J.K. Rowling: Good Author, Bad Game Designer

Just finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it, especially after the drudgery of books five and six. Presumably, Rowling had book seven’s pay-offs in mind from the very beginning, which might explain it’s return to form. At any rate, Harry Potter did pretty well for itself; Rowling is obviously a gifted story-teller. What she is not, however, is a good game designer. I have yet to see anyone else take her to task for this, so it might as well be me.

Quidditch is a bad game design. For the uninitiated, it’s essentially magical soccer, where witches and wizards fly around the field, trying to throw the ball (the “Quaffle”) through one of the hoops to score 10 points. So far, so good.

The game extends beyond soccer because of the Golden Snitch, which is a small golden ball, capable of flying around the field by itself. Each side has one player (known as the “Seeker”) whose only purpose is to catch the Snitch, which is worth 150 points. A little unbalanced, perhaps, but not fatal.

The problem is that the game ends only when the Snitch is caught. I am sure most game designers would see the problem here. What should the Seeker do if his or her team is behind by more than 150 points? Obviously, the player should not catch the Snitch as that would guarantee a loss for his or her team – the 150 points would not make up for the difference in score. The Seeker is in a compromised situation.

Games should not penalize players for doing their job well. It’s not really even a game rule, it’s just common sense. Of course, if you write the stories, you can make sure the fictional games never result in such a sticky position. Quidditch as a real game, though, would be a bit of a mess.

I’ve never played any of EA’s Harry Potter games, but I am curious to know how they addressed this problem. You could leave the rules as is, I suppose, but I wouldn’t want to design a game in which, when the player finally succeeds (by catching the Snitch), the words “You Lose!” suddenly appear.

20 thoughts on “J.K. Rowling: Good Author, Bad Game Designer

  1. Dorian and I argued about this. Glad to see you’re on the right side. (My side!) 😀

  2. Seeker 1 could try to prevent Seeker 2 from catching the Snitch. Fly in its way or something?

  3. This was addressed in The Goblet of Fire. If your team is down by 150, you’re down by 30 goals. You’re not likely to make up this deficit, so you catch it to avoid further embarrassment.

  4. hmmm… I don’t remember bit from Goblet of Fire. What if you’re down by 300 points, though?

    At any rate, I think she went a little overboard on having the catching of the Snitch be the most (the only) dramatic Quidditch moment. It really seems to cheapen everything else that happens on the field. Er, above the field…

  5. Honestly, it’d be bet to dedicate as much manpower to the catching of the snitch as possible early on. If your opponents get 10 goals in the meantime, so what?

    But short of that, the seeker on the loosing team could play defense.

  6. That’s another weird thing about Quidditch… what happens if anyone but the Seeker catches the Snitch? Is that a penalty? On the other hand, can the Seeker legally touch the Quaffle? Most games have nowhere near this level of specialization. (Even a pitcher in baseball is still a fielder.)

  7. I don’t think that’s such a bad idea. Actually, I think it’s kind of ingenious — the player has control over when the game ends. So you don’t want to do the profitable but game ending move if you’re far behind. (Not that I’ve ever played it.)

    It goes to the “interesting decisions” department — sometimes it’s good to catch it, sometimes not.

  8. It’s not an interesting decision – it’s an obvious one. Either you are behind by 150 points or you are not. You are right that interesting decisions are relative to the situation, but they should depend on a player making an intuitive choice about the current game state, not a simple, logical one.

    Dan Bunten (designer of M.U.L.E.) described it this way:
    “Almost no one enjoys calculations. Humans prefer heuristic (rules of thumb) relationships or continuous equations far more. The heuristics feel good when you figure them out and the continuous equations can only be predicted which also seems to scratch an itch in our brains.”

  9. This is funny, I remember also thinking the same thing, but would never have thought someone would make a post on the subject.

    I do agree on that… essentially, if you’re behind more than 150 points, the Seeker is required not to take action if you’re hoping to win. There’s no fun sport in which a player is expected not to score, hit or catch the ball or whathaveyou.

    You could make in-universe excuses/justifications for the situation. Like the explanation in GoF where the Seeker catches the Snitch when knowing his team is behind and has no chance of winning – so it’s just a way of ending the game on your terms and/or saving yourself from an embarrassing defeat. In fact, in tourneys, standings will sometimes come down to point difference. So it’s possible that it’s acceptable for you to lose as long as you lose by no more than X points – so that’s another possible valid catch situation.

    Quidditch is generally not great game design, however. I’m sure there’s a more detailed description of the rules and gameplay in the Quidditch book, but still. One of the problems is that the whole game comes down to the Seeker. Scoring is meaningless in itself as it won’t win you the game – scoring is just buying time for the Seeker. Or increasing the margin of score where catching the Snitch is a win (if you score enough to only be losing by 30 points, say, that’s a win after a catch).

    Another problem closely related to gameplay is, I think, Beater satisfaction. Chasers get points from scoring, Seekers from catching. Beaters don’t get points… so you think people would want to play Beaters less than the other positions.

