Series Info...Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #137:

Social Gaming Interactions, Part Two: Competition

by Shannon Appelcline

Last column, in Social Gaming Interactions, Part One, I talked about interacting with other players in multiplayer games, and how narrow of a view we've taken of the possibilities. Traditionally we've shoehorned most social interaction into two categories, Socializing and Killing (as defined by Richard Bartle), and in doing so we've blinded ourselves to other options.

Nowhere is that more apparent, I believe, that within the realm of competitive interaction (which I correspond to the Bartle category of Killers). I intend to expand upon competitive interaction in this column by opening up a whole Pandora's box of possibilities. Many of these ideas come from the world of tabletop games, and thus I'll be referring back to them with some frequency.

Then, in the next column, I'll be finishing up this topic by looking at possibilities for Cooperative and Freeform Interaction (corresponding to Bartle's Socializers).

The Traditional Approach: Direct Competition

As I discussed last week, we have looked into a number of methods of social interaction in multiplayer games, but we've never looked very deeply into these methods. We've come up with a few options and then decided that these formed the whole spectrum for interactive possibilities. In looking at competitive interaction I intend to first consider some forms of competitive interaction that we've sort of covered--direct competition and resource competition--but will show how even in these "well known" interactions we've just scratched the surface. Afterward we'll get into somes less explored possibilities: economic competition and bluffing. The end result? More variability in competition, more viability and for the players, ultimately, more fun.

The traditional approach for competitive interaction in online games has always been direct competition. And, in fact, it's been even more restricted than that. Direct competition has usually meant fighting: hitting your opponent with your sword until his shield, armor, and eventually body give out. Unfortunately this form of competition has given the whole idea of interplayer competition a bad reputation, largely because interplayer combat tends to be all or nothing--you live or you die--and thus the stakes are very high and the loss you face for a failed competition is equally daunting.

It doesn't have to be this way.

Even without stretching our wings much at all, it's easy to look at the form of direct competition and see exciting and new ways that it could be expanded to really change the character of online games. (Why aren't more games doing this, if it's actually easy? Unfortunately, because of stasis. Designers have seen umpteen games who center their competitive interaction around the question of fighting, and so they don't look any further.) Here's some of these expansions:

Increasing the Consent: The main reason that direct competition has gained the bad repution of PvP play is that there's no mutual agreement. Instead, direction competition in many online games tends to be a lot like spam: unsolicited and unwanted. By the mere fact of having both players agree to fight (in whatever way), you make it acceptable. This is, of course, what Dark Age of Camelot and others have done by creating PvP areas for fighting. If you enter the area, you're agreeing to fight (though it doesn't necessarily go far enough, because you're agreeing to a general class of competition, not a specific interaction).

Lowering the Consequences: If you want to take the next step, you can lower the consequences of competition. Not every fight has to end in the death of a character (or even the pseudo-death of a character that actually just results in the temporary loss of equipment, as is more likely in MMORPGs). Lost competition can have many other consequences, from lost face or lost honor to lost funds or lost station.

Changing the Form: Here's the real crucial point, however: direct competition doesn't have to be about fighting. When I was talking about tabletop roleplaying games in TT&T #132, I mentioned that it was a fairly recent innovation to have "consistent contests", wherein characters could spar with each other on many different fields of battle. Oration can be a form of direct competition. So can negotiation. Or running.

Frankly, there's not much innately exciting in a fight. As often as not it's an exercise in clicking a mouse or typing "kill dragon" a couple of hundred times. The excitement comes from a simple pair of elements: risk and reward. You can introduce those into any other type of competition in your game. So why not have a different form of contest than just fighting?

The Indirect Approach: Resource Competition

On the opposite side of the spectrum from sparring with other players with swords (or words or whatever) is the idea of competing for limited resources. This has been somewhat featured in many modern multiplayer games, but much as with the idea of direct competition, it more often ends up being a troublesome element in a game rather than a virtue.

Resource Collection: Typically resource competition in online games extends no further than the control of lucrative spawn points. However, in real life there's a lot more resource competition than that; there's competition for jobs, money, women, men, houses, etc. By building resource competition more directly into a game, these possibilities can be built upon rather than built around.

The Settlers of Catan, by Klaus Teuber, is a classic resource competition game. Players are trying to control hexes of land which produce resources. There are just 19 hexes, and up to 4 players, and there are also some other restrictions on how you can or can't build structures which give you access to those hexes' resources. Clearly, no player is going to be able to control more than a few of these hexes. [See: Review]

Puerto Rico, by Andreas Seyfarth, is another game which offers examples of the same resource-scarce gameplay. In Puerto Rico you can build specific buildings, but there are only 1-2 of most buildings available in the game, and up to 5 players, so when you take a building, you take away that opportunity from other players. Likewise, there are a limited number of resource chits, so if you manage to get your resource counters before your opponents do, you might starve them, because the stock has run out. [See: Review]

These specific ideas of resource competition can be adapted to online games by following some of the following guidelines:

  1. Give players limited resources.
  2. Allow each player to own more of a resource than his average share.
  3. Provide a reward for the acquisition of a resource to ensure its collection.
  4. Ensure that resource competition largely occurs between like-powered players.
  5. Ensure that resource competition occurs entirely between active players.

