Written By: Andre Whalen
Published By: iDigitaltimes.com
You may be familiar with the many downsides of bar trivia. The trivia itself can be too hard or too easy. One team usually dominates; fun if it’s your team, not so much if it’s not. Being on a small team up against the entire law firm of Bro, Boaster & Toodrunk can keep you on edge. The chicken wings might not be spicy enough. We spoke with Raph Koster, one of the design minds behind Star Wars Galaxies and the author of A Theory of Fun for Game Design, about his recent work reinventing bar trivia.
Koster has better ideas than college humor for fixing bar trivia
If you’ve ever been to a Buffalo Wild Wings or bar venue with tablet-enabled bar trivia, then you’ve played a Buzztime Entertainment game. Bar trivia is meant to be unobtrusive, more social enhancer than central event. But the balance and careful design Koster put into Buzztime’s Jackpot Trivia expose the universal principles in game design that unite the immersive MMORPG and the as yet un-acronymed “slapping buttons to prove your smart without distracting too much from the riotous social pleasures of beer.” For Koster, the problems that arise in bar trivia interactions are similar to our interactions with virtual worlds.
“Whether or not a game happens around a tabletop or on the court or field of a sport or entirely inside a computer, the overall patterns are the same,” Koster told iDigitalTimes. “I don’t think it makes a real difference whether you’re in the ‘real world’ or not. What all games have in common is that they create a little bubble separate from the world. It’s perfectly fine for two people to beat each other up… inside the bubble of the game.”
What is fun (Other than drinking)?
Of course, it begins with fun. But the nature of fun itself is far from obvious.
For Koster “fun comes from mastering problems.” But while we typically think of mastering problems as work, Koster believes it’s integral to satisfying recreation.
“We spend most of our time operating on reflexes that we’ve built up, that we don’t think about,” he said. “You need to build up a pretty large library of that kind of thing in order to function. Play is the way you do it. Fun is the brain’s reward for building up these schemas.”
Part of this satisfaction comes from making decisions. This has a number of design implications, with Koster offering up this example from Jackpot Trivia: “When you decided to allocate your chips across your guess in Jackpot Trivia you’ve got 4 possible answers. But we intentionally gave you an odd number of chips. So you can’t split them evenly. To split them evenly allows you not to make a decision.”
But how do you balance social play with hyper-competitive teams of regulars there to flex trivia muscles? Koster came up with solutions rooted in rigorous design.
Balancing Bar Trivia
First, there’s voting for categories, which can “level the playing field against expert geographers or historians.” Koster offered up the example of a kid voting for “Pokémon or Disney trivia,” empowering players with decisions that can steer play.
The other main component is a kind of “alternate game,” where teams can wager on answers, allowing players to invest in confident solutions and hedge against trivia they’re not so certain about.
Sure, it’s just bar trivia, but the empirical rigor that goes into it is astonishing. Koster knew they had struck the proper balance “when we were able to run thousands of Monte Carlo simulations with simulated players of various levels of expertise, and get out consistent results: a true know-it-all generally still wins, but good strategy play can outweigh knowledge to some degree, and all races tend to be tight.”
Bringing the design principles of MMORPGs and other virtual communities can enrich seemingly simple social interactions as bar trivia. “A huge value of games has been about connecting people,” Koster said. Game rules can smooth that process. And just like in the current minimalist obsession with “disappearing design,” creating a better bar trivia can begin “fulfilling the actual promise of what games can be.”