The Making of a Match: Designing Sports Action

The highs and lows of a tense sports match make for great stories, but are a unique design challenge. We joined in the online fun at Big Bad Con 2021 to present The Making of a Match: Designing Sports Action. It was a good chance to reflect on our process and learnings designing the sports drama game, Fight With Spirit. We discuss balancing drama and simulation, flow, and a host of other rivals that we faced along the way!

Watch the video of our panel below, or read the transcribed version below.
And don’t forget to check out the many other excellent panels from Big Bad Con 2021.

Hayley: Hello all, and thank you for joining us today for this presentation, “The Making of a Match: Designing Sports Action” at Big Bad Con 2021. Before we kick of we’d like to begin by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the land on which we are presenting this talk today, the Gadigal and Wangal people of the Eora Nation and we pay our respects to Elders past, present and emerging.

Vee: For those of you who don’t know us yet, hello, I’m Vee Hendro, and this is Hayley Gordon, and we are Storybrewers Roleplaying. We’ve been designing and self-publishing games for the past four and a half years, and we focus a lot of our game designs on play experiences that are emotional and collaborative. So, some of the games that we’ve made.

  • Alas for the Awful Sea, 
  • Good Society: A Jane Austen RPG,

and then recently this year, two one-shot games that are part of our Littlebox Series, which is: 

  • Villagesong which is about village leadership inspired by pre-colonial Java,
  • and Our Mundane Supernatural Life, which is about a day in the life of a supernatural person and their loved one.

And of course, we’ve also got Fight With Spirit, which is our sports-drama RPG. It’s on Kickstarter now and is an upcoming game, and it forms the basis and inspiration for our presentation today! So just a little bit about Fight With Spirit in a nutshell kind-of-thing. It’s a game about a sports team growing up and striving together. So you’re playing in the context of either a high school or college sports team battling your way through a major tournament. And in this game you’ll be honing your skills, facing down rivals, and striving for victory together. Along the way you’ll explore friendships, feelings, and the fleeting nature of your time together.

Hayley: Yeah, and central to the game is obviously the highs and lows of a tense sports match, so our design challenge was how to make this match feature both compelling sports action as well as dramatic character moments. And in this talk we’re going to take you through how we design matches for Fight With Spirit and the principles and considerations that drove us from one iteration to the next. So this talk is very focused on rpg design and in particular the struggles that we faced when we were designing Fight With Spirit and the solutions that we chose to those problems. So basically going to jam two years of design thinking into the next forty minutes or so. 

Vee: But before we get into it though, just a couple of housekeeping things:

  • We’ll be taking questions at the end of the talk. There’s going to be a generous amount of time that we’ll leave for that. So if you think of questions during the talk, feel free to pop it into the chat and we’ll get to it at the end of the talk. 
  • Secondly, we’d like to take a moment to note that this talk is just our own experience on designing this game and this sports game specifically. Everyone designs a little bit differently and there is really no right way to do it, but we’re sharing our experience here in the hope that you’ll find this helpful or interesting in your own practice, and if you’re developing a sports game.

Hayley: So today, we’re going to cover broadly the following points: 

  • Firstly, we’re going to start by taking you through the key building blocks of a Fight With Spirit match and we’ll refer to those throughout our talk.
  • After that, we’ll get into the meat of the talk where we address he challenges that we faced in our approach to Fight With Spirit and we did about them. So we’re going to be addressing the balance between capturing drama and simulating a sports match. Secondly about flow, the flow of a match and the effect of pacing,
  • Lastly, we’ll be talking about balancing predictability and uniqueness and how we tried to use both of those to our advantages in matches,
  • And we’ll finish up with a quick wrap up and open up for questions after that.

Vee: Awesome, so let’s take you all back to Big Bad Con 2019. Feels like a century ago! Where we playtested version 6 of FWS. So by that point we had been through several iterations of what matches might look like, including some that didn’t work, some that worked a little bit better, and then finally what we had at BBC2019. We’d settled on a  couple of things that we knew we wanted in our particular game and what we wanted matches to be like in FWS.

Those were that we wanted a really cinematic approach to sports matches and that we wanted to view this match as a sort of “highlight reel” that captures key moments of the match rather than just playing it through blow-by-blow, so these highlights would string together to collectively determine who would win the match.

