Teesside Snog Monster (jiggery_pokery) wrote,
Teesside Snog Monster

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From online puzzle leagues to online quiz leagues

As discussed in my last post (edit: last-but-one post), there are now separate Northern UK and Southern UK teams for the forthcoming Croco-League online puzzle league. UK readers, both teams have vacancies if this is of interest at all; sign up according to whether you feel Northern or not. The Czech and Austrian teams look very strong, as do some of the regional German teams; I'm sure there could be many extremely strong Canadian and US teams if the North American puzzle infrastructure were prepared to break the language barrier and dive on in. Again, I'm convinced that the act of playing in the league is not an immense time commitment, the degree of flexibility is high and the puzzle material should be reasonably accessible to those who enjoy puzzle contests already, even at a fairly low level.

The Northern UK team looks fun, and we are at about the median point in strength; there are at least a couple of very strong solvers in Halifax and Northern Ireland who I hope to add to the Northern team as big-money signings if they have any interest in participating. If we can get them both then I reckon our team would probably be top-quarter or so... and I also reckon I would hardly ever get a game, barring selection problems.You've seen how much I go on about an online chess league in another country; you can guess how excited I am about actually taking part in a league further down the line.

I've also been taking an interest in, and am surprised to read that I haven't actually ever blogged about, Learned League, an online quiz league that has been running for fifteen years. The core activity is based around a series of twenty-five daily six-question trivia quizzes, more or less spread over the weekdays of five weeks. You are told your opponent in advance; each day, not only do you have to attempt to answer the questions correctly, but you also have to predict which questions your opponent is most likely to struggle with and so determine which are most and least valuable for them to answer. This gives a sense of attack and defence, common in so many sports. The competition proceeds as a series of single-round-robin divisions, roughly once per quarter, with lower divisions often being run through the Swiss system.

Testament to how well the core activity works is the league's history and its growth. Over its first roughly ten years, it has grown by a factor of seven from 20 entrants in the first season (and also its fourth season upon return from a hiatus in 1999) to 140 in the thirty-fourth, and it has grown by another factor of about seven, in just under five years, to having almost a thousand participants at the moment. Most impressive!Could there be another factor of seven growth to it, or will the trend follow that of the World Series of Poker Main Event and plateau at a natural level? There is no $10,000 entry fee as a barrier to entry, but participation is by invitation through an existing player, and some degree of societal pressure requiring reliability. The player base is primarily from the USA, and the question material caters to the audience.

A thousand players makes for a big old game. Before the Internet, it was difficult to find a game to play (at least, with the game-nature rather than the sport-nature, and the blurred dividing line is a topic for some other day) with more players than you could fit around a table. Many of us were - and some of us still are - fascinated by games with so many players, or such complexity, that they cannot effectively be played in person and had to be played through the postal service, with several (or dozens of, or hundreds of) players all taking part from their own homes around the country or around the world. The availability of e-mail on a commercial basis supplanted postal play by a large extent, and the availability of high bandwidth on a commercial basis enabled the World of Warcraft-to-Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 axis, with a side-branch via social media networks to Farmville and friends. A thousand-player game may not be state of the art, but it's still pretty cool.

One of the really clever parts of the design is that the league organiser is a long-time fan of the league pyramid system used most notably in European association football league systems, but which is fairly frequent across many sports. There is one top Championship division (and divisions are referred to by what I have learnt is an archaic word, "Rundles"), three parallel second divisions, six parallel third divisions and so on in a 1-3-6-6-6-6 structure, with another 6 parallel rookie divisions simply to sort out quickly in which division newcomers should play their second season. As the number of levels of play has been capped at six, one could imagine that if the league grows by another factor of seven, the structure might develop into, say, 1-3-9-27-81-81. There is a point at which trying to illustrate the entire league structure on a single page becomes excessively unwieldy.

