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Josh Sawyer on the World Cup and degenerate gameplay

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Josh Sawyer on the World Cup and degenerate gameplay

Editorial - posted by Infinitron on Mon 23 June 2014, 23:38:13

Tags: Josh Sawyer

It might not surprise you to learn that Obsidian Entertainment's Josh Sawyer belongs to that special breed of Americans who are familiar with soccer football. In a new post on his blog, Josh illustrates the connection between the rules of the World Cup and one of his favorite game design topics, "degenerate gameplay".

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 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.
By the way, other than a couple of Ars Magica-related posts from earlier this year, this is the first post on Josh's blog since late 2012. I wonder if this newfound enthusiasm for blogging can tell us anything about the development status of Pillars of Eternity.

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