Mechanics Should Match Goals

Too often, modern strategy game designers create conflicting incentives by making games with mechanics and goals that don’t lead to one another.

Humans usually play games in to enjoy themselves, so it’s of paramount importance to game design that games deliver enjoyment. This can take many forms, and indeed, a single game can produce multiple types of enjoyment. However, many modern games seem scattered in their approach, and while trying to appeal to many different audiences, produce worse results in every category.

For example, I play a lot of Heroes of the Storm on a day-to-day basis, and I play it to win, which in that game means destroying the opposing core before my own core is destroyed. I don’t care if I win with fifty kills and no deaths, or no kills and fifty deaths; as long as I win, I feel like I’ve achieved my mission. I play to win because I think having a clearly framed goal provides a clear measurement for self-improvement, and self-improvement is the thing that I enjoy. I hope (and think) that the designers in charge of HotS are making design decisions based on what they think will produce the most interesting difficulty in an environment where all the players are attempting to reach the goal state.

I suspect that many of my teammates and opponents are playing the game with a different goal that informs their decisions in the game. Specifically, I think they aim to make a lot of kills on opposing players, ideally amassing an overwhelming advantage and proving their dominance over said other players. Let me be clear; I think this is a fine (if unsustainable) thing to get enjoyment out of, but it’s problematic to me when players trying to enjoy self-improvement are playing the same game as players who are trying to enjoy dominating their opponents. When a dominator on my team does exceedingly well at dominating, but we end up losing the game, the dominator often resents the other players for being so obviously worse at dominating, and thus, worse at the game. Conversely, I am often annoyed at dominators who insist on amassing a yet more overwhelming advantage as opposed to immediately ending the game by destroying the exposed core.

HotS’s game designers seem to actively encourage both kinds of players. They release heroes seemingly designed to cater to the dominators, and mention the potential to out-play opponents when talking about the game. Simultaneously, they disconnect the actual goal of each match from the dominance paradigm, making it about destroying a building on the opponent’s side of the map. By attempting to cater to both crowds, the designers create a system that undermines itself.

A similar situation occurs when a specific group of my friends, who play the card game Dominion, meet up for a game. In Dominion, each player starts with a deck of cards that they can modify by adding and removing cards within the game. The game ends when a certain amount of cards have been acquired by the players, and victory is awarded to the deck with the most victory points, which are obtained by having certain cards in your deck. Certain combinations of cards, which typically only exist in the late in the game, produce spectacular and dramatic effects. A player who has a deck with such cards has two conflicting options: play the deck aggressively and end the game quickly while maintaining their advantage (maximizing the odds of winning), or continue to make the deck yet more spectacular to play.

If they continue to develop the deck, they make the experience worse for me (once again, I’m in it for the self improvement), since I have to spend time waiting for them to end the game after dragging it on, gaining less experience than I would if we used the time to start a new game (the other people who want to build up to exciting decks still get to build those decks, and so they are fine with it). If they buy up the victory points and end the game, they are enjoying the game less than they would if they continued to play their high-powered deck and improve it even more.

There are two solutions to this problem as I see it. One is to make it clear what type of enjoyment your game is supposed to deliver, and maximizing that as best you can while neglecting other values to drive away players who might interfere with that value. In the case of Heroes of the Storm this is probably the correct approach, since there are already a huge number of games that cater to both the dominator and self-improver camps, as well as the other camps of players who play the game. The second, and more drastic solution is to change the game’s goal to encourage players in all camps to behave in roughly the same way. In Dominion, this could be done by changing the win condition to be based on how spectacular each deck was at the end of the game (quantified somehow), and removing the consideration of when to end the game.

P.S.: another place where this shows up is in Eurogames and their ilk—specifically, such games often have victory points, with the winner as the player who gets the most victory points. Then, there are small but significant things each player can do to deprive the others of victory points. It’s tempting to play these games trying to maximize your own score, but in reality, if there’s a line to take that hurts your opponents slightly, it will sometimes be correct. Since trying to increase your score to the highest possible and trying to be the player with the highest score are such similar goals, differentiating between the two is often difficult. Try not to design your game like that.

Thanks for reading! Come to the Dinofarm Discord or Dinofarm Forums to chat with me and other people who care about game design.

Written on March 17, 2017