Theory: Explain the Purpose of Options

So you’ve designed a game where it’s hard to transition from reading the rules to playing  intelligently. Maybe the player has options whose import–the “why” as distinct from the “what”–aren’t clear just from reading the rulebook, or perhaps the game is just too complicated for new players to be able to devote much thought to strategy. Everything is fine once someone is invested and has discovered the game’s tactical nuances, but the learning curve is more like a cliff. How can you help new players understand their choices, so that they don’t just quit in frustration?

There’s an often-overlooked solution: simply tell them.

GMT makes Fire in the Lake, its excellent-but-complex simulation of the Vietnam War, approachable using that exact method. Fire in the Lake has two big humps in its learning curve: first getting through the dense rulebook, and then understanding how the rules are applied on the tabletop to make progress toward winning. By being straightforward about what each maneuver is intended to accomplish, GMT gives players a tremendous boost over the second hurdle.

You see, there’s a lot for new players to take in when they start to learn Fire In the Lake: four factions, each with their own victory conditions and unique actions. It doesn’t get easier when one considers that each action has multiple parts. A US player, for example, can assault with her own troops in any of several locations (which costs no resources), then has the option of forcing her ally to attack (which does cost resources). How many pieces are removed by the assault depends on who’s attacking–the US or her ARVN ally, the terrain, and whether or not the US has established a base at that location. The US player also has three other actions she can take, plus three additional helper-actions which can’t all be combined with all of the main options. Her choices are also, by the way, contingent on the monsoon.

As you might imagine, it’s not easy to see the forest for the trees at the end of all this. After going carefully through the rulebook before my first game I was so busy juggling the technicalities in my head that I wasn’t sure how to fit my choices together into a strategy. Then I looked down at the player aid, and saw this:

"Why you would do this," helpfully spelled out.
It’s the first line that’s key.

Having the execution details of a patrol–the cost, where patrolling troops can move–was useful. The greatest value, though, came from that first line: “Purpose.” Here’s why you would do this; you’ll get the following out of it.

All of a sudden it was possible to make meaningful decisions. I had been getting ready to take actions “just to try them out,” accepting that the match would basically be an extended tutorial. Equipped with some basic information about what I could expect from each action, however, I was able to pursue a coherent strategy right away.

It’s worth pausing to reiterate that. A few lines on the player aid saved me from a four- to six-hour tutorial, and launched me right into the exciting part of the game. Those couple of sentences granted an enormous return in player engagement.

Fire in the Lake isn’t the only game that can benefit from explaining when and why certain moves are useful. Consider, for example, chess. The rules of chess are quite simple. Even small children can easily learn the game.

However, the strategic implications of the choices available are complex and often opaque. On his first turn a player can move a pawn, or jump with a knight. When is one better than the other? Why? If he should move a pawn, which one? How many spaces forward? I’ve never heard anyone say that they stopped playing chess because they couldn’t learn it, but I’ve heard people say that they just found it overwhelming.

Now imagine how much more accessible chess would be if every set came packaged with some basic information about what various moves accomplish. This opening brings the bishops and rooks forward to useful positions; that maneuver threatens the opponent’s pieces. Suddenly the player could to evaluate positions, at least in a simple way, and make informed choices. If he wanted to bring the bishops and rooks forward, he might try these moves; if he preferred to get his queen involved, he would at least have an example of what not to do.

Of course, that sort of information is readily available; there are any number of chess resources out there. Seeking them out, however, requires a level of investment that cannot be assumed of new players. When the problem is getting players engaged in the first instance, there’s no better solution than putting valuable help in the one document they’re most likely to read: the rulebook.

As always, this is not a tool suited to every game. Twilight Imperium 3rd Edition doesn’t need to expend energy telling people what the “Warfare” and “Production” roles are for. Netrunner can safely assume that everyone will understand the use of “purge all virus counters.”

When there’s a divide between a game’s rules and its strategy, however, a little explanation can go a long way. Helping players out with a brief statement of how each option might contribute to a strategy does a great deal to bridge the gap between reading the rulebook and having fun with a game. If nothing else, it avoids four- to six-hour tutorials!

Theory: The Redemption of All-Chat

It’s an article of faith that all-chat is a cesspool. That reputation is richly deserved. However, it’s not a given that channels for communicating with players on other teams will only ever be used for flinging insults. Global chat channels can work in games designed around them.

Let’s start by laying out the problem to be solved. As a rule, all-chat—that is, a communication mechanism in online games that allows every player in a game or match to talk to each other—is silent at best and hurtful at worst. It says something that one of the first things League of Legends did to curb unpleasantness in its playing community was to set all-chat to “off” by default. Perhaps more remarkable, MMOs now allow players to opt out of their global chat channels. That’s how bad the situation is: an entire genre built on the social aspects of gaming has to let players shut down a primary means of socializing because it’s so awful.

What would it take to make all-chat good? There are two things I can think of:

  1. A good all-chat has a gameplay purpose. Everything in a game should have a gameplay purpose. Social features used to get a pass on that, on the theory that more ways for players to talk to each other automatically made for a better overall experience; time has put the lie to that belief. If all-chat is going to be rescued it will have to earn its place.
  2. All-chat needs players to be reasonable when using it. Making all-chat in its current form central to a game would make that game the least pleasant thing on the internet. For it to be beneficial the messages that go through all-chat must be free of the lowest-common-denominator vitriol so common today.

We can discuss each of those in turn.

