Wednesday 21 March 2012

Aptathlon I debrief

For the first proper post on this blog I thought I'd talk a bit about the latest Aptathlon: what my intentions were, how it panned out, and what I've learnt for the next one. Comments are particularly welcome as I try to figure out what parts of this people actually want to read about.

A quick recap of what Aptathlon is for those that missed it. There are eight "events", each of which is a given game format, like a Numbers Attack or Bullet Hebrew Speedgoat (okay, I didn't really use that one). Each player can play a single game against a patzer opponent in one event of their choice. Then we take the highest individual score in each event, add them together, and that's the team score, with the intention obviously being to get the highest team score possible. The event runs over the course of a few days and players can see the scores that have already been posted when they decide which event to enter. And that's pretty much it.

So why did I bother to create this new game mode? The idea came from my general worry that apterous caters well to the very top end of players, who can compete for rankings on literally hundreds of different leader boards. This is great and I think rewarding people for being good at stuff is important and part of what keeps players coming back. However, there's no escaping the fact that most leader boards are dominated by a small number of players who are extremely good at the game, have huge word knowledge, superhuman arithmetic skills, and are often comfortable even playing in different languages --- and that's intimidating for new players, who can't ever see themselves being that good (perhaps rightly!). At some point I'll write a post about the various ways that I've tried to address this problem, but Aptathlon is one facet. By forcing players to restrict the application of their skills to a single event, it greatly increases the pool of people who can win an event and therefore contribute to the team score. Also, because it's a team effort, I hoped that players would feel less disappointed if someone else surpassed their score, since it's still all for the good of the team; in other words, it's less directly competitive than something like the Duel. And to stress the point: I don't think there's anything wrong with competitive modes, I just think there's space for something different as well.

And how did it go? Well, let's take a look at the final results. Unsurprisingly, the 15 Rounder event was won by a highly ranked player, the current #2 in Pro Ranks in fact. More encouragingly, other events were won by players ranked #10 and #17, and the remaining five events were won by players outside the top 25. However, before we congratulate ourselves too much, we should note that four of those were still in the top 100 and the only remaining player, who won the Spanish 15 event, currently holds all of the major Spanish-language records. So there were no huge surprises. But still, the top 100 plus language specialists is a much wider pool than can realistically be monthly champion in the Duel (just five people in the last two years). So that's some kind of progress.

Now let's look at what didn't go as well as I wanted, and what I plan to do about it for Aptathlon II.

First up, a certain number of people seemed confused by the designation of Aptathlon as a "team game". A few got the idea that it's a team game in the sense of requiring group coordination to achieve a shared goal, i.e. deploying people's skills efficiently across the different events to maximise the team score. However, other people assumed that "team" meant they would be playing against some other team, which I hadn't anticipated. When you start a new job and they say "let's meet the team", you don't normally think "oh, I wonder who they're playing against"! But nevertheless I should've found some way to manage that expectation, because those people were then disappointed with what it wasn't rather than what it was, and that's frustrating for everyone involved. On this front I think there's nothing to be done; people will hopefully get the idea for the next one, and now a benchmark has been set (1177 points), people will hopefully play as a team to beat that score, which was my intention at the beginning.

One thing that disappointed me was that six of the final eight high scores were set on the first day, which meant that the gradual improvement of the team score didn't pan out as I wanted. In particular, one of the formats got maxed within a few hours of the Aptathlon starting, which effectively reduced the event roster to seven for everyone else. And in most of the other events people posted pretty good scores very quickly, which probably dissuaded other people from entering. To compound the problem, I didn't make it clear enough that the scoring was Stepdown, so I imagine some players were discouraged at a glance by seeing things like a Bullet 15 score of 130! So that interface aspect will definitely be remedied next time around. In future I will also have to be smarter about choosing formats that are a little more difficult so that the scores can steadily improve over the course of the event, which is ultimately more exciting and satisfying for everyone. I have some ideas for that but I think they'll work better as a surprise, so I'm staying zip for now.

I was also disappointed with how few people entered: only 62 over the five days, which is fewer than have entered the Daily Duel on almost any day this year. Part of that might be the discouraging factors I just discussed. Also I didn't do a good enough job of publicising it; a single line in News announcing the start of the event, and then a link on the front page to the ongoing status of the event, which was probably not prominent enough. The Duel, by contrast, virtually publicises itself because you get an explicit challenge from the Duellist whenever you log in. So I'll try to bring something like that into the interface for the next one. Also I think some sort of explicit reward for participation might help, so next time there will be an item just for entering (a la the Duel Jewel) and perhaps an additional item for the eight people who post high scores (or maybe that's against the spirit of the thing. Not sure yet.)

Finally, there was one thing which went better than expected! Before the event I had worried that the top players would hang back until the final day and then "poach" the events with the weakest scores. As it turns out, curiosity evidently got the better of them and most of the top players played on the first day; only the 15 Rounder got overtaken late in the event, and was actually a very good score already, so that's all fair and lovely. Perhaps that won't work as smoothly next time, now the novelty has worn off, but we shall see. There's also an incentive for players to play earlier because ties are broken on an earliest-first basis, so too much hanging back is risky for people who are particularly focused on individual attainment.

So there we have it. I've focused a lot here on the things that didn't work out well, but overall I was actually quite happy with it; there were no major technical disasters, the people who did enter mostly had fun with it and got the idea, and a fair amount of the feedback was positive. And unlike Top Dog (which has never really been what I wanted; more on that another time), it seems like most of the problems are soluble within the current framework. So thanks to everyone who played and for all the comments so far. Here's to Aptathlon II!


  1. Relatedly, ProRanks isn't a particularly useful measure for me - being an antisocial git I almost never play human vs. human, so ProRank is depressed by inactivity. Monthly duel records seem to place me fairly consistently at about 10th over the range of disciplines, so it might make more sense to regard me as a Top 25 player when counting the beans - Nick D.

  2. Interesting to see the reasoning. On a basic level, I think it's very difficult to get away from the usual suspects winning everything, but nice that you're working hard to spread the glory.