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Thursday
Oct162008

Slippery Slope and Perpetual Comeback

If a game has slippery slope, it means that falling behind causes you to fall even further behind.

For example, imagine that every time your team scored in basketball that the opponent’s team lost a player. In that game, falling behind is doubly bad because each basket counts for score AND it makes the opposing team less able to score points of its own. The actual game of basketball does not have this screwy feature though, so real basketball does not have slippery slope. Scoring in real basketball puts you closer to winning but does not at all hamper your opponents’ ability to score.

Slippery slope is another name for positive feedback, a loop that amplifies itself as in a nuclear reaction. Because people confuse the terms positive and negative feedback so easily, I prefer the more descriptive term slippery slope.

Slippery slope is usually a bad property in a game. If a game has a powerful slippery slope effect, that means that when one player gets a small early lead, he is more likely to get an even bigger lead, which in turn makes him more likely still to get yet an even bigger lead, and so on. In a game like this, the real victor of the game is decided early on, and the rest of the game is futile to play out (or to watch).

StarCraft and Chess do have slippery slope. They manage to be good games anyway, despite this anti-climactic property. In Chess, when a player loses a piece, his ability to attack, defend, and control space on the board is slightly reduced. Sure, there are many other factors in Chess--positioning, momentum, pawn structure--that determine if a player is actually “losing,” but losing a piece does have an effect. Clearly, losing a lot of pieces, say 8, puts a player at a significant disadvantage. It’s pretty hard to make a comeback in Chess, and a game is usually “won” many, many moves before the actual checkmate move.

This is why there are a lot of forfeits in Chess. Good players don’t actually play out the pointless part of the endgame when they recognize the opponent will definitely win. Chess players would say that forfeits being a regular part of the game is fine and not awkward, but it’s a disappointing quality compared to games without slippery slope. Still, Chess is a pretty good game anyway.

This guy just lost a Chess piece.

StarCraft also has slippery slope. When you lose a unit, you are penalized doubly. First, you are closer to losing (having no units at all is so crippling as to be virtually the same as the actual loss condition of losing all your buildings). Second, you are less able to attack and defend because the unit you lost was not just part of a score, but also part of the actual gameplay of attacking and defending.

In basketball, the score is completely separate from the gameplay. Your ability to score points doesn’t depend at all on what the current score is. You could be ahead by 20 points or behind by 20 points and have the same chances of scoring more points. But in StarCraft (and Chess), the score is bound up with the gameplay. Losing units pushes you closer to loss AND makes it harder to fight back.

StarCraft has even more severe slippery slope when it comes to the game’s economy. Imagine that your opponent rushes you (sends an early attack to your base) and you fend it off. Let’s say you each lost about the same value of units in the exchange, except that you also lost one worker unit. In a different type of game, this might equate to being one “point” behind. But in StarCraft, that can be a crippling loss because gathering minerals is nearly exponential. Your opponent is ahead of you in the resource curve, increasing his earnings faster than you are. You’ve fallen down a very slippery slope here, where an early disadvantage becomes more magnified as the game goes on.

Fighting Games

Fighting games don’t usually have slippery slope. In Street Fighter, for example, your character still has all of his moves even when he’s about to lose. Getting hit puts you behind in life totals (in “score”) but doesn’t limit your gameplay options in the way that losing a piece in Chess does or losing a unit in StarCraft does. An unusual example of a fighting game that does have slippery slope is Bushido Blade. In that game, getting hit can cause you limp around or lose the use of an arm. This is extremely rare in the fighting game genre though, and for good reason.

While it might be "realistic" for a nearly dead character to limp, move slowly, and have generally less effective moves, it's not fun. (At least in Bushido Blade's case, this part of the game lasts only a couple seconds, then you lose.) Meanwhile in Street Fighter, comebacks are frequent and games are often "anybody's game" until the last moment. Street Fighter does have some very minimal slippery slope aspects (if you're very near death you have to worry about taking damage from blocked moves which aren't a threat if you have full life), but overall it's pretty "slippery slope neutral."

There is one fighting game that stands out as an exception: Marvel vs. Capcom 2. In this game, each player chooses 3 characters. At any given time, one character is active and on-screen, and the other two are off-screen, healing back some lost energy. The off-screen characters can be called in to do an assist move, then the jump off screen again. The main character can attack in parallel with the assist character, allowing for a wide variety of tricks and traps. The player can switch the active character at any time, and he loses the game when he loses all three characters. But here, slippery slope rears its bitter head. When one player is down to his last character and the other player has two or even all three of his characters, the first player is at a huge disadvantage. The first player has can no longer attack in parallel with his assists, which often means he has no hope of winning. Comebacks in MvC2 are quite rare and games often "end" before they are technically over.

Fighting games with "ring out" such as Virtua Fighter and Soul Calibur as especially devoid of slippery slope properties. In these games, a player instantly loses if his character is ever pushed out of the ring, no matter how much energy he has. Basically, no matter how far behind you are, no matter how close you are to losing, you always have a 100% damage move: ring out. Long ago, I thought this concept was "cheap" and served only to shorten games while adding little benefit, but actually the threat of ring out adds quite a bit to both these games. Since the threat of ring out is so great, another whole element of positioning is added to the game. A player must fight both to do damage to his opponent, and fight for position to avoid ring out.

Limited Slippery Slope

Fighting games do have very localized, limited kind of slippery slope that’s actually a good quality. If a game truly has no slippery slope whatsoever at any point, then it can feel like a series of disconnected decisions. It’s interesting though, if a decision you make at one point in a game echoes forward through time, and can influence later moves in the game. The problem is if this influence is allowed to snowball into a greater and greater advantage.

In limited slippery slope, there is a cap on how far you can slip and the effect is temporary. In Street Fighter, getting knocked down (hit by a sweep) does have a bit of slippery slope. You lose health (“score”) but you also have temporary limitations on what your character can do. Your character falls down, then gets up into what is usually a disadvantageous situation. The two things that are important about this are: 1) after the knockdown is over, you regain all your moves and 2) you cannot get doubly knocked down.

Ken is at a temporary disadvantage here from being knocked down, but the disadvantage can't snowball into deeper levels of knockdown (there aren't any) and it fades with time.

