Altador Cup IX
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Parting Thoughts on the Cup
This year, it is clear the Altador Cup has reached a turning point. TNT themselves have admitted that next year the Cup must see significant changes or stop all together. But what are the problems with the Cup, and more importantly, how can those problems be solved? This year, Jellyneo's Altador Cup coverage has been provided by the dedicated team of Herdy and Ummy. On this page you'll find their thoughts about the present, and future, of the Cup.
(Herdy has taken part in the Altador Cup in all 9 years on the Haunted Woods team.)
Obviously with so few changes between last year and this, a lot of my thoughts on the Cup remain the same a last year, with a few changes. Overall, while there are many things wrong with the Cup - I think at present there are two core issues, and without fixes for both, the Cup cannot continue. There are lots of things I would also like to see added, but these two things simply must be addressed.
I mention this first because it is the problem that is most in TNT's power to fix. The bracket system simply does not work. It removed all hint of tactical play from the Cup, replacing it instead with a reliance on luck - for a competition, that's not really a good idea. It also over-emphasises the importance of the podium (non podium ties are, for example, never played). Back when we had the Double Round Robin I didn't see the importance of the finals bracket - now I really do. It gives all teams, even those at the bottom, something to work towards up until the final day of the Cup. The bracket system has a podium decided two days in, and no point for anyone else playing afterwards.
Single Round Robin with a traditional finals bracket (of the AC3-6 format) on the end is the solution. In my eyes, it is the only solution. 21 days of live play, everyone plays each other once, and most importantly, all teams can work right up until the very end. Part of this, of course, would involve switching back to scoring based on W/L/D record rather than point difference - but I would urge that the points still be displayed. They are the only positive change the Cup has seen in 4 years, it would be a shame to scrap them.
I only briefly mentioned this year, but slowly I am becoming more an more convinced that the only way of genuinely stopping cheating in the Cup is to have team score be retroactive. This means that when an account is frozen, that account's AC scores are subtracted and the team's overall score is recalculated. Obviously that can't happen constantly throughout the Cup - so it would make more sense to do it all on one day - this is why Single Round Robin + finals is so important - it gives a bye day where scores can be recalculated at the end of the Round Robin, and the nature of the finals means that teams are locked into 4 positions and cannot climb higher if cheaters attempt to make up what they lost in the final days.
Without this change, there simply is no point in continuing. Prevention of cheating in the first instance clearly is not working, and as long as posted scores remain set in stone, there is no point in freezing a single cheater - only by removing the effects of their cheating can we begin to get rid of them.
As an extra part to this, I'd also like to say that the new caps this year need to change. There is an argument that they have worked - Yooyuball, where the cap was reduced the most, has seen a dramatic reduction in scores. But this is across the board. It is hurting legit teams just as much as those who are not, meaning there is no net gain. Instead, it has damaged the efforts of those most loyal players. Even if the caps cannot be increased back to normal levels, they at least need to be raised from what they currently are.
The above are the key things needed to keep the Cup going, but that's far from mission complete - more is needed to really save the thing. Achievements are key, I think. They were phenomenally popular when they were introduced in ACV. We already know from the survey questions that there is at least some appetite within TNT for a broader Neopets achievements system, so why not start it off in the Cup? They really helped to break up the monotony of the games by setting smaller, less daunting challenges.
I also think the Food Club system I mentioned last year is becoming more appealing. Many people simply cannot be bothered with the Cup any more because they find the games boring. But they may still follow the actual results if they had vested interest (i.e. a Neopoint payout) in the daily outcomes. Only a few places now do daily predictions - and they used to be a major talking point outside of team boards on the neoboards. This would help bring them back, and make them more central to the community.
What Went Right
Much like last year, the Staff Tournament again went off without a hitch in a popular format. As I said last year, the popularity of the current format suggests that a Food Club system for the actual Cup might also be successful. I honestly can't think of a method of improving the staff tourney over what it currently is.
Again, much like last year, the NC Area was pretty good. Hidden Altador was a fun twist on the VIP Pass idea and it was good to learn some more about the lore of Altador. I hope they come up with something similar next year, though preferably with a little more story behind each location. Though, I'm still waiting for those wearable Yooyuball slings, TNT :P
Realistically, there are a lot of people who would like the Altador Cup cancelled - and normally, I'd be one of them. But I don't feel that cancelling a reasonably popular longstanding event without throwing any kind of real effort behind fixing it is a good idea. There are ideas that have a reasonable chance at at very least patching up the Cup, and those should be tried. If they don't work, alright, let's talk about getting rid of the AC, but not before.
