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PeaceRibbon

Choosing "Mains" in Video Games: An Exploration

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As I've become more inclined recently to play short-burst competitive video games in recent days as opposed to the usual immersive 30+ hour epics, I've naturally been having a lot of thoughts about various aspects of that subset of games and wanted to share them somewhere public (mostly because my life is in the most vexing transitional period possible on top of the world going crazy over the past seven months and I just want to put some energy towards something that feels productive, like say starting an interesting discussion on a forum). I eventually settled on the topic of main characters in these types of games, what they are, why and how people choose them, and what impact they have on a player's enjoyment of a game. Also while I'm aware this concept applies to single-player and cooperative games to a degree, I'm mostly going to keep a focus on competitive environments since that is where mains are most important to the player base at large. Also get ready for a lot of fighting game examples because I'm biased.

So, What's A "Main Character?"

At the absolute most basic level, a "Main Character" by my definition is a playable character in a video game with asymmetric design that a player consciously chooses to devote most of their playtime to. A given player can have just one main, or main two or more if they put in the time to play multiple characters roughly evenly, though some games may be built to force a player to avoid lazer-focusing on one character. League of Legends and many other MOBA games for instance feature pick and ban systems which potentially limit the availability of a character one wants to play, encouraging players to learn multiple characters in case their star player is taken from them for one reason or another. The most important element of the definition is the asymmetric design, as while almost all competitive games have some form of character select screen, some of them feature characters that play with the exact same mechanics, meaning these mostly boil down to aesthetic choice. You're certainly free to claim a main in TowerFall, but its mostly an empty statement since picking Assassin Prince has no significant differences from playing Last of the Order or any other character.

Why Do Players Choose To "Main" Characters?

The most fundamental reason this practice started, from a competitive standpoint, is so that player can become intimately familiar with a single set of mechanics and utilize that mastery when competing against others. Many games with asymmetric design feature character select options so distinct from one another that learning to play any one of them well is a game within itself. A fighting game like Blazblue, which literally features a button that throws out attacks/mechanics wildly unique to each character called "Drive," demands such different executions from players based on character choice that achieving mastering just one or two characters buys a player a significant advantage over simply being good with many of them. It's the quality of the technique on display over the number of techniques known. Other games feature characters that handle fundamentally the same but alter statistics underlying their controls, such as in modern Mario Kart games where difference character and kart configurations affect top speed, acceleration rate, ect. In these cases, proficiency with multiple characters allows a player to adjust their strategy based on the situation much more easily, though having a hard main can allow players to develop a unique style of play based on their stat load-out (I for example play best in Mario Kart by maximizing top speed to put distance between me and opponents early in order to reduce the risk of getting caught in a frenzy of items).

How Do Players Select Which Characters to Play?

The question of how people select their main is one with a huge number of answers, but I'll cover as many as I can. The most immediate strategy is to choose a character which gives a player the best chance of winning. Asymmetric games are almost inevitably prone to having certain options be better than others, so a serious player may seek to master the options which a provably better that the others, or ones that are difficult to counter. Of course not every strategy will necessarily be comfortable for every player to utilize, so some will combine their desire to use provably powerful characters with their preference for another character, who is usually less powerful but they can push to the top with regardless since they enjoy them more or play them better. On the other end of the spectrum, some players seek to master characters regarded as weak in order to take advantage of other players' unfamiliarity with them, as most players spend time developing tactics to use against the common power picks. Finally a large category of reasons can be boiled down essentially to either fun factor or aesthetics. For the former, a player likely tried every option and landed on the most enjoyable one as their main in order to make their climb to the top as entertaining as possible. The later is likely a player who sees the character as an avatar of sorts, and wishes to let that character's thematic identity serve as a herald of their presence. Most people select a character for a combination of these reasons, perhaps wanting to play something both fun to play and has the low tier advantage, and more still may have other reasons for selecting a particular main.

What Effects Do Main Characters Have on the Play Experience?

