I know Kung-Fu, Part 2

By Shamus Posted Saturday Feb 11, 2006

Filed under: Game Design 25 comments

Yesterday I talked about skill in first-person shooters. Mark and Jay Barnson both weighed in with comments that got me really thinking about deathmatch for the first time in a few years. I want to expand on some of the ideas I talked about before. I’m going to relate a true story, and at first all of this is going to seem like a lot of bragging. If you can endure the anecdote, I’ll have some humble pie before the end. Deal?

Way back in ye olden times of 1997 or so, I was playing a 1-on-1 Quake deathmatch against a friend. This was a LAN game, and we were just a few feet away from each other. We both knew I was the stronger player, but I went easy on him. Still, the game was still frustrating for him. At one point, an hour or so into the game, something odd happened. I came into a room, and knew he was coming, even though I couldn’t see him yet. I fired a rocket. He rounded the corner just in time to get hit in the face with it. Here is what the scene looked like:

So he ran through a door, crossed a room, and suddenly collided with a rocket that was already on its way to intercept him. I fired the rocket well before he came into view. How did I do that? If we were strangers playing online he would have probably accused me of cheating, but we were friends and he could, if he wanted, glance over at my screen and see I was not using any sort of cheat. He was frustrated, but assumed it was some sort of fluke.

Then I did it again.

Here is the corner where I would see my friend explode.

Now he was annoyed and wanted to know how I was doing this. I wasn’t even sure. I’d just had a gut reaction, and I couldn’t explain why I’d shot the rocket at that precise moment.

It happened a third time. My friend was angry by this point, and was determined to figure out what was going on. It was too easy to replicate for it to be luck, and neither of us was willing to believe I’d developed ESP.

Again, he came through the door, but this time he stopped short of the corner and my rocket sailed by in front of him. Then we both realized that it was the sound of him opening the door that had tipped me off. When he opened the door, I was aware he was coming and fired in anticipation of him coming around the corner.

This isn’t as hard as it sounds. In games like this, everyone runs at the same fixed speed. Doors open as you get near them, so you can run through without breaking stride. Players tend to travel in a direct line to wherever they are headed. So, it was a fixed interval of time from the time I heard the clunk of the door opening to the moment he came into view. After playing for an hour on the same dang level, I’d become accustomed to this interval and was reacting to it like Pavlov’s dog. Door sound? Shoot! To an unfamiliar player, this just seems like magic.

This story teaches us three things:

  1. These games are far deeper than they seem at first glance.
  2. This depth can lead to a huge disparity in skill.
  3. I am a lousy friend.

In my mind, I divide players into five categories:

  1. Total Newbie:
    This is someone who is totally new to the concept of first-person games and the mouse / keyboard interface. They bump into walls. They stop moving when they shoot because can’t aim and run at the same time. I’ve taught a few people like this to play. Invariably they will do things like encounter an object on the ground and come to a full stop:

    “What’s that?”, they ask.

    “That’s a healthpack.”


    “Do I need it?”


  2. Casual Player:

    This is someone who has leaned how to move. They can run, jump, dodge, hit moving targets, duck, circle strafe, and otherwise navigate fluidly. They probably think of themselves as accomplished players, and are outraged by all the “cheaters” they meet online. In the earlier story, this was about where my friend was.

    They can’t understand how other people can be so impossible to kill. After all, aren’t they are just running and jumping the same as everyone else? They can’t run faster or jump higher or have more health than anyone else. Those guys must be cheating!

  3. Experienced Player:

    This is someone who uses audio clues, as in my story, to know where the enemy is. They notice things less experienced players don’t. They can run into a room, observe that two of three health items are missing and the elevator is down. They will then extrapolate where the enemy is (they didn’t take the elevator, they didn’t use the door I just came through, they didn’t use the big door because I didn’t hear it, so they must have run down this side hallway) how much health they have (they didn’t get the last of the three health items, so they must be at full health now) and where they are headed.

