The Coin’s Other Side: On Losing (and Elimination)

This post is going to be quite basic. Basic does not mean that it will be simple, but that it stands at the base. I may not give you answers here, but I’ll present something that any person who designs a game that is competitive, especially one where people win, should think of – the issue of losing, and the related issue of player-elimination.

You see, if your game has victory, there can be several ways in which you reach it, and many of the examples I’d use are from board/card-games. The question is what happens to the losers, and how they lose. This is more of an issue with story-games because of the length of time they may have to sit aside and the expectation of shared creative activity.

One option for winning is you reaching a personal goal, such as reaching level 10 first in Munchkin. Everyone plays till the bitter end, and everyone is more or less as effective in the end as they are in the beginning. This often leads to “King-makers”, players who know they will not win, but can be the ones who decide whether one player wins or another. In some cases, you need to play the other players more than you’re actually playing the cards.

Another option can be seen in Infernal Contraption, and in most competitive CCGs or war-games aimed for two players (Magic: the Gathering and Warhammer being  prime examples), where you don’t win by what you do per se, but you win by being the last player standing. This is not an issue when only two players play, because the game ends for the two players at the same time – one’s win is another’s victory. It is also less of an issue with games slated to run 15-20 minutes, because the loser does not get to sit idle for long.

However, story games and role-playing games have historically been more akin to the game of Diplomacy, where often players are eliminated in the first couple of turns of the game, which can keep going on for a couple more hours. I suspect this is also partially the reason some groups shy away from character-deaths, because it forces the player to stop being involved in the action, or at least they no longer have an active hand in shaping the story. In some groups the player with the dead character uses this time to come up with a new character, especially in mechanically involved games.

These days, it is sometimes less of an issue. Some games are designed to be of a shorter duration, so if one loses their character they are not out of the action for the whole campaign (at least as that character), or even for the duration of a session of a campaign – the game is meant to be played out in whole in one sitting. But still, I think like in board-games that take longer to complete, even an hour a player has to sit idle is less than ideal.

A “game” where this was somewhat solved which came up in my mind when a friend challenged me to design a truly competitive and cut-throat design was Survivor. Yes, the TV show. There the players eliminated after a certain stage get to be the king-makers in the end-game and little less, but it does require attention after they had been ‘eliminated’ from the running. Likewise, I feel that story-games with a competitive bent who decide on elimination should find a way to keep the players so eliminated not only interested, but let them contribute to the story further, and perhaps shape the competition as well ( if the story and the competition are intertwined, it may be so regardless).

Something done by story-games for a number of years now is that players get to affect the direction of the story even when their characters are not present. They get to reward players whose characters do things they enjoy (Primetime Adventures), or perhaps they don’t even have characters that are ‘theirs’, and all they do is guide the story (Universalis), or the designs  where they have characters and affect the creation of the world and shape the story (the “child” design of Mortal Coil, or Shock:).

But then a new question emerges, if you have competition and elimination: What is the measure of “Victory”, and why would you say those who have been ‘eliminated’ have lost? Perhaps they have just lose their chance to claim victory and their “superiority” over the others, but would you also have their effect on the story lessen? This is a Competitive Story Game, remember. I suspect this is one of the things alluded to by people I’ve approached regarding writing of competition and story’s interaction within their games, when they told me the game only has the veneer of competition, because if someone will try to win the game, it’d crack.

You have choices, whether victory is reached when the victor reaches a goal, or through elimination of all other players. Should you pick the former, you should consider how to solve the issue of king-makers, or keeping it in, unrestrained. Should you pick the latter, you should consider how to mitigate the effect of a player not having a hand in the story and game, and perhaps the issue of kingmaking will creep up again. Whatever you do, be mindful of this. Be aware that this is a design choice you are making, and a critical one at that.

This issue is also tied strongly to Social Contract, and to whether a certain group would play your game (at least as written). The issue of a player being left out of the game is something each party should discuss, and your game may not fit what a certain group is willing to accept. You may also consider adding a module in your game, where one can have elimination if one chooses, and play a somewhat different game if they do not wish for there to be such. Choices to be mindful of.

