Article by Kris
The year is 1994. Two teenage boys are sitting at a desktop computer with a total memory capacity of less than 1GB. They’re playing Championship Manager, a soccer sports sim containing a database of literally thousands of players worldwide, broken down into a number of skill based stats measuring their ability on a scale of 1 – 20.
The premise is simple. Buy the best players, make the tactical calls, win the trophies that your childhood heroes are winning for real on the television.
There’s only one problem. The game is broken.
My best friend Scott says, ‘If you want to win, play 4-1-3-2.’
Tactically, I don’t agree with this approach. Packing the centre of midfield should make a team vulnerable to an opponent with creative wingers and fast, counter attacking wingbacks.
‘Heard it at school,’ he insists. ‘The guys who programmed the game think it’s a brilliant formation, so they programmed it to be better than all the others.’
The internet isn’t big, not yet, but I know a conspiracy theory when I hear one.
‘We’ll each manage our own teams,’ I say. ‘You do what you think is best, and I’ll do what I think is best.’ And this is what we do.
He wins. A lot.
* * *
It was some years later that I became familiar with the concept of a min-maxer – first, in my professional capacity (referring to an investor who demands maximum returns while still expecting minimal risk) and then, later on, a term referring to a gamer (typically in an RPG) who games a system by exploiting the rules or mechanics within it.
A typical min-maxer looks to create a character that is massively overpowered by building on natural strengths and minimising weaknesses. Similarly, if there is ambiguity in the rules, they’ll exploit this. It doesn’t matter if this results in a situation that becomes less fun for everyone involved – min-maxers aren’t there to enjoy the experience. They’re there to win.
Right now, if any part of you is thinking, ‘And what’s so wrong with that?’, chances are you may be a min-maxer too.
For some players, min-maxing is inherent. If you were interested in beating the excellent Red Hook game ‘Darkest Dungeon’, a thirty-second tour of YouTube brings up hours and hours of video analysis that critically analyses every character archetype within the game, comparing their strengths and weaknesses, and telling a newbie player everything that they need to know in order to beat the game. Of course, this level of analysis is there for other games too – but when one of the critical facets of this particular game is learning these things for yourself through the medium of hard lessons and loss, I find myself wondering if this level of analysis, far from adding to the enjoyment of the experience, actually detracts from it.
Before you send me stroppy Twitter messages, you should know that I’m not proposing that those analysts should stop doing what they do, or that gamers who enjoy knowing the underlying details that power a game should be prevented from doing so. The difficulty comes when min-maxers stumble into worlds like mine – when they cannot understand why, when so much of the knowledge required to easily beat these games is already freely available, someone might actively choose to ignore what is known and try to learn it for themselves.
Game designers often don’t help with this. Sometimes they make loopholes so obvious that it’s practically foolishness not to go along with them. Way back in my C64 years, there was a game called ‘Supremacy’ that required you to build and manage an interstellar empire. Doing this successfully required the player to grow their population (to build armies) and raise enough tax to purchase war machines. The mechanic for this was a single tax rate, which balanced growth against money. Set it low, and your population would explode, but you’d have no money to build. Set it high, and your people would starve even as your coffers filled.
The only problem with this mechanic was that population growth and tax income were calculated in alternative years – meaning that if you set the tax at 100% in an income year and then immediately changed it to 0% in a growth year, you could exploit the mechanic relentlessly to maximise both money and population. In one fell swoop, an otherwise great game became instantly unplayable unless you were willing to suspend your disbelief and play suboptimally.
Worse still in my eyes is game design that makes min-maxing necessary to win competitively. This can be seen in many games, including the most innocuous ones. Pokémon is a slightly strange case in point. In the world seen in the anime, Ash’s desire to be a Pokémon Master is something that is sold over and over, through adversity and defeat and recognition and renewal. It doesn’t matter that the detail of this goal is never specified. The implication is clear throughout that if you work hard, apply yourself, learn from your mistakes, you are giving yourself the best chance to succeed. In that version of the world, anyone can rise to the top.
If you want to play Pokémon competitively, you cannot simply auto-generate a Pokémon and expect to stroll to the World Championships. In order to compete at the highest level, you need specific natures, movesets, to understand and utilise the principles of IVs and EVs. Getting the best Pokémon requires hard reset after hard reset, and an internet-powered understanding of the mathematical building blocks that make up the universe in which the game is played. In short, that’s not a world in which my measured sensitivities and overriding sense of natural justice will ever lead to victory.
Don’t get me wrong – for all my bluster, this is not a judgement about min-maxers. As mentioned previously, many games require you to adopt this strategy to some extent in order to maximise your chances of victory. Furthermore, without humanity’s desire to look beneath the hood, to search, to explore, to understand, we would not have doctors, scientists or engineers, and we would have a diminished existence.
My problem is that having these things has caused magic to disappear from the world.
I am the absolute opposite of a min-maxer. I read Luke Rhinehart’s ‘The Dice Man’ as if it was autobiography. I crave random circumstance in games. I want roguelike rules to apply. I want the fog-of-war on my horizons, filled with dragons and fizzing with unseen threat. I want immersion, and if having that means the risk of walking into a dungeon on day one and coming face-to-face with a demigorgon or a manticore or a vampire lord or the motherfucking queen from ‘Alien’ when my only possession is a dagger that does 1d3 damage, so be it. I want bravery and idiocy and sacrifice and pointless last stands. I want universal unfairness and permadeath. I want struggle and I want consequences.
In short, I want games that are like the narratives that I enjoy most.
* * *
The injustice of stacking odds in your favour when it’s against the spirit of the game to do so rankles me still, and I wonder sometimes if it goes back to that time in 1995. Scott is already better-looking than me, funnier, more comfortable in his own skin. He’s a natural with girls, never lacking in confidence. The idea that with all those natural advantages, he would still choose to shift odds in his favour when playing a crappy computer game makes me scream from some deep, wounded part of my soul. To him, the calculation is a different one entirely. The game (and indeed, the world) is win or lose, and why would you risk losing if you knew an easy way to win?
Fresh from his sixth consecutive Premier League victory, Scott shakes his head as my team go down to defeat again.
‘Play 4-1-3-2,’ he says.
‘My goalkeeper is crap,’ I say.
‘Play 4-1-3-2 and it won’t matter.’
I refuse. In his next game, he plays 4-1-3-2 with a midfielder in goal and his goalkeeper up front, a ridiculous tactical decision made to prove a point. Predictably, his goalkeeper scores the winning goal.
‘This is such rubbish,’ I say, immersion ruined forever. ‘It would never happen in real life.’
Scott says, ‘Who cares about real life?’
In my next match, I play 4-1-3-2. It doesn’t matter that my team of perennial losers isn’t balanced to play in this way. They immediately beat a much better side 5 – 1.
‘See?’ Scott says. ‘Play that formation every game and you’re basically guaranteed to win.’
From that point forward, I do play that formation, and I win a lot more than I did before. But with every game I win, I die a little inside.