(Ummy has taken part in the Altador Cup in all 9 years on the Krawk Island team.)
My thoughts this year are divided into two parts. Part 1 discusses some of the Cup's major issues while Part 2 is suggestion-focused.
Part 1: Problems
Another year of the Cup has come and gone, and I'll be honest, I expected better. After last year's AC was overrun by rampant cheating and was further troubled by its flawed tournament structure, I was hoping for some major improvements. Plenty of feedback was exchanged around the community, even here on JN, and I was optimistic for the future. Sadly, the only change this year to the AC was reducing the daily cap for each game. If there were some back-end changes to combat cheaters, they were unfortunately ineffective. Don't get me wrong - there's still a number of things TNT did amazingly well, such as the Staff Tournament and Hidden Altador. The tournament is fun as usual, and the prizes were hilarious. The concept art feel of the sketches for the event and the cohesion of the items was amazing. It's a shame that the Cup itself has been lacking.
Since two of the three podium positions, including the Cup, were taken by teams were significantly boosted by sizable cheat groups. If things continue as is, no legitimate team will ever win the Altador Cup again. After all, three powerful Altador Score Groups, some of which have historically helped take teams to first place, united on Virtupets and still couldn't win despite huge scores. It goes without saying that the Cup must regain integrity with the fans, or thereís really no point of the tournament aspect of it.
I miss the excitement that used to surround the Altador Cup. Even if there were no cheaters at all, the Cup will still suffer due to the bracket system. When it was introduced three years ago, I felt it had potential; after all, many real-life sports are run with a bracket system. However, it's execution lead to confusion and utter frustration at times. At the end of the day, there are elements of the bracket system that simply don't work.
The standings did not change dramatically after the first few days. It is hard to see how your team can catch up if we're not sure how it is being scored, if the impact of daily results is not known or easy to translate into something we can work with. All of the fun of predictions and hype for finals to create shake ups was lost for me. It was evident in the first week who would win the Cup, considering cheaters have historically had the edge. This AC was no different. Teams can take losses in the daily results and still remain on top of a bracket, even on the start of a new bracket. The bracket standings should not be so mysterious. I understand TNT's reluctance in revealing the scoring formula they use, but to some degree there needs to be clarity to grasp the results. While the old format didn't show the scores for daily results, we knew that teams were ranked based on the number of wins, loses, and draws. In contrast, the scoring system of the bracket format needlessly complicates things - a thing that was already working fine in the Double Round Robin format.
If this was AC VIII, I might say revamp the scoring and then give the bracket system a chance. But now, plenty of us are done with the brackets. They require so much tweaking to make it fair and more comprehensible that I feel it's better if we revert to a familiar system that's easy to interpret (and one they may still have code for). I feel that is a reasonable compromise. Although it might be easier for TNT to work with the current system, there could still be limitations that aren't popular, like teams never facing each other. Workarounds may not prolong the life of the AC in the eyes of the fans, but a good fix of the core issues can keep fans coming back for more. A lot of us have sadly lost faith in the idea of brackets as a whole. The brackets had their chance to catch on with the community and they have not three years later. I'd say we're overdue for a change.
And then there are the ASGs, known as Altador Score Groups. These are legitimate groups of dedicated players and All-Stars who all join the same team in organized fashion. Often, they join tiny and unpopular teams, and it's presumed that their percentage of All-Stars vs. their number of players makes them instant powerhouses. I honestly can't comment on how TNT can reduce their impact, since we have no knowledge on TNT's scoring, but I will say that something could be done to not let groups of people have influence over the entire tournament. I donít desire to discount the great effort of these players, yet I feel that the entire team should matter in a team event. An ASG is part of a team, not the team. Balancing out the scoring will require a delicate approach, as you don't want to hurt your most dedicated fanbase. On the other hand, it may not be best if vast majority of users are discouraged by ASGs getting a major boost by their team size. Currently, results have proven that smaller teams with ASGs have great advantage over larger teams for this reason. However, the opposite would be equally bad, with the largest teams always winning because they have more players, more All-Stars. It would certainly require research and testing on TNT's part.
