What do DoW II, a Mantis Shrimp, and TF2 Have in Common?

8 Feb


Allow me to introduce you to the Mantis Shrimp, a multi-coloured crustacean with a strike so fast it produces a small heat signature.  It also has the most advanced optics in the entire world.  Its eyes can detect polarized light, and while I’m not an expert on the subject, it means that, for instance, they can actually see radio waves.

So why does this colourful killing machine have the best eyes in the world?  Nobody’s quite sure, but the people who study these little guys for a living have a few theories, as an excerpt from a Wired article reads:

“One idea is that the more complicated your sensory structure is, the simpler your brain can be,” said Cronin. “If you can deal with analysis at the receptor level, you don’t have to deal with that in the brain itself.”

And now the analogy begins.  Let’s think of the code that governs gameplay rules as the brain, and the “receptor level” as player input through a user interface.

Now let’s take a traditional shooter like Counter-Strike and use the analogy.  The player has a few inputs: walk, jump, buy weapons, switch weapons, use a ‘secondary fire mode’ and shoot.  The transfer is pretty much one to one: shoot someone in the head and they get shot in the head — the ‘brain’ of the game is pretty advanced.  If Counter-Strike were an animal it would probably be something close to a human: big brain, eyes that get the job done and nothing more.

What happens when you make the brain smaller and the eyes bigger?  You get Team Fortress 2.  Each character class has a main weapon, a secondary weapon and perhaps some gadgets that are more or less operated, code-wise, like a gun (whacking a turret to repair it is co-opting melee whacking code, for instance).  When you shoot someone in the head it doesn’t really shoot them in the head; you’re really only rewarded for shooting any part of their body.  What would have been a fast headshot kill in CS is a normal body hit in TF2.

So, if TF2 were an animal it would most probably have a tiny head with a tiny brain and some of the biggest eyes and most advanced feelers and claws you can imagine.  By simplifying and increasing in number the sort of inputs a player can have and automating a lot of the results — such as percent crit rates, as opposed to aiming-based damage — it turns itself into a well-oiled machine that doesn’t have to ‘think’ much.  And if the CPU doesn’t have to think much, it means the player has to pick up the slack.  For example TF2 can be quite difficult because of its simplicity, requiring a certain type of player skill to overcome obstacles that can no longer be solved by aiming well.

Shooters were first, now real-time strategy gets its turn.  Starcraft is a staple, so we’ll go ahead and use that.  Players construct buildings which can produce units and upgrades, a process complicated by tech-tree requirements — units are restricted until some buildings are made and upgrades are purchased.  There is a lot of brain activity to be found.  And while the transfer from the receptor level to the brain is nowhere near the one to one level found in CS, it’s still a system dependant on one to one math.  For example, if a marine shoots a marine it does a set amount of damage which causes the victim to lose a set amount of health, and this happens until one of the marines runs out of life and dies.  There’s not much for the receptors or user input to do besides maneuver these little math equations.  Starcraft is a big-brained, smart animal with an above average set of eyes.

But Dawn of War II is a different animal; in fact you could say that it’s a direct descendant of the Starcraft animal.  But unlike human evolution (fatter, smarter) DoW II is a much dumber but capable animal.  Like Starcraft units are still little math machines being herded by the player, but now the player has faction abilities (such as making a squad tougher, dropping meteors on an opponent, or making a group of units invisible), and hero characters with their own upgrades and abilities.  Less and less of the thinking is done by the brain of the game, and more and more of the actions on screen are being controlled by player input.  Even separate units have their own abilties, random variables which can be activated by the player in different levels of correctness (throw a grenade and miss, throw a grenade and clear out a building).

If it’s hard to read in between the lines, what I’m advocating here is games with smaller brains and bigger tools.  Stop letting the game do all the thinking, let me move the arms and legs.  Give more power to the player input, the receptor level.  

Of course the Mantis Shrimp analogy has some faults; when you get down to it there are two ‘brains’ at work, a CPU and the one in my cranium.  Lots of games, an innumerable number of games, let the CPU write the screenplay, design the sets, and direct the lights. All my little brain is allowed to do is tell the actors where to stand.  And it’s clear that allowing my brain to have more of an impact than the CPU is much more gratifying.

2 Responses to “What do DoW II, a Mantis Shrimp, and TF2 Have in Common?”

  1. Bill March 16, 2009 at 7:08 am #

    I like the attempted analogy, but TF2 does, in fact, have headshots. I also don’t see how it’s significantly different from Counter-Strike. “walk, jump, buy weapons, switch weapons, use a ’secondary fire mode’ and shoot” becomes “walk, jump, select appropriate unlockable weapon, switch weapons, use a secondary fire mode, and shoot”

  2. nickhalme March 16, 2009 at 8:53 am #

    The analogy certainly is not perfect, and perhaps the ‘metrics’ I ascribed can be misleading. The rift between a game like CS and TF2 can be found in the level of human interaction as opposed to computation.

    CS puts an emphasis on aim — being a motor skill aiming is ‘easier’ to do than it sounds. It’s rather one to one in its computation: shoot and hit, jump and dodge.

    Now, in TF2 aim isn’t so important or simple. Even though it’s less reliant on aim (correct me if I’m wrong, but besides the Sniper class, I was under the impression that there were no one shot kills using a headshot — aim is not rewarded), there is more ‘human computation’ required — rather like Chess — in order to stay on target, evade, choose the correct classes, and work as a team to capture points and hold off enemies.

    It introduces higher level skills which move the emphasis from pure reflex and computation to less transparent computation (referring to its prominence in gameplay, ie when the player has more control a numbers game becomes more irrelevant).

    You could say they’ve both gone down a different evolutionary path, but belong to the same species (in keeping with the admittedly strained animal analogy) — one puts the focus on the brain (computation) and one puts the focus on the sensory organs (human interaction or computation).

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