Designing Competitive Games

By: Jason Waddell

Before I got involved in the Magic scene, I worked as a writer for Major League Gaming. One of MLG’s primary contributions, beyond organizing the logistics of an annual competitive video game Pro Circuit, was to tweak the rule sets of games to make them more enjoyable when played at a high level. Out of the box, the gameplay of games like Halo 2 and Super Smash Bros. Melee crumbled when played by players with sufficiently high skill. The strategic depth of the default developer settings was low, and the games became increasingly frustrating as your personal skill level increased.

So MLG changed the settings, removing the sources of frustration.

Naturally, this caused a great deal of tension within each game’s community. Casual players viewed MLG’s actions as “stripping away the fun” and going against “developer intent”, and competitive players saw a game that was inherently broken.

Of course, this divide doesn’t have to exist.

The above image is from David Sirlin’s handout ‘Balancing Competitive Multiplayer Games‘, and touches on a lesson that I feel is generally well understood within the halls of Wizards R&D. In Magic’s design, there’s a systematic push to make any given format’s Tier 1 strategies interactive, keeping the hardcore satisfied. Quirkier strategies, like drafting a mill deck, are still available, but kept in check at a notably lower power level.

Regrettably, this understanding does not appear to have been applied to Wizard’s cube design. I frequently read posts by pro players lamenting the quality of Wizards’ cube design and the fact that such a design is used in high-stakes tournament environments like the MOCS and Players Championship. The same sort of community divide plays out once again, with some players calling for the removal of frustrating design elements and another contingency that views the exclusion of cards like Channel and Tinker as “stripping away the fun”.

Perhaps the worst assumption one can make is that the two are mutually exclusive. There’s room in the community for both schools of design to coexist.

That said, I do agree with David Sirlin’s sentiment that Blizzard’s handling of game design captures the best of both worlds. Starcraft 2 can be played by seasoned professionals with a hundred thousand dollars on the line, or by a couple amateurs slinging goofy strategies in Bronze League. There’s no divide because the game works for everyone, with no need for an organization like Major League Gaming to tweak the various strategies.

For a more thorough exploration of the subject, check out this article I wrote for MLG.

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