David Sirlin just published an article on his design blog regarding the newly released competitive mode for Overwatch. In it, he highlights some of the problems with the format, problems that result in a lot of draws. Sirlin approaches them from the perspective of tournament play, which is his forte. He asserts that the fundamental issue with the game types in question is that the number of rounds they require is even when it really should be odd. It’s a simple solution, but when you analyze the dynamics of that game type, it really isn’t so simple. And there’s a bigger problem than that because of one of Sirlin’s underlying assumptions: that the competitive mode needs to have a tournament format. But Overwatch competitive mode isn’t a tournament – it’s a ladder. And there’s a huge difference.
The Challenge of Asymmetry
To start with, here’s what you need to know: Overwatch has two game types in particular that are causing us issues. The first is “Assault,” a game where the two teams are split into an attacking team and a defending team. The attacking team must take and occupy a sequence of control points, in order, before time runs out. Every point they take flips to their control permanently. That means that defense can only prevent the attackers from taking a point – they can’t capture it back. As such, their goal is to hold the attackers off of the current contested point for as long as they can, hopefully until time runs out.
The second game type is “Payload,” a similar game where the teams are split the same way. In Payload, the attackers are still trying to capture points, but they do so by moving a cart forward on a track. Any time there’s at least one attacker and zero defenders present near the cart, it moves forward. When the cart reaches a control point, it flips permanently, just like in Assault. Defenders must keep the attackers off the cart, and the cart away from the last control point, until time runs out. In both game types, both teams get a chance to play both attack and defense, and their performance is scored by the number of control points they took during their turn on offense. The problem: there are only so many control points on the map, and if both teams’ attack runs end up pushing all the way and capturing the final control point, they’ll both get maximum score for the map. Hence the problem with draws.
The whole issue can be framed as a problem with a truly asymmetric game – the goals of Team A and Team B are different goals. It’s really hard to know if offense and defense are balanced against each other, and if one side has it easier, then it’s kind of a coin flip who gets to win (i.e. whoever gets the easier side). This is especially true if matchmaking is any good, because ideally you’re striving for a 50% win chance for both teams. But if one team gets the advantaged side, that undermines all your matchmaking efforts. This dynamic is the entire reason why we switch sides at all: to give both teams a shot at both sides. That way it doesn’t matter if offense is balanced against defense – you get to do both.
It’s important to have a clear understanding of the problem so that you solve the right thing. Right now, Blizzard is solving draws by having a sudden death round where one team has a shorter amount of time to push only the first point on the map. Sirlin seems to believe that the reason people don’t like the tie-breaker round is that it’s not a proper round three, but an abbreviated pseudo-round. Actually, the real problem with the tie-breaker round is that by deciding the attacker with a coin flip, we’re right back where we started. We just got done giving both teams a chance at both sides in the interest of fairness, and now we’re going to undermine that in the worst possible way. Not only does one team get the advantaged side (whichever that happens to be), but if the advantaged side is attack, they’re maximizing the advantage by having them only capture the first point. If this is what we were going to do all along, then we shouldn’t have even played the first two rounds – they have no bearing on the sudden death round and were a huge waste of time.
But wasting time is exactly what Sirlin wants to do. He has an obsession with tourney-style rules and as such is a big believer in having the third round – in other words adding time to the match. In the TLDR, he even suggests tacking on some other game in the event of a tie, something like King of the Hill. Well gee, Sirlin, why did we even play this whole game of Assault if the game that actually mattered at the end was KotH? Why don’t we settle it with an ARAM match of League of Legends? Maybe a round of Calvinball?
Truth is, there’s a completely acceptable solution that’s staring everybody right in the face, and nobody’s willing to admit it: tie-break by comparing time taken or distance traveled. It’s a better solution than anything suggested so far for two big reasons. First, it doesn’t change the logical definition of the game. The game never stops being assault or payload. It doesn’t turn into something weird like mini-assault or KotH. It’s two teams comparing who can better accomplish the goal of a unified game. It doesn’t get any more honest than that.
Second, and more importantly, it keeps the matches as short as possible. It’s already kind of onerous that we even have to play twice at all. We have to remember that switching sides isn’t just another wave of the designer’s magic wand, because switching sides isn’t free – it’s a compromise that we made. We sacrificed player time in the interest of a fair match. Ideally we wouldn’t want to make the match twice as long, but it’s a trade-off that we made to even play this type of game at all. Trying to fix the resultant ties by tacking on even more rounds or, in Sirlin’s case, entire other games is the opposite of what we should be doing, because every second the match goes on is precious. Striving for the match to take up more seconds takes an already non-ideal situation and makes it even worse.
The Difference Between Tournaments and Ladders
So why does Sirlin want to do add more time? It’s that fixation on tourney-style rules. A tournament has to be relentlessly obsessed with “Who is the best one here?” Time is a factor there, too, because people at the tournament want to go home someday, but no self-respecting tournament would end any match in a draw, so time necessarily takes a back seat. As such Sirlin expects that time always takes a back seat any time you hear the word ‘competitive.’
But competitive mode isn’t a tournament. It’s a ladder.
Competitive ladders and tournaments are two different things. While both a tournament and a ladder are interested in who the best players are, the ladder is only interested in player ranking as a means to an end: player matchmaking. Whereas a tournament eliminates players as they prove they’re not the best, a ladder never eliminates players. The whole point of the ladder is to let players play the game whenever they want and have a reasonably skill-balanced match when they do. Overwatch positions competitive mode as SRS BZNS, but let’s not let that completely take over our brains. Time is the Number One concern in ladder play for two reasons.
