Of the many terms thrown around in contemporary gaming, ‘Skill cap’ is one of the more important ones when analyzing competitive games and their designs. For some games, a high skill cap might play into the games weaknesses by default. For other games, a high skill cap design is not only beneficial for their success, but required for them to exist in their share of the market. So what does it mean, and how does the concept effect you and the games you play?
Skill cap is, in the simplest terms, the ceiling for how much skill you can display in the game. In other words, how good you can get at the game is the skill cap. A game like heads or tails has a skill cap that is virtually non-existent beyond playing into the 50/50 odds over time. A game like chess, on the other hand, has a skill cap that cannot be reached by any human being. There is virtually no ceiling.
Skill Cap’s Application
So why does that matter for you? Well believe or not, the skill cap a game has is one of the core considerations developers take when fleshing out their product. FromSoftware might look at an area of a game like Dark Souls and come to the conclusion that it doesn’t challenge the player enough to serve as a ‘test’ before moving onto the next chapter of the game, and therefor decide to up the difficulty in one way or another before release. Another team might look at that same game and decide to lower the difficulty to allow more players to access the content within.
Both decisions, even if they don’t change the actual content itself, change how to player experiences his or her consumption of it.
This is because the content in a game is either helped or hindered by the skill cap required to enjoy it. Its is exactly why people who have never touched video games in their life can easily pick up Stardew Valley and play it for years comfortably without ever practicing complicated mechanics or looking up guides: It’s designed to have a low skill requirement and, subsequently, a lower skill cap.
Its for this reason that I implore people who are new to games to not purchase their first game based off of what content the game has, rather what content a game has that’s accessible to someone who has no idea what they are doing. Dark Souls is my favorite game of all time, but I can imagine someone who can’t intuit video games would find dying to an asylum demon over and over again to be a poor experience.
Skill Cap in Competitive Gaming
If you play video games often, you’re probably reading this article for the purposes of gaining a better understanding of skill cap in games like CS:GO and League of Legends. These games take the principle of skill caps (or ceilings) and apply it in very small ways throughout its meta.
Meta, for those unaware, is a word that refers to the way a game should be played to play it effeciently. In League of Legends, having five junglers isn’t meta, but having one is. And with that out of the way, let’s look at how skill cap can effect the meta, and how to game functions in competitions.
In League, you have access to over 140 champions, each with a unique kit, stats, stat growth rates, and Skill Caps. Because not everyone wants to play a champion with too much complexity, either for lack of skill or because its too much to process, Riot Games has developed some portion of these 140 champions to have very low skill ceilings in comparison to their peers. Simply, some champions are easier to play than others.
A common example I like to refer to with this principle is Camille vs Garen. Both champions play in the top lane, both champions deal physical damage, and the similarities stop there. Cam has tons of mobility, difficult flash combos, two skill shots that vary in usefulness depending on when and how they are used, and is totally item dependent and unforgiving. Garen has no skill shots (you can’t miss with his abilities), is tanky, forgiving, and can function reasonably well even when behind as long as he builds tanky.
At low elo’s (low ranks) Garen has a much higher winrate than Cam. But the higher the elo you climb, the higher Camille’s winrate goes.
This is simply because at higher elo’s, better players are piloting Camille than at lower elo’s. And because she has more options and a higher skill cap than Garen, she’s naturally more efficient in more situations and can be used to squeeze a greater advantage out of the game.
You’ve got a slightly more filled out vocabulary to use in the gaming world than you had before. Thanks for reading, and good luck in spotting the design of skill cap in the games you play from here on out. It’s just one of those things, once you hear about it, you can’t stop seeing it.