Archive | September, 2011

Centrists: America’s most dangerous extremists

16 Sep

I’ve revised and expanded upon this post here.

11 ways to ruin team play, a.k.a. Why Battlefield 3 will (probably) still be fundamentally broken

3 Sep

1. Where the hell is my teammate?

There isn’t much to say about this one. If you have no idea what your teammates are doing half-the-time, you can’t even begin to coordinate.

2. Hey, there’s my teammate! No wait, he just exploded.

Like characters in a horror movie, players in most team action games reflexively go their own way. Even in ostensibly team-based games, such as Battlefield, players have learned that it’s simply not worth the bother in most cases trying to follow teammates or trying to get teammates to follow them.

Perhaps the biggest reason no one ever sticks together is because quick deaths make it wasted effort. Nine times out of ten, if I spawn and dutifully hop in the helicopter you’re piloting, you’re just going to get me killed faster. On foot, two players moving together will spend most of their time trudging across the map only to end up with one player killed immediately in an ambush; so effectively, when the combat finally comes, teammates die too quickly most of the time to really fight together.

Mainly because of this endless quick-death/respawn cycle, most team combat games devolve into teammates barely playing together in any real sense at all. My teammates and I aren’t working together: we just happen to be trying to kill the same enemies.

3. Action, action, action! Who needs time to think or coordinate?

However long it takes one person to think, a group of even just two or three people seems to take ten times as long to do the same thinking. This is true even under ideal circumstances, let alone in a fast-paced action game with iffy text and voice communication.

Now this doesn’t mean we can’t have fast-action team play, but it does mean games should consciously allow for breaks in the action. Instead of ‘action, action, action!’, game design should always privilege ‘pacing, pacing, pacing!’

4. If one ball is fun, then ten balls must be ten times as fun.

Looking at sports, focus is almost always very clearly focused on a single ball, and for good reason. Too many points of focus mean the team play quickly devolves to incoherence: everyone just ends up doing their own thing, defeating the whole idea of team play.

5. If having ten players is fun, then having one hundred players must be ten times as fun.

Similarly, past a certain number of players, team play becomes incoherent. Too many players means too many teammates to coordinate with and too many opponents to worry about. Again, looking at sports, we see that eleven or twelve players per team seems to be the upper limit. In fact, on the soccer field, half the players spend most of the time standing outside the zone of action waiting for the ball to get closer. So the sweet-spot seems to be about 3-6 players per side actively engaging each other around a local objective.

Notice I said “local” objective. Teams beyond the 11-12 player threshold can conceivably work coherently as long as strong mechanisms are in place to divide the team into smaller units, each engaging separate objectives. For example, a Battlefield-style game could work with 32-player teams or beyond if stronger mechanisms were in place to enforce squad-based play and if those squads were ensured to have separate objectives. The danger, though, is that too many squads off doing their own thing eventually becomes as incoherent as a game of too many individual teammates off doing their own thing.*

*This is where the idea of a game played at multiple levels of coordination might make sense, e.g. a Battlefield-style game where squads take orders from a small number of commanders responsible for the overall strategy.

6. You can’t make me play medic! I’ll do what I want!

For role-based gameplay (such as class-based and/or vehicle-based combat), games shouldn’t leave role selection up to the whims of each player.

DICE has not only gotten this consistently wrong, they’ve made getting it wrong into a principle: on the one hand, their mantra ‘rock, paper, scissors’ means that the game balance relies upon teammates competently covering the various roles, but their other mantra ‘player freedom’ means DICE is not willing to take any necessary measures to make ‘rock, paper, scissors’ actually work.

Now, how exactly role-selection should be handled is up for discussion because the simplest solution (first come, first pick) isn’t satisfactory. ‘Who should get to fly the jet?’ is a difficult question, but ‘the guy who happened to spawn next to it at the right time’ is not an acceptable answer. Likewise, ‘Who must play medic?’ is a difficult question, but ‘no one’ is not an acceptable answer.

