competitive Versus and Arcade Versus.  Competitive Versus provides no option controls and locks the options to the official tournament rules.  Arcade Versus is the existing versus mode with options controls.  This creates two environments that explicitly state their purpose upfront and allow Matt to have authoritative control over the competitive design vision.

@yayitsandrew, follow me on Twitter!

[Cross-posted from my personal blog, yayitsandrew.com]


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Comments


Fabian Fischer
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Good article! As a designer, you are supposed to be the expert. You should at least try to make THE best design decisions. Leaving a huge number of options to the players is like admitting that you're not able to fully design the game yourself.

Ian Richard
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While I understand your point, I disagree entirely. Someone who buys your game SHOULD be allowed to play however he wants.

Every player has specific needs when he plays a game. Competitive players are not like the rest of us. I've played smash with dozens of nationally ranked players and I'm speaking from experience. No matter what options you remove, they will create their own "Balanced" ruleset.

Giving people options means that those of us who don't enjoy the official rules can still have fun. Should magic the gather force players to burn all their older cards because they are no longer tournament legal? Of course not because games aren't only about the competition scene, they are about fun.

As a designer, your job isn't to be a control freak and force things on the player. It's to create something that allows the player to have fun. House rules are not a bad thing.

Fabian Fischer
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Not every game is for everyone. And that's absolutely fine! The thing is, in regards to what it's trying to achieve, a design should be as good as it can possibly be. And by giving players a "10 in 1 fun-pack" you won't achieve that. You just can't account for ALL the options to be just as strong as any other.

Theresa Catalano
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@Ian

I think you're only looking at the positive aspects of accessibility, and ignoring the weaknesses. Sure every player has specific needs... some may not like the rules of your game. But that doesn't matter. The designer SHOULD NOT feel obligated to meet everyone's needs. Not only is doing so futile, it can potentially compromise the experience you're trying to provide. This article provides an excellent example of that.

The designer's job is to be a control freak, by definition. That said, options aren't always a bad thing... but it's the designer's job to know which options should be provided, and which will compromise the game. This is a difficult choice. I think articles like this will help in making that decision.

Ian Richard
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I agree fully that not every game is for everyone.

But would Smash Bros. have sold as well with only the 8 or so legal characters, 5 legal stages, and no random craziness deemed "Fair" for tournament crowds? Do you think the tournaments would even EXIST if you couldn't turn off the random items?

The massive cast of characters and fast moving fun played a large role in selling the game to a massive audience. Turning off the items allowed the competitive crowds to play in a zero-random environment. Both crowds benefit from the the tweak.

How about something like Goldeneye or Perfect Dark? Is it really bad design to allow the players to choose the weapons and items they want to use? I've spent more than a few hours in their multiplayer because I could create unique matches to fit my mood. Can we really call that bad design because the designer didn't say "You can only use the shotgun, pistol and SMG... EVER?"

A designer forcing the rules won't do any good. Competitive players can and will establish their own rules and players will always argue an excuse of why they shouldn't have lost. That's just human nature.

Andrew Pellerano
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If you as the designer wish to have any control over the game balance of the competitive scene, you will do better to limit the players' options. As an example look at how League of Legends balances the entire game to one map, despite players constantly asking for more maps. Constraining the game to one map locks enough variables in place that the developers can continue to create, maintain, and most importantly SELL game updates. By locking everyone into their vision of what competitive League looks like they also turn their entire player base into competitors-in-training.

The other two play modes in LoL -- dominion and 3v3 -- are never well balanced. There are clearly dominant strategies and characters in each mode. Players could constrict the rules and build a competitive scene on top of those maps, brute forcing it like the smash bros community, but it will never have the following or care that the main game mode has. That speaks to the power of constraining your design.

If you want your game to be open because your goal is to give people something to tinker with, then by all means publish as many options as you want. But your odds of having a competitive scene surface are much smaller and your chances of controlling that scene (for business purposes) are smaller still.

Theresa Catalano
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@Ian

But Smash Brothers has always been tailored more for the casual scene than the competitive scene. The game's design lends itself to those kind of options. On the other hand, a game that is meant to be more competitive may be hurting itself with those kind of options, like the example illustrates above. This is why a game designer has to think about what kind of options make sense for the game.

The point is that more options aren't always better. A designer HAS to decide the rules, that is their job by definition. Telling them to "not force rules" is not only wrong, it's nonsensical. A game developer will always make the decision which options are beneficial, and which not to include... their job is to decide on the right options for the right game.

Ian Richard
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Fair enough. Which options are in the game do depend on the game and your intended audience.

But I've seen designer control ruin enough games by removing player choices that I think it's a bad move. Different players like different things and having options for minor tweaks will allow for more players to find their ideal balance.

I understand your point, but I believe that the benefits of giving the player's control outweigh the negatives.

But who knows? I've been doing this long enough to realize that I can be wrong.

Nick McKergow
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It's case by case. You can't say definitively that player control has more benefits when every design is going to benefit in different ways and by different amounts.