Six levels of play do stratify well in practice; the top flight sees most players answer almost all of the 150 questions asked over a season correctly, whereas a third correct is par for the course in the bottom level of play. The organiser's question supply deserves particular praise for being able to serve so many levels of play so well. It's not perfect - the top division has so many matches drawn 9-9 (i.e., answered perfectly throughout) that I have a suspicion that there is an undue element of luck involved in having an undue number of opponents make mistakes against you, rather than against other players - but part of the appeal is that the same questions are used throughout all levels of the league, and I imagine it would be very difficult to get the balance between the needs of the highest and lowest standards of play better than happens at present.

At present, participation in the league is free. There is a fund-raiser a couple of times a year; the invited levels of donation are sociable and carry with them some elements of swag and some degree of (tastefully done) non-gameplay advantages. However, the organiser has announced that henceforth players will have to contribute an annual membership fee in order to play in the league, beyond their first season. The organiser is doing this on a "pay what you like" basis and has expressed a desire not to exclude participants, which shows his heart is in the right place.

It is clear that running the league has generated a lot of good for the world at large over the years, and I certainly am happy that someone who does this much for the world at large gets rewarded for his labour, if he wants to be. The decision that he has taken (and confirmed) seems to slightly jar, for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, I'm not sure how effective it will be. There are plenty of "pay what you like" experiments out there, possibly most notably Radiohead's In Rainbows album, but also initiatives like the Humble Indie Bundle of computer games. They tend to be pretty open about how much they have, or haven't taken in; you can see the figures for yourself and decide whether the initiative tends to work or not - and, perhaps, lessons might be learnt from subtle differences between schemes. It would be interesting to see whether people who habitually chose to toss the occasional $25 (or more) remain so generous with their donations in future.

Secondly, it sends a rather strange signal out there. I really don't think that the organiser is in it for the money; the "pay what you like" stipulation strongly suggests otherwise, and the explicit setting of no minimum price (or, effectively, a minimum price of one currency unit) backs this up. Nevertheless, requiring those who currently pay nothing to pay something sends out a clear signal that those who pay nothing are no longer welcome. Part of the fun and momentum of being part of a game is seeing it grow and thrive, and the fact that the league has grown by such a factor is tremendous and exciting. I don't really believe that the organiser wants to prioritise revenue over continued growth, but that's the way the decision makes it appear.

As much as the organiser might specify there is no minimum, it will be interesting to see, over time, whether players are prepared to pay very small sums really are made welcome - by the other players, even if they are not explicitly unwelcomed by the organiser. There are framing issues. Donations were previously framed in a structure starting at $25, and swag continues to be withheld for donations of under $50. (Again, not unreasonable; swag ain't free.) These are reasonably chunky sums, though nobody could deny that a considerable quantity of quizzing (four full league seasons, plus mini-leagues and one-day competitions; probably well over a thousand questions, in a league whose question quality is rightly highly commended) is made available over the course of the year for your money.

Another issue is that the only acceptable form of contribution is, well, money. The organiser demonstrates a willingness to try to do the right thing by offering three methods of payment, including sending payment through the postal service, the most accessible fallback of all. However, some players have offered to contribute through service rather than through donation, and these offers appear to have been rejected, which leaves a slightly sour taste in the mouth. (They may not actually have been rejected, but the organiser hasn't gone out of his way to let people know that alternatives are possible!)
As an aside, I don't regard any of the currently prevalent online payment methods as truly satisfactory. Yes, I use PayPal, but I don't like it - either for the lack of accountability they show when unilaterally shutting down the livelihoods of some small businesses who rely on it, or for some of the screwy libertarian politics espoused by some at the top. I get the impression that Bitcoins actually are holding up in the long term rather better than I had expected them to, after a couple of boomy and busty months following their recent publicity surge, so they could well be a practical alternative payment source, especially if conversion to other currencies becomes easier.
Lastly, I can't help feeling that the whole aspect of compulsion will necessarily change the mood of the league. Previously, this was one person's game where everyone participated for fun. With compulsory membership, it overtly looks like a moneymaking exercise. (Which, again, I don't believe is the intention.) Previously, the league was a shining example of the gift economy; the organiser gave his time and effort as a gift, and in return, some players happened to give donations as gifts - but both parties would have been happy doing it for the love of the activity. Compulsion of money moves it into the real-world economy, where both parties will expect to get something in return. I prefer to live in a world with as many high-quality things in the gift economy as possible, and this was a rare high-quality, exciting, growing, big game.

