Patrick Miller’s Top 5 Games of 2011

| patrick

I joked to my fellow insert credistas a while back that I wasn’t any good at those weekly “What Are You Playing This Weekend?” staff poll pieces because my answer would be the same practically every week. Dark Souls? Call of Duty? Nope, just StarCraft 2, every week for a good 9 months or so.

Needless to say, I don’t play that many games these days. But I do play good ones, and I do play bad ones, so here we go: Patrick Miller’s Top Games of 2011, starting here. Note that I don’t really give a shit about things like release dates, so if you’re expecting a strict analysis of the 2011 videojuego canon, that’s not what you’ll get here.

5: Deus Ex: Human Revolution (PC)

Deus Ex was great, 11 years ago. It holds up reasonably well today, if you can forgive the actual first-person shooter part for not being comparable to our modern-day festival of polished dicks. (If there’s one thing the games industry can look back upon with pride, it’s that over the last two decades of video game development they’ve gotten really good at making games that start with a human hand holding a gun.) But really, that was the least interesting part about the original Deus Ex.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

If I were working at a game dev studio that was in contention to make a new Deus Ex, I imagine that I would (naively) bust my fucking ass to get the contract, because I loved Deus Ex (in fact, I loved it so much that I never played the second one). Then one day, I would find out that we got the assignment, and I would sit down and let it wash over me: We’re making the next Deus Ex!

Which would slowly turn into:

Fuck. We…we’re making the next Deus Ex.

And then we would start the four-year process of trying to find a way to draw compromises between the realities of making a modern big-budget video game, and the noble ideals of the original–which I would characterize as “Thou shalt encourage the player to tear this game apart to the seams, yet never force the player to encounter a limitation, neither in design nor technology, which makes them think ‘oh man, I really wish they’d let me do that“.

Now, you can go back and play Deus Ex with updated texture packs and renders, and you’ll realize that Liberty Island is actually so pointlessly big that it simply magnifies how limited it is by its technology (polygons in the mist don’t do much for atmosphere), but back then it felt, well, magical and splendid and amazing, because every time you tried to break it, it just winked at you and said  “Dude, that was cool”.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is #5 on my list for a few reasons. A secondary reason is that I didn’t play that many games I liked (but I did play the shit out of this one). The primary reason is that it felt like an Adult Game. When you’re debuting a new IP, you can afford to be a stubborn teenager that does everything its own way because that is the way that makes the most sense to do things to you, and goddamn it even if you end  up producing an ungodly broken mess, at least it’s your mess, built upon uncompromising ideals that have yet to encounter the real world. That shit won’t fly the second time around. Everyone is expecting you to deliver the free-roaming, fully interactive world you promised the first time. Of course, no one can actually do that, because you didn’t promise them that game. They think you did, because they played your game and let their minds fill the carefully-left blanks in with a game far more amazing than anyone could ever make, and now you’re the sucker that has to try and live up to that with a game that is exactly the best game in the world to everyone at once or you’re a fraud.

So Deus Ex: Human Revolution comes  in and says, hey, guy, we grew up, and we think you should, too. And if you play this game the way we made  it, with QTE melee attacks and hacking mini-games and crappy boss fights, it won’t be the game you think you were playing eleven years ago, but it’ll still be a pretty cool game. Because we think you’ve played a game or two since Deus Ex dropped 11 years ago, and you know the time. We can’t make the game you want. But we’ll make you a game that lets you know we understand what you loved about the original, and we’ll do our best to do it justice in what is, essentially, a completely different game wrapped in the skin of the thing you loved.

It’s bittersweet, truly. As it turns out, they took a game where the combat was basically so shitty you _wanted_ to explore the levels (to either avoid enemies, or find tricky ways to kill guys that didn’t involve head-on confrontation), and made a game where the combat is actually the most fun part. The combat is fun enough to break, anyway, which is why I did exactly that and beat the game, on Hard, without dying once. (I wrote a thing about this, which should go up here once someone finds time to edit it.)

And just to pre-empt the commenters: Yeah, the boss fights suck. Fortunately, it’s not hard to  beat each one in a matter of seconds with the right gear and augs, and then happily go on your way and pretend that it never happened.

