Kenneth Chen

Kenneth Chen

Digital Media PhD Student

Kenneth is a doctoral student in the Digital Media PhD program. In his series “Kenneth on Games” he writes about his passion for games and game design.

I’ve never really been big on sports, but when the world gets in an uproar about Iceland vs. England, even game designers should be taking note. Why is it that soccer can stay the same for hundreds of years, but every online game nowadays needs to be patched every few months? As it turns out, controlling a physical body rather than a digital avatar actually makes a big difference. And what would be a better way to analyze that difference than to compare Iceland vs. England to Supergiant’s surprise sports game, Pyre?

Win Conditions and Consistency

First, let’s look at the Iceland vs. England match. Three goals were scored within a span of thirteen minutes. Then absolutely nothing happens for the second half until the game times out and Iceland wins 2-1.

Whenever you think about sports, you have to think about inconsistency. Some games are filled with goals. Other times, you can spend hours without seeing any action. There isn’t truly a way to plan out the progression of a game from start to finish because everything can happen in the blink of an eye. How do you tell when a team is winning or losing? The score could change at any moment.

Every now and then, you’ll have a really exciting match where the teams are head to head right as the countdown is ticking. But the rest of the time, you’ll have long, boring stretches of time where referee drama is more interesting than the game itself. Even worse is when you have situations where a team pulls way ahead early on, and there’s just no point in trying. Take Brazil vs. Germany, you’re down 5-0 after the first half, why bother wasting everyone’s time? At least in League of Legends, you can surrender.

But when I say that things aren’t happening, it’s wrong: things actually are happening. If a team isn’t scoring points, they’re still making important progress with positioning and area control. The problem is that this isn’t expressed properly through the win conditions. You don’t win by having positioning or area control, you win by scoring goals.

eSports like League of Legends also have a lot of inconsistency in their matches too, but at least they use a wider variety of metrics to track progress. Kill count, assist count, CS, towers taken, dragons taken, items bought, wards placed. Things are still happening even if it’s not obvious.

With physical sports, teams have to be considered equally matched throughout the entire game. There is never a situation where one team has a higher gold differential. Some players might be more tired, but then that’s when you sub in new ones. That means there can never be a rubber-banding mechanic to help the losing team catch up and make the whole game more exciting.

Pyre’s Elimination Mechanic

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This is where Pyre comes in with a way to keep matches dynamic while also implementing rubber-banding. Whenever a character scores a goal, they are eliminated from play until the next one does, at which point they come back.

One of the first things this does is tie the score into the game state. The expected scenario is to see that one team is ahead, but one of their members has also been eliminated. Score itself does not have any effect on the game state, and it’s essentially just a number floating in the air that both teams are trying to grab. But with eliminations, there is actually something happening to the players.

Elimination also helps get the ball rolling after the first goal, which prevents long drawn-out games where no goals happen. No matter what, one team will have the numbers advantage, and they’ll have an easier time scoring a goal.

Because of this, Pyre can also end the game after a certain amount of points, rather than after a certain amount of time. Imagine if you tried to rewrite soccer so that it ends when the first team scores three goals. It would be absolutely chaotic: some games will end after ten minutes, and others could potentially last for days.

I believe that spectator games (and most games) become more exciting when the win condition is not tied to a timer. In the best case scenario, timers make the last few seconds of a game very intense as each team struggles to score one last point. But this exact same situation will happen in a score-based win condition if each team is tied at match point. The worst case scenario for timers is that one team is clearly winning and the other team can’t possibly come back in the amount of time they have, whereas the worst case scenario for score is that one team wins quickly and the game is over.

Timers are necessary when there aren’t any mechanics that actually drive the game to a close. I don’t believe that a game should be designed with a timer in mind: the game should be designed first, and then if it turns out you need a timer to make this game end, then you throw in the timer. But that also means that if you have the leeway to design the game differently in the first place, then you take that opportunity. This is what Pyre did.

Too Much Consistency

Hopefully, the end result is that Pyre delivers a much more consistent experience than other sports. You can always have an approximate idea of how long a game will take. You can always get a sense of the current flow by looking at not only the scoreboard but also the game state. You can always expect each side to get at least a few goals in per game.

However, could this make it too consistent? The more heavy-handed designers get, the less creative players have to get. If you make an optimal path to victory, people will just use it all the time. In every other eSport, this turns into the “meta”.

Soccer and other physical sports, for all their wild inconsistencies, at least have the virtue of avoiding explicit metas. Yes, there are strategies and styles, but it’s impossible for one to be favored over the other because the game mechanics have absolutely no idea that any strategies or styles are being used. They only know that a goal is scored, and they don’t care how.

A game like chess, on the other hand, exists somewhere in between. Chess has a more defined meta than soccer, but it has a less defined meta than League of Legends. When you look at the design, you can see that chess has a similar amount of mechanical control over the game state: it has more control than soccer, but less control than League of Legends.

Even though a game of League of Legends is more consistent than a game of soccer, does that mean that a game of League of Legends has less dynamic strategy than a game of soccer? Are inconsistent games necessarily on the opposite end of the spectrum from meta-forming games? If you took soccer and added in chess-style elimination, would it result in a more concretely formed meta? Well, we’re about to find out, because that is essentially what Pyre is.

There are plenty more mechanics in Pyre that I can’t fully analyze. I’m particularly interested in how they explicitly give each character a different point value for scoring goals. But, as with all Supergiant games, I’m sure that I will be pleasantly surprised at whatever designs they create. When it comes to Pyre, this may be a stretch, but the only thing I hope to see is networked real-time multiplayer.