Competitive Games and Handicaps.

The previous post was mentioned on RPG Theory Review. Always warms my heart when it happens. I’ve noticed the blog wasn’t updated recently, and I hope it will soon be updated once more.
Not that I’m in any position to complain, seeing as my last post was back in July 07. I’ll try to write some posts these coming months, even if I’ll take a break afterwards, I have several post ideas written down (and have had for a while, the problem is actually writing them down).

I am looking for people to write articles for this post, especially those who design competitive or seemingly competitive games, which also have story. I am especially interested in writing about the interactions between Story and Competition in the game, and how that interaction had shaped the direction of the rules and game-play.

And now we will get to today’s topic. Today’s post was inspired by this thread on Story-Games, “Hardcore Gamism and Dysfunction Within the Big “G””[1], where Jonathan Walton recounts discussions with Eric Pinnick, and also references an article by David Sirlin.
I did not read that thread fully, and as such, this post is merely inspired by it. Some points I make have already been made on the thread, but the overall conclusion seems to have not been made there.

(Edit: People suggested I add my conclusion up top, to clarify things: I posit that it is better for a group to find a game they can agree to play, as it is, without the need to add handicaps to it. Adding handicaps as opposed to finding a game where the gameplay will be the same, but without the need to add those handicaps, will only trouble those players who are extremely focused on competition, at all costs)

So you have a competitive game, one where you compete with others. There are often more powerful techniques, ones that if you’re not aware of or not familiar enough with, you will have trouble countering and will probably lose to, there are some games where there is nothing you can do to counter, we will discuss those harsher games later.

Two weeks ago I was visiting my cousin, and we were playing Tekken 5. I play the game two or three times a year, always when I visit him, whereas he has the game in his room and has been playing it extensively. There are several characters with a move that takes a long time to charge (meaning you can smack them before they can set it off), but if that strike connects it takes out roughly 3/4ths of your health bar. My cousin used these constantly, and the game stopped being fun for me, so I told him to stop using these moves.

There is a very important question, laying behind the issue of handicaps (I think I may have assumed you’ve read at least Jonathan’s series of original posts on the inspiring thread, forgive me). What do you find fun, and when we move into the realm of Story/Roleplaying games, what does the group find fun; and then, what sort of balance you seek, or at least find acceptable.

If for you, playing the game is fun, things that cut the game short, or stop you from playing, will make the game less fun. Magic: the Gathering combos where the player wins on his first turn, do not let the opponent do anything, and stop them from having fun. When I began playing Magic (back in 1996 or so), I had a deck with 160 cards, I then went down to 120 cards, 80 cards, and eventually to the 60( and rarely 64 card) decks. I’ve played with people who were much better players than me, they had much better decks than me, and I’ve lost. I’ve always said that you learn more from losing in Magic than you do from winning. I’ve played, I’ve lost, I’ve learned, and I’ve had fun.
However, had I constantly played against players who would’ve won before I had the chance to do anything, or anything more than draw a card and play a land, I would not have studied what worked and what didn’t (except the opponent’s combo, that it works), and I would not have had fun.
There’s a reason Wizards of the Coast handicaps certain decks; some are considered “too tough”, and we’ll address the issue later, but some, simply don’t let the other player do anything, it stops being a game of competition between two players; one plays a solo game that the other is all but unable to affect.

 If what I care for is the playing, the adversity, I will be having more fun if I play with someone on my level, or someone that is acting on my level. How much adversity do you get from stepping on a slug? How much adversity do you feel like you’re providing when someone is stepping on you as a slug?
I cannot prove it, but I’ve always felt that while sprinting, both people get the best results if they’re nearly evenly matched. When you’re far ahead of someone you don’t step on the gas fully, and when someone is already 20 meters ahead of you (on up to 100 meter runs), you give up.

But do we not also get a good feeling, simply from winning? I feel good when I win, even if it’s playing Magic against my ten year old cousin. Winning feels good.

And so, most of the above was talking about reasons to employ handicaps, but there is, as always, the other side. I will discuss this other side in more detail shortly, but first I’ll talk about the Social Contract, the reasons and methods that this will work out in a group, specifically one where the games also involve role-playing/story-telling. After discussing the other side, the anti-handicap side, I think I’ll return to the group-play once more.

