“Contested”

I’m typing this while listening to David Sirlin’s new podcast. Around 20:12 he discusses “contested” skills, which I think is a good term and one I may start using. This reaches back to a comments discussion from 2012, where we had a brief exchange about the fundamental nature of PvP. I think “contested” is the distinction we were looking for, and preferences for or against contested actions determine many opinions about gameplay.

For those not listening, “contested” means that actions are brought into direct conflict and you must react to opponents’ actions to be successful. SynCaine’s apt term contrasting competitive PvE from PvP is “PvE with a leaderboard.” Golf and bowling are non-contested sports. Football of either sort is contested. Golf and bowling are competitive, but your game does not vary at all based on who you are competing with. Games with less interactivity are less contested, so many Eurogames try to have relatively few contested elements. A game of Dominion with no attacks is almost perfectly uncontested (although someone else could buy out the cards you want).

Some players, like David Sirlin, really like contested skill competitions. That is the heart of gaming for them. These are PvP enthusiasts. They want skills to be brought into opposition. Some people favor engaging in non-contested activities. The heart of the activity for them is individual excellence, developing a skill and seeing how well they can do, where they would consider reacting to an opponent to be a distraction from the core activity. Later in the podcast, David refers to winning by best exploiting their opponents, not by playing optimally. In a contested game, reacting and exploiting opponents is vitally important. But if “optimize” has a better emotional valence for you than “exploit,” you might be more interested in something like less contested like running or Freecell.

: Zubon

6 thoughts on ““Contested””

  1. I wonder if another way of asking it would be, which do find most satisfying: beating other people, or bettering yourself? Do you destroy, or do you build?

    (not that the two are mutually exclusive)

  2. The only issue I have is that when people who prefer one type of game claim that anything else is poor design or people who like it are bad players.

    1. Spinks, being Spinks, is right. Designs are not bad simpliciter. There are better and worse PvP designs, there are designs that make or less money, but there are not meta-ethical principles on what a game should be. A design is bad if it does not do what it is intended to do, and it is a side debate about whether we should want games to do those things.

      The only exception I make there is that games of pure chance are “not even” games. Slot machines, Candyland, and ProgressQuest have literally no player decisions. You are a viewer, not a player. But slot machines are also wildly popular, so those people are interested in something other than playing a game (or making money, since they have a negative return over any reasonable time).

      1. Certain people enjoy the illusion of a game, without the weight of having to make decisions and living with those decisions. If they win, ‘they won’. If they lose, ‘its not their fault’.

  3. I like contested games just fine — e.g., I have been a reasonably serious Go player for decades, and I’m currently 3 dan in the American Go Association. Since running across MMORPGs, though, I’ve spent some time thinking about how I’d change the design to make MMORPGs more fun for me, and typically my thoughts go in a less-contested direction. Trying to make things contested in a game with a large online playerbase creates some serious difficulties, many of them having to do with scheduling (and with rewarding unfun scheduling-related behavior) and more generally with unfun behavior related to getting a numerical advantage for your faction in a given time or place.

    I gather, though, from what successful MMORPGs have done that I don’t completely understand what is fun or unfun for typical customers. E.g., one of the unfun headache-y things I’d try to avoid incentivizing is people adhering to a tedious routine of some sort, like the always-have-someone-on-guard routine that would tend to be incentivized by the emergent behavior of military simulations. To me, that’s clearly worth going to design trouble to avoid, and making the game less contested is a price worth paying to avoid it. But it’s fairly common in MMORPGs to reintroduce an artificial need for routine even after centering the design around uncontested PvE has removed any emergent natural need. E.g., raid teams in WoW tend to require a lot of cajoling and herding of cats to try to get all the raiders on the same schedule with high reliability. And WoW especially made monumental amounts of money this way, and other games made some too, which suggests the designers understand something I don’t.

    I also don’t understand why commercial success with the Diku MUD formula has been so strongly associated with static absolutely predictable PvE challenges. It seems like it’s technically straightforward to make random variation that forces players to adjust their tactics: even Diablo II had much more variation in the PvE challenge than the MMORPGs tend to have, and many roguelikes have much more variation than Diablo II. Why isn’t there more of a niche at MMO scale for PvE challenges that feel like Diablo II or even a roguelike? Perhaps infiltrating a randomly generated demon camp with patrols wandering around unpredictably instead of the same fixed Scarlet Monastery, or taking an airship which drops you off to gather rare herbs in a randomly generated zone with mobile enemies…

    Both these questions — why tedious routine? why fixed challenge instead of random sample from a complex collection of challenges? — may be related to a question related to the one that Andy asks (“Which do find most satisfying: beating other people, or bettering yourself?”) but different. Roughly “which do you find most satisfying, perfecting your response to a fixed challenge or learning to cope imperfectly but flexibly with a less predictable challenge?”

    1. LotRO skirmishes have a little of that. They mix fixed boss fights with random-from-a-simple-pool trash and mini-boss fights. No complex patrol paths or interactions, but not perfectly fixed. Big fights can have interesting interactions.

      I would guess that variation is limited due to a need for control and a desire to limit exploitability, as well as providing a floor on how bad the randomization can get. You don’t want some players randomly getting rich easily while others quit in frustration after a bad run of randomly impossible skirmishes.

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