Daniel Plemmons
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@Ian I'm a big fan of Andrew's solution at the end of the article. Put the customization in context. By creating a competitive context, and an arcade context, the designer can communicate their intent as to how the game is played. I might use stronger language than Andrew, maybe calling the arcade context, "casual" or "freeform" mode to really hammer the point home (were I trying to encourage a competitive environment).

Players looking for a custom experience can have it, and niche competitive communities can rise up around custom rule combinations (e.g. my old halo 2 group basically just played Swords Only on Lockout), but there is no question as to what defines the "true" competitive version of the game.

That said, each game has its own concerns. Look at this stuff as critical lenses through which to judge and understand your design. Understand the impacts of each choice you make and craft the final game (and meta-game) experience for your players.

Ethan Benanav
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The idea of having a "competitive multiplayer" and a "casual multiplayer" is almost a good idea. The truth is that when there are a lot options available in a fighting game, the designer's intention for "tournament rules" and the communities preferred "tournament rules" won't necessarily be the same.

Smash is a great example. It's unclear if the designers thought that items should be turned on or off in tournaments. It doesn't matter. The community decided they liked playing with items off.

Sam Stephens
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Options are a tricky subject in game design. Like anything, there is a time and place for them depending on the kind of game developers want make. Options can be bad because it becomes very difficult to design and balance around every possible scenario that different options create. Games are highly emergent, so even a few options explode into a large possibility space. I also find the philosophy that seeks to place players in control over what they want to be very problematic because players aren't designers and therefore don't know what options are better or more balanced than others.

On the other hand, I find myself becoming less harsh about options. It's true that Smash Bros. has many options that limit what is actually competitively viable, but that's okay because the core design is still there no matter how you set up the game. I disagree with the author's point about how items are a part of Smash Bros. core design. If we were to create a hierarchy of gameplay elements in Smash Bros., the basic fighting mechanics (moves, special moves, dodge, shield, grab, etc.) would be at the top followed by the specific stats and move-sets of each individual character. Items would be near the bottom of this list. They may balance the characters, but that's because the items themselves are somewhat imbalanced. Sakurai is very much the designer who likes to challenge players with adapting to a variety of situations.

The point is, options can be fine so long as the game has a solid core design that exists outside of those options. Games that don't have a solid core design (such as Call of Duty) become much more permeable in the face of options. However, it takes a very knowledgeable designer to understand the give and take that options present and implement them appropriately.

Scott Sheppard
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I find that the skill involved in adaptability is so much more fun than the skill in getting good at what is considered the classic competitive scene. That's just so... boring.

Theresa Catalano
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Adaptability only goes so far, though. And if there are game mechanics that neutralize player skill, that's a different issue. Practicing and getting good at a skill is something that is statisfying for a lot of people, and how "boring" it is probably depends on your personality type and affinity with certain types of skills.

Ethan Benanav
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As Joshua McDonald said below, the information about items balancing out characters in Smash isn't remotely true. Items actually give Fox, who's already a top tier character, an even greater advantage. Not only can he reflect items (which granted, a few other characters can do) but his speed allows him to reach items before most other characters (depending on where the item spawned).

Sam Stephens
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@Ethan Benava

I never said the items were balanced for competitive play. What I said was that every character has the same ability to use any item. It's not like Fox can fire a ray gun faster than Bowser or has a better chance at getting a rare assist trophy. The effects of items, for the most part, don't change depending on the user. Items can negate elements of a match-up just as much if not more than they can generate them. Please understand I'm discussing this from a broader perspective, not one that is just aimed at high-level competition.

Joshua McDonald
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I have mixed feelings. I think the problem stated is valid, but so are the concerns of the players saying that they like the options. I think that the solution in deciding how many options is to really figure out the core of what makes your game fun and only give options that don't undermine that core.

I have to say, though, that you would have a better article if you cut out most of what you say about Smash. If items couldn't be turned off, then you would have even fewer characters viable in tournaments. The reason is that items very heavily favor fast characters and those with good reflects, who are already generally at the top in competitive play. Require items, and competitive Smash would simply be a game of Fox vs. Fox.

Andrew Pellerano
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Smash is full of design shortcomings and inconsistencies that demonstrate Nintendo is not actively considering a competitive community when they develop the game. (The Wii U version might change this.) The Smash competitive scene is notable for finding a competitive game /in spite/ of all this, but their decisions are largely one-directional and working toward an arbitrary local maxima. I can imagine many other incarnations of competitive Smash with years of competitive tuning that formed from alternative decisions early in the life of the competitive scene.

In other words, the "Argumentum Ad Vulpem" makes sense only if you're already downstream from the existing competitive scene's rule decisions.

Items were banned because they introduce a random element of an exploding capsule teleporting on top of you mid-attack. Putting that aside, there's nothing inherently unbalanced about any characters and their interactions with items. If Fox can reflect projectiles, don't throw things at Fox unless he's in a bad spot to reflect. It's as silly as shooting energy weapons at Ness. Maybe Fox can race you to some items but no one in a fighting game ever benefited from having predictable movement.

