Tuesday, November 08, 2011

An Open Letter to Organized Play Programs

Dear Organized Play Programs,

Stop letting unpaid interns design and program your software.

Tournament Organizers and Judges Everywhere

Normally, I talk about cool role-playing game topics or travel or whatever. Sometimes I’ll talk about weird ass events we’re hosting. I don’t really go into how the sausage is made, because it’s sort of complicated and I’m not sure many people care. Today, though, I’m going to go into something I think is of dire, vital importance to the games industry as a whole: game design doesn’t stop when the game is shipped.

Pretty packaging sells games. A well-run tournament does the same, and it’s a lot easier to run a good tournament with good software. Except that there isn’t a single piece of “good” software being used by either Wizards of the Coast or Konami. Wizards Event Reporter (WER) is arcane, difficult to learn and often laggy to the point of uselessness. The Konami Tournament Software (KTS) doesn’t even upload tournament results. There is no option for that; you have to upload the tournament results to COSSY yourself. A close cousin to KTS is MANTIS, which is what was used for Yu-Gi-Oh tournaments under the Upper Deck, and it had a few features that I wish KTS had. COSSY, the third (and worst) Yu-Gi-Oh software platform is an entirely-online experience in frustration and pain.

So what the hell is going on? Why don’t these big players in the gaming sphere have better software for running their tournaments? If I had to take a guess (which I’m going to do), I’d say it’s a money problem, and that the problem is multifaceted. If you don’t have effective software to run your tournaments, people don’t run tournaments. And if you spend too much money making that software, you need to sell a lot of product to get that money back before it’s worth it. These are valid concerns, for sure. The problem, though, is that it doesn’t take a lot of money to solve some pretty basic problems with the way these programs work.

Let’s take a quick look at the things I love and hate about each of the above pieces of software.

Wizards Event Reporter

What I love: It’s probably the most intuitive of the tournament software engines currently available. That doesn’t mean that it’s actually intuitive, mind. It’s no iPad. But if you tool around with it for an hour or so, or if you have some experience using software like this, it’s pretty easy to figure out. It’s also the only software that lets me sanction events and report events from the same UI, which is something I rarely do, but it’s handy. A lot of the tournament management stuff that I would have to do online two years ago has been integrated here. I can sanction, report and cancel tournaments all in the same place. There are timers built into the software. The local player’s database is easy enough to use, though it’s quirky.

What I hate: It takes up a lot more resources than any program for this sort of thing should. My tournament computer isn’t crap, but it’s not exactly top of the line anymore. WER slows it to a crawl, lagging out and occasionally just not working. In the middle of a 25 person tournament, this is a pain in the ass. In the middle of a 40 person tournament, it’s a critical flaw. Also, it takes a fair bit of time to train yourself to use it effectively. You can use it poorly right out of the box, if you are already familiar with things like the old DCI Reporter (which was something like seven hundred times harder to use).


What I love: Not much. The fact that it pretty seamlessly saves my tournament to the cloud as we’re playing doesn’t even out the horrendous list of horrible problems with the system. It runs out of a browser, which is a plus. I guess.

What I hate: Pretty much everything else. It runs on Java and is session-based, which means that a lot of the time you’re going to end up losing your connection to it if your rounds go to time (which they often do). It’s ugly and poorly designed, it doesn’t print well, it can’t change results without some serious tomfoolery, you can’t register players late, it’s been poorly translated from the Japanese version of the same software with some very, very confusing buttons. It is easily the most frustrating piece-of-shit program I have ever been forced to use, and I hope that whatever servers it currently lives on go up in flames and we never see it again.

Konami Tournament Software

What I love: It’s lightweight. Like its predecessor, MANTIS, the KTS software is small and compact, and runs with no difficulty on the worst computers in the world. It’s also damned near impossible to use if you don’t have a pretty good idea of how these sorts of systems work. It has some pretty solid buttons along the top of the interface that don’t do exactly what you think they’d do, but once you have them down, they make your life a lot simpler.

What I hate: It doesn’t have any cloud support at all. Like, when I’m done my tournament, I have to manually upload it to the COSSY website, because Konami can’t be arsed to pay people a hundred bucks to program a file transfer protocol into the program. It is the furthest thing from intuitive, with complex menus, dialogues that mean nothing to me, and one of the ugliest UIs to grace the tournament scene.


What I love: What it lacks in pretty it more than makes up for in utility. Mantis is easily one of the most straight-forward user interfaces around, with helpful menus, a tabbed interface, a perfectly integrated local player database, and an easy-to-understand upload interface. Also, the fact that there’s a function for temporary

What I hate: It’s really fucking ugly, and it doesn’t actually work for any sanctioned tournaments. It was the program that Upper Deck used for their Yu-Gi-Oh and World of Warcraft tournaments back when they were still a respected force in the collectible card game world. You can see that they put some thought and effort into making this program not completely suck, but it is showing its age, and the fact that I can’t use it for sanctioned tourneys puts a stake in it. I still use this one for non-sanctioned tourneys because it does a lot of the things I need it to do for that sort of thing.

Searching for Perfection

So what would the perfect tournament software look like? What features would it need to have for me to be able to sign off on it? First of all, it needs to be user-friendly. Like, Apple computers user-friendly. Designed to account for how human beings interact with things, and with a powerful suite of problem-solving tools related to how people actually run tournaments. See, the big problem with KTS or COSSY or WER is that they don’t account for human nature.

