No, victory points don’t suck

by Gil Hova

UPDATE: I’ve updated this article since it was first published, to correct two stupid mistakes.

The first stupid mistake is that I misspelled Scott’s name throughout. It’s Westerfeld, not Westerfield. Darn my old eyes!

The second stupid mistake is that I had thought the Ludology vs. Narratology debate fizzled after a few years. But friends told me my understanding is incorrect. So I’ve updated the text to reflect that.

One more clarification: I don’t want this post to sound like I’m gatekeeping. While I make the point that game designers are best qualified to talk about game design in a seminar like this, I feel that a) anyone can be a game designer, so long as they design games (at any stage of completion), and b) there’s nothing wrong with non-designer critics discussing games, so long as they don’t start giving seminars about the “right” way to design games from a designer’s perspective.

To that last point, I’ve told a couple of people that it’s taken me over a decade of design work to learn all the things I know now about game design from a designer’s perspective, and I’m still learning every day. So I don’t think it’s helpful for non-designers to tell us designers how to approach our games from a nuts-and-bolts mechanical perspective. Again, criticism from non-designers about the experience of playing games or of specific mechanisms is really valuable, but when it starts to get into the nitty-gritty of design detail, that’s probably best handled by an expert.

Here’s the article!

Hi, my name is Gil Hova. Thank you for inviting me to talk at this writer’s convention. Now, I’m not a writer. I’m a game designer. But I read a lot of books. I’ve been reading my whole life! And I went to college for creative writing, but I dropped out before getting my degree.

Anyway, I want to tell you about writing. I hate stories that make me feel bad. When I read stories, I want to feel good. So I think all you writers should stop writing stories that make me feel bad. I think that’s terrible writing. 

Please stop making terrible stories that make me feel bad and write better stories that make me feel good.

Thank you for coming to my talk!

Okay, the above talk is pretty silly, for a number of reasons. It’s an obvious straw man, of course, and it doesn’t capture much nuance of what I’m about to discuss. But it’s what’s on my mind right now.

You see, there is a video of a talk by Scott Westerfeld at SHUX ’18 entitled Victory Points Suck. In it, he discusses why he doesn’t enjoy games with victory points. I’ve watched his talk, and I have quite a few thoughts.

Westerfeld’s premise is that victory points (VPs) sap enjoyment of a game by introducing tedious accounting into what should be a riveting climax. A lot of folks have made this talk viral recently, and I’m concerned. While I agree with much of Westerfeld’s talk, I think he takes things too far and misses a lot of detail, especially from a designer’s perspective.

Westerfeld disclaims at the start of his talk that he’s not a game designer, but a writer. His talk is very firmly from a writer’s perspective. Which wouldn’t be a bad thing, except he’s giving game design advice in absolutes.

As a game designer, I’d never think to give writing advice, especially in absolutes! So I figure I should provide a rebuttal to Westerfield’s talk from someone who can speak about VPs from a design point of view.

There’s a lot about Westerfeld’s talk that I agree with. VPs can be boring and abstracted. If you’re someone who prefers games with a strong narrative appeal, you’ll find them tedious and anticlimactic. They can be too incremental, too granular.

And I’ll admit that I have a horse in this race: Almost all the games I have ever designed use VPs. And a lot of games I love also use VPs. I don’t think it’s the only way to make games, and I’m sure there are games in my future that won’t have VP. But I’m fine with VPs in the games I play and design.

And I mean no ill will towards Westerfeld, who seems to be a passionate game fan who has his share of knowledge. He’s an excellent speaker, and although I sadly haven’t read any of his books yet, I would expect him to be an outstanding writer.

My issue is that I think Westerfeld went too far. He titles the talk “Victory Points Suck.” He’s not saying he dislikes games with VP. He says that games with VP are objectively flawed. He says VP are “a kind of madness.” He feels that VP are poor game design.

Now: I know a few designers who specifically avoid VP in games they design. They agree with the premise that VP can pull players away from a game’s visceral appeal.

But I know these designers will not tell you that you should slam VP into a car trunk and drive the car off a pier. They know that the world of board games are vast, and there are many ways to enjoy them. They even enjoy games with VP. To didactically announce that one engine that powers board games is bad – not flawed, or with limitations, but objectively bad – is absolutely absurd.

Yet that’s the point that Westerfeld keeps driving home. And I have a lot of problems with it.

Orthogames, Part I

Most board games are orthogames – they are games with an objective, clearly-defined outcome. Orthogames have winners and losers.

Westerfeld rails against victory conditions towards the end of his talk, talking about the absurdity of the concept of victory. “There are no victories in life,” he says. That’s absolutely correct!