That meant that we wanted to capture three things simultaneously:

  • The physical action of the match: like taking the precise and powerful shot on goal;
  • The sports story of the match: the layer of having two seconds left of the clock as you’re taking this shot with the pressure of a really great national-class goalie diving in to block you.
  • The emotional story of the match: like the fact that you’ve lost to this particular goalie since you were a kid, and maybe it doesn’t help that that person is your older sibling.

So these are the layers that we’d decided that we wanted in our matches by the time that we were taking our game to BBC19.

Hayley: It took us about six iterations but by BBC2019, we’d created the basic building blocks of matches that we would develop into the final version. We’re going to take a moment to explain these building blocks now so that you can understand them when we refer to them throughout the rest of the talk.

So the first of these is called match games. Match games are mini-games that explore the individual highlights of a match. So each player will get to choose one match game to play per match. So here’s an example of a match game: Head to Head, and what it looked like in 2019 compared to now.

A match game consists of a series of instructions for players to follow to explore that moment. At the end is a resolution which tells you which team wins and who scores a point.

Vee: The other building block that we had was a match deck. This works in conjunction with a match game and the deck itself is a series of cards numbered from 1-6 in 4 different suits. These cards are used as a randomizer to determine who wins or loses in the match game. And they also have some questions on them. So this is what the looked like back in 2019 version and now. They haven’t changed too much in the content, but just in the looks. The other function is the suit, which informs the flavour of the card and is important what suit it is in some match games. And secondly, the match deck also has these headway/setback questions which are answered by players to further the action during the game. And these questions reflect often the suit that they’re in: focus, prowess, connection or energy. 

Hayley: And the last building block is match moments. Match moments are little breaks in the sports action to reflect on the game, prepare for what’s ahead, or explore other drama from relationships. So they’re little mini-scenes between each match game. And in the original version in 2019 these were completely unstructured, but in the current iteration of the game you pick these from a list.

Vee: In this talk we’re going to talk you through the design challenges and thinking that got us from that 2019 version to the current state of the game. We had these building blocks in some form in 2019 but it took a lot of playtesting and refining to get it from what it was to what it is now. We learnt a heck of a lot during that! The design challenges that we tackled and that formed the guiding direction of our design that we’ll talk about today is:

  • balancing drama and simulation
  • flow of a match
  • predictability and uniqueness

Jumping into the first point, as we mentioned earlier, one of our major goals for matches was to capture both the sports action of a match as well as the emotional arc of that match for the characters. This meant that we had to choose an approach that balanced drama and simulation. When I’m saying drama, what I mean here is the character drama, story arc of the match and the emotional stakes of that particular moment in the match. And for simulation, it’s what is happening in the sports action, how does this match imitate real life “sports” and also how well does it model how real life matches unfold.

I should note that in FWS, it’s a sports-agnostic game which adds that extra wrinkle of that it’s not a particular sport but it had to be generally applicable to a wide range of team sports. And so, there were lots of questions that came out of this as we were exploring both these sides. So the different questions for drama: what’s the emotional stakes in this particular match for the characters? How do characters grow and change during a match? And what is the dramatic arc or memorable story there?

Also we considered on the simulation side, questions like: who actually wins and loses? How is that going to be mechanically determined in the game? What actually happens in the sports action of the match? Because there’s a lot of situational things that changes during a sports match, the pace of a match is very fast. And lastly, what factors lead to winning or losing a match? So those were some of the questions that we asked ourselves and you might have realised already that these questions aren’t exactly in conflict with each other. We can build towards all of these questions, we don’t have to choose between drama and simulation. What’s the balance here? Why can’t we have it all? I think the answer to that is that we do want as much of both of these as we can possibly get in the game but we need to balance that against the cognitive load of the game for players, how complex the system becomes, and how well it can lead us to a tell a tight, cohesive narrative.

Hayley: Let’s dive in a little bit as to how this process worked for us. Firstly, we decided to take a step towards drama and away from simulation by choosing to create the “highlight reel” rather than capture each and every moment that might happen in a sports match. We did this for exactly the same reason you might choose to watch the match highlights instead of the whole match – cut to the good bits.