Finally, we come to the games themselves. After playing them hundreds of times, or even a few dozen, it feels repetitive. Yooyuball have been exactly the same for three years at least, and it's been longer for the side games. Achievements and new games could help break up the repetition, and I've describe this in more detail in Part 2.
Overall, I felt that this year could have been better. For the past few years the tournament has lacked excitement and the community - what's left of it - is less enthusiastic than before.
Part 2: Suggestions and Improvements
A common complaint I've seen about the Altador Cup is that ultimately, it doesn't feel all that relevant to the site as a whole. I wholeheartedly agree. The world of Neopia is unchanged the day before the Cup and after. Your team winning does not change your site experience after the AC enters the off season. From a personal perspective, it can certainly be entertaining to be part of a team, but it feels like unless you're an All-Star you make little difference in the outcome of your team. I believe that your contributions to your team should be spread across many different tasks, so the AC isn't left to simply grinding, in which a lot of it feels hopeless.
Neopets is a site that appeals to a multitude of different age groups and tastes, but the Altador Cup does not offer something for everyone. Over time, the Altador Cup became more of a niche event. After all, last year's AC VIII only scored 19% of the Neopies' vote, and the AC had 8 years to build its following. In contrast, major events, such as plots, often united much the user base as they felt part of something big. Plots were swathed in all sorts of elements of the site, from puzzles to games to battling. Of course, the Altador Cup at heart is a sports competition. But it can be so much more, too. There are so many aspects of this site worth limelighting I feel that the Altador Cup, desperately in need of restructuring, may be perfect for it. By no means do I think a great Cup needs all of the following features and fixes implemented, but change is needed.
In addition to fixing the beleaguered bracket system, my vision of a great AC is less repetitive, more inclusive of different site players, and is driven by a compelling narrative. It's fun in itself, fair, more motivating, and offers more challenge for those who desire it. Ultimately, I feel the goal of making improvements should overall make the tournament and individual play more rewarding, and not just reliant on getting prizes at the end.
These changes alone won't restore the AC to its former glory, but would be nice to see. Hopefully, they aren't programming nightmares, either.
Fix Darigan Yooyuball:
As it stands the Darigan Yooyu is a little ball of pure evil designed to eat away at your clock as you stressfully hope it gets launched into the goal. Yelling at the screen may ensue. If you're like some, you cast the ball off to the opposing team and hope they have better luck, because good riddance Yooyuball. Sure, having all very easy and predictable movements for each Yooyuball can reduce the challenge of the game, but let's be honest, this needs to go. Its totally random nature is insane. Playing YYB over and over again can be frustrating enough, but this guy takes it up to 11. I implore TNT to make this thing a little less random. Vocal chords will be spared, I guarantee it.
Skip 1-Second Kickoffs:
Whether you skip a cutscene or like watching Yooyus spin around, you will lose 8 seconds off the clock. Those who've played more than 5 games of YYB know all too well that if you have 9 seconds or less on the clock you'll be forced to sit through the kick off again - with 1 second on the clock. It's nearly impossible to score a goal in 1 second, so enduring this segment is a waste of time. Either this situation should be skippable, or the game should end.
Slushie Slinger Score Adjustment:
To get the minimum score of 285 for it to count for your personal rank, it takes considerably longer than a Yooyuball game once you can cut down game time by scoring goals. Slushie Slinger is the worst use of time for ranking up as you must advance slowly through the lower levels, all because the slushie customers too lazy to walk a few steps (All that cheering wears out the legs, you know). Don't get me wrong; it's a fun game, but it runs long by comparison. Bumping up the points per game could make Slushie Slinger more worth the effort.
The Return of Finals:
I acknowledge I might be biased as I've been part of a team that's been a podium contender in multiple ACs, but without finals the AC risks of falling flat by the end, as we have seen. In the old format, finals ensured that all of the top teams faced each other; that was not the case in AC VIII. Finals gave teams hope of a final shake up by the end. Anything could happen in those four days, and there was room for excitement. Those who excelled throughout the Cup must overcome the final hurdle as a true test of their worth. A lot of real sports competitions have finals, and I feel the AC lost some of its magic without it. Instead of standings almost being constant from the beginning, finals would give the tournament a climatic send-off like years past.