The first three rules are pretty obvious. You could, for example, make land a resource in your game, and give each player the opportunity to claim it. Owning land can give you the opportunity to make money off of that land in various ways (tilling the fields, selling goods out of a shop, whatever). Thus you have innate competition for the land.

It's the last two items which provide for trickier design. To cover point #4 you might open up a new plot of land for every dozen or so new players who enter the game, and thus have each player compete against other newbies for control, but things get tougher when you have your expected 50% (or 80% or 90%) dropout after your first couple of days or months of play. Thus you need to design interesting ways to make the resources slightly more dynamic, so that each player can compete against an ever-changing array of active players that fits their current level of power.

I don't have the answer to how to set up this type of dynamic resource competition, but I think it's a very solveable problem, so if this type of competition would suit your type of game, get thinking.

Penalty Avoidance: The opposite of collecting resources is avoid penalties, a sort of anti-resource competition. This very rarely is seen in games on its own, but more frequently gets mushed together with typical resources collection.

Kingdoms, by Reiner Knizia, is one of those typical games which combines resources collection and penalty avoidance. The game features 12 tiles labelled +1 to +6 and 6 tiles labelled -1 to -6 which are laid out in a 5x5 grid. Players can also place castles in this grid spots, which collect all resources and penalties in their row and column. Clearly, players want to place castles near positive tiles and away from negative tiles. [See: Review]

The Prisoner's Dilemma is a classical game design problem which centers on penalty avoidance alone. At the core of the problem you have two prisoners, each of which can rat on the other. If you rat and the other prisoner doesn't, he's punished and you're rewarded. But, if you rat at the same time, you're both punished. Finally, if neither of you rat, you're both partially rewarded (less so than if you were the only rat). The question is, what's the ideal strategy to not be punished? To rat quickly, slowly, or not at all? The puzzle is traditionally laid out so that players jointly cooperating (by neither ratting) provides the best average reward, but that's not always the best answer because of dynamic, evolving gameplay. I've never seen the Prisoner's Dilemma used in a game, but it could form an interesting basis for an exclusively penalty-avoidance type of gameplay.

The Mercantile Approach: Economic Competition

From here, we move on to what I think is the most exciting type of competition, and the one that's been the least well developed by online games: economic competition. Here, money acts as a sort of go-between for the competition (though any value token could be used). Because filthy lucre is so important to us in the real world, we've come up with a number of types of economic competition, all of which could be adapted to a virtual world. (Notably, money usually isn't very valuable in online games because of runaway economies, and thus as a first step in making these types of competition truly interesting, a new type of value token generally prized by the players must be selected.)

Captalistic Competition: This is economic competition in its rawest form: supply and demand. Players are exchanging limited resources for other limited resources. Theoretically, this is going to be built into any game, as players will constantly figure out trade valuations for themselves, but as a game designer you can help it out by building hooks in your game. Show players information on exchanges, and suggest prices on your own. Help direct player prices for exchanges via the prices within exchanges controlled by non-player characters, and conversely make sure that NPC exchange prices are reflective of character exchange prices. At a higher level, simply make sure that goods in your game appear at rational levels of scarcity: nothing can destroy an economic system faster than hyperinflation caused by too many resources becoming available (typically through the killing and looting of monsters).

Auctions: Here's one of the first great types of competition that is widely available in tabletop games, but is almost totally ignored in online games. You can make scarce goods available through auctions. This doesn't just mean a simple highest-bidder-takes all system, though you can do that. But there are also lots of othe rpossibilities, as described below:

High Society, by Reiner Knizia, offers a fairly commonplace English auction with players bidding increasing prices one-by-one until all players but one drop out. But, there's a catch which points toward the central idea of making sure the commodity you're paying with is valuable: the player who ends up with the least money at the end of the series of auctions loses. [See: Review]

New England, by Alan R. Moon and Aaron Weissblum, offers another good example of give and take in a simple one-phase auction. Each player chooses a turn order for how fast he gets to go, from 1 to 10, but that number is also his cost to make purchases for that turn. Thus, the faster a player wants to go, the more expensive it is to buy everything. [See: Review]

Fist of Dragonstones, by Bruno Faidutti and Michael Schacht, provides a closed-fist auction, where no one knows what else is being bid until all bids are revealed (at which points all bids are spent, winning or losing). [See: Review or Online Game]

Queen's Necklace, by Bruno Faidutti and Bruno Cathala, centers on a turn-based Dutch auction. Each turn a player has very limited resources with which to purchase an item. After his purchases are made, all prices drop (and it's the next players turn to purchase). [See: Review or Online Game]

Merchants of Amsterdam, by Reiner Knizia, uses a real-time Dutch auction, with a clock counting backward and slowly reducing the price. This type of auction is one of those that's much easier to model via a computer than in reality.