Finally let's talk about the various ways that having mains affects players. Perhaps the most notable effect is that dedicating time to one main can affect one's play-style and their approach to a given genre as a whole. As a fighting game player I tend to chose characters first and foremost on aesthetics and what fantasy they give the player, and as such I've played everything from zoning to all-rounders to puppet characters for the sake of embodying a character. However the first character I ever took to seriously mastering was a rush-down character, and I've tended to develop aggressive variations on all of the previous play-styles. Soul Calibur's Siegfried may swing slow and heavy, and I compensate to a degree, but having learned to fight first as Blazblue's Noel Vermilion, my Siegfried play involves much more proactive pressuring than normal. Other players use this initial learning experience as a guide for what characters they should play through out their careers, with a fan of Street Fighter's Ryu perhaps choosing to seek out other well balanced fighters in other games like Arcana Heart's Heart Aino. Selecting a main can also have social implications as well. If a particular character becomes (in)famous for one reason or another, usually for being powerful, this may affect community perceptions of those who play them. An extreme example of this would be Super Smash Brothers for Wii U's Bayonetta, who was so powerful that people claimed those who did well with her were just carried by their character choice, a serious accusation at the highest level of play since wins are largely regarded as truly skill-based at that upper echelon.

On a more ordinary level, I think the greatest psychological effect of having a main to the wider community is that improving with that character becomes a palpable measure of the player's skill they enjoy tracking overtime. Whether it comes from improving with one character as high as you can, or getting good at a character you once thought impossible to play, there's a sense of achievement to staying loyal to a given play-style that for some is simply unmatched. On the flip-side though, hitting what seems to be a plateau can be frustrating for players and lower their enjoyment, and some simply get tired of sticking to one strategy. At the end of the day, its up to each individual to know themselves and what they want out of the game in order to have the most fun.

 

In conclusion, having main characters in the competitive gaming setting is a very important part of the culture, and is perhaps one of its defining features in the modern era. I hope you found something valuable out of this little exploration of a metagame concept, and if you have any questions or thoughts please feel free to let me know. I would love to hear what effects you think this piece of competitive games has on their general atmosphere in particular. Have a great August everyone! :Artur:

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This is a very interesting view on this!

As I usually pick mains based on characters I like, and if it's a cast I know nothing about, its alot harder.

I guess I never thought it could be so complex, it doesn't feel that way to me.

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8 minutes ago, lightcosmo said:

This is a very interesting view on this!

As I usually pick mains based on characters I like, and if it's a cast I know nothing about, its alot harder.

I guess I never thought it could be so complex, it doesn't feel that way to me.

It's definitely not the kind of topic you often ponder without first having immersed yourself in some of a given games's nuances, particularly after you've mastered the base mechanics of a game that underpin the characters is when the distinctions of who to play become more pronounced. I should mention its very important for competitive beginners to critically examine their understanding of those base mechanics before blaming loses on a bad character match-up/balance, since doing the latter incorrectly invariably hurts them in long term.

Honestly though, I agree there is some sense of simplicity to selecting a main even after learning about the complex stuff because you don't really have to utilize it if you don't want to. As I eluded to in the post, I prefer picking characters I like as well because of the fantasy they bring to the table, and if they happen to cover a play-style i'm unfamiliar with that's just another fun new skill for me to learn.

I'm glad at least one person found this interesting!

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I can confidently say that I've chosen main characters in many different games for every single reason you've proposed. Aesthetics are probably the biggest factor that draws me towards certain mains initially, but I usually swap out for mains with a comfortable/fun play style in the long run.

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2 minutes ago, PeaceRibbon said:

It's definitely not the kind of topic you often ponder without first having immersed yourself in some of a given games's nuances, particularly after you've mastered the base mechanics of a game that underpin the characters is when the distinctions of who to play become more pronounced. I should mention its very important for competitive beginners to critically examine their understanding of those base mechanics before blaming loses on a bad character match-up/balance, since doing the latter incorrectly invariably hurts them in long term.

