What the Dallas Cowboys’ new stadium can tell us about solid game designs

by Gil Hova

You might have heard some hubbub about the Dallas Cowboys’ new stadium.  One of its distinguishing features is a giant four-sided HDTV that hangs from the roof.  The thing is a beast; it stretches from one 20-yard line to the other.

The problem is, it’s a little low.  It’s low enough that during a preseason game, a punter hit it with a kick.  The NFL hastily redrafted its rules to specify what happens when the ball hits the screen, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the NFL orders the Cowboys to raise it by next season, which will end with the Super Bowl in the new Cowboys’ stadium.

Jerry Jones is the owner of the Cowboys, and the giant screen is his baby.  He’s a showman at heart, and he loves the attention he’s getting with this brouhaha.  But he also fought to keep the screen at this level.  He knew that punters were capable of hitting the screen, but he reasoned that during the game, punters had no reason kick one high enough to hit it.  He felt that punters wouldn’t be aiming down the center of the field anyway, so it wouldn’t be hit during the normal course of the game.

Nevertheless, during the first preseason game, Tennessee Titans punter A. J. Trapasso hit the screen during the game with one of his punts.  Jones argued that Trapasso’s punt wasn’t competitive, because he was actually trying to hit the screen instead of getting the ball downfield.

There’s a parallel to game design here.  You may find that a player will make an unsportsmanlike move that breaks your game.  Where’s the problem?  Is it with your game, or is it with the player?

In Prolix, I allow players to flip a timer to force the active player to take his turn.  But a challenge nullifies the timer, and for a while, there wasn’t any limit on challenges.  One of my testers pointed out that a player could intentionally say a garbage word to nullify the timer, and keep his turn going indefinitely.  I felt at first that wasn’t in the spirit of the game, but my tester was right.  It was an exploitable hole.

Master game designer Sid Sackson had the same issue in one of his games, Focus.  This is a 2-player abstract strategy game that plays like a 3-D checkers.  Sackson discovered that if the second player mimicked every move that the first player made, he was guaranteed nothing worse than a draw.  Sackson’s first suggestion was “not to play with him.”  But he also proposed alternative setup rules that introduced asymmetry into the players’ starting position, which would negate the mimic strategy.

Make no mistake: we designers can be resentful of people who play our games in a way that we don’t expect.  Here we are, creating this beautiful system for you to enjoy, and now you go along and snap it in two, just to say that you could.

In their textbook Rules of Play, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman break game players into five categories: Standard Players, Dedicated Players, Unsportsmanlike Players, Cheats, and Spoilsports.

When we game designers think of people playing our games, we think of Standard Players (most folks playing a game) and Dedicated Players (folks who intensely study the rules and try to master the game within them).

The other three types present problems.  Unsportsmanlike Players, Cheats, and Spoilsports will all try to break the game somehow.

Let’s start with the Cheats and Spoilsports.  Cheats will intentionally break the rules of the game to try to win.  Spoilsports will play arbitrarily, but they have no interest in winning.

The thing about Cheats and Spoilsports is that they’re difficult to fight.  For a Cheat, the best thing a designer can do is set up his game so that its components prevent cheating.  If you have a game with a lot of hidden information, and the components make it easy to accidentally reveal that information (like flimsy cardboard screens that always fall over), then almost anyone can cheat, sometimes inadvertently.

The problem with preventing cheating is that even the best player screen won’t foil a devoted Cheat.  So designers work to prevent inadvertent or casual cheating, knowing that if a player really wants to cheat, he will find a way.

A Spoilsport is even worse.  This player’s one intent is to ruin the game.  He doesn’t care about the rules.  He’ll make the same nonsense move over and over again, or attack one player for no reason.  A Spoilsport lives outside a game’s rules, so there’s nothing a designer can do within the rules to combat him.  The best a player can do, to paraphrase Sackson, is to not play with him in the first place.

That leaves us with the Unsportsmanlike Players.  These guys aren’t like Cheats, in that they don’t actually break any rules.  Instead, they break the spirit of the rules.  To me, an Unsportsmanlike Player would say a garbage word to invoke challenge rules to nullify the Prolix timer.  Not against the rules, but not within the spirit of the rules.

It’s these players that we have to remember when we design games.  If the Unsportsmanlike Player can exploit a rule, it’s because the designer didn’t make the rule bulletproof.  There’s nothing in the original rules of Focus that says a player can’t mimic his opponent, but Sackson clearly felt that he was violating the game’s spirit by doing so.

And Jerry Jones’ video board?  Originally, the NFL’s rules said that if a ball hit a part of the stadium, the play would have to be re-done.  However, the time that ran off the clock wouldn’t be restored.

Time management is critical in football.  It’s entirely possible that under these rules, a punter for a winning team could continue to doink the ball off the scoreboard, over and over again, until the game was over.  Not fun, not within the spirit of the game, but perfectly legal.  A great example of Salen and Zimmerman’s Unsportsmanlike Player.

The rule the NFL hurriedly changed was this: if the ball hits a part of the stadium, the play is re-done, but time is put back on the clock.  It’s a complete do-over.

Now, there’s no strategic reason to keep hitting the board.  It’s possible that a player might do it, but it would either be an honest mistake, or a Spoilsport action.  Again, since a Spoilsport doesn’t feel bound to the game’s rules in the first place, there’s nothing you can do within the rulebook to prevent his actions.  In the context of football, the only thing the referee can do is to find some way to get the coach to pull him from the field.

The only question is now, will punters honestly keep hitting the video board?  If they do, and it keeps happening, then it becomes an annoyance to the Devoted Players that all NFL players by definition are, and to all the fans that follow them as well.  And that’s really the only question left in this whole saga.

In the meantime, we game designers are going to continue to be surprised at the degenerate ingenuity of our players, and hope that our playtesters have a demented enough imagination to prepare our games for all the Unsportsmanlike Players out there.