Today I want to follow up a little bit on a topic that I briefly touched upon last time, but wasn’t able to devote the time that it deserves. Although the precise future of VTES is somewhat uncertain, it will undoubtedly include online play. There are simply too many to advantages to it to ignore. It completely sidesteps the problem of card availability, and removes the barrier of physical distance – something that is particularly appealing for a game with a relatively small player base. Don’t have a local play group in your area? You can still play and enjoy the game – you just have to do it online!
These advantages also mean that it is a fantastic way to keep current players interested (they can play with cards they don’t own, and play with people they don’t usually get to), and to reactive old players. Last article I mentioned the House of Commons podcast hosted by three Magic the Gathering players who recently rediscovered VTES and are playing it online. Hell, they’re even putting their games on Twitch – which is a great way to advertise the game, and energize current players.
Yes, online play is certainly here to stay, but I think that our community and the VEKN should be taking steps to encourage and promote it. The goal of our organization should quite simply be to have more people playing, enjoying, and thinking about VTES. Up until now, online play has been something of a dirty secret – something implicitly acknowledged, but not encouraged. I assume that it was never officially endorsed for all the same reasons that prevented us from allowing printed proxies (see my last article for a discussion about why it’s time to change that policy!). But I think it is time for us to consider how we can support the game we have, rather than wait and hope that a company will come along and do that for us.
So how can we support online play? Well, I’ve got a few ideas, but before I present them, I need to confess that in some ways I’m speaking from a position of ignorance. I’ve never played VTES online before. But I do have a little experience playing the Legend of the Five Rings (L5R) CCG online. More importantly, I had the opportunity to observe how their online play was organized and functioned. I watched the steps taken by players and organizers to create a vibrant community of online players. And I was able to see how this system converted casual players into dedicated ones who were willing to travel for major tournaments. It helped keep people excited about the game. So these suggestions are nothing more than an attempt to apply the best parts of their system to VTES.
#1 Online Tournaments
I have never seen an online tournament of VTES, but L5R hosted them pretty frequently (about once a quarter). Rather than a traditional single-day event, these tournament stretched out over multiple weeks, as players slowly put together games according to their own schedules and reported the results. The process started with an announcement to the community (which was a facebook page dedicated to L5R online play) and an invitation to register. Registration was (of course) free, you just needed to add your name to a list. After some period of time (maybe 2 weeks), the tournament would start. At this time, the organizer would take all the participants, pair them up, and then post the pairings. Each participant then had one week to schedule their online game, play it, and report the results to the organizer. New pairing would be released, and new games scheduled. L5R tournaments usually had a set number of Swiss round, followed by a cut to the top X players (4, 8, 16, or 32 depending on the number of participants), and then single elimination games until a winner was determined.
This system could be rather easily adapted to VTES. Player would be divided up into tables, given their seating order and told who was the first player. From there, it would be up to those players to find a time to play their match. Now, accommodating five schedules is significantly more difficult than accommodating two, so I’m guessing that this would be the most difficult part of the tournament. One possibility is to simply give each group more time (maybe two weeks rather than one) to find a time that works for all of them. Another would be that tables only need to find a time that works for 4 players (rather than all 5), meaning that the fifth player who just can’t schedule time for the game gets dropped from that round. Finally, the problem of scheduling is really only present if you assume that players are trying to play real-time (using a program like Lackey), but my understanding is that there is a decent following for Jyhad On-Line (JOL) which more akin to a play-by-post system where games happen over the course of several days or weeks.
Assuming that real-time games are desired, I think the next question is if any changes to the typical tournament rules would be required – specifically in regards to a time limit. L5R simply did away with the normal time limit for their online games, but that is also a game that you can reasonably play in about an hour. Removing the time limit in VTES might not be a good idea. I assume it would also be more difficult to scedule a game – its much harder to set aside an unknown period of time as opposed to 2-3 hours. But time limits also cause problems – what if somebody’s connection drops? Do you wait for them? If so, does that time count against the time limit? Honestly, I think the solution here would require a little bit of trial and error.
