Monday, November 18, 2013

Choice-Feedback Response Time

Max continues and extends the discussion of tactics and strategy.  Why are rogue-likes similar to board games?  How are esports unlike many video games?  Read on to find out.

At their core, games are about feedback.  They are systems in which, when a player makes a choice, the system gives feedback as to the quality of that choice.  In Call of Duty, that choice might be "Do I fire my gun or not?"  In Magic, it might be "Do I attack with this creature or not?"  In either case, after making the decision the player receives fairly quick feedback.  In the former case, the game shows her visually (and also aurally) whether or not she hit.  In the latter case, the player's opponent makes a decision and show her whether or not attacking was a good idea.

The response time for feedback varies between differing types of choice.  In a board game, a player might perform an action and get feedback on that action within the same turn (for example, most bidding games work like this).  There might be another choice she makes about which she gets feedback at the end of the game in the form of victory or defeat (for example, choosing which strategy to pursue in most engine building games).  If this is starting to sound familiar it should, as I wrote about it three weeks ago in my post about tactics and strategy; we call a choice for which feedback happens within the same turn a tactical choice, and we call a choice for which feedback takes a whole game a strategic choice.

The Choice-Feedback Response Time Spectrum
Tactical and strategic choices in a game can be show on an a spectrum where the axis is choice-feedback response time.  Here's what the axis itself might look like

On the left are tactical choices (for which feedback is given within the turn), and on the right are strategic choices (for which feedback is given at the end of the game).  These axes can be a useful tool for analyzing games.  Take a look, for example, at Race for the Galaxy's graph:

As I mentioned two weeks ago, RftG has a mechanic that governs the tactical portion of the game (role selection), and a separate mechanic that governs its strategic aspect (engine building).  These two sets of mechanics are represented by the boxes on the graph, and it's interesting to note that they are completely separate sets of mechanics.  Compare that to the graph for the Lost Cities card game:

Lost Cities has lots of tactical choice and some strategic choice, but they are all provided for by a single set of mechanics!

Now this spectrum is pretty useful for analyzing some board games, but it's actually really narrow.  One thing that isn't accounted for is split second feedback (instant gratification).  Another is feedback that takes longer than a single game, for example metagame analysis in choosing what deck to play in a Magic: the Gathering tournament.  Here's what the spectrum might look like including those two on the ends:

This is useful for analyzing a broader subset of games.  For example, here's a brief analysis of baseball using this framework (note that I know next to nothing about baseball, so most of this is conjecture):

So What?
Where I'm going with this is that in addition to being used for analysis of individual games, this spectrum is also useful for analyzing broader types of games.  As we've already seen, sports and e-sports tend to be full spectrum games.  We're used to board games focusing on tactics and strategy, not uncommonly stretching into metastrategy.  We usually expect video games to focus on twitch and tactical choices, not uncommonly stretching into strategy.

Now, video games can obviously contain metastrategy, and board games can sometimes have twitch choices, but video games focusing on twitch and board games focusing on strategy is one powerful convention that many games conform to.  This can help us as designers understand  games at a broader level.  In the past I've written about how "default actions" (not requiring players to make strategic actions on their turns) help casual board game players handle strategy board games.  I propose that this is because many people aren't interested or equipped to make strategic choices, including many video game players.  And this is why video games tend not to include much strategy or metastrategy (when compared to the amount that board games include).

Understanding this allows designers to better understand intersections of audiences.  For example, I've found that many of my board gamer friends also enjoy rogue-like digital games.  This can be explained, in part, by this understanding of strategy and conventions of board games; on the spectrum, rogue-likes look much more like prototypical board games than video games.  Rogue-likes also tend to conform to other board game conventions, like being turn-based.  I'm not trying to say that rogue-like games are board games.  It's simply useful for designers to have a framework to talk about game conventions and manipulate them consciously.  As nondigital games become more and more digital, being able to experiment with porting video game conventions to board games (and vice versa) is going to be extremely valuable.