Monday, July 22, 2013

The Challenges of Competition

In this tag team post, Nick and Max discuss the challenges of using human competition to drive the fun of games, especially non-digital ones. They offer 5 solutions that they see working in games and discuss which of them they think work best.

Here at Most Dangerous Game Design, we do our best to examine fundamental elements of game design, the kinds of things that are easy to miss because they’re taken for granted when we think about what games are. Lately, we’ve found ourselves thinking about the role that competition plays in games. Of course, games have featured competition between players as long as there have been games and players to compete in them. It’s an elegant solution to a problem. We know that games captivate us when they challenge our abilities, push us to our limits. How better to match a human’s ever increasing skill and insight in a game than to pit them against another human with the same drive to win? A video game designer can create mind boggling puzzles and levels or manipulate variables like speed, life points, or the behavior artificially intelligent units to maintain this challenge, but in many classic games the game system stays the same and the challenge is presented by a human opponent. Over time, players learn new tricks, hone their skills, and play against fresh opponents.

We know that competition is satisfying and effective in games: and it’s been used for thousands of years. But there is a one small wrinkle that should give us pause. To keep us hooked, the challenge a game offers needs to be just beyond our grasp. This problem is becoming an old refrain at MDGD (see our discussions of level design and trivia writing). A trivial task will leave us bored; an insurmountable one makes us give up. So, what happens when we use human competition to provide the challenge of a game? Given the huge variation in human experience and skill with any given game, how can a designer ensure that players are presented with the challenge they need? We all know what a disappointment it is to sit down to a game like chess and find that we are so poorly matched that the game isn't even worth playing. Luckily, designers have been solving these problems for as long as there have been games to design, and we’ve identified 5 strategies that we think games employ to address the challenges human competition poses to designers. (And just for fun, we've ordered them roughly from the least effective to the most effective, or perhaps the least interesting to the most interesting.)

5. Handicapping (Horse Racing, Super Smash Brothers, Go, Risk: Legacy)
Handicapping is the problematically-named term for the process of evening out the competitive field by either giving the more experienced player a disadvantage or giving the less experienced player an advantage. Some digital games offer the option to handicap players. For example, in most games in the Super Smash Brothers franchise players can assign starting damage to characters of experienced players before the round begins. Warcraft III also allows similar handicapping where players can decrease the number of hit points that their units have to compensate for skill differences

The problem with these methods of handicapping are they that are entirely up to the players’ discretion, and I have never seen anyone decide to use them. While most non-digital games can be informally modded by players to handicap the better player again at their discretion, several actually build this leveling of the playing field into the game by using longterm negative feedback loops. For example, In Risk: Legacy, players are expected to play several games against one another. In the first game, all players start out with one “Red Star” (that is victory point. The first to 4 wins). In subsequent games, players who have won previous games have their starting Red Star downgraded to a missile. Missiles are useful, but a distinct disadvantage when compared to a Red Star.

The classic game Go pairs matchmaking (see below) with handicapping to give the less experienced player an advantage. Because each player has a numerical rank of how proficient they are at the game, Go can give the player with the lower score extra pieces to start with based on the difference in players’ skill levels (/matchmaking scores).

The bigger problem with handicapping, however, is that it usually makes the underdog feel like shit. It’s a lose-lose situation: either she beats her opponent using the handicap and feels like she cheated, or she loses to her handicapped opponent and feels even more inferior. While Risk: Legacy’s method of systematically depowering players who win begins to solve this problem, handicapping as a whole is hard to implement well in most games.

4. Expected Skill Ceiling
Sometimes, a casual game works because participants know that they don’t need to be especially skilled to compete. In fact, it's sometimes expected that there's only so much skill that a player can be expected to achieve in the game. This is often because the game is so infrequently played or so undervalued that most people who play never put in the time to become particularly good.

Think about the way that casual family events are punctuated by activities like bowling, badminton, horseshoes or croquet. (This list will vary based on personal taste and your extended family's favorites). Of course, all of these games have dedicated aficionados and competitive leagues, but if an expert showed up at the family barbecue neither the expert (who's hoping for some competition) nor the family (who just want a social event) would have fun. Parlor games and party games often fall into this category too: Jenga, Balderdash, 20 Questions. These games are easy to pick up, and social expectations about how they ought to be played function like an imposed skill ceiling to maintain competition. (Of course, we've all been at that party with the two people who shouldn't be on the same Pictionary team or the friend who spent enough time throwing darts in college to insure that no one else will have any fun.)