Hitting the opponent with a sweep does echo forward through time, but this advantage is reset soon after and can’t snowball into “getting REALLY knocked down” because there is no such thing as degrees of knockdown. If you are already knocked down, you can't be knocked down "even more."

Another example is backing the opponent into the corner (the edge of the stage). If you do this, you have a natural advantage because the opponent has fewer movement options. But again, there’s a limit here. Once the opponent is in the corner, he can’t be “more in the corner.” There’s a limit to how disadvantaged he can get.

An even more basic example is anytime you block a move that has a fair amount of recovery. In these case, you recover from your blockstun before the opponent recovers from his move, so you have a few frames to act first. This gives you an advantage because if you both try to do a move of the same speed, yours will win (it will start first). Your good decision to block echoed forward into the future, but the effect is very fleeting. Even one second later, this advantage fades.

So fighting games are full of small, temporary slippery slope effects that actually help the game. And yet, on the macro level, they do not have the real kind of slippery slope, the permanent kind that snowballs until the game ends. Compare this to Chess where you don’t just get your captured pieces back a few turns later.

And RTS Without Slippery Slope

Here’s an idea for turning the full-on slippery slope (usually bad) into the limited kind (usually good). Both players start with the same amount of resources to buy units. When your units are destroyed, your resources are refunded. A delay in the timing of this refund combined with the build-time for making new units means that losing units really is a disadvantage, but that the disadvantage fades over time, similar in nature to getting knocked down in a fighting game. The real-time strategy game World in Conflict does exactly this, but I’ve never actually played it.

My point here isn't about whether World in Conflict is a good game, or even whether the exact refund system stated above is good. It just shows that it is possible to remove slippery slope from an RTS if you try hard enough. Someone very dedicated to that problem could probably come up with an even better way to remove it that results in a deeper game, rather than a shallower one.

Perpetual Comeback

The opposite of slippery slope, I call perpetual comeback. That’s just a more descriptive term for negative feedback. (Also, negative feedback sounds like a bad thing, but it’s usually a good quality in games, so it’s helpful to have a term that doesn’t sound negative.) A thermostat uses negative feedback to keep the temperature of a room from spiraling out of control.

Perpetual comeback, then, is a quality in which being behind actually gives you an advantage. I’d like to draw a distinction between two types of this effect, though. In one, when you are behind, a force pushes on you to help improve your position. An example of this is the Fatboy mutator in Unreal Tournament. In that first-person shooter mod, when you kill an enemy, you become fatter and easier to hit. When you die, you become skinnier and harder to hit. Multiple hits magnify the effect, so if you die over and over you get skinner and skinner. Note that even if you die a lot, you are still losing (your score is not helped), but you do have an advantage (harder to hit).

Beautiful, but dangerous.

A similar example is any version of Mario Kart. The further behind you are, the more powerful the items you get. In last place, you can get the powerful blue turtle shell which has homing powers to zero in on the first place racer. Meanwhile, the first place racer gets only weak items.

Advance Wars: Dual Strike on the Nintendo DS has a similar feature. Each side has a powerful “tag attack” that’s tied to a meter. When you get attacked, your meter fills up at twice the rate as usual, so the losing player will have faster access to this powerful attack, giving him a chance to make a comeback.

In all three of these examples, the games have a force that help out players who are behind and hinder players who are ahead. This is generally a good type of force to have, because it makes games closer, and small early mistakes are not crippling. That said, maybe the effect is too extreme in Mario Kart, or maybe it creates strange artifacts such as avoiding 1st place on purpose for most of the race. And the power of the tag attacks in Advance Wars might be too extreme, making them dominate the game. Tuning issues aside, the concept is still sound and when it’s done right, it can make matches closer and more exciting.

Perpetual Comeback Extreme

There is a different type of perpetual comeback that is far more extreme and far more rare. That’s when getting closer to losing doesn’t JUST give you helping hand, but instead actually puts you ahead. I think the best example of this strange property is Puzzle Fighter.

Puzzle Fighter is, in my opinion, the best puzzle game ever made and I felt that way long before I was lead designer of Puzzle Fighter HD Remix. The game seems standard enough--it's one of those games where each player has a basin that pieces fall into. There are four different colors of pieces, and you try to build big, single colored rectangles (power gems). You can then shatter those rectangles with special pieces called crash gems. The more you break, the more junk you drop on the opponent's side. When your side fills to the top, you lose.

Several factors come together to create perpetual comeback (the extreme version!) in Puzzle Fighter. Firstly, each "character" (there 11 to choose from, including secret characters) has a different "drop pattern." A drop pattern is the pattern of colored blocks that a character will send to his enemy when that character shatters blocks on his own side. For example, Ken's drop pattern is horizontal row of red, followed by a horizontal row of green, then yellow, then blue. Every time Ken sends 6 or fewer blocks to his opponent, he'll send a horizontal row of red. Every time Ken sends 12 blocks, he'll send a row of red, then a row of yellow. Since the enemy knows this, he can plan for it. He can build his blocks such that Ken's attack will actually help rather than hurt. There's one catch: when you send blocks to the opponent, they appear in the form of "counter gems," which can't be broken immediately by normal means, and can't be incorporated into deadly power gems. After about 5 moves, the counter gems change into regular gems.

The other very critical property is that power gems broken higher up on the screen do more much more damage (send many more counter gems) than gems broken at the bottom of the screen. So consider what attacking is actually like in this game. Attacks are really only temporarily damaging, until the counter gems turn into regular gems. At that point, the opponent will probably be able to incorporate the gems into their own plans, since the opponent knows your drop pattern. Even if the opponent isn't able to benefit from your attack in that way, he can still "dig himself out" of trouble by breaking all the stuff you sent him. By filling up his screen most of the way you've basically given him more potential ammunition to fire at you. What's more, as he is nearest to death, his attacks will be the most damaging due to the height bonus. Gems broken at the very top of the screen do significant damage.

Puzzle Fighter has the extremely unusual property that "almost losing" looks exactly like "almost winning." Let's say you break a whole slew of power gems and send a large attack at your opponent. You're screen is now almost empty. You're winning right? His screen is nearly to the top--almost full. He's losing, right? Well, he is on the verge of losing, but he has all the ammunition and he has the height bonus, whereas you have almost nothing left to defend with. In effect, your opponent is both "losing" and "winning" at the same time. Very curious, indeed!