The first match games we created were all orientated around simulation. We had games such as risky play, deadlock, a strength revealed, which were very focused on the flow of the sports action. These were fun, but they sometimes felt a bit hollow – and that’s because they didn’t capture the personal dramatic arcs of the characters, or the wider dramatic arc of the team very well.

To address this, we decided to transition to match games oriented around both a specific moment of sports action AND a specific emotional question. For example, the game Team Combo is about the sports action of whether two characters can pull off a combo move to score. But it’s also about exploring the question of whether the characters’ hearts and minds can connect on the field. So at this stage, we’re thinking, let’s turn up the dramatic stakes in the match games, and make this as important as the sports stakes.

As soon as we did this, we instantly realised a problem. This was a problem of mixed incentives. When games simulate things, players tend to want to win. You want to succeed on your perception check, you want to soak that damage with your armour, and of course you want to win the point for your team. But when games focus on the drama, success isn’t always the point. Let’s be honest, we are here for the angst. Or at least we want to be able to choose between angsting and not angsting for ourselves.

So to continue with our example of Team Combo – just because the players want to score a point, doesn’t mean that they also necessarily want the characters’ hearts and minds to connect. The other way around is true as well. If the player loses the point for their team that doesn’t mean they want emotional despair, they might also be interested in the characters’ hearts and minds connecting even if they don’t score a point. That’s a fun story arc right – we didn’t succeed this time, but we had this great moment of personal connection for our characters.

To address this we decided to view drama and simulation as two streams that were happening in parallel, rather than competing directly. Of course they influenced each other, but they didn’t have to be mechanically treated the same way.

The way we enacting this, we decided for most match games to decouple the dramatic and sports stakes to allow for complex and multifaceted resolution that keeps the story interesting. You don’t just win and win, or fail and fail, you can chart a path that is narratively interesting for you while still feeling like you’ve done your best for the team by trying to win the match game.

We’ve found this approach has allowed people to lean into the drama of the match a lot further, as they aren’t afraid that emotional turmoil will make their team lose. In doing so has made the matches a lot more interesting. It’s also meant that we haven’t had to sacrifice drama for simulation or simulation for drama directly, but rather we’ve tried to bring out as much of both as time and space will allow.

Vee:  So the takeaways that we’ve pulled out of this experience is being more courageous in exploring more complex and multifaceted resolutions, and when we do that, to be way more intentional where we blend and where we decouple elements to allow those more narratively rich resolution moments like being able to connect your hearts and mind with a teammate but still missing out on the point on the field. And having that grey are for things to fall into. And in this way, considering not just degrees of success & failure, but narratively reaffirming the core themes of the game. So in our case, character, connection and emotion and that dramatic tension in both the sports action and the emotional arc of the characters.

Hayley: So moving on from here to our second major design consideration, flow of a match. 

One of our goals for matches in Fight with Spirit was to capture a cadence that felt like a sports match. In a sports match there is a continuous flow of play, with small moments in between plays to talk or strategize. Players go through their own individual experience of the match – whether they are on the field, off the field, marking a particular person, and so on. But there’s also the overall flow of the match, with different people moving in and out of focus to tell the complete story of who wins. There is a relentlessness where, regardless of what happens in a single moment the match keeps going. For us, capturing this part of a sports match came down to two elements – pacing and smoothness.

Vee: Pacing is the rhythm of particular parts of the match, as well as the match as a whole. Ideally includes both the fictional pacing, but also the real life pace and rhythm of different sections of play. You want these to work in tandem, so that things are feeling on the table like they are in the fiction. Originally, the match did not have a strong sense of pacing at all – kind of like if a bad editor put together a highlight reel of a sports match – the individual moments might be interesting but they don’t fit together very well. To combat this matches in Fight with Spirit now follows a defined match structure which you can see on the slide:

  • The Opener
  • Repeat for # of players:
    • Player match game
    • Match moment
  • Final Moments or One Last Chance

The different sections of this match structure serve different purposes in pacing the match. The Opener for example, which is the first game of every match, serves as a warm up – starting slow with descriptions, and escalating into the first card draw of the match. It sets the tone and also works as a tutorial for how other match games work. 

