Theory: Make Concessions a Part of Your Game

Concessions are generally viewed as disruptive, and a while back I talked about how to discourage them. However, there’s a little-explored alternative: embracing concessions, and making them part of a broader strategy. Backgammon and Magic have both taken this approach, and they’re better for it. It’s worth exploring for your games, as well.

Magic has a problem as a tournament game: there’s a fair amount of randomness, and only limited time in which to play rounds out. If a player gets a bad draw in game one of her best-of-three series, she can end up losing valuable minutes in a match whose outcome isn’t in doubt. Those minutes might end up being decisive, especially if one or the other player is piloting a slow deck that won’t allow all three games to be played. It’s disappointing for tournament results to be decided by luck and the clock.

Fortunately, Magic has long since solved this issue. By allowing players to concede, Magic gives them the option of reallocating time that would be spent in a doomed enterprise to games that can still be won. Players can now focus on the interesting games.

What’s more, conceding goes from being aggravating misconduct to being a valid, accepted strategy. It can even lead to interesting choices; it’s not always easy to know whether it’s better to concede and try again or to play a game out. By accepting concessions and giving them a purpose, Magic fixed them.

Backgammon goes a step farther, making the possibility of concession important in every game, not just lopsided ones. Modern Backgammon is played with a “doubling cube.” At the start of your turn, before you roll the dice, you may offer the cube to your opponent. If he accepts, the amount of money or points at stake is doubled. The six sides of the cube mark the six times the stakes can double, going up to 64 times the original pot.

I’ve played a lot of Backgammon recently, and I can tell you from experience: the decision as to whether or not to concede is hard. Probability, the board state, the number of points at risk and how they compare to the number needed to win the tournament–all of these things factor into a single fold-or-raise decision. The choice is tense, vital to good play, and all-around fascinating.

Concessions are usually thought of as a letdown: a game was going on, and then it just ended. Magic and Backgammon demonstrate that they can instead be meaningful and even exciting. When you’re trying to concession-proof your game, give some thought as to whether it might be possible instead to put a bridle on concessions, and make them work for you.

Theory: Don’t Make These Arguments

Every game that’s going to be played on a tournament basis has to figure out whether it’s going to allow things like intentional draws and people conceding for tactical purposes (e.g., to improve a friend’s standings). Magic went through this process years ago; Warmachine is still hashing it out; Netrunner is just starting to. It’s good that people are thinking about these things, since they’ll come up and it’s good to have a policy in place.

As a lawyer there are certain arguments that come up in these discussions that I find deeply frustrating. They’re based on fundamental misunderstandings of what rules are for and how they work. I don’t have a position on whether any given game should permit players to choose to draw or concede: there are reasonable arguments in both directions. I know, however, that in arguing in favor of those things no one should ever say either of the following.

Unsound argument #1: It’s hard to detect players throwing games, so we should just let them draw or concede openly.

Laws don’t exist because they’re easy to enforce; they exist because they are deemed necessary. That necessity isn’t impacted by the fact that sometimes people get away with things. We’re all mere mortals, and as a result some wrongs will go undetected and unpunished. It doesn’t follow from a difficulty in enforcement that we have to throw the doors open, and let people do whatever they want.

It’s well known that some crimes are hard to prove. Investigating sophisticated crimes—certain forms of fraud, for example—can take years, and even at the end of that process there might not be enough evidence to make a conviction certain. Nor are criminal laws the only ones where enforcement can be a struggle; monitoring compliance with environmental regulations can be a tremendous and not-always-successful undertaking.

Yet, we still have these laws, because we’ve decided as a society that they’re worth the trouble. They allow us to direct people toward good behavior, and to punish those who do harm. Furthermore, punishment isn’t always necessary for a law to work. Laws have a messaging function: they signal what we feel members of society should be doing. Legal scholars have shown that just having a law on the books has a powerful impact on behavior.

This argument, then, puts the priorities wrong way ‘round. The first question is not “will enforcement be hard.” It is “do we feel the rule is necessary.” If it is necessary, then it becomes appropriate to think out what an enforcement mechanism that’s commensurate with the scale of the problem and the resources available would look like. Asking first about the difficulties of enforcement puts the people doing bad things in the driver’s seat.