7. Nobody tells me what to do! I’ll do what I want!

So I’ve already asserted that players must be forced sometimes to play roles they don’t want to, but they also must sometimes be forced to go places they don’t want and attack/defend targets they don’t want. Again, game balance simply requires it to keep each game competitive, so mechanisms must exist that strongly incentivize the player to actually follow orders.

So where would players get their orders? Three possibilities:

  1. issued automatically by AI
  2. issued by a teammate in a command role
  3. issued by vote of the team/squad

Having the AI issue orders is least likely to trigger social unrest. On the other hand, AI decisions could diminish the human element that makes multiplayer (potentially) interesting in the first place.

If elevating certain players to privileged positions is too fraught with drama, voting could work as an effective substitute. For example, in Battlefield, your squad could pick its target by a vote for which flag to capture/defend (with perhaps seniority used to break ties); members of the squad would only be capable of capturing/defending the elected flag, making the vote meaningful rather than something players can ignore.

8. Voice chat: the highest form of communication known to man.

If you’re like me, the speech center in your brain nearly shuts down when occupied with action. Even for people for whom this isn’t the case, voice communication is still not the ideal medium for coordinating team play: even with solid connections, good headsets, and proper audio level balance for all players, it can be difficult to parse everything said or correctly identify who said what (especially in a team of many players).

To make voice chat more effective, larger teams must be broken into squads of four to six players, and those squads must stick together.

To better supplement voice chat, more games should include coordination mechanisms like the placement indicators in Portal 2 co-op. Designers should study the common messages actual players use and integrate them into the game.

Games also must be careful to make sure communication channels of all kinds don’t devolve into spam. In several games, the ‘enemy spotted’ message quickly becomes meaningless because players constantly spam it with a hotkey. In other games, medics tune out calls for healing because the teammates are too often nowhere nearby to be healed and die before the medic can reach them.

9. Hats for sale! Someone stand on my head so I can get this achievement.

Every time new items get released for TF2, half the players sit around in spawn for the next week playing the trading meta-game rather than, you know, actually playing the game.

Players also get distracted by achievements and character advancement. If I’m trying to get my 1000′th headshot to get an achievement or gun upgrade, I’m not really playing for my team to win.

10. Hey, there’s this neat trick I read about online where if you jump on these boxes in this one exact spot and melee at the same time…

Some people like to join multiplayer games to deliberately Not Actually Play the Game. My favorite kind are the 10-year-olds who want to try the neat exploit they heard about from their friend’s cousin who knows a guy who did it once before. ‘Don’t shoot those barrels! If I stack them in the right way, I can reach that ledge and fall through the floor to…’ etc. etc.

Others join games to grief, and others just sit in spawn while they organize their hat collection.

Whatever their reason for not actually playing the game, these players must be gotten rid of quickly and without hassle lest they ruin the team balance. Amazingly, many games still don’t appreciate this. In fact, few games have figured out how to do vote kicks properly: rather than calling votes that expire, a vote to kick a player should persist indefinitely until a majority has voted to kick the same player.

11. We won! I guess we killed more (or died less) than they did.

In a good, satisfying match, players can tell a story of why and how they won or lost. Even if it’s as simple as ‘we got pinned down at this place’, it’s still better than just ‘the winning team killed more (or died less)’.

Teamwork is more than just the collective sum of our actions. If you and I are working together, that means we make some decisions together and/or at the very least observe each other’s major decisions. e.g. ‘we decided to take the underground passage to infiltrate the enemy base, and Ted decided to set up a sentry gun’. That is the beginning of a narrative, a story of what we did together.

In an incoherent team match, teammates don’t make decisions together, don’t observe each other’s major decisions, or perhaps just make and observe so many decisions that they all blur together into a meaningless mush.

In a great game, the winning-or-losing story of each match tends to be novel rather than the same old thing every single time. A team game with matches that lack any narratives to speak of simply can’t be great.