In short: Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a compromise between the memories of games better than the ones we actually played, and the realities of the modern game industry. It’s not perfect, and it knows it, and it’s a little better for that.

4: Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty (PC)

Yes, the game came out in 2010. But it wasn’t the same game that came in a box in 2010, and that’s the point of including it on this list.

Competitive games are a tricky bunch to evaluate, because your enjoyment of the game is directly related to how good everyone is at playing the game. Street Fighter III: Third Strike is a perfect example, since the game hasn’t changed in any significant material sense since it was released X years ago, but it experienced a competitive revival in the mid-aughts that helped the Street Fighter competitive scene survive the dark ages. Fact is, it’s a more enjoyable game now than it was 10 years ago.

Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty

Starcraft 2 has had a long time to mature since its release in late 2010, and it has only gotten better with age, in two major ways: The way the game is actually played is more fun than it was last year, and the community surrounding the game has birthed something incredible that makes the game even more awesome.

Let’s start with the first part: The game is actually more fun to play.

There’s no doubt that, for a newbie, Starcraft 2 is probably the most frustrating experience on the market. That doesn’t seem to be changing any time soon, though it’s worth pointing out that multiplayer Brood War was infinitely more painful to grow up with than SC2. You have to understand the game at a certain fundamental level to succeed online. You have to understand the phases of the game, build orders, fundamental micromanagement skills, and specific map strategies, or else you will not be able to win with any regularity. If you cannot win, you will not enjoy this game. With very rare exceptions, it’s a game that is only fun if you win. Fortunately, a reasonably intelligent adult gamer can learn those basics in a week or two of dedicated study, with the right practice partners and educational materials, at which point the game starts to get fun.

The reason Starcraft 2 has gotten more fun over the past year is that, for the most part, people online have stepped up their game, and Blizzard has meticulously patched the game to be More Fun.

That’s not quite true. Blizzard has the unenviable position of bearing the standard for the world of eSports. Imagine being in charge of the rules to the first televised, organized football game ever, and being told, “Look, this has to be fun to watch as well as play”. People don’t want to see early-game Reaper rushes out of five Barracks every game, so you patch that unit into irrelevance. Very few people want to watch a single SC2 match last longer than 40 minutes at the most, so you design smaller maps and implement an army size limit that effectively encourages most games to last 20 minutes or so. And so on. Is that More Fun? In some cases, yes–though I liked the Reaper a lot. In other cases, not quite.

Still, competitive Starcraft 2 one year ago had a lot of mindless one-base all-in rushes (which were boring to play against and watch), lots of boring matchups (Protoss vs. Protoss and Zerg vs. Zerg come to mind), and a relative dearth of creative strategies. Also, the competitive map pool was fucking terrible (Steppes of War? Blistering Sands? That one god-awful Desert something map?).

One year later, we have a good mix of builds for each race (including the occasional one-base all-in to keep us honest), better maps, less-shitty Protoss vs. Protoss, and generally speaking, a Better Game.

The funny thing is that the balance patches didn’t really do that much, in the grand scheme of things. Hellions became awesome pretty much overnight once BoxeR and the rest of team SlayerS came to an MLG tournament and rolled the entire arena with them. Infestors went from unimpressive to must-kill units just because a few guys started actually building games around them instead of just using them for Neural Parasite (which, as it turns out, is probably their least useful ability). Blizzard deserves all the credit in the world for making a great game, but the reality is that we really didn’t learn how to play it until 2011.

Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty (second image)

Now let’s talk about the community.

Raising a SC2 player takes a village. Maybe that village is a thread on a forum you already frequent. Maybe it’s the r/starcraft subreddit, or the Team Liquid strategy forums. In order to play the game at a reasonably skilled level, you need a place to ask questions, swap replays, diagnose bad habits, and otherwise shoot the competitive shit.