Make Daily Results Matter:
The bracket standings should be completely determined by wins, losses, and draws for the daily matches, just like the Round Robin system before it. This way is transparent, clear, and easy to understand. Most importantly, it makes sense.
No Bracket Buddies:
Bracket Buddies is the term given to teams who will be in the same bracket for all but the final bracket. Due to the fact that even the last place team can be first following year, a great team could get paired with a sheer powerhouse and then will be at a disadvantage, since the best chance to win the cup is to be first in the bracket as much as possible. This 2nd-in-the-bracket team may be better in the daily results than teams in other brackets, but its potential is limited due to bad luck.
Team Shenkuu 2.0:
There is not a single Stealthy pet on any team yet, so what better than to have an entire team of them? Maybe they can repaint team Shenkuu and add the Stealthy base color to their red and gold logo. Not gonna lie - I'd join that team. So would many others. Because ninjas are cool.
These may require extensive thought on TNT's part, and likely programming time too.
Dealing With Cheaters:
I admit I have no sure answer about how TNT can stop them, but there are definitely more steps they can take, more roadblocks they can implement. For example, add captchas and other methods of human verification, encrypting or hiding the real scores sent to TNT (that way entering scores of 14 mean nothing on TNT's end and are tossed out). I don't have the knowledge to discuss any of these ideas in length, but there's got to be a solution. Something has to work. Cheaters dominating the Cup is an insult to all of the efforts of the legit players, and it could take manpower away from TNT. In addition, they could also try capping a team's score if there's a substantial mass of bad scores. So teams could not get suspicious 15s or 17s, especially consistently. They could "cancel out" the bad scores this way. They also could withhold some daily results if TNT suspects foul play, and remove the bad scores retroactively. One of the best solutions, in my opinion, would be to secretly blacklist a person's scores toward the team and not freeze them until the Cup concludes, but even that alone won't be enough to limit their influence.
They could set a deadline for joining a team before you won't get to choose or maybe even not play on an existing team at all. Perhaps they could even let late players rank up on Practice Team to not affect team scores.
Some can play an easy mode requiring minimal effort if they prefer but will make less points per game than those who seeks to challenge themselves in Hard mode. I would consider Yooyuball as is to be normal/medium difficulty.
These are changes to the format of the Cup or change the way the Cup is played and scored.
Single Round Robin and Finals:
This version of the Altador Cup consists of 18 days of tournament play - each team facing each other once - and 4 days of finals. Sound familiar? It's the old format but half of the tournament plays. I assume this could be an option if they still have the code for the Double Round Robin, and can hopefully tweak it to still work today. If they can get it to function, while it's not spectacular by any means it will be far more tolerable than the bracket system and familiar enough to those who loved the old format. Not to mention it could be more cost efficient than coding another format that in the end may not be well received. Double Round Robin worked, so why not Single?
It's been five years since Shootout Showdown was added to the Cup. Given the fact we just got a new game on the site, why not make one for the AC as well? Even a Petpet Park reskin could freshen up the AC. They should release some more games encompassing different genres like puzzles and strategy. Right now the AC is all action games, so it's not surprising AC would have limited appeal. If the presence of more games complicates daily results, they could regroup the side games into categories based on their roles, such as cheering, goal scoring, etc.
Ideally, these will be like the ones brilliantly added to AC V, except with some daily, and some remaining open all Cup long. Whether it be sending in enough goals under a time limit, using the same player the whole game, reaching a certain amount of saves in a row - something to focus on to ease the repetitive nature of the Cup to make the gaming more worthwhile.
Doing Your Part Bar/The Dawn of Gold Checkmarks:
I am well aware that the so-called "Doing Your Part Bar" from the Obelisk War spawned mixed reviews, but hear me out: This year, TNT had reduced the cap so players can spend less time grinding and could enjoy the summer. Imagine if there was an expected level of participation for each user. I would not say the new cap is the expected level of participation since maxing out in Yooyuball each day will take you some 2,000 short of double All-Star, and I don't see that being reasonable for the average player. Once that meter is fulfilled, your team gets a chunk of points. You can continue for personal rank and to help your team even more, but it won't be worth as much. An issue that arises from this is that it would favor larger teams, but perhaps TNT can adjust the scores to be proportional to team size. In the Obelisk War, filling the Bar was worth a lot of prize points. Battling beyond it was worth much less, but still helped you rack in prize points. Suddenly your role on this team is more valuable, and dedication to daily play will be rewarded just like all other recent site events.
