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Online Tournament Gaming

By Jon Norris | Published Mar 17 2002 06:23 PM in Game Design

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Online Tournament Gaming
by Jon Norris


Online Tournament Gaming (OTG) Overview
First, let me describe how this works. Basically, the player pays an entry fee and plays a game for cash/merchandise prizes. (OTG is similar to: Multiplayer RPG, "Tournament RPG", and Coin Op "Entry Fee" tournament gaming.)

The player pays an entry fee to participate in each tournament. The moneys collected from the players entry fees are placed into a prize pool. The prize pool is split up upon completion of the tournament. 50% of the pool is paid back to the winning players. The other 50% is split up between the game's developer, publisher, and web administrator. Sponsors can be used to promote their products by adding to the prize pool. This entire structure is a symbiotic relationship between all parties involved. The players receive meaningful play, the developer and publisher can reap the benefits long after the initial sale, and the web site would thrive and be able to promote their clients properties. (I would guess that with some titles, the publisher would want to administrate the web site.)


Basic Structure
Let me elaborate on the structure that I mentioned above. When a game is being developed, a web site (preferably specific to the title) must also be developed. It is critical to have the web site fully "up and functioning" when the title is released, so the web site development should really be done ahead of the its corresponding title. Regarding the 50% that is split up between the games creators, I would suggest the following:

16.6% to Game Developer
16.6% to Publisher
16.6% to Web Site


Tournament structure
I would suggest that the player is given a month's worth of entry fees with the purchase of the software. This allows the player to test the waters for free. These games are standard PC software packages that the player can play as many times off-line as they want. These games use the full graphics and sounds that the player has grown accustomed to. When the player goes online to participate in the tournament, they play a monitored game. The web site sets parameters for play, then monitors their progress throughout their game, and finally enters their score upon completion. When the player's game is complete, the player is given options particular to the tournament.


The use of Credits
Coin operated games have used "credits" to tabulate "money deposited" and "replays won" since the 1930's. Using credits to keep tab of a player's account has many advantages. It makes it easy for a player to know where their account stands. Credits also allow people from different countries to participate (one US dollar buys 4 credits, one Canadian dollar buys 3 credits, two pesos buys 1 credit, etc.). Finally, credits can be awarded for accomplishing certain feats during tournament play. If it costs three credits to enter a given tournament, awarding one credit (for a difficult feat) would only be 1/3 of an entry fee. Credits should be kept separate from winnings.


Skill verses Luck
There is a "gray area" that separates gambling games from skill games. I would suggest that the main prizes for each tournament be given out for skillful accomplishments. I am not a lawyer, but I have learned during my tenure in the coin op industry, that certain jurisdictions frown on any game that could be interpreted as "gambling". This is a gray area because most games have (AND NEED) some element of luck.

Keeping the skillful play aspect in mind, now I would like to point out that having some luck elements can greatly enhance the newbie appeal of a title. In my game example below, you will see some aspects that have a luck component. There are other methods that can enhance the title's appeal for beginners, but the luck element can help. The other thing that a luck element can do is to prevent the same players from winning every week.

Readers of this article may think that I have too much of a concern for appeal to beginner players. Well, most players in the early tournaments will be beginners to tournament play. Newbies are key to the success and future of each tournament title.


Meaningful Plays
When I deposit coins into an arcade game, I receive a meaningful play. I am paying to play, so completing each checkpoint (if it's a driving game) becomes very gratifying, especially when I am down to my last few tokens.

Let's look at another example. Let's say I have a recreation room full of arcade games. They are all on free play. Now the "Meaningful" play that I experienced in the arcade has been lost because I can play an unlimited times for free. "Oh, I crashed early, why not start over", or "I can just continue to buy-in (for free) until I complete the game".

Now let's say I decide to have a party. I want the guests to experience a meaningful experience. I set all of the games back on coin play and give each guest 20 tokens. When their tokens run out, their game playing is over. Now let's say that setting a high score wins 5 tokens. I guarantee that play will become a lot more intense than if all of the games were on free play! These are meaningful plays.

The tournament plays are meaningful. The player will gain more satisfaction when they excel because "Something in on the line."


Example Tournament
My example tournament will be for a golf title (I happen to enjoy golf games).

This game has one addition over other golf titles. It has a (player optional) caddie. This caddie is the equivalent of Mr. Paperclip. The caddie helps me as a newbie learn the game. The caddie even remembers how far I hit with each club (anything to help the beginner quickly learn the game)

When I decide to enter a tournament, all that I have to do is to click on the Tournament button. The game then logs onto the website (dialing-up if needed). My registration information is automatically entered into the site. I am shown how many "Credits" I have. I am also shown different current tournaments and their options. I begin with 20 credits (included with the software). I choose to try "Today's 18 Hole Shootout". This costs me three credits. Today's tournament gives prizes for the top ten places, longest putt sunk, and closest to the pin on hole #18. I am shown the current leader board. I am also told that the tie breaker will be the closest to the pin on #18. Then I am placed on the first tee. When I finish my round, I am shown my score, longest putt, and distance from the pin on #18 (all of which were shown to me as I completed them). I see the scores in relation to the leaders and I'm told if I qualified as a potential winner. If I am a winner, I am told that I will be e-mailed, and finally, I see that I have 17 credits remaining in my account. Then I am given an option screen to view my account, enter another tournament, or log off. The entire process is designed to be user friendly.