    The experienced player will be waiting when the other guy gets to wherever he’s going, and the other guy will never see it coming. To the other guy, it seems like magic.

    One more example: I’ll run into a room and see someone die in a fight. Even if the killer is out of view, I know he’s there and (if he’s a normal player) that he’s going to want to run in and grab the weapon dropped by the guy he just killed. Single-player games have sort of trained us to grab stuff off the ground like this even if we don’t really need it. It’s a very dangerous habit to have, since it makes people very predictable. I can launch a rocket at the dead or dying player and keep moving. Odds are their killer will rush in just in time to ride the rocket. Again, to this guy it seems like magic. We never even saw each other and I pegged him with a rocket.

  4. Expert Player:

    It’s hard for me to fully understand what makes these guys so good, because I’m not this good myself. I know better than to accuse these guys of cheating, but it feels like cheating when they beat me.

    Items re-appear at regular intervals. Sixty seconds after you pick up an item, a replacement appears. Expert players manage to show up at exactly the right moment to get the respawning item. The item will literally materialize just as they pass over it’s spot. Thus, I never get the chance to pick it up. They have the ability to control an entire level like this, hoarding all of the good items and never letting anyone get a shot at them. The only way to get a good item is to engage the expert on his own terms, and prevail.

    Or, they will deliberately skip grabbing easy nearby items that everyone else reflexivly grabs. This throws off the thinking of people like myself. I assume if the items are there, nobody has passed through here in the last minute. Usually this is true, but against Expert players this is a dangerous assumption.

    These guys seem to know which way I’m going to dodge. They fire one rocket, then another. I leap out of the path of the first and end up taking the second one right on the nose. How did he know I was going to dodge that way?

    Actually, let me hazard a guess: In a fight, getting close to walls is bad because rockets hit walls and the splash damage will turn a near miss into a kill. So, people like me tend to dodge into the open. People dodge perpendicular to the path of the rocket. Movement speed is the same for everyone. Taking all of this into account, my enemy knows – in the same way I knew my friend was coming around the corner – where I will be in a second or two even before I’ve decided myself. Stuff that I do that seems random is actually the same thing that lots of others do in the given situation.

    These players are difficult to hit and almost impossible to kill for people at my level.

  5. Professional Player:

    There aren’t many players like this in the world. The most famous example today is Johnathan “Fatal1ty” Wendel. I can’t really explain what makes these guys so good, since I’ve never been good enough to play against them. Even if I did, I doubt I’d live long enough to make any worthwhile observations. Still, anecdotal evidence suggests that there is at least as big a gap between “Expert” and “Professional” as there is between “Experienced” and “Expert”. There may be even more.

And now to the point: I suggest that there is at least an order of magnitude of skill between each of these levels. That is, in a game to ten points, a casual player will not get more than one point on an experienced one. I can say with certainty that experienced players like me don’t do better than 1-in-10 against experts. If you follow this to the logical conclusion, it suggests that the best player is at least 10,000 times better than a newbie. That is a game with a lot of depth!

I played Unreal Tournament for years. For a while I played every day. There used to be an automated ranking system that tracked every single online match and rated players accordingly. The site has moved since I last checked it in 2001, but here is someone’s local server stats that gives a peek at what the worldwide ranking used to look like. At the time, I worked myself into the top 5% of all players online, but an honest assessment of my skills shows that I never really reached “Expert”. This means I could do well against 19 out of 20 people I met, but of those 4% of the people I couldn’t beat, most were so good I couldn’t even score against them. They were so much better than me that they seemed unkillable. I could have them cornered and outgunned (an acomplishment in and of itself, or a very lucky break) and I would still lose.

There may even be another level between Expert and Professional – It’s not like I can tell the difference between someone 10 times better than me and someone 100 times better than me. Once I’m that far outclassed, the whole thing is a red blur of death and tears until I give up and log off in shame.

