Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Calling the Shots: Part 1 - Taking Aim for Victory

I recently wrote about how shotcalling is difficult, and often can directly inhibit your mechanical skill.  However, having one or two players on a team dedicated to directing the show can make the path to victory much more clear.  Although I make no promises on the consistency of releases, I'm going to be doing a series of blogs on what it takes to be a good shotcaller.

The first thing a good shotcaller needs is the ability to determine win conditions.  You may think, "Well, if I'm playing a game of Team Slayer in Halo, my win condition is to get 50 points.  That was easy."

No, shut up, you're wrong.  The win condition in Slayer is not "Reach 50 points."  That's a game-ending condition, but it is not required for victory.  In order to win a game of Deathmatch in any first person shooter...you simply have to have less deaths than your opponent.

The first condition of victory in a game of Slayer is to get a lead.  We'll take Halo 3's Pit Slayer for example.  Let's say you get the initial set of rockets, but somehow your opponent ends up with 2 Snipers.  You're up 6-3 after the initial battles settle.  At this point, your win condition is no longer to acquire any kills.  It's to avoid deaths.  You don't need a single other kill in order to win the match.  And, due to Pit's hallway-style map design, and your opponent having 2 Snipers, you shouldn't even be leaving your side of the map for the time being.  Anyone on your team getting sniped is one strain further on your lead.

When it's time for the rockets to respawn, your victory condition is to prevent the enemy from getting those rockets.  Should they acquire them, they'll have an asymmetrical weapon advantage (2-3 Snipers + rockets to rockets+1 Sniper at best)...at which point they can press their advantage and whittle away at your lead, and your victory condition changes to "Stop the bleeding." or "Clear our side of the map and stall for next rockets."

In a King of the Hill match, if you are trailing by 10 points as the hill is 20 seconds away from moving...your victory condition should not even include "Milk the current hill." but rather "Set up for the final hill."  If you get 45 seconds of the final hill uncontested, your opponents no longer have any route to victory, even if they milked the 20 seconds of the previous hill, so establishing full control of the final hill in those 20 seconds while you have a 4v3 offers a higher-% chance of victory than attempting to milk yourself to close the gap.

Now that I've given a few examples of how victory conditions are dynamic, rather than static, let's focus on how you determine what your current victory conditions are.

The first criterion is obvious: Do we have the advantage?

If you have an advantage, you don't need to make risky plays.  Figure out the safest way to press it and do so.  In most cases this is to continue doing what you were doing before.  In League of Legends, this usually means "DO NOT GO FOR BARON." though that can change depending on team composition and current state of vision control.  In a competitive shooter, an 'advantage' doesn't necessarily mean a score lead; numbers advantages in teammates alive are just as important as the scoreboard.  You don't want to try pushing up 2v4, as letting 4 members of the enemy team onto your side can eventually lead to being trapped in your spawn and losing any score lead you may have had.

Sometimes that first criterion can be hazy.  So you may need to parse other information to determine what's important.  Ask yourself, what is the most important task at hand? (Focus: Immediate impact.)

If you're in the above situation of being 2v4, your pressing task is likely to secure a safe spawn for your teammates and push back out.

In League of Legends, this depends almost entirely on team composition.  If your team has Jayce, Lucian, and Nidalee...you don't really want to fight the enemy team around Baron or even Dragon.  The most important task is to keep your enemies huddled around a tower so your team can siege and poke them down.  Generally, these towers are the ones in middle and bottom lane (you want to keep your enemies as far away from Baron as possible, in case anything bad happens with your siege...and be close to Dragon to take an easier objective once you've poked them down beyond safe engage range.)...but if your composition has a lot of champions with good dueling potential, you want to stay split up across the lanes in order to set up those duels, or force your opponents to give up side lane towers for free.

Along the vein of the previous criterion, you also want to ask: What is the safest play?

In order to answer this, you have to know the current status and limitations of your team (which, will be the subject of a future article...eventually...).  Making risky plays is not a path to victory.  In poker, you don't need to bet all your chips when you've got the most at the table.

The previous two questions go along with an adage that is oft repeated by Tasteless and Artosis (and other casters) when casting StarCraft 2... "When you're ahead, get further ahead."  But if you're behind, your win conditions are different.  You have to find a way to get ahead.

Ask yourself, what can we take from them without giving up something bigger?

Sometimes this may involve sneaking a Baron while you lose an inner tower.  Sometimes it may mean killing an inhibitor in bottom lane while giving up a Baron.  Gambit Gaming are notorious for baiting their top laner to die to a jungle gank while they immediately pounce onto the Dragon for an easy objective pick-up.

In the latter days of Halo 3's run on the MLG circuit, on Construct Slayer, teams began retaking top control on Construct by lifting 3-4 people at a time up the purple lifts.  They'd give up 2 kills to a team with the score lead, but gain map control as a result, and begin to regain the lead.

On the flip side, the enemy team could be asking, what can we do to keep our opponents from retaliating?

