Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Facebook games, CCGs, board games and Mr Football

Today I announced the first public demo code for my new project tentatively titled Mr Football, which is an Australian football management simulation game which is intended to launch across Web, Facebook, iPhone/iPad and other mobile platforms throughout the year. It's just me building it on my own, folks, so it's not going to be speedy. The reason I'm blogging about it here on my largely neglected Tinfinger blog is that (a) I like to post feature-length dissertations for historical purposes on this blog, and (b) in researching Mr Football's ruleset and technical structure, I had a lot of thoughts which I would like to get down in pixels while it's all swirling in my head.

First, a bit of an explanation as to the influences behind making this game. FanFooty, while it is an excellent site of which I am very proud, does not consume all of my time, especially in the offseason. I am thus left at my leisure in the sunny months, whereby my idle mind turns to thoughts of new projects. I got hooked on some Facebook games this summer, two of which are significant influences on Mr Football: Atomic Moguls' whitelabel game for CBSSports.com called Franchise Football, and EA Sports' Madden NFL Superstars. Both of these games launched in 2010, with at current count Madden holding steady making good use of its official NFL licence at 1.8 million monthly active users and Franchise Football trending downwards at a mere 68,000 without licence or player images.

Both of these games are, like many of the insanely popular games from Zynga and its clones like Farmville and Cityville which are introduced in this GamaSutra series, based on collectible card games (CCGs). You click, click, click and then click some more until you get enough of the in-game currency to buy a virtual item. Rinse and repeat until you collect them all... ah, but when you have the full set, they bring out more stuff for you to collect. The items are intrinsically worthless, having only the virtue of scarcity (to start with) and social investment. There is no strategy to success apart from faithful repetition, unless you have real life cash to speed the process up.

The analogy with card collecting is made even more stark in Madden NFL Superstars because instead of choosing the players you want on your team, you have to buy randomly seeded virtual card packs and hope that your favourites fall your way eventually, just like collecting real sports cards. Both of these games are highly limited in scope, which is I think why Franchise Football is falling away to nothing and Madden is levelling out in popularity - although that may be seasonal as the NFL draws to its January close.

The main structural problem with these games is that they are linear, not cyclical. There's a progression to collecting the best items, then after that it's a dead end of boredom watching your perfect set of numbers tick over like cells in a spreadsheet. There's no "management" game there at all: no tactics, no choices, just maximising totals. The game makers have to keep creating new items to maintain interest, Zynga-style. That's all very well when you are Zynga working your own intellectual property, and can think up endless new items to throw at players (though I'd argue even that has its limit). In sports games based on the real leagues, however, you can't make up new players.

Given that the CCG market itself went through a revolution more than a decade ago with the advent of Magic: The Gathering, which combined the collection formula with legitimate gameplay mechanics, I am surprised that Facebook game developers have chosen to stick with the old paradigm. It seems to me to be a no-brainer to adapt successful M:TG tropes, which themselves rely on the ancient technique of rock-paper-scissors to add contrast and factionalism to gameplaying. In short, M:TG cards come in five colours which corresponded to five different types of card types which enable varied playstyles, some of which are better or worse at defeating others in a rochambeau manner. If MT:G's current owners Wizards of the Coast had their shit together, they might have dominated Facebook by now, at least among their nerd demographic.

Thinking about all of these things led me to go back to an old favourite game of mine: Blood Bowl, which I have blogged about before on these pages (five years ago, really??). Go read that post for background, but in short, Blood Bowl is a board game based on American gridiron football with some intricate and well balanced league rules for creating and maintaining franchises over time with rules for building and developing many different kinds of teams with a lot of replayability. The game was embraced and extended by the site FUMBBL.com (which is still going strong) into an online gaming community juggernaut with myriad complexities unforeseen by the game's creator. As in the first paragraph of that old post, I felt that this along with the aforementioned elements were training me to brainstorm something better, using bits of the old plus my own creativity.

This has led to the carpet in my apartment getting a bit ratty lately, as when I am thinking hard I tend to pace, and there's not much room to wander at my place. Over the course of the last three weeks or so, I have dreamt up and am now coding my response to all these inputs, in the form of a game which I hope will bypass the flaws of previous efforts. Like Blood Bowl, every random element is resolved via structured dice rolls, although in this case I am taking advantage of the whole thing being computer-based to roll far more dice than a real life board game player would be able to withstand without getting RSI - something I learned from the Civilization video game series, which is effectively the world's most complex board game.

Unlike Franchise Football and Madden, in Mr Football players are developed, have a good run and then age and retire. Also, you can't just buy the best players with money, you have to pick them in randomised drafts when they are young and undeveloped. In fact, Mr Football has no currency for buying items or players whatsoever at this stage. This subverts the collection mechanic at a fundamental level, and means that teams will rise and fall in cycles as good players come and go through your list. Trying to fight the cyclical nature of sport and instead build an lasting dynasty will be the core dynamic of Mr Football.

You may ask: if there's no items to buy in microtransactions, and Facebook apps are notoriously hard to monetise through advertising, where's the beef? I didn't say there would be nothing to buy. If the core gameplay is sound, then I am hoping that players will pay money to expand their ability to play. This will mean having regular pay-to-play tournaments, divisions, leagues and special events. FUMBBL has developed a number of good ideas for this sort of thing, so I'm standing on the shoulders of giants here.

That's not to say that I think I have thought everything out already. Players of other games complain about various game mechanics that encourage cheesiness and gamesmanship by coaches to gain advantage. At FUMBBL it's "cherrypicking", where coaches are able to beat up on lesser opponents to pad their win stats and avoid injuries. In Franchise Football it's "sandbagging", where teams load up on draft picks of good players in lower divisions despite their teams being good enough to advance, thus making things harder for teams that do want to progress. Fans of Madden have started to emulate the Zynga hardcore users by employing third party scripts to abuse the gifting system. They can now spam 40 gifts at a time to other players on Facebook and accept 40 back per day en masse with a single click. It's madness, really!

In this vein of minmaxing, I fully expect the real AFL bugbear of "tanking" to rear its ugly head in Mr Football. Under the current draft rules, coaches will play to lose for dozens of games on end despite having a good squad, just so they can get better draft picks to go on a dynastic run in the future with a crop of great players drafted in successive seasons. I'm not sure how to combat this... though to be frank, neither is the AFL. Unlike Andrew Demetriou, though, I don't have the luxury of putting my head in the sand about such a crucial issue of competitiveness and fairness. f I get it wrong, the game will suck and ultimately fail.

That's all to come in the future, though. At the moment I'm still enjoying myself immensely, in the early stages of architecting what I hope will be a very good product. It's a lot of fun to make, hopefully it will be a lot of fun to play. :)

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Anonymous Phillip Molly Malone said...

On the tanking, if you employ the soon to be added free agency, I wonder if you could add into the code something that means that if players don't get played when they should or are played out of position (if stats of certain types are needed for certain positions) to much, they are more likely to stagnate progress or leave the club. But I am sure it is hard. I haven't checked out the sites/comps you speak of but I did use to play email cricket which sounds similar and was a heap of fun!

I still haven't picked up from the little that I have read, but I am now thinking that players and teams will have no real players or teams (meaning your tests so far are only that tests and not preparing for the real season), is that right?

Did the genius of this come out of the link I sent you late last year? You sounded into it at the time, but never thought it would lead to something as cool as this!

4:59 pm, January 25, 2011  
Blogger Paul Montgomery said...

Coaches will create their own teams and recruit players with realistic abilities. At this stage I'm going to use the technique of randomising first names to avoid intellectual property concerns.

5:16 pm, January 25, 2011  
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