Ken (left) was close to losing, but he got the yellow crash gem he needed just in time. Donovan (right) will lose.

It turns out the best way to play Puzzle Fighter is to very carefully never attack until you can make it count. All those little jabs you make just help the opponent in the long run. You've got to save up for a huge, 1-2 punch. You need to send a big attack that almost kills them, then immediately send another attack that finishes them off. 1, 2! The point is that Puzzle Fighter is a high energy, edge-of-your seat game. Your opponent very often has enough attack to kill you, so you have to have enough defense to stop them. Whenever the scales start to tip in your opponent's favor, they have also, weirdly, tipped in your favor as well, in some sense. A game of Puzzle Fighter is never over until the last moment. Comebacks are the name of the game, and the excitement goes to the very last second almost every time.

Conclusion

Slippery slope is a force that punishes players who fall behind, making them even more likely to fall further behind. Left unchecked, this makes for matches where the real victor is decided long before the game actually ends, leading to either boring endgame play, or lots of forfeits. While fighting games lack this overall slippery slope, they do have several forms of temporary, limited slippery slope that improves gameplay. This limited slippery slope probably exists in other genres as well, but could be a conscious design choice for future games. Finally, perpetual comeback, the opposite of slippery slope, is a force that helps losing players and puts the brakes on winning players, making for close matches. This property can easily go wrong if tuned improperly, but if done well, it leads to closer, more exciting matches. Puzzle Fighter takes this concept to an extreme, by making winning look almost the same as losing.

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Reader Comments (113)

Obvious troll is obvious. I don't think you'll get him to agree with anything other than a whole army of straw-men.

I think that what we're getting at is a decrease of 'options' available to the player rather than a decrease of the 'chance to win' when he makes a mistake. While decreasing his options may directly decrease his probability of winning, this can be overcome through skill and that's why the outcome isn't determined immediately when a player makes a mistake at the top level. But I remember an economics idea that 'an increase in options leads to an increase in happiness'. Having more options available makes the yomi game deeper, and that's just damn fun for both the players and the spectators. Its what we all came for.

December 10, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterTT

xAS - I completely agree with your point about "deserving to lose" if you get trapped in a corner with Bison. In my earlier posts I said the same thing about StarCraft - if you DO make a mistake that's big enough to make it hard for you to come back (i.e. stupidly losing workers), then you deserve to lose. My point here is not to deny that StarCraft has slippery slope; my point is to explain that people are overestimating it significantly. I've had the game for six years and I can tell you that the "slippery slope" aspect of the game is not nearly as dominant as Sirlin makes it sound. Like you said, if you make a big mistake, yes, you'll get slippery slope and you deserve to.

You're also overestimating the effect of losing one worker - losing four or five is way more important. I've heard professional StarCraft shoutcasters say that harassment attempts are "not effective" if they don't take out more than two or three workers, especially in the late game when both players have huge quantities of resources that they're not spending anyway. Early game, losing one worker means much more, but the rest of the time it hardly makes a dent, especially considering that you can just increase worker production at your expansions to compensate (and even get ahead if you can play it right). So yeah - you're just overestimating that aspect of it.

December 10, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterInTheory

I think some people here are confusing 'imbalance' with 'slippery slope'.

Basically Imbalance is when one side has an unfair advantage in the global scheme of things.

Slippery slope is when a small advantage becomes larger and larger and larger and larger. I.E. it increases over time.

The Bison/Honda example sounds more like an imbalance than a slippery slope. Of course it doesn't have to be one or the other.


The problem with un-regulated slippery slope is that it will often lead to an imbalance. However, slippery slope that is kept from going overboard(i.e. the situation is never un-winnable[forfeits are a good indicator that the game has reached that point]l) could easily be a useful or good thing. After all mistakes should be punished in many genres.

To use Bushido Blade. Yes, getting your leg/arm disabled is bad. And if your opponent is a jack ass and just runs around afterwords it really isn't good at all. But assuming you are both going to fight afterward it isn't all that bad. There are a number of options available to you and it doesn't really snowball. However, falling noticeably behind in the early game of AoE is practically a guaranteed loss, since the effects continue to snowball.

However, the catch is this. Strategy Wargames(which chess is an example of) need to mirror this snowball effect in order to effectively emulate war. In a war advantages can and do snowball. The problem is when the slope is too steep to surmount and is easily fallen into. I can not comment on whether or not StarCraft, having barely even heard of it let alone having played it.


Also slippery slope is generally greatly enjoyed by more competitive folks who treat games as serious business, however, for the more standard game player(ie the ones that make up the vast majority of the gaming market) slippery slope easily becomes an element that subtracts from the 'fun' element. Of course done well even you average standard game player can enjoy slippery slopes.

Basically you can argue whether or not slippery slope is good, but to argue that most RTS's/strategy-wargames do not have slippery slope is a bit asinine. If an advantage/disadvantage builds upon itself it is a slippery slope. How steep the slope is depends on how fast it builds and how easily it is to 'slip' into it.

December 11, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterGrimoire of the Sages

Everything else equal.

SC. I start with 4 probes and you start with 3. GG. You are so behind by 5 minutes, most players would learn to forfeit as soon as they saw they had started with 3 probes.

ST: I start with (or have at some point) 100% life you have 75% life. Game is not decided until KO. No Bison, when KDed in corner goes "GG game over" and then presses start->exit.

the end.

December 11, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterrealize

Grimoire - I agree with your point that slippery slope is "looked down on" by less-competitive gamers because they take games less seriously than do more-competitive gamers. I also agree that mistakes SHOULD be punished, although not to the point where they end the game. I don't believe Sirlin is arguing here because he is "less competitive" and dislikes punishing mistakes (although he has stated that he likes close games; that may have something to do with it). I think Sirlin simply doesn't like the particular TYPE of slope in StarCraft, even though there slopes in SF that punish players even more (i.e. "trap" situations). It may just be that SF games are over so much faster so players that make mistakes don't have to "suffer" as long, and therefore Sirlin finds this more acceptable in the long run. I'm having a bit of a hard time figuring out exactly what his problem is, but I intend to figure out.

realize - Congratulations on giving a horrible example. The situation you specified can never happen in a normal game of StarCraft. I will grant you that losing workers in the early game (around 9-10 population limit for either player) can have "game-ending" potential, but as previous posters have said, you deserve to lose for such a stupid mistake. Consider it similar to letting yourself get corner-trapped as Bison in the first two seconds of an SF match (which I'm sure has happened and still does happen in competitive play).

