Theory: Compartmentalize Costs

Costs in games are a double-edged sword. It’s easier to balance games with more costs associated with their cards/pieces/etc., since there are more knobs to turn. Yet, the more costs there are, the greater the player’s mental overhead. Adding more costs can be valuable, then, but they should be compartmentalized so that the player only needs to think about one or two of them at any point during the game.

FFG’s Netrunner is a superb example of compartmentalizing costs. Take a look at this Netrunner card, which represents a program used by the game’s hackers:

8-17-15 - Yog.0

This card has three costs. First, there’s a monetary cost to put the card into play (the 5 in black in the upper left). Second, the program has a memory cost, denoted by the 1 in a chip just to the right of a monetary cost; players can normally have up to four memory’s worth of programs in play at a time, and this takes up one of them. Finally, the single pip in a row of five at the bottom-right indicates that Yog.0 costs one influence during deckbuilding.

Having three costs (separate and apart from the fourth cost to use the card’s ability) is a lot. Fortunately, Netrunner lightens the player’s load by putting the costs in separate game-stage compartments. Influence is only relevant while building a deck, and never matters during play. Cost and memory might influence deckbuilding, but they don’t have a rules-based role at that stage; they only need to be tracked precisely later, while the game is in progress. This compartmentalization means that the player only ever needs to track a maximum of two costs at once.

Of course, even two costs is enough that mistakes can be made. I once saw a video of a tournament Netrunner match in which a player had five memory’s worth of programs for the better part of the game. Neither player noticed.

Like all design rules, the rule of compartmentalization has exceptions. Starcraft, which effectively makes attention a game resource, is perhaps the classic example: we’ve all been told to “SPAWN MORE OVERLORDS” because we forgot to check how much available supply we had left. Starcraft is a fast-paced game that’s intended to test your ability to divide your focus and juggle lots of things without dropping any of them, and satisfying many costs (minerals, gas, supply, build time)  is part of the challenge.

At the far side of the spectrum from Starcraft is Hearthstone:
11-14-14 - Hearthstone Card

One cost, noted in the gem in the upper-left, with a computer enforcing the rules so that you can’t forget to pay it. This is great for the more lighthearted game that I have the sense Hearthstone is meant to be, though it does put a lot of weight on the designers, who have fewer balancing knobs to turn.

Fine-tuning balance makes a designer want more costs–but every new cost is one more thing players are going to have to keep track of. Be mindful of how much effort players are being asked to expend dealing with costs, and compartmentalize them to make things easier–or, if you’re going to go the other way, be sure your game is as amazing as Starcraft. 😉

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: 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.