The Importance of Rock Paper Scissors

You often mention the RPS model in some of your examples and answers but what does it entirely mean? I mean yeah, it’s Rock-Paper-Scissors, but how is this important in the context of video games?

In single player games it’s debatable. In multiplayer games, it practically is the game, assuming there’s hidden information of any kind, and that hidden information can have a disproportionate effect on the other player.

Most multiplayer games can be modeled as a huge web of rock paper scissors interactions. My Street Fighting for Beginners guide lists a few that are common in various fighting games.

I went over rush > greedy > turtle in the last ask, so here’s some other counters in Starcraft (because I’m not really familiar with other RTS games). Melee units usually beat missile units, air units beat melee easily, and missile units beat air. But of course it’s not really that simple. Missile units can beat melee units if they’re on higher ground, or far away. Air units can beat missile units with harassment and focus fire. Melee units aren’t ever really going to beat air units though.

Counters can be flexible. Fast moves don’t always beat slow ones, slow ones can win if they’re timed correctly. SFV even rigged the system to make it so slower medium and heavy moves can beat the faster light punches and light kicks if they trade on the same frame, making it so frametraps consisting of stronger buttons are better.

Counters can also have different levels of payoff. In SFV, if you block high on wakeup, and I hit you with a combo starting off a low, that’s usually a really powerful combo that can lead into another knockdown. If you block low, and I hit you high, then you take peanuts for damage. If I decide to throw you, then I get a moderate amount of damage and another knockdown. If you try to dragon punch me and I block it, then I get to use my best combo. On your end, if you block correctly, then you’re in a blockstring at worst, or can punish me at best. If you throw tech or jump versus my throw, then you’re home free. And if you uppercut my attack, then I take a strong single hit and get knocked down.

Good multiplayer games are built off webs of counters with situational risks and rewards, that also can counter more or less consistently based on the situation.

Good single player games can take a lot from this principle to build deep gameplay, but true counters aren’t good singleplayer design, because the player needs to be able to always win.

True counters are enforced in multiplayer games by hidden information. This can come in the form of the reactionary blind spot, or the fog of war in Starcraft. Real-Life Rock Paper Scissors only works because of the reactionary blind spot. You throw close enough to the same time to prevent the opponent from reacting and changing their throw. Sirlin’s game, Yomi, uses a hand full of cards your opponent doesn’t know, and laying down both cards simultaneously to get this effect.

Not all multiplayer games work this way, like Racing games most of the time, but all of them featuring direct player interaction do (so racing games feature this when your cars are close and trying to pass one another). I call the other style of game, “efficiency races”.

Back in your talk on RPS model you talked about true counters. What exactly is a true counter that makes it different from a regular one?

Alright, it’s not an official term or anything that people use. I was just trying to distinguish between the way in multiplayer games you can have things that just flat-out counter each other (like rock paper scissors) and in singleplayer ones, you can’t really do that. You can’t have an enemy that just straight-up counters the player’s actions, otherwise it turns into a guessing game, rather than a game of skill. So enemies in single player games can’t truly counter the player character’s choices, they can at best have soft counters that make things harder on the player depending on the player’s choice of action. If you play RPS with a computer, the only way to make it fair is if you see their throw first. A lot of single player games end up like this, they throw rock paper or scissors, and you need to react quickly to throw the one that beats it.

Enemies in single player games need attacks and behaviors that limit the effectiveness of easy player strategies, like running away, or running past the enemy. These can be framed as counters. Player likes doing this, finds it really easy to do, give the enemy a behavior that counters that so the player needs to play a bit more honest. However as above, it cannot truly counter it by totally shutting it down, it needs to be flexible and create a gameplay challenge in its own right. You can give the enemy a whip to pull back in players who try to run away, or give them a bullrush ability to rush down fleeing players, but in both cases, you need to make it so the player can dodge, block, or counterattack these things. So you can have these type of loose counters aimed at making certain player strategies less effective, but you can’t make an enemy who can just pick an option that beats whatever the player is doing.

Something brilliant about the Elites in Halo is the way they dodge. They never dodge your hitscan fire pre-emptively, only after being hit first. Many enemies in other games, like God Hand, Curse of Issyos, or Dark Messiah, don’t follow this rule, which means that sometimes they randomly don’t take damage for all intents and purposes and there’s nothing you can really do about it. Elites, they take a bit of damage at the start, then you can react to them dodging after the initial burst of fire, and keep shooting at them as they dodge.

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