As I mentioned yesterday, it takes an amazing level of patience for a newbie to join the game at this point, and to stick to the game long enough to the point where they can actually get on the scoreboard.

Even worse: The problem feeds on itself. As Jay pointed out, accomplished players get bored with the standard game after a while and designers try to keep things fresh by introducing new mechanics and gameplay elements. The latest Unreal Tournament has five or six different vehicles, some of which have multiple positions players can take. (For example, driver, machine gunner, side gunner, etc) So, once you’re bored with standard combat you can then start learning about all of the different positions and maybe attempt to specialize in piloting one of them.

The world of deathmatch is getting bigger. Is the audience?


From The Archives:

25 thoughts on “I know Kung-Fu, Part 2

  1. Mom says:

    well, this was an eye opener. Guessing your “friend in the anecdote was Pat. OOOO I can hear him. But I enjoyed the article. You should have a radio show like the sports Talk Shows. actually I thought Dan should do that because he is sort of interested in that sort of “old technology” ( Radio, I mean) But of course, gamers probably prefer reading online and commenting. Their kind of world. But what if there WAS a radio show about gaming, D&D etc. would you like to listen? HMMM.

  2. Shamus says:

    Actually, the friend in question wasn’t Pat.

    There actually is a cable-access station devoted to video games, but it isn’t available ’round these parts. I’ve seen blogs from California refer to it though, and from what I gather they show deathmatch games, with announcers, just as if it was a normal televised sport.

    I wouldn’t mind getting in on that sort of writing. Good work if you can find it. :)

  3. Shamus says:

    Category: Hilarious.

    I don’t know how Id rate the players. Tactical DM is an insteresting creature, since it sort of re-mixes the whole “deathmatch” experience. Strategy moves in front of things like aim and dodging, which means great DM players can get whipped by people with less raw DM skills. I’ve never played enough of these sorts of games online to get a feel for them, mostly because it would mean clawing my way to the top of yet another merciless learning curve.

  4. Vegedus says:

    All I want to know is how I get from casual to experienced, since my “friends” always ass-whoop me at lan-parties. Oh, yeah, practice hours a day, I guess. Bugger I only like playing shooters with people I know.

  5. BucketMouse says:

    Reminds me of my days playing Metal Gear online.

    The first couple months I was 100% convinced that these people all had gamesharks and had a ‘revel player location’ hack. It wasn’t until I was an Experienced player who could actually hold his own before I realized they weren’t hacking, they were glitching. …well, I guess that’s kinda off point, but ….well my point is …..I got better. Way better- like one of the top 5,000 in the world.

    …then they shut down the servers.

    Wasted skill and reputation in the online community.

    …what’s going to happen when WoW dies? *shutters*

  6. Simon_Jester says:

    My father has this problem. He likes to play a variety of video games, including some first person shooters. He also likes co-op play. But he *hates* competitive play because he appears to be constitutionally unable to move above level 2 (casual).

    This system might work better if we instead rate players on a logarithmic scale. In that case, a player with a rating of ‘4’ is expert, one with ‘5’ is a professional that the expert can only beat one time in ten, and a rating of ‘4.5’ is someone that the expert can beat about one time in three or four and who can beat the professional about one time in three or four.

    If so, my father never gets above about a 1.7-2.1 in any game. I never get above about a 2.5, and my little brother can sometimes make it to a three.

  7. Simon_Jester says:

    I thought of this just as I hit ‘submit’.

    The same logic applies to RTS games. For instance, it took a while to get the hang of the interface in Starcraft. Once you master the interface, you feel competent. But if you go online and play multiplayer you’ll get your head handed to you repeatedly by players who have long since worked out the optimal time and rhythm to set up their bases. A casual player won’t necessarily even know *how* to stage a zergling rush, and yet this is one of the elementary tactics that any experienced player will be able to use.