December 11, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterInTheory

But you acknowledge that an early disadvantage can cost you an entire game. In the Bison case, the exact same ratio of imbalance is applied: 3 probes to 4 probes versus 75% health to 100% health.

Trust me, I'm not underestimating Starcraft's potential for comebacks. I love watching pro Starcraft matches, and seeing some of the strategies those guys pull out while still micro'ing and following twenty things at once is amazing. I love it. However, you can't deny that games are, more often than not, over before they're "over." Maybe I haven't lost all my buildings, but there is no comeback from certain points. Unless you're being combo'd into the game-winning hit, you haven't lost a game of Street Fighter until the round is over. No player worth his competitive salt ever quits a Street Fighter match before the game is finished.

Even if he IS a Bison vs. Honda; he makes a massively stupid mistake but if he gets even an inch's breathing space he can burst free. In a Starcraft match, an inch's breathing space when you're that far behind is just room to wiggle in your coffin.

Nobody is arguing that losing one extra marine means you've lost your SC match. You have to micro a little better, get your units in a better position, but that's okay; you're not cooked yet by a long shot. Now let's say you've lost ten percent of your force. Your position is exponentially worse, and not only are you behind, but you have less ability to come from behind. You may pull it out if you can tighten up your play and the opponent gives you an opening. However, eventually your opponent's blunders will have to be SO big that you cannot reasonably expect to win at all, even if you play "perfectly" at that point. That is why forfeits happen: you realize, long before the game is over, that there is no potential for victory if you assume the opponent's basic competence.

We've also agreed that advantages can be positional as well as material; lose a small force but draw the enemy away from their base and sneak a larger force in? Well, you may have been behind in numbers for about five seconds, but you weren't at a disadvantage by any means, so the case is irrelevant. Real disadvantages, the ones that actually truly hinder you, are the ones we're examining. Letting a single vulture creep behind your base is the kind of mistake that can cost you an entire game, even if he only takes out two drones and a few zerglings.

The fact and point of the article is simply this: games tend to be less exciting when this constricting effect is too great. Yet again, nobody here is saying that Starcraft isn't exciting, fun, balanced, and well designed. If the game was over after losing the first drone or marine or zealot or whatever, it would not be as phenomenally popular and fun to watch as it is. But after a certain point in the game it becomes impossible--even for a determined and brilliant pro with "perfect" play--to win. Games where that occurs as little as possible *tend* to be more exciting because you never know the outcome and you can't ever let up, while games where small mistakes easily magnify themselves over time *tend* to be less exciting because often not even perfect play can save a situation. That's it. That's the point. Being on a fixed path to defeat even while making zero mistakes isn't fun or interesting; when people realize that it's happened, they forfeit. Maybe it's fun up until then, but if that was the case, why not design the game so that point of no return is when the game actually ends?

Easier said than done, obviously, but the point stands. Not "slippery slope = bad game," not "losing 1 drone = losing a match." Just that games with utterly inescapable situations tend to be less interesting the more predominant those situations become.

December 12, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDragonfly

InTheory-

And congratulations to you for being a successful and coherent troll. Yes, my 3 probes SC example was overly simplified, but it would still be true if 5, 10 or 20 minutes into the game, you lost 25% of your resources (say a quantifiable combination of units, minerals, gas and the less quantifiable: mental focus and position) and I lost none.

December 12, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterrealize

Dragonfly - Wow. This is the best explanation of the issue I've seen this far. Good job and thanks for posting. I'm glad that you recognize the potential for comebacks in StarCraft, and you also seem to understand pretty well that there are many blunders that can be recovered from without too much trouble. I'm especially glad that you understand that "one unit lost" does NOT equal "snowball slippery slope into a lost game." Phew.

Initially my problem with Sirlin's description of StarCraft was that he over-generalized everything into coming down to "lost units = lost match" or "less resources = lost match." He also made it sound as if comebacks were difficult/impossible to pull off, which is false; comebacks occur all the time in professional and competitive play, so they can't really be called "hard" or "unlikely." Looking back I think I jumped all over him simply because he didn't understand the game quite as well as I'd liked and thus did not point out the different aspects of the game that could be used to tip the balance/recover after mistakes, especially considering that not all mistakes result in slippery slope. It also irked me that he didn't talk about the "massive neutral slope" situations in SF that come close to giving a guaranteed loss to the player, but whatever...it's his choice. Sirlin, I apologize if I got you upset or anything; I was only trying to figure out where you're coming from. Fortunately Dragonfly articulated it pretty well - in short, you like games that end up being closer more often and therefore exciting more often. I can understand that.

I would also like to point out, though, that as far as "exciting comebacks" go, I would say that StarCraft's comebacks are more exciting than Street Fighter's because the audience knows that the recovering StarCraft player is fighting against greater odds than the recovering SF player. Therefore, the StarCraft comeback is more intense and more exciting because, if it succeeds, especially against a strong slippery slope, everyone knows how good/brilliant that player had to be to pull it off. Thanks everyone for discussing.

December 12, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterInTheory

uh what?

That's why daigo parries jwong's hoyokusen and combos for the win at a few pixels of life, and huge portions of the internet know about it. I can go up to random mmo scrubs and ask them if they know who daigo is, or justin wong, or about ken parrying chun super, and they will know what I'm talking about.

And yet uh... how many non-SC players can talk about any SC world championship matches in any sort of detail?

SF is more exciting to watch.

December 14, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAuspice

Auspice - you obviously spend lots of time talking to casual gamers who watch the first "SF Comeback" video that comes up on YouTube. Heck, I did that the other day! My opinion still stands - comebacks in SF are "less exciting" because the game itself is structured to allow them; in StarCraft, the game doesn't help you as much, and it's more about the player being brilliant rather than someone getting a 0-to-death combo at the last second. Good try though.

December 14, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterInTheory

It's because it's easier to get excited about SF than it is to get excited about SC.

I don't know how you can argue this, more people get excited about SF comebacks than SC comebacks.

