Going in Blind

Link Eyes

If you know you have to go in blind, can you do anything to tip the odds in your favor? Well, there are two broad strategies we can consider. One is the haphazard learner and the other is the optimized flexibility strategy.

In one of my previous posts (or 2 :P) I talked about how I try to constantly run the numbers and probabilities through my mind to make sure I am limiting risk and maximizing reward when I can. Since this isn’t always possible, I wanted to touch on the idea of going in blind.

It’s fine to say that I am always running the probabilities in the back of my mind and  minimizing the casualties and likelihood of unfavorable events, but that “always” would be a lie. Sometimes, the numbers just are not available, so what can we do? Let’s start by considering some of these instances with missing information.

Rock, Paper, Scissors:

My friend was talking to me a while back about the rock/paper/scissors nature of Zerg vs Zerg battles in Starcraft. I am in no way educated enough to break down the intricacies of it, but from what I understand/remember there are three basic builds for a Zerg player and each somewhat trumps one of the other two.

Since there is fog of war, the macro setup has to at least begin with no knowledge of the opponent’s choices. Sure you can send a scout to try to find the enemy’s starting spot, and from then on, if/when you find time to analyze the opponents choices you can try to play accordingly. But the wheels have to be turning very early in RTSs, and switching strategies often implies wasted resources, which can be a big issue in a highly competitive space.

Epic Bosses:

Another example of this is with bosses in RPGs. For the most part, we have absolutely no idea what we are getting into when the big bad guy pops out. We don’t know his stats or his move set. We can consider certain elements based on how the game sets expectations and perhaps general gaming stereotypes, but for the most part Mr. Awesome Badass Enemy is an unknown entity on the first attempt.

Lucifer from Devil Survivor is coming to mind. I saw the battle and tried it out under the false impression that I had a remote chance of victory. If anyone beat this guy on the first try without a guide, I applaud them, because my characters were quite ramped up and he tossed me aside like I had never played the game before. It took me another playthrough of the game to do the prep work I wanted to beat this guy. That first time I fought him, there were no numbers to run and lots of death to be had.

So What do We Do?

If you know you have to go in blind, can you do anything to tip the odds in your favor? Well, there are two broad strategies we can consider. One is the haphazard learner and the other is the optimized flexibility strategy.

The Haphazard Learner:

As a haphazard learner, I may take a quick stab at a boss and go in entirely for the purpose of learning. I won’t change any equipment or do any preparation; I just jump in and see what comes out. This focus on analysis can help get the ball rolling.

I will quickly have a sense of physical or magical attacks work best, or if the boss is meant to be a long term grind (Yiazmat) or a puzzler (Paper Mario: Sticker Star), or any number of other elements. The strategy is practical and often saves a lot of real-world time because a focused strategy is easier and more efficient than a broad strategy and retrying is often low cost in game environments.

The strategy is practical and often saves a lot of real-world time because a focused strategy is easier and more efficient than a broad strategy and retrying is often low cost in game environments.

This strategy can be problematic in that 1) it can take away from the immersion. Who wants to step into a battle versus some epic behemoth of a creature unprepared, under-equipped and a strategy that expects death? 2) Sometimes there are huge consequences in games for dying. Less so in newer games, but often older games would not have convenient saves or retry buttons.

Optimized Flexibility:

If these are major issues for you, then perhaps door number two is the better route… cue the optimized flexibility strategy. Here we may not know what we are getting into, but we put a lot of time into making a meaningful strategy. It may not be as focused as a second attempt strategy that knows the enemy’s tendencies, but there can be something magical about that first try struggle.

It may not be as focused as a second attempt strategy that knows the enemy’s tendencies, but there can be something magical about that first try struggle.

These strategies will generally be well-balanced, making sure that the player can address any and everything, from status effects, to heavy damage output, to amazing defenses. Perhaps this strategy can even take some educated risks based on aesthetics. It’s a turtle? Likely defensive. It’s a plant? Probably weak against fire. The usual game expectation stereotypes. Under the optimized flexibility umbrella, we get an additional layer of Fantasy and Challenge to confront tasks within the fiction of the game.