Then we alternate between match games, and match moments.

Match games are highly structured “highlight” moments with both dramatic and mechanical intensity. If you look at them they are literally a series of instructions that you follow from beginning to end. The action of continually following the instructions keeps the pace high, while the content of the instructions focuses on the most high octane moments.

Match moments stand in contrast to this. These moments are defined by the player. They can be as long or short as that player wants. They provide much needed breathing room between match games, and allow players to take things at their own pace for a few moments – which mirror what a time out in a sports match might be like.

Matches end with either Final Moments or One Last Chance. These ending games cap off the matches with some retrospection and help tie the overall story of the match together. The pacing improved a lot when we moved into this structure, instead of just high-octane moments the whole way through. 

The second aspect of flow is smoothness. Smoothness is quite simply how easy it is for players to move through the match. It encompasses considerations like – do the players know what they can do or say next? Do the players know how to perform particular instructions? Are the different choices that players could make clear and transparent? We wanted the game itself to provide as much of a smooth experience as possible without relying on the Facilitator to fill in too many gaps.

Smoothness is undoubtedly improved over time through continuous playtesting. If you look at the differences in how the original Head to Head game vs now, a lot of the changes we made was how we were going to tackle this problem of smoothness. How easy it was for players to move through this match game.

The things we noticed helped tremendously include:

  1. Always make it clear who should be speaking.
  2. Express things in as few words as possible without being unclear.
  3. Don’t compromise clarity for narrative flavour. We love narrative flavour, but it should come from compelling questions, not from confusing instructions.
  4. Use very consistent terminology.
  5. Make sure the graphic design supports clarity and ease of use.

The last thing to say about smoothness and pacing is that it can be a balancing process. Having a tight structure can come at the cost of narrative flexibility. Through playtesting you can see where you can make compromises and where you can’t.

Hayley: So takeaways for when you’re addressing the game flow. For pacing, consider both in-fiction narrative pacing but also the conversation that’s happening at the table, or virtual table! Strategically mix up high vs low intensity sections of your game, and think about pacing both in individual moments and overall.

For smoothness, remember, always make it clear who is speaking, be as concise as you can without being unclear, and use consistent terminology, and graphic design can help you out!

Vee: The last design consideration we wanted to talk about today is the idea of a predictable form but unique content. 

Hayley: When you play or watch a sports match there is a level of predictability. You already know the rules and format of the sport, and the rhythm and structure of the sports match. This predictability helps you understand how to engage with the sport. However, each match is obviously unique with unexpected moments – otherwise you wouldn’t be playing or watching it.

We wanted to mirror this approach in the design of our matches. This means players understand what they are about to engage with, but they also have the ability to create new and unexpected stories within that framework. The predictability means that the players have the ability to angle towards particular dramatic moments, and also that they can quickly and easily know what to do next, and this allows for a level of mastery over the format that allows for deeper play. However, you also need to bring in the uniqueness which means that every match should feel different and special even if parts of it are the same.

Vee: One of the techniques we often use to build predictability in our games without reducing replayability too much is to dictate form, but not the content. An example of this is the match moment a brief and private moment. It tells you the format of the scene, but not what the scene is actually about. We’ve used this across other games we’ve created – for example in Good Society, the phasic structure dictates the format of each section of the game, be it letters or scenes, but actual content is decided by the players. 

However, this approach doesn’t work when applied to match games, which do specify content. The game team combo is always going to be about pulling off a team combo, regardless of who and what that combo might involve. For that reason we had to search for more to bring uniqueness to the match games to make sure they stayed variable throughout play.

One way we chose to do this was through use of the match deck. When you draw to see who wins and loses a match game, you use the suits and values of the cards to see if you reach victory. But each card also has setback and headway questions on them that you will answer depending on the result. Since these questions are randomised, they add a unique and unpredictable twist on a match game even if you’ve played it before.

Hayley: Another way that we chose to balance predictability and uniqueness is how we approached rival teams. The most obvious way that one sports match is different to another is the opponent you are playing. And as much as we want the game to centre on the dramatic arcs of the players, we wanted playing different opponents to not just be narratively different, but feel different too. At the same time, we also wanted it to be quick and easy to get a sense of and establish the character of the rival teams. To achieve this, we made a somewhat courageous choice.

