Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Can the Story Substitute For the Win Condition?

The mother ship is in danger and needs a certain item collection to make repairs. The players - ship officers - are sent to collect the items.

If no one brings back a collection within X rounds, the ship experiences catastrophic failure. Anyone who brings back at least a workable collection receives a service award. The person or team who brings back the best collection will also receive bonus vacation privileges.

What would happen if I left the rules like that?

My feeling is that most anyone who sees the rules like this is expecting a final sentence or two: And the winner is the person who brings back the biggest collection. Or: the game is a cooperative game where you score for the number of players that win. Or: play with teams. Or: each player gets a goal card: the player wins if every player gets a complete collection, or if only he has the best collection, or he is a traitor, and so on.

If played entirely cooperatively, bringing back a collection to save the ship will be challenging. If played entirely competitively, one person might be able to bring back the collection and prevent everyone else from doing so, but this vastly increases the risk of catastrophic failure. You may find yourself unable to win, but able to prevent anyone else from winning. It could be played as teams. Or once one person has a collection, they could help everyone else get their collection.

Do I have to add anything about winning? Can I let the players decide for themselves if they want to play cooperatively or competitively or half and half or with teams? After all, in the real world situation this is simulating, the actors get to decide this for themselves. Is the story of the game sufficient motivation for the players; or does there have to be a defined concept of winning and/or losing?



Unknown said...

How many game designers do you need in order to change a light bulb?
Game designers don't change light bulbs, they give players incentive to change light bulbs.

If this is a simulation, then obviously you nee incentive.
Beating the game can be an incentive, or beating your friends.

A virtual vacation priviledge, isn't.

If in a game of pandemic you would give players points for finding a cure, and curing a desease, I am sure some players would play it competitively, it would also make the game FAR more difficult.

Neglecting a victory condition is the same as naming multiple victory conditions or ways to play the game. The only difference is that the players have to figure it out for themselves, which can be problematic for some less-gamery players.

I like it though, If pandemic would give players scores, it would be interesting to see what kind of dynamics players develop. One person may be going for the victory alone, and not even telling the other players. Would there be a backstab? would someone make up reasons for not taking an action because he will know there is anothe rpossible route where HE can get the credit for obtaining a cure?

very interesting.
Thanks for this post, it made me think, which is great :)

David said...

What's your goal? Saleable game or tool for exploration of psychological motivations?

I'm sure there would be people interested to play it out even without explicitly stated victory conditions. It reminds me of the indie RPGs. But for a board game, I think more people would be confused and put off than attracted.

Unknown said...

[Note: I exceeded the 4k comment limit, hacked things a bit, then realized I could split it. Some parts may have dangling thoughts.]

The absolute answer, as always, is: it depends.

Some background. (Mmm... plenty of sleep...)

The basic hidden reason why ppl play games happens to be the same reason they read/watch
stories, surprises. If a story fails to tantalizingly mislead its viewers such that they
can predict every "twist", then it will be labeled bad, see the second Matrix movie.
OTOH if the misleading is skillfully done and sufficiently ponderous, ppl will return to
the tale again and again until they've fully grasped the all of the surprises like in
the first Matrix movie.

Games happen to be the same way, because like stories they unfold over time which
employs a different slower set of mental systems than straight in-the-moment emotional
reactions. Sometimes they take so long that anything resembling emotion is lost --too
long to endure-- that only the machine-like components of the mind are left to
appreciate the work, with ensuing aesthetics. In the same way no one likes a story where
they can predict every turn, no player likes a game they can predict every turn (funny
how the same word is used to describe the two...) If you knew, like completely KNEW, all
the moves in chess, checkers, Machu Pichu, or Tetris, would you keep playing? This is
not, "yeah I know how the pieces move and I know most of the strategies and combos", but
really if you knew everything about them, would you replay them? My guess is no you
wouldn't, you'd get bored because there'd be nothing else to learn and feel and you'd
move on to something... newer. That's why many video games rely on the crutch of making
the player figure out the rules, it usually dramatically increases the surprise resource
at the expense of the patience resource in the game/gamer system.

But the genius of games is through the explosive nature of combinatorics, it can become
damn nigh impossible to fully know a game space and thus have "infinite" replayability,
because it's always generating something new, insofar as our puny minds and senses can
experience and recall events. This should be qualified a bit however because it's not
enough to explore a combinatoric space of possibilities, but rather one step of ordering
higher, namely strategy/tactics of said possibilities. Game players want a rich
strategic space (preferably without combinatoric account) which is why many eventually
abandon checkers; they've seen all the strategies even if they've not seen most of the
moves. What seperates an interactive story from a game is that in an istory, the
interesting surprises come from the story not the gameplay combinatorics, whereas for
the game, the main surprises come from the gameplay combinatorics hence the player's
decisions rather than the designer's script.

[See next comment]

Unknown said...

And back...

