Game Design: Skill Exclusion

Sorry about this article going up late; I’ve been studying for a final and it slipped my mind. Skill exclusion in video games is a common trend; if a player’s skill is below a certain level, they may not be able to play a certain game with players who have a high degree of skill, at least at a competitive level. It’s not necessarily the break-in point for the game, but rather the degree to which skill determines outcome. What I’m going to look at today is skill exclusion in three games that play very similarly at least on a conceptual level, but have different levels of skill required.

Call of Duty is often considered to be the mother of all skill exclusion titles; low-rank weapons have a good chance of taking out more experienced players by dumb luck rather than skill, and while you can get more flair and slightly better odds when you gain skill and use later weapons, the game itself is considered to be unskilled rather than skilled for the majority of players. However, interestingly, I’d posit that Call of Duty has one of the higher skill exclusions of games on the market; barring the single player experiences that are typically pathetically easy, the multiplayer actually requires a lot of skill. Admittedly, the skills that it demands; fine motor skills, reflexes, and a paltry bit of situational awareness, are pretty much unrelated to the learning process of playing the game; while you are theoretically assessed on accuracy and performing well in certain situations, it really comes down to getting the jump on your foes with either a really good weapon or a grenade launcher.

On the other hand, you have Arma. Arma is often considered to be one of the hardest games on the market, with a focus on quick, easy death in a realistic battlefield setting. It also has a lot of walking, driving, or flying between places to undertake military operations that take a small fraction of the travel time of the game.  However, Arma actually has a low skill exclusion, unlike something like Call of Duty; only situational awareness is required to do well, since engagements are typically won or lost before the first shots are fired, and even a moderate marksman can make a difference in a battle using automatic weapons. That’s not to say that skill isn’t rewarded in Arma; a skilled player can wipe out fireteams, squads, or conceivably even a whole platoon on his own using tactics and stealth, as well as good aim, but the skill exclusion level is low, as every rifle in a battle is a meaningful tool.

Counter Strike, on the other hand, has a very high level of skill exclusion. For the most part, there’s no long-term advancement, and no specialized roles (other than weapons which can change between rounds or be swapped out several times in a match), and no focus on anything but blistering combat (for comparison, Call of Duty has long-term advancement and quasi-specialized roles, while Arma lacks advancement [in the base game] and has highly specialized roles). Counter Strike’s battles are won as often as not with the first shot of an AK or an AWP, and when the bullets start flying it’s up not just to the fastest players but the most accurate, tactical, and speedy players. With skill-based game modes like plant/defuse it also pits players together in a way that other games don’t. With a two-minute window of opportunity it forces players into situations that force them to out-skill other players; in Call of Duty the common modes are centered more on getting kills than completing objectives, and in Arma the majority of skill involved in winning or losing comes at the tactical level and can be passed down to other players (i.e. don’t run past the treeline unless you want to get shot), whereas in Counter Strike the whole game serves as a crucible for fast-paced combat, making it a true twitch-shooter.

So is skill exclusion bad? Not necessarily. What we see is that Arma and Counter Strike both fall on the far spectrum, and they have large and vocal followings. Of course, Call of Duty has a large following as well, but tends to be panned by anyone not being paid to review it (ahem), especially in its single-player modes which are essentially a roller coaster ride with a shooting component.

Low skill exclusion can be good; both Arma and Call of Duty fall on the lower side of skill exclusion, but one is frequently panned for being “difficult”. However, this is fallacious-I could point out that people die less in Arma than in Call of Duty. Because Arma’s weapons aren’t accurate unless they’re being sighted in and dying is sudden and often unexpected doesn’t make it more difficult than Call of Duty, but rather a different experience. Of course, Arma has specialist roles, some of which, like the medic, don’t really require special care or consideration (other than keeping the medic alive), while some like the engineer need a little explanation and the most dramatic, like piloting, require a whole new skill-set in and of themselves. Call of Duty is a game where skill exclusion is very minimal; my first time playing Modern Warfare I came out second best among a group that played it much more than I did, mostly because I had good reflexes and situational awareness. Arma even sells well because of its skill exclusion; you can get hundreds of combatants on the battlefield between players and bots, and everyone can participate meaningfully in the resultant carnage, with something like a hundred players online and theoretically thousands of bots.

High skill exclusion, like Counter Strike, can also be good. Counter strike has a fanatical following and it’s playable at all skill levels, because of the fact that it’s so heavily sorted by skill, though a high skill player will win almost all the time. This makes it great for competitive play without too deleteriously impacting the casual and average players, because these groups can be split off into different servers and games for the sake of enjoyable play.

Skill exclusion is not necessarily “good” or “bad” from a game design perspective, but it’s something to be aware of. If a game plays too difficultly for players to enjoy the multiplayer experience against veterans, they may not feel like playing it at all (look at the turnover rate for newbies in Tribes, for instance), and the game may get a bad reputation, while something like Call of Duty has a negative reputation because of how easy it is to compete; unless additional rules are added to the game there’s a decent enough chance that fluke can make a newbie compete as well as an average player.

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