It’s no secret that Starcraft 2 has absolutely blown up in the last year. I like to say that this is in spite of, rather than because of, the game itself. As a spectator sport, it’s harder to watch than cricket. As a game, it’s harder to learn how to play than…well, just about anything I can think of, really. (The obvious comparison is Chess, but Chess doesn’t require you to perform 200 actions per minute.) But the game is full of a million borderline-religious zealots who have not only devoted themselves to the craft of playing the game, but of teaching it.

That is to say: It’s a hard game to watch, but the players wanted to watch it. So they started commentating the games to make them easier to watch and more exciting. Now, Starcraft 2 commentators are worlds ahead of any other competitive video game–to the point that good commentators are celebrities as big (if not bigger) than the players themselves, and the presence of certain folks can make or break a big event.

Likewise: It’s a hard game to play, but people wanted to learn how. So they got good at the game, then got good at teaching others how to play. Go watch the Day[9] Daily and you’ll see what I mean–this guy puts on a live-streamed hour-long show 5 days a week (ish) that basically dissects the game to death. There is no other game that has anywhere near this kind of love and attention lavished upon it, and the game is better for it.

So: Why is Starcraft 2 “only” 4th on my list of top 5 games of the year? Lord knows it’s the one I spent the most time and energy on.

Some competitive games have the stamina to last for years, if the players deem it worthy. Brood War was one of those games. So were Marvel vs. Capcom 2 and Capcom vs. SNK 2. Tiers and dominant strategies fluctuated over the years. The meta-game changed, and players learned how to do ever-more impressive techniques. New glitches were discovered that changed the competitive landscape and kept things fresh and new.

Some games have this mojo. Others don’t. Third Strike, bless its heart, doesn’t really change from year to year. Ken, Chun, Yun. It’s still fun, but it was somewhat stagnant.

Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty has grown so much since last year. Unfortunately, it feels like it’s starting to plateau into a rather predictable rhythm. That rhythm is still fun, and complicated, and a million other great things, but it still feels, to me, like it’s being designed to play in a very specific way, and that intention is keeping it from joining the five-year club (which is probably the point, since a new expansion pack is due out soonish).

For example: I play Terran. Terran is undisputably the most versatile race out of the bunch; we have an incredible diversity of early-game openings that are difficult to scout and prepare for, and if you don’t respond adequately, you’re going to give me a huge advantage going into the mid-game. But no matter the opening strategy, 90% of Terran/Zerg games are going to pit Marines, Medevacs, and Siege Tanks against Zerglings, Banelings, and Mutalisks in the mid-game, with the Terran player adding more Ghosts in the late-game and the Zerg player using Infestors and Brood Lords in the late-game.

This is because the fundamental threat in this matchup is the Terran Marine, which is incredibly cost-effective against both Zerglings and Roaches, the Zerg player’s staple tier 1 and tier 1.5 units. Put simply: If the Terran player builds nothing but Marines, and the Zerg player nothing but Zerglings and Roaches, the Terran player will most likely have an easier time of it. Add upgrades to the mix, and the Marine is deadlier. Add Medevacs–which can heal Marines and carry them behind enemy lines to harass workers and tech buildings–and they become deadlier still.

So a Zerg player needs Banelings to wreck groups of Marines relatively cheaply, and Zerglings to pin down groups of Marines so they don’t run away before the Banelings come. In response, the Terran player will build Siege Tanks, which can demolish groups of Banelings before they make it to the Marines. So the Zerg player adds Mutalisks to the mix, which can pick off stray tanks and Medevac drops, or harass the Terran base so the Terran player is scared to leave their base for fear of losing worker units to Mutalisk raids. However, Mutalisks lose to groups of Marines. So each side has their respective tools, and success or failure in any given game depends on control, economy, and a million other factors. It’s a beautiful thing.

The problem is, that’s really the main way to play Terran vs. Zerg. Roaches aren’t really useful outside of early game rushes because they lose to Marines in the long run, which means the Terran player rarely needs to make Marauders–which means they have more money to spend on Marines and Tanks. Zerg have early-game anti-air covered by the Queen, and mid-game anti-air covered by Mutalisks, so Terrans rarely make Banshees in this matchup, which means they don’t need Tech Labs on their Starports, which means Ravens and Battlecruisers are less likely later on (well that and, let’s face it, they suck).

