The REMA Model part 5: Mastery games

The REMA series continues. Recall, the hope is that by understanding the different modes and how they relate, we can improve the fractured conversation around games, and thus better understand and improve our games. Today, Mastery games. The oldest, most challenging, and most competitive games. And the games that have built the most dedicated fan bases ever seen.

Mastery mode is the third and often final stage of the gamer’s learning process. In Mastery mode players ask themselves “How can I do better?” Mastery players are trying to play the best, and they will play over and over again to do so. They are the optimizers, the min-maxers, the competitors, the soon-to-be-experts at their game. Mastery mode is what we historically played games for, and it is the REMA phase most unique to games from other mediums.

Mastery games maximize the Mastery mode of play. They try and get players quickly to the third stage and keep them there with deep, unsolvable systems. They are about expressing skill. These are games about competition, player vs. player, and playing to win. They are the “Try again” games. These games are more then just interesting choices. They are about interesting predictions as well, about beating the average. While difficult to make and sustain, they have the most dedicated players. The Mastery designer’s primary role is to provide systems that can’t easily be solved, and where success and failure can be measured relative to some external standard.

Chess. Poker. Soccer. Mine-sweeper. Street Fighter 2. Magic: The Gathering. Counter-Strike. Starcraft. Games that have carved swathes across human culture for generations. Nearly all board and card games are Mastery games. While competitive play is common, Mastery games can be single player too, such as Solitaire. The key is Mastery games present success as a repeated quest for victory. Mastery player’s repeated attempts at perfect play fits the world of sports and races. In fact, they are so similar that I often just think of sports as Mastery games. It is no accident that eSports have arisen out of Mastery games, and only Mastery games.

A reminder here. The players choose how they are going to play your game. While X-Com might be an Experiment game, the 10th time through a player is very likely to be a Mastery player. The designer only has the power to guide players through the modes. And, because of the traits of each mode, designs can usually target only 1 mode at any given point of play time*. So when we talk about Mastery games, we are talking about games that were designed to be mastered by the majority of its players.

Mastery games are hard-core, by definition. You aren’t just playing any more, you’re striving. You’re practicing. You’re competing. You’re earning victory. Our verbs change from Experiment verbs (like “play” and “imagine”) to sports verbs. We all engage in Mastery play at some point in our lives, but it’s not often we commit to it seriously. But when we do, that game becomes special. And when other people start to push the boundaries of perfection, we love to stop and watch.

Mastery play has evolved Mastery games over centuries to share common traits:

  1. Deep. Can’t be easy to master. The best mastery games are not just deep, but unsolvable.
  2. Highly Replayable. The best path to mastery is to practice over and over and over.
  3. Very Short. Short games make it easier to learn from your mistakes, analyze, and try again.
  4. Balanced. The game can’t have optimum choices that preclude all other choices, or it won’t be worth mastering.
  5. Low Number of Choices. Plus, lots of choices can make the game harder to learn and perfect. Thus, “elegance” is highly prized, designing the minimum number of choices necessary to make the game meaningful.
  6. Punishing Consequences. The results of player’s choices must be significant to distinguish experts from non-experts. Mistakes are often punished.
  7. Little Randomness. Randomness used carelessly can hide skill, so it is only used in strict, analyzable chunks.
  8. Skill Driven. Expertise is about demonstrating skill, so Mastery games are full of difficult skill choices.
  9. Difficult to Execute Skills. Additionally, skill can be demonstrated in execution, so choices often require difficult to execute skills (such as physical dexterity).
  10. Analog Choices. Another way to make choices difficult-to-master is to make them analog (as in choices with infinite possible responses, like timing, moving, or aiming through space).
  11. Clear Game State. To optimize your play, it helps to understand all the details of play. Lots of exposed numbers, and clear “Do X and Win” are the designer’s marching orders. No mystery or surprises.
  12. System Driven. Choices means systems first, not content first. That makes Mastery development teams similar to Experiment teams, except they are focused on very tight, sharp systems.
  13. Specific, External Success. What it takes to win a Mastery game is often very clearly defined, either by the designer or (interestingly) the community. For example specific end states (like Capture The Flag), leaderboards, or other players failing a task.
  14. No Cheating. Unlike Experiment games, breaking the rules is strictly forbidden. Winners need to be unambiguous. Referees are common, and cheaters are banned. (One of the big knocks against figure skating as a sport is that the scoring is perceived to be corruptible.)
  15. One Small Place. Mastery games take place in small arenas, if they have a space at all. Tighter spaces limit choices, force difficulty decisions, and push players towards thinking about mastery.
  16. What Narrative? Narrative is seen as distracting, for someone else. Any themes of the game are either an oft-ignored content veneer or deeply buried in the game’s systems.
  17. Regular Design Updates. One common way to make a game both unsolvable and balanced is to constantly change small pieces of the rules.
  18. Tight Communities. The deep analysis, the commitment to master, and the (common) multi-player requirement tends to create very tight, dedicated communities.
  19. Meta-game. The discussion and analyze of the group creates a meta-game around the game itself. Updating tends to feed this meta-game as well.
  20. Audience. Tight communities and meta-gaming often leads to groups more interested in watching experts then playing themselves.

Of these traits, Highly Replayable, Very Short, Balanced, High Consequences, Analog Choices, Difficult to Master Skills, Clear Game State, No Cheating, One Small Place, What Narrative?, Regular Design Updates, Tight Communities, Meta-game, and Audience are unique to Mastery games. Mastery games are rather unique! Most of the other traits are shared with Rollercoaster games, which has helped the long-running blockbuster trend of combining a single-player Rollercoaster game with a multiplayer Mastery game.

Like Experiment designers, Mastery designers are often systems designers. But they are in search of elegance rather then emergence. They know how to create deep, unsolvable systems. To get players to “Try Again” over and over. Many are PvP game designers or interested in the behavior of communities. Mastery designers often seek to affect primitive emotions – aggression, dominance, fear, adrenaline, victory, flow. The best can carve those impulses into meaning, teaching deep truths about how humans tick and skills that improve player’s lives.

Historically, Mastery games pre-date computers, and made the transition rather roughly. Traditional video game critics often don’t even have the time or a competitive environment to effectively review a Mastery game in, and their scores have correspondingly suffered. And while intensely popular with their committed fans, Mastery games tend to have the smallest initial audience, and thus made the least amount of money in the storefront business model. These have been changing, however, and mastery games are making a big (and largely unnoticed) comeback.

Their sub-genres need further study. Obvious starting points are PvP games, solo-games, and cooperative games, but the mechanical distinctions seem deeper then that. If you have any thoughts, post them in the comments!

Next time, our final and strangest mode – Application!

* It’s not a hard rule that games can only have one REMA mode. It’s not like designers should stop making games that don’t easily fit into these categories. The evidence is that it’s just particularly hard.

Edit: added skill-driven trait.

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