Back on Halo 3...GhostAyame had an excellent strategy for Narrows CTF.  Whoever had the sniper on his team was told to sit in the pocket of top middle and watch the lift-side spawns as a flag was taken.  Sure enough, players would spawn there...but Ghost would tell his teammate, "Don't kill them."  Wait, what?  You don't want to kill the guys so you can run a flag?  Nope, just shoot them in the body.

He would tell them to do this so they wouldn't be able to go anywhere -- after all, they're one shot from death...they can't fight.  But, because they're not leaving lift side, their other dead teammates will continue to respawn there, unable to contest a flag run.  Had a player been killed at lift, they would've spawned in positions to better contest the flag.  So, while the metric of victory in Narrows CTF is "who scored more flags" the condition GhostAyame utilized was "Keep the sheep in their pin."

An important question to ask to set up the previous four, what is my opponent's next likely play?

While this can lead to several layers of Yomi (reading your opponent) and predictions of predictions and reactions based off that, generally you should know what your opponent's short-term goals are.  If you can hammer that down, you then ask any of the following questions:

  1. Can I beat them at that play?
  2. If not, can I stall them out of making the play?
  3. If not, what can I do to trade value of the play?  (i.e., can I take something of equal value?)

In some cases in League of Legends, a trailing team can completely out-position a team with the lead and ultimately end up turning the tables.  A great example of this is the recent game between Alliance and Fnatic, where after posturing over a Dragon, Alliance forced Fnatic into their bottom jungle while a few other members of Alliance just pushed the mid lane.  Fnatic lost one member of the team while their two melee members stayed to defend mid lane and their two ranged members went to bot lane to try to base race Alliance.

With no one ranged left to defend the base, Fnatic's two living melee members had to sit idly by and watch as Alliance pushed the base 5v2...which was much faster than the two other members of Fnatic pushed.  As the mid inhibitor turret fell, Alliance killed yet another member of Fnatic and put Fnatic into a situation where they would've absolutely had to have both ranged players recall in order to defend, but the call was made for Rekkles to stay bot and keep pushing to answer back for an inhibitor...at which point Alliance just pushed down the Nexus instead and won the game, despite trailing for the majority of the game up to that point.

Fnatic had skipped the important second question above, "Can I stall them" -- because had their shotcaller asked the question they would've noticed "We only have melee champions defending, which means we have no waveclear.  We can't stop their push." or, possibly, they did ask the question and made an equally poor call of thinking that they could trade the value of the play by taking an inhibitor of their own with less people pushing than what Alliance had.

The final question to ask is "Can we close the game out now?"

The question isn't always relevant (CoD gametypes like Blitz without a score limit don't allow it), but in most cases it should be considered any time you're deciding on a play, even if the answer is No.  If there's ever the ability to close the game out, rather than let it continue to drag on, it's better to do so to prevent leaving any room for a comeback or a throw on your own part.

Even if you're attempting to close the game out, you should re-ask yourself the question several times in the process in order to avoid putting yourself or your team in the position to overcommit to doing so and end up losing your foothold or the game as a result.

To recap the questions that help you determine victory conditions all in one place:

  • Do we have the advantage?
  • what is the most important task at hand?
  • What is the safest play?
  • What can we take from them without giving up something bigger?
  • What can we do to keep our opponents from retaliating?
  • what is my opponent's next likely play?
  • Can I beat them at that play?
  • If not, can I stall them out of making the play?
  • If not, what can I do to trade value of the play?  (i.e., can I take something of equal value?)
  • Can we close the game out now?

The most important thing to stress regarding victory conditions is that, despite what single player games may lead you to believe, your victory condition is not the task that brings your current mission to its end.  Victory conditions are a series of decisions that lead to advantages accrued, and decisions on how to press those advantages without giving up things of equal or greater value to your opponent.  Contrariwise, when trailing, your victory conditions are how to reobtain the lead you lost or at least close the gap to set up for a pass later on.

Audley Enough, you'll find that keeping a level head and weighing the options for how to press your lead with these questions will increase the amount of times you keep a lead secure and by extension, win games.  That's all for Victory Conditions; I'm unsure when the next part of the series will come, or which facet of the skill gem knokwn as shotcalling I will cover, but rest assured, it will come some day.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Emergence: Gaming the System, or Glitches: A Slippery Slope

With the recent announcement of the Halo: Master Chief Collection and also Smash 4 looming on the horizon, there's a familiar subject bubbling near the surface of every competitive player's mind: button glitches.

In Halo, we know BxR, BxB, RRX, et cetera.  In Smash, L-canceling and Wavedashing were big deals.  (I know technically wavedashing was not a result of a glitch, but rather a physics exploit for how the game handled aerial movement... That argument is not quite relevant for the points I intend to make.)

While each of these mechanics were great for displaying a skill disparity between players, none of them were intended by the game's design and emerged as a result of abusing holes in the game engine.

So a big question comes forth, are button glitches a bad thing?

Personally, I support the removal of unintended button glitches in subsequent titles (or through patches of the current title) when they are found.  You're probably thinking, "wtf this Audley guy's an idiot then" -- but wait.  I wholly support methods to reduce/remove recovery animations through INTENDED gameplay mechanics.