Now, my suspicion is that a rule against intentional draws and tactical concessions wouldn’t be anywhere near as difficult to enforce as laws against sophisticated fraud. Take it from someone who’s worked in public defender offices: most people aren’t as good at being underhanded as they think they are. They’ll get busted.

I’ve seen people worry that intentional drawing and tactical concessions are unprovable–that it’s impossible to know the player’s mind. Remember, however, that even in court proof beyond a reasonable doubt—the highest standard of proof in the American legal system—is not proof beyond any conceivable doubt. Sure, it’s always possible to concoct a scenario where someone wasn’t throwing a game, but rather was suffering from some incredible combination of bad luck, an uncharacteristic bout of incompetence, and perhaps a curse placed upon them by an evil wizard. It’s more likely that they were just breaking the rule, and if we can put people on death row while there’s conceivable doubt we should be able to disqualify them from a tournament.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument, though, that the rule will be very difficult to enforce, and that many of those who break it will not be caught. (Again, these are very big assumptions.) Even in this case, the rule is still doing work. It sets a standard for good play, and inculcates values in new players coming into the game. The rate of intentional draws and tactical concessions will decrease, even without consistent enforcement, simply because most players aren’t comfortable being thought of as cheaters and don’t do things they’ve been told are cheating.

That last claim might sound unprovable, but look at the first defense raised by players who intentionally draw in games where it’s a grey area when others call them on it. They rely on the text of the rules! It’s not easy for people to toss the rules aside, even when it would be advantageous to do so.

It’s important to note that this is different from the situation where everyone is ignoring a rule. We’ve all heard funny stories about laws that are hundreds of years out-of-date, but are still on the books. An entire community shrugging off a rule and not even bothering to check for violations suggests that it’s become unnecessary; that’s very different from a rule that is still held out as important.

Some rules are difficult to enforce. In practice it’s generally not that difficult, because even smart people often aren’t good at covering their tracks. Either way, though, rules can still be valuable. They shapes the environment, and in doing so promote their intended end even when they cannot guarantee 100% compliance.

Unsound argument #2: “No one can legislate morality.”

I’ve always found this position—which tends to be stated as a single sentence like the one above—a bit hard to parse. So far as I can tell, there are two ideas at play here:

1. Rules of behavior are different from moral rules. Standards of sportsmanship are moral rules, and therefore are not a suitable subject for rules of behavior.
2. People are going to do what they think is right. Trying to stop them is futile.

Both of those arguments are completely unsupportable.

First, rules of behavior and moral rules constantly intersect. Every law that has ever existed has been a rule of behavior, and they all have some kind of moral judgment behind them. We have environmental regulations because we’ve decided that preventing certain kinds of pollution is more important than economic efficiency. We don’t have other environmental regulations because in those areas legislatures concluded that the social gains of efficiency should win out. Laws against assault and murder exist in the first instance, not because of some economic argument about lost productivity, but because human society determined that those things were wrong and bad. There is no law which does not have some kind of moral judgment behind it.

Given that, there’s no reason why a rule against “unsporting” acts is per se invalid. It may be undesirable; a game might benefit from intentional draws and tactical concessions, and that’s fine. This is simply to point out that it’s necessary to have the conversation.

The second version of the argument requires very little discussion. Laws and rules prevent people from doing things they would feel justified in doing every single day. Sometimes people damn the torpedoes, of course, but that only returns us to the previous unsound argument about uncertain enforcement.

Decide on a proper basis

I don’t mind allowing intentional draws and tactical concessions. However, I would never use either of the above arguments to explain why. If you find yourself taking that position in a debate, I would urge you not to use them, either, and if someone uses them against you, don’t be swayed.

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.

Theory: Why Players Concede–and Why Their Opponents Hate It

Why people do people concede–or why, on the flip side, they object to others doing it? Answering those questions will provide us with guideposts for addressing concessions as a design problem. If we know what leads players to concede, we can try to avoid those situations; if we know what makes concessions objectionable, we can design the game to make them less so.

