Saturday 29 September 2012


As we learn a game, we construct a mental model of how it works. Sometimes our model turns out to be inaccurate, and we have to modify it to take into account new information. A game should not refrain from presenting evidence that will disprove false models of it.

In a multiplayer game, some of the responsibility for disproving our models belongs to our opponents. If I believe that Rock is a superior choice and always pick it, you can select Paper to confront me with the falsity of this belief. But our opponents will have inaccuracies in their own models as well; Frank Lantz describes the process of finding and exploiting inaccuracies in your opponent's understanding of a game while they're simultaneously trying to exploit your own as maneuvering in donkeyspace.

Situations can arise, especially with board games where there are typically small local groups of players, where all players share some of the same false beliefs and thus are never confronted with their falsity - "groupthink". We all believe that X is the most efficient, so we all always pick X, so we never learn we're wrong - unless perhaps someone from a different group joins us and shows us how X can be beaten.

Now, this isn't necessarily a problem. If a group of players settles into something that's interesting to them, it doesn't matter if they're playing poorly on an absolute scale. But if groups falsely conclude that a game is unbalanced or uninteresting and give up on it before they really understand it, if groupthink is reducing what they get out of the game, then that's something for the designer to be concerned about.

A groupthink problem has come up in a game I'm working on. It's a two-player local ipad game, like Glitch Tank, so there are the same risks as with board games for groups of isolated players. Some people are getting it fine, others aren't - they settle on a style of play that mostly involves trying to prevent their opponent doing anything, while only accumulating points very slowly themselves. This is an unstable equilibrium; if one player focused more on scoring they could get ahead, but as long as both players are doing the same groupthink prevails. It's also a less fun way to play it. One tester has reported that the rounds last a bit too long - and he's right, I agree with him, with the way he's playing it does take too long. The game ends when one player reaches a target score, so if you're accumulating points more slowly than usual the game takes longer. But tuning the target score to make those games an appropriate length would make it far too short for my preferred style of play.

Not sure what I'll do. It might be solved by the measures I'm taking to try to communicate the scoring mechanics more clearly, or it might not; once someone believes they know something it's quite hard to change their mind. I've considered different ending conditions (time limit, number of balls collected), but nothing else really seems satisfactory. Possibly I'll just relax and ignore it, and try not to mind if some people decide they don't like the game based on false assumptions about it - I should be getting used to that by now.


  1. unfortunately i don't think there's a whole lot that can be done if people who're playing are making assumptions about how to play the game and not paying attention to the actual outcome. you could try to put some sort of visual cues in, but i think that reduces the integrity of the experience because it amounts to telling the player how to play the game (which is a thing i know you're not interested in)

    i think people get conditioned to approach games in certain ways, and that means they make some fundamental assumptions. it is a problem - but i also don't really think it's the obligation of the game designer to shape their experience based on those assumptions, if it has nothing to do with the game you're trying to make. maybe over time people's ability to read and understand how games work will improve, and this will be less of a problem.

  2. what about adding another element, having the game change itself when needed....though it'd be messing with the purity of maybe not. but... eg a timer that only counts down when people are not scoring, which gradually lowers the target score (so if people just sat in deadlock for awhile the target might end up at 1 point, then a quick clever move could win the game in one swipe).. or.. the circles start shrinking when you hold them for too long (or they expand and then pop, the blast flinging all other circles away).. that sort of thing. (yeah, not so nicely minimal though..and not sure it would actually help..)

  3. Is the answer as simple as some videos of "good" players included with the game? Back in college my friends and I played a lot of rhythm games, and superplay videos were critical to picking up a "pro stance" for our motions even if we weren't able to do the motions as consistently or quickly as the expert players. It stopped us from getting caught in various beginner skill ruts. Today I know a lot of people learn e.g. Starcraft by watching pro matches with commentary.

    For a standard board game I imagine a video like this would be pretty tedious to make and to watch, but for (I assume) O it seems like it would be possible to integrate some videos into a tutorial, or do a "game of the month" showcasing good play.

  4. I'm really interested in this problem. It's basically a second-order game design problem - really good competitive games aren't just the result of a deep system, they are the result of a deep system and a community of players that explore that system. Humans have played Go for thousands of years because it's beautiful, but also, Go is beautiful because humans have played it for thousands of years.

    There may be changes to the internal design of the game that would discourage players from getting stuck on this particular plateau. Or there may be ways to create a context for the game that raises the stakes, so that a simple desire to win pushes players out of this groupthink rut.

    You've already demonstrated, with Vesper, an interest in exploring the ritual context within which a game is played, perhaps something like that here?

    Anyway, this is a fascinating design problem that is often overlooked because as game designers we tend to focus on the internal characteristics of the games we make.

    1. Yes! Reminds me of this paper: - mathematics progresses by a process that happens within a community of people; proving theorems without bringing them to life within that community does nothing.

      I have definitely been very focused on internal properties of the games I make, creating a context around them where they get played is not something I'm great at. But yes I do seem to have succeeded in that to some extent with Vesper, so maybe there's something I can learn from there. More difficult with multiplayer games, but..