The Disconnect Dilemma
by Shannon Appelcline
Over the last month or so I've been spending some time playing our three games available from Days of Wonder: Gang of Four, Queen's Necklace, and Fist of Dragonstones. They're all games that fit my current gaming mindset: they're short, they're strategic, they're playable on my terms, and they're only as social as I want them to be.
I've had a lot of fun with these games. Because of critical mass issues, I get to play Queen's Necklace and Fist of Dragonstones rarely enough that every game's a treasure. Meanwhile, over in Gang of Four, I get to play against a very skilled group of players from across the world, and thus I can revel in slowly pushing my ranking up or (more frequently) grimace as bad game heaps upon bad game and sends my ranking plunging.
Unfortunately, the fact that every game can improve or harm your Gang of Four ranking has also caused a mildly serious issue in the game: players disconnecting to protect their score. Of the 49 total Gang of Four games that I've played, 11 of them ended due to a player disconnecting. Of those, 6 of the disconnects ended in the first round of play, which seems to point to some honest problem with a client or a net connection, but another 3 happened under highly suspicious circumstances, typically meaning that a player fell out a game right after he ate a bunch of points on a bad hand.
The Central Question: Truth or Cheat?
The biggest problem with disconnects in Internet games is that it's largely impossible to tell if they happened purposefully or accidently. There's no way to tell the difference between someone closing their browser and their browser crashing, between someone unplugging their computer and a power outage taking out their house.
As a game player, I don't want to be penalized for my "fair" gameplaying because someone else is cheating. (That's one of my most central tenets of life: one should not penalize the "good" people for what the "bad" people do.) On the other hand, if you reward someone for doing something unfair, you're just going to reinforce that behavior, and this will increasingly cause problems in your game.
To go back to Gang of Four, if nothing was done the result would be that a losing player wouldn't get a penalty to his ranking if he disconnected prior to the end of the game, and thus a loser would always be benefitted by quitting when he was doing badly.
Clearly, not a desirable outcome. We'll get back to this.
The RPG Connection
This all does relate to roleplaying games too. In my one my earliest articles, Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #9, The Puzzle of the Purloined Players I talked about how the discontinuity between a real life and a virtual world can cause problems. That was more about long-term issues, where you never know if someone will be around from week to week (when that's something that you could guarantee in real life).
However, in the short-term disconnections can be just as troublesome for RPGs as they are for a strategy game like Gang of Four--and they can happen for roughly the same reasons. Combat is, I think, the thing most likely to cause a player to disconnect from an RPG. They're doing badly, so they duck out, possibly saving their player from death.
You could have similar issues with any game system, and also with roleplaying itself. Don't like how a scene is going? No problem, just hit the "close" button.
So, how do you solve the disconnect dilemma? I'm going to start off by looking at a few solutions already in place.
The most common solution, which you can find in some MMORPGs and MUDs, is to simply not give the player a break:
Dumb Continuation: Have a player just sit there, and continue on with whatever situation he's a part of. This is a common answer for players disconnecting during combat, which usually means that the character gets killed, which is fair enough if the player was cheating, but not fair at all if they had a phone line down, or a power outage, or whatever.
Days of Wonder has come up with some answers for Gang of Four which I'm quite pleased with:
Penalty: Assign some type of penalty to a player who disconnects. Or, to be more fair, let the other players decide if a penalty is just. The latter is Gang of Four's current answer. There's a grace penalty of five minutes, and after that players can assess a penalty against the player who jumped out of the game. Unfortunately, it takes all three other players to assess a penalty, and it's hard to get three people to do anything on the net. Still, it's a worthwhile solution, though there's still a high frustration factor for the players involved who didn't get to finish their game
Smart Continuation: Use AI or Expert Rules routines to have the missing player conduct himself in some reasonable way. This is a solution that Gang of Four is going to go to in version 2.0. The computer will continue to play the disconnected player's hand in the best way it can. Your AI doesn't have to be too terribly smart, as the point is to let the other players finish, not to create a good opponent. And, if the computer plays worse than a human ... that's just an incentive to stay connected.
Here's a few other possibilities that might work:
Calculate Averaged Outcome: Interpolate current scores to see how the game should have come out. In an RPG combat, look at the remaining strengths of the combatants, to see who should have died. In a game like Gang of Four score victory based upon the current scores. (As with all solutions, this does create other possible problems, such as players leaving just before their score drops, if scoring is done in any tiered way, such as a score at the end of each round of play).
Reward Those Who Remain: Rather than penalizing players who disconnected, which might not be totally fair, instead reward those who stayed around. (This requires you to have confidence that people aren't creating fake accounts, else they'll just create new accounts, solely to disconnect from games; of course you could offset this by making the reward dependent upon how long the player had been around. As with most game design, there's a series of back and forths that might eventually help you arrive at your desired outcome.)
Measure Expected Outages: Another possibility is to penalize players who disconnect, but only if they exceed a certain expected value of outage. How you calculate that value is the big question here, as people will have different levels of expected outage across the United States or across the world.
Online we work in a very delicate medium. There are scores of factors that could disconnect us from a remote site at any time--from Internet traffic congestion to a truck hitting a local power pole. Unfortunately, some players will take advantage of this fragility as an excuse to get themselves out of bad game situations.
As a game designer, you need to be aware of this problem and come up with some way to solve it. Hopefully my listing above, including the work done by the folks at Days of Wonder and others, will provide some insight into the possibilities.