First, shorter matches mean faster match results. Faster match results means people get rank adjusted more often and play more games. More frequent rank adjustments means that people get to their appropriate rank faster, which means better games for everyone. And last I heard, Blizzard was having some trouble with that – no less than 50% of the entire player population falls in a very narrow window of ranks. Shorten the matches, get as many of them in as you can, and you let the ladder do its work. You can’t obsess over the winner of every single match – you have to consider the whole season. And here’s a twist: in that vanishingly small probability that a game results in a draw in time or distance, let it be a draw. I’m sure that’s an auto-reject for Sirlin, but let’s remember what the whole point of the ladder is. If two evenly matchmade teams deliver completely equal performance, that sure looks to me like the ladder is doing its job. Moving them farther apart on the ladder for the sake of someone having to win is counterproductive, especially when it takes more time to do it.
The second reason time is our priority in ladder play is because, god dammit, it’s time. I shouldn’t even need to justify this, but having a game take up more time than it has to is the ultimate cost. We only have so much time in our day, in our lives, that flippantly upping the time requirement for a game is a special brand of cruelty. We already have so many games that take stupid amounts of time, and games whose whole purpose is to take up as much of our time as possible, and it drives me bonkers. I’m drawing a line in the sand here and now because someone has to. Even concerns of fairness or balance don’t constitute a license to take as much time as you want. Players giving you their time is just that – a gift. Cut down on the time requirement, and you give players back control of their lives. That’s the least you can do.
What is a Win?
Sirlin won’t like using time taken or distance traveled as a tie breaker. He says it’s “game-warping.” “A win is a win,” he says, implying that it doesn’t matter whether you win by a lot or a little. This is the obsession with tourney rules talking again. There’s a curious dichotomy in his thinking: he’s aware that the reason we’re playing more than one round is because the asymmetric goals are more or less forcing us to, but he also chooses to see each round as completely isolated from the other. In that way, we’re playing more than one round just because that’s how tournaments are typically run. And as such, he doesn’t want to see strategies that are runaway victories be seen as superior to strategies that take a long time to work. In other words, he doesn’t want to privilege some strategies over others, because he wants them to be equal in viability. I guess that’s “game balance?”
The whole line of thinking is a departure from how games and game design actually work. Privileging some strategies over others is the fundamental act of game design. You can’t avoid doing it. Every rule you make, every number you tweak, every card you write up, every little bit of map geometry you place are all in the service of defining what successful strategy looks like. As the designer of the game, you are the decider of right and wrong, of good and bad play. Not, “You should be…” You are. You cannot get around that fact, so you may as well embrace it.
Embracing it means accepting the unavoidable fact that some strategies are just off the table to start with. The fact that you have to push a payload at all means that six snipers is a terrible idea. Attacking with any combination of defensive heroes is a pretty questionable choice – Overwatch says as much when it suggests “Too many defense.” Strategies where you ignore the control points – off the table. Healing chains that focus on survival over eliminating enemies – off the table. All that seems pretty head-bonkingly obvious to any Overwatch player, but only because the game has already winnowed available strategy down to a razor’s edge. Who knows, maybe those off-the-table strategies might “barely win” sometimes. We’re still discriminating against those strategies, because that’s just what games do.
Sirlin obviously doesn’t mean that all strategies should be viable. But then which ones does he mean? He wants some strategies to be “just as viable” as others, but which? What makes them viable? What makes them equal? When does a strategy suddenly become not worthy of viability and gets banished to off-the-table land? Why does the slow strategy deserve any special attention just because it wins sometimes? He talks about “strategies that happen to win by a lot sometimes,” but why does that happen? And why is he talking about strategy like it’s a series of immutable monoliths that teams adopt with unshakeable conviction? Strategy isn’t some stone block stubbornly grinding against another stone block. It’s fluid, it’s adaptable, and that’s especially true of a game where you can switch roles whenever you want. Strategies don’t have “barely wins” as a quality of the strategy. There are only strategies that barely won in this specific circumstance, and it’s the designer who gets to say what it means to “win” in the first place. If that happens to include “Do this faster than the other team did it,” that informs, privileges, and extinguishes strategies no more or less than any other victory condition. If anything, encouraging players to do something “fast” creates a positive play dynamic that discourages teams from dragging out a match. We’re going to make people play twice anyway, so we can make up for it by putting the match into overdrive.
Sirlin has a lot of experience in competitive tournaments, and has some valuable insight to add to them. I don’t mean to denigrate his opinions. I don’t even think Sirlin is wrong to think of competitive tournaments in the way that he does – the fact that draws are possible, even in my solution, is a big problem for tournaments, and he has valid input there. But he needs to remember that the “tournament” isn’t the only competitive format and that different formats have different goals. On the surface, they both look like their goal is to see who the best players are. But tournaments and ladders rank players very differently, and each has a place when you consider their underlying goals. A tournament is ideal for spectators where time is less of an issue. A longer match creates a larger narrative arc and makes for a memorable event. Tournaments are also good at finding Number One, and playing many matches makes sure you’ve got him. For the rest of us, there’s ladder play: a mode that lets us play on our own schedule, lets us play as much as we want, makes sure the games are evenly matched, and gives us good feedback for our change in skill over time. Ladders don’t want long games, because it works against everything competitive ladders try to do. Sirlin has tournaments figured out, no doubt about that. But he should reserve his judgement for things that are actually tournaments. And Overwatch competitive mode just isn’t one.