I am going to make an assumption, but I will make it explicitly, and I believe it is an agreeable one; we play games to have fun. It is our explicit goal. Different people find different things fun, and find them to be fun to a different degree (look at Mo‘s Sockets idea). We can try and maximize the whole group’s fun, by creating a formula where we look for a maximum value on the output, and then decide what values to use based on it. Of course, we don’t actually do it in such a codified manner, and furthermore, each player may require there to be a minimum value to certain variables (combat, story, immersion; Mo’s sockets again provide useful terms), and each player requires themselves to have a minimal fun factor for them to keep playing.
As such, we try to reach the maximized value of collective fun, that we can, and can maintain.

This is especially important with competitive games, where one player’s fun may come at the expanse of another’s. This is even more important in competitive story games (our blog’s focus, we’re getting there!), where this is not considered the norm, and many people consider it to be antithetical to what they are trying to get out of the game. Handicaps as we will shortly see also infringe on the fun of some competitive players, while they may feel required for the non-competitive players; some may require that competition will not harm the ‘value’ of the story, and that things be carried out mainly for reasons driven and benefiting the story, rather than the competition, reasons that revolve around who will ‘win’ or advance the most.

To the highly competitive player though, handicaps are anathema, they diminish from the competitive game. Let us take Eric and myself, as an example (Eric, if I’ve misread you, I apologize): If I play a perfect competitive game (perfect means, “I think it’s perfect”), I’m happier than if I’m playing a perfect non-competitive game. If I play a non-perfect competitive game, I’ll have more fun playing a non-perfect non-competitive game[2]. I am much more invested when playing a competitive game. I am much more invested in the mechanics. I am much more troubled by something which does not let me play out, not to my strengths, but to the full extent of the game’s system.

Handicaps are extraneous, they come from outside and limit you, within the game. Look at Chess, no one considers the fact that you are not allowed to simply remove an opponent’s piece from the board a handicap, but not being able to use a certain move in Tekken, one that the game’s engine, technically, lets you play, because a certain group said so, is a handicap.
And this ties back to the social contract issue. After you’ve selected a game, setting up handicaps in order to maintain the fun of the rest of the group, in order to maintain an overall high level of fun, is too late. The highly competitive player is already suffering, and many of the reasons are explained elsewhere (the opponent is too weak, too unskilled, values “X” over competition which is what matters…).

The solution, if the competitive player is so troubled by handicaps, and the non-competitive player is so troubled by the lack of handicaps in games which he perceives to need them, seems quite simple to me: the choice of adding handicaps or how to resolve the social contract issues after the game is chosen is too late, as I’ve said before, the choice must be made before the game is chosen – the choice is the choice of which game is chosen. The game must fit the desires and needs of the different players as it is now, before any changes, any handicaps, are applied to it.

This is a challenge to the game designers. Though I, and many self-pronounced “Competitive designers” are seeking to create games that are handicap-less, and quite possibly such that non-competitive players will deem are in (dire) need of handicaps, perhaps we also need, for different crowds, and in order to effect the rise of competition in Story Games, games which are without handicaps, but where the extreme parameters are such that other, less competitive people, will not feel the need to limit them (Magic without combos, or without combos that kill before turn 4-5, where many creature decks can win as well).

There need to be games across the spectrum, games with enough competition, but where people, or different people, will not see the need to add handicaps. Once we add handicaps, we’ve already got the competitive players disgruntled, and the non-competitive players? They may have been happier playing non-competitive games to begin with (though there are also spectrum players; I enjoyed Tekken’s competitive nature, once the “killer blows” were removed).
Spectrum. Variety. There must be enough games to choose from, and you need to choose the fitting game, that too, or perhaps that especially, is a critical part of competitive games’ game-play, on the social level.

[1] I will leave my problems with the title alone, as they will not contribute to the actual discussion at hand, and will yield meager returns for the energy this discussion will consume. I do want to note that I dislike the title though.

[2] This is why this blog is here.