CE Sullivan
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This is a well written article, and you make a lot of great points. However, I would like to point out one thing: "A dad who likes to play with his younger daughter might disable seeking arrows for only himself as a way to make the matches more fair," comes off as a little sexist. I'm sure you didn't mean it that way (maybe you even used "daughter" in an attempt to be inclusive), but the way this is written reinforces a couple of prevalent stereotypes: that girls aren't good at playing games, and that dads play games, but not moms. A better way of saying the same thing might be, "A parent who likes to play with a young child."

Andrew Pellerano
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I used that example because it was real feedback the developer of TowerFall had received from a player that he then related to me when I showed him the first draft of this article.

I get your angle but in this case it is just a real life event and these are the genders of the people that were involved.

Theresa Catalano
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I don't think it comes off as sexist at all.

Michael Ball
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...You're kidding, right?

Please tell me you didn't just discount the elephant in the room that is the difference in both age and gaming experience between adults and children, just so you could drag in the exact kind of pettiness that sullies the otherwise noble goal of equality.

Andrew Brozek
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While I can see the OPís point, the benefits of options waaaaay outweigh these drawbacks. We donít live in an idealized designerís paradise where we can safely put our work out there and just let be satisfied with whoever shows up. Most of us are building products in some form or another.

Sure, we might want to build a game with heat seeking arrows. Sure, we might be totally confident that heat seeking arrows create a better, more balanced, more competitive, more fun game.

But what if 8/10 players agree that they hate seeking arrows? Wouldnít we be foolish to ignore that? The argument that all games donít have to be for all people sounds noble. But the reality is games are rarely going to be trying to serve a niche audience and that niche only. Options allow us to build games that will fill the needs of different players. I donít see any reason to be exclusionary.

Furthermore, once you turn off heat seeking arrows in Towerfall, you are essentially playing a different game. The player who wants seeking arrows and the one who doesnít really want a different experience. So why should we force them to play each other? Why force them to play a game they donít want to? The idea of a fractured audience seems overblown to me. These players sound like they would never want to play each other under any circumstances.

The scrub makes up rules that he thinks everyone should play by. But turning off seeking arrows isnít a scrub move. The rules really did change! In fact, saying that Towerfall ďshouldĒ only be played with seeking arrows is kinda more of a scrub move. Thatís the made up rule!

Robert Marney
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Seeking arrows sounds like the classic example of a good way to implement game options. It's a feature that a lot of your players will feel passionately about, the preferred setting is clearly indicated as "Tournament Rules", and it's a substantial change to the feel of the game that requires very little work to support.

By contrast, staying in the 1v1 fighting genre, let's look at Marvel vs Capcom 3's "Easy Controls". This control scheme, where mashing the attack button goes into a scripted combo that usually fails halfway through, actually gives people a bad impression of your game. It's so detrimental that there's a separate "Never ask me about easy controls" game setting, because they know it is not a defensible option.

Titi Naburu
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I'm an amateur game developer (so far), and I always liked to put several options to players. I've learned to pack them, so they can try several flavours without having to understand each of the 13 settings.

Dear Andrew, I understand when you say that it's bad to have a divide. But that's a social issue, not a game design issue. If people can't accept that other prefer another flavour, we would never reduce ice cream shops to vanilla, chocolate and strawberry.

When I make my games configurable, I envision that players will switch between modes and play all of them. Some will be easy or hard, some will be intense or relaxing, some will require button smashing and some deep strategic thought. Games should promote diversity.

Theresa Catalano
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It's not exactly the same as selling ice cream, though. Games inherently come along with rules and obstacles, which are set by the designer. Giving the players the options to change your rules can be nice in some circumstances, but it can also be counter-productive.

Larry Carney
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I can only comment on this as a writer, but it appears that the article is making the same argument for game design as an author does for their own work: namely, that they are the authority and maker of their work, and that a reader approaching their work has no other choice but to accept what the author has created.

There is no other interpretation outside that of the authors'. There is no legitimate way for the reader to appropriate the book and give their own meaning to it. And if the words are too big or too obscure for the reader, buckle up and get a damn dictionary already.

And I think that is entirely correct and perfectly reasonable view to hold as a content creator.

However, what I think this article does not address in regard to this view is that a video game is fundamentally different from a game, in that they are entirely different systems with different forms of engagement with the audience. The reader of a book is an entirely passive audience; they have no input into the book. A video game player however has a degree of agency: Mario will either jump over the pit or he will not. The game designer can make it so that Mario is meant to jump over the pit and design the level and the controller and the on-screen user interface so that the player can successfully jump Mario over the pit, but there is still the question of agency on the part of the player, hanging mid-air as it were, in that space between whether or not Mario jumps over the pit or plummets into its unfathomable depths.


As a result the conversation between developer and player is much less one sided than an author and his or her reader. A gamer may legitimately ask, "Why cannot I do THIS or do THAT" because they are the ones navigating the space that the developer has designed and yet it is not just the developers' space, it is a space which requires something to be brought to it by the player-audience.