Again, JOL might provide a solution around this. If the game isn’t being played in real time, then there would be no need for an in-game time limit. Instead there could be an out-of-game time limit. All games have 2 weeks (as an example – I don’t actually know how long JOL games take on average) to complete, and at a set timeverything all unresolved games time out. Here the problem is what happens if a player is being very slow in responding to the game. For instance, if you’ve snagged 1 VP, you might have incentive to only check your computer once per day or skip a few days. So I suppose JOL style tournaments would have their problems as well.
Ultimately, I think this will just take some experimentation. If you want to try out the real-time tournaments you could start by setting a 3 hour round limit, with time continuing if somebody is dropped, but players are simply skipped if they can’t reconnect within 5 minutes (not dropped, but their turns are skipped, and it’s assumed they don’t block or play any cards). If that event runs smoothly, perhaps those rules could become the standard. Otherwise, new rules could be tried out before a final online tournament structure is settled upon.
#2 Officially Endorsed Online Play
Just having online tournaments would be awesome, but I think we need to go one step further. These events need to be officially endorsed and advertised by the VEKN. That would mean that winners of these online tournaments would see their deck featured in the Tournament Winning Deck Archive (TWDA), and that the winner would qualify for their Continental Championship. These are honestly very little things, but they are the two biggest things that separate a day of VTES from a tournament. If people wanted, there could be a small fee charged and the winner could be shipped some prize (like an engraved deck box?). Point is, these events should be considered as official tournaments to attract additional people. It could also help ensure that people have plenty of chances to qualify for national / continental events even if they don’t live near an active group of 10+ players.
The other thing that the VEKN can do is become a hub for information about how to get involved with online play. It would be great if they had an “Online Play” link on the main page that led to some information about the different platforms. Maybe we could get volunteers to write a little tutorial for each platform on how to get started (installation), and how to play your first game.
Finally, I don’t know if this is possible on JOL, but Lackey allows spectators to be present. If the finals table of a big tournament was announced and advertised, would people be interested in coming to watch (just like in a real tournament)? I imagine that they would enjoy the opportunity to watch the game afterwards on Twich TV, especially if one or more commentators were present. I think that recorded finals like this would be a great community-building tool.
#3 New Inner Circle Member
Yes, group 6 Inner Circle members would be awesome, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Although it would be a simple matter to make online tournaments official, actually organizing, advertising, and running the tournaments would take quite a bit of time and effort. Perhaps it’s time to add another position to the VEKN inner circle – an Online Play Coordinator, who’s job it is to promote online game play. They certainly wouldn’t have to run all the online events (although it would be nice if people who wanted to run their own online tournaments could turn to this person as a resource), but perhaps they could commit to running two online events a year?
So who wants to volunteer to run the first tournament? I’ll certainly play (maybe I should do a practice game first…)! If you have any suggestions on how the VEKN can support online play, then please post them below.
Until next time, may your bleeds never be bounced, and all your votes pass!
EDIT: Hrm… I feel like I didn’t do enough research for this article. Apparently, there is already a posted JOL tournament format: “The JOL Tournament is 3 simultaneous rounds with a five month time limit. Standard tournament rules apply. Public deals only. Normal transfers. Players are expected to check their games daily, or give notice to fellow players if they will be unavailable for more than one day.” But I have no idea how often these tournaments were run, and given that there are no JOL entries into the TWDA (that I could find), I’m guessing that they weren’t officially sanctioned. If you participated in any of these tournaments – how did they go? Did you enjoy playing in them? Would you want to play in them again – and would getting your deck into TWDA and getting qualified for continental events make you more likely to participate?
It also looks like there has previously been a JOL league which ended in 2013. From the looks of things, it ended because the organizer got insanely busy rather than because players weren’t interested. Perhaps it’s time to resurrect an online-play league?