I like to play video games, and I also like to play video games against others. I don't, however, hold much respect for those who simply want to play a game to win, regardless of tactics used
I think that it's a matter of personality over everything else. Take, for example, Super Smash Brothers Melee. I entered the Penny Arcade Expo Smash Brothers tournament in 2006, because I was curious to see how me and Rooo would stack up against other contenders. Having never played the game in a competitive milieu, I was struck by a culture shock. The only people I'd ever talked to about the game were Rooo and my local gamer nerd friends. I had no idea about glitches, wave dashing, and various code exploits that were available to obsessive gamers. I'd just been working on getting my dodging timing right, reflecting items, and using the right moves at the right time. I was playing the game.
I also came into it playing my favorite character, Mr. Game and Watch. Why not, right? He's the character whose moves I know the best, and who I ended up playing as the most, because I was a fan of the old Game and Watch games from back in the early eighties. I got some weird looks and comments from the crowd there, which can be distilled down to: "You're playing as Game and Watch? Why?" Why the hell not?
As I looked around the conference room, I started getting an idea of why not. Half of the people there were playing as Zelda / Sheik, with the remaining gamers choosing Samus, Fox, and some Links. Now, coming into this, I had heard that some people had constructed tiers of characters, but I figured it was so arbitrary and subjective that I didn't really pay much attention to it. I got the crap beaten out of me by my friend James as Ganondorf, and had destroyed many as Game n' Watch, to know, at least at my level of play, tiers were generally irrelevant.
Playing against these types of gamers, with team damage on, no items, and a very limited level list, was a video gaming culture shock. Perhaps I didn't take the game too seriously, even with my modest skill at it, and just how hardcore obsessive people were about it was alien to me. I figured that everyone there would just take the characters they like, and play the best they can. Nope. People took the characters they deemed "the best", no matter whether the heck they liked Star Fox, or thought Zelda was an interesting character.
My lackadaisical attitude surprisingly didn't result in an immediate shut-out. Admittedly, Rooo got most of the kills in the first round, but we won. And in the pre-tourney practice rounds, we swept. It wasn't until the second round that we got summarily whooped. Destroyed. It was painful.
These guys were playing to win, while I just play games to, you know, have a good time. I don't have the sort of mind, or perhaps skill, to deconstruct a game, use the most advantageous character, and then practice the moves that I know have the highest priority. That gaming doesn't work for me.
At this point, you are playing a sort of meta-game
. A serious example of a meta-game win button would be straight-track snaking in Mario Kart DS. Right after launch, Rooo was online every night, sweeping races. He's a hardcore Nintendo gamer, and for some games (arcade racers and music games) he's really tough to beat. But as the weeks went on, increasing numbers of wifi competitors began to use Dry Bones with his tank or Yoshi with his egg, and snake across straights to win. And it wasn't that Rooo didn't know how to snake, but he felt it broke the game. You aren't making the turns, getting your timing right, and concentrating on proper item usage. You are going outside of the design focus of the game.
By breaking the original design demands of gameplay, and relying on a crutch, you have reduced what should be a test of timing and skill to a tedious victory of who can use the exploit the longest.
Although we haven't ventured online much with Mario Strikers Charged, we've heard that the same can be said for the overuse of Toad and the Hammer Brothers during these matches. Online racing games like Project Gotham Racing 4 have the same problem: though each class has twenty or so vehicles, only the top two or three are mostly seen being played, because within the class, they are the most competitive. Play that online, and you'll see a hell of a lot of Lamborghini Diablo VTs and Mitsubishi Lancer Evo FQ400s. Pontiac Firebirds, DeLoreans, Corvette ZR1s? Not so much.
It's interesting that a general trend among gamers, at least those who game online competitively against strangers, is that they abandon their own favorite characters, vehicles, playing styles and weapons and focus solely on what gets them the biggest edge. What percentage chance of victory you gain through this, you lose in terms of your individuality as a gamer.
Balance has to be on the minds of a good game developer. I'd like to think that competitive multiplayer games are designed so that most of its elements and manners of play can be, with skill, usable paths to victory. That's how you make a good multiplayer game. The best multiplayer games have multiple characters or weapons that balance each other out, leaving no "one best" method of winning. And that's what's good about games constantly receiving online tweaks, whether it's World of Warcraft's battlegrounds, Team Fortress 2's classes, or Halo 3's weapon and map balance. You can bet that there are programmers and designers studying the data flooding back from the gaming servers, and picking out what works and what doesn't.
Team Fortress 2 is one game where you can see that people have been talking online about what tactics will generally result in victory, resulting in the obscene amounts of spies and engineers that you'll face when you game against mid-level gamers. Fortunately, though, that game has enough balance that with skill and good teammates, no one tactic can guarantee victory, no matter how many FREAKING TURRETS they build everywhere.
How do you play your games? Do you vary your playing style whether you are playing by yourself, against friends, or trying to beat the best online? Do you go with the characters you love, or do you scour the forums, FAQs, and message boards trying to figure out who will give you the edge you need to win?