When you play Fight with Spirit, you don’t make up your own rival teams from scratch, but rather choose from a list of existing teams. While these teams can be largely defined by the players, there are a few elements of each that are set in stone. The most important of these is each team’s unique “team story” – for example, the Fallen Champs looking for a comeback, or the Powerhouse team, guarding their legacy. These stories serve to differentiate the teams from the very beginning of the game. We also decided to take these stories one step further through the creation of Rival Match Games. A rival game is a match game that switches perspective – instead of putting the player team at the centre of the game, it focuses on the rival team. These games support the team story of the rival team, to make it really feel like you’re playing a different team with their own drama, as well as their own playing style.

Vee: So the takeaways we had here was that predictability isn’t always bad, it can increase a player’s mastery over the game. However, uniqueness is also important to keep things fresh and interesting. It’s always worth thinking about where you can add replayability and variability in your game. 

s we’re wrapping up this portion of the talk, and reflecting on our experience designing matches in Fight With Spirit, I think one of the most enjoyable challenges for me was trying to make a play space in these matches where so many narrative threads are coming to a head, both from the sports side, and character drama side. 

It really was a tough nut for us to crack, and there were times that I wasn’t sure we were heading in the right direction, but I think it shows how much streamlining and development you can do even on one aspect of your game. And Fight With Spirit still isn’t done! We’ll still be looking at improvements that we can make to the game and learning more as we go.

Hayley: That brings us to the end of what we wanted to say for today. We’ll take questions now. If you have questions about anything we’ve covered today, whether specifically on designing sports and drama, or more general game design, please drop it in the chat.

QUESTION TIME

What did you consider when you gave the players the ability to control rival characters?

Hayley: So the early iterations of Fight With Spirit actually didn’t have this in it. In those, the Facilitator of the game controlled all of the rival characters. However, this really did two things that I wasn’t totally crazy about. One of those was that the Facilitator was talking a very large percentage of the time. And one of the things about our ethos to collaborative storytelling was that the breakup of who was talking when should be more balanced than that. So obviously the Facilitator needs to talk a bit more because they’re doing helpful things, but generally that balance was too out-of-whack for us.

The second thing was that people were less invested in the rival characters. And in my opinion the story of the rival characters is a really important one that creates the variation and uniqueness between matches, but also is an interesting part of the player’s story too. If a player’s character has a crush on a rival team character, that question of “how do I play against you with all I have, but also have these feelings for you?” becomes super interesting, right? So by giving those players the ability to play a rival, that character becomes special to the player and they will put their heart into playing that rival and really bring that player facing drama into the forefront during the matches that they appear in.

Vee: The only thing I’d add to that is the internal drama of the rival team is really interesting in stories like this and there’s often time dedicated to that. It’s a bit boring if just the GM has to do all of that work by themself, so it was fun for us to hit it over back to the players to play a few of those characters. And we knew from Good Society where players play multiple characters and connections, that it works quite well. But the way it currently still works is that during some of those match games, the GM will have overall control of the rival teams as a whole when they’re playing sports as a team. So there’s a blend in who has ownership of the rival characters. 

Hayley: You do it collaboratively!

How much crossover does design have with other action-based (but not combat-based) challenges such as dangerous journeys, or chases?

Vee: I think there is some crossover. The mini-games isn’t new, The King is Dead, Firebrands-style games that use that system. I think that there is a lot of potential in using smaller frameworks that you can string together to a bigger whole. Considering the overall challenges of pacing and story arc of your dangerous journey, or chase. I do think there’s a lot of potential there.

Hayley: I agree with that. I feel like we really took the idea of the mini-games and implemented them in our own way that would serve our story best. A mini-game is very good for action-based challenges because it keeps you answering what happens next. You don’t get stuck, so if it’s necessary to describe different aspects of an action-based challenge, it does that very well. 

I think the part that is very specific to sports matches is the actual “how” of how we decided to combine those mini-games together along with the other parts of the matches in the game and how the puzzle fits together.

How have you considered repetition in league sports having multiple matches and histories of rivalry between teams and how it focuses on the smaller period of time specific to high-school sports vs professional sports?