Battle a range of AC-exclusive BD opponents each day themed around the team you're facing to get points for your team, awarded based on difficulty level. This would essentially be treated as a side game and will have daily wins/loses. It would be a nice treat for those who enjoy the Battledome who have never been particularly enthused by the Altador Cup, and helps boosts other parts of the site simultaneously. Not to mention, this provides an excellent opportunity to run the AC with a compelling storyline.*
*I digress, but think of the possibilities: Monsters from each land bent on stopping the AC, you must join forces and defend the Colosseum so the Cup can go on! The evil practice team has attained the power to rewrite history and make themselves the winners of all past nine tournaments if they get their hands on the Cup! Annual events have embraced storylines before very nicely, such as the Daily Dare's bug invasion of Roo Island.
If AC games were playable on a mobile device, they'd be more accessible. If Neopets wants to push a mobile presence, I don't see harm in having one of the site's biggest gaming events supported on a smartphone, tablet, etc.
Prize Shop Improvements
The prizes have been consistent and enjoyable; full of wit and humor, but enhancements can be even more motivating to stay invested to the Cup once the inevitable boredom sets in.
Unique Item as Top Prize:
These are not truly necessary in my eyes, but with a paint brush as a top prize as tradition, it limits the investment value of the item. Paint brushes are awarded by various sources around the site and there will always be more of them, unlike consumables like stamps and books. Very impressive top prizes bound to increase in value such as items on the level of Hidden Tower and Smugglerís Cove weapons. The Stone Foam Finger was great, but a step above would be grand.
Offer More Avatars and Privileges:
Essentially, privileges are permanent boons, such as always getting a 15% discount in Altador Shops, or having slightly higher odds of getting a RE in Altador/Your Team's land. They could also offer an avatar exclusive for those who hit All-Star, or another site theme for the 10th anniversary of the AC (Or something even crazier: a prize shop of new avatars). Advertise these briefly before the cup to generate excitement, introduce a character to offer them akin to the Oracle to add some mysterious character (people love mysterious ones). I like how reliable the shop has been, but some surprises as bonus couldn't hurt. They've been very good with these for Battlegrounds.
All of the above serves as my AC wish list, but I have seen a lot of requests for TNT to take a more active role in stopping cheaters' impact and for a replacement for brackets like Single Round Robin.
Is the AC worth saving?
Lately, I've seen a lot of discussion on whether TNT should cancel the AC and I'd like to comment. I kept my thoughts limited to the AC while in reality there are other areas of the site in dire need of programming funtime. By comparison, I admit it could be a challenge to argue that the AC deserves great attention. Since the more recent ACs is practically unchanged from year to year, changing anything in the Cup would mean TNT would have to allocate time and resources to do this, and we've established small changes won't fix the core problems. The AC needs revamping. If the time it takes to fix to AC is far greater than the time it would take to implement an entirely new event, AC could be in trouble. Still, they have to try.
After 9 years of diminishing returns, it may be time for the AC to go the way of Hubrid Nox. Unless TNT has something to fill the space already in the pipeline, I don't see this happening. There's too much risk. We can't forget the fact that a lot of people, myself included, buy or have bought NC AC gear to promote our team spirit, and the NC components seem pretty popular. Canceling the AC would make a chunk of the items merely a relic of what once was, and all those years of TNT investing in artists on making AC wearables to celebrate and promote the Cup would no longer provide any benefit to the site. But on the NC front, TNT has shown with new capsules and Dyeworks that they can surprise, so without the AC, NC could adapt and prosper.
That said I still believe there is life left in the AC. There's still a community who wants to continue playing it. If putting the AC on hold for a year meant TNT could implement some of the changes above, or even better ideas, I'll be on board. I feel that this would be far more reasonable than canceling the Cup indefinitely. What remains is the fact that the Cup cannot go on in its current form. The future of the Cup depends completely on TNT making the necessary changes.
I hope that what I have written inspires some constructive AC discussion. Next year's AC is the 10th anniversary, and it deserves to be one worth remembering - for the right reasons.