Honestly though, I agree there is some sense of simplicity to selecting a main even after learning about the complex stuff because you don't really have to utilize it if you don't want to. As I eluded to in the post, I prefer picking characters I like as well because of the fantasy they bring to the table, and if they happen to cover a play-style i'm unfamiliar with that's just another fun new skill for me to learn.

I'm glad at least one person found this interesting!

I dont choose characters for balance, haha. 

Well, I just cant enjoy the character I play if I dont like them as a character at base.

It's interesting to see others take on it, too!

Edited by lightcosmo

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For crossover games, or licensed fighters, the answer is often "I like this character from their game/movie/show of origin, so I will play as them". And it's exactly those games that try to appeal chiefly to a more "casual" crowd, then the sorts of people that stress about their mains and whether they could be playing more effectively as another character.

There's usually nothing wrong with sticking as a character you enjoy for unspecified reasons, or is otherwise "a low tier", but I remember some interesting discussions about picking up specific characters in Melee to best learn specific fundamentals of the game. Marth to drill the importance of spacing, Sheik to practice tech chasing, Luigi and Ice Climbers to incorporate wave dashing into your movement. And in general, new players were encouraged to try out sheik since she's a versatile character with a low skill floor for how well she performs. I often wonder if such judgements are valid with current Smash Bros, but there's so many characters now that the discussion has moved from "how to play well" to "what to watch out for" in each matchup

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Across most games, my mains are chosen based on the following factors, in order from most to least.

 

Aesthetics - most important

I really like playing as roguish and/or scholarly male characters in particular. 

 

Personality

I like my characters to be some combination of intelligent, witty, sarcastic, deadpan, anti-establishment, and/or romantic.

 

Mechanics

Melee is more fun than ranged, usually. I like my characters fast and wiry. Durable bruisers are also nice but never straight up heavy tanks.

 

And series favortism is of course really important. In Smash, I'm very likely to play a Fire Emblem character, whereas I'll never touch an Animal Crossing one.

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2 hours ago, Glennstavos said:

For crossover games, or licensed fighters, the answer is often "I like this character from their game/movie/show of origin, so I will play as them". And it's exactly those games that try to appeal chiefly to a more "casual" crowd, then the sorts of people that stress about their mains and whether they could be playing more effectively as another character.

There's usually nothing wrong with sticking as a character you enjoy for unspecified reasons, or is otherwise "a low tier", but I remember some interesting discussions about picking up specific characters in Melee to best learn specific fundamentals of the game. Marth to drill the importance of spacing, Sheik to practice tech chasing, Luigi and Ice Climbers to incorporate wave dashing into your movement. And in general, new players were encouraged to try out sheik since she's a versatile character with a low skill floor for how well she performs. I often wonder if such judgements are valid with current Smash Bros, but there's so many characters now that the discussion has moved from "how to play well" to "what to watch out for" in each matchup

Wait, I thought Marth was the low skill ceiling character? 

Welp, shows how much I know about melee. 

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43 minutes ago, lightcosmo said:

Wait, I thought Marth was the low skill ceiling character? 

Welp, shows how much I know about melee. 

A low skill floor, not skill ceiling. The idea that a character takes little time and effort to play effectively at a competitive level. She's "easy to pick up". Players are encouraged to use her since it's the quickest way to victory against presumably more experienced players (since the game is almost two decades old, gaps in experience tend to be massive more often than not). I've heard arguments that Marth serves a similar role, but he's iffy for an inexperienced player due to what we used to called "Marth Syndrome". If you haven't secured the stock before ~100%, none of your moves or grabs combo or otherwise lead into a kill, and you're forced to land a raw F-Smash. Whereas Sheik in that scenario can just smack somebody with a very safe f-air, or any number of other attacks that lead directly into it. From there they're either dead outright or in a good position for another one of those offstage. A new player needs to learn that the goal is to land kills, not just wracking up hits.

