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Learning The Bizarre Digital Body Language of 'Botolo'

Competitive video games are often so complex that they can lose a bit of the human drama of performance. 'Botolo' represents another way.

by Nicole Carpenter
Dec 20 2016, 7:00pm

The Floor Is Jelly creator Ian Snyder will never be a competitive Street Fighter player. I'll never go professional in StarCraft II. We don't have the mechanics—or time to perfect those mechanics—needed to play these games at high levels. And many other people don't, either.

But for Snyder, that doesn't matter. For him, physical skill is the least impressive part of competitive video games. Mental agility—and creating a digital body language for players to discover—is what he's more interested in. That's why he created Botolo, to unburden players of the complex physical skill needed to succeed at most competitive games, instead inviting players to watch and learn from each other's movements.

Through quilt-like zones of abstract pattern, Botolo players push and pull for control over the game's ball. An asymmetrical relationship—who has the ball now, who is in control then—determines the flow of the game.

"For Botolo, the systems at play are very simple," Snyder told Waypoint. "There is a ball, both players are trying to capture that ball and keep it away from the other person." Holding the Botolo ball within a zone—or successfully blocking the other player from stealing the ball—claims the zone, and that's the object of the game: Capture the most zones. Physically, there's not much too it, allowing players to reach the full depth of strategy earlier than they might in other competitive multiplayer games.

Keeping Botolo highly competitive—and giving players the feeling of playing at an incredibly high level—was essential in the game's development. "Can we create a game which still has that competitive aspect, but doesn't take months to get to the point where you're actually playing the game?" Snyder asked. "How fast can we make people start to play the actual game of the game?"

Above: The Botolo gameplay trailer

To do that, Snyder is toying with the idea of what actually makes a game competitive, examining the ways in which players make decisions. "I don't have the time to teach my fingers to do all of those complex things [needed to play hardcore competitive games]," Snyder said. " Botolo sort of started as a reaction to that feeling and as a way to attempt to bridge that gap." Competitive skill, for Snyder, is centered around three kinds of difficulty—physical skill, lexicographical skill, and mental skill.

Physical skill is the ability to perform complex tasks, often rapidly, with your body. It's being able to time fine finger movements to execute a combo in Street Fighter V or to inject a hive with larvae while engaged in battle in StarCraft II; it's stuff that has to be practiced until it's committed to muscle memory, actions that some might be restricted from due to physical limitation—can your fingers even move that fast? Can you reach each and every key? Do you have the reflexes to respond that quickly? That ties into Snyder's second kind of competitive skill, of the lexicographical nature. Basically, Snyder defines this as knowing each and every option available in a specific game.

And for complex games—again, Street Fighter V and StarCraft II—there's a lot to figure out. Exact timings, strategies, units, combinations, buttons to press to execute those combinations: This all takes a lot of space in your brain. "To understand what all those options are, we have to spend lots of time with the game, to ready about it and study it," Snyder said. "That comes down to just having this infinite amount of free time to spend on a game."

Header and all Botolo screens courtesy of Ian Snyder

There are other forms of skill—the ability to read an opponent in the moment, to understand their motivations. "It's thinking about what the other player is going to do, thinking about what I'm going to do, what the other player thinks I'm going to do," Snyder said. "It's a kind of recursive difficulty that stacks on itself." Though all three definitions of competitive skill are a part of Botolo—and, arguably, a part of every game—Snyder is leaning heavily on players tapping into the mental aspect.

Emotions are the soft and squishy variables that play into all areas of competitive gaming, though they can be the trickiest to pick up on. "It's a very human thing," Snyder added.

The simple nature of Botolo—controlling a ball, blocking steals, and capturing zones—allows players to engage in it as a mind game, toying with enemy players as a rapport builds. Snyder describes it as a language: Any time two players are competing against each other, they're holding a conversation. Separation occurs when one player is more fluent than another. Snyder aimed for Botolo to have a simpler grammar, allowing players to pick up on the game's language quicker. "I wanted new players to very quickly be able to speak," Snyder added.

Even the simplest games are fascinating when studying the language of play. A variation of game theory game Matching Pennies quickly became important during Botolo's development. Matching Pennies is very straightforward; I have a penny in one of my hands and you're to guess which one it's in. Should we play the game only once, it's not very interesting. You're guessing.

"But once we add a few more layers on top of it, it begins to become something interesting," Snyder said. "If we play it iterated it becomes vastly more interesting." Rapport. It's all about rapport, as none of the game's rules change as we move forward in playing. We're developing a history as we compete against one another. Pay attention to my body language and you might be able to deduce which hand the penny is in. But am I posturing a certain way to confuse you? It piles.

"Do I favor my right hand over my left?" Snyder asked. "Do I hold my right hand up higher or tighter when I'm holding the penny in it? I think that even in these very simple systems that are very pared down, there's ways to draw complexity out of them. Because, as humans, we can't make random decisions."

Botolo

We're bound to think about—and over-think—our decisions. Analyze the other player's reactions. Think about what the other player thinks we're going to do. Botolo, though more complex than Matching Pennies, is all about building that history. While Matching Pennies puts players to task with Boolean choice, Botolo considers time. Instead of analyzing a player's hands, Botolo asks players to inspect the complexity of digital body language—an aspect that's often overlooked in mainstream competitive games.

Botolo also makes for surprisingly dramatic viewing, given the inherent drama of two players engaged in an ever-escalating mind game. And it doesn't really need to be anything more than that. "As objects of spectation, as spectator sports, games tend to benefit from complexity," Snyder said. "But from an experimental standpoint, from learning to play them and having fun playing them, I don't know if they benefit in the same way."

Competitive gaming can often feel distant—less personal—compared to sports that allow players to watch humans performing grand actions on a field or in a ring. Botolo represents a desire to see some of that performative action to the screen. Competitive players aren't machines. Botolo is a reminder of that, and a simulation of what it feels like to really play the game of a game.

Nicole is a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter .

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