Monday, May 07, 2012

Gridiron Solitaire #4: Determinism and Uncertainty

Today, we're going to talk about this:
The Big Play mechanic is the element in Gridiron Solitaire most responsible for making it more than just a game of solitaire. To explain why, let's first talk about determinism versus uncertainty in games.

Almost all games (both games in real life and computer games) have a high degree of repetition. The repetition is necessary for the game to be comprehensible to the player. Rules shape the game in ways that produce that repetition. The best games, though, have enough variation inside that repetition to be consistently entertaining.

In solitaire-type card games, the variation is produced by the cards themselves, and the staggering success of these kinds of card games is a testament to the amount of variation in a 52-card deck. That variation, in combination with the rule set, makes solitaire quite addictive.

When I was first writing design notes for GS, I felt that the inherent variation in a card deck would mimic the variation in gameplay that occurs in a real football game. What I needed, though, was a way to make the player have a stake in the variation--in other words, create decision situations where he could affect his own fate in a more substantial way.

Also, these decisions had to be fair. Forcing a player into a decision where he is certain to fail is not a decision at all.

That's where the Big Play came from.

Here's how it works. As an example, let's say that it's fourth down and you have 16 yards to go for a first down. You find and play several card pairs, but then you look at the board and realize there are no pairs left, and you still need 4 yards for the first down.

Without another card, you have no chance of getting that first down. So you hit the Big Play button.

Two things can happen, at first--another card can be dealt (good), or an event can be triggered.

If you get another card without triggering an event, that's great. The card might make a match with another card on the board, and the Big Play button is still visible, so you could press it again if you needed another card.

Let's say that you did trigger an event, though. Triggering an event creates the possibility of several different things happening, and these "things" range from very, very good to very, very bad. And you find out what's happening via the scoreboard, which will display a multi-line message describing the event.

If you call a running play for example, you might see a sequence of messages like this:
"Power run up the middle..."
"Hit hard by a blitzing linebacker."

Those are two separate messages, and each one will have a moment on the scoreboard. Here's how a sample message looks:

The text messages add a ton of football-specific details to what's happening during your game. You get to "see" moments of the game as they unfold. And you don't have to press any buttons to move through them--they are independently paced.

We'll come back to the messages, but let's quickly look at the variety of things that can happen when you trigger an event. If you call a pass play, here's the possible range:
--a card is dealt (but the Big Play button is disabled for the rest of the play)
--the pass is completed for a touchdown (very rare)
--the pass is immediately completed (no multiple matches needed)
--the pass is incomplete
--the quarterback is sacked
--the quarterback fumbles
--the quarterback throws an interception.

In other words, if you don't press the Big Play button, everything is very orderly. You play cards, you gain yards, you end the play. Nothing bad (except not gaining enough yards for a first down) can happpen.

It's also impossible to win a game that way. Absolutely impossible. I mean, you can't win a real football game without taking any chances, right? And if you don't take some chances in Gridiron Solitaire, you can't win, either.

So you press the Big Play button, and then lots of real football things can happen. And you'll get to see the description of what's happening, presented at a pace that increases the drama.

The Big Play is carefully balanced to make the challenge fair. On offense, each time you press the Big Play button on the same play, the chances of triggering an event go up. Events are more likely to be either play-ending or negative, they become more likely each time you press the button.

Remember, though, that it resets after each play. So what you did on the previous play has no effect on the next one.

The chances of triggering an event are also affected by your team rankings versus your opponent. Games will play out differently based on your opponent.

Okay, back to the messages. If you're wondering if you'll be seeing the same ones over and over again, the answer is "no." The message system is set up on a wheel principle, and the wheels are compatible with each other. On a pass play for example, there are 34 different messages describing the play that has been called (types of pass routes).

Don't freak out--you don't have 34 pass plays to pick from. You just press the "Run" or "Pass" button. But the messaging system creates a fuller description of what's happening.

If you haven't completed the pass yet when you press the Big Play button, there are 34 additional second-level messages that are all compatible with the first-level message. Combined, that's over 1,100 possible messages.

Oh, and if you have completed the pass, but have gained less than 15 yards, there are 34 more messages there. And 34 more if you've gained more than 15 yards.

That's over 3,300 unique combinations of messages for pass plays alone. So you will see the same message, occasionally, but it shouldn't happen very often. Plus, it's easy to expand the number of messages, so I'm hoping to add to that number over time.

There also 3,300+ combinations for running play messages, and there are messages for defense, Hail Mary's, onside kickoffs, and all kinds of other things. If you include all the messages in the game, there are over 8,000 in total. When you're reading about an event, it will hopefully increase your immersion in the game without feeling repetitive.

Even with the messaging system describing events, though, the game only takes about 15 minutes to play.

I wrote about the headline feature last week, and here's an update: it's going to kill me. It's based on the same wheel principle as the messaging system, but it's also responding to what happened during the game. So I have a Main Headline that says something like "NEVER TOO LATE" or "THE PANIC ROOM" or something else that is hopefully clever, then a sub-headline that conveys additional details ("Lobsters Passing Attack Keys 24-17 victory").

To make this work, though, I need lots and lots of main headlines. Hundreds of them. So all the code for the sub-headlines is written, but I'm still grinding through the main headlines, which have to be created "by hand" instead of being generated.

By next Monday, I'll hopefully have a screenshot of a headline that was generated in the game.

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