Friday, 4 November 2011

The Player Stack (Part 1)

What are the core traits of top-tier SF4 players? The community often finds itself observing the gameplay habits of more well-known players in order to adequately define a formula that defines a 'top' player. This is a subject of intense debate and efforts to distill these traits in to one definitive 'stack' vary considerably. For the purposes of this article, the writer has restricted the discussion to in-game traits, that is, traits that players exhibit while playing. This deliberately omits practice which is arguably the most important trait of all.

YouTube videos provide a wealth of consumable information. Never before in the history of fighting games have players had such a vast library of recorded matches at their fingertips. Yet these videos only provide half the story. As spectators, we are limited to making educated guesses regarding the thought processes unfolding before us.

Steve Jobs once remarked the following to writer David Sheff in an interview for Playboy magazine:
"Your thoughts construct patters like scaffolding in your mind. You are really etching chemical patterns. In most cases, people get stuck in those patterns, just like grooves in a record, and they never get out of them."
While these comments were made in reference to growing old, if one considers growing old as part of an evolutionary process, the same could be said about the evolution of a player's style. Players will inevitably form chemical patterns through repeated gameplay that opponents will identify as traits, however it is the players that are able to break these traits at will to form new ones, given the situation, that are able to achieve higher levels of overall consistency. The writer defines this as adaptation. For example, if a player finds themselves being overwhelmed by their opponent's offense or is being punished repeatedly for a series of moves, that player can seek to change their style and adapt to their opponent's actions, in this case by playing more defensively or changing their moveset. The level to which they are able to dynamically change their playstyle defines their level of adaptation. The most masterful players will often be able to adapt to their opponent very quickly.

Figure 1: The Player Stack

The above diagram details the core elements that make up a player. It dictates that a player's profile is made up of three core attributes: offence and defence, yomi and adaptation. The strength and mastery of these attributes increase as the player becomes more experienced. Similarly, players will find that the stronger their opponent is, the more they will be required to utilise these elements. For example, most beginners will have semi-decent offense and defence, but you will rarely find a beginner with the ability to adapt on the fly. Further up the scale, intermediate players will already possess good offense and defence as well as the ability to predict their opponent's moveset with varying degrees of accuracy. To beat such an opponent, one would require similar skills in these areas but also the ability to identify the opponent's weaknesses and construct a playstyle accordingly.

Daigo Umehara espoused the playstyle of 'having no style'. Despite playing an almost robotic Ryu for much of his early SF4 career, he was unmatched in his ability to adapt to his opponents and turn the tides very quickly. 



Spoiler: 

Daigo is down 0 - 2, then dramatically changes his playstyle in order to adapt to his opponent's weaknesses. He then proceeds to take the next three games without dropping a round. This match highlights the sheer power of adaptation from a master of applying it.

Whilst it would be foolish to attempt to understand what exactly is going on in Daigo's mind, as casual observers we can note the following:

a) Daigo starts attacking from the air as Chang fails to mount an effective anti-air defence.
b) Daigo begins throwing out random DP reversals to counter Chang's aggressive block strings.

Daigo likely incorporated a number of other nuances to form a playstyle that effectively countered Chang's. While these may not be immediately obvious, it is clear he was able to "download" Hsien Chang. One will often hear commentators refer to how well a player has 'downloaded' the other; what they are actually referring to is the level of adaptation one player is displaying toward their opponent. Players able to master this art will find themselves able to dominate their opponents in a more consistent fashion.

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