So let’s account for that. The way I run my tournaments is that I show up, set up my computer and open whatever software I’m supposed to be using. I pick a tournament to run, or I create a new one. I enroll players, most often from a local player database, but occasionally having to look up player names or input new players’ identification numbers by hand. Then I pair the round and print the pairings to a digital file, which I present to the players on a big TV screen we have in the tournament center. The players play, they bring me results, telling me what table they were on and who won the match. Rinse, repeat until the tournament is over, then we distribute our prize packs based on the players’ standings. Then I upload the tournament.

What this means to me is that I need to be looking at things in a specific order. The first thing I need to be looking at is a tournament selection/creation wizard. I need to answer some basic questions and arrive at the tournament I want to be playing. This could be set up like the Wizards Event Reporter, in list form, or it could be a question-and-answer wizard that determines which tournament we need to be playing based on choices made in the wizard itself.

Then I need to see my local player’s database and a method for inputting new players. These should be on the same interface, much like how MANTIS handles it. I like the check-box-equals-enrolled functionality of the MANTIS system. The database needs to be searchable so that larger tournament stores can find people efficiently, and there needs to be a way to locate the player number of a person who has forgotten their number at home. If the numbers are scanned by a barcode scanner, all the better.

Pairing is more important than any other aspect of tournament software. The pairings are shown to players, they are where I put results in, and they determine the outcome of the tourney as a whole. The interface here has to be clean, easy to use and easy to edit. Results need to be easily editable, and should automatically adjust current pairings when mistakes in reporting are discovered (because mistakes in reporting happen a LOT, there needs to be a cleaner system for handling these mistakes).

Pairings and standings should be visually grokkable. You should be able to look at a print-out of pairings and see a color difference between each line. I reference the tables used in Dungeons & Dragons as a good example of this. The tables have light rows and dark rows, alternating, to make it easier for you to reference at a glance.


This makes it really easy to tell what it is you’re looking at. If a round’s pairings were displayed like this, it would make it a lot easier to see who the hell you’re about to go sling cards against. Moreover, it’s prettier to look at, and you can fit a LOT of information in a chart like this. Who you’re playing, what your record is, what your opponent’s record is, table number, seating arrangement, where they were in the draft pod, whatever. It’s a really simple, small change that would add a lot to the functionality of the software for your average tournament organizer.

There should be timers, and those timers should set automatically depending on what you’re doing. You should be able to tell the computer “I am doing this,” and it should figure out how to time that thing. For Magic: The Gathering drafts, draft timings should be an audio file that counts down for you (I’ve already created an audio file at my store that does exactly that). For every game, when a round starts, the clock should start with a three minute delay to give everyone time to get to their seats and prepare to play.

Putting in results should be a foolproof endeavor. I really like the way Konami handles this. It’s just a check box for who won, and another set of check boxes for anyone who drops. That’s it. It’s simple. I rarely screw up Yu-Gi-Oh results. I screw up Magic results all the fucking time.

An aside to players: There are some things you should be doing to make this process easier. Know what table you were assigned to. If you don’t know, look it up. If you are the winner of the round, report the result. Don’t let the loser report. Don’t let your friend report. Do it yourself, because your TO is going to see you, and that fucks around with how we report. I’m serious; most of my screw-ups happen because someone comes up and tells me they lost, but I report them as winning because they are the person standing in front of me. Also, don’t be a dick.

Standings are how most tournaments determine who has won. Swiss round tourneys live and die by their ability to determine clear ranks of players. As per the pairings, there should be a clear, easy-to-read chart. Standings should update as you play. I shouldn’t need to pair a new round to see what the standings look like.

And finally, uploading should be fucking seamless. It should require zero effort. When the tournament is done, I should be able to click a button and have it handled. It is not difficult to build this into a system. I shouldn’t be stopping my tournament waiting for the program to sync. I shouldn’t have to jump through hoops. I should be able to click a button and then never think about that tournament again. Is that so much to ask?


There are a lot of ways you can run tournaments right now. I haven’t even covered all of the software available, just the ones I use most often. And I haven’t covered all of the features that would make aimage piece of tourney software better than everything else currently on the market, just the ones that are most relevant to the needs of a tournament organizer. I haven’t even touched on warnings, penalties, format rules, time extensions, tabling and seating considerations, pod crossing, costing, prizing considerations, tournament math (how many players are going to go X-2? The equation is to the right), pre-registration, and a million other details. These are all important considerations and how they’re handled will drastically change the flavor of organized play. The fact that even the biggest, most glaring of tournament organizational factors have been given so little attention, though, is annoying at best and hobbling tournament organizers at the worst. This is especially true of the people who haven’t been doing this for years. People who are just getting into the world of tournament organization have a pretty steep learning curve ahead of them, and that should not be the case for an endeavor meant to bring market and support a product you mean to sell.

If you want to sell this product, and you want organized play to be a large part of the marketing for that, you need to make running tournaments as simple and approachable as possible. Get more people running tourneys, and you have more people buying your stuff. While organized play has done wonders for my store, not every games manager in the world has my tech savvy or determination, and I have seen stores that have been crippled by a lack of ease and approachability. That is something we need to fix.