As a sidenote, I showed Jwong's MvC2 comeback as Cyclops to two randoms that have played a Marvel game of any kind maybe a couple times and they said, "wow, that was pretty amazing."

If you want to say "SC comebacks are more exciting - to me" I'd believe that in a heartbeat. But SC comebacks aren't excting to me, and I actually know enough about SC to know what's going on. SC is boring and too technical to be exciting. It's hard for a game to be exciting when you don't understand what is going on. But you can tell what's going on in a SF comeback - one guy has 2 pixels of life left, parries a super and combos into a knockdown, baits the reversal DP and punishes it for the win (just using a random example). It's breathtaking and exhilarating because you know exactly what is going on in those matches even if you've never played before and the tempo changes from moment to moment rather than minute to minute. In SC you have to know exactly what is going on before the game is even interesting, let alone exciting. I'd call a SC comeback interesting, maybe impressive, but exciting? Not compared to Daigo parrying a hoyokusen with no life left.

And I DJ for an internet radio station, so yes, saying I communicate with 'casuals' is quite the understatement, sir.

December 14, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAuspice

Auspice - "It's because it's easier to get excited about SF than it is to get excited about SC.
I don't know how you can argue this, more people get excited about SF comebacks than SC comebacks."

Thanks for your opinion. Like you said to me, I would believe that SF comebacks are more exciting - to you - because that's your opinion and I can't change it. As for my own opinion, I can definitely see how you can get excited during comebacks for both games. My main beef with SF (and other fighters) is that comebacks, while exciting, are less impressive because they don't take that much work or "brilliancy"; one player just manages to snag that opening or combo that allows him to turn the game around instantly. Sometimes it's just plain dumb luck, too. Sure, it makes the game closer and creates excitement, but from a competitive standpoint, the comeback seems a little more pathetic because it's not nearly as intense as it could be - a few well-time button pushes = instant game turnaround, right? Not that impressive from a player skill standpoint, but definitely exciting; I grant you that.

And if you can't get excited about StarCraft comebacks, chances are it is because you can't understand it. If you think the game is "boring" and "technical", that's merely a tribute to how little you know about the game - hardcore StarCraft players have around 350-400 actions per minute; the worst of them would put the best SF player to absolute shame. Keeping track of two fighters on a 2D playfield can't compare to maintaining four different bases, building troops from different buildings, scouting, and attacking your opponent all simultaneously - you can't argue that, sorry. Plus the mental/physical stress and difficulty of StarCraft, overall, makes the game as a whole much more intense, in my opinion. Simply knowing what the players are going through makes it that much crazier. GOMTV.net, an online source of professional StarCraft matches, reports that viewers from over 192 countries around the world watch their StarCraft matches. Tell me that's not exciting.

December 14, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterInTheory

InTheory: I recognize that players in Starcraft make an absurd amount of actions per minute. I don't find that exciting. Why? Because it's just APM spam due to a bad interface for a lot of it. Sure, they'd still be clicking at massive rates with a good interface, but I'd personally rather watch somebody pull of an excellentely timed mindgame than watch another battle to the sound of clicking. While the microing is impressive, it isn't anything that I could actually say leads to "excitement" in the traditional sense. I find it entertaining to watch strategies unfold, but not "exciting." It's the same reason I can watch chess or stratego matches and not find them exciting. They just don't have the flash of a well timed parry, and while SC may show off the impressive skill of rapid mouse movements, Street Fighter has the excitement when you know somebody is pulling off 1 60th second timeframe moves while planning their next moves and setting up traps. SC, Stratego, and Chess are all interesting and fun to watch, but exciting is not the word I would use to describe them.

Also, I find comebacks in games with neutral or at the very most linear slippery slopes to be more entertaining than ones with exponential slippery slope. If I see a comeback in Street Fighter, I think "Damn, *insertname* just pulled off a kickass show of skill." If I see a comeback in SC, I t hink "Yeah... *insert player who lost due to comeback's name* was an utter idiot."

December 16, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMilski

I think that's why having an RTS end when a loss is probable would be terrible. In professional play, both players know the odds of victory pretty well after one of them takes a major loss in battle. Appropriate forfeiting shows their skill. In casual play, you can't assume that both players are good enough to carry an advantage through to the end as they ought to. If one player is much better and has the advantage, the "lame duck" portion of the game won't last long, because he'll be able to press his advantage and finish off the worse player fairly quickly. If both players are roughly equally incompetent, the disadvantaged player has a chance to come back because both players are likely to make mistakes. His opponent might not realize he's ahead and hang back too long, or tech at an inappropriate time, etc.

The one thing I agree with that InTheory is saying is that slippery slope games can have very exciting comebacks. My prime example here is the FPS game Team Fortress 2. In one mode, there are several control points on the map that the two teams fight over, with only the outermost point of each team vulnerable to capture at any one time. As a team gains more control, their respawn point advances and the other team spawns further back (naturally, as they've lost territory). Additionally, the losing team takes more time to respawn. Without this slippery slope, the game developers found that there was excessive stalemating. It's also frustrating to be on the "better" team in terms of killing ability, etc. without being able to score a win, so in games without an inherent limit to length, slippery slope is useful. A side-effect is that when you're behind, winning feels much more exciting.

In the case of SF comebacks, it's really uncommon to see something like the zero-life super parry comeback or whatnot, and it's really amazing. That's how it should be. Coming back from 40%-70% life is not anything really special or exciting. In SC or TF2, coming back from a disadvantage like that feels and looks more impressive, because of the slope. So it's even more rare that you get an incredible comeback, but the average ones are more exciting.

As for Auspice's opinions on relative impact of super comebacks, I think a lot of that has to do with the game length. An incredible match in SF takes what, a few minutes? I don't know much about the game, but from what I remember it plays out pretty fast. An incredible match in SC takes much, much longer, so the "cultural impact" is going to be lower. It's pretty unlikely any of my friends is going to link me to a 3 part youtube video of something awesome, and more unlikely I'll take the time to watch it right then. However, if you boil down the cool moments from professional SC games, you get the "pimpest plays" videos, which do have some pretty memorable and amazing maneuvers.

December 19, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSancdar

Intheory:

What I find interesting about what you're posting is you've already accepted starcraft has a slippery slope and street fighter doesn't. I think there's a misunderstanding in the terms used.