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7 hours ago, Glennstavos said:

A low skill floor, not skill ceiling. The idea that a character takes little time and effort to play effectively at a competitive level. She's "easy to pick up". Players are encouraged to use her since it's the quickest way to victory against presumably more experienced players (since the game is almost two decades old, gaps in experience tend to be massive more often than not). I've heard arguments that Marth serves a similar role, but he's iffy for an inexperienced player due to what we used to called "Marth Syndrome". If you haven't secured the stock before ~100%, none of your moves or grabs combo or otherwise lead into a kill, and you're forced to land a raw F-Smash. Whereas Sheik in that scenario can just smack somebody with a very safe f-air, or any number of other attacks that lead directly into it. From there they're either dead outright or in a good position for another one of those offstage. A new player needs to learn that the goal is to land kills, not just wracking up hits.

I'm familiar with the concept of Marth Syndrome, being a PM player. But I would also say he is for sure user friendly and pretty easy to pick up.

 

11 hours ago, TheGoodHoms said:

I can confidently say that I've chosen main characters in many different games for every single reason you've proposed. Aesthetics are probably the biggest factor that draws me towards certain mains initially, but I usually swap out for mains with a comfortable/fun play style in the long run.

Well, I always seem to love playing the characters I do to begin, so I've never had this before.

Edited by lightcosmo

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3 hours ago, lightcosmo said:

I'm familiar with the concept of Marth Syndrome, being a PM player.

I see. Fond memories of that game back in demo 2.0 to 3.0. 

3 hours ago, lightcosmo said:

But I would also say he is for sure user friendly and pretty easy to pick up.

Perhaps times have changed. The Marths I remember had trouble because they wanted to get the Ken combo, not really understanding that it loses to DI away. Between that and learning tipper ranges, it gave people the impression that Marth required extreme precision to play. 

Edited by Glennstavos

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15 hours ago, TheGoodHoms said:

I can confidently say that I've chosen main characters in many different games for every single reason you've proposed. Aesthetics are probably the biggest factor that draws me towards certain mains initially, but I usually swap out for mains with a comfortable/fun play style in the long run.

Whether mechanics or aesthetics dominate the main selection process can actually change depending on the genre or sub-genre of game one plays. In shooter games, ones with lots of defensive options allow me to focus more on aesthetic expression due to their less punishing nature. This often manifests for me in maining healers and the like in games such as Overwatch. A shooter with more punishing mechanics on the other hand makes having a toolkit that works for me way more essential. For example, in games like Valorant players die much faster than the healer can heal, so I instead opt to play information-based characters, and let aesthetics guide me only after I have isolated the characters which fit that description.

15 hours ago, Armchair General said:

As someone who gave up on League of Legends, I can vouch for this  along with having an main loadout and some other shit.

Totally. I've mostly fallen out of MOBAs in recent years due to how unrewarding they are to lose in and how long they take if things aren't going well, though if I go back I'm playing Heroes of the Storm for Anduin Wrynn in a heartbeat. Taking a build path that encourages auto attacks on a healer is hilarious and engaging to me, plus he's a very good boy.

15 hours ago, Glennstavos said:

For crossover games, or licensed fighters, the answer is often "I like this character from their game/movie/show of origin, so I will play as them". And it's exactly those games that try to appeal chiefly to a more "casual" crowd, then the sorts of people that stress about their mains and whether they could be playing more effectively as another character.

There's usually nothing wrong with sticking as a character you enjoy for unspecified reasons, or is otherwise "a low tier", but I remember some interesting discussions about picking up specific characters in Melee to best learn specific fundamentals of the game. Marth to drill the importance of spacing, Sheik to practice tech chasing, Luigi and Ice Climbers to incorporate wave dashing into your movement. And in general, new players were encouraged to try out sheik since she's a versatile character with a low skill floor for how well she performs. I often wonder if such judgements are valid with current Smash Bros, but there's so many characters now that the discussion has moved from "how to play well" to "what to watch out for" in each matchup

Switching characters to emphasize certain aspects of a game's core mechanics is also a valid strategy for sure. I one time used a temporary team composition switch in Blazblue Cross Tag Battle in order to force myself to look at the game differently for a while and it was really rewarding.

