Theory: What LoL Shows Us About the World

One of the great things about presentations by Frank Lantz is that they’re full of insightful comments that aren’t necessarily even the thesis of the talk. They’re just great ideas, presented compellingly.

I was privileged to be able to sit in on Frank’s Games 101 lecture on strategy games today, and came away with this (sadly paraphrased–I couldn’t write fast enough to get the exact quote):

League of Legends may well be the most-played game today. It’s also baroque; the only way to get good at it is to devote many punishing hours to mastering its intricacies. Millions of players lose over and over, willingly battering themselves against the wall of the game’s complexity.

Moreover, League of Legends is a strategy game. Its rewards are entirely focused on problem-solving and mental accomplishment. There’s none of the power fantasy that we’re so often told is at the heart of games.

Ultimately, the fact of League of Legends’ popularity is a positive sign, for games and maybe even for the world. It says that people aren’t trapped in, as Frank put it, “a race to the bottom.” They’re willing to engage with complexity, with challenge, with things that are just plain hard, in the name of self-improvement and intellectual accomplishment.

Theory: The Limitations on the Rules

I propound a lot of rules on this blog, and I present them as things you should always do. However, it’s important to recognize that they are not necessarily immutable or universally applicable. While I don’t believe rules are made to be broken, I do believe that they need to be properly understood—and that means giving due weight to their limitations.

One might reasonably ask why it is that game design rules aren’t as reliable as, for example, the laws of physics. I can see at least four reasons:

1. Game design rules are sometimes in tension, and so it might not be possible to follow all of them at once.

Wargames are called upon to provide reasonably accurate simulations of the conflicts they’re based on. That often means putting in some period detail. Fire in the Lake is a good game about the Vietnam War for many reasons, and among them is how it incorporates actual events and issues to create a you-are-there feeling.

At the same time, elegance is usually seen as an important design goal. Just as too much chrome is bad for the look of a car, too many special cases and deviations from the general pattern is bad for a game experience.

Top-flight wargames can balance these two considerations, detail and elegance, but they will always be in conflict. It’s just not possible for such a game to pursue either elegance or historicity to their fullest extents; doing so will prevent the game from achieving its broader goals. The design rules have to bend.

2. Sometimes you get more by breaking a rule than you do from following it.

League of Legends is arguably the most popular game in existence today. It also, as its VP of Game Design points out, breaks the rules sometimes. That’s not because League’s designers don’t know the rules; it’s because they recognize circumstances where they can get more than they give.

As a non-League example, think back to the Babylon 5 CCG. The B5CCG was probably “wrong” to have lots of off-card states to track. However, those states created levers cards used to impact the table-talk at the heart of the game. B5CCG broke a rule because doing so was important to that specific design.

It may be that this is just a subset of the previous situation; the B5CCG may actually have been following a rule (perhaps one as yet unelucidated) when it added meters that had to be tracked on a playmat. However, I think the question of “should I break this rule, given that I’ll get a lot of benefits” comes up often enough to deserve its own entry. If the cost-benefit analysis supports it, the answer is “yes.”

3. We know that some games break rules and get away with it.

An act that contravenes the laws of physics is going to have big problems, but we know from experience that games can break the rules of design and be a lot of fun. Maybe that means they’re following deeper rules than we’ve yet discovered; maybe that means the rules are mere guidelines. Either way, there’s clearly a limit to how much respect the rules of design are due.

4. I don’t know everything.

The fact is that I’m learning as I go. Sometimes I’ll have an incomplete understanding, and thus propound an incomplete rule; sometimes I may just turn out to be wrong. Rules are best when they’re made by the best, and I’m not there yet.

Try letting go

I like rules. I think they’re useful. I’ll even go so far as to say that I believe in their power and utility.

However, the rules of game design aren’t as ironclad as the rules of science. Perhaps that’s because they can’t be; perhaps we simply aren’t as far along in our understanding of them. Either way, it’s always worth keeping in mind that the rules may not be leading you in the right direction. Recognize their limitations, and allow yourself the freedom to—judiciously—break them.

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.

Theory: Balance Matters for All Skill Levels

The common wisdom about game balance–that it only matters for top-level players–is incorrect. It is true that balance is more important to the outcome in matches between highly skilled players than it is when newer players compete. However, balance has a far greater impact on fun for weaker players than it does for stronger ones. Both groups benefit from balance and are hurt by its absence.

“Balance” is a tricky word in game design. It sweeps in a lot of issues and discussions about different types of games that arguably shouldn’t be directly compared. Here, I’m talking about balance in initial choices: between characters in Street Fighter, champions in League of Legends, interstellar empires in Twilight Imperium, and other situations where players select a set of capabilities before the conflict begins.