Putting the ability to trim recovery animations in the hands of a player is one of the best ways a developer can allow players to separate themselves in terms of skill.

The BXB and BXR in Halo 2 were great examples of this in action, though they were originally unintended.  Reload, when used, always took over priority of any current action; when used after a melee had connected, it erased the recovery frames.  Firing or Meleeing again would interrupt a reload animation, nullifying the reload and allowing players to chain together multiple hits.  It was a great way for increasing the interactivity of melee range between players and enabling players down in health to out-skill their opponents to kill them...

But the problem was that it was neither intentional nor intuitive (primarily due to players not being able to see much of their own animations in first person view).  It was a glitch.  A similar instance occurred early in H4's lifespan with "Superman" grenade throws, where sprinting during the wind-up animation of a grenade throw would cancel the wind-up and force the physics engine to calculate the grenade's trajectory differently (and therefore throw it much faster/farther due to the faster animation).  Again, this was an unintended glitch and was quickly patched out of the game.

If BXB or BXR were to return in a future Halo title, it could be made clear through better HUD animations that the recovery frames are being dropped or sped along when a player attempts to reload during a melee attack...or, alternatively, attempting to Reload during a Melee attack with certain weapons could eject the clip and have the player quickly retract their arms back to them, enabling them to either complete the reload animation or begin a new melee once the arms have retracted, with the necessary frames ending up as less than a standard double-melee animation, with a drawback of the player now having no ammunition in their gun (this option would remove the existence of BxR in exchange for making BxB an intentional, intuitive part of the game, with a drawback designed into the game for the faster animations.)

In the case of RRx (and RRXYYRRX) -- such a button combo doesn't belong in the game; however, I've spoken in a previous blog about a method using a bloom-like mechanic (without the randomness of Bloom) in order to allow players to choose their own gun cadence...  I'll paste it here so you don't have to go hunting...

"This implementation of randomness is completely unnecessary, as it only serves to limit the individual's capability for outplaying, rather than to facilitate the potentially intended goal of assisting less skilled players in scoring kills.  If the designers wished to include a cadence to assist newer players, the "bloom" should've been replaced by a sort of on-board aim assistance for the gun.  As the rate of fire increases, the computer's "processing speed" decreases, reducing the aim assistance and bullet magnetism of the gun and making the bullet actually fire more accurately in regards to the player's reticule.  In the case of high levels of player skill, the players can shoot at the max rate of fire without being punished for their level of skill.  In the case of lower levels of player skills, players can fire at cadence with moderate accuracy and still be able to score kills in a consistent number of shots." - Fighting Chance: Randomness in Competitive Gaming (and Sports)

The above suggestion would allow players to fire at their own rate without the requirement of unnecessary button combos, and leave gun battles determined by how well a player aims, rather than how well he pushes additional buttons.  So once again, players still have a window through which the brighter talent can shine, but without the secret to doing so being buried in word of mouth and internet tips sites; it's clear through playing the game.

Although it's not a game I mentioned in my opening, DotA also has a mechanic that was unintended design-wise, but as a result of the engine the original game used, played a huge part in the shaping of the competitive scene and global balance of the game.  I'm speaking, of course, of denying.  If you talk to a serious DotA player about denying, they'll likely praise its existence.  I mean, you can keep melee characters from getting gold or experience as easily and it's very clear how powerful the rammifications of denying are.  Heck, you can even keep your opponents from getting full credit for killing a tower.

But there's a problem: The core gameplay goal in Defense of the Ancients is to work with your army to kill the opposing army's base.  Why the fuck are you killing your own units?  It's wholly unintuitive emergent gameplay.  League of Legends took the polar opposite approach and left lane dominance entirely in the hands of champion interaction, which mostly leads to players reaching their necessary items much quicker, but reducing the ability for a player to stop another from reaching their items unless you are just leaps and bounds better than the opposing player, or focusing on shutting them down hard (or more recently, lane swapping 2v1 to avoid them being able to do anything in that lane.)  Neither of these are ideal solutions.

In DotA's case, there's room for skill disparity, but poor clarity in design.  In LoL's case, there's clarity in design, but less room for skill disparity.  Infinite Crisis approaches a middle ground for this.  Killing an enemy minion gives you the full reward for its death, straight to your character.  However, if a minion dies without being killed by a champion, it drops "credits" onto the map which can either be picked up by a player on the opposite team, or "stomped" by a player on that minion's team.  Stomping credits denies the gold gain from the minion to the other team.  While it removes the experience denial, it increases interactivity of the lanes.  In lower skill games where players aren't landing last hits, they can still acquire gold (making the game less punitive for new players).  In games where players are both very skilled at last hitting, however, it still leans toward League of Legends' methods in that there's little room for the better player to come out ahead.  It does, however, allow melee characters who aren't being zoned to punish ranged characters that miss their last-hits more easily.

