I am re-reading Harry Potter for the n-th time. Even it Rowling if trying hard to make me hate it, Harry Potter heptology still have a special place in my hearth. However, there is something I have always hated: Quidditch. It never made sense to me and I always found reading the Quidditch parts very boring. It looks like a game invented by someone who does not know a lot about sports and games.
Reading those parts for the n-th times made me realize that Quidditch may be a good way to showcase common rookie mistakes done by people approaching game-design for the first time (and it also provide meaning for my struggle). So, that’s what we will do today!
Disclaimer: I am doing this in a funny way. It is a funny way to describe some common mistakes in game design. I am NOT doing this to talk how much I do not understand Quidditch or how I am personally offending people who need to defend EVERYTHING about Harry Potter. Honestly, I just do not care enough to have this kind of discussion.
1. Meaningless Gameplay
First of all, I assume that you know how Quidditch works. If not, the Wikipedia page is good enough to have the basic understanding required for this article.
The first mistake is clear to everyone: it is about the WTF moment when you learn that catching the snitcher awards 150 points (and thus, determining the game winner). This is probably the biggest flaw of the game and makes no sense whatsoever from game design and game theory point of view. It is also a common example of game unbalance.
In game design, we want to avoid designing a game with a dominant strategy (DS) or dominant action. In a game with a DS, the player/s can achieve victory by just applying the DS and ignoring all the other gameplay mechanics.
This happened a lot in the early days of video games. Let’s take, for example The Uncanny X-Men (NES, 1989). In this game the player can select a character that punches or a character that shoots. Because punching and shooting do the same amount of damage, as you can imagine, there is no sense in using a punching character and a shooting character is always preferred (if not for personal challenge). Therefore, punching is an example of meaningless gameplay.
This is much more important when we are designing competitive multiplayer games (such as Quidditch). In Quidditch, catching the snitcher is definitely a dominant strategy. Everything else (and everyone else) is playing a completely separated and meaningless game because every action they may do is subsumed by the game of the seekers. It is like a game in which 5 people play a basketball game and another one plays chess but the chess games awards 300 points to the winning team: what’s the point of the basketball game?
I have seen a lot of young game designer do the same mistakes: they put a lot of features and mechanics in their game, but they design it in such a way that you can win by applying one or two optimal — or straight overpowered — actions. In this case, once you have identified the dominant strategy, there are three easy solutions:
- If the dominant strategy is fun by itself, remove the unnecessary mechanics and keep only the dominant strategy.
- Remove the dominant strategy. Sometimes, the base game is fun also without the overpowered mechanics.
- Add a drawback or limitation to the dominant strategy.
In Quidditch the solution is just as simple: have just the snitcher catching aspect OR remove it altogether. And buy a bloody timer.
To be fair, there is a reason for the 150-points-snitch rule: to put the spotlight on the seekers: the seeker is the most valuable player (by design) and therefore the coolest player. Do you think it is a coincidence that the Mary Sure of Harry Potter (Harry Potter himself) is, indeed, a seeker?
2. Encouraging Non-Play
The big flaw of Quidditch introduces another big design flaw: it encourages game stall. What happens if one of the team get an advantage of more than 150 points? The seeker in the losing team should not catch the snitcher.
This is a non-play mechanic: there is a situation in a game in which the optimal strategy is to perform no action. This is a less common flaw in real world games but sometimes it happens. For example in basketball all the different timers are included too fix non-play mechanics: stay in your side of the field is advantageous, thus the 8 seconds timer; stalling the game by keeping indefinitely the ball when your team is in ahead is advantageous, thus the 24 seconds timer to attempt a shoot; and so on.
This rules are in modern basketball and this means that in the early days basket had this problem. Fixing it is important to obey to the first rule of game design:
A game must be fun to the players and to the spectators.
To fix this problem, then, you need to add new rules to punish stalling or to avoid the stall situation altogether. For instance, Quidditch could add a rule to give victory to the first team reaching a 160 points advantage.
Or remove this stupid 150 snitcher rule and fix issues (1) and (2) at the same time.
3. Intentional Unnecessary Harm
In Quidditch there is an intentional harm mechanic: during a match there are two 25 centimeters wide iron balls trying to hit at full speed the unprotected and flying seeker; the Bludgers. They are literally two ~65Kg ball of iron shoot on unharmed people.1
To have a quick frame of reference, according Colonel Albert Borgard, the biggest cannonball used by the British Navy in 1712 was only 19Kg and, nevertheless, they were able to sink a ship and destroy walls.
Now, I know what you are thinking: yes, but… magic! I know. The problem, in fact, is that the bludgers make little sense from game design point of view.
It is true that, in the past, violence was a common part of games. Because Quidditch is a centuries-old game, this make kind of sense. However, sensibility changes, and we do not accept anymore games that intentionally lead to serious injuries.
The keyword, here, is intentional. Serious injuries may still happen but are not a core part of game rules.
In video games, intentional physical harm is rare. Despite this, is still a good rule to follow. Do not design games (even digital games) in which physical and psychological harm is part of the rules. Do not design games that predate on weak people, do not design games in which verbal offenses are encouraged.