If the audience respects the gaming space, this question can even reflect their engagement with the work; they try to understand what they developer has created, and are contemplating all their abilities and choices to make within that space.

Of course, an easy rebuttal would be, "But a reader brings their own history to a work, brings their own skill level to a book."

However, a book is not dependent on the reader to tell the story: that is the fundamental difference.

Games ask of their audience to tell the story. To be the one to get Mario across the pit. To rescue the princess.

What is therefore wrong with a player asking, "So why can't I tell it my own way?"

Sam Stephens
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I think these two articles offer a perfect rebuttal to your points. The topic they deal with is much broader than that of customizable multiplayer options, but I think you are speaking more broadly here too.

http://critical-gaming.com/blog/2012/6/27/linearity-emergence-con
vergence-pt7.html

http://critical-gaming.com/blog/2012/6/30/linearity-emergence-con
vergence-pt9.html

They even directly answer your question at the end. It's like they were written for you :)

One issue I have with your comment is the idea that the relationship between reader and literature is a passive one. I would say that reading is an active process. The content doesn't just phase through our heads and into our brains. We have to visualize words, understand what they mean, and put them into context. Readers can't interact with and change the content, but they are a part of the equation in a constructivist sense.

Larry Carney
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Regarding the first article:

Effect 1: Chaos into the system? What if that is exactly how the player-audience wants to engage with the game? The author says that complexity means that the audience might not get exactly what it is the game was designed to do, to which as I would reply as previously stated a video game is a work which fundamentally requires the participation of the player-audience: the audience might "get" what the developer wants, but has found a better way to play.

Effect 2: An entirely developer-focused perspective, "Like in the RPG example above with 100 spells, just because an option is has a unqiue name and look doesn't mean it's really very unique at all. "There are two main flaws with this. The first is that this appears to be a critique on the ability of the developer to justify their own work: why did the developer not design a better system where those 100 spells contributed to a unique gameplay experience? However, if the developer wanted to create a gameplay experience based around the player-audience using a spell which mechanically does nothing unique yet elicits a sense of awe from the player-audience, then this critique is not a valid one, because in this instance the developer had an audience-focused vision for their work.

The second critique is, leading from that, it appears that the author is ignoring player-audience agency. Why would a player want to use Flare over Fire 3 in Final Fantasy even though they do roughly the same thing?

Because one looks so much cooler according to the player, and that is a perfectly legitimate choice.

Effect 3: To which the player-audience might say, "Yeah? So?" It is their money they are spending. If a developer doesn't want to put in the work to have their work being worthy of those dollars, then the audience cannot be blamed for that.



Article Two:

I am greatly tempted to respond to this:

"It's important to understand that players can and mostly likely do have conflicting, unrealistic expectations about what games are and how they can work. We can't blame players for having imaginations. Players aren't game designers."


With:

"But a player can certainly fault a developer for lacking in imagination."


And leave it there!

However:

"But the question is, do you trust yourself to assemble the best experience when you've never played the game before? With the freedom to do whatever you want, do you think you can walk yourself through the best series of events? As you continue to play do you think your knowledge gained of past experiences helps you make the best decisions about experiences to come? Do you trust yourself to be the author and designer of your adventure? Just because "you did it all by yourself" is that experience more valuable to you than doing it someone else's way, even when your experience is less than coherent?"


The article has no reply to a gamer that might simply say "Yes."


Regarding literature, as a writer I certainly do try to provide material that is stimulating for readers, to create something they can actively grapple with, but a look at the best sellers list does its damndest to try to dissuade me of that notion! :)

Sam Stephens
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-"Chaos into the system? What if that is exactly how the player-audience wants to engage with the game? The author says that complexity means that the audience might not get exactly what it is the game was designed to do, to which as I would reply as previously stated a video game is a work which fundamentally requires the participation of the player-audience: the audience might "get" what the developer wants, but has found a better way to play."

Games are goal-oriented rule-bound systems that require a fairly high level of learning. Needless to say they don't do chaos very well. How do players know they have found a better way? Why should we expect them to look for one? Players should trust designers because, ultimately, it's their job to design games, so they naturally are going to be far more knowledgable then the average player.

-"The first is that this appears to be a critique on the ability of the developer to justify their own work: why did the developer not design a better system where those 100 spells contributed to a unique gameplay experience?"

I think you are mistaking the author's point which has to do with functionality. A spell would not be unique if it functionally overlaps with others in the system (one spell does 95 damage and causes a burn effect, while the other does 100 damage with the same effect). There is no point in having two such spells in the game. It just causes confusion. And that's the author's main point. Many RPG's have many complexities but very little depth. "The problem with functionally redundant options is that they increase the complexity of the system without increasing the meaning that these options convey through gameplay." This is actually very detrimental to players and their learning, so it would be very wise to remove such meaningless complexity.