So what's the perfect solution to denying?  Believe it or not, I don't have an answer to that.  I think Infinite Crisis is a good general direction, but more sweeping changes to the balance between melee and ranged champions through core gameplay systems would be required for a perfect adaptation; that's a discussion for another time.  The point here is: Intuitive mechanics go a long way for the health of your game, even at the cost of skill differentiation.

The Super Smash Brothers franchise recently saw a huge revival in its competitive scene after Super Smash Brothers Brawl removed some key techniques the top players relied upon to dominate the scene.

Wavedashing is the most prominent of these.  Wavedashing, in simple terms, is air-dodging toward the ground immediately after jumping so you slide along the ground.  While Wavedashing, a player is still treated as "standing" and not actually dashing, so they are essentially in a neutral state, and still able to perform any ground move.  Players could wavedash and shield, sidestep, or use their standing grabs/smashes while quickly sliding toward an opponent, or even play edgehogging mindgames by facing away from a ledge and wavedash backwards to grab the ledge as an opponent tried to recover.

While wavedashing was not technically a glitch in the game, but rather a physics exploit (much like skiing in the Tribes series, which became an intentional, core part of the design in future Tribes titles).  Because of the freedom Wavedashing gave players, however, Nintendo elected to remove it from the game going into Brawl.

Nintendo took a very heavy-handed approach to their method of removing the mechanic from the game.  In Melee, air-dodge direction was determined by the analog stick when the air dodge was pressed.  In Brawl, Nintendo changed it to be based on physics; the character's air dodge is based off their momentum.  Additionally, characters' traction (determines how far they will slide) upon landing was also changed to clean up the movement exploits.

Rather than outright removing the option from the game, Nintendo could've elected to shift it into an intentional one -- leaving the stick-related air dodge direction (and ability to slide once colliding with the ground) and simply name it "Sliding," introducing "Sliding" as a character state where the game would not view the wavedashing character as "standing."  From here, the moves considered too exploitive during a Wavedash could be disabled, while others remain enabled (could leave backwards-sliding enabled for edgehogging mind games).  While I'm not versed enough in Smash to know exactly what the biggest culprits are, it just seems that making waved-err-Sliding an intentional part of the game (much the way Dynamix handled Skiing in Tribes) would go a long way into appeasing the competitive crowd while bringing in some intentional balance control into how the mechanic affects play in both casual and competitive levels.

As a competitive gamer, I can always appreciate when a gameplay mechanic or a spell in a game offers players the ability to show how they are better than an opponent through their utilization of the mechanical skill or their decision making to utilize the mechanic rather than a less optimal one at the time...but from a design perspective, the goals of said mechanics need to be both clear and intentional.

As an example of another mechanic that bothers me: In League of Legends, characters like Shen, Gragas, Sejuani, and Alistar can flash during the animations of their E, E, Q, and Q respectively, and have the effects of the spell take place at the location to which they flashed, rather than where the spell was cast.  As a competitor, that's fantastic.  As a player, it opens up the ability to surprise the opposition.  As a designer, it's bad gameplay.  The player can intentionally (or accidentally) miss an ability, but still get the effects for it by recovering with their flash, in a method that is neither predictable nor readable by their opponent.  It's unintuitive and it doesn't allow counterplay (because flash is instant, giving no chance for the players to flash-dodge the ability after the user has flashed).

Audley Enough, Riot had a similar problem with Thresh's Q (Death Sentence) allowing a player to flash during the wind-up frames and fire the hook from the new location.  To me, this one makes more sense than the former.  In the latter case, you're still gambling with your flash.  You're merely changing the ORIGIN of the skillshot, rather than outright changing the impact zone.  Players may still dodge as usual, and have time to react with counterplay options such as built-in character dashes, their own flash, or even the S key to stop in place and dodge a leading hook.

The above examples violate both consistency and clarity of design.  It's not consistent which skills can be flashed during, nor is it clear when a player is or can flash during their ability, and although their inclusion seems to be the result of bugs, Riot has made no steps to add clarity or consistency with other spells (Why can't Malphite flash during Unstoppable Force?) nor to clean up the bugs that allow those abilities the freedom to "miss" and still get their effects through the use of a summoner spell.

So if you're one of the players excited about the announcement that engine-related button glitches like BXB and BXR and RRX are returning in Halo 2's Master Chief Collection incarnation, and as a result begging 343 to put those same button glitches into Halo 5, stop for a second and think, "How can these mechanics, which were technically bugs in the past, be made intentional so that even Little Dimmy Timmy down the lane can utilize them?"

While competitive merit is important, you must also keep in mind that Clarity of Purpose and Consistency in Design go a long way in improving the new user experience, and more players playing your game is even better for longevity than a few really good players still playing it.  That said, it's never a bad idea to try to explore the middle ground first in how to take what makes a mechanic good for competitive play and tweak it to make it understandable for players who are still learning the game.