Res Publica, also by Reiner Knizia, uses a severely limited English auction. A player says what he has to offer, and each player gets to make one offer of a trade (or, alternatively a player says what he wants to receive, and each player gets to make one offer of a trade for the requested items). [See: Review]

Long listings of auction types aside, the point is that there are lots of ways to build auctions into games as competition. As all of these games prove, they can form little mini-games of their own, just as combat usually does in multiplayer games. The only troublesome element is changing your thinking to figure out what valued commodity players can trade in these auctions, to keep them interesting. Beyond that, remember that much of the interest in auctions comes from figuring out how to place limits and restrictions on the auction that force interesting gameplay (as Queen's Necklace and Res Publica do in particular).

Voting: Voting is a weird sort of indirect competition that can have very direct effects. Each player gets a single vote or a number of votes based on some count (experience, days in game, land held, etc), and gets to use those votes to change the rules of the game--which can improve or hurt the lot of various people (by outlawing certain character classes from town, or increasing or decreasing the value of land, or making certain weapons prized or illegal, etc).

Nomic, by Peter Suber, is a voting game in its purest form. The author describes it such: "Nomic is a game in which changing the rules is a move. In that respect it differs from almost every other game. The primary activity of Nomic is proposing changes in the rules, debating the wisdom of changing them in that way, voting on the changes, deciding what can and cannot be done afterwards, and doing it. Even this core of the game, of course, can be changed." [See: Web Pages]

Democrazy, by Bruno Faidutti, nicely encapsulates this whole idea and gives it some complexity. Each player has a random assortment of red, blue, green, and yellow chips. Votes can give more chips to certain players or take them away (e.g., "all players lose all blue chips") or change the value of chip (e.g., "all red chips are worth 2 points") or change the scores of players (e.g., "add the score of the player to your left to your own"). Votes are simple "yes"es and "no"s, with results of ties being determined randomly. But, each player also has one card which is "Absolute Yes" (automatically makes vote "yes"), "Absolute No" (automatically makes vote "no"), or "Scam" (flips vote result). A special card may only be used once, and if two or more are used in the same vote, they negate each other.

King Me!, by Stefano Luperto, is another example of the same. Each player gains points from certain characters being raised up through the levels of a Castle, and each player raises one character at a time (creating a sort of single-vote system, where it's only through the amalgam that results are obvious). But, there's one catch: when a character is raised up to the highest level (the throne room) a vote is taken. If the player's unanimously vote "Yes", the character stays in the throne room and is worth "10" points (the lower levels being worth "1" to "5") and the round ends. If there's even a single "No" the character is beheaded and worth 0 points. There's another catch: each player only has a limited number of "No" votes.

Survivor, by Mark Burnett, is perhaps the best-known voting game because it appears on nationwide television and is seen by twenty million viewers a week. Quite simply: each player has an equal vote, and each week one player is voted out of the game. There has been twists to insure that absolute majority doesn't maintain absolute power. [See: TT&T #74 and TT&T #135]

As with the auction competitions, voting competitions gain interest through restrcitions.

Bids: This is perhaps the weakest type of economic competition because it's so indirect. You place a bid on a specific outcome and thus odds change for other players placing wagers on the competition. Think of horse racing. This competition can be made more direct by then allowing players to in some way influence the outcome of the competition.

The Dishonest Approach: Bluffing about Competition

Before I close out this article on competition I want to talk about one adjunct, which can be applied to any other form of competition.

Bluffing: In bluffing you have some limited information which other players don't know about. However, if you're too blatant in your gameplay, other players will figure out your secret information and have an advantage--so you might sometimes make moves that don't reflect your secret information in order to keep other players guessing.

Some of the games I've already mentioned use bluffing. In King Me!, for example, the characters that you benefit from are kept secret. Thus, you might sometimes raise up a character who doesn't help you in order to move attention away from your favorites. Meanwhile in Res Publica you're trying to collect resources, and the ones you're currently holding are secret. This allows you to collect "sets" of resources without your opponents realizing you're about to complete one (which might increase their auction price if your opponents knew).

Clans, by Leo Colovini, is, like King Me!, a combination of a single-vote system with bluffing. Here you're moving huts around a neolithic landscape. Beneficial moves can form huts into villages, granting all effected huts points, while malicious moves can move huts into bad terrains where they're destroyed. Each hut is one of five colors (not all of which are used by players), and you're secretly getting points from one of those colors--but if you reveal it through moves that are too blatant, other players will go after your color, and you will lose.

Bluffing can make any form of competition richer.


If I've done anything in this article, I hope I've opened up possibilities for competition in online games. It can be a hell of a lot more than just hitting each other with swords. We've already done some work on direct competition and resource competition in our genre, but there's still lots of room for improvement, and ideas about economic competition and bluffing have barely been touched in online games. So, we should be taking a look at a genre which has developed these ideas much better--tabletop boardgames--and then apply their lessons learned to our own medium. The result will be more variability among our games and more fun for our players.

Next column I'm going to be moving on to the other types of social interaction that I outlined for multiplayer games: social interaction and freeform interaction. Just as with competition, there's lots of things we can learn.

[ <— #136: Social Gaming Interactions, Part One: A History of Form | #138: Social Gaming Interactions, Part Three: Cooperation & Freeform —> ]

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