Complex State and Asymmetry in Games

What makes a game interesting to watch? What defines excitement? I tend to agree with the folks at fivethirtyeight that one thing that makes a game interesting to watch is a huge amount of variance in the predicted outcome throughout the game. This though misses an element that can make games very interesting to watch: a difficult to determine win probability.In most sports, most of the time it is pretty clear who is winning and who is losing and whether their changes improved because of a play or got worse because of them. IMO some of the most interesting situations are when it is unclear who is better off or has a better change of winning.

I follow quite a bit of racing and racing can have situations of this nature. While to most two cars racing many seconds apart may not seem terribly exciting compared to two cars closely following one another, to me and the metric of win probability uncertainty it can oftentimes be more exciting. One thing that I find uninteresting that many find quite interesting are long oval races. These races involve countless cars racing very closely together so it should be quite exciting. However, ultimately the results of the initial 80 percent of the race are usually unimportant because positions are so easily gained and lost that they are nearly meaningless. In racing, when watching two cars executing the same strategy close together, it is fairly easy to tell who is ahead. In Formula 1, it is oftentimes especially not interesting as it is fairly rare to see passing between two equally matched cars on the same strategy. When two cars are running completely separate strategies it can oftentimes be very interesting and stimulating to try and figure out which car is ahead.

This element of refining a model of who is winning is interesting to me. Esports and games of strategy have this element much more than normal sports. This is mostly due to the inherent asymmetry in most esports. In, Starcraft because races differ it can be difficult do directly compare how two players are doing. In DOTA, because one team may be better equipped for the late game it may be unclear if the other team is far enough ahead to finish the game. Or the two teams may be trying to win the game in entirely different ways and it is difficult to figure out how this will interact.Will one team be able to spread out and poke the other team to death or will the other team be able to group up and brute force a win.

The most interesting games are games when either an entirely new strategy is unveiled resulting in a update in how the game can be played or alternatively when the game goes so far outside the realm of normal that it is extremely hard to know who is ahead. In chess the most beautiful games are oftentimes where our normal heuristics for who is ahead are wrong. Games when many pieces are sacrificed to make way for a final checkmate.

I’d like to add a little bit about stories here. I generally am in favor of hard sci-fi but sometimes it is too limiting. What I really want is a clearly defined world where I can speculate about what comes next with certainty that the conundrum won’t be solved by some plot device. My ideal that demonstrates this is something like Twitch Plays Pokemon. The world is clearly defined, we know how everything works and has some interesting behavior and strategy relative to reality.

So this post is kinda tied into board game design. This really just describes the difficulty of getting the “snowballiness” of a game right. Make it to easy to convert an early advantage into a win is frustrating for those who are behind. Making it too easy to come back just makes the early game meaningless. The appropriate way seems to be to make the final outcome inherently complicated to determine so it is always unclear exactly who is winning. This though will violate some other principles describe here (under construction).

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