-"However, if the developer wanted to create a gameplay experience based around the player-audience using a spell which mechanically does nothing unique yet elicits a sense of awe from the player-audience, then this critique is not a valid one, because in this instance the developer had an audience-focused vision for their work."

If you read the article closely (and the ones in that are linked), you will see that the author is extremely player-focused, not by pandering to what players think they want, but by describing how such options work against the player whether they realize it or not. He also argues against such shallow reasons such as "a sense of awe." "After all, playstyles are mostly defined by how we play (mechanics/gameplay actions), not by how we feel. Like in the RPG example above with 100 spells, just because an option has a unqiue name and look doesn't mean it's really very unique at all."

-"To which the player-audience might say, "Yeah? So?" It is their money they are spending. If a developer doesn't want to put in the work to have their work being worthy of those dollars, then the audience cannot be blamed for that."

Not to cynical, but this isn't a design or artistic answer, it's a business one. If you want satisfied players, then by all means give them exactly what they want. But great games don't come from pandering to people's desires because most people don't know what it takes to make good games, so what they do get usually does not support the player. To quote some famous creative person: "the goal is not to give people what they want; it's being able to have them want what you're giving them."

-"But a player can certainly fault a developer for lacking in imagination."

Sure, but that doesn't mean whatever the player says goes or that they should have some input into how games are designed because they have little knowledge of how to do so.

-"The article has no reply to a gamer that might simply say 'Yes.'"

The questions were meant to be open-ended in light of what was just read.

I would definitely recommend reading through the whole series and some of the other articles. It will help you to better understand the author's positions on player experiences and learning.

Peter MacDonald
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"I can only comment on this as a writer, but it appears that the article is making the same argument for game design as an author does for their own work: namely, that they are the authority and maker of their work, and that a reader approaching their work has no other choice but to accept what the author has created.

There is no other interpretation outside that of the authors'. There is no legitimate way for the reader to appropriate the book and give their own meaning to it. And if the words are too big or too obscure for the reader, buckle up and get a damn dictionary already.

And I think that is entirely correct and perfectly reasonable view to hold as a content creator."

I hope you realize that there are around fifty years worth of literary critics who would be quite surprised by this view!

Ashley Gwinnell
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I think the benefits of customisable gameplay options far outweighs the dangers. The solution of fixed options for tournament/competitive play feels like the correct one. It's exactly what Nintendo have said they're doing with the new Smash Bros on Wii U. In the particular case of TowerFall, the default of seeking arrows is fine, as it is offset by the dodge/catch mechanic. If there was no dodge/dash, it'd make more sense to never have seeking arrows.

The situation that might arise where a player wants to play with a subset of rules competitively/in a tournament, well... That's core rules vs. casual rules. That's the trade-off in game design you as the designer have to make.

Hunter Leigh
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As one of the "scrubs" who goes to SF Game Night and "complains" about the seeking arrows, I find the tone of this article insulting. It's a giant turn off for both the game and the event and represents the sad side of competitive elitism where people assume they are so "correct" and "noble" that the other side must be "scrubs".

It also assumes that the creator knows the best way to play the game, which I don't think is born out by most competitive examples. Smash, as detailed above, was refined and turned into a better competitive game by the players defining the meta using existing options.

League regularly balances around not designer intentions but how the game is actually being played at a competitive level. In fact, most of the time League is redesigned after players find strategies that were unintended and force emergent gameplay. Some of it sticks, some of it is removed, but its the combination of players playing and designers designing that helps the game evolve.

Ultimately a good competitive game allows the players to help define how the game is played competitively and evolves. Your purist attitude assumes that the original design is inherently correct, and you're not even open to considering alternatives. In fact, the mere presence of alternatives weakens the community somehow. The only way I see the community being weakened is people like you claiming that people like me are "scrubs".

Andrew Pellerano
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It's like my article has come to life

Hunter Leigh
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What a surprise, you attack and don't engage in real conversation. This is exactly what has happened in person when we've attempted to discuss the merits of each version, you refer to developer intention and clam up.

Look, there are no scrubs in this world, because the options prevent scrubs from existing. Your insistence on categorizing some of us as scrubs is only limiting conversation about the merits of each mode.

And it's really surprising and saddening that I say your tone was insulting and you don't even apologize for possibly insulting me and turning me away from the game and the event. Could you be wrong? Might I be right? Is that even possible?

I'm not even arguing that my rules are "better", you are making unqualified statements about shooting being "too hard" and games taking "too long".

Andrew Pellerano
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I already made my case in the article, which you have yet to address. Seeking arrows improve the pacing of the game. The player's hitbox is like 1% of the screen and arrows are even smaller. If you're ducking and standing still you're nigh unkillable. Even if anyone could hit a target that small by aiming well, the player would have too many ways to respond (like, moving a bit to the side or jumping.) The best strategy is to find somewhere well guarded from stray arrows and shoot people who bother to come near you.