  8. Scott says:

    There is a large, barren wasteland between the Experienced and Professional players. The Expert field is as wide and varied as the rest combined, and have their own equivalent levels; from the raw-talented-fine-mouse-control players to the strategic players to the psychoanalytic players to the 15-hours-a-day players, every expert tries to gain knowledge in *every* aspect of the game before they can go pro.
    And then, once they do, they need to win against the people who have attained that knowledge already.

    It’s like that in many MMOs. Once you have the highest level of the best build and all of the best equipment, you have to compete with all the other guys who got it all before you.

  9. Nathaniel says:

    Just read both of your I Know Kung-Fu posts, and I definately agree that there is a steep learning curve in FPS’.

    I started playing First Person Shooters when I was pretty young, but was never quite in the Newbie level. Moving with the keyboard and aiming with the mouse was intuitive for me, and I just assumed that something with a big red cross on it was health. But, I didn’t play any games for a few years, played Halo, and a few other games, and was about an Expert, and got to around that level fast.

    I don’t think that not playing for a while will make someone 10 times better, so I guess that at some level, some people are innately better at these skills and the kind of competetive thinking and planning to win against other people.

  10. nevered says:

    someone above mentioned a similar curve in other games:RTS’s especially, and I have to agree that it exists, but i have to wonder if it is, in other cases, more pronounced:

    not being an avid FPS player (It’s pretty much just HALO socially), I can’t imagine that moving from one FPS to another would be that much of a difference. to the professionals, sure: there are new maps to learn, the weapons spawn at different times, the rockets move at different speeds: all the details will have to be relearned. but to any of the other categories, the difference will not be as great.

    An experienced player who picks up an unfamiliar game is still an experienced player.

    I am definitely more of an RTS player. I consider myself between “Casual” and “Experienced” in both starcraft and warcraft 3.

    but trying to play Supreme Commander against a friend, I found myself suddenly, and dramatically reduced to something just above a complete newbie. Sure, I knew how to navigate the map and order units around, but the tech tree was so foreign to me that I was completely lost.

    RTS players moving from game to game within the genre have a much harder time of it: not just leaning how long it takes to build units, how fast you can expect to move an army across the screen, how effective any given army is against any other given army: millions of details that would reduce even a professional starcraft player to nearly-newbie status when switching to such an alien game.

    not only that, but there is also the micro/macro-management aspect. in Supreme commander, the units are nearly autonomous: with few exceptions, the units can only attack, but the use of millions of units in tactical formations forms the crux of the strategy.

    In warcraft 3, on the other hand, you can mave a maximum of maybe three dozen units in your command, but each of them has any number of special abilities that have to be manually cast by you. common spells like ‘heal’, ‘bloodlust’, and ‘curse’ will cast on their own, but if you want maximum usage of your banshees, you better be ready to manually have each cast ‘posession’.

    Imagine a Professional Supreme commander player being plunged into this madness: he would not last past the first battle.

    I may be simplifying things, but while you have given us some insight as to why FPS’s are not as mindless as is the commonly held belief, there is something to be said for it: skills learned in any given FPS can, for the most part, be carried into other FPS’s with little difficulty. the task of learning which weapons work how effectively pales in comparison to people in other genres, where entire tech trees, build orders, and micromanagement tactics have to be learned from scratch.

  11. mithmurr says:

    I would disagree with nevered. The learning curve is about the same. Already Shamus has noted the exception of skillsets between the regular DM and tactical DM. The same type of sub-genre splits exist between RTS games. So really, general genre of games (FPS, RTS) there exists a learning curve between games that rises for if you switch the sub-genre. For an RTS, you already have the basic skillset for an RTS, you quickly learn about the basic differences on the new game (resource harvesting, tech-tree). In fact, in most RTS, the single-player campaign is designed as a tutorial, introducing the basics very quickly, then more advanced tactics (air power, water power, special units and abilities) at a slower place (I believe Starcraft introduces 1-2 units an episode, with the new units being very useful to that episode, leaving only the most advanced units for the player to really figure out).

