Monday, September 28, 2009

[ 07 / 07 / 05 ] Karma, thy name is One.

I can 't stand Gamesmanship. Not only because of the people who are usually the ones who engage in it, but because of the guilt that even someone as typically indifferent as myself is even tempted to engage in it from time to time. Who hasn't though about passing up the easy TD to get those SPP's on the guy who needs them most, who hasn't made a silly, pointless pass action just for the cheap experience? "It isn't cheating, it's playing the game." No, it is over-playing the game. Believe me, I cashed in my simulationist chips years ago, but these exercises in greedy SPP harvesting point to yet another problem spot with the game, and provide another demand for alteration.

No, it isn't cheating, usually no one gets hurt or upset, but the fact that the game is not being played intuitively, but rather in a contrived fashion points to a real problem. It must be self-evident that the game should flow along certain preconceived notions from actual sport, even if you hold no pretense that the game should be an accurate simulation.

Gamesmanship is not something that can be ruled out of the coaches, the game needs to possess an immunity to the behavior gained through solid design instead. But gamesmanship, unlike some of the other negative personality traits which previous installments were aimed at checking, is not a characteristic that should be seen as negative even though it is a trait which points to rules which may need reconsideration. In fact, gamesmanship is a wonderful tool for the game designer to use, because it points to an area of the rules which has a broken or poorly-designed
system, and thus the task is to reform the rules which are being abused - not to remove gamesmanship itself, but rather, to correct the poor design underlying it. Good design negates gamesmanship and when something like SPP harvesting comes along, game designers can be well-measured by observers - those who fail to appreciate the presence of a problem, those who seek to attack the practice without resolving the core problem, and those who can get past proximate causes and pride and resolve the root causes.

So, given that we identify SPP allocation as a having a design flaw by the warning flag of well-known and rather ubiquitous gamesmanship-laced coach behavior, what can we describe as being the root cause of the problem and what approach could be taken to improve the rule itself? The best place to start is dissecting the warning behavior itself.

Ok, so what are coaches doing out there? They're trying to improve their players just a little quicker by doing counter-intuitive or game-ey things to get extra SPP's, either in general or on specific players - especially on specific players. Coaches are also running up scores just for the SPP's, throwing extra blocks and passes in meaningless garbage time, in some leagues coaches are even agreeing to go to overtime just for the extra turns in which to try these tricks. Clearly, there are patterns of bad behavior emerging around the idea of individual players performances being the only variable in the development equation which quite obviously condemn that design as flawed.

Ahh, there it is, the mistake. Individual performance as the basic mechanic of team development. What damage hast it wrought? let us count the ways...

In addition to being the root cause of the gamesmanship behaviors discussed above, individual tallies have also brought the game such wonders as coaches who see no point to winning or losing, linemen who never progress, the need for the thoroughly mislabeled MVP, and the generally unsatisfactory disproportionate concentration of experience on catchers.

While the variety of symptoms of this problem are themselves an effective indictment of the core design, the issue of the lack of a systemic incentive for winning requires an aside, because it is an odd case that it should exist at all and has been at the fore of recent discussions.

Over the years, I have heard this complaint about the game many times, and it initially surprised me. After all, I thought, who doesn't try to win a game, and if there are people out there that really have this problem, why do they play the game at all? I really only play the game for the miniatures and I'm still guilty of stranding my star catcher in the sights of the other guy's ogre in turn seven of the second half if it's the only chance I have to pick up the win in the last turn. I simply cannot wrap my head around the notion of taking the time to buy and paint a team, learn the rules, set aside three hours for playing, and then happily concede a
loss as long as you can pick up a few SPP's and some gold on the way out. And, to be honest, I seriously doubt the credibility and substance of arguments that claim that people have such an attitude. What I will accept, on the other hand, are arguments that say that there is no benefit to winning (though I might not agree that there is a problem with the design, but I will agree that the design exists as such) and I will also argue that the scope of the arguer's frame of reference is too narrow to produce an accurate case.

Firstly, the instinct on my part might be to say that if the lack of reward for victory is leading to people setting for draws rather than make risky plays for the win, or even taking a loss without a fight, that it cannot be seen as a design flaw of the game itself, because unlike the situation with gamesmanship in experience harvesting, the indifference that might exist toward winning is something which falls under the auspices of being dependent on expected behavior - people should want to win games they are playing, and people who do not should just be left to their eccentricities. But, oddly enough, this is not the route that I can go because the problem is that these coaches are thinking bigger than just this match, and in that wider perspective there is indeed a case for this being exactly the same variety of gamesmanship warning flag which we already saw with experience.

Yes, the coach should want to win a game, but this particular game does not have the finite scope of checkers, it is a perpetual game and decisions which lead to instances of choosing not to try to win most often stem from this fact, not from either a lack of testosterone in the coach or lack of rules driving the coach toward a win. Coaches thinking of their teams beyond today 's match will not want to risk that catcher in the open to do better than a tie today unless the reward for the greater context is sufficient. Even if the game offered mountains of gold to the winning team, a team that knows it has to play a championship game next week will play differently, and it is this reasonable, expected, and quite natural thinking that really leads to most such decisions. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the league schedule itself, and the general momentum of a team 's lifespan which is responsible for shaping competitive drive. Even in a setting without structural impetus such as an open season, a coach who passes up a chance to win a single match cannot be branded as overly soft, they likely are thinking of the long-term competitiveness of their team, and appreciate that a win today could cost them other games down the road if that catcher gets blasted in the attempt.