Outside of the mirror matches, most of Wings of Liberty is like this. There are a dozen ways to get from Point A to Point B to Point C, but the ideal end-state is always the same. Some folks will say that it’s just because we haven’t been playing Starcraft 2 nearly as long as people played Brood War; I disagree. Older games like Brood War and Marvel vs. Capcom 2 were accidentally awesome; there were layers upon layers of competitive gameplay that we had to uncover for ourselves because no one–not even the designers–knew they were there. After all, how do you balance a game for players who are operating at five times the speed of the average player when you’ve never seen people play a game like that in your life? All you can do is give them the tools and hope that when your game finally breaks, it does so in a million glorious sparks.

Not so any more. The world of competitive game design has lost its innocence. That’s why we have X-Factor, that’s why we have Revenge Meters, that’s why our SC2 games are supposed to go on for 15 minutes. We have begun to make these games intentional, not accidental, and we’re still figuring out how to do that. Perhaps one day we’ll play a competitive game that feels instantly timeless, a game that makes Starcraft 2 and Street Fighter IV feel overwrought and crude, a game that is an eSport the way soccer is a sport. Until then, Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty will have to settle for fourth place. It’s a good fourth, though.

3: Marvel vs. Capcom 3 / Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3

Few games this year persuaded me to put down Starcraft 2. Marvel vs. Capcom 3 (and, 8 months later, Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3) managed to.

They’re on this list partially for reasons similar to Deus Ex: Human Revolution–namely, the element of compromise. Marvel vs. Capcom 2 was a beautiful accident. By all accounts, it was basically a copy-paste of a game released to satisfy some kind of contractual obligation, and somehow it just turned out to be an amazing game that was a hell of a lot of fun to play (and watch). Marvel vs. Capcom 2 — better known as MAHVEL BAYBEE — coined the term “Get Hype“, and the current incarnation of the fighting game community owes a lot to MAHVEL’s indelible imprint. There really was no way for Marvel vs. Capcom 3 to live up to that legacy.

Marvel vs. Capcom 3

Do you idly choreograph fight scenes while waiting for your sandwich to come up at the deli? Do you find yourself pondering which people in any given room you could take on in hand-to-hand combat? I do. I don’t think it’s that unusual, either, though I might be wrong. That is Street Fighter.

Marvel vs. Capcom is hanging out with friends and doing the same thing–and realizing that if you and your bros are going to get into a scrap, you’re going to have to think tactically. How can you arrange your bros into generally favorable matchups? Do you try to choose a weaker enemy-bro for yourself so you can overwhelm them quickly and come to an aid of one of your own weaker bros? And so on.

The beauty of Marvel vs. Capcom is the simultaneous potential for utter blowouts and nail-biting comebacks. It’s a setup so confusing you couldn’t possibly block it–so confusing you’re not sure even the person doing the setup knows what’s going on–and then seeing someone block it. It’s the combination of a game that rewards both disciplined skill in execution, smart decision-making, and a willingness to gamble, all at once. It is Poker, Starcraft, and Street Fighter in varying proportions, and because of that it’s pretty fucking amazing.

In their infinite wisdom, Capcom probably realized that their odds of successfully re-creating the magic of Marvel vs. Capcom 2 with the same lack-of-a-design-philosophy was astronomically low. Honestly, MVC2 is only really playable with four characters plus a handful of assists, and they got lucky that the game you play with those characters happens to be really, really fun. So they tried to isolate the game’s central appeals–the blowouts and comebacks, the decisions and the gambles, the tactical approach to team-building, etc.–and tried to build the next game with those elements in mind.

That’s why we have X-Factor, a one-time-use mode which can regenerate your health, eliminate chip damage, increase your damage and speed and prolong your combos–and gets more powerful as you lose teammates, meaning you can use it early to make sure you kill a particularly annoying character, or save it for the end of the game and potentially run through the entire enemy team with one character or one lucky combo. It feels contrived and unnatural–an extra layer of abstraction we didn’t really need–but it allows for comebacks, and blowouts, and it’s one more decision to make, so it’s MAHVEL, BAYBEE.

