How To Get Good At Anything

(My flavor of the week is still Marvel vs. Capcom 3, but this post applies to just about anything, really.)

In grade school, I was the Video Game Kid. That didn’t mean I had all the video games, mind you–my broke ass didn’t get a game console until the Super Nintendo dropped in second grade. No, I earned the title of Video Game Kid because I was damn good at them. Even before I had my own game system, I kicked ass at every video game I laid hands on. Stuck on a level? Get Patrick in your next sleepover. Rented Mega Man X for your birthday and can’t get past Chill Penguin? Pass me the pad, scrub. What I lacked in social or athletic skills I made up for with some kick-ass hand-eye coordination.

In high school, this changed somewhat. I was still the fastest draw this side of q3dm17 (that’s The Longest Yard for you scrubs out there) but I no longer had the same reflexes and timing advantage on my peers, and we were playing more complex games like Quake III: Arena and StarCraft and Dance Dance Revolution and Marvel vs. Capcom 2. By the early 2000s, no gamer ever really got “stuck” in a single-player game like we used to get stuck in a 2D platformer because single-player games were just too easy. Games only tested our comparative skill when we played against each other, and that stressed practice and dedication as much as raw physical talent.

It wasn’t until I started playing Street Fighter in its various incarnations that I was introduced to the process of getting good at a game. Previously, I simply figured that you just had to play more to get better. (The “Perfect practice makes perfect!” mantra that was drilled into my head during summer baseball camp apparently failed to penetrate.) That doesn’t really work for Street Fighter–I could spend hours and hours playing my buddy David and not really get any better because I wasn’t thinking about how to play better. I wasn’t button mashing, but I might as well have been for the good I was doing at the stick.

Fast forward to Patrick 2011. I am no longer the Video Game Kid now, for a few reasons:

  1. Games are almost universally a form of entertainment among young men, so simply being familiar with video games doesn’t make you special.
  2. There are plenty of games out there that won’t really challenge you in a way that makes them less enjoyable or hard to play. I could spend my entire gaming time-budget on games that didn’t make me feel frustrated in the slightest. Compare this to the old Nintendo days, where pretty much every game out there had a really steep learning curve and would all-encompassingly whoop your ass, without question.
  3. The games that do stress competitive skills are sufficiently deep that skills don’t really cross over (being good at fighting games doesn’t directly translate to RTS or FPS games).

Nevertheless, I have the modern-day equivalent of the Video Game Kid rep due to my almost exclusive focus on competitive games. (I’ve said on one GamePro podcast that I’m down to shoot the shit about any game out there, as long as it’s Street Fighter or StarCraft.) Friends and co-workers who play games but aren’t big on the competitive aspect quake in their boots while loading up Lost Temple or picking Ken.

Yet that’s not because I play a lot–I don’t. Assuming I’m healthy, I spend most of my free time training BJJ. On an average day, I don’t have more than 30 minutes or so to play games–enough for maybe one game of StarCraft or a handful of Street Fighter matches. I have my gaming binges every now and then (logged a solid 6 hours with the post-Bearcade crew playing MAHVEL BAYBEE yesterday) but they’re few and far between. So what’s the secret?

The short answer is that I spend 95% of my gaming time consciously trying to get better at the game. Basically, I’m good at getting good at games.

I just took a handful of the GamePro guys to town (GG y’all, if you’re reading this) last week in MAHVEL BAYBEE. I dunno how much they had played by that point, but I had a few hours under my belt and that was about it. However, this certainly isn’t the first fighting game I’ve tried to learn. This is how I approached Marvel vs. Capcom 3.

Step 1: Build A Base

The first thing I did was open up Training Mode and pick a relatively familiar team–in my case, I picked Storm and Magneto, since I was fairly comfortable with them in MVC2, and I picked Zero because I remembered watching people use him in Tatsunoko vs. Capcom (which I never played) and he looked okay. Learning a new game engine, especially one as deep and complicated as MVC3’s, is an intimidating task, and it’s easier to learn the game engine if you’re not simultaneously trying to play characters that you’ve never tried before. From there, I spent a few minutes learning the basic game engine features (pushblock, crossover exchange, crossover counter, rules for calling assist, delayed hyper combo, basic OTG rules, X-Factor, etc.) and one air combo and one combo into super for each character.

Of course, that’s not the most exciting way to crack into a new game–especially one I’ve been waiting 10 years for. But there’s no point in picking up a new game and immediately jumping into Vs. mode because I don’t have a working understanding of the game rules, the underlying strategy, or the moves at my disposal. It would be like playing Rock Paper Scissors without knowing what the three options were–even if I managed to gesticulate wildly in a way that would be accepted as a win, I wouldn’t know why I won.

However, jumping into multiplayer as soon as possible is important. That’s because most people spend too long on the “building a base” part. They’ll play through the single-player campaign in StarCraft II for a month before ever venturing online, and when they’re soundly trounced by a 6-pooling scrub they swear never to return, because in spite of their month of solid play they got completely served. Or maybe they’ll play against the CPU a bunch in Street Fighter, so they can unlock all the endings. Then they hop on Xbox Live and get owned with a quickness, even though they can beat the game with every single character, and they’ll go to GameStop and find a game that makes them feel less bad about themselves and sell their MadCatz TE stick on eBay.

