Greg's Design Blog

A collection of posts by game designer Gregory Carslaw, including mirrors of all of his blogs maintained for particular projects. A complete index of posts can be found here:
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Asymmetric Difficulty

United Kingdom
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Wow, it's been a really long time since I posted here. For the best part of a year I updated this blog nearly daily, then I launched my Kickstarter and went over to updating there (44 times!) and never got back into the habit of posting here. I miss talking about game design in general terms so I'm going to try to get back to it - but ultimately I'm spending so much time working on games at the moment I'm finding myself with very little time to write about them. So the new plan is to update once a week on Wednesday, more if my schedule allows it, but never less. It would be a shame to let this blog suffer a permanent death.

So let's talk about some abstract game design, I feel like I've been talking about just one game forever! I read this post earlier today on the new 'breaking the game' blog and found it pretty interesting. It's about the standard assumptions about what a game is and what design space might exist in subverting one or more of them. If that sounds interesting give it a read since I'm going to talk about just one of the subversions mentioned

A common assumption is that games should be fair, that is to say that two players of equal skill should have a roughly even chance of winning the game. This is far from the only criteria (technically Colbert's super coin toss qualifies) but a lot of gamers consider it important and scream bloody murder when it is violated.

This is an interesting because in some situations players will accept a degree of unfairness. This most obvious example comes in the form of direct handicaps, I don't think twice about one player starting with more stones in Go, it feels like a fundamental part of the game that allows any two people to play. I would find it decidedly odd if a player asked to start a game of Dominion with a couple of silvers in their deck because they're not very good. There's really no good reason for me to make a distinction there, the same thing is occurring in both cases, the weaker player is getting a boost to make the game closer and therefore more interesting to everyone. I can think of no objective reason that I shouldn't be comfortable with the extra silvers.

The core of this issue is social rather than anything to do with the games involved. If a game is to overcome this assumption it needs to be a through a feat of social engineering, rather than simply coming up with the right set of rules to make it work. I think it's worth doing, a close game is more exciting than a one-sided one and it must be *much* more frequent for friends to have disparate levels of skill than to be perfectly matched. I can imagine the advantages in owning a series of one-sided games for playing with people who are much better or much worse at games than me. So what are the obstacles?

I think that people like an uphill struggle. Looking into the preferred win rates for cooperative games and people seem to like games that they win about 30% of the time. While it might technically be fair, 50% appears to register as "too easy" to most players. I certainly know players who like an uphill battle: I've won 24 of the 26 games of A Game of Thrones that I've played, one player has been in about half of those and wants to play over and over until he wins one against me. The odds don't faze him and I strongly suspect that when he gets his win it'll be sweeter than all of mine put together, every game is exciting because "this might be the one". That's good news from the point of view of getting players to accept the underdog role in our unfair game, but doesn't bode well for getting players to agree to have the upper hand.

I think this tallies with my observations of players offering or asking for handicaps, I obseve that a good player will offer a handicap more often than a weak player will ask for one and that the good player is more likely to allow a handicap than the weak player is to accept one. Ultimately I think where there is unfairness in games; people prefer to have the odds stacked against them. From an egotistical point of view it makes sense, if you win with a handicap against you then you get to be a big damn hero, if you lose it's not really your fault. Conversely if you win with the handicap in your favour it's hard to muster so much pride and if you lose with it then you feel like you must really suck. I think that this is the core problem than an unfair game will need to address in order to be a rewarding experience for all players.

I'll have a think about how a game might achieve that and write about it next time. Hopefully I'll see you then, sorry I've been away for so long
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