You know what I don’t like? Musicals. I generally don’t enjoy the music in most musicals, and there’s the whole idea of people going about their business, and suddenly bursting into song. I mean, that’s not realistic, right? Just as Westerfield points out that there are no victories in life, people also do not randomly burst into song in public. (Well, most people don’t.)

But of course, a lot of people I’m close to in my life are huge fans of musicals, and so my view on them has softened over the years. Because musical fans enjoy the artifice. They enjoy the music, and they accept the premise that these characters do randomly burst into song. They have accepted the contract of the form of the musical; that characters will sing their feelings, often in a lovely way.

Likeways, when people sit down to play an orthogame, they are accepting the artifice of the game ending in victories and losses. Sometimes the whole table wins or loses as a group; other times, there’s one winner; and in a few games, there’s one loser. That’s what we’re signing up for; it’s what we expect.

Westerfeld discusses his experience in a game of Root, in which he, as the Vagabond, formed an alliance with the Cats. He was dismayed when he found that, in order to win, he had to betray the Cats. Part of his disappointment stemmed from his struggles to contextualize this betrayal into a coherent narrative.

I’m a little surprised by this, as to me, the narrative is pretty familiar: there is room for only one tail on the throne, which makes late-game betrayal inevitable. Surely there’s room in your story for some dramatic political intrigue?

The larger issue is that Westerfeld is a player who derives enormous pleasure from figuring out emergent narrative from a story. There’s nothing wrong with this; it’s a popular way to enjoy a game.

But the problem is, in the context of Westerfeld’s talk, it’s the only way to enjoy a game. And just as it would be absurd of me to stand in front of a bunch of writers and tell them that the kinds of stories I enjoy are the only kinds they should write, it’s absurd for someone to tell me that the way they enjoy games is the only proper way to enjoy a game.

Objective flaw vs. subjective tastes

As I mentioned before, games are vast, and there are many ways to enjoy them. And the gamer who “rigorously calculates player optimization” is indeed enjoying the game! There is a joy in losing yourself to the abstracted pulleys and gears of an efficiency game. It’s not for everyone, but it’s also not for no one.

The experience that Root provided is the experience it was supposed to provide. As a game that allows alliances but only permits one winner, it expects alliances to break. It is modeled after counter-insurgency games. It’s meant to be political.

It’s okay to not like Root. It’s not okay to frame your dislike of the game’s deliberate construction as an objective fault of the game.

To me, this reveals an enormous truth about working in a creative field like games. It is vital to be able to tell the difference between a game that needs improvement and a game that’s not to one’s taste.

That’s a really important sentence, so let me repeat it in boldface.

It is vital to be able to tell the difference between a game that needs improvement and a game that’s not to one’s taste.

This is not an easy skill to acquire. It takes a long time to get the hang of. For me, it took years, and I still don’t think I’m 100% there. But I would never go onstage to tell people to present my preferred play style as the only objective truth.

Ludology vs. Narratology

I really like Quantic Foundry’s player psychographic profile. They divide 12 motiviations into 6 different categories. One of these categories, Immersion, contains Fantasy and Story, which seems to be Westerfeld’s jam (as well as a ton of other gamers!). But also there is the category of Mastery, which contains Challenge and Strategy. Also there is Achievement, which contains Power and Completion.

Challenge and Strategy are things that exist in games that do not exist in other kinds of media. They only exist through interaction. You don’t find Challenge or Strategy in a book. You don’t really find the same kind of Power or Completion in a book either (although finishing a really long, dense book does offer both Power and Completion for the reader, I don’t think it maps well for our example!).

Games are not books. Games are not movies. They work differently. They do different things. I wrote about this when I discussed the ill-fated public Monopoly board in my town. There are going to be some features of books and movies that you can bring over to games, but there a lot of rules that won’t apply either.

This is the old Ludology vs. Narratology argument. Should we look at games with the same tools that we use to study other forms of media and art? Should we invent new ways to look at them?

I don’t think it’s useless to study games with the same tools that we use to study other media. But we should do so with the knowledge that those perspectives are going to be limited at times. Games are a new form of media. At some point, we will need to use different lenses to better understand them.

Interactivity and opacity

In his talk, Westerfeld uses an example of two fictional people, Mario and Lei-Win (I hope I’m spelling her name correctly) who compete to make the most money over their lifetimes. He goes through the story, describing how boring the accounting at the end is. And again, it’s a point with merit.

The problem with this analogy is that he’s forgetting that games are an interactive medium. The audience of the game is not us; the audience is Mario and Lei-Win. Whether it’s exciting for us is irrelevant (spectator sports aside; most commercial games are not designed to be watched by an audience, for better or worse). The important thing is that it’s exciting for them.

And he assumes it’s not… but is it? Are you sure? He goes through the example of a basketball game where the score is kept hidden and only revealed at the end… forgetting that there are sports like figure skating where the tension of waiting for the judge’s score is a central part of the experience.