Audley out.  No catch phrase this time.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Taking Charge: Don't be Shocked, Shot-Calling is Hard

In a recent episode of their show Summoning Insight, MonteCristo and Thooorin postulated on shotcalling and posed the question, "Why is it so hard to find a good shotcaller?"  To answer succinctly, it's because taking up the role of the player who calls the shots makes you play worse.  Our brains have a limited amount of bandwidth they can access at any given time.  Whether it's conscious, subconscious, or even unconsciously accessing information, there is only so much that your brain can do at once.

Oftentimes in professional sports, you may hear a commentator or coach speak of a player "Thinking, and not reacting" when they appear to be playing worse.  And that sentence alone speaks volumes about why shotcalling in competitive gaming is such a difficult task.

I mention David Sirlin often in my writing, and I'm pretty sure I've mentioned this particular article several times before, but...Sirlin wrote a blog about Intuition, the Mental Iceberg, and Narrow bandwidth of players when it comes to balancing multiplayer games.  The points made in his article can all be applied to players as they play the game to account for the difficulty of shotcalling.

To summarize, the Mental Iceberg is an idea that players have the amount of game knowledge they can explain (the tip of the iceberg), and then a massive unquantifiable amount of game knowledge they can only know instinctively, and not really describe or explain (the underwater portion of the iceberg).  The underwater portion grows constantly with experience, while the tip's size may stay the same; a player who can clearly explain why they do everything they do may not have a very deep amount of knowledge under the surface, they are just better at verbalizing the knowledge they do have.

When you do finally try to put the reasoning or logic into words, you're narrowing your manner of thinking.  Despite the logic required to make a decision being based off subconsciously assessing many factors, when you try to describe it, you're almost guaranteed to focus on a smaller amount of variables than you actually considered.

Have you ever been asked "Who sings this?" and, despite KNOWING who the artist was, were unable to answer?  The answer escapes your brain and hides from the seeking monster of conscious knowledge.  As you attempt to access certain information that is stored in your brain, it can hinder the actual thinking process.

Back to the point, a player who is tasked with calling the shots for a game, unless they are operating and communicating purely out of instinct or habit, are spending their entire game thinking.  They're accessing the tip of the iceberg, while the underbelly remains unscratched.

Beyond this limiting the game knowledge they actually have, it also hinders their mechanics as well.  Except in the case of a true genius player, you will probably find a staunch correlation between the player acting as a team's shotcaller and that same player performing less impressively than his team when viewing games at a professional level.

There is evidence of the same happening in console shooters -- players like Walshy, GhostAyame, or TeePee generally didn't put up fantastic stats in games.  But if you asked a player on their team why they won, they would often give credit to those players.  When I played Halo, I competed in Big Team Battle (8v8) tournaments, and would often act as the shotcaller for my team, determining plays such as when to take a Warthog, when to push certain areas of the map, where to take the flag.  My team would, on occasion, upset better-skilled teams (early on, Master Theory was not the most mechnically talented of teams) due to our superior map movement and strategy.  But at the end of the game, I would be lucky to have above a 1.0 Kill/Death ratio.  I was a player who constantly tried to ensure the other 7 players on my team were on the same page as me and my strategy, and my own play suffered for the sake of a win.

I think Cloud 9's idea of breaking down the shot-calling into multiple aspects is borderline brilliant, since it limits the burden on any single player and frees them up to each play individually better.

The anime Log Horizon mentions similar battle roles apart from a player's actual character role they are in charge of tracking in battle.  Apart from a party's formation being responsible for ensuring monsters attack the tank instead of the damage dealers, two major parts of a party's combat ability fell on the Operator and Field Monitor.  The operator's job is to monitor the status of each combatant, keeping track of their ability to keep fighting.  The field monitor's job is to monitor the area, tracking enemy movements and reporting them to the party.

Cloud 9, to some degree, splits these two roles between Hai and Meteos.  Meteos takes charge of shotcalls regarding buffs, dragons, and barons, timing when they respawn and deciding if they team should contest.  Hai controls player lane assignments and rotations, while also being the loudest voice in a team fight, calling who to focus.

The biggest problem that arises with good shotcalling is that...when you encounter a team that is either mechanically superior to your own team or has superior shotcalling, and you begin to lose to them, your team's shotcaller will always be the first ignorant fans point the finger at for the chopping block.  Statistically and mechanically, the shotcaller will almost always look to be the worst player on the team.  (If this is not the case, then you have a shitty player on your team that you need to replace anyway.)  So the role of shotcaller is a stressful one.  You'll be constantly under scrutiny if your team is not the team on top of the scene.  If Cloud 9 starts to struggle, Hai and LemonNation will likely be under the Reddit microscope.  If CLG slips, Dexter will have to bear the brunt of angry fans.

Reginald was, for the longest time, the primary shotcaller of TSM.  And for the most part, he was a pretty damned good shotcaller.  Mechanically-speaking, he flopped a lot.  He was good enough to compete with the North American scene for the most part, and even held his own at S3 Worlds against Faker in lane.  But he wasn't really good enough to single-handedly take over games.  But he was also shotcalling.  When he replaced himself with Bjergsen, TSM didn't really gain much ground over other teams in the region, and they've been criticized quite a bit for their shotcalling in the later stages of this season.  Whenever TSM performed poorly, the blame often fell on Regi (except for Worlds where a lot of fingers got pointed at Dyrus for shitting the bed top lane).  He's mocked for his Blue Cards on Twisted Fate, but his engage calls by pulling a Misaya on TF were a large part of his 100% win rate as the Card Master.