According to your previous post, you've said that: 'I would also like to point out, though, that as far as "exciting comebacks" go, I would say that StarCraft's comebacks are more exciting than Street Fighter's because the audience knows that the recovering StarCraft player is fighting against greater odds than the recovering SF player.

This statement is completely true. Starcraft players ARE fighting against greater odds - those odds occur due to what sirlin has termed a slippery slope. The reason (and you have already admitted this, so no strawman arguement please) that SF players have less odds to fight against is there is no slippery slope effect in play - they still have all their options available to them.

You've said that starcraft players have to work harder to perform a 'comeback' and that's what you find exciting. That is personal opinion and of course completely valid, but by saying that you've conceded the original point you were making.

'My main beef with SF (and other fighters) is that comebacks, while exciting, are less impressive because they don't take that much work or "brilliancy"; one player just manages to snag that opening or combo that allows him to turn the game around instantly'
Street fighter is less exciting because people can pull off combos and come back from wherever they are in a fight? That is also a fair personal opinion - but again, it concedes the point about street fighter not having a slippery slope.

Can you see what we are all trying to say now?

If you want to debate it further, do me a favour. Quote my entire sentences and then tell me what you think I said. It might just be miscommunication.

Or you could be a troll creating strawman arguements out of everything people say, in which case you've been very successful. Congrats.

December 26, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSovereign

A slightly different way of looking at why some people like games with slippery slopes in is that slippery slopes force the player who is currently losing to adapt his/her strategy to the change in conditions. Typically, they need to apply pressure to force their opponent to make a mistake to balance things out - they have to 'take the game to them' to a greater extent than in games where slippery slopes aren't dominant.

For example, in general a soccer team losing 2-0 can't use a defensive formation any more and expect to have a realistic chance of winning. Instead they have to take more risks and attack hard to force a mistake from their opponents. Similarly in chess. In other words, the decrease in options available means that players have to apply a different strategy according to whether they're ahead or behind. Whereas in basketball or SF, your strategy doesn't change as much - you just hope to execute it better to make up the points/health difference. (Your strategy might still change during these games in the sense that you have to respond to your opponent's approach to the game, but that's a separate issue.)

So I would say that games with slippery slopes are interesting to people who like to see players forced to respond to their changing circumstances. The cost you pay for this is that if the player fails to do this successfully, or doesn't attempt to do it at all, the gap widens to the extent that they can no longer come back. And in high-level play in chess, that point arrives earlier: few grandmasters would play for long if they're a piece down in the late middle game without compensation, but at lower level the possibility of pressuring your opponent into a mistake is greater, so the game remains alive.

The other effect of slippery slopes is to make the opening of the game much more important than in games without slippery slopes, since the question of who gains the initial advantage shapes the ensuing gameplay. In chess this leads to the need to memorise openings to compete at high levels without ceding an early advantage to your opponent (and I agree with Sirlin that that is a weakness of chess), in sports it means that scoring the first goal in soccer is much more significant than scoring the first points in a basketball game.

To me it seems to be a matter of personal opinion - do you prefer playing (or watching) games that tend to be 'weighted' towards the opening - the tension, the jostling for an early advantage, and where players have to battle hard to come back from behind, but where comebacks are rarer and the final stages of games can be boring? Or do you prefer to watch or play games where the outcome remains uncertain right up to the final moments, but where the gameplay changes less during the stages of the game?

December 29, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterimaginality

Imaginality:

Soccer doesn't have a slippery slope though. Unless I'm missing something (I could be, I don't follow the sport), you don't lose your ability to score points when the other team wins a point. What I think you're talking about has less to do with slippery slope as much as it does all competitive games. It's taken for granted that if you're losing, you need to change your strategy to win back what you've already lost and then some. You do this in soccer, but you would do it in street fighter as well - if being defensive isn't working and you're half a life bar down, you have to change up your strategy. You say that in street fighter it's a different issue but I don't believe it is; If you do the same strategy whille losing in a fighting game but just 'hope you do it better' then you're not playing very well.

I sort of agree with the fact that it comes down to personal opinion. In the end though, I think I still agree with Sirlin's opinion that (and let's hope I don't misrepresent his opinion here) a game which is 'over before it's over' is far less exciting then one that has to be played till the end of the match. If you are forced to play in a match where you have no chance of winning yet the game hasn't decided you lose then that simply isn't fun. You're forced to sit there and wait for the game to tell you what you already know. I don't want to appear not to have my own opinion, but unfortunately I couldn't put it any better myself. My history is in FPS and Fighting games, not in RTS, which speaks volumes about what I prefer anyway.

December 30, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSovereign

Soccer isn't slippery slope: whether it's the start of the game or you're down 2-0 with 5 minutes to go, you have exactly the same options, and they all have exactly the same risk/reward. The only penalty you suffer for being down 2-0 goals is that you're 2 goals behind your opponent!

What you're observing is a phenomenon that is applicable to many, many games: when you're winning, it's often worth making sacrifices to play very conservatively, to minimize the chances of anything unusual happening to upset your lead.

Conversely, when you're behind, it's often worth making sacrifices to play very aggressively, to maximize the chances of something unusual happening hoping for it to be in your favor.


I assert this is true even in street fighter -- simply put, it is rare for one strategy to be so completely superior to all other options that you can't benefit from playing more conservatively/aggressively when winning/losing. (and if you are in such a situation, it's probably a degenerate game)

December 30, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterHurkyl

Milski said: "I recognize that players in Starcraft make an absurd amount of actions per minute. I don't find that exciting. Why? Because it's just APM spam due to a bad interface for a lot of it. Sure, they'd still be clicking at massive rates with a good interface, but I'd personally rather watch somebody pull of an excellentely timed mindgame than watch another battle to the sound of clicking."

So a good StarCraft player is defined by how much and how fast they click? Please don't make me laugh out loud. "Excellently timed" mindgames, as you put it, occur much more in SC than they do in SF. "Micro", or good unit control, requires much more precision and much more foresight/anticipation than any situation you can think of in SF; you can't compare controlling several army groups effectively to jamming a few buttons. Sorry, son, but good try. And as for your comment about APM, well, there's a pro Zerg player named "Savior" who is also known as "The Maestro" for his brilliant play. He is one of the best in the world, yet his APMs are way lower than most average progamers. There goes your assumption.