 

15 hours ago, Fabulously Olivier said:

Across most games, my mains are chosen based on the following factors, in order from most to least.

 

Aesthetics - most important

I really like playing as roguish and/or scholarly male characters in particular. 

 

Personality

I like my characters to be some combination of intelligent, witty, sarcastic, deadpan, anti-establishment, and/or romantic.

 

Mechanics

Melee is more fun than ranged, usually. I like my characters fast and wiry. Durable bruisers are also nice but never straight up heavy tanks.

 

And series favortism is of course really important. In Smash, I'm very likely to play a Fire Emblem character, whereas I'll never touch an Animal Crossing one.

Aesthetics - I tend towards righteous characters in all things, with a similar emphasis on male characters, though I do have games where I enjoy the female options more.

Personality - Kindness and courage in the face of one's own weaknesses are traits I find particularly attractive in characters.

Mechanics - In solo fare I go for aggressive speedsters that end the match quick and look good doing it. For team play I prefer setting better players than I up for success. This category is highly generalized though, as it usually holds much less weight overall.

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6 hours ago, Glennstavos said:

I see. Fond memories of that game back in demo 2.0 to 3.0. 

Perhaps times have changed. The Marths I remember had trouble because they wanted to get the Ken combo, not really understanding that it loses to DI away. Between that and learning tipper ranges, it gave people the impression that Marth required extreme precision to play. 

PM Sonic players miss early Sonic. What have they done to something great?

Joking aside: maybe its person pending, but I never thought of his tip boxes as too difficult to learn. But that's from a PM PoV, I cant say from melee, although the hitboxes are the same as melee's apparantly. 

On topic:

I hardly find a situation where I find myself switching mains, so maybe I'm just limiting myself.

Edited by lightcosmo

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@Fabulously Olivier and @PeaceRibbon got me thinking about what patters I could find in my mains.

Aesthetics - I don't have a strong bias towards good or evil characters or male vs. female. The only thing I care about is how seriously I can take the character in the context of the game. If a character is obviously meant to be a joke or I find their design overly edgy I probably won't main them.

Personality - I don't have much to say about personality because I personally consider it to be an intrinsic part of the aesthetic appeal so I'd basically be repeating myself. You guys are more than welcome to argue me on that one.

Mechanics - Generally I prefer to main characters with a somewhat jack-of-all-trades play-style. Not that they necessarily need to have a tool for every situation, but they should strike a certain balance between offense and defense so that I can quickly shift gears if my current strategy stops working for whatever reason.

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8 hours ago, TheGoodHoms said:

@Fabulously Olivier and @PeaceRibbon got me thinking about what patters I could find in my mains.

Aesthetics - I don't have a strong bias towards good or evil characters or male vs. female. The only thing I care about is how seriously I can take the character in the context of the game. If a character is obviously meant to be a joke or I find their design overly edgy I probably won't main them.

Personality - I don't have much to say about personality because I personally consider it to be an intrinsic part of the aesthetic appeal so I'd basically be repeating myself. You guys are more than welcome to argue me on that one.

Mechanics - Generally I prefer to main characters with a somewhat jack-of-all-trades play-style. Not that they necessarily need to have a tool for every situation, but they should strike a certain balance between offense and defense so that I can quickly shift gears if my current strategy stops working for whatever reason.

Hey, whatever reasons you have for choosing a main are your own, there isn't anything wrong with that! 

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5 minutes ago, lightcosmo said:

Hey, whatever reasons you have for choosing a main are your own, there isn't anything wrong with that! 

I'm not particularly ashamed of the way a pick mains. I just wanted to put my personal observations out there for the sake of comparison with the others.

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10 minutes ago, TheGoodHoms said:

I'm not particularly ashamed of the way a pick mains. I just wanted to put my personal observations out there for the sake of comparison with the others.

Well, you said "you guys can argue me on that one" expecting a disagreement of some sort. That's how I read it anyway.

Nevermind what I said, then!

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