So my emphatic explanation of why shotcallers are hard to find in League of Legends (and basically every other game you'll encounter) is that when you find someone who's actually good at calling shots, they are always the players who look weakest mechanically.  When a team's success rate falls off, they are always the first on the chopping block BECAUSE they look weak mechanically.  It is extremely difficult to find a player who can shotcall efficiently at the highest level without being an exploitable weakest link on a team.

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Kitchen Sync - For the Team with Everything but Teamwork

Teamwork wins team-based competitive games.  Individual skill and mechanical strength is all well and good, but if you're not on the same page, you might as well be playing Battleship against one another.  Robert Baratheon said it quite astutely when talking to his wife in Game of Thrones (skip to 2 minutes if the video doesn't do it for you.) --

For the team that has everything else, the in-game knowledge, the skill, and even the understanding of how other teams play, how do you reach the level of teamwork necessary to win?  Communication.  Proper communication is everything, and the only thing that will separate two evenly skilled teams.  So what is proper communication?  The best comparison to a real-life situation I can make for how a team in competitive gaming should communicate is to compare it to an organized restaurant kitchen.

In a kitchen, every cook has a job to do.  While there may be some overlap, and in a great kitchen anyone could be able to fill in for anyone else's job, but in the busiest shifts of the day, it's communication that keeps the kitchen running smoothly.

Whether it's the chef or the expediter (and probably depending on how high-profile the restaurant is), one person is always calling out the present needs of the kitchen.  Whether it be the meals themselves, or the individual parts of the meals, with the work split between meat / veg / etc., each person listens to the call for what to do and focuses on their job in it.  No one dissents with a voice of, "I don't think we should do that." -- there's neither time nor reason to argue the point.  If a dish is messed up -- undercooked, overcooked, shredded to pieces -- the responsibility is put back on the one who messed up, and the expectation is not to offer an excuse or even an apology, but simply to say "Yes, Chef" and fix the mistake while avoiding making the same mistake in the future.  There's no time for hurt feelings in a kitchen when you're called out for a fuck-up.  Acknowledge your mistake and fix it moving forward.

With a lack of time for conversation in a kitchen, it should be clear that all communication needs to be concise, to the point. (The opposite of my blog.)  Orders should not have to be repeated, they should be heard the first time and reacted to the first time.  Repeating yourself only clouds communication channels.  Likewise, unnecessary words need to be trimmed from a sentence.  Trying to tell someone your inventory is going bad, but instead saying "So like, the fucking tomatoes are like, all brown and like, fucking mushy and some shit, Should I, like, work around them or should I like, throw them away?" -- it's a waste of time and brain power trying to understand what's being asked.  Instead, "We have mushy tomatoes, keep or toss?" would get the point across much more cleanly.  Concise, efficient communication goes a long way.

Generally in a kitchen, only a few customers/tables at a time are being worked toward.  Attempting to work on multiple tables at once creates chaos.  This bit even applies to fast food -- where, attempting to work on things out of an established order can create confusion in the kitchen.  Food orders getting out of order can result in the wrong meal being handed out, or the wrong items being included in a meal.  With everyone working in an established order, this possibility is removed and everything is kept straight and organized.

When you watch an episode of Hell's Kitchen (yes, I'm aware there's a difference between a Reality Show Kitchen and a Kitchen in Reality) -- you'll notice Chef Ramsay will often get angry at individuals for not having things ready; but their response is one of two things, "Coming up now." or an amount of time until they will have it ready.  When you're not ready to or in a position to follow the chef's immediate order, give feedback.  Let them know.  Give an update.

Now, I've briefly brushed over what (I perceive) a kitchen's ideal communication is to be like...how the fuck does that translate into video games?

First, I'm going to touch on League of Legends.  It will not be the only game I bring up here, but...because most top teams in LoL already have a dedicated Shotcaller, we've already got the barebones of a chef or expediter in place to tell the team what's needed at any given time.

Although there are quiet phases in LoL and times where not much is needed as far as delegation of tasks go, teams often have a shotcaller who has final say in a team's tactical decisions.  This is primarily done to ensure a team's decisions are decisive.  To ensure you have Robert's Fist and not Robert's Open Hand.  The Shotcaller directs the team on objectives to focus/go after, may be the one to select targets in team fights, and should be the one deciding who leaves the group to go clear a massive minion wave in a side lane to soak up the extra farm.  If you're an ADC heading down to that juicy wave bot lane, and the jungle-shotcaller says "Stay mid, let mid laner take that," you do not waste time arguing.  You stay mid.  If you're nearing a major item or a power spike for your character, let the team know.  "500 til LW" or "A few minions from level 11."  This will help the shotcaller delegate side waves in times where it's not just given to the nearest person.