The definition from last time will guide the discussion here. We aren’t going to talk about concessions that are explicitly a form of cheating, because those raise different issues and need to be addressed separately. We will, however, call on forms of concession that feel bad or are unsporting. Minimizing bad feeling among players, after all, is an important design objective.

So, what leads people quit?

The rest of the game doesn’t matter: A player decides that the result is inevitable and that there’s no point in continuing to play. I’m pretty sure that this is the most common reason for conceding, and the least likely to be found objectionable (but some people still hate it; see below). It’s seen in games ranging from chess to Magic to Little League baseball games decided under a mercy rule.

It’s important to recognize that there can be reason to continue even if a player is sure to lose. In card games played over multiple hands, for example, it can be useful to stay in just to get as many points (or as much money) out of a losing hand as possible, so as to stay in the overall running. One also sees this frequently in car racing; even if a driver is sure to finish behind the leader, it’s worth finishing the race to accumulate points toward the overall championship. When a player concedes because the game is no longer meaningful, it’s a statement that there’s no substantial incentive even to play the game out.

The game has stopped being fun: Fun is always tricky to quantify, but there’s no denying when it’s not there–and its lack makes players walk away from games. Often a lack of fun is tied to the rest of the game not mattering; if it doesn’t matter what one does then the game’s decisions probably aren’t very interesting anymore. However, a game can stop being fun for other reasons as well. Perhaps the decisions were interesting once, but the game has gone on too long and the player wants to be done. Maybe there’s a situation the rules don’t handle well, and it’s led to an argument that sucked the joy out of the experience. The opponent might simply be a jerk who’s not worth tolerating any more.

Conceding leads to long-term advantage: Some tournaments are designed in such a way that losing a match has the ironic effect of increasing one’s odds of winning the whole event. The 2012 Olympic badminton debacle grew out of this; the gold medal favorites, among others, threw their first-round games so that they would face weaker teams later in the tournament. While those players were caught (it was hardly difficult) and ejected, sometimes players can manipulate the tournament.

A variation on this theme is the concession that protects what someone already has. One sees this in Magic all the time, as players at the bottom edge of the cutoff for prizes agree to draw their match rather than risk a loss that would push them lower in the standings. Television game shows feature this brand of concession as well, with players deciding to stop with what they have rather than risk it all on one more question.

Stated by themselves, all of those sound like fair reasons to walk away from a game. A bit underhanded, in some cases, but logical. Why, then, do people dislike concessions?

Taking away the climactic move: Some players don’t just want to figure out how to win, they want to actually do it. Concessions deny these players the final moment in which they knock over the opponent’s king or otherwise demonstrate their victory. This is especially galling when the victory was very hard-won and involved a brilliant final sequence of plays; cutting such a game short can feel anti-climactic.

Reducing the time spent playing: I see this reason cited frequently by players who don’t get to play their preferred game often, or who have traveled a long way to play in an event. These players want to savor every moment of their games. Conceding necessarily denies them some of those moments. It doesn’t matter that a concession means they win; these players value time spent playing more than the victory.

Others are affected: Conceding can impact others in the tournament, as it did in the Warmachine event that inspired these articles. When Adam concedes to Beth, it can affect Charlie’s strength of schedule (he played Adam earlier, and will place higher the better Adam does), or Dani’s odds of winning (she has a good matchup against Adam, but a poor one against Beth). It can even, in unusual cases, have more direct effects. The Warmachine tournament’s result was controversial in part because the player who conceded was ineligible for the grand prize; had he played his game out and ended up in the finals, his opponent would automatically have gotten the big-ticket stuff instead of, as actually happened, going home with second place.

The list of people who can be impacted extends beyond the players. Consider professional sports: paying fans would be livid if a hockey team decided that the game wasn’t worth bothering with and left the ice at the end of the first period. Among the complaints leveled against the ejected Olympic badminton players was that they had wasted ticket-holders’ money. Shoeless Joe Jackson had to wonder what the kid who asked him to “say it ain’t so, Joe” learned about sportsmanship from his decision to tank World Series games.