    I think the most important part for getting new players and entertaining experienced players is an involved storyline in a single-play game. I have a friend who was payed money to play games (not a profesional gamer, but as a tester) and so got very good at halo, maybe somewhere between 2.5 to a 3. Yet both her and I (not a newbie, but definately casual) were able to enjoy Bioshock (granted I’m playing easy, and last I checked she was playing hard to get the last of the gamerscore thingy on X-Box live). The story really drove forward the game, yet the gameplay was simple enough for at least a casual gamer (I’m probably slightly below a 2) to not get frustrated with it.
    Of course, those just interested in DM, that would not pay attention to the story, might not care for it much, but can’t please everyone always.

  12. kamagurka says:

    Personally, I feel that “depth” and “hard to master” are two different things. I say “feel” because if I were capable of argue my view I’d say “think”.

  13. nerdpride says:

    While acquiring these skills does make an order-of-magnitude difference between players, I don’t get the impression that it’s too difficult. Or rather, it comes more naturally to some.

    Compare it with a profession; you get better by picking up subtle tricks as you work at it. Time causes you to get better because some of the tricks are more evasive than others, and there are a large number of them for even the simpler games. You could skip the basic or even more intermediate practice for Doom with some natural talent kinda like how a theoretical person could do triple-integration calculus on a napkin immediately after hearing about it for the first time.

    This ties in pretty well with my view on videogames–they’re basic training for competence. They cause you to learn to learn. And by learning how to play videogames, you get an idea what kind of experiments will show the tricks that increase productivity for most work.

  14. Russell Eldrin says:

    On the question of how development of skill, I think that their are two different ways that people develop skill, natural and adapted. A natural player is like Shamus, he has been playing FPS’s all his life and has worked and evolved along with all their developments, so he has alot of experience. These types of players usually have skill in specalized weapons, due to the fact that they’ve had years to develop one area they excell at. An example would be people who play as snipers and people who play as rushers. The sniper is a very patient person who can wait for minutes on end, his cursor trained on one spot, or moving in a small radius, just waiting for someone to wander into his sites. A rusher scavenges the small and tight corridors of levels, shotgun in hand, dodging from cover spot to cover spot. Since these people have played their selected skills for so long, they are masters at their particular skill, but would be terrible if they tried to use the others techniques (unless they are in that ‘professional’ level grade when they are awesome at everything.) The adapted player is like Shamus’s friend. He is a person who didn’t grow up with or start early on the skill curve, instead he jumps right into the stream of excellent players. These people have to adapt quickly, usually by dying over and over and over. They don’t really have experience that natural players have, so they basically mimic the natural players. Many adapted players will switch their role in a battle every single time they die (prime example, New players in TF2 will jump from class to class before actually choosing a favorite.) I think that eventually the adapted players morph into natural players, except that they have that heritage of playing all those different classes, thus they could more easily adapt to new roles.
    … Wow I didn’t realize just how long winded and confusing this post was, I apologize

    -Russell Eldrin

  15. C-Money says:

    I know this comment comes late to this particular party, but I’d say that UT was probably the only run and gun game in which I would consider myself having been “Expert”. During the beta, I was usually in the top 10. And in the full version, often in the top 50. Not 50%, but 50 (out of, what, 250,000 registered users [at the time], that’s not too bad, right?). I had ridden that wave up until that point…and I peaked right there. I’ll admit that after that, I seem to have declined in the expertness needed to keep up with the newer games.

    As to any other games in which I would say I could kick just about anyone’s butt would have been Rainbow Six 1 & 2. And in that particular case, you’re right…audio was HUGE in that game. Was it run & gun? Heck no! But that’s why it was even harder to be good at.

  16. Andrew says:

    This explains quite a bit for me. At times, in games like Counterstrike, I’ll find that I can kill pro players much more often than I should (considering my skill level), but then I get murdered by some guy only slightly better than me. Looking at your article, I’m guessing that I my total lack of skill in shooters is actually causing me to mess up their subconcious skills in the game (ie, in the example you mentioned, I probably would in fact run towards the wall if someone shot a rocket at me, just because I forgot it was there). In a head-on confrontation, mind you, I get slaughtered instantly. But it’s amazing how often I somehow found I’ve snuck up behind a pro, simply because they didn’t expect it.

