Lately, I've been thinking about player agency, developer intent, player control, freedom, emergence, and the balance of these forces. There are heavy handed ways of informing and limiting players, but I think it's safe to say that the more subtle methods are better received, probably because they're not obvious. Game designers of complex games struggle to find ways to subtly inform players of what they should do and guiding the player away from what they shouldn't do. For this article, I want to look at the design of free-for-all (FFA) competitive multiplayer video games and consider subtle yet effective ways to balance this inherently wild game type.
image from A Beautiful Mind
To start we're concerned with how players will behave in a given video game scenario. Fortunately, we're not the only ones who are concerned and challenged by these kinds of considerations.
Game theory is the study of strategic decision making. More formally, it is "the study of mathematical models of conflict and cooperation between intelligent rational decision-makers." ...Game theory is mainly used in economics, political science, and psychology, as well as logic and biology.
Before we continue, I think it's important to understand that game theory applies to scenarios of conflict and cooperation between intelligent rational decision-makers. This statement implies that the theory doesn't accurately apply when analyzing the decisions and behaviors of people who are ill informed. As far as game design is concerned, players are informed through clean feedback design, and this information is mostly stored in long-term memory. Without clear feedback to inform players about the current game state and the most important changes of that state, the predictability and ability to model and design around players in these scenarios fails. There's nothing deep or interesting about a series of purely random uninformed player decisions. It's no wonder that informed decisions are a necessary part of interesting choices.
Values and Ideals
As a designer or a player, you have to choose for yourself what you value in interactivity and gameplay. If you value players and the unique choices they make based on their own perception, style, understanding, and skills then you need to realize that informed decisions are necessary to bring out these qualities. The less informed the player (due to poor feedback or otherwise) or the more chaos, inconsistency, unpredictability, or randomness in the core interactive system the closer the gameplay facilitates interactivity of little interest. With that said, we can consider different approaches to designing a competitive free-for-all multiplayer experience that supports everything we value in a video game experience.
The ideal FFA design is one that allows players to play however they want within the rules. This means that players can play aggressively, sit back and watch others do the hard work, form teams, and explore many more options. But no matter how anyone decides to play, ideally the winner is always the player who makes the smartest, most informed decisions based on the constantly shifting match conditions. It's important to note that within this ideal FFA whether players team up or not doesn't significantly detract from any other player's ability to win. In a nut shell, the ideal design would somehow maintain a skill based balance no matter what. This design probably sounds too high level and too theoretical to be possible. Regardless, it's important to have this concept in mind so that we can design games to get as close as possible to it.
When designing or analyzing FFA game types, I always consider how difficult it is for one player to win when all other players team up against him/her. Politics and teaming in FFA matches can easily be very frustrating for individual players. We can design around this problem. Even if everyone else teams up against a player, it's not hard to come up with game mechanics and other features to maintain a balance. Friendly fire or team attack can make it a lot more difficult for a team to overpower a single player because the team members have to be more careful and precise with their offense as to not harm each other. There are plenty mechanics in gaming that increase in effectiveness when targets are in close proximity like bombs and other explosions. Another way to counter balance teaming up in FFA games is to score the match with a point system so that even when you lose to a team of many members, your one loss only results in a gain of one point for one of your opponents. And if you defeat an opponent, you gain a point thus making it much harder for your opponents to out score you. There are countless ways to design a with self-balancing features.
The more easily a single player can be overpowered by a team of opponents in a FFA, the more the game system needs self-balancing features. I talked about many of them in my article series The Art of Combat. When you think outside the box of gameplay design (mechanics, levels, rules), we can consider other ways to reduce the unbalancing effect of FFA politics. One way is to limit the ability for players to communicate with each other. If you can't talk, it's much harder to form an alliance. If there are several characters in the match that look similar, or if there's no way to distinguish individual players, then teams are not very likely to form. Another way to reduce the likelihood of teams forming is by concealing all match point data. When players don't know who's in the lead it gives them less incentive to team up.
