Authors: Trevor Murray & Camile Moray

Two of my favourite types of games are rhythm games and competitive games. For many years I have been trying to come up with ways to combine the two, and I’m always excited to hear about rhythm games that try to incorporate competitive gameplay. Unfortunately, most attempts have left me disappointed because, although these games are fun and often successful, in each case they fall a little flat. Competitive rhythm games haven’t affected me in the same way that competitive games of other genres have. So what is it that these other games have that competitive rhythm games are lacking?

At their simplest competitive games determine their winner according to a set of rules which govern player interaction and measure success. However, in most rhythm games, the only measure of success is a high score. Currently competitive rhythm games only exist as multiplayer components tacked on to single player games. While the majority of rhythm games have limited themselves to players competing on high score boards, others have explored new forms of competitive play centered around player interaction.

However, despite their innovation, these rhythm games have failed to provide a compelling competitive experience. Meanwhile, other genres are flourishing because of their engrossing competitive modes¹. Many of these non-rhythm games have even garnered fan bases that regularly compete at a professional level, at national and global scales. To my knowledge, no rhythm game has managed to maintain a long-term tournament following², and as of this year there are no rhythm games in prized tournaments beyond the local level. I want to understand why rhythm games have failed where so many other genres have thrived. This is the first in a series of articles in which I, a) discuss how rhythm games have expanded the scope of game design, and b) try to understand why, despite their novelty, they have failed to attract a diehard competitive fanbase. 

Thousands of fans watch two of the top players compete in a match of Marvel vs Capcom 3 at Evo 2011

Thousands of fans watch two of the top players compete in a match of Marvel vs Capcom 3 at Evo 2011

In this first article I will focus on how competitive games can incorporate depth into their design to make them more compelling. I then evaluate how well rhythm games have incorporated depth into their design. In future articles I will describe specific games or game modes and discuss how well they facilitate competitive play. I will also introduce other aspects of game design that can make games compelling and highlight these with case studies.

Before we can understand the shortcomings of current competitive rhythm games, we need to understand the features that make competitive games successful. The success of a competitive game can be measured by its longevity in competitive arenas, which is often a proxy for its depth. This depth, or mechanical depth to be more specific, generally refers to the degree to which players can alter the course of the game with their actions. Every genre builds depth in different ways. In competitive games, winning is the absolute and only measure of success, so only actions that can lead a player to victory create depth in competitive games. I’ll refer to this type of depth as competitive depth#, which will be the focus of the remainder of this article.

To understand which aspects of gameplay contribute to competitive depth, I’ll refer to one of the most widely recognised experts on the subject, David Sirlin. Sirlin identifies three key features that combine to create depth in competitive games: meaningful actions, meaningful interactions, and meaningful choices.

Meaningful Actions: In-game actions are meaningful if they are both viable and varied. By viable Sirlin means that each action is capable of advancing the player towards victory. Generally, good competitive games will also provide the player with varied actions (e.g., dealing damage versus blocking) so that the path they take to victory is rarely the same. Variety creates choice, but these choices are only meaningful if they are viable. Similarly, if there is no variety, then the player is denied any chance at decision-making. Together, variety and viability create balance in a game, and balance is necessary to achieve depth in competitive games.

Meaningful Interaction: In competitive games the viability of a player’s actions must also vary based upon the actions of their opponent: both players’ actions must interact to determine the outcome. To reiterate the point, the value of each possible action should be dependent on the actions of your opponent, and the value of their actions should be dependent on yours. Interaction allows more game states to arise, increasing the number of paths a match can take. However, only viable paths contribute to depth. For interactions to remain meaningful, all actions must be viable in at least some circumstances. Meaningful interactions give games depth because they generate a huge variety of game states, which increases longevity by maximising novel play.

Meaningful Choices: For players’ choices to be meaningful, they must be able to predict the viability of their potential actions. Since the viability of each choice varies under different circumstances, the players must understand the rules that govern the value of their potential actions. For competitive games, the players must be able to predict the outcome of the interaction between both players’ actions. Once players can make meaningful choices the game has the potential for depth⁴.

Sirlin’s basic recipe for creating depth in competitive games ensures that the game is balanced by having meaningful actions, and that the game’s rules have some transparency so players can make meaningful choices. Competitive games should have meaningful interactions in addition to meaningful actions, and the rules for these interactions should also have some transparency. 

An all too familiar scene, this family is forced to watch their mum play Guitar Hero III alone.

An all too familiar scene, this family is forced to watch their mum play Guitar Hero III alone.

Unfortunately rhythm games have failed to garner a fan base that competes at a professional level, despite their attempts to incorporate depth into multiplayer modes. In my opinion, the major reason for this failure is that most rhythm games lack interaction between the players, and interaction is a key feature in successful competitive games. When rhythm games do include interactions in their design, these interactions are often too shallow or they are invalidated by imbalances in the game. For example, PaRapper the Rapper allows players to compete for a high score in alternating verses. However, like in most rhythm games, the only player interaction is determining the winner. Also, in Guitar Hero III’s Battle Mode, players use special attacks to impede their opponent’s ability to play notes. This interaction, however, is shallow because there is only one optimum time to activate these special attacks: when the opponent’s multiplier is highest and before you override your current special attack with a new one. In addition to lacking depth, PaRapper the Rapper and Guitar Hero III’s Battle Mode are also imbalanced. Each player has a different set of notes to play, and each player’s notes are worth a different amount of points. Because the maximum attainable score is different for each player, one player will always start with an advantage. 

PaRapper the Rapper is one of the most innovative rhythm games and lets you rap in time with the music, or free-style your way to victory.

PaRapper the Rapper is one of the most innovative rhythm games and lets you rap in time with the music, or free-style your way to victory.

These examples highlight the general trend that rhythm games fail to create depth. In future articles, I will use case studies to analyse the designs of rhythm games and explore why they lack depth. I will also highlight their design successes and how they have contributed to game design theory. I will also explore how competitive games from other genres have succeeded in creating depth where rhythm games have failed. My hope is that, by understanding these failures and successes, we will improve the design of all future competitive games, particularly rhythm games.

These examples highlight the general trend that rhythm games fail to create depth. In my next article I will explore some of the successes of rhythm games and discuss execution tests a fun and challenging alternative to depth. While execution tests are able to increase the lifespan of a game, they often fail to provide the same longevity that depth enables. Most competitive games implement a combination of execution tests and depth to challenge their players in different ways and ensure that different players are able to distinguish themselves during competition. Rhythm games, in particular, rely on execution tests rather than depth to create longevity. I will discuss how this has affected their viability in competitive arenas. I will then develop a framework to classify components of competitive gameplay as execution tests, contributors to depth, or as execution tests which also contribute to depth. 

¹ Fighting games (Street fighterVirtua FighterGuilty Gear), RTSs (Warcraft, Starcraft), squad-based FPSs (CounterstrikeTeam Fortress) and MOBAs (DOTALeague of Legends)

²DDR was very popular for many years, but now even it has disappeared. DDR relied on execution tests and player expression for longevity, I will discuss each of these in future articles.

³ The importance of depth in a games is controversial, but for competitive games I think a strong case can be made for the importance of balance and depth in maintaining high level play.

⁴ Furthermore, once the game’s rules and interactions are understood, the player can use their knowledge of their opponent to give them further advantages. The ability to use your knowledge of your opponent to gain an advantage greatly contributes to the depth of a game.

AuthorTrevor Murray
CategoriesGame Design