Enjoyable vs Competitive Gaming

March 6, 2009 at 7:17 pm (iPhone development) (, , , , , , )

After having just spent a couple hours reads through various game theory web sites and blogs, and almost all of sirlin.net, I’m feeling inspired to write about my approach to developing Spellwars. I want to communicate what kind of gaming experience I am aiming to create, and I’ll start by discussing what the possibilities are.

Types of Gaming

From a certain point of view, one that I happen to share, all gaming (and in particular, all multi-player gaming) can be divided into two categories: enjoyable gaming, and competitive gaming.

Let me clarify a couple things about this statement right off that bat. First, the statement describes the act of playing a game, not the game itself. Certain games naturally lend themselves well to one category or the other, some games easily cover both…and of course quite a lot of games are neither. A few examples of games that are typically played for enjoyment might be World of Warcraft, Diablo II, and any of the myriad of the iPhone mafia games. Yes, there is a degree of PvP competition in all these games, but the driving force of the player engagement and experience is not primarily one of strategic competitiveness.

Second, I am not stating that the two are mutually exclusive. The same game might be played both competitively and for enjoyment, even by the same person at the exact same time, but typically a game is played much differently when it is played competitively than when played primarily for fun.

Types of Games

To explain, lets flip the lens, and look at the games, not the playing.

Consider, for example, Magic:The Gathering…which has an extremely strong following of both casual players, and competitive players. A competitive match is so fundamentally different than a casual, fun game of Magic that the two experiences barely resemble each other. But, it is important that the game supports both types of playing, and does so very well. A competitive game is not necessarily any better or worse than a casual game. The game of Magic can be enjoyed in both capacities, they are just different types of experiences.

On the other hand, there are a certain group of games are pretty much meaningless if not played competitively. Consider for example, Texas Hold’em poker. If you aren’t playing for money, even if it’s fake, there is really nothing interesting at all about playing. The entire draw of the game is all in the competition, the reading other players, calculating the relative values of cards, and the probabilities of outcomes. Chess and Go are two other games, that while they can be played “for fun,” they loose their essential quality and meaning when done so. For the sake of easy reference, I will call this type of game a “pure competitive game.”

The last group, included just for the sake of completeness, are those games that really don’t lend themselves well to any sort of meaningful competitive playing. Some games are just not designed to be played competitively (consider the bulk of World of Warcraft outside of the minimal PvP aspect), but the fact is that most multi-player games do aspire to competitive play. That’s usually the point of making the game multi-player.

Typically, the single major feature that any game in this category lacks is balance. A balanced game is what allows for two players to engage in a competitive battle that is fun and interesting for both sides. When one side is too powerful, there is no competition, there is just domination. It turns out, for those of you not actively engaged in game theory or game design, that creating a well balanced game is incredibly difficult. Add the other real world game requirements, that a game also be fun and engaging, and it’s not too hard to see why most games fall short.

Now, I am no game theory purist. I am interested in creating a game that is, at it’s core, an enjoyable experience. I do happen to believe however, that a well balanced game that can be played competitively adds an element of depth that provides a level of fun and enjoyment that can not be attained by games which ignore the element of balance. I believe that games which support both a casual, fun experience, as well as a deep, balanced, competitive experience offer the best of both worlds, and are the very best type of game.

And that is exactly what I am gunning for with Spellwars.

I do not want to create a pure competitive game, of the type where the game is only competitive, and not fun for the game itself. These pure competitive games tend to actually be played out as merely meta-games, without much of an interesting game left when you are done meta-gaming.

What the hell do I mean by that?

Consider what playing pure competitive games at the highest level actually consists of. I’ve done this with M:TG, and I’ve spent enough time researching game theory and AI that I know the same applies to Go, Chess, and yes even competitive RoShamBo. Basically, the actual mechanics of playing the game become secondary to analyzing the meta-game, that is studying the competitive strategies that other players might possibly use, and then constructing your strategy, be it your deck, your chess opening, or your programmed AI, based on your analysis of the competitive landscape. The actual playing out of the game, once it comes time to play a match, becomes a distant second to the work put in at the meta-gaming level.

For the RoShamBo example, the game itself is so trivial and boring that no one actually plays it. But is it a game that is played competitively? Apparently so. And can you actually apply strategy to it? Yep, you can. Check out this program, Iocaine Powder, which slaughtered the competition in that initial RoShamBo competition. Coming across this really drove home two main points to me:

1. Competitive gaming has nothing to do with gaming, it is all about meta-gaming
2. I want Spellwars to be a fun game, as well as a fun competitive game (i.e. meta-game). But primarily, I want it to be fun to play.

I’m here to create a game, and if it results in an interesting meta-game, hot damn. I am paying very specific attention to the game design to make sure it is balanced and has the ability to support competitive play. I want to encourage people to collect spells and construct spellbooks that can win them a tournament (yes I plan to run tournaments). But I think it’s more important, first and foremost, that the game be engaging and fun on its own.

To me, this means that I will put effort and resources into developing the parts of the game that have nothing to do with the competitive part of the game. These are areas like creating beautiful art, developing storylines and characters, creating rare and limited editions of spells, making strong and powerful items and spells that are fun to find and use. (I personally feel that enabling personal expression through the game is the most important feature for Spellwars, but more on that in a future post.)

So in summary, today I learned that I want to create a game that allows for competitive play, but not at the cost of enjoyable play.

I’d love to hear what you think, these are the types of topics that can drive game designers crazy. For me, it’s what inspires me to keep going…to make that game, the one that does it all better than any other game has done it before. And for the iPhone, right now there’s no competition to speak of. I want to set the standard.

Thanks
R.

3 Comments

  1. Aaron said,

    Sounds like you finally found your calling… I read through the entire post… very clever insight but I don’t know why I would expect anything else form you when it relates to gaming. I would definitely consider myself a gamer (maybe not at your level) but someone who enjoys more casual games i.e. FPS, sports, online poker, etc… I understand the points you made with M:TG and Hold-em. Make a game that’s really fun to play alone and even more fun to play with your friends… a game that combines adventure a story line and the satisfaction of building a character, powers, exp, etc… I know whatever you make it will RULE.
    -Aaron

  2. Lucas said,

    Nicely encapsulated. There is a real tension in gaming between fun and competitive not because they’re mutually exclusive but as you say because they apply very different constraints to the game. I think there’s a significant connection to learning curve in all this. The games that succeed most spectacularly in the fun department tend to have very short learning curves. PopCap is sort of the poster child for this approach. Competitive games, in contrast, require a fairly high level of complexity to be interesting. As a result, while there’s a lot of room for skill to develop, new players often find them confusing and are sometimes even unable to grasp the point. Games that are great for game play reasons, rather than for their literary value or the art the the encapsulate, tend to have a lot of room at both ends of the learning curve. You can learn to play passably in a half hour and start having a good time but there’s so much room to climb that it can take a very long time to completely explore.

    ya, its a fun topic…….

    • rcloudsoftware said,

      Also very nicely stated Lucas, good expansion on what I started with. I think you nailed it dead on, vis-a-vis competitive game complexity, and I think most failed attempts are results of a failed navigation of that “complexity curve.” So when you add both constraints to the same game, it becomes even more difficult.

      And then, there’s just the difficulty of finishing the damn game *at all* =)

      Thanks for your thoughts
      R.

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