Under the optimized flexibility umbrella, we get an additional layer of Fantasy and Challenge to confront tasks within the fiction of the game.

The problem with this strategy is that it can be a bit of a waste of time in some cases. I could put quite a lot of time into coming up with some perfectly balanced strategy but if the boss leans heavily on one strategy, a balance won’t be enough to fend off a full blown onslaught from one direction, or if the boss is easy, there was not much need for the extra efforts.

One of the first Final Fantasy X arena uber bosses was heavily geared towards spamming status effects. While a well balanced strategy could take this on a minimal level, the excess and speed of his status blasting attacks wiped my party fast and sent me back to the drawing board.

Also, puzzler style bosses often ruin well balanced strategies. In Sticker Star, each boss has a weakness sticker. While a good assortment of stickers could get me through some bosses, often a quick look at the boss gave a solid hint towards his downfall.

It is unfair to say that the optimized flexibility strategy is objectively more of the time waster. There is definitely a balancing act of time efficiency between the two strategies. On a very basic level, there are games where the difficulty curve is set such that a well balanced strategy may breeze through the game. This is clearly faster than banging your head against every boss just to find some weakness that is not really particularly necessary.

Darkness in Life

It’s pretty clear that in games, sometimes we just need to go in blind. Does this parallel life? Absolutely!

There is darkness to be explored everywhere: explorers who once charted the globe; mathematicians and scientists asking for grants based on a small glimmer of possibility; entrepreneurs starting something brand new, sitting on an inclination of how to make the world a better place (or how to make more money).

With that in mind, what can we take away from the games? I think the two strategies above are very active players in tackling a blind task.

Haphazard Learner

Many tasks in life are just easier to learn by failing once or twice. You do not learn to crawl and then walk and run with an optimized flexibility strategy. The baby is up… and the baby is down. The baby is up…… aannnnnddd… baby down. But he gets up again, undeterred.

Babies are not the only ones that can benefit from being haphazard learners. There have been so many times I have sat back and tried to really analyze a puzzling situation with poor success, but the moment I got my hands dirty, took some wrong turns, guessed a couple wrong answers, it all started to move along so much faster.

…the moment I got my hands dirty, took some wrong turns, guessed a couple wrong answers, it all started to move along so much faster.

Learning a new language is a great example. I always struggled to learn new languages because I could never get myself to just speak it without fear of being wrong. I found comfort in grammar rules and the mechanics of the languages, but could never manage to support that base with a fast and hard strategy to help get accustomed to speaking and listening.

Optimized Flexibility

Let’s not forget the strategy of optimized flexibility. This can be crucial when the risk of failure is high. Let’s consider the explorers of old. I think being a haphazard learner may not be the best route when facing unknown (but fairly certain) death from multiple sources.

Some more modern day examples may be standardized tests that you only get to take once or an interview for your dream job. A soldier in a war is another example. It’s not a good idea to haphazardly learn on the battlefield. If you screw these up, there could be bad ramifications.

Sometimes it is not clear what the best strategy is. Take an entrepreneur for example. Starting something out of nothing is extremely hard and can be very costly. There is definitely a mindset for utilizing either strategy, or even using them in parallel for varied tasks.

Say you are building an application. If it is not that costly, then perhaps try to make a dinky app and get it out there. It forces you to think about the entire process start to end, and even if it is not the big money maker, you will be more prepared to deal with the bottlenecks and hurdles in the process.

On the other hand, often entrepreneurs only hit it big when they do not back down with an idea. Taking something to the next level requires an element of dedication to an idea that you will not find as much in the haphazard learner. However, coupling that with the dedication to a goal that often burns within the haphazard learner can be a powerful force that will help make the hard decision to abandon a sinking ship or patch the leaky vessel.