Opacity and scoring revealed at the end can be interesting and fun. But it’s going to be interesting in a different way than another kind of scoring. Just like how you don’t go into figure skating expecting to see brutal body checking, you aren’t going to play Gaia Project for the riveting narrative. You play it for the deep, fascinating decisions you’ll have to make.

This gets us back to subjectivity. Perhaps you don’t like figure skating. Perhaps you look askance at any sport with judging. Perhaps you don’t enjoy it. That’s understandable. But to tell millions of figure skating fans around the world that their tastes are objectively wrong is a stupid thing to do. Remember:

It is vital to be able to tell the difference between a game that needs improvement and a game that’s not to one’s taste.

The game arc

Westerfeld goes on to reframe the story as Mario and Lei-Win racing to Mars. His point is that by reframing their contest as a race to a single condition (getting to Mars) instead of achieving the highest score (most money), he’s able to tell a more dramatic story.

And there’s a strong truth to this. Westerfeld is 100% right in that a game that frames victory as a condition that can be achieved, rather than points gained in a granular, incremental fashion, usually tells a more vibrant and visceral story.

But again, there are problems. Because there’s a reason many games use VP instead of wholesale conditions.

Once you frame victory as a condition instead of granular points, there are a lot of gameplay elements that become a lot harder. For example, multiple paths to victory are much easier to implement with VP than without. I’m not saying that they’re easy to implement with VP, or impossible to implement without. But it’s much easier for players to explore different strategic paths if they’re chasing VP, rather than at some point merging paths in order to collect the same MacGuffin.

Note that term “strategic paths.” Again, we’re focusing on a type of game here. Lots of games don’t tell traditional stories; instead, they invite players into different ways of interacting with their systems. It doesn’t follow the typical flow of action rising to a climax, like a novel does. That’s because it’s a game, and not a novel.

Instead of focusing on making a story arc, the game’s designer is focusing on a “game arc”: focusing on an opening with meaningful choices with immediate impacts, a midgame with lots of territory to explore, and an endgame that provides enough tension that players care about winning.

Games are not novels. They share some characteristics, but we shouldn’t expect them to follow the same rules.

Tweaking balance in a game is a lot more challenging without VP. Balance isn’t as important in some kinds of games (recall Peter Olatka’s infamous rallying cry in his Ludology interview: “Balance is for weenies”), but it’s essential in a skill-based game that features mastery of the game system as a core appeal.

Mathematically modeling the game is much easier with VP. Does that sentence seem boring and soulless to a non-game designer? Well, for some kinds of games, it’s how the sausage gets made. This detail may seem uninteresting to someone who’s never made a game. But it can be the thing that takes your game design from good to great. And it’s why, when you want to have a talk about game design, it’s best to have it done by a game designer.

Writers vs. Game Designers

I know that it’s a fashionable thing right now to look at game design as storytelling, and to look at game design as a way of telling stories.

But there’s no way around it: It’s not a game designer’s job to tell a story. Well, not directly, anyway. Rather, it’s a game designer’s job to create a system capable of telling stories that are always compelling, but not always the same.

Westerfeld’s revised story went into great detail and featured a dramatic ending. Which was fine! But… he didn’t describe a game. He described a story. A single story.

Here are other possible outcomes of Westerfeld’s revised story:

  • Mario’s rocket explodes on the launch pad during takeoff. Lei-Win cruises to victory.
  • Lei-Win struggles to build rockets that pass their firing test. Mario gets to Mars before she even takes off.
  • Lei-Win sells her rocket company to a private firm. They get to Mars before Mario does. Both sides claim victory. They wind up in court, and settle for an undisclosed amount of money.

None of these stories are as compelling as Westerfield’s story. But the issue is, as a writer, Westerfeld’s job is to look through all the possible stories, find the best one, and refine it until it’s as good as possible.

A game designer has a different task: we must focus on building an engine that is capable of generating Westerfield’s story, but also a bunch of other stories that are just as compelling, if not more (and hopefully better than the three I came up with).

I’m not going to say it’s a harder job; both have their challenges! But it is a different job. It requires different techniques, and what works for one job will not necessarily work for another.

Orthogames, Part II

I want to come back to orthogames for a moment. In his talk, Westerfeld discussed a game about rescuing hostages. He discussed how absurd it would be if his opponent realized victory was imminent, and stopped rescuing hostages, knowing victory was clinched.

It’s an excellent point. This is a thing about orthogames: they’re about winning. The whole meaning of an orthogame is about winning.