Everyone (involved in the call) should follow the shotcaller's call -- consider it the "table" or "ticket" your kitchen is working on.  If you disagree with the call and attempt to do something else, you're essentially working on another table, and risking throwing things even further into chaos and making it harder to complete the current order in a satisfactory manner.  Again, Robert's Fist.  Work toward the same goal, achieve the goal much easier.

This next bit applies more to solo queue than organized play, but can help the latter.  In the case of laning phase, where sometimes summoners will be blown leaving wide open windows for a play to be made, one communication trap players will fall into is simply reporting the opponent's flash is down.  Reactive communication doesn't help much.  It's essentially the same as saying "I burnt the fish." -- the rest of the kitchen doesn't learn anything other than a current status.  Other stations are held up waiting on your fish.  In LoL, if someone burns a flash, track that cooldown (assume 270s for best gauge).  But, rather than saying, "enemy flash up at 10:50" say, "Come gank before 10:50" -- it creates a clear plan for your jungler (putting you in the chef role temporarily) to make a play on the enemy.  It's proactive communication, and, unless your jungler is a dick or incompetent, will usually result in him actually coming to gank for your lane.

Also, much like a kitchen needs to know how much stock of what food they have to know what orders from the dining room can be handled and when to cut off certain menu items or when to restock, at least one person on the team (preferably the shotcaller) needs to know and be able to gauge exactly how strong your team's composition is at any given point in the game.  If your team knows for certain you are weaker at a point, you can avoid making high risk calls and stall out a game until your power levels even out.  This requires in-game knowledge, and isn't really tied to communication, but knowing power spikes is key to making efficient and correct calls.

Call of Duty and other console FPS titles are another area where superb communication and teamwork have a demonstrable effect on success.  Two perfect examples of great communication: Halo's Instinct (Ogre 2, Roy, Lunchbox, Pistola, Towey era) and CoD's Complexity (Crimsix, Aches, TeePee, any fourth player, and their coach Mr X).

If you're thinking, "But Audley... I call out all the time, that means I'm a good communicator, right?"  No, shut up.  You're wrong.  Most teams focus on call-outs.  They talk about where an enemy target is.  Call-outs are essentially the same as, in my League of Legends example above, saying you burnt the fish.  Sure, they are information, but they're not good or useful information.

When commentators for CoD or Halo would do a Listen-In on either of the teams I mentioned, the communication was a different story.  Sure, there were call-outs, but there was something else there, something much greater, and of substantially higher value in terms of communication.

"I'm coming.
I've got your help.
Back down, I can help you.
Push left with me."

For as much call-outs as these two teams would make, they would have just as much talk directly to one another.  Halo players dubbed this "small talk" -- when in fact it's the best and most valuable communication there is.

If you are, for example, pushing long hall on Pit (Halo 3) and hear a call-out of "One their green" -- all you know is that there's a player their green box.  You don't know if he's pushing through to your side, if he's coming to long, if he's shooting a teammate in Sword...you really don't know much of anything.  But if you hear, "I'm fighting their Green" (one more word) you know two things -- 1) There is a person their green box, 2) That person is in battle. -- If you push out of long hall facing Green, you can easily clean up that player and you can tell your teammate "Back down, I'm coming."  Once again, a focus on proactive communication (making plans and play-calls) over reactive communication (target position call-outs) helps direct your teammates in a manner that you can help them or they can make the decision to stay alive over challenging a target you could finish.

If you're arriving at the enemy Blitz point at the same time as a teammate...unless the situation has been discussed outside the game with a clear plan of who is to go first in every situation, one of you should say, "You go, I'll cover." rather than you both rushing in to leave one person stranded and capable of being mopped up.

A single shot-caller is not as necessary in shooters since the situation is in a much more permanently fluid state, but in the case that your team has a player who really loves to charge, even at risk of dying (I call them the "tank" most of the time...) listening to that player will often improve your team's ability to play around their death.  Outside of CSGO / SnD in CoD, dying in a shooter isn't the end of the round.  Players can give up a death that earns multiple kills for your team, if you play around the person dying.  I was often that type of player in Halo that would put myself in positions to die, but be constantly telling my team where I was going so they could follow and be in position to mop up the easier kills from the bad positioning I'd forced of the enemies.  A flanker able to communicate they've successfully flanked (and then draw enemies back to them) is an asset to a team.

More important in shooters is the use of concise speech, because of the increased pace, and focusing on communicating as much, if not more, about your own team's position as you do on the enemy's.  Keep in mind you have no eyes in the back of your head, so unless you're the last one on your team to leave the base, you know as little about what they're doing as you do about what enemies are doing...unless they tell you otherwise.  The four strongest words you can say in a competitive (console) shooter are "I've got your help."

