Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Game Design of Fencing

Being a game designer I get to do or watch anything that is related to games. Therefore, watching the Olympic Games turned into an impromptu and, thankfully, short hobby over the past few weeks. I say ‘thankfully’ because it managed to take up so much, admittedly joyous, time. 

Naturally, I had to analyse what I was watching too, and the different approaches that different sports take to snags in their game design is very interesting. 

Like many sports, fencing is a gamified version of a once useful everyday skill. There are three disciplines in the sport – foil, epee and sabre. Of these epee is the most lawless (it literally has the fewest rules) and is the simplest to follow, as a viewer. 

Sword fighting - once twas for real, now tis for fun...

Points are scored by pushing the tip of the blade, which contains a small button, into your opponent with enough force to depress the button. Every portion of your opponent is a target, hands, feet, head, legs, arms, body and groin. Most importantly, you can score double points, which means that when both fencers hit each other at the same time (within 300 milliseconds of each other) they both score a point. This is not the case with foil and sabre, where they have right of way rules that determine which of the two fencers should get the sole point. 

On the surface this lack of rules feels like it should lead to impressively manic fencing, a weapon to which the anarchists of the sport are drawn. In fact the opposite is true – attacking means extending out of a safely guarded stance and exposing extremities to attack. The defender only has to strike at nearly the same time (300 milliseconds is big window of opportunity for a fencer) for a double point. The defender is also striking from a stable platform, where they only have to extend their arm to put the attacker in danger, acting like a rock for the aggressor to dash themself upon. The attacker, on the other hand is in motion, having to place the tip of the blade, which is quite whippy, while in motion. 

Hard to imagine why they wear masks...

To win a match you only need to be one point up, so acquiring that one point lead becomes a major focus. Equally, you must be pathologically fearful of not dropping to one point down. “Don’t get hit” is probably the mantra of most epeeists. Far from wild aggressive abandon, epeeists have become standoffish and quite passive. 

This fear of being hit lead to contestants backing off from each other and waiting for the other to crack and attack. All bouts are timed, so the tactic was to get one point and then wait for the time to run out. If you want to see how shameful and miserable this could get then take a look at this video


Imagine the pain of the crowd. Imagine how much you wouldn’t want to waste TV time on showing it. 

So, ironically for few rules epee, this has necessitated the addition of rules to try to remedy the situation. Many rules that enter into games are introduced for this kind of reason, and choosing good solutions is one of the trickiest parts of game design. 

In response to epeeists not fighting there is now a non-combativity rule which actions when: 
  1. criterion of time: approximately one minute of fencing without a hit 
  2. absence of blade contact or excessive distance (greater than the distance of a step-forward-lunge) during at least 15 seconds 
The penalty for non-combativity is an immediate end to the current three minute session and immediate advancement to the next three minute session, with no break in between. 

This is reasonable rule and seems to have the desired effect on the contestants, providing a psychological shock that snaps them out of their dallying stupor. If nothing else, it puts the current session of the bout out of its misery. Epee matches also seem to start slowly and finish with more aplomb, so this kind of event is more likely in the first session, thus hurrying the whole bout onto the latter, more exciting stages. 

There's a double - both fencers score a point...

But it’s still very possible for two fencers who can score at the same time to finish the match with the same score. Then what? It’s time for a sudden death minute. In this situation a fencer is chosen at random to have priority. Any fencer who gets a single point during the minute wins. If neither gets a single point then the fencer who has priority wins. 

In one of the women’s epee semi-finals this happened, and you might have caught some of the controversy around it. Shin A-Lam and Britta Heidemann were tied at the end of their semi-final and went into a sudden death minute. Shin got the priority and then did her best not to get hit. This involved backing off, backing off and backing off. 

Heidemann attacked several times but it was a double each time. With the double not counting as a scoring event the fencers were never returned to the middle of the piste. This meant that by the end of the minute Shin was pinned down at the back of the piste, if she’d put a foot out she’d have conceded a point and lost. 

Shin looks to be a long way over to the side of the piste, but a point is only conceded for stepping out the back,  not the side...

Through various events involving the countdown clock Heidemann was given the opportunity to attack several times in the closing couple of seconds of the match. Double after double was struck, none of which counted, then Heidemann finally broke through. She was probably out of time, although technically, if she was, then the machine wouldn’t have registered her point. 

Fundamentally, I believe that a match should be won by someone scoring a point, not through some kind of digital coin toss, which is exactly what the priority system amounts to. 

Shin didn't really take the loss all that well. Don't worry though, she picked up a silver in the team event...

So how should this problem be fixed? Well, one potential answer lies in the fact that Shin was pinned down at the back of her own area, desperately trying not to step back out of the piste and concede a point. The depth of the piste is a fixed distance, but what if it wasn’t? 

If you’ve ever watched Gladiator you’ll appreciate the value of a constricting play space. In the fight against the silver masked, and undefeated, Tigris, tigers are released from pits. The purpose of these is not to maul Maximus, where is the sport in that, but to force him towards his opponent. I don’t suggest that tigers should be used, although that would be awesome, but the length of the piste could be reduced, forcing conflict. 

Tigris - you'd think the armour was enough to back up the name...

It would also be possible to change the scoring system. After all, the sudden death minute changes the scoring of epee to the degree of removing the double point anyway. Why not still allow double points but give the fencer who is not in their own half more points than the fencer who has retreated. This would no longer be a sudden death minute, just a normal minute, with the winner being the one with the highest score at the end. 

The greatest irony of the Shin Vs Heidemann situation however is the fact that the priority system is intended to be spectator friendly, bringing matches to a conclusion within a specific window of time. Yet Korea quite rightly protested Shin’s loss and this appeal took over an hour to process, an hour in which the poor woman wasn’t allowed to leave the piste. 

In the time it took for the appeal to return a verdict the fencers could have ploughed on under normal rules until one got a point over the other. So should that be the system – fence until a definite conclusion is reached, like tie-breaks in tennis? No, with time pressure lifted, the current non-combativity rule would have no effect, because it punishes both fencers. So it could end up being the case that both try to out psyche each other, much like the non-fencing fencing match in the video. 

So there has to be some kind of outside pressure, and I certainly think a territory based, uneven point scoring system in double point situations would be the easiest to test and trial. It would certainly be much superior, on a mechanical, dynamic and aesthetic level, to the coin toss of the priority system. If that doesn’t work then we call in the tigers.

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