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Rock Paper Scissors - and why games don't really get it

The Rock Paper Scissors game design analogy and why most game designers are missing the point

Anthony Oakden, Blogger

November 20, 2012

3 Min Read

The Rock Paper Scissors and why games don't get it

I was inspired to write this blog after reading this excellent post about Richard Garfield and Magic the Gathering. It's topical for me because this is the game most of my students are playing at the moment, and Richard has a lot of inciteful things to say as to why the game is so successful. But one thing he says niggles me a bit. “Rock-paper-scissors’ structure — where every element of a game is strong against a different element — is incredibly helpful to keep in mind while balancing”.

OK so what’s wrong with that? On the face of it it’s true. In the game rock paper scissors (hence forth abbreviated to RPS) every move is potentially a winning and a losing move. So you choose your move knowing that there is an even chance of either winning or losing, play against another person and it’s fun, my kids love playing it.

What game designers often claim is that because RPS works so well it makes a great template for a game design where every element in a game should be balanced by another element. So weapons are balanced by rate of fire, reload times, pitted against matching armour etc.  Great effort is put into making sure that weapons and armour have weeknesses and strength so there is no "one size fits all" winning strategy.

But is it this balancing which makes the original RPS fun? Well there is a big difference IMO between the way this system is used in most computer games and the way it works in the original game. In RPS players go simultaneously and they play blind.  In other words you have no idea what the other person is going to play. 

How can that be fun?  The game play comes from the fun of playing with another human and trying to double guess what they are likely to play next. In fact there are tournaments for RPS where players go for big prizes and some people are clearly much better at the game than others even though on the face of it the game is pure chance.

I’d suggest it’s because some people are much better at reading the emotions of others (much like in Poker) and much better at predicting what someone else is likely to do. That’s what makes RPS fun, not the perfectly balanced game design, which on paper at least, looks pretty dull.

My problem is that when game designers take inspiration from RPS they usually don’t retain this core play element, the simultaneous blind play against a human opponent. In computer games the player usually chooses the weapon or armour after seeing what the enemy has.  It becomes a tactical choice in other words.  

So the game play comes down to nothing more than the player learning what weapons and strategies work in particular places and sticking to that optimum strategy. Personally I don’t think this is interesting and it’s one of the principle reasons I don’t play RPG any more.  

I'm not saying weapons and armour shoudn't be balanced or that all games should make use of blind/simultaneous play.  But I think we need to be a bit more careful about how we reference Rock Paper Scissors in our discussions. 

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