As I continue to return to the site, I see that the daily tournament offers a wide variety of courses, playing conditions, different feats (long drive, fewest putts, longest chip-in, etc.). I also see that the site offers four day (Thursday through Sunday) tournaments, match play tournaments, league play, and many free promotions from sponsors. (e.g. This week, Nike is giving a sleeve of golf balls for hitting the tractor on the driving range, 20 free attempts per player.)

As a player, I can buy additional credits using my credit card or have winnings converted into credits.


My history with tournament games, rule sets, and concepts
My involvement began in the early 90's. My first thoughts about Tournament play and gaming was the result of pinball tournaments. The dilemma at the time was presenting a rule set that eliminated all random awards during a tournament. The problem is that most pinball rule sets have several random features that give the beginner a fighting chance to do well. The expert players who participated in these tournaments did not like these apparent "luck" features. At the time, the easy solution was to install a slide switch that placed the game into a "Tournament" mode. When in the tournament mode, all features were equalized and all plateau features were balanced. The first game to use this simple feature was Cueball Wizard (1992).

The next step was to try to develop a league and handicapping system for use on our games. This effort ended up being a collaboration between the three pinball companies at the time. I spearheaded the project. We formed a league that met regularly. We developed a handicapping system that would let all skill levels of players compete in the same league. Many matches were determined on the last game.

The next step was a project where we wanted to develop an entry fee tournament game. We (Gottlieb) designed a bowling theme game titled "Strikes & Spares (1994/1995). This game was a cross between a pinball game and a Shuffle Alley (some readers may remember the game).

The player could play a standard game for 50 cents or play a tournament game for $1.00. If they decided to play a tournament game, then 50 cents went into the cash box (to the owner of the game) and the other 50 cents went into the prize pool. The video monitor displayed the ending date and the three top scores with the current prize amounts for each. First place received 50% of the pool, second place received 30%, and third place received 20%. This tournament system was "Manual" in the sense that the games owner had to go to the game at the end of a tournament to write down the winners, place their prizes into envelopes, give them to the bartender, who would hand them to the appropriate customer, and to start next week's tournament. This was a cumbersome system, but it was still a good initial start. At the time, a couple of coin operated video game efforts used a similar method (I was not involved with those games). What we found from this game was that it would attract tournament plays in locations that had a large group of expert players. Basically the game was a failure due to the fact that there was no way to attract casual (Newbies/Beginners) to play. The game did not allow the player to establish a handicap. It took a lot of pinball skill to be successful in the tournament.

The next challenge came in 1998 when Sega Pinball (I went to work for Sega in 1996) decided to develop a tournament pinball game. The lesson learned from Strikes & Spares was that if you can not attract the newbie to play, then the game would be a failure. The problem was that the final score for the average "Newbie" was only half of the average score for an expert player. Pinball is an open ended game where the better players can keep the ball in play for a longer time, thus snowballing their score because most pinball games use an increasing plateau scoring. The solution for this game was to reinvent how a game of pinball was played. Instead of giving the player 3 balls per play, I decided to give the player unlimited balls, but when the player completed the main objective, the game would end. This is like pool, where the better players finish sooner, taking fewer shots (less missed shots). The scoring was roughly the same when the game ended, except that I added a countdown bonus that awarded more points for quickly completing the objective. The result was a scoring system where the difference in the final score was 5% rather than 50%. This minimum assured (closed ended) scoring worked because the experts would still prevail, but the newbies scores were close, and on occasion, even the newbie could post a high score (with a little bit of luck). The manual element from Strikes & Spares was eliminated, because Golden Cue would be linked to a server for a nationwide tournament. This would automate all tournament functions and allow the player to compete against other players across the USA.

Success at last. The game was never produced, because the project was nearing completion when the company was sold to Stern Pinball (who decided to shelve the game). Golden Cue was later (fall of 2000) made as Sharkey's Shoot-out, but I had left the company by then. During the time that we were developing Golden Cue, IT made Golden Tee Golf (Golden Cue was going to use the same servers that administrate the Golden Tee tournament.) Golden Tee is a per play entry fee coin operated video golf tournament that has proven to be very successful in arcades and taverns locations across the country.

I left Stern Pinball (SPI) during the summer of 2000. One of my first interviews after leaving SPI was with Jackpot.com as a game designer. When the company flew me from Chicago to L.A., I decided to bring some ideas along with me. I began work on some tournament gaming concepts for possible inclusion into their website (to present at the interview). I really never got a chance to propose my ideas to them. I did not get the job, but I was still very excited about the potential for OTG as a possible new genre. Most of that proposal ended up becoming this article.

I am still excited about this concept and I am seeking employment with a developer, publisher, or web developer who shares my enthusiasm for OTG.


About the Author
Jon Norris has been a designer of coin operated games since the mid 1980's. He has over a dozen titles to his credit, including: Surf N' Safari, Super Mario Bros. Pinball, Cueball Wizard, Shaq Attaq, Golden Cue, and High Roller Casino. His specialty has always been game rules and concepts.






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