So, in this case it is not that coaches are engaging in gamey behavior, it is that they simply take in the full scope of the league setting and the specific format and scheduling scenario in which they likely fall. If a league does not have a particularly strong format drive for success, some coaches may be content to sit back and simply build despite a poor record. This is not gamesmanship, it is a choice, but that is not to say similar behaviors are not driven by other motivations.

Indeed, there are a segment of coaches who do downplay winning in many leagues and seek to maximize their experience harvest without regard for the outcome of the match, though. These are coaches for whom the reward of individual player development serves as the motivation for play rather than league standings, and for these coaches, decisions always come doen to protecting developing players, but this again is not an indictment of the game 's lack of incentive for winning, but rather yet another opportunity to note and address the issue of poor design in the experience system.

And still beyond the scope of experience and competitive format, there are without question some coaches whose personal enjoyment is based on destroying other teams. Again, we can't always choose our league members in this hobby, and we can't legislate behavior in the rules, but as discussed in earlier diatribes on personality traits (or the lack thereof), a game which has badly designed systems which offer specific and substantive benefits to those who express such characteristics needs to be looked at.

In the end, the issue of coaches not caring to win the game is as complex and varied as the coaches playing the game. The question before the designer is how to react to the possibility that coaches will not want to win the game. The designer may decide that this is an issue best left out of the game itself and left to human nature entirely, and this is a perfectly fine solution for one-off games, but does fail in games where development is involved - especially when the rate of development is not
tied to outcomes in which case we do see indifference emerge. The designer may decide to employ rewards for winning or penalties for losing which are sufficiently dramatic to compel the players to win, but such a response will almost certainly lead to long-term imbalance as teams on streaks may well outpace their opponents. Finally, a designer may seek something in between, and this I think is where the most pleasing results lay.

Why should the game concern itself with promoting winning in the first place? Again, we come back to reasonable expectations. Bloodbowl is, at the end of the day, a game about development over time. While the outcomes of an individual match can and should be left to the character of the coaches playing it, the reasonable expectation is that those teams which consistently win should benefit from the luck or prowess they have shown. Benefit, in this context, can only come from greater or faster development. Therefore, the role of winning in design for this game should be to offer an increase in development, not as a carrot for individual game wins, but
rather as a trend through the larger life of the game. This benefit does not exist to correct any counter-intuitive behavior of coaches, indeed, it is neither a response to coach behavior nor an inducement to action of any sort, but rather is a systemic device to produce expected results. The ideal for this game is not to concern the design with how people play the game, but rather to create a system which produces desired results in desired circumstances and let the humans do as they will with it. If the design is correct, the trend in behavior will follow. If the design has flaws, gamesmanship will point them out.

All that said, the two lessons which the designer can come away with are these, individual statistics should not be the principal determining factor in team development and winning should be more beneficial than the alternatives, over both the long and short term.

To that end, then, I propose the following replacement for the current player experience system:

After every match, roll a d6 on the following table, then add the appropriate modifiers listed, to determine how many SPPs the player earned from this match.

{table border=0}
{tr}{td}2 or less{/td}{td}0{/td}{/tr}
{tr bgcolor="whitesmoke"}{td}3 - 4{/td}{td}1{/td}{/tr}
{tr}{td}5 - 6{/td}{td}2{/td}{/tr}
{tr bgcolor="whitesmoke"}{td}7 - 8{/td}{td}3{/td}{/tr}
{tr}{td}9 - 10{/td}{td}4{/td}{/tr}
{tr bgcolor="whitesmoke"}{td}11 or more{/td}{td}5{/td}{/tr}
{th colspan=2}Modifiers{/th}
{tr}{td}Team won{/td}{td}+1{/td}{/tr}
{tr bgcolor="whitesmoke"}{td}Team lost{/td}{td}-1{/td}{/tr}
{tr}{td}Team scored 2+ TD's{/td}{td}+1{/td}{/tr}
{tr bgcolor="whitesmoke"}{td}Team caused 2+ casualties{/td}{td}+1{/td}{/tr}
{tr}{td}Player scored any TD's{/td}{td}+1{/td}{/tr}
{tr bgcolor="whitesmoke"}{td}Player caused any casualties{/td}{td}+1{/td}{/tr}

This table is, for now, to be considered a draft. I'm still expecting to get some final decisions on where the numbers should fall from the Greenfield Elementary Math Club, but the essential character of the system is quite clear and immutable.

As usual, this approach is also brutally simple, but that's how I like to do things around here. But what does it get us? Oh so many things, actually.

First, it clearly addresses both of the major issues just elaborated by making team performance more important to the development of the squad than individual performances, though it does leave sufficient benefit from being the key player to satisfy desires for this benefit as well. Overall, though, this system is more in keeping with the notion of a team sport, where every player has a role in the play on the pitch, not just the one who walked over the goal line. Such an approach is able to recognize that the daring lino who held up the other guy's minotaur for five turns probably contributed just as much as anyone.

By providing visible and desirable benefit to the winning side, the system also makes sure that a fair number of coaches who might otherwise be prone to overly conservative play will be more likely to try for the win, if only for the better roll mods. The impact on an individual player's development is almost insignificant, but the impact on an entire team is visible. Winning has an undeniable impact on long-term development, but balance is maintained by the use of the balanced-tr system, because remember, all of this is part of a unified design and cannot be expected to produce full effect if broken apart.

Yes, leaving any individual achievement modifiers in the system will result in there being opportunities for gamesmanship, but this is a judgment call falling somewhere between the current utterly broken system and the polar opposite which lacks the expected result of direct benefit for a player who directly contributes. The potential still exists for some coaches to participate in silly plays to maximize modifiers around his team, but an examination of the numbers will reveal a generally poor return for such nonsense and the practice will certainly trend down even further.

I still can't do anything about all those 1's you roll, though.