That’s also why the characters are, generally speaking, as fun to play (if not more so) as the top tier of Marvel vs. Capcom 2. See, the big four in MVC2 (Storm, Magneto, Sentinel, Cable) were fun because they played a completely different game than the other characters. Most of the MVC2 cast played a game not unlike earlier Vs. installments–lots of dashing back and forth trying to land a lucky low short, or shooting out a lot of projectile attacks while mashing on your assist buttons, or big, long, floaty super jumps.

Cable, on the other hand, could chip you to death from the other side of the screen without blinking an eye–and if you so much as flinched, your character (and any onscreen assists) would die. Storm’s projectile attacks and Hailstorm super let her control space, and her 8-way air dash and floating abilities let her rush down or run away at will, meaning she could basically do anything you didn’t want her to do. Magneto’s blinding speed and 8-way air-dash let him mix you up in ways you didn’t know existed. And Sentinel could be every bit as dangerous as a distance as Cable or up close and personal as Magneto, if you knew exactly what you were doing. It’s not just that these guys are good–they’re a physical joy to play once you start to figure out how to wave dash, triangle jump, and a million other physical nuances that get your hands going CLACKCLACKCLACK on the buttons.

I've never seen a Jill/Jill mirror match before.

Almost everyone in MVC3 is like this, in different ways. Playing Zero makes you feel like a ninja the way Chipp Zanuff never did. Hawkeye captures the essence of Cable without the mindless domination that Cable had over 90% of the cast. Dr. Strange’s loop combos, Spencer’s unstoppable Bionic Arm, dear god, Haggar’s breathtaking air Pipe attack–they’re all simply glorious to behold. Earlier, I described Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty as “overwrought”–Marvel vs. Capcom 3 can feel like that, at its worst, but it usually just feels “lovingly crafted”. It feels like some scientists in a lab discovered the essence of MAHVEL BAYBEE, isolated the proper elements, and handed them off to a 70-year-old craftsman who had been trying to build the Platonic ideal of MAHVEL, BAYBEE out of love alone.

It’s not perfect–hence #3 for the year (#freegene). But it’s a total fucking blast, and it makes me feel that MAHVEL is in good hands, and Capcom will not drop the soap on this one.

2: Superbrothers: Swords & Sworcery EP

I’m late to the critical party on this one, seeing as how I just finished it two days ago. I’ll be brief: There are two things I like about this game, and as it turns out, I like them enough to call this my Second Favorite Game of 2011.

First off, it is short. It is also not afraid to be short. It is a true EP–longer than a single, but not by much.

Superbrothers: Swords & Sworcery EP

Games are not, I think, an easy medium to do “short”. You’re building a world from scratch, after all–putting a few more things in that world should be the easy part. Comparatively easy, anyway. So maybe you make yourself an “episodic” game, and sell it in standalone bite-sized chunks. Or you remake Asteroids. Whatever.

S&S EP is short, and that is good–because each moment of the game is packed with love, just pouring through your eyes and ears. It is truly an adventure, with almost no “game mechanics” to get in the way of that.

Fallout 3 is about adventure. It has to be, because the combat sucks, and it’s about “plot” but not about storytelling, if that makes sense. There are many people you can go around and talk to and treat well or poorly. So you mostly walk around, see lots of crazy things happen to lots of crazy people, and intervene in those crazy things to ensure that things go well or poorly as you see fit. It’s like, if you had a time machine, you’d probably first go to all the important times mentioned in your history book and stop by to push Lincoln out of the way. You’re photobombing history. The fact that each square mile of the world looks more or less like the one next to it isn’t the point–the point is that there is that much sameness to walk through.