The one thing that becomes more fun is headstomps, because arrows are so useless no one can defend their airspace. (You almost have to play with 360 aiming variant as well just to prevent this issue.) And if you want to make headstomps more fun there are better variants, like toy arrows and super dashing.

What are the competitive merits of turning seeking arrows off?

Hunter Leigh
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I didn't comment with the intention of discussing the merits of each variation, I commented to discuss the tone and structure of the article. I think you included unnecessary personal attacks and unqualified value judgements. I also think you undermined the main point of the article.

Your Version:

Hypothesis - Game Variations can be counterproductive. Providing too much freedom to choose can lead to radically different playstyles of a game and divide/undermine the competitive scene.

Example - Towerfall and the debate around Seeking Arrows

Argument -

1. Towerfall is "meant" to be played like a fighting game. Games "should" be short, fast paced, and be about positioning and head games.

2. The game would take "too long" and hitting opponents would be "too hard" without seeking arrows.

3. "Scrubs" don't like seeking arrows, but the game options support the seeming validity of their feelings. Scrubs don't know they are scrubs.

4. The nobility of the game designer led him to leave variations in for the sake of accessibility.

Conclusion:

1. Variations have undermined the "core rules", which in turn weakens the competitive scene.

Solution:
1. Don't have options.


The problems with your article is that your evidence doesn't support your conclusions. The only downside to the options you've shown is that the scrubs don't know they are scrubs. You haven't shown any actual "fracturing" nor any negative effects of the "fracturing" other than character assassination about the people who prefer different playstyle.

My version:

Hypothesis - Game Variations can be counterproductive. Providing too much freedom to choose can lead to radically different playstyles of a game and divide/undermine the competitive scene.

Example - Towerfall and the debate around Seeking Arrows


Argument -

1. Towerfall is a game with a wealth of options, so many options that different games have resulted.

2. The default rules play like a fighting game, with a focus on rapid movement and advanced dodging over prevision shooting. Seeking arrows are enabled so that you can hit targets who are moving rapidly. Games are faster and action is more rapid.

3. A popular alternate version turns off Seeking Arrows and turns on Free Aim. This variant plays more like a FPS, which is about precision shooting. Games are slower and the action is more deliberate.

4. As shown at SF Game Night, the skill sets necessary to play the different versions are radically different, to the point of them being incompatible. One focuses on precision in shooting, the other focuses on precision in movement.

Conclusion:

1. Supporting radically different playstyles can come at the cost of a unified skillset, which can divide a playerbase. This can make it harder for a broader competitive meta/ruleset to develop.

Solution:

1. Limit variations to only those which do not undermine the skillset necessary to play the game competitively.



I feel like my version avoids deciding that one playstyle is "correct" and also avoids judging any of the players. It also has conclusions based on the evidence. Mine is an article about game design and the structure of competition skillsets. Yours is an article about people you don't like playing a game you like in a manner you don't like and not understanding how bad they are, and how it's the game designers unfortunate nobility that lead to this problem. All of the points in my version are in your version, you just make in such a hostile way.



As to the question of preferred variations of play. I think some of the basic issues lie at the core perception of the game. On its face, I assumed the game was about Shooting. It's about archers shooting other archers. I assumed the game valued precision in shooting over precision in movement.

When, during the evolution of the game, there came a tension point between the power of dodging and the precision of shooting, I believe I would have chosen to make dodging weaker rather than make shooting stronger (but less precise). But again, that comes from perceiving the game as a Shooter, not as a Fighting Game.

I'll also say that if the ability to turn Seeking Arrows off wasn't in the game, I don't think I would have kept playing. I'm not very good at fighting games and don't enjoy them very much. I do, however, love Towerfall with Free Aim + No Seeking Arrows.

Andrew Pellerano
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Good summary, I like your version too outside of the obvious bias toward your playstyle. I still don't feel that TowerFall in its current form makes a very good game as a Shooter so I am not as willing as you to give it equal footing in a discussion. The design decisions present in the game clearly indicate it as a Fighting game.

Now I wonder where the Shooter vs Fighter perception hinges on and how prevalent it is. Is there something about our past experiences coloring the first impression of the game, or is it a failure of the game's theme, marketing, etc?

Hunter Leigh
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Excellent questions. I came to the game late, and it was described to me as "The premier archery, shooter thingy game". So maybe I was given an incorrect expectation from the get go.

That being said, we turned off seeking arrows (and bolt arrows) immediately upon understanding what was happening. We didn't even try to play with them. Our assumption was that the Seeking Arrows was a casual variation to make the game easier, and that increasing precision was playing a more advanced mode.

Dodge cancelling is beyond advanced, its basically a hidden mechanic. If it breaks the Shooter version with its mobility, thats really not evident to any beginning user. What is evident right away, in my opinion, is that arrows curve when they get near you and that you are restricted in how you aim.

I don't think Dodge, let alone Dodge Cancelling, is even in the basic control description given at the beginning of the first stage. I could be wrong though, I don't have the game in front of me.

If the Fighting game style is preferred, giving users the advanced skills up front, somehow, might make that more clear. Archers and arrows screams Shooter to me.

