Theory: Concession-Proofing Your Game

Although concessions are inevitable, we don’t have to throw up our hands and accept that some percentage of matches will be ruined. Games can be designed so that both the number of concessions and their impact are minimized. Below are some thoughts on how those objectives might be accomplished.

It’s important to recognize that not every technique I suggest here will fit every game. Sometimes page limits mean a legal brief can’t address every opposing argument; sometimes a game can’t include an elegant solution to the problem of concessions. My goal is not to say that all games must implement mechanisms that make them sturdy against players conceding, but simply to encourage designers to think about the issue and to offer some ideas on the topic to prove that it can–at least sometimes–be addressed.

First, we need to put aside some strategies that definitely won’t work:

Making the game shorter (or longer): Game length has no bearing on whether players concede. People surrender in six-minute games of Hearthstone and in weeks-long games of online Diplomacy. There is no “right” length that will prevent concessions.

Indeed, in my experience there’s no game length that even discourages them. If a player wants to concede, the game’s length can always be used as a justification–no matter what that length is. Players looking to get out of short games can take the view that the opponent(s) didn’t have time to get invested; those trying to escape a long game may feel that the investment they’re being asked to make is unreasonable.

Increasing (or decreasing) the number of players: I’ve seen people quit two-player games, seven-player games, and everything in between. Adding players does not necessarily create moral pressure to stay in the game. If anything, it can decrease the perceived need to keep playing–“there’s a lot going on, the game will still be interesting even if I leave.”

While those strategies don’t work, there are some that can. They can be broadly split into two groups: ways to make concessions less frequent, and ways to make them less impactful when they happen.

Making concessions less frequent:

Include one or more comeback mechanisms: Done right, comeback mechanisms discourage concessions by making players feel like the game is still meaningful. They know that if they make good decisions, they can position themselves for an upset victory. Hence, the game stays interesting and the players stay engaged.

Done wrong, of course, comeback mechanisms make the game feel meaningless from the outset. Be careful not to go too far by making the mechanism too strong. Concessions may be harmful to a game, but the game being just plain terrible is a lot worse.

Obscure the score: If it’s hard to tell who’s winning, players are less likely to feel themselves irrevocably behind and concede. The extreme form of this is games where scores are completely hidden during play, like Small World and Puerto Rico. (To be fair, the scores in these games can usually be determined by keeping running totals–but I’ve never seen anyone bother.) Lack of precise information allows players who think they’re losing to hope that they can close the gap.

It’s also possible to obscure just part of the score. Most often, in my experience, this is done with secret objectives that players reveal at the end of the game. The point swing that results when one player achieves her goal and another doesn’t can allow for come-from-behind wins, the promise of which helps keep everyone involved.

The most extreme form of this is something like Killer Bunnies, where the game’s result is always decided by a final roll of the dice. I’m not sure I would recommend that approach, but it certainly makes it harder to predict the winner!

Give players more capability over time: Even if a player is losing now, he or she might hang around if new powers/better stats/more items/etc. will help turn the tide. League of Legends matches against an all-attack damage team can be brutal . . . until your entire team buys Thornmail, and starts reflecting all that damage back at the opponents. Knowing that team-wide Thornmail is coming makes the heavily-slanted early game more bearable.

This approach is tricky to implement, because if the losers are getting new stuff the leader probably does as well. New capabilities only offer hope to those who have fallen behind if they’re numerically superior to what the leader gets (in which case they’re a comeback mechanism, with all the challenges those entail) or they allow one to progress along a totally different axis from what the leader is doing. Giving both leader and loser a sword doesn’t help, but if the leader gets a sword and the loser gets extra points for holding key scenario locations the loser is apt to be tempted by the possibilities.

End the game at the climactic move: If a game is going to be unwinnable for one player after X condition obtains, stop the game at that point. Forcing players to go through a denouement will be frustrating and will likely produce concessions. Warmachine and Hordes are good examples to follow here: those games are essentially over from a tactical perspective once one player loses his or her leader, so defeating the enemy leader is a victory condition that ends the game on the spot.

Note that this doesn’t mean ending the game unpredictably, or prematurely. “Climactic” includes elements of buildup and drama; there should be time enough for both. The goal with this approach is simply to avoid dragging out the endgame to the point where there’s no game left.

Establish objectives other than winning: This goes back to the idea that “building” games can be satisfying even if one loses. I’ve never seen anyone concede a game of Agricola, even though the game can be long and it would be possible to do so with a minimum of disruption; creating one’s farm is reason enough to keep going. MMOs do a lot of this, too, with professions to improve in, things to collect, and stories to experience even if one can’t beat the raid bosses.