Sovereign said: "What I find interesting about what you're posting is you've already accepted starcraft has a slippery slope and street fighter doesn't. I think there's a misunderstanding in the terms used.

According to your previous post, you've said that: 'I would also like to point out, though, that as far as "exciting comebacks" go, I would say that StarCraft's comebacks are more exciting than Street Fighter's because the audience knows that the recovering StarCraft player is fighting against greater odds than the recovering SF player."

So I've "already accepted" that SC has slippery slope but SF doesn't? That's funny...it does sound like there's a "misunderstanding of the terms used." A friendly tip - you should really pay attention to the opposing argument before constructing an argument of your own. If you had read my previous posts, buddy, you would've seen that I was arguing that SF does have slippery slope aspects that Sirlin does not mention in his description. I was also arguing that SC has perpetual comeback situations/neutral slope situations that Sirlin, again, failed to mention in his description. Sirlin made it sound like "losing one unit = lost match"; he was overestimating the effects of slippery slope in SC and underestimating the complexity of the game (i.e. how many ways there are to turn things around). In short, there are slippery slope situations in StarCraft, but there are also neutral slope/perpetual comeback situations as well. You can't generalize as much as Sirlin and others were. If you want, you can read Dragonfly's post (above somewhere); he did the best job of summing things up, in my opinion.

Here's something else you said: "Street fighter is less exciting because people can pull off combos and come back from wherever they are in a fight? That is also a fair personal opinion - but again, it concedes the point about street fighter not having a slippery slope."

First off, this is incorrect. People can not "pull off combos and come back from wherever they are"; there are "trap" situations in SF from which it is very hard/impossible to come back (getting Bison trapped in the corner with Honda, for example). This has been confirmed by SF players previously; just read previous posts and you'll see. My own comment about people "snagging a combo and coming back" refers to the fact that it takes less physical work/skill to come back in SF than it does in SC - I'm not saying that SF "doesn't have slippery slope"; I'm only saying that comebacks are, from a competitive standpoint, less impressive. Pushing a couple buttons/hitting a button combination in SF can't compare to controlling entire armies and economies effectively enough to come back in a game of SC. You've made a huge mistake in your argument, son - you're assuming. Never, ever do that. Just because I said that comebacks take less work in SF doesn't mean that SF doesn't have slippery slope. I'm not sure where you got that. On the same line, just because I say that comebacks in SC take more work/skill doesn't mean that SC is dominated by slippery slope - the game overall just requires more technical ability. Based on your arguments here, my guess is that 1.) you're way too eager to attack me, 2.) you haven't read the whole discussion up to this point, and 3.) you lack experience with both of these games.

If you want to keep this going, you're going to have to patch up what you said earlier. You've misinterpreted my statements and have re-portrayed them to suit your own argument...I'm not sure which logical fallacy that is, but you get the idea.

December 31, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterInTheory

You may be right, I may have misunderstood your arguement. I'm not finding it very clear - I'm not sure I understand what you're trying to get at. I hoped clarifying the terms would help you understand the point we're trying to make. Could you please restate your position for my sake?


Yes, you can be -disadvantaged- in Street fighter. If you couldn't then it would be an incredibly boring game. The difference is that by being disadvantaged you can't become further disadvantaged. If you're knocked down, you can't become more knocked down. If you're in a wall trap, you can't become more trapped. It may help to think of the game as having only three states of play: 'Disadvantaged, neutral, advantaged'. If this analogy is true, then there's only one state, one 'level' of disadvantage present at any one time. We can then deduce that it is NOT a case of slippery slope.

Starcraft on the other hand could be said to have a slippery slope. You can fall partway down the slope, by losing a few drones early on, then keep sliding as that is turned into an economical setback in the future. You can lose some military units and then find you don't have enough units left to defend your base as the enemy presses the attack, leading you to a further state of disadvantage. The game is in a constant state of flux - it's far more complicated then the simple 'disadvantaged - neutral - advantaged' case of street fighter.

It's for this reason that there will be times in Starcraft when you are so disadvantaged that you have no other option but to forfeit. In street fighter that can't happen as you can only ever be disadvantaged, neutral or advantaged.

This is what I thought you meant when you said that Starcraft players are fighting against greater odds to make a comeback then street fighter players are. I agree with that - as street fighter players can only ever be in a temporary 'Disadvantaged' state, they have less odds stacked against them. A Starcraft player meanwhile has far more things to contend with then a wall trap as it's a more complicated game in general with every mistake adding up.

I don't know where you got the idea that losing one unit in Starcraft means a lost game from. As far as I can see noone has ever implied that and Sirlin certainly hasn't. Anyone who remotely understands Starcraft or strategy at all can see that.

I apologise for making assumptions about your position. That was rude. Hopefully if you restate your position I'll understand it more clearly. That way, you won't feel like you're being 'attacked' by me which isn't at all my intention.

January 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSovereign

Yinsh, one of the project GIPF games has an interesting perpetual comeback mechanism, that's exactly the reverse of the slippery slope describes in chess and starcraft. Both players have five pieces, and the goal is to score three points. But scoring a point requires you to remove one of your pieces from the game -- so at any time, the person with the most points also has the fewest pieces available to play with.

January 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterHurkyl

Sovereign - relax, man. I'm sorry if I sounded like I was snapping at you - don't worry, I'm not upset or anything. Sometimes I tend to go a little overboard when defending my arguments....again, I apologize. I was only trying to clarify my views on slippery slope in SF and SC (perhaps a little too aggressively).

I'll acknowledge that SC does have the potential to put players in harsher situations than SF - however, at the same time, I also acknowledge that there are situations in SF that are quite harsh on the losing player, even if you don't choose to dub them "slippery slope." (trap situations are an example of this).

My main concern with Sirlin's portrayal of StarCraft is that he makes StarCraft seem like a game where comebacks are unlikely to occur because one mistake = slow, "lame-duck" loss for the erring player. He fails to recognize that there are many degrees of "mistakes" that can be made in the game of StarCraft; some will result in slippery slope, but others won't. Your example of losing drones early on is an example of slippery slope because the economic impact of such a loss will severely cripple your ability to stay in the game. However, if you lost that same number of drones in the mid- to late-game, for example, the economic impact would be much smaller and very easy to come back from. Mistakes in StarCraft have varying degrees of effect. Also, contrary to what Sirlin implies, comebacks happen all the time in competitive StarCraft. Basically he generalizes too much about the game and ends up misrepresenting it for other gamers.

