Theory: What is “counterplay?”

When I was in college I took a lot of political science courses. In those classes we confronted, again and again, the problem of definitional confusion: arguments started and persisted because people were using the same words to mean different things. It was impossible for theorists to agree on what the implications of “realism”* were, because they had different understandings of what “realism” meant!

The problem emerged again in the law. I vividly remember my property law professor in law school explaining a case in which a landlord and tenant had written up a rental agreement including the phrase “quiet enjoyment,” which they had seen in a do-it-yourself guide. They used it to mean “while it was quiet and enjoyable to live there.” Unfortunately, they had employed the term completely incorrectly; in property law, “quiet enjoyment” is a technical term having absolutely nothing to do with whether the neighbors are loud or whether the tenant likes the apartment.** As a result, when the relationship turned sour the case was unusually difficult to resolve. The meaning of this key term in the agreement had shifted as the landlord and tenant stepped through the courthouse door, completely changing the nature of their dispute.

I sometimes see the same issue in game design. In particular, this comes up in discussion surrounding League of Legends, an extremely popular online game. The designers of League of Legends speak frequently with the playing public, and in doing so they talk a lot about the need for “counterplay.” Unfortunately, there seems to be a definitional divide between the players and the designers (and between different players, and perhaps even between the designers?). As a result, players in these discussions sometimes arrive at conclusions the League designers disagree with–and, just like in political science, arguments start.

What, then, does “counterplay” really mean? It’s clear both from the phrase and from the League designers’ usage that counterplay means something like “you can’t just stomp all over the other player, he or she has to be able to do something about what you’re doing.” However, that definition is about like the “bouncing screen saver” approach to Over the Next Dune; it’s a helpful shorthand but to do real work we need something a little more thought out.

I feel that the most useful way to approach the problem is to break the phrase down into two parts: counter and play.

Counter means that the opponent can respond in a way that makes the opponent’s situation more advantageous than it would otherwise have been. This might mean completely negating the action (Magic: the Gathering’s counterspells), or just mitigating its effects (in League, using Leona’s “W”–a shielding spell–to block some of the damage). Mitigation can even involve an axis completely separate from the attack. For example, in Legend of the Five Rings there are cards that gain offensive power as the opponent destroys one’s resources; these do nothing about the loss of resources, but can help enable a comeback. The key is that when a player acts, the opponent does not have to simply accept being worse off.

Play means that the counter-action(s) the opponent can take are interesting for both the player and the opponent. A good example of this is Vi’s “Q” in League. The Vi player can push “Q” to get ready to charge, and let go to charge in a direction of the player’s choosing. However, the opponent can see Vi getting ready and has the opportunity to dodge out of the way. This leads to some fascinating mind games:

Opponent: “if I just keep going in the direction I am, I will be predictable and Vi will hit me. Should I turn around? If I do that I’ll be out of position to retaliate. What about a stutter-step, so I keep going in the same direction but I throw off Vi’s aim? I’ll end up closer to her, but I’ll have to time it precisely. OK, what if I . . . .”

Vi’s player: “My opponent needs to retreat toward teammates, so she’ll probably keep going in that direction. However, I don’t want to get too close to the opposing team. Maybe I can act like I’m going to charge that way, and then force the opponent to turn away from her team . . . .”

All of this happens in a second or less. It’s a game-within-a-game, and it’s a lot of fun. Getting inside the opponent’s head, correctly predicting his or her choices, and making the right play in response feels great.

Now imagine the opponent just had a button that stopped Vi’s charge. The opponent doesn’t have to do anything, there’s no cost to doing this, the opponent can do it as many times as he or she wants. Just push the button and Vi’s charge stops dead. That would be a counter, but it wouldn’t be interesting. There would be no play in it.

Hence, counterplay means that opponents can respond to a player’s actions in ways that help the opponents stay involved in the game and that are interesting for all involved. Just stating the definition is enough to explain its importance. A game that’s involving and interesting sounds like a good one, doesn’t it?

What I particularly like about this definition–what I think makes it better than intuitive understandings–is that it provides measurable benchmarks. If you want to know if there’s counterplay, ask: what can the opponent do in response? Do those actions improve the opponent’s position? If so, by how much? Do the opponent’s responses create a layered situation that’s interesting for everyone? By answering these questions you can determine in as close to a quantitative way as possible how much counterplay a situation or design element has.

Take it from a lawyer: it’s no fun to find out you’ve had a pointless argument with someone you more or less agreed with, just because you misunderstood each other. I think this definition of “counterplay” is useful enough to put into practice, and it’s the one I’ll be sticking with going forward. I can’t make everyone on the internet use it, but if you see it around here, you’ll know what I mean. 🙂

* This is not a great example–realism is actually a long-standing and well-understood theory. I hope, however, that it gives the flavor of the arguments.

** It has to do with who owns the property, but this isn’t the place for a detailed discussion of the concept; if you’re curious or have a legal question, please see the disclaimer.


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