Wednesday, August 21, 2013

A Game Design Perspective on Baseball's New Instant Replay Proposal

Here are some basic rules of game design:

  • Simple and elegant is always better than complicated and filled with special cases.
  • Be aware of unintended consequences
  • Playtest and prototype the hell out of things before you release them to your audience
  • Don't train your players to do one thing, and then unexpectedly turn around and penalize them for doing what you've taught them to

Like I said, pretty basic, but in my opinion, spot on. I know this because I've worked in game design in one capacity or another for roughly 18 years. I have broken each of these rules at one point or another, and I have paid for breaking these rules: in sweat, in late nights, in downgraded review scores or in really nasty emails from fans who have not yet figured out that "go die in a fire" is not acceptable public discourse.

But I learned them. Memorized them. Took them to heart, and applied them. They're common sense, really. Make sure the product is good before it goes out the door. Make sure there won't be surprises (OK, there are always surprises, but find the obvious ones and see if you can live with them). Don't punish the audience, on whose goodwill you depend. I mean, you just don't get any more obvious than that.

Except, of course, if you're Major League Baseball, and you're putting together a replay challenge system.

The worst game designs are always compromises. Not compromises in the sense that a bunch of people came together, shared ideas, and built something together; compromises in the sense that they're full of half-made decisions and half-polished features because nobody was willing to pull the trigger and go one way or the other. A gameplay system that's got half-finished pieces of about six good ideas is infinitely worse and more frustrating than a simple system that, while simple, is 100% functional. You try to make everyone happy by sticking on little bits and bobs that don't work together, you fail. You forge a singular vision that everyone can buy into, you succeed (or at least you succeed a lot more often). And above all, you do it on your terms, for what is good for your project.

Instead, baseball delivered a half-baked compromise which kind of extended instant replay, and which kind of imitates what football does, and which kind of opens the door to all kinds of unintended consequences, which will require more new rules to fix, and, well, yeah. Just looking at it for five minutes with my game designer hat on, I can see all kinds of places this thing can get broken, or exploited, or just plain abused. And this is what they want to roll out on the paying customers next year, and then "revise" after the 2014 season.

Kids, in gamedev we call that "playtesting", and we do it before release.

It's funny, really. Baseball is, at its core, a game. Sure, there's a multi-billion dollar business built on top of that game, but without the game, they're not selling jerseys or bobbleheads or hot dogs or $10 beers, or getting the city of Miami to hand over a few hundred million dollars. And yet the Lords of Baseball walk blindly forward without being willing to understand their game as a game, to realize that it is still a thing of rules and conflict resolution, and that changing rules willy-nilly is going to have consequences1.

"This was something we did very carefully," said Commissioner Bud Selig.

No, Bud. It wasn't. And you still don't understand why.

1All of the major sports suffer from this failure to realize their games are games. Football's overtime rules are ridiculous. Hockey's standings rules are positively inane. Golf's so complicated you have guys calling in from home to report infractions. And NASCAR's system for allotting points makes cricket look simplistic. 

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