S&S EP, by comparison, is like exploring a small forest in a park. I grew up across the street of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. The park itself has all kinds of stuff in it–several playgrounds, a botanical garden, some places to grill, long winding trails that don’t really go anywhere, and so on. It’s pretty big–1,017 acres, Wikipedia says. If you enter the park from around 7th ave. and Fulton, walk to the main drag, turn right, and walk a few more blocks, you’ll find  a small forest on the right-hand side. It’s not big–if you look down the street, you can easily see where it starts and stops. But once you walk in, it feels like you’re somewhere else. There’s a big stone monument in a little clearing a few hundred feet down the main trail, another clearing in a ravine where wild blackberries grow. You know that if you walk far enough in one direction you’ll be out of the forest and back in the park, but you probably don’t want to because, well, there’s a path over there that looks like it could lead somewhere cool, and a really big tree that a homeless guy might be taking a nap on in the other way. It’s really a remarkably well-designed level. I can close my eyes and mentally walk through that forest and populate it with my memories; the numerous times I’ve tried to run up the monument, the occasional game of laser tag near the trees on the southern side, berry-picking excursions.

S&S EP feels to me like someone took that feeling and made a game out of it, except they happened to like games as combinations of music and video and interaction rather than a game that is about shooting things or punching people. Most games are about a set of very basic verbs. Marvel vs. Capcom 3 would probably just be “Attack”. Starcraft 2 would be “Build” and “Attack”. Deus Ex: Human Revolution is “Go here”.

I don’t think that S&S EP could be reduced to a similar set of verbs without losing something in the process. The combat sequences (which are kind of like a two-button Space Channel 5) would work just as well to me if I weren’t actually playing them, I think, and the only thing I do get out of it is the depleting-health vignette, which is sad and sweet.

Instead, you explore a small forest, haunted by rock and art. It tells you a short story, and then you are done.

Superbrothers: Swords & Sworcery EP

(You can choose to tweet the dialogue, you can wait for the phases of the moon, you can call the number at the end–all fun, playful little things–but you don’t have to. I like that.)

The second thing about S&S EP: It is a game meant to be played on the iPad. I can appreciate that because there are not many games that are meant to be played on the iPad. I just played some Sonic CD, which I bought for two bucks, on my iPad. It can be played on the iPad, but it is not meant to be played on the iPad. Then I played Sonic & All Stars Racing on the iPad with the default tilt controls (apparently you can turn them off and just use an on-screen d-pad or something? I have no idea, I just Googled it.) and it is a game that has to be played on the iPad but in reality was never actually meantto be played by anyone, at all. S&S EP is meant to be played with lots of pinching and zooming and tilting and poking and strumming, which is exactly something that an iPad can do that nothing else can, and all of that is served exceptionally well by having a big screen to play with (honestly, the game just isn’t the same on an iPhone).

I don’t play a whole lot of “experimental” games, and when I do, I rarely play anything for more than a few minutes (which is usually about the length of the game). But I came back to S&S EP each time because it’s the poking and prodding that was fun. It was almost fun in spite of itself–it’s not an easy game to pick up and play for just a few minutes because there’s nothing to remind you exactly what the fuck you were doing or where you were going or that you’re supposed to be singing the Song of Sworcery and then poking the trees to summon the woodland nymph. Nevertheless, whenever I could find 30 minutes to sit down and pay attention to the game, it was lots of multi-touch gesture fun.

S&S EP is the game I want to give my #1 spot. I wish I could. A better man would.

1: Words With Friends (Android, iOS, Facebook, etc.)

For a while, I thought social games would have Made It when someone came up with a social game that could make you lose friends from playing it (and not just from spamming our News Feed with requests for help). Months later, I realized that I had religiously played a game that would do just that–Words With Friends.

Words With Friends: Patrick Miller's #1 Game of the Year. Reluctantly.

Yes, it’s Scrabble. It’s Scrabble, with a few major rule tweaks–there is no penalty for guessing incorrect words, 7-letter “bingo” plays aren’t rewarded as highly, and the board layout leads to very high payoffs (it’s possible to hit two triple word scores, or a triple word and a triple letter score, with the same word, which isn’t really doable in the normal Scrabble layout, if I remember correctly).

Most folks either don’t notice the difference, or don’t care. Some intermediate-level Scrabble folks dislike the changes, but really, once you get to a certain level it’s not about knowing the words you can or can’t play–that’s taken for granted. I maintain that these rules are genius–and they add a frustrating-but-fascinating metagame that actually makes WWF truly social.

