Designing ‘The Player League’ Part 2: The Mechanics

In part 1 I looked at reasons why designing a social competition game is difficult. This time I’m going to start the design process by listing some of the notable mechanics of real-life competitive social interaction. For example, if I was designing a war strategy game this list would include health, positioning, morale, cover, terrain, ammunition, and so on. I need to figure out what the ‘pieces’ of the strategic space are for a strategy game. The goal is to make a comprehensible, fun game design that is also at least somewhat realistic. Most other social games up to now have depended on either static conversation trees, or extremely abstracted mechanics which don’t really resemble real social interaction at all. I don’t want that. I want a dynamic strategy game which, when played, maps reasonable well to a possible real social interaction.

Before I could design a game about socializing, I had to try to figure out the mechanics of real-life socializing. Luckily, it turns out that there is a whole industry of social/dating coaches out there, with their own quasi-nerdy lingo that breaks down social interactions into a step-by-step sequence of actions and reactions. I’ve based my design off of a combination of these ideas and my own personal experience.

These social rules aren’t universal, so don’t complain if they sound a little draconian. They’re quite specific to a particular subculture and context – the sexually competitive pickup club/bar scene. I’ve also chosen stuff that I think is ‘game-izable’ – that’s independent of the text of the conversation and the cultural context.

More below the fold…

Inebriation – People get drunk. More drunkenness increases power and confidence, but reduces control and finesse.

Mood A person in a strong mood has much more social power than someone who is feeling sad or depressed, even if the two people are fundamentally the same. Think of it as a buff/debuff mechanic. You could also ‘damage’ an opponent by suppressing their mood, thus reducing their social power. Alternatively, you could ‘buff’ a friend by pumping up their mood. Mood could be somewhat analogous to health in other games.
Value/Opinion – ‘Value’ describes the idea that one person believes, consciously or subconsciously, that being aligned with another person could help them. It’s related to the mainstream concept of ‘opinion’. The key difference is that you don’t have to like someone to see them as having value. In many cases, being friendly can actually decrease a person’s perceived value because they give the impression of neediness. See ‘interest balancing’.

Any social game should incorporate this key concept. It’s actually one of the easiest things to model since value perception can be reasonably measured with single linear number.

Interest Balancing and Attainability – Showing too much interest can make a person seem like they have no standards. Similarly, showing too little interest makes a person seem aloof or unattainable.

Any signal, whether it be verbal or nonverbal, intentional or unintentional, can show interest (or lack thereof). These signals can include things like how fast a person turns their head when spoken to, or how much they pay attention to what the person is saying. It turns out that it is often more attractive to not pay full attention to someone, especially if that person is used to being fawned-over.

Pushing disinterest too far, however, is fatal because then you end up seeming unattainable. Even if a person is attractive and has tons of value, nobody will invest in them if they don’t think they can get anything back. The person cannot feel that you are needy and have no standards, but they also cannot feel that you are some kind of celebrity who will brush them off as soon as they lose interest.

Any social game should incorporate the concept of interest balancing. It’s deep and interesting, but it’s also probably one of the hardest concepts to incorporate into a video game. You have to know how much interest to show, you have to control your own signals so as to not send out the wrong ones unintentionally, all while accurately reading the other person’s signals. Designing a comprehensible game system for these interactions is hard.

Compliance – Compliance is a measure of what a person is willing to do for another person. Will they get you a glass of water? Introduce you to their friend? Help you get past a hostile club bouncer? Distract defensive friends so you can talk to the girl you like?

Building compliance allows you to ‘recruit’ friends and allies. Think of it as analogous to building units in a military strategy game, except that these units will only do certain things for you, depending on how much compliance you have built from them. They could also lose interest if they don’t see you for too long, or balk if you ask them to do too much.

Also note that recruited friends will also have different personalities and abilities, much like military game units have different weapons. One new friend may be great at pumping you up, another may know the bouncer and can let you into special places, another might be good at distracting your rivals.

I like the recruiting mechanic because it should exponentially grow the strategic space as you recruit more and more people, who can then be combined in (n^2) different ways for all sorts of strategies. This recruiting concept is deep enough that it could easily be a social game’s core mechanic.

Social proof – Being seen with friends, especially cool ones, makes anyone look cooler. Thus apparently it is often necessary to make normal friends in the club first, then using their social proof to leapfrog up to the more intimidating girls.

This ties in closely with the recruitment idea, since recruited friends could have a strengthening effect on your social power simply by being seen talking to you.

In the next article, I’ll look at different macro game models, from real-time to turn-based to card games, and explore some of the ways they could incorporate these mechanics.

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