The simple part: making all-chat important to the game

The former problem is relatively easy. Opposing parties talk with each other all the time, and there are plenty of ways to bring that into a game. Negotiation, for example, can be a centerpiece of strategic play; Diplomacy is a sufficient proof of that. For a sneakier version of communication, a wargame might include the concept of sending false messages to the enemy, or an economic game could involve market manipulation. Co-ops and team games often demand synchronized effort. Semi co-ops involve lots of talking as players try to balance their personal goals with the group’s needs. There’s no kind of game that can’t be built so as to encourage the players to talk to each other.

The hard part: kinder communication

It’s the latter issue, that of achieving good behavior, that’s the tricky one.

Solution 1: Put the players in an environment where dominating others isn’t the goal.

Keith Burgun recently presented an interesting argument that a game’s thematic elements affect how players view what they’re doing, and by extension how they interact with each other. When players are told in advance that the goal is to have fun together, he explains, they generally act in ways that are consistent with everyone having fun. He cites as an example his very different experiences in games with different art styles; players were nicer to each other in Team Fortress 2 than in Counter-Strike, even though they’re both violent games, because TF2’s cartoonish visuals emphasized that everyone was there to have a good time.

It’s when players are told that the goal is to dominate and harm others, Mr. Burgun argues, that they adopt language to suit. “[W]hile a player is operating in a world of violence, he is more likely to think violently.” (emphasis omitted) Players naturally respond to a game that tells them to hurt the enemy by trying to do so in every way they can, cruel words included.

Mr. Burgun’s theory points toward games that are built from the ground up to send specific messages: that winning doesn’t require achieving power over the other players, that the overall project is fun rather than in-game success, that other players are co-participants in the overall project and should be treated as valued teammates rather than as obstacles. Global chat could work fine in such a context. Without the nudge toward unpleasantness that comes from a violent theme, most players will default to a reasonable mode of conversation. Outliers will hopefully be few, and easily dealt with.

Solution 2: Effective deterrence.

There are games that don’t look at all like Mr. Burgun’s ideal, and yet the conversation manages to be civil. Diplomacy is again my go-to example. It’s a wargame that’s expressly about conquering Europe and eliminating players, but it’s unusual to run into someone who’s openly nasty. By and large people are cordial, even when they’re stabbing each other in the back and overrunning each other’s territories. Why does Diplomacy work?

Here’s my theory: Diplomacy, along with Twilight Imperium, the Game of Thrones board game, and others of their ilk, has the most effective deterrence around. In fact, Diplomacy has a level of deterrence that the criminal law envies! The structure of the game ensures that players who want to be mean are powerfully and reliably discouraged from doing so.

I recognize that that’s a pretty bold claim, so let me back up and discuss this more fully. Deterrence requires at least three things: (1) there is a rule you want people to follow, (2) people know about the rule, and (3) people are more afraid of the consequences of violating the rule than they are eager for the rewards to be had from doing so.

(1) is trivial. (2) is very much not trivial. New laws, highly technical laws, laws about unusual issues–all of these can have a weak deterrent effect simply because people don’t understand what’s forbidden or don’t think to ask whether there’s a law on point. Still, for our purposes we can assume that (2) is easily achieved in the context of rules about “don’t be a jerk on the internet;” everyone’s been told not to be unkind at some point.

(3) is the hard one. This is for a couple of reasons. First, humans discount the threat of punishment by the chance that it won’t happen. Put simply, people aren’t afraid of violating rules when they think they can get away with it. The greater the odds of getting away with it, the weaker the deterrence.

Second, humans aren’t very good at weighing future events against current ones; we tend to discount future harms based on how far away they are. The longer it will take for punishment to happen, the less we tend to care about it.

These foibles make it harder for the criminal law to achieve its deterrent purpose. Every time somebody goes to break a law, they implicitly weigh the consequences against the ideas that (a) they might not get caught and (b) the price of getting caught will be paid at an indeterminate point in the future, whereas the rewards will be here promptly. As the continued existence of crime demonstrates, some people do that calculus and come to a regrettable conclusion.

Diplomacy, on the other hand, creates an environment where those human failings aren’t given much room. The negative consequences of being nasty to other players happen right away and are extremely predictable. Negotiations break off; other players won’t provide the assistance necessary to progress; the game ends in swift defeat. The whole process takes a few hours at most.

As the theory of deterrence predicts, that leads to most Diplomacy players being polite. Tempers can flare and the gameplay is often vicious, but the kind of hateful, profanity-laden speech one finds in online games is absent. It’s remarkable: Diplomacy is basically built around all-chat, but it doesn’t sound like the all-chat we’ve come to know and disdain.

Compare this to games that try to achieve deterrence by having rules in the Terms of Service and banning users who break them. They suffer from the very problems of uncertain and distant punishment that the criminal law does, with the added weakness that banning isn’t nearly as severe as what the criminal law can impose. The sad reputation of all-chat is in part due to the fact that the deterrent effect in these games is very weak indeed.

From Diplomacy and similar examples I think that deterrence can be an effective mechanism for promoting good communication behavior in games. However, strong deterrence isn’t achieved simply by hiring some mods. It requires that the game be designed from the ground up to have a short feedback loop that consistently discourages unkindness.

Build from the right foundation

We’ve learned from sad experience that all-chat isn’t something that can be tossed on top of a game. The results are unsatisfactory, to say the least. However, global chat could be a valuable, positive thing. A game designed with the needs of all-chat in mind from the beginning, tuned in such a way as to bring about friendly communication, could elevate the global channel from cesspool to centerpiece.

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.