If the majority of players have a tacit agreement to maintain a novice proficiency, then players will be fairly well matched. An added bonus associated with this kind of agreement is the familiar buzz we get from learning a new system. This kind of fun can be constantly rekindled if the game is rarely played. The problem with this “solution” to the competition problem is that it’s almost impossible to design these expectations into a game or system. If a designer wants a game to be approached casually, they can use art, marketing, or other context to try to engineer the attitude they want from their players, but it’s almost impossible to control players’ conceptions of a game. (The best examples are probably games that are styled as children's toys, but gain an adult following. For instance, Loopin' Louie)

3. Matchmaking/Elo Systems (Dota 2, Magic: the Gathering, Chess)
One of the most widely used strategies to ensure equal skill level at competitive level game play for esports and non-digital tournaments is using matchmaking systems like Elo (rhymes with emu). Named after its creator, Arpad Elo, this system (and ones like it) give players numerical ratings based on their performance. Among other features, these systems give underdogs higher score increases for beating players with higher scores than them, and less loss of score for losing to better players. As you might expect, players beating opponents with lower scores earn a smaller increased score than if they beat someone of their own score, and lose much more for losing to opponents with lower score.

Systems like this one have been shown to be fairly accurate in approximating player skill in games like Chess and Magic: the Gathering, and thus alleviate uneven skill levels by pairing people who have similar matchmaking scores.

If matchmaking is done right, a player should win exactly 50% of the time. If she wins 60% of the time the matchmaking algorithm corrects her score until she’s playing against opponents just as good as she is. This is the first problem with numerical matchmaking: it feels to the player as if she is treading water. If there is no matchmaking, a good player might win 70% of the games she plays. In this way, she knows that she is better than 70% of the players out there. With matchmaking, the same player probably doesn’t know how good she is, because she’s always winning exactly 50% of the time. Of course, you could show her own and others’ scores publicly, but that almost always leads to elitism and other social problems. In addition, this can trigger an over justification effect and make player only play to increase their scores (leading to less fun; more on this in a future post).

There’s a second problem with matchmaking. In games like Dota 2 in which players can pursue distinctly different strategies in each game (by choosing different heroes) matchmaking can really only reflect your average ability for the strategies you usually use. After all, a player is probably better with one hero than another and will need to invest considerable time in each to attain a higher level of skill. This means that if a player wants to win, they are strongly discouraged from experimenting with new strategies. If I choose to try a new character in Dota 2, I will be matched against players who are as good with their characters as I usually am with my best ones, but better with their characters than I am with my new one. Thus, I will lose several games before I am matched up with players who are as good with their characters as I am with my new one—which of course feels terrible!

Finally, it’s rather complicated to keep track of matchmaking scores in non-digital games, and they usually use digital systems to keep track of these scores. This means that adding matchmaking isn’t a very applicable solution to most games, and even fewer non-digital games.

2. Indirect Competition
The hobby gamer community has latched onto the “euro” genre and its derivatives as the apex of board game design. There’s a lot to like about euros, and they’re a favorite genre here at MDGD. One particularly admirable marker of the genre is its careful use of competition to create variation in play without ruling out unequal players from competing. Beloved Euro elements like engine building mechanics, the taboo against player elimination, and obscured victory are some of the best tools in board game design for addressing the problems of even competition. In the case of a game like Dominion, an experienced player will trounce a novice in 9 games out of 10, but the lack of direct interaction and the satisfaction of refining an engine every turn ensure that the less skilled player has a satisfying arc over the course of the game even if their opponent can’t be caught from early on. This suite of mechanics can be adapted to many games and genres, though they are harder to apply when a game has a directly competitive premise as in races, fighting games, or military simulations.

1. Adding more players
While this solution is one of the most obvious, it is also perhaps the most elegant and strongest solution for ensuring equal competition among players. Its effects are pretty simple: first, if one player is much better than the others, they will team up against her! There was a legend in my college fraternity (a coed gamer frat) of the brother who was amazing at Puerto Rico. It got to the point where players would start off games with alliances against him, since they were so terrified of his prowess. He began to lose every game, since the other players’ compensation for his ability overshadowed his actual ability, and he started to refuse to play so that he could hold on to his reputation.

The second effect of having more players is making losing more palatable. For one, when you lose a 4 player game you have 2 other losers to commiserate with. Also, adding more players decreases the chance that a more experienced player will beat you. Playing a 2 player game where your opponent is twice as good as you means your opponent as 33% chance of beating you (66% to 33%). Playing a 4 player game where one player is twice as good as each of the others, however, means that the better player has only 20% better chance to beat you (40%, 20%, 20%, 20%).

Adding more players to your games is perhaps the most flexible solution to ensure fair competition among your players, as most games can be designed to accommodate more players.