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If You Are A Winner, You Don't Need Any Help

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Today I was discussing the Formula 1 qualification system with a friend of mine. I believe that it suffers from positive feedback. In Formula 1, the order in which drivers have to qualify is determined by their result of the last race. The driver who finished last will be the first one to qualify, the driver who finished before him qualifies next, and so on up until the winner of the previous race, who qualifies last.

It's generally agreed upon that the drivers qualifying later have the advantage, since the track conditions improve over the course of the qualification session. So, the way the system works now, the drivers that finished in top positions last race have a better change of qualifying well for this race than the drivers that came in last. This might seem fair, but it doesn't really help make the competition more interesting.

Giving the winner the advantage of qualifying last, increases the change that he will win next race, too. Ofcourse, the race after that, he will have the same advantage. It would be more interesting to make the winner qualify first and the driver that comes in last qualify last. In this way, the number one has to work a bit harder to stay in the lead. Other drivers get the change to catch up, making the competition closer. A driver who wins a race is obviously competitive anyway, so the qualifying order should be less of a deal to him than to the drivers who always come in last.

Maybe you don't think of this as a game design issue, but then consider designing a racing game for the computer. The same discussion might turn up. Actually, all games that involve competition face this design problem. How do you keep the heat on the player in the lead, without actually punishing her for being the better player?

Many games do a poor job of addressing this issue, even some very popular ones. More often than not, you already know who is going to win in a game of Monopoly, long before all other players turn bankrupt. And even though Civilization has some counter measures in place (a larger empire is harder to manage, you need to keep up in different fields), it suffers from the same problem.

Positive feedback is a hard problem to solve. Sometimes it might even seem you shouldn't solve it. After all, if you spend the entire game getting in the lead, you don't want to be punished for it. Still, positive feedback can totally ruin an otherwise enjoyable game experience, especially towards the end of a game. (And especially for the party that already knows it's going to lose. The winner rarely complains. About anything.) There are several ways to address this issue, but none of them works well for all games, so you will have to choose carefully. The most important thing, though, is not to ignore the issue.

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GBGames says:

I was about to write about how I don't understand the feedback loop in F1 racing, but after doing some research I get it now: The winner of the first qualifying round gets to go last the next round. It is generally considered advantageous to go last because track conditions change as other racers use them. The last driver will then have an advantage with better course conditions and will likely win the next round. Once again, this driver has the advantage the next round. Chess is another game with a positive feedback loop. I play a friend who has played in tournaments for years, and I watch as each game seems to start well, gets bad, then rapidly gets worse. I'll beat him one day...

Tuesday, July 12, 2005 10:02 PM

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