Fixing this problem is very easy: remove the harmful mechanic. In Quidditch fixing this problem would extra easy: use soft balls and have the hit player to stop for X amount of minutes. Or, even, better, use actual players as human bludgers so that we can also partially solve problem (2).
You have to think to the players as civilized people that can follow the rules. A hit player can step out of the broom even if we do not physically smash it with 60Kg of iron. We stupid muggles do not play dodgeball using iron spikes poisonous balls, don’t we?
In a game in which the winner is decided by catching a fast ball (while other people are just uselessly increasing the universe’s entropy) there is one important factor: the broom.
In the books, the impact of the broom is ambiguous. On one hand, the skill of the player is emphasized (in order to increase the “awesomeness” of the seeker role), on the other hand people literally freak out depending on which broom Harry Potter can use. If it is the new supercoolfast 4000, then everyone is excited, and they feel like they already won; if he has to use a dumbglyingstick than everyone gets wrapped in despair.
Therefore, I am not sure how much equipment affects the magical Quidditch. But it is a good opportunity to talk about excessive equipment impact in games.
That a good equipment can impact game outcome and personal performance is expected. That good equipment can cost a lot of money, it is expected too. Athletes spend a lot of money in finding the perfect shoes, sport equipment industries spend a lot of money to research new materials/hat/bats/balls that can increase the player’s performance by 0.1%. That is not a problem. That is why modern athletes looks like futuristic cyborgs compared to athletes in the 1910s.
The problem arises when the marginal impact of the equipment starts to be significant and it has an impact comparable to the players’ skill. When it happens, the players can sink money into the game to obtain an advantage that goes beyond their skill level.
In video games, we call that pay-to-win. This is not about the computer equipment such as mouses, keyboards and such; even if marketing want us to believe that a new led-full mouse will transform us into an FPS master. The main problem in video games is that sometimes games are designed as pay-to-win from the beginning. The goal of those games is to exploit the players’ desire for supremacy and squeeze out money from them. Unfortunately, this creates an unfair game environment for players that are willing to spend only a reasonable amount of money.
How to solve this problem? In video games usually you just stop designing pay-to-win games, that’s it. In real games, instead, sometimes the pay-to-win mechanism pops up spontaneously with time. In that case you regulate the equipment. For example, when in 2012 a new kind of full body swimsuit was giving an edge to the nations that were able to afford them; they simply banned them.
Sometimes, equipment advantage is part of the game because the competition is mostly about the equipment themselves. It is the case of car racing, moto racing, and — of course — Quidditch. Brooms are part of the game, you cannot remove them. The solution here is to try to introduce categories/classes. For instance, that’s why moto racing is divided in categories depending on various factors such as power-to-weight ration, max speed, and so on.
In Quidditch, it is my opinion that all the brooms run alike despite the obnoxious marketing campaign of the broomstick-makers lobby.
5. Game Stagnation
My final flaw of Quidditch is a summary of all the previous ones: Quidditch failed to adapt. Despite the fact that Quidditch is a centuries-old game, it seems that the game failed to evolve in a meaningful way (except all the dumb things listed in “Quidditch Through the Ages”; seriously, as I said I love Harry Potter but that book is full of bloody horrible stuff).
When a complex game fails to adapt and evolve we say that the game is stagnating. Games rarely stay the same for long; it happens both for competitive digital games then real games and sports. After all, nobody can design the perfect games in one shoot.
Balancing patches have two goals: fix problems arising from the game (such the one listed in this article) and adapt the game to the meta game. If there is a strategy that is becoming dominant (see (1)), balancing shuffle things around to nerf the strategy or buff all the others. 2
Even real sports follows the same process. While the core of the game remains the same, a lot of rules may change. Original basked did not have three-points shoots, timers, the basket height was different, and so on. Every time the basket metagame evolved to exploit a weakness of the game’s design, the rules evolved as well to keep the game fresh, fun and entertaining.
Magical Quidditch did not do anything. The fun thing is that also the real world Quidditch (yep, it is a real sport inspired by the magical one) has gone through 10 rules revisions despite the fact that is only 15 years old.
In this 10 revisions Muggle Quidditch (that’s how it is called) solved a lot of the problems I listed here. First, the snitcher is awarded only 30 points (a much less dooming amount); second the snitcher is released only after 18 minutes (to give the players a chance to play before it is caught); third there is a time limit; fourth the bludgers are just deflated balls thrown by actual players; fifth, for obvious reasons, the brooms quality does not impact on the game outcome. And I could go on.
In fifteen year, we solved almost all the issues with the magical Quidditch. Not bad for being muggles, eh?!
Wow. This article came out very long for something I started for fun. If you are a potterhead, I hope you do not get too much offended. We explored five common flaws of game design, and we provided some solution. Quidditch was just a fun study case.
After all, in the books everyone is very excited about Quidditch so, at least in the fictional universe, Quidditch is the perfect game because, despite the flaws, it does the only thing a game should do: entertain and bring people together.