Home > Gaming > Player Skill Scaling – An Introduction

Player Skill Scaling – An Introduction

I don’t know how many of you play competitive games (I mean, how would I?), but one thing that anyone who plays one for long enough will notice is that certain strategies will only work against inexperienced opponents. Case in point – the infamous ‘Scholar’s mate’ in chess.

It’s a pretty famous position, because it can be achieved in only 4 ply (a ply is one move by both players); it’s not the only quick checkmate, but for our purposes it demonstrates bad play by both sides. Firstly, white has brought out his queen far too early, and one ply ago, it was on h5, which is 3 squares to the right of black’s moved pawn. Moving a piece to the edge of the board limits its overall mobility, making it easier to trap and then capture. Secondly, while there are openings allowing one to make good use of the queen, attacking too aggressively with it allows the opponent to bring out more of his pieces while forcing you to move it around and waste time. I could go into a lot more detail, but suffice it to say that a player who has mastered the fundamentals of strategy can easily avoid parlor tricks like this.

What does this have to do with player skill in general, though?  It’s very simple:

Do not rely on strategies that require your opponent to be worse than you to succeed.

Sounds kind of obvious, doesn’t it? It’s an easy trap to fall into, though. You get players who are so preoccupied with developing some complicated trap to ensnare their opponent that their game falls apart when the opponent doesn’t move exactly to plan, or unable to respond to an opponent’s other plan. Then there’s cheesing, which relies on your opponent not knowing how to counter you, or not knowing that you’re planning thusly, or so forth. This sort of thing can net you easy victories against beginners, but so can playing a straight game especially well.

Further corollaries:

You can sometimes gain an advantage by making it look like you’re made a mistake.

Ever bluff before? Sometimes, when your opponent lacks adequate information on you or your actions, lying to them can get you pretty damn far. This, amongst other things, is apparently a key to playing partially chance-based games like poker and mahjong well. If your bluffs are poor, it can fall into the equal skill trap as mentioned. The key here is to bluff conservatively – to continue the chess metaphors, don’t randomly throw away your pieces, or ignore your weak points. Generally, you want to stick to the bluffs that won’t destroy you if they blow up in your face.

At the highest levels of competition, games are less varied.

Less skilled players get matched up against opponents who are likely to vary more in their relative skills than the average difference between a professional (i.e they might get matched up against someone who knows basically nothing, or against someone who plays so well that their overall ‘ranking’ doesn’t fit them correctly). Since your more casual gamers probably don’t know as much about game mechanics, or game theory as the professionals, it follows that they may try a variety of gimmicky plays, and find that they work well against their average opponent.

Anyways, some more examples, this time using League of Legends. What can I say? It serves well as a reference point.

  • If you’ve played recently, you’ll be aware of the recently introduced hero, Fiora, whose ultimate ability causes her to jump very quickly to multiple enemies and launch enhanced attacks at them. People have found that buying multiple copies the of item “Tiamat” (which grants area damage to normal attacks) allows her ultimate to become incredibly deadly against opponents who stand very close together, or fail to buy adequate amounts of defensive gear. Against opponents aware of the potential of this, it’s… not as good, and Fiora will hit fewer targets, deal less damage, win fewer games by stacking Tiamats. In other words, it scales poorly with player skill.
  • On the other hand, consider a hero like Orianna, whose gameplay revolves around her ‘ball’ companion. She can move it around at will, attaching it to friends and enemies, and create a variety of useful effects, like damage mitigation and enhanced mobility. Due to the precise positioning demands of this champion and the limited area of effect of the ball, she is hard to play well. However, the massive amounts of utility she has makes her scale very nicely with player skill. In fact, when released, she was so powerful in high level play that the developers nerfed her almost immediately.

This only scratches the surface, and it doesn’t really get into any formal game theory (since I don’t know that much about it). But applying this concept may help you win at games.

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