  17. Shimmin says:

    There’s an article about games and their alien-ness to non-gamers in the Guardian, which is related to this post and a few others. Wasn’t sure where was most appropriate, but I thought you might be interested.

  18. me says:

    adio cues are what make first person games so hard for me. In real life I can hear the shape of the room by the the way the ambient noise sounds. I can also always tell where people are because they absorb sound more than the walls do. when I try to play a first person shooter I feel like I’m blind because I can’t hear the room and I can only see what’s in front of me.

  19. JoshR says:

    Reminds me of how I used to play CS 1.6 zombie mod. I knew every player on my server’s habits, where they would go, and used it to annihilate everyone.

  20. Unconvention says:

    Bots are your answer, or at least they are for getting over that first ‘newbie to casual’ hump. Being able to play a DM against one easy bot gives you an opportunity to understand how to move, how to jump, how to fire, maybe even how to listen. And of course it can teach you one of the single most important things of any such game; the maps.

    Of course when you’re exposed to other players, you’ll still get brutally slaughtered, but at least you won’t be slowly circling in place staring at the scenary while it’s happening. Though exposure to real players will still give you plenty of ‘why does everyone run with their knives out?’ and ‘how did he get up there?’ moments.

    Also, beginners’ servers – if someone choses to host them – can help. I remember UKReg (in the UK, there’s a clue in the name) had a bunch of CS servers that ran beginner-only games. If you got too many frags on one map, or too many in one round, you’d be banned from the server. They worked reasonably well. Someone too good would turn up, pwn everyone on the map and never be seen again.

  21. Doradan says:

    Using the same sort of scale, my group of friends and I can all land in experienced. We seem invincible to the guys back in the comp lab, yet our own private matches can be bloody and long-winded, with normal Halo 3 deathmatches usually lasting an hour with four people. It might be that we know all our own tricks, but it also seems to me like using swords to sharpen each other. As we come up with off-the-wall ideas and recycle other at unexpected times, we scoff at the others who still stare at their feet while we always keep our reticles at head level (this alone has caused quite a few yelling matches, going somewhere along line of “BS, there’s no way you can aim that fast!”)

  22. bbot says:


    Or, they will deliberately skip grabbing easy nearby items that everyone else reflexivly grabs. This throws off the thinking of people like myself. I assume if the items are there, nobody has passed through here in the last minute. Usually this is true, but against Expert players this is a dangerous assumption.

    reflexivly -> reflexively

  23. Elric says:

    I can still comment on an 8-year old topic? Fantastic.

    I think these “orders-of-magnitude” between skill levels that you point out in this article are not limited to FPS or gaming in general. I think this rule applies to any skill. As a software developer, I most often experience this at work with the “coding” skill. There is no doubt in my mind that an average software developer is an order of magnitude more productive than a fresh out of college newbie. And the same thing applies between average, experienced, pro and guru -developers. In fact, inexperienced developers may actually cost you productivity, as they will introduce bugs and bad design into the software, just like a newbie gamer is a liability during team deathmatch, as he won’t stop eating rockets and falling into lava.

    The negative or positive contributions due to skill level are often magnified even further, because they exert their influence through time. There is a self-reinforcing feedback loop involved, kind of like compound interest. In software development, badly developed software will be even more difficult to maintain and require more and more work, whereas good architecture will continue to pay for itself. The same thing applies to gaming, where a bad player will set the entire team back to a disadvantage they will find harder and harder to recover from, whereas a good player will cause early gains that will make the game easier to win.

    This is why the secret so success in many endeavors is having the best people for the job.
    I just wish I could explain this to all the managers in the world.

  24. Will says:

    Typo leaned should be learned, when you are describing casual players.

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