Hayley: One thing you do when you start a new game of Fight With Spirit, there is a Collaboration and team creation section of the game. A lot of that aspect comes in during the team creation section especially. One thing that you do is not only do you decide which rival teams you would like to play, you also determine what the relationship is between your team and that rival team. Some of the relationships are very much up that alley, this is our “destined rivals” we play every thing, now they look down on us. Or the “local kids”, we know this team, it’s going to be weird, playing against our best friends. So that history and relationship is really in-built into the team creation process.

Vee: The game really focuses on those two levels: team-to-team relationships, as well as individual characters in the team having relationships with each other. What I like about that is that it builds a network/community that encompasses your team, your relationships within the team, and also outside of that. It has that feeling of everyone in the tournament having history, having crossed path at some time.

Hayley: When you give players the ability to create their own rivals, you can bet that they’re gonna build some history into that! In that sense it’s pieced together through various things in the game. 

What other sports game’s narrative influenced your view of telling stories about sports through games or game-like objects? Or how video game franchise modes have embraced sports stories?

Vee: Whenever we start designing a big game like this, we love to do research. Which is watching all the sports media, video games or just reading about sports science, or various other things to be immersed.

Hayley: We tried to look and read widely. 

Vee: Someone mentioned Blaseball here which is very interesting. It’s a very niche area: it’s simulationist, it’s a fandom, there’s lots of interesting interaction there. We try to see what’s out there so we have a rich base to draw on. We always look for what stories people are compelled by or drawn to. And how can we pick the stuff we like that is compelling and build that out into an original system.

Hayley: We take the things that resonates with us.

Vee: One of the things that resonated with me recently is Football Manager. An awesome game, that took up a lot of time to play. In that game you play a manager, not a team player going through the season, making management level decision. That was really interesting because there was so many emergent stories that came out of small moments, and that made me think about how we could have that sense of emergent storylines.

How do you calibrate variable levels of player knowledge about the sport in question?

Hayley: Good question! We struggled with this. We chose to handle this in the Collaboration phase of the game primarily. In that stage it asks you the question: what level of sports description do you want to engage in? And that isn’t asking about sports accuracy – it’s not asking what level of faithfulness you have to the sport – but what level of detail do you want to describe the sport? Are we talking complex discussion of tactics? Or “I hit the ball, and it goes really far”? Both those things are viable ways of playing the game. 

What I’ve found from playtesting is that when you take a group of people with various levels of knowledge about the sport and you make them answer that question then it will tend to a middle level of descriptiveness, where people who know less will try harder than usual to describe it, and people who know more will understand that the people they’re playing with don’t necessarily have as much knowledge as they do. The thing that makes that work in practice is that when you get to the match games themselves, the match games are individual. Players take turns choosing the match games and playing them out. And a player determines the level of sports description that occurs in their own sports game. So it means that if one person would like to add a little more detail, they can do so, with the knowledge that not everyone on the table has the same level of knowledge, they can describe that detail in a way that everyone can understand.

Conversely, if a player is coming in with less knowledge, then that’s in their control too, to describe things in the way that they understand. So the way that the match divides things up in a lot of ways creates a mutual harmony!

Vee: What was really important to me when we were making this game was I wanted it to be a really approachable game. I wanted people who didn’t know a great deal about the sport to start to love it, or start from a point where they didn’t know much and grow into it. I think now the game has the potential to do that. But that was something that we really had to think about.

Hayley: I certainly became acquainted with a wide variety of sports! And got into them, right!? We got into soccer, from starting to play a session of it. 

We are running out of time, so we’ll wrap up here.

Vee: Thank you for being with us today and I hope you got lots out of this.

If you want to check out the Fight With Spirit Kickstarter, it’s in it’s last 48 hours now! If you’d like to follow us, you can find me on Twitter @rocketeer_vee and Hayley @storybrewers.

Hayley: The other thing we’d encourage you to do, and we’re sure you already have plans to do so. There’s so many approaches to the question of game design, and there’s a couple of panels coming up that we’ll be checking out that might give you a different perspective on what we’ve talked on or some of the things close to it:

Hayley: Thank you for your time today! And we’ll see you around Big Bad Con.

Vee: Thanks, bye!

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