Theory: Dependency in Cooperative Games

Cooperative games exist on a sliding scale based on how players interact with each other. Some feature high levels of dependency: players rely heavily on each other to carry out their respective tasks. Low-dependency games, on the other hand, allow players to progress independently. Recognizing where a design falls on the dependency spectrum is vital, because it has an enormous effect on the player experience.

In high-dependency games, player 1’s ability to perform in-game actions is gated by player 2’s choices. American football has many examples: the wide receiver simply cannot catch a ball the quarterback throws too inaccurately, and a running back stops at the line of scrimmage if the offensive linemen do not make a hole. Video game healers often fall into this category as well, unable to raise health bars when the rest of the team has gotten themselves killed.

High dependency means that if the rest of the team plays badly, or according to a different gameplan, player 1 cannot act. This makes players extremely aware of each other, and can create a very strong team experience. Clockwork moves that enable successive players to act at their best are both intrinsically satisfying and impressive to watch. When this kind of game is going well, the positive feedback is extremely strong.

On the other hand, when things get off the rails high dependency games turn nasty. Successful play is like an assembly line, and when widgets stop coming it’s easy to identify where the issue arose. The center snapped correctly, the quarterback threw accurately, and then the wide receiver was supposed to catch it and run—but that last step was missed. Since center and quarterback did things right, it must be the wide receiver’s fault. If the team is fractious, or team members enjoy the anonymity of online play, recrimination is apt to follow.

Low dependency play avoids turning player 2 into a gate for player 1. Pandemic’s Researcher can always cure diseases regardless of what the Medic is doing. Team Warmachine tournaments pair off members of opposing squads, such that teammates cannot help or hinder a game in progress.

It’s much easier to keep team dynamics positive in low dependency games. Everyone gets to do their thing, whether or not others are succeeding. Assuming “their thing” is fun, the game can be satisfying even if the rest of the group is having trouble.

Yet, low dependency makes it quite a bit more difficult to create a team dynamic in the first place. If everyone can act independently, it is easy to ignore one’s teammates. The game can devolve into loosely connected solo games, or the most skilled player dispensing with cooperation in an effort to carry the entire game.

Neither high nor low dependency is inherently better. Both dynamics provide value, and the weaknesses of each can be designed around. It is possible to shift between them, or to incorporate elements of both, adding just enough dependency to a game to keep a team together while providing independence to cool tensions.

The key for designers is to position their game on this spectrum consciously. Increasing dependency risks increasing toxicity; decreasing it can undermine cooperation. Knowing that, one can design around it.

Olympian Challenges

The Olympics raise many game design questions, separate and apart from those involved in the individual sports. What is the best way to organize tournaments so that players are motivated to do their best? How can the matches best be presented to viewers who aren’t familiar with the game being played? Who are legitimate competitors, and who makes that decision?

Sadly, there’s an additional question as well: how does one restore wonder to the Olympic Games, a sense of awe at the remarkable feats being performed, when one is all too aware of past achievements marred by later revelations of doping, steroid use, and other wrongdoing?

I’m sorry to say that I don’t have the answer. I hope that someone does.

Theory: Knowing Who’s Best Isn’t as Important as Fun

It’s interesting to read about how sports were officiated years ago, and to compare that with how the same sports handle rules enforcement today. Over time there has been a strong drift toward trying to make sure every call is perfect, and to remove any possible asterisk from the final results. While that’s a worthwhile goal, I think it’s ultimately unrealistic, and pursuing it too far can lead to an inferior experience for players and fans. Better instead to accept that games will always be a slightly imperfect measurement of the players’ abilities, and to emphasize making each game fun rather than trying to turn it into an ideal measuring device for skill.

Historically, umpires, referees, and other people responsible for enforcing a sport’s rules were treated as a part of the game. It was understood that they would be wrong some percentage of the time, and that mistaken calls could affect the outcome just like an unexpected gust of wind or a player getting hurt. To paraphrase Justice Jackson, they were not final because they were right, they were right because they were final. If they made some errors in the course of being “right” with scare quotes, and final without them, well, mere mortals were the only ones available to run our games.

