Lesson 9 – Skill Expression

Here we are again, readers, for another article here at Crit The Books! This week, we’ll be looking at some of the terminology often thrown about when it comes to evaluating how much skill certain aspects of games ask from their players. This article will be similar to our first one, in that it is much less focused on concepts that will help your gameplay. Instead, this article will focus on terms that will help you understand and articulate your thoughts in discussions on how important skill is to different parts of games.

We’ll be primarily looking at the terms “skill floor”, “skill ceiling”, and “skill curve”. These terms get used quite frequently when discussing the difficulty of options within games, be it decks within a card game, characters within a video game, or strategies within a board game. While many people use these terms frequently, very rarely is it clarified what exactly they mean, which can make discussions very difficult to have. We’ll be looking at each of these phrases in turn, defining them, and looking at some examples.

It’s important to note that, for a number of our discussions, I’ll be using terminology that is as generic as possible, so that it can be applied to a number of different games and scenarios. Specifically, I’ll be using the word “strategy” very often. This word is used to describe a specific aspect of a game that requires some sort of skill to be able to use effectively. In a fighting game, different characters might require different skillsets and some might require less skilled or technical play. In a card game, different decks might have similar differentiation in their skill required. I’ll be using “strategy” as a catch all term to use in place of more game specific terminology instead of words like characters, decks, heroes, or factions.

First off, we’ll look at the term skill floor. Some people have defined this term as “the amount of skill it requires to get meaningful results with a strategy” or “how much skill is required to pick a strategy up”. However, I think that both of these definitions are excessively vague. How, for example, do we define meaningful results or picking a strategy up? Both of these aren’t very clear. Instead, I suggest the following definition: the skill floor for a strategy is “The skill required to achieve a player’s goals with a strategy.” This definition takes into account that different strategies will have different levels of skill required for different goals and will allow for meaningful discussion. While this requires more of our questions than simply asking what strategy we are discussing, I believe it allows for more nuanced discussion as well.

For examples of skill floors, we will look at one of the most well-known games on the market today: Overwatch! An example of a character with a low skill floor is Lucio in a support role. In a support role, a player is expected to provide healing or other buffs for their team to make them more effective. Lucio does this very easily, as his healing and speed buff occurs in an aura around him without the need to have any complicated inputs or positioning from the player. In contrast, a character with a high skill floor in the support role would be Ana. In order to provide healing for her team, Ana needs to hit her teammates with her sniper rifle. Doing so requires a higher amount of skill than simply staying near the team, and so we say that in Ana’s case, she has a higher skill floor in the support role.

It is worth noting that these same characters can have higher or lower skill floors in other avenues or roles as well, judged by how much skill it takes for them to fill those roles. Let’s look back at Lucio. While he has a very low skill floor for filling a support role and achieving the goals required of it, he will have a much more difficult time fulfilling an offensive, damage-based role like attacker. His main attack has a relatively low projectile speed and fires in short bursts, requiring the player to be able to predict their opponent’s movement in order to deal a lot of damage. Lucio in the attacking role has a very high skill floor.

Next, let’s look at the partner term to skill floor, skill ceiling. A strategy’s skill ceiling is “The amount of skill at which additional skill does not increase the player’s ability to achieve their goals.” Some would insist that the skill ceiling is the point at which a player achieves a “perfect game”, but I don’t agree with that definition. I think the phrase “perfect game” implies many things that are simply untrue for most games. Even if a player makes all the right choices, it is still possible for that player to lose the game based on variance and how the opponent responds to that variance. In addition, the idea of a perfect game means that an opponent can also play a perfect game, which leads us with a question of who wins. Instead, we focus on the point at which a player’s skill cannot further increase their odds of winning.

As examples of high skill ceiling strategies, we’ll again look at Overwatch heroes. Tracer is often looked at as a high skill ceiling character – her ability to dash 3 times as well as rewind her position to a given location means that there are many avenues for players to use her abilities to find victory, which creates more branching choice paths and therefore more skill required to locate the correct options. In addition to her movement options, Tracer’s weapon fires a high number of low damage shots, requiring a player to hit a significant number of them in order to deal a large amount of damage. This also plays into the high skill cap of Tracer.

The synthesis of these two terms is skill curve, or a measurement of how much a player’s skill in a strategy translates into the ability for that player to achieve their goals. Often, a strategy’s skill curve will be stated as a combination of skill floor and skill ceiling. However, the skill curve will also often be described as “steep” or “shallow”. This is simply a measure of how much a player’s skill translates to their chances of victory. If a strategy scales significantly with a player’s skill, then that strategy is said to have a steep curve, while if a player’s skill does not significantly affect their chances of achieving their goals, it is said to have a shallow curve.

If you are new at a game and want results quickly, it is likely going to be a good use of your time to seek out strategies that have a low skill floor, so that you can gain a footing in the game quickly. If you are a type of player who appreciates the awards that learning a strategy can bring you, and you enjoy exploring that depth, then you would probably be interested in finding strategies with a high skill ceiling. You’ll be rewarded with enjoyment for seeking out the types of strategies that are rewarding for you. This week, try to look at some of the strategies that you play in games and try to determine their skill floor and skill ceiling. Are they low? Are they high?

A big thank you to my Patrons for this month: Alex, TicTac, and anonymous patrons. If there are specific subjects or concepts you’d like an article written on, I suggest you look at my patreon! For just $7 a month, you’ll be able to suggest article topics for me to write on.

As always, remember that it’s not enough to just hit the books if you want to win. You’ve got to Crit the Books!

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