Oh, also, a stage timer being more prevalent (or the purple fog coming sooner) might suggest a faster pace to users who are taking longer and playing slower.

Martin Petersen
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To me, the notion that the designer should always know best how his game should be played is either incredibly arrogant towards your players, a sign of major insecurity and/or at the very least narrow sighted. Many game designers, in particular indies, have an incredible obsession with recognition to the point it sometimes comes between them and their players...
Though indie games are often incredibly personal experiences, I don't generally believe game designers should expect or strive towards the same kind of approval as directors, authors and other types of artists. Ultimately, it's the experience your game brings to its players that matter, and nobody really cares about the "genius" who thought this up. Games have been like that for thousands of years. Almost any group of people who regularly meet and plays games, develop and enforce some sort of house rules that appropriates the game of choice to the players and the context, and it significantly improves the games!
This isn't just for casual play btw. chess players play on clock or blind and what not, and the game is only stronger and more versatile for it.

Smash is IMO a beautiful example of how a community was able to transform a casual family oriented game into an incredible unique fighting game experience! No genius designer thought about it, and locking down the game it would have never happened! And there are never any real problems with regards to rules, cuz everybody entering a tournament knows how Smash is played competitively.

Lastly, I think it's somewhat narrow sighted to assume that the regular gameplay is the only source of enjoyment. Playing around with the options in TowerFall can be a wonderful sense of exploration for creative players to make completely new experiences!

I'm not saying that I think every game should be highly customizable, just that concern about compromising the grand vision of the designer is likely a poor argument against it.

Sam Stephens
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"To me, the notion that the designer should always know best how his game should be played is either incredibly arrogant towards your players, a sign of major insecurity and/or at the very least narrow sighted."

There's nothing arrogant or narrow sighted about it. Designers are (or at least should be) very knowledgable about game design. Most players are not. Instead of having players try to figure out what are the most balanced and well designed configurations (which is especially a big problem with games that have poor feedback), it would be better to just design a solid game from the beginning. Please note that I am not saying that options are an inherently bad thing, they're just a dangerous tool that, like everything else in games, are put there because the designers felt like that was the best decision. That's what design is. Regardless if a game is rigid or open, it was the developers, not the players, who make those decisions.

I'll use film as an analogy. What if, instead of having editors, moviegoers could decide which shot angle they prefer for the scene through several different camera options. Naturally some people will pick better angles than others, but why leave it up to the audience? Editors choose angles not so they can preserve some artistic vision, but so the events in the scene (in terms of both action, timing and theme) are clearly understood by the audience. I'd much rather trust a professional editor to make that choice even when they don't always make the best ones. And before you say it, don't say that this analogy doesn't work because movies are art or not interactive unlike games. The point is some creative decisions are better than others.

"Though indie games are often incredibly personal experiences, I don't generally believe game designers should expect or strive towards the same kind of approval as directors, authors and other types of artists."

There may be some game creators that desire this stereotypical "artist" persona (David Cage, Phil Fish), but most of us just want to make good games that hopefully some people will play. It has nothing to do with adhering to some personal "vision" that players have no say in. It's about making the best and most knowledgable choices so the games are functional and playable.

"Smash is IMO a beautiful example of how a community was able to transform a casual family oriented game into an incredible unique fighting game experience! No genius designer thought about it, and locking down the game it would have never happened! And there are never any real problems with regards to rules, cuz everybody entering a tournament knows how Smash is played competitively."

Super Smash Bros. wouldn't have the competitive scene it does if there wasn't a deep rock solid core gameplay in place that was created by many loving hands. As much as some high-level competitive Smash players hate to hear it, they have done very little to make the game what it is compared to all the difficult work Masahiro Sakurai and everyone else at Nintendo have put into it. Again, this isn't a testament to Sakurai's "genius" or "vision." There are aspects of his vision that I don't like (particularly his well known enjoyment of screwing with players). The community didn't "transform" anything, because it was already there to begin with.

Martin Petersen
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"There's nothing arrogant or narrow sighted about it. Designers are (or at least should be) very knowledgeable about game design. Most players are not."

Well, players may not have the same formal knowledge, but I believe they know a lot about games, specifically about what they consider to be enjoyable.

"Instead of having players try to figure out what are the most balanced and well designed configurations"

Assuming "perfect" balance is a primary concern. If balance was as big a concern for players as it is for developers, every competitive fighting game player would play the same best character(s). This isn't actually the case even in this most extreme scenario...
In many cases though, balance isn't paramount. In fact the vast majority of players won't even be able to determine which characters are top or bottom tiers in a fighting game unless it's really seriously off.

I'm not saying balance doesn't matter, or that designers shouldn't strive to create a solid experience and let everything up to the players. I'm just saying that whether you like it or not, players are gonna play your game in a manner they like or not at all.

"Regardless if a game is rigid or open, it was the developers, not the players, who make those decisions."