That’s why it’s so hard to make an orthogame that’s about anything but winning. There are some orthogames about touchy subjects, but the designer has to make sure the win condition lines up perfectly with the game’s theme. In Freedom: The Underground Railroad, victory is tied to freeing slaves. In The Grizzled, victory is tied to surviving World War I.

You’ll notice both are cooperative games; competitive games are even harder to inject any meaning into the game that’s not related to winning the game.

For example, if you have a 2-player competitive game about rescuing hostages, you’re absolutely going to run into issues where a player may no longer be incentivized to rescue hostages once their victory is assured. Just like how in Pandemic, players often ignore massive outbreaks at the end of the game to focus on a cure.

You can win a game of Terraforming Mars through a mix of heating the planet and planting enough forests. But your story at the end of the game isn’t how Mars is now habitable; your story is that you won through this specific strategy.

And that’s okay! That is the story the game wants to tell. This is a perfectly acceptable story for an orthogame to tell. For the game’s enormous following, there’s no need to go into any further narrative detail. The story is in who outplayed whom.

Consider an Overwatch league match. We don’t care so much about the dramatic fallout of a meeting between Mei and Reaper, or that the next map features a gorgeous sunset. We care more that New York was able to win two straight maps against Philadelphia, that (hypothetically) both teams have dropped DPS and are going full GOATS, and wondering if the third map’s location and setup favors one team versus another.

This doesn’t seem to be the kind of story Westerfeld enjoys in a game. I can appreciate that, and I can appreciate his craving for games that tell better, more refined, more thematic stories. This is not an unreasonable request.

But I think it is unreasonable to insist that orthogames are flawed for not telling stories the same way a novel does. If your cars keep sinking into a river, you shouldn’t buy another car; you should buy a boat instead.

Likewise, if you want your games to tell better stories, look beyond orthogames! Westerfeld mentioned D&D as a non-orthogame. Great example! Most RPGs aren’t orthogames. Play Apocalypse World. Play Pathfinder. Play Burning Wheel. Play Fiasco. Play Monsterhearts. All of these games allow players to craft amazing stories, and they never force a player into sacrificing their story to optimize their VP.

But let people who like orthogames enjoy them! We find different meaning in them than you, and that’s not a bad thing.

In praise of experts

And there’s one last part of the talk that bugs me. It might sound self-serving, but here it is:

Why on earth is a person who doesn’t design games giving game design advice? Especially in such stark, absolutist terms?

Yes, Westerfeld has played a lot of games. That’s not without merit. But just as that loud dude in your game group picks apart the flaws in various games but never seems to suggest a way to fix them, it’s a limited viewpoint, and I find it hard to justify prioritizing it over someone who has actually designed a game.

At one point, Westerfeld proposes tweaking Champions of Midgard so that it tells a better story by not relying on VP. His suggestion, in which players win by defeating a big monster at the end, is baffling to me. He wants to design a completely different game! Every sentence of his “fix” pulled the game further and further away from what it was designed to do.

Again, remember that games are not designed to tell one story, but many. Also, as I’ve said in the past: just as literature is creative writing, games are creative incentivization. When you change the incentive structure by replacing many ways to gain VP with one monster to kill, you are completely changing the game. It’s as if I suggested that Westerfeld update his books to only have attractive people, because the ugly people make me feel bad. It is a completely different experience.

And I think that’s what gets under my skin. Once you’ve designed a game, you know the feeling of a non-designer (or even another designer) making a series of suggestions to your game that amount to them wanting you to make a game that’s completely different than the one you want to make. These can seem like a series of small tweaks to them, but after months of playtesting, you know that those changes will make the game a completely different experience, and one that bears no resemblance to the game you want to make.

And that’s the feeling I got when watching this talk. Here was someone making suggestions to change a game with seemingly no real idea how deep its its implications go. His suggestions to change Midgard betrayed the fact that he wanted to play a different game. And his suggestions to “fix” games in general by removing VP betrayed the fact that he doesn’t really understand how other people enjoy games.

To be frank, we live in a world where to be an “expert” at something is to be viewed with suspicion. We have government panels on science headed by non-scientists. We have people who have spent their entire lives studying climate shouted down on pseudo-news channels by people who don’t know the first thing about climate. Isaac Asimov warned us of a future where “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

But we still celebrate the outsider, the disruptor, the non-expert who walks into a room of experts and tells them what they’ve been doing wrong all this time. It makes for an excellent story.

In reality, the outsider is almost always wrong.

And again, I mean no disrespect to Westerfeld. I don’t disagree with his direction as much as I disagree with his velocity. But this subject required nuance and precision. By leading with a clickbait title and being absolutist, he took what should have been a valid point and smooshed it against a wall.

So I wish to close this enormous essay with a plea to conventions everywhere, and to SHUX in particular:

If you’re going to have a seminar about game design, would it be too much to ask to let a game designer handle it?