Taking something to the next level requires an element of dedication to an idea that you will not find as much in the haphazard learner. However, coupling that with the dedication to a goal that often burns within the haphazard learner can be a powerful force…

A Quick Side Note

Interestingly, there has been a lot of talk about how gamers are quite proficient at what I have been calling the haphazard learner. If the degree of consequence is one of the key mainstays of how to choose between these strategies, it makes a lot of sense that games may lean on the side of the haphazard learner because there are not terrible consequences in a game.

At the end of the day, generally the worst that can happen is that the game sets the player back so much that the experience is not enjoyable anymore and the gamer puts down the game. The consequence would then be feeling slightly jipped on the $60 you paid?

This diffusion of consequence thus often comes coupled with a bit of a haphazard learning element. You learn to dodge moves, read tells and hit weakness in a Castlevania by trying over and over again. There is that constant reinforcement of getting a little better without much setback.

This diffusion of consequence thus often comes coupled with a bit of a haphazard learning element.

Closing Thoughts

Thanks for sticking around. I know it was a long one. It was pretty long and then Dust had a bunch of awesome thoughts to chime in with, so it just got longer! But that’s it for now. Let me know what you guys think. When you are going in blind do you consider your “strategy” or just wing it? Do you think games help teach a haphazard learning strategy? Also, do you have a Rock/Paper/Scissors strategy?!

Thanks for reading! Game on and learn on!

~Dyl

4 thoughts on “Going in Blind

  1. wylliamjudd

    If you don’t have any chance of beating a boss with a well planned and flexible strategy, there might be something wrong with the way the game is designed. Thinking through the game’s mechanics and devising a strategy is much more satisfying to me than going in for a second run. That’s not to say I have to beat every encounter on the first try, but I don’t want to be forced into a specific strategy to beat any given encounter.

    Reply
    1. connorbros Post author

      My brother is 100% that way too. I’m a little more on the fence. First off, I would say there are very few bosses that I would say you TRULY have no chance against with a well planned flexible strategy, and most the guys who are coming to mind are in that post game, uber boss kind of category (the secret bosses in Etrian Odyssey for example).

      I’m not a designer, but I would image it’s very hard from a design perspective to have a boss have his weaknesses and then have him be a reasonable fight for a balanced party. I feel like this often leads to him either being a joke when you use weaknesses or extremely hard when you don’t. Ideally, I feel like it would be great for it to be an amazing battle for a balanced strategy and reasonably hard even for a focused-on-weaknesses strategy because people are going to play the game in entirely different ways. I guess you get this by toying with relevance of weaknesses and that variance in the two experiences?

      I do think it is kind of interesting when you have bosses that are purely puzzles. Not for an entire game maybe, but for a couple of bosses. Straight up: here are the tools, here is the battle, put the pieces together. When done right, these can be interesting to me even if they screw over a balanced strategy.

      One very simple solution that I think is rarely done that Dust mentioned, is the ability to escape a boss battle. For whatever reason, RPGs got it in their mind that you should never be able to escape a boss battle. It’s just not a choice. Where I think being able to kind of balance the flexible strategy and the haphazard learner strategy within the fiction of the game by just hightailing it and regrouping would be interesting. Maybe you make it harder to escape bosses to keep the tension high. Or maybe you can escape some and not others. Say a troll is guarding a bridge… why would he run after you if ran away? On the other hand, their could be a battle where you are trying to save a companions life, and it doesn’t make sense that you should be able to run away. So maybe there is a space to toy with the difficulties of those boss battles based on if the player has the ability to escape or not.

      ~Dyl

      Reply
      1. wylliamjudd

        I guess it’s a bit like a plot twist. Plot twists are great when they’re not contrived. To avoid being contrived, a plot twist needs to give you barely (or almost) enough information to figure it out before it happens. If a boss is a puzzle, the game leading up to that puzzle should give you enough information to solve the puzzle.

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