It's also annoying that Sirlin skirts the issue of traps in Street Fighter. Falling into a trap is a mistake that can practically guarantee a loss for you, according to previous SF posters. While you may not call this slippery slope, it's still a situation that's incredibly unfriendly to the erring player. Sirlin doesn't talk about this, and he should - it's an important example of an anti-comeback situation in SF, and one that definitely holds potential in competitive play. I think he leaves out traps in SF because they're a little bit too close to a slippery slope situation, and that would destroy the contrast that he's trying to establish between the two games.

So yeah - no hard feelings.

January 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterInTheory

This is a well written article and very clearly explains what a slippery slope is and how it effects game play and game design. That said, I think much of the ensuing debate is based on some fundamental misunderstanding of main subject of the article and it's intended use.

Negative and positive feedback (I prefer the original terms, myself) have a great impact on game play and feel and are important to consider when designing games. (Which, by the way is what the article is about.) Games with depth will have a mix of various feedback loops, but in many games, a particular loop type will dominate and be the main influence on the feel of the gameplay.

Sirlin's examples are pretty well chosen and provide a good idea of how these forces affect a game. While all the games mentioned have some mix of feedback types, they also tend to be dominated by the type of feedback they've been chosen to illustrate. Various styles of games have a dominate feedback style that is normal for them and the examples illustrate this pretty well.

RTS games, in general, are dominated by positive feedback. In particular, they generally have an exponential (or at least supra-linear) positive feedback loop in their economy systems. Consider this basic example:

Assume you have a very basic RTS game in which there is one resource (we'll call it cash) and a worker costs 10 cash. Each player starts with 5 workers, but one of the players makes an early blunder and looses one. From that point on, each player plays perfectly. How far behind is the player? At first he's 10 cash behind, but it doesn't stay that way for long. Assuming each player makes no further mistakes, the cash imbalance gets larger and larger as time goes on. That's positive feedback.

Of course, in real gameplay, nobody plays perfectly at all times, so this example may seem a bit contrived. But it clearly cuts to the heart of the matter, which is the point. This isn't to say that comebacks are impossible, or that losing one unit means you've lost the game; Rather, loosing that one unit, will, over time, place you more than one unit behind. This is a dominating factor in nearly all RTS games and is part of what makes them play out how they do. Whether that is a good or bad thing is a matter of opinion, but it is something a game designer should consider.

Contrast this with a fighting game. Each player starts with 100 life, but the first player makes a mistake and takes 20 damage. After that, each player continues to play perfectly. How far behind is the first player. At first it's 20 life, and as time goes on, it stays at 20 life. There is no feedback loop.

Nitpicking about specific situations in the example games is largely pointless. They where mentioned to allow the reader to better understand the concept of feedback loops (even if Dave refuses to call them that). The main point is true that some games are largely dominated by positive feedback (such as most RTS games and many puzzle games), others are dominated by negative feedback (non simulator racing games, Puzzle Fighter), and that others are largely free of feedback loops (fighters, FPS, simulator racing).

The particular example of the Honda corner trap is quite silly. It's not a feedback loop of any kind. No matter how little life you have, your chance (even if, as claimed, it's zero) does not decrease. Nor does it decrease the longer you've been trapped. (Unless the stress gets to you.) It's an abusable design flaw, but that doesn't alter the fundamental character of the game, especially in regards to feedback loops. Furthermore, it was fixed in the rebalanced mode of HD Remix, which Sirlin himself was in charge of.

In regards to the other example games, I don't think Dave intended any disrespect towards them. In fact, as far as I can tell, they where chosen because he considers them good games, even if they aren't his personal favorite. Of course, the SF example had more little details than the others, but that's be expected and not something to deride him for. The article isn't intended to be a detailed analysis of the feedback loops in game X (where X could be Street Fighter, StarCraft, or even Mario Cart). Rather it's about feedback loops and their role in game design and how they influence gameplay.

I hope this makes things a little more clear.

January 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLevi "Karatorian" Aho

Thank you for this article, it was definitely thought-provoking.

I am going to have to disagree, however.

There are two points to this:

A) The nice thing about games with slippery slopes is that in most cases it more accurately mimics life.

One notable example is your health.

B) What makes griefing inherently bad?

When you are a fetus growing in your mother's womb then her age, diet, and health all affect the potential for your physical condition and can have long term effects. Malnutrition, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, crack babies, etc.

Read any baby book and it will give further examples of effects different diets will have on a baby's development.

As a kid gets older, if they are beginning to show signs of obesity early on then their chances of being obese when they are older (hence increasing the chance of heart disease and early death) is much higher, especially if their parents are obese.

If you start smoking cigarettes it shaves minutes off your life and is very hard to quit, adding up quite a bit.

Too much sugar over time can cause diabetes. Physical injuries that heal when you are young, then later return during old age.

Your health is a glass ball, if you drop it too many times it will eventually break. Much like your slippery slope.

There are many other factors in life that are like a slippery slope. Debt becomes harder to get out of the deeper you go into it. Others examples might be education, car maintenance, inflation, relationships.

These different obstacles may not be fun when you are "losing", but they are necessary to learn if you want to be successful. And, that, IS fun.

This relates to how griefing isn't actually bad. Sure you might have it happen to you a number of times, but then couldn't you in turn do the same? Someone prolonging the game isn't necessarily bad, it can lead to new strategies and evolve the level of play providing depth. Much like how blocking or turtling can prolong a game of Street Fighter and give it the depth it needed to have to be so popular.

There really is no substitute for the feeling you get when you know you'll win because of the early decisions you made, a tempered and disciplined "win". Some people are designed/programmed this way, so to say causing forfeits makes a game bad is purely opinion.

January 14, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTheSilentTrooper

The critical point is positive or negative feedback in expected value. Without certainty you can't say whether it's a feedback loop, but with expected value you can.

Interestingly, if both players have an exponential economy growing fast enough, a loss of troops has negative feedback, while normally the feeback is positive.

January 14, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBill the maniac

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