FFA multiplayer FPS matches often can contain many players (8+), which makes things pretty intense considering how quickly players can die and respawn. In the heat of battle as everyone tries to score kills and stay alive, it can be extremely difficult to hunt specific players or even think about teaming up. But as you can see in this Halo MLG FFA tournament match, players will check the score and leverage all the knowledge they can.
Unfortunately, these kinds of design features work against the kind of quality gameplay experiences we value that mostly come when players make informed decisions. If we want interesting, higher level gameplay, we can't hide important information from the players; we can't reduce the game to a series of uninformed, strategically short-sighted decisions. What's the use of playing a game with all its complexity if the gameplay is essentially a series of random player choices that determine a random winner?
So if more informed players are what we need from our ideal FFA, we acknowledge that playing politics is a legitimate part of their player freedom, and we encourage players to play-to-win by any means possible because the gameplay is self balancing, then we can consider specific FFA design features that help the ideal FFA gameplay experience emerge.
Guiding Players to the Ideal Experience
Though I believe it's possible to design an ideal FFA experience around players who want to win, player who want to grief, and players who even refuse to play by practically setting their controllers down, designing a quality FFA gameplay experience is much easier when we assume that all players play to win. Trying to design around griefers and AFK players borders on designing around participants that are neither rational nor intelligent (within the context of the game itself). These types of players practically exist outside the rules. So the following design suggestions assume all players are trying to win. With this established, we can look at design elements that help players make informed decisions to eventually win.
Current leader of FFA. It's important for a FFA game to at least display the current leader of the round. Some games are designed where losing players don't stand any chance of winning when they fight amongst themselves. A simple solution is to inform players of who the winner is. When the winner of the round takes all (ie, there are no points awarded for any place other than 1st), indicating who's currently winning effectively puts a target on that player's head. This target helps communicate to losing players who to attack or how they should go about securing a win. This in turn may result in new strategies being made or even new alliances forming. The bottom line is, all of these interesting resulting scenarios require players to be informed. It's not unfair to the winner. Winning and holding on to leads is supposed to be difficult. Part of the beauty of informing all players of the current leader is, the leader can better plan against upcoming threats. When you know you have a target over your head, you can't play around it. Informing players allows for more skill to be stressed including team skills.
Super Monkey Ball 2's party game Monkey Fight 2 puts a crown on top of the leading player's Monkey Ball. This crown is a simple way to show who's currently in the lead without forcing players to look down at the bottom of the screen to read the scores. Monkey Fight 2 also has a wrinkle that awards the player who knocks the leader out of the ring extra points. It's the "the bigger they are the harder they fall" kind of self-balancing design feature. From all of my Monkey Ball experience, I know this FFA feature works very well.
FFA gameplay is just more interesting when players can play in a variety of ways, including politics, and still have the most skilled player end up on top. After all, part of what makes FFAs so appealing is that the gameplay experience is free. Each player is responsible for themselves, yet they can be a part of a team if they want or break off their alliances as they please. The potential for double and triple crossings are all part of the fun. Gameplay is just more interesting when more skills can be stressed. Gameplay is just more interesting when balanced.
Take the Japanese Super Smash Brothers Brawl Free-For-All tournament rules. For these tournaments, four players play a FFA match on a random stage. To win overall, a player has to win twice in a row. That's the important wrinkle. Even if you lose badly in one match, you can work to prevent the winner of that match from winning again. That is your top priority if you desire total victory. And since only the 1st place position is counted as a win, even if players team up, only one can ultimately win the round, and afterwards will most likely be the target of the other 3. This rule set is a self-balancing when all players try to win for themselves. In other words, sometimes you have to do what's best for yourself and the group to come out on top. Is this starting to sound more like game theory and John Nash's governing dynamics?
Game design that informs and guides players to a tight, controlled, skill-based experience is not easy. There are many more ideas to explore in the future.