Is a plot resolution sufficent to motivate players to finish a game only? Yes, but only insofar as the handling of the final event is given sufficient surprises to make it interesting and/or sufficient value through motivation to make the end valuable. A simple goal can be enough for games: get the most points, get 21 points, save the princess, defeat the villian, etc. A quick survey of the great games will prove this.

I think what you're touching on is the set of motivations used by storytellers, but not traditionally used by game designers, namely ppl and their bullsh... I mean motives. Which is a great thing, but realize they will need very different handling than the small to medium compulsions that usually power games. Systems of combinatorics and rules are applied on top of these messy motivations in a stylized and accessible form and a great game is born. Players will follow their motives to the extents that they discover the rewards and punishments you provide them, which include doing stupid boring things, just like in real life.

Continuing, if you're going to give the player a choice between cooperative, competitive and the mix. You'll have to be ready to show like you've never shown before and more richly than a storyteller because you'll be dealing with a medium where the audience expects interaction. Although board games take the trouble of telling you the rules, they don't tell you how you're supposed to play the game (again, they're leaving you to discover the surprises of the strategies, the good stuff). And honestly a good player will rather see this hence many board games are taught by showing with never a thought to the rule book.

Yehuda Berlinger said...

The third edition rules of Settlers of Catan:

Winning the Game (End of Game)

The first player to accumulate ten or more victory points during his turn immediately wins the game. This player is declared the "Lord of All Catan," and is praised and heralded by all the people of Catan!

Suppose that the rules read as follows, instead:

End of Game

The game ends immediately after one player accumulate ten or more victory points during his turn. This player is declared the "Lord of All Catan," and is praised and heralded by all the people of Catan!

Note that I removed all reference to the word "win". Is the game now less of a game and more of a psychological exploration?

Being declared Lord of All Catan is sufficient because we automatically fill in the blank that this is equivalent to winning. Using or not using the word win doesn't change the cooperative/competitive nature of the game; the game limits and conditions define that.

If the game ended when no more spaces are left" or "after thirty rounds" then there would be psychological room for the idea that more than one person can "win". For instance:

"The player with the most points is Lord of All Catan."

"The two players with the most points are Lords of All Catan."

Classic game design insists that I add one of those sentences, and, if I don't, the first is assumed. Yet reality insists that every person who plays a game knows what "second place" means, though it is never defined in the rules. Second place out of 4, or 400, means something.

I think the concept that more than one can win a game demotivates some from trying to win at all, even if the game is designed so that not everyone can win. For instance, a deck with 49 points for five players, where all players with 10 points or more at the end of the game win. Perhaps it becomes more acceptable if I turn it around and say any player with less than ten points loses.

When we first played Settlers, we discussed the "fair" way to play: you couldn't steal someone else's spot when they were building to it. And you couldn't be mean to people who were losing by a lot of points.

These weren't the rules, and they were all facets of psychological exploration. It didn't really matter whether or not it said "win" or not in the rules. Frankly, for most civilized game players, it makes no difference whether it says "win" in the rules: people help each other find the best plays, don't try to run up a huge scoring lead if it becomes insulting, and the reason only one person wins is that the rules only allow for it. If either one or two people could "win", odds are that someone would help someone else.

This is still an incomplete list of what I need to say on the topic.

Thanks for your comments, so far.

Unknown said...

I used to play a Russian card game called durak (idiot).
Its a game where you need to get rid of all your cards basically, pretty simple.
The interesting (to our discussion) thin is, that the rules dictated that the last player holding cards is the durak, the idiot, the loser.
Emptying your hand first didn't make you the winner.

This game encourages you to pick on the weaker player in order to make sure they lose.
If settlers of catan said that after X rounds the player with the least points is dressed in jester clothes and becomes the village idiot, then people would not have made the "fair" playing as you call it, because picking on the weakest player would be key to making sure you don't become the village idiot.

Players would attack the weakest player with spy cards, robbers, bishops, that annoying card that swaps the numbers on the hexes, block their roads etc.

I think I wouldn't like that game, if every time I was the weakest player, I was being attacked to the point where I couldn't do anything.

Yehuda Berlinger said...

Poet: I don't like Durak (as well as President) for that reason. But what's appropriate for Durak - a quick card game - would of course not be appropriate for a 1 hour strategy board game. A single "declared loser" will never be appropriate for a long strategy game, for just that reason.

That only proves that the play dynamics and goals must suit the game.


peer said...

I just recently came across the same question. Im working on a game called "First Contact" which is s a bit of a Boardgame/Roleplaying hybdrid. With traitors. Anyway, in one scenario the bad guy was able to finish his objective, but one of the good guys was able to flee the scene (the others died). And they were asked: Who won? The bad guy? The guy who flew? Both? We discussed that afterwards, because I thought its (like in real life) a matter of perspective: Are you happy with the result?
But apparently they wanted clear winning conditions (even if all of them also in to RPGs), so I implemented a simple scoring system.

I suspect you would have to add something in the lines of "Players with the best set wins" for similar reasons.