Article re-posted from July 11, 2014
Competitive online multiplayer games are a tricky thing to design, as there’s little to no control over the players who are creating the gameplay experience, and thus predictability on how players experience and progress is all in the hands of the players themselves. This is both the strength as well as the weakness of online multiplayer gaming, as in the one hand it creates incredible variety and strong social play, yet on the other hand establishes a ‘forceful need to play as much as possible’ to ‘improve one’s skill’ to be able to compete which is almost a requirement and can be a turn-off for the more casual playing audience.
The rise of automated match-making has allowed for a more streamlined flow of players with similar skillsets to enjoy the game, yet that enhances a problem which I think could be fine-tuned.
The problem I’d like to discuss is the actual game-flow within such a game, and how designed progression within a match can severely increase the predictability of the online match, which in return causes many players to exit early once they calculate their chances are ‘low’ (which can happen early on), whether it be a competitive match playing for $100.000, or amateur ‘fun online’.
When playing Real-Time-Strategy games online, the core of the game is copied into a multiplayer setup. This core relies heavily on progression; base, army, tech. Of course there’s more depth to it than that, and it’s not the strategic depth I’m commenting on, it’s how to reduce the predictability aspect in order to enhance overall tension for a longer period of time within play-sessions.
From my experience the most fun matches when playing Real-Time-Strategy games are when all the players are ‘new enough that they cannot detect when they’ve lost’ (or in the case of pro’s, when the differences are extremely small and early wins didn’t happen).
The reason these matches were fun is because it hid the win/loss predictability well so players all kept trying and going to extremes to win. The reason strategy-game predictability kicks in is because the progression-based gameplay makes it extremely hard for many players to ‘get back into the game’ when the other player of similar skill level takes the lead, either in resource-gathering, territorial control or army-size.
Of course there are exceptions, and I’ve played them, but it’s save to say in many instances once you detect the opponent is ahead, a sense of hopelessness creeps in, and you contemplate quitting to try again vs someone else.
Especially in Starcraft many matches often last 15 minutes, and we’d at times joke about the fact that ‘the second many players detect you just captured that mineral field, your early expedition is at place X, or you’ve built 6 marines early on, they’d ‘GG and quit’ to try their luck somewhere else.
When asked, the reply is: ‘why waste my time trying to win something like this when I can try again fresh’, which is a good point, but I think rather than embracing this phenomenon, strategies should be developed to ‘hide this knowledge as best as possible’ meaning the player is constantly doubting whether or not they are winning.
That keeps players playing more intensely, and the tension rises to much greater extends.
Disclaimer: I know such matches exist in these games, yet they don’t seem to be the norm, but more an exception. I’m contemplating ways to maximize these matches, rather than minimize time-spending. The most fun RTS multiplayer matches I’ve ever had, whom I can still recall today, took about an hour or more, as they were epic clashes with lots of players and the winner(s) only came out on top near the end of the game.
A possible solution is to introduce an element of ‘randomness’, which is what most boardgames run on. While this is an awesome element, and surely helps the overall issue, it also is the most controversial of mechanics to use as players will often perceive ‘cheating’ or ‘luck’ to be the major component on why they lost.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does hamper the passion of the truly competitive players somewhat.
In my opinion a better solution to look at for these kinds of multiplayer games wishing to create a new experience, possibly even for a broader audience, is to look at the world of sports. Let’s take football (soccer) as example.
The great thing about this sport is that the predictability in most cases is very low, meaning the tension of the game lasts for the better part of the match. This means that whether or not side 1 starts losing with 1-0, they can always get back into the game and end up winning. This makes it so you remain hopeful until the very end.
Only when absurd goal-amounts start happening like in the World Cup 2014 semi-finals between Germany and Brazil, the predictability creeps in, and the tension is gone (how many Brazilians would have wanted the match to end after 30 minutes?). Yet what’s key here, is that those types of matches are rare between similar skilled players: the norm is winning with ~1-3 goals per side.
This framework could be a valuable flow-guideline for online game design as while I’m big in supporting ‘minimizing friction to play by making matches (thus time investment) as short as possible’, I also believe these game’s won’t replace epic online clashes, and so there is a market for large, epic unpredictable wars that you can talk about for a while. The World Cup for football is there only every 4 years, and so is the Eurocup, which means everyone waits for 2 years before they get another chance to cheer for their team.
So extending this to the RTS-market, it would be great if we had short-RTS-clashes like in Starcraft, but also epic long 90-minute wars you could play on the weekends.
Of course an element I haven’t discussed yet, which is core to reducing the ‘exit-rate’ is teamplay versus 1-v-1: when playing in teams, players distance themselves a bit more from a 1-on-1 situation, and the social drive to help the team limits exit-rate (although that’s not that strong an element). Strategy-games have the inherent weakness that players get ‘knocked out of the game’ much like in Counter-Strike.
This means that while it makes for a more clear macro-game, it makes it less player-friendly. In Counter-Strike the rounds are so short that this element adds to the immense tension you feel when hunting. In strategy-games, whether they are 15-minute Starcraft sessions, or 2-hour Age of Empires 2 games, it makes for weaker online play, amplifying the predictability even further as once ‘player x is knocked out’ now the remaining player has to deal with opponents who not only out-produce him, but also have multiple sets of eyes on the field. Unless there’s a significant imbalance in skillsets (which match-making prevents!) there’s hardly any chance to win (there are always exceptions!).
Imagine playing football (soccer) and a mechanic was added that removes players from the field other than the ‘red card’ so to say: what you’d get, similar to when 1 or 2 players are sent off with red cards, is that the side who suffered such a consequence is pretty much ‘doomed’ and tension-levels drop significantly (that’s not to say they’ll lose for sure of course, it just removes tension, adding to the frustration and predictability of the match).
Keeping players in the game, respawning / regrouping so they keep trying is a design-hurdle to overcome in many genre’s, especially for strategy-gaming and other progression-based multiplayer games.
It’s dicey to go against upgrades, but I think perhaps they could be minimized to the round itself, kind of like how ‘Natural Selection: Combat mode’ made it so upgrades happened within a round, and reset each round. Because a match was fast-paced and you never really had a complete overview on what was going on, you only figured out you were ‘winning or losing’ fairly late on in the game.
There are many FPS-games in the early 2000s which had round-based progression, yet it seems macro-progression is creeping in there, like in the Call of Duty and Battlefield series, which while it increases player-addiction to ‘progress’, it creates a barrier for early-adopters and casual players.
That said, there are many ways to deal with problems which usually relates to the question: ‘who is your target audience’, yet I think time-based and other sports-like solutions could be valuable in providing more satisfying online game-flow for a wider audience.
All in all I think we as game-developers/designers/directors can learn a lot from the world of sports, in which I’m looking forward to play some more games that effectively hide win/loss situations to their players as much as possible, perhaps with similar ‘goal-mechanics’ to ensure epic celebration moments (like scoring with capture-the-flag).
That’s it for now!