I started playing Words With Friends semi-seriously once I got my iPad. I had played a bit of Scrabulous on Facebook way back when, and I had seen a handful of dedicated Scrabble players play just enough to know what a good game should look like. I like words (hence all this writing) and I like games, so it seemed like a good fit.

I was consumed.

Consumed doesn’t even begin to describe it, really. I was consumed by Starcraft 2, but the game is so emotionally draining that I had to set aside a specific time to play it and focus only on it, and I needed to be at a gaming PC to play it, which further limited my time. Words With Friends could be played for 30 seconds or 30 minutes, I could juggle as many concurrent games as I liked, and it would kindly notify me whenever it was my turn. I played it before bed. I played it when I woke up. I played it during the commute, during work, after work. I would harass people in real life when they didn’t make their plays. I pissed off my girlfriend on multiple occasions because I’d be playing WWF instead of paying attention to her when she was talking to me, and then I would try to switch apps when she realized what I was doing, so WWF wouldn’t take the blame for it. It never worked.

Eventually, I noticed that my games would shake out in one of three different ways: They’d either be one-sided ass beatings in my favor, one-sided ass beatings of my ass, or close, competitive games that were neck-and-neck the whole way. If I was winning heavily, the game would slow down–I’d be quick to make my plays, but they’d be slow to make theirs. If it was close, it’d go pretty quickly. If I was losing, I’d be dragging my feet to make my next play.

The psychology behind that is pretty easy to understand, I think. Words With Friends is meant to be played in bite-sized chunks–on the bus, the toilet, a lunch break, whenever. You check your list of games,  and pick the one you want to play the most. If you’re winning by a huge margin, you don’t need to spend much time thinking about your next play (and as it turns out, Words With Friends is a game where it can be very easy to preserve a lead–more on this later), so you make a quick play and move on. You could open up the game which you’re losing by a huge margin, but you’d just see a board full of failure with no real winning moves, so you think “Well, I’m going to set this one aside for later”, and focus on the close game. Everyone does that with the losing games, so they take forever–and eventually a lot of them just forfeit due to inactivity. The games that play out the fastest are the competitive games, since they’re the ones you want to spend most of your allotted WWF time on (on both sides).

Here’s where the genius social metagame bit comes in: Words With Friends is a “word game” in only the loosest sense of the word. It’s not a word game like Text Twist or Boggle, which are more like “structured celebrations of the English language”. Veteran Scrabble players know this, which is why they religiously recite lists of two- and three-letter words before bed every night. Normal people don’t. Generally speaking, normal people believe that Words With Friends is a game that rewards English literacy, and they play it because it is a reasonably smart game that they can play with their friends and (theoretically) have fun.

It isn’t, really. It’s a turn-based strategy game designed to look like a word game. That’s how it sucks people in, and that’s how it can ruin friendships. Normal people playing a word game naively assume that Longer Words Are Better. Slightly more experienced players think Higher-Scoring Words Are Better. Experienced competitive gamers know that the game is mostly about board control, and if you play your tiles right, the score will sort itself out in the end.

Let’s start with the first play. You start out playing on the center star, which nets you a double word score. Naturally, you play the highest-scoring word you have available. Let’s say it’s “Theme”. Five letters, probably gets you 20 points after the multiplier is applied. Not bad.

Everything you need to know about your opponent, you’ll find out in the next move.

A normal player will probably play a three- or four-letter word off the H or the M. Maybe they play “House”–seven points before any bonus squares are applied. Or “Mouse” for an extra point.

If they have an S, they might go one step further and grab 11 points from adding it to the end of your word for “Themes” plus whatever word they decide to tack on–“Stem”, perhaps. If they managed to grab a good double-letter or double-word score on top of that, they might even be in the lead.

A real Scrabble player would probably play something short. Something like “ewe”, if they had the letters. Like so:

[ ][E][W][E][ ]

EWE = 6 points.
ME = 5 points.
EW = 5 points.
HE = 4 points.

