Monday, June 23, 2014

Rewarding Degenerating Gameplay: Lessons from Gijón and Pernambuco

This post is about game design.  Just bear with me.

In the 1982 World Cup Group stage, the West German and Austrian teams found themselves in an odd situation.  With the Algeria-Chile match already played, the West Germany-Austria meeting in Gijón, Spain would be the final match of Group 2.  Based on the point spread of all four teams in the group, West Germany and Austria knew exactly what results would allow both to advance: a marginal (1-2 goal) West German victory.  After West Germany scored in the first half, both teams settled into what was effectively pantomime.  For the remainder of the 90 minutes, they politely passed the ball in their respective halves of the field, opponents occasionally making halfhearted challenges - but no real scoring attempts.

The strategy was transparent to everyone, from the announcers to the angry crowd.  Though popular culture condemned the match with names like Nichtangriffspakt von Gijón (Non-Aggression Pact of Gijón) or, even more pejoratively, the Anschluß, it ultimately allowed both teams to progress out of the Group stage.  West Germany made it all the way to the final.

To half-solve the problem in subsequent World Cup Group stages, FIFA scheduled the final two matches for any given Group to take place concurrently.  In the case of West Germany-Austria, it would have prevented the teams from building a strategy based on the outcome of Algeria-Chile.  However, FIFA didn't really fix the underlying issue, which was the design of how teams accumulate points in Group and how those points determine who advances out of Group.  And now, on Thursday, June 26th, it's possible we could see a repeat of the Non-Aggression Pact of Gijón at Pernambuco, Brazil, when Germany faces USA.  As in 1982, due to the point spread between Germany, USA, Portugal, and Ghana in Group G, both Germany and USA will advance in the event that they draw - regardless of the results of the Portugal-Ghana match happening simultaneously.  Given the widespread condemnation of what occurred at Gijón in 1982, it's unlikely to happen again, but nothing in the rules would prevent it.

When designing the rules for any challenge-based game, regardless of the form it takes, it's important to consider how the structure of the rules may promote working against the spirit of the game.  What designers allow players to do may inadvertently reward behavior that even the players themselves find to be boring and unenjoyable.  If these behaviors are advantageous enough, players will gravitate toward them with increasing frequency until they become the de facto "correct" tactics and strategies for play.  One of the most commonly-discussed features that produces this effect is save scumming.  Being able to save and load your game at any time is extraordinarily valuable for players, if simply for convenience.  However, the way save/load works in conjunction with other mechanics can strongly promote reliance on save/load to overcome difficult situations.

As an example, many role-playing games use virtual dice to "roll" a check when attempting to overcome a single obstacle, such as a locked door.  In such cases, the player typically has one "try" on any static obstacle.  In practice, they effectively have as many tries as they want as long as they are patient enough to reload.  This type of interaction doesn't test players' skills in any new way, it doesn't ask players to attempt any different tactic, and given the "one try" system the designers put in place, it seems to go against the spirit of what the designers were trying to accomplish.  While players love succeeding at overcoming obstacles, the percentage who love doing it via save/load is probably very low.  Even so, that's what the game's design promotes doing for the best outcome.

By writing all of this, I have no intention of placing any blame or fault on the players.  In challenge-based games, designers present obstacles and create the rules and tools for overcoming those obstacles.  Players can hardly be faulted for finding and taking advantage of shortcomings in how the systems interact.  In the aftermath of Gijón, both teams had to deal with the anger of World Cup fans - especially fans of the Algerian team, who had been denied a chance at moving on due to the West German/Austrian collusion.  And there is no doubt that the players who suited up and went on the field that day did not spend their young lives dreaming of strategic pantomiming.  Still, FIFA's rules promoted that behavior - and still promote similar behavior.  A repeat of Gijón at Pernambuco would produce justified howls of outrage.  Still, a paraphrase of the old maxim applies: don't hate the players, hate the game design.


Allan Schumacher said...

Save scumming is an interesting thing because at the base of it comes, as you say, the convenience of being able to stop and save at almost any given time. It's hard to argue against "Real life requires I stop playing and I need to save now."

I've long felt that people recognize this sort of degenerative gameplay as increased difficulty. There are those that will see earlier IE games as more difficult, because the inconvenience of dealing with a fallen party member was too much. Lose 1 of 6 party members is a reload. Since KOTOR, BioWare's games require a full party wipe and fallen party members are speed bumps.

I know I'm a save scummer if available. As a result I love ironman modes for saving me from myself (appropriately, I have had amazing narratives in games like EU4 as a result!). Do you think more games should feature such options? I know EU4 tried incentivize Ironman by gating achievements behind it. But to me it does seem like there's a degree of mutual exclusion between allowing gamers convenience when necessary, and discouraging the degenerative gameplay when it happens.

Unknown said...

Spot on, Sir.
I've made similar arguments in the past using football to help argue my points, interestingly enough.
It's disappointing for me that nearly all of the celebrated PC games allow the player to bypass the game rules through save scumming.

If anyone is a fan of Deus Ex, and a fan of stricter save system rules for the sake of balance, choice/consequence & balance, then try out my Deus Ex mod which adds an optional hardcore mode which will provide exactly what you are looking for. Unfortunately in my experience there is very few fans of such systems.


Now, I wonder why in Sawyer's FO:NV mod there are not further limitations in the save system?

Unknown said...

For the sake of challenge, choice/consequence and balance rather.

bobisimo said...

The "big" US sports (NBA, NHL, NFL, MLB) have a similar problem. To help promote league balance (i.e. maintain fans of losing teams), they reward poor teams (whether we're talking drafts or waiver position, tie breakers). I've often wondered why teams who know they're mathematically eliminated from contention keep playing to win when there's so much incentive to lose.

Unknown said...

Oh, and I hope to see an optional Iron Man mode of sorts in PoE ;)

Anonymous said...

@Allan J Schymacher Esq. "Save scumming is an interesting thing because at the base of it comes, as you say, the convenience of being able to stop and save at almost any given time. It's hard to argue against "Real life requires I stop playing and I need to save now."

Sure, but a game could have a "save on exit" function, like Diablo 2, to solve the problem of "real life calling." The only way to save is to also exit, and the pick up from that save when resuming.

Anonymous said...

Or you could just stop creating the systems that result in that behavior without limiting the ability to save but that's obviously crazy talk.

Anonymous said...