A Look Back at January
Enjoying Play This Tonight so far?
Wrote an Article a Week
Coming into the year my goal was to release a new article a week, and so far I’ve been able to do that!
My favorite so far is probably Food Chain Island, about a small solitaire card game by Scott Almes, but the others have been great as well. It includes Dicey Dungeons, my favorite game from 2018, a look at Sudoku which was also covered from a different perspective by the New Rules essay site. Last week I wrote about the delightful Golf Peaks which managed to spur at least 2 people to pick up a copy of the game: success!
This week I wrote about Modern Art, possibly my favorite auction board game.
Game Design Books!
I also set a goal to read more about game design to expand the types of critique I can do when I talk about games, and also just to sound a bit more intelligent. The one that stuck out to me most that I’d like to highlight in this article was Sprawlball by Nick Goldsberry
A book about basketball might not seem like an obvious choice for a book about game design, and for the most part, this is true. Most books about sports take the rules of the games as givens and work narrative or sociological conclusions from them. As Goldsberry explains in the book though, talking about basketball as a design is possible because rules tweaks and changes have been a part of its history. I’d like to talk about some of my favorite conclusions here, as well as some critiques.
Parts I Loved
From the outset, the book connects data analysis with design and play goals. He uses statistics like what he calls the “NBA Genome”, the shot percentage at any point on the floor across the league, to talk about how it lends itself towards certain types of aesthetic play, the three-ball. This is nice given the tendency for commentators to compare aesthetic or analytical discussions as an either-or proposition.
He uses the connection between analytics and aesthetics to tell the story of some of the biggest stars in the game, dedicating a chapter to each and analyzing what makes them special as well as how they fit into larger trends. I appreciated that he talked about the long arc of basketball history. As a newcomer to the sport, I didn’t know all that much before reading the book and coming away from it I felt I had a deeper appreciation of the current moment and the longer trends that got us here.
Goldsberry squares the analytics versus “gut feel” circle by arguing that analytics isn’t quants innovating the sport of basketball, it’s taking the optimal strategy for what the rules of the game have designed. This shifts the discussion of analytics away from a view that analytics create new strategies and towards the concept that analytics uncovers the optimal strategies that exist because the rules put them there.
Finally, I think he uses some great metaphors. He compares shifting the lines in the game (3 point line, the key) to gerrymanders. It’s a great way to explain that changes to the rules aren’t value-neutral, they change the outcome of the game being played. I also thought comparing the shorter “pocket 3” point line to a subsidy to be apt. In some parts of the court shooting from 23 feet is worth 2 points and in a couple of special places, it’s worth 3 points. That part of the court is subsidized to be more valuable by the rules. He also strays into making comparisons between global warming and analytics trends in basketball. Whenever these half-stressed half-wistful statements for the past get made I wonder how much is the cause of growing up and seeing the world and how much is actual trends. It can be hard to unwind the two.
Parts I Struggled With
The book comes at the sport with a specific opinion that current trends in the game are unhealthy because they bias certain types of skills, namely the 3-point shot. One of the areas he points to is the decline of the traditional center. But in the years that have come out, we’ve seen players like Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo dominate with their ability to be as physical as a center and quite nimble. I have a hard time seeing how a traditional center can compete with this regardless. Furthermore, I’m not convinced by the concept that moving a game back towards two big dudes shove each other around a foot away from the basket would be more fun.
Speed of Rule Change and the Nature of Sport
One of the big differences between sports and video games is how fast the rules change. When League of Legends, one of the most popular e-sports in the world, gets new champions no one bats an eye. But part of the fun of sports for many fans is that they don’t feel designed. Taking an approach that’s more authored will change the relationship to the game. I think we’ve already seen some of this with tweaks to rule calling in the NFL and the Premier League. As more opportunities for the “correct” call to be made, the less comfortable fans are with uncertainty and incorrect calls. I think there’s some risk here to big rules changes in sports as well. If more rules emphasis gets placed on optimal strategy and equivalence, fans will spend even less time discussing the relative merits of players and more time discussing whether the designers in the booth got the shape of the game right. I’m not sure this is a part of modern e-sports that physical sports want to emulate. Even though Goldsberry is correct that teams are optimizing for what the rules give them, there’s value to the fiction that the rules are cultural artifacts as much as they are design choices. It's like the difference, to use the author's parlance, between trillion-dollar subsidies and modern monetary theory. One involves (rather large) nudges to the fiscal environment, and the other is a wholesale reimagining of the relationship between regulators and the sport. Making the move between the two will require a complete reimagination of how we think of basketball.
Analytics as Rule Optimization
That said, this concept that we should use analytics to optimize rules is something worth considering. The difference is that digital games have more knobs they can tweak to drastically shift the experience without changing the visual representation of the game. For example in League of Legends, designers can control the damage output, gold uptake, timers, and any host of elements on items and characters without reshaping the entire way that the character or the game is played. Basketball doesn't have quite so many luxuries. When refs are your enforcement mechanism, the 3-second penalty for loitering in the "subsidized zone" is going to mean more penalty calls. There won't be a subtle shift in 3 point usage. There will be a very apparent adjustment period as players handle the new regulations.
I wonder how much of this really requires drastic adjustments. One of the biggest challenges of being a game designer is the fact that small tweaks can have outsized impacts on game performance. For example, pushing the 3-point line further out could be worse for big players because it means they have to get further out into the court to actually shut down the best shooters. One of the reasons Curry and Dame are so dangerous is that they have the ability to shoot from places where no one else can; it stretches the floor so far that holes open up in the defense. If you extend the line to where superstars regularly shoot, all of a sudden you’re spreading the defense like that on every play. It’s a double whammy challenge for sports and game design. The only way to test design hypotheses is to make a bunch of changes and see what sticks, but if you make too many changes the nature of the game starts to come into question.
One for the Road
That all being said, I mostly agree with what the author is going for here. I think more thought should be put into how we structure rules in sports and what outcomes we're trying to drive with them. There's no reason that the same analytical mechanisms that make teams great cannot help us to update and hone the sports we love.
To that end, I think sports leagues should invest more time in experimentation, either in something like the NBA's G-league, or having more events like the all-star game that switch up the rules. Creating more opportunities to experiment would allow the parent league to pick and choose which rules alterations they thought were most impactful while also slowing the rate of change of the game to a manageable degree.
Rather than pushing for perfection, I think designers, critics, and nudgers should find more ways to incorporate the elemental chaos and exploration that represent the fun of sports.
An Article That Stuck
I’d like to end on a small note about an article I’ve had rattling around my head for a bit. Strategy games, ADHD and the curse of ‘one more turn’ by Timothy Linward jumped out to me as someone who struggles a lot with organization and concentration but stuck around for some of the deeper conclusions it hints at. He notes:
The brain is adaptable. If it discovers that behaving a certain way in response to a stimulus might reward us, it will strengthen the dopamine pathways that compel us to repeat that behaviour. We experience the compulsion more powerfully, or need less stimulation to trigger a response. It’s a great evolutionary adaptation that can increase chances of survival. But this same flexibility can be trained just as easily to keep you playing a videogame long past the point when your conscious brain has disengaged.
I appreciated this line because it hints at a way to talk about games that lend themselves towards addictive clearly but without the pejoratives like saying “they’re all bad” or unrewarding. Definitely expect to see some investigation of this in an upcoming article… or two.