No matter how many restrictions you put on your game, players will try to break it, speed run it, mod it and even apply their own "soft rules". They will always be able to find ways to play the game that you didn't intent and there will always be players who have the desire to do so.

"I'll use film as an analogy. What if, instead of having editors, moviegoers could decide which shot angle they prefer for the scene through several different camera options. Naturally some people will pick better angles than others, but why leave it up to the audience? Editors choose angles not so they can preserve some artistic vision, but so the events in the scene (in terms of both action and theme) are clearly understood by the audience. I'd much rather trust a professional editor to make that choice even when they don't always make the best ones. And before you say it, don't say that this analogy doesn't work because movies are art or not interactive unlike games. The point is some creative decisions are better than others."

I think you are assuming better creative decisions based on the same criteria. I think there's a reasonable audience who'd be interested in this possibility of choosing angles etc. though not necessarily because they believe they can do a better job, but simply to create their own re-framing and the fun of that. It's a better creative decision for a different goal. It's all speculation of course, but judging from features on movies and modern sports events etc. some people must be interested.

Theresa Catalano
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"Well, players may not have the same formal knowledge, but I believe they know a lot about games, specifically about what they consider to be enjoyable."

I think that's too simplistic a view. Games aren't just about being entertaining... they are a specific type of entertainment that is about overcoming challenges. I think it happens fairly often, (especially in this day and age) that a player will wish for something that they don't realize will ultimately end up hurting the experience for them. For example, a player may be having a hard time with a boss... and might think "I wish I could just cheat my way through this." However, if they stick with it and keep trying, they may get a sense of exhiliration that they wouldn't have gotten otherwise. They may have just made a memorable experience for themselves that wouldn't have existed otherwise.

So my point is, I think gamers should trust game designers more. I'm not saying that game designers always know best, and certainly gamers will find ways to break the game if they try hard enough (although they'd have to actually care enough to do that...) but fundamentally speaking, if there isn't a relationship of trust between the player and the game designer, it's very damaging to the designer's ability to actually make a good game.

Sam Stephens
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"Well, players may not have the same formal knowledge, but I believe they know a lot about games, specifically about what they consider to be enjoyable."

I think there's a big difference between someone knowing what they personally like or find enjoyable and knowing what goes into designing a game that potentially anyone could interact with. Having an opinion is really easy. Having a good opinion is much harder and requires lots of knowledge and experience.

"If balance was as big a concern for players as it is for developers, every competitive fighting game player would play the same best character(s). This isn't actually the case even in this most extreme scenario..."

Players very much do care about balance, and not just competitive players. They may not necessarily consciously understand how or why balance affects the gaming experience, but it does so in ways that can work against both the core design and the player. Of course no game has "perfect" balance unless it's very simple like Rock, Paper, Scissors. That is the cost of complexity. Competitive fighting gamers complain about balance all the time. In fact, the never shut up about it. They also understand that some level of imbalance is a necessary part of deep and interesting gameplay.

This issue is much bigger than just balance though. Game's usually contain some form of complexities that have to be learned. They are like teachers in many ways. It's not always explicit such as a tutorial. Clean presentation and functional gameplay elements go a long way to helping players understand the system. Too many complexities or options and it becomes incredibly difficult to help players make sense of it all. The many options of Smash Bros. work for the most part because the clarity of those options and the strength of the core fighting mechanics make up for the shear amount of possibilities they provide.

"No matter how many restrictions you put on your game, players will try to break it, speed run it, mod it and even apply their own "soft rules". They will always be able to find ways to play the game that you didn't intent and there will always be players who have the desire to do so."

That's great. I love speed-running and people finding new ways to play the games. But the games should still support a coherent gameplay experience for those who need it. It also goes to show how even strict games are highly emergent and how adding too many complexities can expand the possibility scope to the point of near-incomprehensibility. If you are talking about exploiting glitches, then that's a whole different story because the players have arguably broken the rules and therefore the game-state at that point. Even then, none of this would be even possible without many hours of thought and work from designers and programmers.

"I think you are assuming better creative decisions based on the same criteria. I think there's a reasonable audience who'd be interested in this possibility of choosing angles etc. though not necessarily because they believe they can do a better job, but simply to create their own re-framing and the fun of that."

It certainly may be interesting or fun, especially for those who are interested in such aspects of movies (like myself). But for the majority of moviegoers, it could seriously hurt their understanding of what's going on.

Ara Shirinian
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One of the problems with the way you argue your position is that you seem to assume that if the player base had not been divided by the inclusion of an option like no seeking arrows, that everybody in the total population would still play the game.

For example, in the comments above I get the impression Hunter would not regularly play Towerfall if the 'no seeking arrows' option did not exist.

In the same vein, I play Gran Turismo 6 competitively, and if it were not for the specific availability of certain options, I would not play it at all. Some people exclusively play the 'dirty' game and others exclusively play the 'clean' game. These are basically mutually exclusive populations.

In this way, adding options may be largely adding players by splintering the possible styles of play, not subtracting from a theoretical superset of players.


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