Playing against other people makes you a better player. It teaches you the rules of the game (for example: Sentinel loses to good zoning players, Immortals beat Roaches and Marauders), and it teaches you the metagame (try and open Hatchery before Spawning Pool in close positions against a Terran player and you’ll have Bunkers in your backyard). Playing single-player anything doesn’t really do this. So the idea is to get you online, with sufficient command of the game that you can beat someone else, as quickly as possible. In order to do that, you’ll need the following:

  1. A basic command of the moves/units/rules at play. “If he builds air units, I need units that shoot up” or “If my main character is severely hurt, I can tag him out to let him restore his health” are both examples of this.
  2. The physical execution necessary to put #1 to work. If you can’t consistently make Supply Depots or combo into your supers, there’s no point in learning new build orders or higher-damage combos because you won’t be able to do any better with them.

If you’re just playing against the CPU or in the campaign, you could play for months–years, even–without developing either of the above. That’s because there’s almost no cost to failure. You can reload your saves, or continue, and it doesn’t even cost you a quarter any more. When you’re playing someone else, there’s an emotional weight to it, because you’re putting your various skills to the test against someone else and coming up short.

Step 2: Lose.

Now that you have a functional base under your belt, you’re ready to Test Your Might.

I said in Step 1 that I wanted to learn the MVC3 game engine as quick as possible. Once I’ve learned enough of the game to make reasonably informed decisions (When to use my X-Factor, when to switch my characters out, which order to put my team in, how to use my meter), my goal shifts from learning the rules of the game to learning the content of the game–characters, moves, matchups, combos. Now, I could sit down and pick each individual character in Training Mode, do their Missions, and so on, but that takes time. A lot of time. Instead, I jump online and start playing. I’ll have my fair share of wins, especially if it’s a new game and lots of people are going through the same learning process, but I’ll have plenty of losses, too. Each time I lose, I’m taking mental notes about what I’m losing to. After all, if it beat me, it might just beat someone else.

Note that I’m not immediately jumping ship to whatever I lost to. Since I know next to nothing about the game, there’s no point abandoning the team I’ve been working with after a bad loss or 10–part of getting better at the game is, well, getting better at the game. What’s more, switching up my team would mean that I’d have to spend more time in training mode, getting my combos up to snuff and such. In the beginning, that’s not such a bad thing, but if you’re a competitive gamer, you don’t want your first thought following a loss to be “Man, I should change my (Team/Character/Race/Build etc.)”. Instead, you should be thinking about how to make it work with your existing team. After all, if you switch to a new character, you might not have that problem with that particular matchup, but assuming the game designers have done their job, you’ll have a whole new host of matchups you’ll have to learn anew.

For example, I interviewed notorious StarCraft 2 player Greg “EG.IdrA” Fields a while back for PCWorld, and he said he’s so infuriated at the state of the game balance (basically, that Zerg is disadvantaged) that he felt like it was better for his pro gaming development to play less than it would be to switch to a difference race, because he’d have to start so far behind and unlearn a lot of stuff that he’s worked on as Zerg to try something else.

Some of the time, you’ll be losing for easily fixable reasons: You didn’t block high, you didn’t block low, you dropped the combo, you messed up a wall-in. Fix those ASAP so you can focus on the losses you’re taking for less-apparent reasons because those are how you really get better.

Step 3: Iterate.

(Sorry, no relevant song this time.)

When I first started playing MVC3, my go-to team was Zero/Sentinel/Storm. I found out pretty quickly that Zero and Sentinel had some pretty good synergy (both are excellent on point, and Sentinel’s drones assist helps cover Zero’s rushdown) and Storm’s hailstorm super was pretty good for catching assists or chipping characters to death. However, Storm just wasn’t doing it for me. She’s versatile, but I’m not nearly as comfortable rushing down with her as I am with Zero, and her assist isn’t very useful. Additionally, that team doesn’t have much to help deal with rushdown characters, meaning lots of games against other rushdown-friendly teams were decided by who landed the first hit.

After sticking to that team for a good week and a half, I decided to try out Haggar as my third character, since I had seen his assist put to good use in the Winter Brawl tournament. Turns out his Double Lariat assist is Bad Ass, and he’s plenty dangerous on point, too. The core of my team is still Zero/Sentinel, so it’s not as if I’m playing a completely different game–I’m just figuring out different ways to enhance that pair.

Part of this process means learning how to play Haggar, of course, but that’s not nearly as intimidating as learning a new team from scratch. (The StarCraft 2 analogue would probably be opening with Phoenixes instead of a Robotics Facility, for example.) If I decide that I’ve hit the ceiling with this team and it’s simply not good enough, I may end up swapping out Zero (who is good, and easy to play, but doesn’t offer the same rewards that a more technical rushdown character like Magneto does) and keeping Sentinel and Haggar. Or maybe I’ll swap Sentinel out for Dormammu, who is also very good at fullscreen control but isn’t locked down as easily by runaway/zoning characters.

Either way, I’m gradually building up my skills in a very focused, specific manner–making changes meant to make certain matchups easier and harder. From here on out, the game is about practice, practice, practice–but for 90% of the people you’ll come across in your lifetime, you’ll be able to beat them just because you started playing the game smarter than they did.

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One Response to How To Get Good At Anything

  1. Pingback: MVC3 as a Spectator Sport | Palette Swaps

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