Designing ‘The Player League’ Part 1: Why It’s Hard

For a while now, I’ve wanted to make a competitive strategy game about picking up chicks. It seemed strange that it hadn’t been done before. Everyone understands the concept, many people have done it personally. It should be a no-brainer as a game, I thought. Unfortunately, it’s a design challenge that’s been kicking my ass for months now.

Last October, I had no computer because I was studying in Hong Kong. All I had was access to the crappy school computers. I figured I’d use the time to write out a design. Even better, I was also spending lots of time in bars and clubs at the time. I’d see some behaviour pattern at night, and write it into the design the next day. It’s not often that you get to personally witness your game in real life while you’re designing it.

I’ve recently finished coding a playable prototype. In later posts I hope to discuss it. First, I want to explain a bit of the journey that this game has taken me on.

Many of these design challenges are direct reflections of why I think the idea has so much potential in the first place. Social interaction presents us with a strategic space of unparalleled depth, diversity, and intensity, far beyond any other real-life type of competition I can think of. I definitely think that different designers could extract many completely different and fascinating games from the social competition idea.

This for part 1 of this little series, I’ll start us off with why designing a realistic social competition game is hard. Some of these difficulties were obvious at the beginning, but some only appeared while I was trying to execute my design.

More below the fold…

1. Every effect in the game is invisible. In real life, information flows through a competitive social system mostly through subtle signals in body language or voice inflection. Even better, most of this information is broadcast unintentionally. While not strictly invisible, these signals are far too subtle to be useful as a way of communicating game information to the player.

I can’t put a character onscreen and have them actually act out their emotional state with body language and facial cues. I don’t have the development resources, and computerized facial animation isn’t advanced enough to communicate the information. Even if I could get the body language cues right, it would be hard to read them, just as it is in real life.

This means I could either make the characters emote in really exaggerated ways, as in The Sims, or come up with some kind of abstract way of communicating information. Exaggerated gestures weren’t an option because they can’t communicate enough shades of meaning. This means that for the social game to work, I needed to come up with completely abstract ways of communicating everything about the social situation, which are clear and intuitive. Combined with difficult #2, this is really hard.

2. The game is totally non-geometric. Most games have some geometric element to them. Spatial geometry is understood by everyone, very flexible as a design element, and can give rise to a massive array of different moves and gamestates. But in social competition, physical geometry is only a small part of the game.

Oddly enough, the only non-geometric games I can think of are card games. The closest analogue to the Player League I’m familiar with would be Magic: The Gathering. Oddly enough, it shares some characteristics with real social competition. Both are heavily information-incomplete, both have no geometric element, both involve a buildup of assets, and both, in some sense, are about changing the rules of the game.

3. Everyone has a different view of how social interaction works, and none of them are fully correct. This is a major problem because it forces me to make a choice between a hyper-simple, cliched view of social competition or a more hard and realistic model that is also incredibly complex, counterintuitive, and misses many real parts of social interaction.

If I choose a complex, realistic model, the game will be hard to understand. A simple model would rob the game of its soul and, to me, constitute a failure of the design. Simplified models have already been done before as well. See The Sims.

4. There are no rules. There’s simply nothing I can count on. Every rule gets broken sometimes in a social situation, and most of them are broken often.

For example, in a war game, if a soldier gets shot, it’s obvious that something bad will happen to him. Everyone understands this.

But if a guy is talking to a girl and he says, “I hate you. I think you are absolutely disgusting,” what happens? It could come off as anything – an insult, a joke, an odd non-sequitir, or a challenge. Her response will depend on her emotional state, her type of socialization, her reputation, his reputation, the exact inflection and body language with which he is speaking, the current conversational threads, who is watching, the social norms of the group they are in, and about a million other factors. Any one of these factors could swing her response anywhere between an angry slap, to a bored dismissal, to an intense feeling of attraction.

This makes it very hard to come up with a traditional-like set of game rules that players can learn and manipulate.

5. Astronomical information overload. Information overload is a constant problem.

In part four I listed some factors affecting a girl’s response to an insult. The first thing you’ll notice is that there are a lot of them.

The second thing you’ll notice is that none of them are linear quantities. Each, in turn, would require at least a paragraph to explain. Some, like the girl’s upbringing, would require a book-length treatment to get a handle on.

The third thing you’ll notice is that there is no party who has access to all this information. You can’t tell what the other person is thinking or what their social position is except from vague, subtle signals.

Even more fun, you often can’t really explain your own emotional state or social upbringing because you’re looking out from the inside. Doing game-like analysis on this stuff at this level is essentially impossible. The game designer is challenged with coming up with some comprehensible representation of all this information. It can’t be too hard to learn, but is also can’t seem contrived.

6. Heavy emphasis on emotional abilities instead of abstract thought ability or intellectual knowledge. Social success in real life isn’t built on high level intellectual knowledge as much as it is on emotional control and projection. Often (but not always, since there are no rules), it doesn’t matter what a person says, only that they say it in the right way.

So how do we translate this into a game? Can the game include some interface that game-izes the challenge of getting your voice inflection right? But in real life, getting your inflection on-target is almost incidental as long as you’re in the right emotional state. So how do we make a game about controlling your own emotions? They have no physical form, no rules of interaction, no clear delineations between them, and they are often as hard to read from the inside as from the outside.

7. There is no clear winning state. Some people might think that getting the girl’s phone number, or getting a date, or sleeping with her are the goals. But people go into social interactions with all sorts of different goals.

Sometimes they are consciously aware of their goal, sometimes not, and sometimes they think they have a certain goal when they are really chasing something else.

Usually a person’s social goal can be boiled down to achieving a certain emotional state. This means that quantifying success means quantifying a person’s emotional state. Even weirder is that often, the moment a person achieves a social goal, they stop wanting it, and may even be repulsed by it. How do we incorporate this important part of social behaviour into the game?

8. Effort is self-defeating. In most challenges, trying harder will increase a person’s chances of success. In social interaction, the exact opposite is often true. The perception that a person is making effort – not ‘being themselves’ – reduces others’ opinions of them. Often, the best strategy is to make no effort at all, or at least maintain the appearance of making no effort. This is one of the most important parts of a competitive social interaction, but how do we incorporate this into a game? And how do we communicate it to a player?

‘Designing Player League’ series to be continued…

3 thoughts on “Designing ‘The Player League’ Part 1: Why It’s Hard

  1. Pingback: Tynan Sylvester » Blog Archive » Designing 'The Player League' Part 3: Game Models

  2. Pablo Leon-Luna

    I would love to talk to you in depth about social interaction in games sometime if you were open to it. So far you are the only person I have encountered who as both formulated ideas on this topic AND experimented with them.

    -Pablo Leon-Luna

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