    I’m not familiar with the rules and gameplay of baseball, but it indeed works differently in other sports. In basketball, everyone defends and everyone gets to try and score. In hockey, ditto. In football (soccer to you transoceanics) less so, but many good defenders still participate in attacks and make goal assists.

    If I were designing Quidditch, I’d introduce a time limit first and foremost. Prevent the whole issue of the Snitch being the only thing that matters. I’d also allow Beaters to hit the Quaffle with their bats when it’s loose (not in anyone’s hands) – that would allow Beaters to effectively intercept passes and make for some interesting decisions.

  10. Her magic system is rather unbalanced too – in an attempt to sucker my wife into role-playing I’ve been trying to make a Harry Potter game, and it’s a mess. Why would anyone expeliarmus when they could petrificus totalus, for example?

  11. I’m really only familiar with the Potterverse from the movie versions, so perhaps it’s different in the books, but it seems to me that in all sporting events at Hogwart’s (quidditch, the events in GoF, etc) the winning move takes place about 5 miles above or away from the stands. Do the spectators have magical binoculars or something, and if not, why do they bother to gather in the stands at all?

  12. I remember thinking the same thing when reading about Quidditch.

    In fact, a lot of the ‘logic’ of Harry Potter falls apart if you look at it too closely. In the rules of magic, a firstyear student can accidentally turn somebody into a frog, but isn’t likely to accidentally turn somebody into, say,a puddle of goo and kill them. But generally things are so ridiculous as to be charming. Bludgers are balls apparently controlled by some kind of magic based AI who’s only purpose is to beat the hell out of the players!

    In a world like that the snitch is not a random event — it’s magic. The snitch seems to choose the ‘right’ time to appear in the game more often than not.

    I don’t how the EA games work, but I think a good quick fix is to make is so that your team’s standing is determined at least partially by overall score of all of your games, and not merely by who has the best record. If you catch the snitch and lose, you still might bump your ranking up, and you risk a lot more by intentially not catching it and risking your opponent winning by a larger margin.

  13. Ironically, the scoring system in the Civilization games contains the same obvious decisions.

    To get a really high-scoring game, you must first build an empire that spans the planet. But your score will suffer if you “catch the snitch” by conquering your last opponent too soon.

    The scoring system forces you to play on without making a single interesting decision for a hundred more turns. After you reach the end of the tech tree and grow every city into a metropolis, you can finally conquer the last enemy city and have your game reach the top of the hall of fame.

  14. ha… owned!

    Actually, we adjusted the score system for Civ4 so that your final score receives a bonus based on the number of turns remaining. Thus, there is a reason to finish the game earlier than you would otherwise.

    (assuming we balanced the numbers correctly… CFC Game of the Month is using our scoring for Civ4 – whereas they came up with their own scoring system for Civ3)

  15. Hrmmm thats not how I remember the scoring in Civ, though I haven’t played the last two. I can’t remember if it was 1 or 2, but the way to get the best score was to have 3 civilisations on a world map, all starting in Europe, and not building a city, but collecting huts, which you would get cavalry and phalanxes and stuff which you could defeat the other two civs with because you knew exactly where they lived. This would end the game really quickly and give you an awesome percentage.

  16. It’s interesting listening to people who rationalize obviously bad decisions. Like, hey no matter what do NOT criticize anything – even obviously bad design decisions. Rationalize, justify, do anything to leave the groupthink hypnosis undisturbed. (The whole Potter series is groupthink, isn’t it? I mean, maybe they are good books, but they aren’t *that* good. They aren’t really must-read stuff [I can think of a lot of stuff that is, and Potter ain’t in its league]. The only way an entire generation can be so enthralled by them is because… they all do what they’re supposed to do, which is obediently agree with what their friends tell them is good.)

  17. I allways thought the points for catching the snitch was unballanced. In my opinion, there should be no points for catching it, and you would be allowed to stop your opponent from doing so (with a bat or whatever), then the only advantage you get is deciding when to end the game…

    But hey! Isn’t the main storyline in HP just a rippoff from Star Wars? Voldemort=Darth Vader, Harry=Skywalker… Only Voldemort isn’t related to Harry (that I know of), except for their wands.

  18. It may seem that catching the snitch when your team is down by a lot of goals is a bad thing or, as pointed out, can be done to avoid further embarrassment. But throughout the books it is made clear that one game does not make or break who wins the Quidditch Cup at the end of the school year. The points from each match are added up and the House with the most points after three matches wins the game. Therefore if you have one off day but then blow out your other two opponents, you still have a chance to win the Cup. This concept is unheard of in American sports (baseball and American football), where the winners are based on wins and losses. However, if you compare Quidditch to European football (soccer) again, you can see where the point system comes in to play. The team with the most point at the end of the season wins. I personally think the game was brilliant.

  19. Well that’s an even more stupid game design decision since one team could throw a single game to an allied house by a rediculous margin at the end of the season and nullify everything else.

    The most shocking thing in the post to me, however, is that you are listing the probles with Quidich as if you were the first to think of them combined with waiting until the 7th book to speak up.

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