Players of these games often argue that balance is only important at high levels of play. The argument goes something like this: in games between low- to mid-skill players, the difference in ability between the players decides who wins. Slight advantages in one’s choice of character/champion/empire are swamped by relative skill. It’s only when both players are quite good that those slight advantages matter.

The flaw in that position is that it assumes balance only affects winning. It also plays a role in determining how much fun the players have. For experienced players the role is smaller. With new and less skilled players, however, balance can be the single determining factor in whether or not they enjoy the game.

Top players, in my experience, derive most of their fun from developing mastery. They like exploring the game, understanding it, practicing it, and demonstrating the skill they gain thereby. Whether they do that with this character or that empire doesn’t matter as much as the play and the results.

I can’t think of a better example of this than Mike Flores’ view of Caw-Blade. For those who don’t play Magic: the Gathering, Caw-Blade was early 2011’s dominant tournament deck. “Dominant” can’t be emphasized enough; Caw-Blade won again and again and again, sweeping all competition before it. In its day Caw-Blade was the only reasonable choice for what to play in a tournament.

Mike Flores, a well-known Magic player with a history of tournament success and writer of many influential articles, loved the Caw-Blade environment. He conceded that Caw-Blade was by far the best deck–but, he pointed out, Caw-Blade vs. Caw-Blade games were extremely skill-intensive and rewarded good play. It didn’t matter to him that there was only one valid deck, because that deck enabled players to show their stuff.

Newer and less practiced players, however, often have neither the experience nor the mindset to mitigate balance issues. They don’t know what the good choices are, and if they find out may not feel able to switch to them. As a result, these players can have frustrating experiences when they encounter high-level play.

This dynamic played out very clearly in the old Star Wars miniatures game. If a player did not have a plan for the “Black-and-Blue” strategy, or really wanted to play the Mandalorians even though they were weak, he or she could lose games in rock-paper-scissors fashion even against an opponent of equal skill. High-level players, and those aspiring to that status, took note of the imbalances and moved on; others just got aggravated.

To be fair, the differences in power between SWM pieces was stark. Games with smaller imbalances are less likely to produce these joyless situations. Even small imbalances, however, can build into commanding leads over time–especially in casual games between friends, where everyone involved is a repeat player and streaks are likely to be noticed.

Balance affects which top-level player wins. However, it can also affect which lower-level player has fun. Thus, balance shouldn’t be seen as irrelevant to new players and the lower ranks on the ladder. It’s important to these groups in different ways, but it’s important to all of them.

Theory & The Case Study: Gates in Over the Next Dune

I’ve been considering whether to try out gated player abilities in Over the Next Dune. Gating player capabilities would be a substantial change, and unusual for a cooperative game. On the other hand, gates are a commonly-used, proven mechanic. It’s not a trivial decision.

Let’s start at (what I think is) the beginning. Why would one ever use a gate, instead of just letting players deploy their capabilities whenever they want? I can see two reasons:

1. The gate leads to interesting decisions. Mark Rosewater likes to say that “restrictions breed creativity.” Limiting the player’s access to a capability forces the player to think about when to use it, and to find alternative solutions when the capability isn’t available or shouldn’t be employed.

As a quick example, think about Barrier in League of Legends: a protective shield that isn’t available for a few minutes after being used. Since access to the Barrier is limited, players have to make tough decisions about precisely when it will do the most good. They also have to find ways to conserve the Barrier for those key moments, and to protect themselves when the Barrier is “on cooldown.” If players could just throw up the Barrier all the time, those decisions would be lost–and no other decisions would appear to replace them.

2. The gate prevents an ability from dominating gameplay. In some ways this is the inverse of the previous rule: the gate is in place because unlimited use of a player ability makes the game less interesting. RPGs often use gates in this way; powerful abilities would make the early game trivial, so players can’t access them until later.

(There’s also a third reason–to help monetize the game. However, that opens up a can of worms that I’m not looking to address right now.)

Those both seem like good reasons to include gates. Yet, they aren’t universal in cooperative games. Pandemic‘s Scientist doesn’t need to do anything to be able to cure a disease with four cards instead of five; that ability is always “on.” Shadows Over Camelot‘s Sir Bedivere can trade cards in for new ones without earning the privilege. Clearly, gates aren’t for every power or every game.

What considerations, then, militate against gating player powers? Ironically, I find it much easier to think of why a designer would want to limit powers than why the designer wouldn’t. Perhaps that says something about me. 🙂 Here’s what I’ve come up with:

1. The game is unplayable when the ability is not available. Most RPGs don’t limit your capacity to walk around. In fact, I’m not aware of any at all that do. That’s not surprising, because if the player can’t move around the world in an RPG the player can’t do anything at all. Limiting walking would tend to destroy people’s ability to play the game.

