Richard Garfield wrote an article in The Kobold Guide to Game Design advising game designers to play as many different games as they can – not even board games, but video games, traditional games like tag, and even sports, as well as watching things like game shows and analyzing them as well. I’ve always found this advice to be spot-on, and try to branch out my game investigations where I can day to day. Because of this habit, I discovered a very interesting lesson about incentives and design intent from an unlikely source: Figure skating.
Super Spin Fighter 4
Figure skating is both a sport and performance art, combining athleticism that earns it several Olympic events with the aesthetic senses of dance media like ballet. This earns it a dedicated crowd of people who may bounce off other sports or arts, but also makes it impossible to come up with a system of judging that everyone can agree on. It essentially boils down to a debate within the skating community – should skating be judged as a sport, or as an art?
Earlier figure skating judging tried to combine the two, with judges giving a score between 0 and 6 for each category of presentation and technical skill. However, a corruption scandal at the 2002 Winter Olympics led to the adoption of the current standard used in skating competitions around the world, the ISU judging system. The ISU is a more objective scale that assigns a set value to each element (jumps, spins, etc.), then adjusts those points based on the element’s execution. There’s still points awarded for aesthetics, but it’s much more of a subordinate to execution.
The ISU scoring system was almost certainly a net positive when it comes to maintaining a competitive skating environment free of judging bias. However, this created an unintended side effect that affected how competitive people approached figure skating as a whole. Now that the majority of points were earned by execution of difficult elements, skating routines moved from a cohesive whole to more of a vehicle designed to cram in as many difficult elements as possible.
The flagship for this change is the “quad”, or a jump that requires that the skater rotate four times in midair before touching back to the rink. Suddenly, whether your routine did well or not depended in great part on whether you could hit the maximum number of quads in your routine, and less on whether those quads made aesthetic sense. As such, figure skating post-ISU scoring is now a race to the most difficult and elaborate moves, including more and more quads of various kinds. (And thus, figure skating is now a 4x game.)
Was the “quad revolution” worth the greater measure of objectivity earned by ISU? Was it also due in part to a gradually increasing athleticism on the part of people as a whole as coaching and training methods became more refined? These are questions better answered people who are more familiar with skating. What interests me is how the quad revolution was a perfect example of the core of all game design, tabletop and otherwise – incentives.
Quadruple Lutzing Through Hoops
Playing a game is the same as giving the designer permission to determine your behavior. What we do, think, and feel while playing a game are drawn from this social contract made with the game. However, designers have to use certain techniques to draw out these behaviors in the ways they want, and the best way to do that is to use incentives – a series of carrots and sticks that force players to make interesting, exciting, and challenging decisions.
There are many ways to incentivize player behavior. If a player wants to “win” a game, then any action that draws them closer to a win state than their opponents is incentivized, whether that’s lying in Werewolf, having kids in Agricola, or picking a funny card in Apples to Apples. Incentives are almost universal, even the unwritten ones – pretty much everyone who’s played a game of Codenames has given mocking suggestions to the opposing team when they’re in the weeds, because they’re incentivized to do so by the downtime and high tension on the other side.
What’s always interested me is that, barring extreme acts of willpower from jokers who do things like build the longest road in Catan and no towns or cities, players will chase an incentive to win subconsciously, no matter how boring or miserable it is to do so. Thus, our responsibility as designers is to make sure that we’re incentivizing the things that let the players have the most fun.
The reason games go through so much playtesting is that incentivizing the right decisions for our games is nuanced and complicated. I played a Bang!-style hidden role game at a playtesting night a few years ago that was mostly performed in dead silence as we tried to figure out which roles the other players were. The designer, clearly a bit distressed, informed us that we should be talking in order to deceive the other players or suss out who was an opponent. The problem was that, based on the current rules of the game, the best thing for us to do to win the game was to quietly work towards our win conditions and not give away any information at all – if we were supposed to talk and argue, there should have been a good reason to. It wasn’t something that could have been found out by creating the rough draft and thinking about it, as human behavior in these scenarios is consistent but unpredictable.
Figure skating judging, both before and after, are examples of contests with flawed win incentives. The old 6.0 system incentivized judges to give higher scores to their home country and lower scores to opponents, as they had the freedom to do so within the rules and doing so was the best way for their country to win. (The only reason this didn’t turn into a leveling war and a race to nul points for every country was because there was a subjective limit to how much of this the audience, IOC, etc. would accept.) Under the ISU system, judges no longer had much room to do this, but skaters now had a clear incentive to adhere to an objective set of rules and maximize points as much as possible.
Planning Your Program
At this point, we’ve broadly covered the why and how of incentives, though of course there’s so many fine details that you could fill multiple books with them. What we haven’t yet covered is the what – what do you actually want your game to incentivize? In here, too, figure skating proves deeply illuminating.
As I mentioned previously, figure skating straddles the fence between “art” and “sport”. When coming up with a system of judging, or in other words the incentives you give to skaters and coaches, how do you want to treat the practice of skating? Because skating is in the Olympics and many of the other major competitions follow in its footsteps, the broader organizers of the skating world firmly pointed the needle towards “sport”. However, while that may have been the best decision for their circumstances, it had its consequences and was not perhaps the ideal choice for skating enthusiasts or the medium as a whole.
When creating a game, you want to think about what actions, reactions, and emotions you want the game to generate and then build a system of incentives and punishments that push players towards those goals. Sometimes it’s very easy and almost subconscious to choose your design intent, particularly when working in an established media – the intellectual coziness of trick-taking games, the adrenaline rush of social deduction games, and the joy and despair of co-op games. Other times, you’re trying to mirror the emotional experiences of an external source, whether that’s the harrowing nature of the Underground Railroad or a schlocky B-horror film.
Sometimes your game, like skating, will have multiple emotional reactions it’s trying to draw from players and you need to design incentives that strike a balance. MMORPGs like World of Warcraft are essentially two things at once – a video game designed to challenge players and encourage them to continue playing in order to maintain their position on the “content treadmill”, and a virtual community that offers numerous opportunities for socialization and customization. For games like this, what looks like contradictory incentives – extremely high-end raids that require countless hours to succeed at alongside “minigames” like gardening and fishing – are trying to accomplish both goals at the same time.
When iterating your game, whether it’s broad mechanical changes or tweaking numbers, first ask yourself, “Why did I design this game? What did I want players to get out of it?” Then iterate your game so that it grows closer to that intent and not something else. It’s easy to be led astray by preëxisting games or criticism of games that aren’t like yours and to do things like make a game with wacky asymmetrical factions homogenous and boring in the name of “greater balance”, or make a party game too complex in an attempt to stand out from genre competitors; having a conscious sense of what you want your game to be, and what it could be but you don’t want it to, will keep your design journey more focused.
Kiss and Cry
Many people design games at the brain-stem level without really thinking about why they’re doing what they’re doing. God knows I do. However, tabletop game design is a profession that forever rewards you for doing the hard work of overthinking every tiny detail, and no detail is more consequential to forget than “Why was I making this in the first place?”
These questions are so obvious that they are often easy to forget. I’m grateful that the quad revolution, and skating and general, helped me wake up and consciously think about it.