Make each match part of a larger whole: Drawing on the car-racing example from last time, players are more likely to keep going if finishing the game is worth points in an overall competition. There’s a limit to this, of course–players might simply concede the entire event! Nevertheless, the possibility of making up a poor performance today with a better one tomorrow is a strong incentive to keep going and minimize the amount of scrabbling back to be done.

Reducing the impact of concessions:

Make the players independent: It’s not hard to keep Race for the Galaxy going after a concession , because the players don’t (generally) interact directly. The loss of a player takes some cards out of the game, and might occasionally result in a phase not being chosen when it otherwise would have, but that’s about it. Everyone remaining can still play a perfectly good RtFG match.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to take this idea too far. Games that can edit a player out cleanly often fall into the trap of “multiplayer solitaire,” with opponents who are so irrelevant that one may as well not have had them in the first place. Use with caution!

Replace departed players: Substitutions are common in professional sports, and their example suggests that this is a fertile area for tabletop and video games as well. We have seen a little of this in video games, with AIs taking over for disconnected players in online games, and tabletop games may also be able to sub in an AI–or another person–for a player who has to leave. Rather than just leaving the conceded position in Race for the Galaxy alone, why not have the solo-play “bot” from the first expansion take over?

Keep the conceded position in play: There are many games which handle player concessions by removing all of his or her stuff from the game. That can be rough in multiplayer games where preying on a weaker player is a valid way to maintain a lead–or to catch up. If the game involves taking things from other players, try to keep the conceded player’s territories/artifacts/etc. available for the remaining players to grab. If this can be combined with a replacement AI that makes realistic efforts to defend those things, so much the better!

Change the objective: This is the flip-side of creating alternative goals for those who are losing: give the winner who’s now without an opponent something else to aim for. John Doe leaving might deny Jane Doe the full satisfaction of beating him, but the frustration will be lessened if she can still compete for the high score or unlock an achievement.

Offer goals along the way: If all of the game’s satisfaction comes in one big lump with the win, anything that seems to cheapen the win will be a major problem. If, however, there are points of satisfaction before that a concession won’t be so bad. This ties back to the question of how to make losing fun; although the positions are reversed–we’re now talking about the winner–the fundamental issue of “keeping a player engaged without the satisfaction of a big win” is related.

Again, I don’t propose that some or all of these need to be in every game. Nor do I mean to say that this is a comprehensive list of ways to deal with concessions. Rather, I hope that these ideas inspire others to take up conceding as a design issue in their own games, and that the approaches here are useful starting points in that process.

4 thoughts on “Theory: Concession-Proofing Your Game

  1. Another well thought out post on game design.

    Another idea I thought of is to do matching of players with like skill (done in many games including Starcraft 2 and Hearthstone) so that one is unlikely to be faced with an opponent who is much, much better. Even if things don’t go well in the beginning, the player doing less well off can reason, “Well, this opponent is supposed to be roughly my same skill level so he can’t be this good. Maybe if I stick it out I can still win”.

    1. Thanks for the kind words!

      The effect of matchmaking on concessions is an interesting issue. I can definitely see your take being right. We could be sure if we had access to, for example, Blizzard’s internal data on Hearthstone. Concessions going up in the early days of a new season, when the ladder has been through a soft reset and unequal matches are more frequent, would tend to confirm that pitting players of equal skill against each other reduces the odds of someone conceding.

      One frustrating aspect of design is that useful data is often out there . . . just not somewhere accessible.

      1. Speaking of game design and data, I feel that even if the data were out there in some cases we couldn’t draw a firm conclusion. Like, for example, why is Candy Crush so popular? Sure, you can point to factors like it is easy to play, “addictive”, and has the whole ‘candy’ element which attracts women of a certain age, but it’s hard to declare “this game was an ultra hit because of these factors”.

        In fact, I would argue that in many cases, marketing as well as pure luck are two major factors in any product’s success.

        Another example is to say “Blizzard has got the formula right, they can pump out hit after hit game”. But of course there is bias there because their game is already well known from the times of Starcraft 1 and the original Warcraft before that. If another no-name company game out with the exact same game would it be as popular?

        Hearthstone is another example – though I feel it has many great design points (at least when viewed as an evolution of M:tG), if it had no connection to to the Warcraft world I think there is no way it would do as well as it’s doing now.

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