It’s unsportsmanlike: For some players, trying one’s hardest is integral to honest gameplay. Choosing not to pursue victory with all one’s strength is just inherently wrong under this view, regardless of why one might do it. By joining a game, they feel, one commits to try to win it until the very end. The circumstances have no bearing on this moral obligation.

(As a side note: listing these, I feel, helps make clear why discussions about concessions so often involve people talking past each other. The reasons to concede are all about the game’s obligation to the player: when the game stops making play worthwhile, they posit, the player does not need to continue. By contrast, the arguments against conceding are about the player’s obligations to others: they want the player to keep going, even given that the activity is voluntary and no longer rewarding, because doing so benefits those others. Since the two sides value entirely different things, it’s hard for them even to engage with the opponent’s arguments.)

Looking these over, I think that they represent a fairly comprehensive statement of why concessions happen, and why some players would prefer that they didn’t. Next time we’ll try to put this knowledge into practice, discussing how games can be designed to minimize the impact of a player conceding.

Theory: Defining Concessions (and Rules for a New Print-and-Play)

(First things first: I’ve been working on Trust Me’s follow-up. The print-and-play file isn’t ready yet; the pieces are still very much in flux. However, you can find the rules here–Lines of Questioning – Rules – 10-3-14–as a preview.)

The recent blowup about conceding Warmachine tournament games highlighted the issue concessions pose to game designers: some people approve of them, other people think they’re monstrous, and it’s hard to please both groups at once. Nevertheless, concessions are a fact of gaming life and games need to deal with them as effectively as possible. It’s a designer’s responsibility to catch bugs, and a player dropping out is a situation that needs to be handled just like an incorrect key press or a rules corner-case.

Managing concessions is an area where I feel that a lot of games fall down, so I’d like to spend a few posts hashing out the issues involved. We’ll start with the fundamentals: what counts as conceding? From there we’ll move on to why opinions of the practice are so divided. Then, with groundwork laid, we’ll get into how to handle concessions as a design matter.

I hope you’ll join in and leave your thoughts in the comments. All of these are big topics, and there’s room for differing views. If you think I’ve missed something, or that my analysis is off, let me know.

To talk about concessions, we first have to agree on what we’re discussing–and what we’re not. “Conceding,” as I’m using it here, is a decision to take game actions that the player expects and intends will result in a loss. The archetypal form is the player who pushes the “concede” button in Hearthstone, or who says to a real-world opponent “I’m going to lose, so let’s call this early and do something else.”

However, my definition also includes intentionally playing badly so as to lose the game. In other words, it includes throwing games. I feel that to be useful from a design perspective, a definition of conceding has to encompass that kind of intentional loss. While formal concessions and informal tanking may feel different, they raise the same design issues: winners who feel cheated out of competition and threats to tournament integrity.

Concessions can occur negatively through inaction as well, and this definition allows for that. The player who stops submitting orders in a game of Diplomacy, knowing that this will result in an automatic surrender, creates all of the problems that someone who explicitly announces an intent to leave the game does. (Indeed, this player might have even more of an impact, since other players may continue for a time under the mistaken impression that the conceding player is still involved.) Again, this might feel different from other forms of concession, but its effects are the same.

This definition excludes losses where there was no decision–and thus, no intent–to lose. Playing badly does not raise the same issues as conceding, so long as the player’s goal is to win. Concessions can raise questions about whether a tournament was fair and honest; having a lousy day does not call the event as a whole into question.

Also excluded are situations where a player forces an inconclusive result. The legitimate version of this is playing for a draw in a tournament, expecting that the draw will enable the player to advance where a loss would not. Illegitimate versions include things like DDOSing the League of Legends servers or pulling one’s internet connection while playing Street Fighter, both of which tactics have been used to shut a match down before a loss has been recorded. When done legitimately, an effort to draw gives rise to a proper game that doesn’t undermine the tournament or take anything away from a winner who overcomes the strategy. Done illegitimately, forcing a draw is simply cheating. Either way, the issues posed are entirely different.

My feeling is that this definition captures the situations that are logically related and separates out those that aren’t. Next time we’ll get into why conceding (as defined) is so controversial . . . and why the controversy probably won’t end.