Complaining about something without offering alternatives is not as constructive as it could be, so here are a few off the top of my head.

* Offer more compelling alternatives for those who can, and want to, express their patronage at higher levels than are catered for today; some degree of sponsorship could be tastefully executed. I am frequently amazed and amused by many of the high-level offerings in Kickstarter (etc.) projects, and the extent to which these are accepted.

* Offer additional contests that require donation for participation. This might incentivise non-donating members to start to donate, without affecting the current quality of service to non-donating members.

* Licence the technology and existing infrastructure so that there might be more than one parallel Learned League, with other leagues featuring different focuses. If ever I win a EuroMillions jackpot (and in order for me to have sufficient money to start to play this -EV proposition, I'll need to have one of my +EV premium bonds land first...) I dream of funding a parallel Learned League with the (moderately small, but sufficient) cultural bias being towards UK, rather than US players.

* The league builds up a fascinating degree of statistical history, but in order to be able to access it, you have to be a member - which requires having played in the league already. There is a long history of sites permitting access either at no charge through limited invitations or alternatively through paid access. I'm not going to suggest it's always appropriate or always inappropriate, but it's possible to judge sites' experiences with this and conclude whether or not it would be appropriate for sites that currently do not use the system.

* Continue to grow aggressively; additional members will continue to produce revenue, even if the proportion of members donating shrinks slightly, and the increased size of the league will only add to the fun. This would generate a greater workload, but it should be possible to continue to improve efficiency to deal with participants at a greater rate. Expanded revenue from this line of work could permit the organiser to spend less time on other paying business in order to maintain an ideal work-life balance.

* Permit other people to participate in aspects of the organisation of the league, to share the difficulty of maintaining the workload, or otherwise contribute through service rather than donation. Of course, I don't know the ins and outs and whether there are aspects which can be outsourced, so this might not be practicable.

The league is explicitly run as a benign dictatorship. In part, this is established through rules 15 and 16, but the impacts of this are more cultural than legal, and might best be felt through the tone of conversation in the forum. There is a question where a benign dictatorship starts to show (mostly fictive) commonalities with a cult of personality; the decision of the organiser to overtly adopt a fun pseudonym (or, to use his charming term, nom de jeu) through which to conduct game business, and engender the infallibility of the character, seems to be a deliberate decision to contribute towards this.

However, this enterprise essentially has to be a benign dictatorship; all games run by a moderation team for the benefit of a playership cannot escape this distinction. (I enjoy games that play with this paradigm, but this is not one of them.) It's a rare - and possibly limited? - game that can completely dictate its parameters at the start rather than responding to change, so by participation in a game whose rules or procedures over time, you essentially have to trust the moderator's sense of taste and wisdom in the decisions they take when organising the game.

Nobody gets it right all the time, and nobody should be expected to; I don't recall the pithy saying, but if people only ever did things for which they could expect not to receive criticism, nobody would ever do anything at all. The continued strength and growth of Learned League, and its popularity with its competitors, indicate that the organiser is getting far more right than wrong. Conversely, the extent to which the Croco-Puzzle UK ladder that I have run for fifteen months has struggled and not caught alight in the manner that I had hoped it might - not least, inspired by the strength and success of Learned League - may indicate flaws in my design or my moderation.

Nevertheless, the organiser has not previously taken such a decision to change the necessary relationship between himself and his players, and this may be a more fundamental alteration that may have a more significant change in the mood of the competition than any that comes before it. I hope that the test of time proves that the organiser has read the mood correctly, and balanced things against the demands in his own life as effectively as possible. I look forward to writing about the league again in future as not just an isolated but interesting Internet quiz, but as one of the the highlights - in terms of quantity as well as quality - in all of online mind sports.

Please redirect any comments here, using OpenID or (identified, ideally) anonymous posting; there are comment count unavailable comments to the post already. Thank you!

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