This does three things. First, it ties the score. Second, it only uses one high-scoring letter from their rack (the W, for four points). Third, it makes it much harder for you to play next. Not impossible, certainly. Maybe you could play “Asp”:

[ ][E][W][E]

And score a handy 22 points or so. But more often than not, you won’t have ASP, and so you’ll be forced to play some shitty five-letter word sticking straight out of their other word, and so on, and they’ll double your last play with three letters in the right place.

The trick is to understand that longer words are a liability, because they’re rarely your best-scoring option, and they open up scoring opportunities for your opponent. This isn’t Boggle; if your opponent wins, they did so on a game board that you helped build for them. So build them a shitty game board.

This is why Words With Friends makes it really easy to hold on to a lead. It’s like playing Starcraft 2 with a lead; all you have to do is make sure that you’re not losing more army value than your opponent in any given engagement, and not making any mistakes in scouting (no missed tech switches, hidden expansions etc), and you will win. You will win because your opponent needs to do something in order to not lose, and it will be easier for you to defend it and let him make a mistake than it will be for him to come back from behind. In Words With Friends, the only opportunities your opponent has is the opportunities you give them.

Once you play WWF to win, not to build the biggest, longest words possible, you can beat 90% of your friends. And they will resent you and hate you for it, because you will make them feel dumb, because they are losing to dumb words, not big smart words, and they will stop playing. So you have to string them along. You have to give them just enough rope so they will hang themselves, but enjoy it enough to finish the damn game. You have to choose plays which make sure you win the game, but make sure it’s close enough to keep their interest. And eventually, you find the players who play like you do, and you engage in a long, drawn-out struggle to make each other as miserable as possible.

I spent the first month of my WWF addiction playing across the gamut of my Facebook friends list. Each week I’d win some and lose some, and each week the Wins would go up a little more and the Loses would go down a bit. Then I got sick of stringing my friends along and went for the big fish: Steve Fox, editor-in-chief of PCWorld (the boss of my boss’s boss).

Steve is not a gamer. He doesn’t really understand the appeal, and he gets motion sickness. But he grew up playing Scrabble, and he plays a mean game of Words With Friends.

The first time I played him, I thought I had it pretty good with a 60-point word in the second or third play. He responded with 40-pointer that set me up for another big play, maybe 50 or so. 110 to 40 or so? Maybe you’re not all you’re cracked up to be, old man.

Then he got another 40.

Then he got another 40.

Then he got another 40.

He ended up trouncing me by a solid 100 points, at least.

By now, I was playing only one game–Words With Steve Fox. He would casually drop by my desk and mention the bigger whammies he laid down–usually only when they were over 80 points or so. I wasn’t spending any less time playing than I was when I was juggling 8 games at once, either. Every morning, every evening. On occasion, I’d be in a meeting taking notes on my iPad and see the “It’s Your Move!” notification pop up–and then I’d look up and see Steve innocently toying with his phone during the meeting that he was running.

He got another 40. I’d drop by his office and talk strategy with him, after some of the closer games. I learned that he was good enough to keep up a good 20-30-point-per-play average while looking three or four moves down the line to set up potential bingo plays. He could be every bit as good at denying me opportunities while saving up for big scores that left me far, far behind.

For the most part. Sometimes, his big scores didn’t happen. A few times, I even managed to take a game from him. I screenshotted those games.

Words With Friends

It came to be too much. I got my iPad for more than just games. I wanted to read more, stay up on the news, watch movies, do all that stuff–not just play Words With Steve Fox. But that’s what I was doing whenever I opened up my iPad. I had to quit. So I finished my last game, didn’t offer a rematch, and explained to Steve that I had to retire. He nodded his head, told me he understood. Then he went back to the game–games he had started with people 20 years ago.

Starcraft 2 is the game I had to quit this year because it completely prevented me from playing (or enjoying) other games. It hogged all my gaming time, and each moment I spent playing not-Starcraft 2 games was a moment I was spending Not Getting Better at Starcraft 2. But it’s only #4 on my list.

Words With Friends is a game I had to quit for my own good. It is my first–and hopefully my only–true game addiction. With Words With Friends, I played a game with people in real life–and real life consequences. That, I think, is a social game.

That’s why it’s my game of the 2011.

patrick miller doesn’t care what you say, he’s not falling off the wagon


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