Technology has in many respects freed us from the tyranny of human fallibility in refereeing. We can view plays from different angles, slow them down, and revisit them many times over if necessary. Close calls can now be decided through multiple people’s painstaking examination rather than by a single, rushed observer. Opportunities for mistakes are fewer, and we can say with much more confidence that the players, rather than the rules-enforcers, drove the result of the game.

Yet, this accuracy has come at a cost. Games are slower, sometimes substantially so. As a result, watching professional sports has become, at least for me, a real test of patience; whenever the game starts to develop some momentum the refs head for the replay booth and the thrill is lost. Nor do I think I’m alone in feeling that way; I don’t know how often I’ve heard people bemoan things like TV timeouts, and instant replay has made games longer still.

Although I’ve never spoken to professional sports players about it, I have to think they can grow similarly frustrated as they are dragged out of the moment to wait for a review. Getting into the right mindset is critical in sports. That must be difficult when one is idly knocking about the field, waiting for the game to resume.

Doubtless some games have been won by the more deserving team because of technologically-assisted refereeing. However, I can’t help but feel that in trying to make sure that sports are more accurate, we’ve made them less fun. It’s not fun to wait for the umpires to get the results on a replay. (Whereas by contrast, it can be fun to grouse about blown calls. It’s a grand tradition!) Winning is fun, but winning on a technicality “after further review” when the other team is already dancing isn’t the same. Making sure that the record books are correct is causing us to sacrifice some of the experience on the ground.

In the end, we should accept that sometimes there will be judgment calls that might be made incorrectly. Eliminating those situations has a cost, and–in my view–it is a cost major league sports should not be paying. We watch and attend games for the fun, not for technical precision; let the mistakes be, as they long were, just part of the experience.

Theory: Decisions in Physical Games

Miniature golf is fun, even though there’s only ever one right move: to hit the ball in a way that results in a hole-in-one. The same is true of tennis (players should hit unreturnable serves that land perfectly in the corners), baseball (it’s always best to swing the bat along an arc that will produce a home run), and many other games that turn primarily on physical accomplishments rather than strategic calculations. All of these games work, despite their tactical simplicity, because they still have compelling decisions; they simply fold those decisions into the physical performance involved.

Let’s look at one of the first games many people play: catch. The only “move” in catch is to throw the ball back and forth, with the goal of making a good throw directly to the other player. There are no decisions to make, no opposing players to outwit or special moves that score more points. Catch has absolutely no strategic depth.

Yet, people of all ages play catch. It could be that they do it out of obligation, as practice for other games, or as something to occupy their hands while they discuss other things. I’m sure that in some cases one of those is exactly what’s happening. However, given the number of games of catch I see played between people who aren’t members of competitive sports teams and who seem focused on what they’re doing, I think there’s a better explanation: catch, despite being strategically simple, involves a lot of interesting decisions.

Consider what goes into that “good throw.” The amount of force on the ball must be correctly judged; too little and the ball doesn’t get to the other player, too much and she has to go chase after it (or, perhaps, the thrower has to chase after it!). One must tune one’s arm motion to produce that amount of force in the correct direction. Last but not least, one has to find just the right point at which to release the ball—too early or too late will spoil all the other work.

Each of those decisions involves selecting, without complete information, the best option from many alternatives. They are interrelated and must be made in a time-pressured environment. A variety of factors play into them, and one must weigh those factors appropriately. Those decisions are, in other words, interesting, for the very same reasons that decisions in board games are interesting.

Another example of interesting physical decisions comes out of first-person action video games. David Sirlin once described the primary skill in these games as “aiming:” moving one’s mouse, joystick, or directional pad so that the targeting reticule is over the enemy. That doesn’t sound all that enthralling, but millions of people play these games every day. Why?

Part of the answer, no doubt, is AAA graphics and sound. Part, though, is the simple fact that aiming is hard. Like making a good throw in catch, it’s a physical act with many decisions bundled up in it. How exactly should the mouse move, given that the player is also running diagonally forward and jumping and the opponent looks like he’s going to rocket-jump but hasn’t done it yet? It’s not trivial to work that out in less than a second while everything is in motion!

I get the same feeling of satisfaction from a really good throw in catch as I do from a really good move in a board game. That’s not surprising, because in both cases I’ve made a series of tricky decisions correctly. In the end, physical games are games, and they draw their fun from the same well of interesting decisions as their more sedate counterparts do.