2. The game needs something, and the ability provides it best when it is constantly available. League of Legends needs a way to ensure that games move toward their conclusions. A big part of ending a game of League is damage output; players and teams need damage to destroy the opposing team’s defenses and ultimately the enemy base. Thus, the game needs to ensure that teams have reliable access to damage output. If no team can damage objectives, the game cannot progress (setting aside really grindy strategies like letting minions do all the pushing–let’s not go down this road).

League’s need for guaranteed damage is met by “auto-attacks.” Every character can punch, swing a sword, fire arrows, or has some other freely available mechanism for inflicting damage. Since they’re costless, auto-attacks guarantee that the game cannot stall completely. Regardless of the team composition or overall situation, both teams have the theoretical ability to bring down objectives and end the game.

3. You want to encourage a behavior. If players should be doing something in a game, designers can incentivize it by letting players do it no strings attached. Ikaruga, for example, is a “bullet hell” game in which the player(s) can switch colors to absorb enemy fire. The color-switching mechanic made the game an instant classic. Having no limits on switching colors was a good design move, because it encouraged players to try the mechanic out early (desirable because color-switching was the game’s innovative feature) and to do it often thereafter (important because it helped players progress and kept them hooked).

So, two reasons to use gates and three not to. What do they mean for OtND?

To date players have three capabilities in the game: moving, tricking searchers, and rescuing other players. Moving should not be gated. The game is unplayable if players can’t get around the board.

Tricking searchers also should not be gated. It is, at least arguably, the most interesting aspect of the game. Keeping it freely available encourages players to interact with this important mechanic.

Rescuing is already gated by the need for several players to work together. That proved necessary to stop rescuing from dominating gameplay. However, the current limitations appear sufficient; I don’t think more are needed.

What about additional player abilities, then? Things like Pandemic’s Scientist and Shadows’ Sir Bedivere, that are outside the core rules of the game? Do they need to be gated? Should they exist in OtND at all? Let’s take that up next time.

The Case Study & Theory: Gates

Thinking about how to add on to Over the Next Dune raises the question of whether and how to gate player powers. Of course, that begs the question of what a “gate” is. 😉 To avoid definitional confusion, let’s hammer that out.

A gate is something that controls a player’s access to in-game capabilities. The classic example is mana, as seen in League of Legends or the Final Fantasy games. A player uses up mana each time he or she employs a special ability, and when the mana is gone the player cannot use special abilities until it recharges. Ammunition is also a gate; it limits how much the player can use a certain weapon before having to switch or seek out more ammo.

Gates do not have to be numbers. Many role-playing games, for example, control players’ power via progress through the storyline. As the player explores new areas, meets new people, and learns new things, the player gets new capabilities.

Gates can go one way or bi-directional. One-way gates result in permanent changes. For example, in Burnout Paradise access to new cars is generally gated by completing races. Once you complete the race associated with a car, you have access to that car forever. Mana and ammunition are usually bi-directional gates; you can run out and lose access to a power, but replenishing the resource takes you back through the gate and enables you to use it again.

I believe that that’s a reasonably complete discussion of what gates are. They also have some properties that aren’t definitional but that I feel are worth putting forward:

Gates can be thought of in either direction. This is kind of a weird one, and it’s usually not relevant, but it can be useful. All gates can be described as having something or not having the opposite. For example, in Battletech firing weapons builds up heat. You can think of heat as the gate (too much is bad) or coolness as the gate (not enough is bad). It doesn’t matter, from a theoretical perspective, which approach you take.

Admittedly, this can get kind of silly. You could say that “lack of mana” is the gate, and that a player can use a certain ability because his or her lack of mana has been kept below a certain threshold. It’s a lot easier, though, to say that the player has enough mana.

Basically, this is like flipping an equation to put the variable you’re solving for on the left. It doesn’t really change anything, but if you’re accustomed to a certain presentation it might help you understand what’s going on.

Out-of-game gates are ineffective. Experience has shown that players cannot be limited by resources outside the rules of the game. Money and physical difficulty are two examples of out-of-game gates which have been proven not to work.

Money. If your game is popular, you will have a subset of players who will spend whatever they need to to get a competitive advantage. Magic: the Gathering was originally designed to use card rarity as a gate, on the thinking that players would be limited by their collections. Over time it became clear that tournament players assembled complete collections regardless of the cost. Magic still uses rarity for various design purposes, but not to balance constructed-deck tournament play.

Physical difficulty. It does not matter how difficult a physical task is; if it will help players win, some of them will put in the necessary time to be able to do it reliably. Fighting games often use precise timing as a gate, demanding that players time their moves to 1/60th of a second in order to get the longest combos and the most damage. Many, many players have practiced enough to hit those 1/60th of a second windows routinely.

From here we need to think about whether OtND should use gates at all. I’ll get into that next time.