Audley Enough, you'll find yourself winning a lot more games when you communicate well.  Oh, and as a quick reminder, since I didn't stress it throughout the blog...  COMMUNICATION INCLUDES LISTENING, NOT JUST TALKING.  So when you think your team has everything it should theoretically need to win a game...but you're still not winning, check to see if you remembered the Kitchen Sync.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

re: "Do Video Games Need to be Competitive?" by Gandhi

This Audley Enough is a response post, to a video from Scott "Gandhi" Lussier where he pondered the question, "Do Video Games need to be competitive?"  Go watch that before reading this.

Now, understand that most of this post is responding to that video, and that I'm also equally prone to rambling.  I don't have any cohesive message to tell with this Audley Enough, it's just responding to a handful of points.

You made great points on the social comparison and genetics.

I don't necessarily agree that a game needs a method of social comparison to be successful, but perhaps for longevity it is necessary.  I think the important thing here is that players need a goal to work towards, whether it be beating the next level of a difficult single-player game (which has built-in limitations) or beating a high-ranked player in a competitive game (which is limited only by the power of the individual to 'solve' the game).  I'll touch more on this later.

The genetics argument MAY be inaccurate; after all, we often hear the stereotype "Asians are better at video games" -- StarCraft 2, League of Legends, and even fighting games seem to somewhat support this trend while there aren't evidence of it in Shooters, so it could come down to an argument of infrastructure.  DotA2 still has European teams/players win international events despite having an established infrastructure in China, but Korea has just now begun playing the game professionally.  We'll find out in roughly a year how much the "Korean Dominance" will apply here and how much their combination of superior infrastructure and potential genetic attunement to reaction speed may apply.  However, it's definitely more accessible and more likely for players to reach a high level of play despite their outward physical appearance, as there is less overtly physical requirement to get good at a game.

Regarding the 15%/85% League statement.  I find those numbers a bit misleading or vague since you used the word "revenue" -- how much of their events are funded by sponsors, and how much are funded by their organization?  How much of their prize pools are provided by the developers themselves?  I don't doubt their numbers are true, but I don't think they're the whole truth or outline clearly what it takes to put on a major tournament.

"eSports Savvy"
Spectator mode is great.  Ranks are great.  League of Legends had neither of these when it first launched.  The elo for players' normal games was hidden, although the Devs at one point were open about providing a player's elo.  The unranked games did have some hint of ranks to them.  I was the #314-ranked player at the end of League of Legends' beta and now have a Master Beta Summoner Icon.  The Spectator Mode however did not exist at all until I believe WCG 2010, where it was implemented in a very wonky fashion of a summoner spell that gave you full vision of the map.  Nothing near what it became at the start of Season 2, where the full Spectator Mode was first unveiled.

Regarding Developer Support, this is a large part of what made Riot so successful.  Early on (in Beta), the developers from the top of the company down were very active in the community, and even had weekly rundowns on Ventrilo where the top players at the time could give feedback about things directly to a member of the design team, and new players had a separate designer to interact with.  Good developer support helps make good games, but there are two pieces of the puzzle missing here that I think you should consider mentioning in future discussions on the topic.

1) Publisher support.  You mention Developer support, but I'll point you to a game/series that, I think you'd say had good developer support: Gears of War.  CliffyB is a legend in the industry and for good reason.  So what made GoW flop?  It has a large amount to do with why Halo 4 launched with incomplete features, a lack of beta, and several bugs: their publisher.  And it's funny, both of them had the same publisher.  Some jackass company called Microsoft Game Studios.

I'd like to mention another game... that was supposed to be the spiritual successor to Diablo 2, long before Diablo 3 was ever announced.  Let's hop in our time machine back to the year 2007 and talk about a game I was looking very forward to, known as Hellgate: London.  A lot of Blizzard Entertainment employees, namely of Blizzard's acquired branch "Blizzard North" left the company due to Blizzard's publisher/owners at the time, Vivendi Universal being a bunch of...for lack of a better description, useless cunts.  So they started their own company with a massive venture capital investment and named themselves Flagship Studios.  These were all more or less the exact developers behind Diablo and Diablo 2.  David Brevik was the lead designer on this new game...and it seeked to blend FPS gameplay with the Diablo action/RPG gameplay (sort of like Borderlands eventually did.)

However... the publisher for the game... was Electronics Arts.  And the game was announced to have a release date before they had even considered an alpha or beta test for the game (and note, that... it's pretty standard fare for MMOs these days, and even back then, to have long, protracted beta phases to get all the kinks worked out.  No dice here, they had to get the game out in a hurry.  Because EA weren't given them enough money to pay off their venture capital debts.  The game launched in an awful, buggy, unpolished, and underdeveloped state.  Very few people opted to pay for the premium subscription in the game to unlock new content...Flagship defaulted on their loans, and ultimately the company had to close down and sell off the assets of the game to the company that was publishing the game in Korea.  (If you need more evidence EA is a shit publisher, take a look at MAXIS' most recent launch of Sim City.)

Now...that long rant aside... the second piece of the puzzle:

2) Good Quality Assurance Analysts. (And skilled players as Designers)  This is where Riot Games truly kicks the ass of every company in competitive gaming.

Riot Games has a position they constantly hire for called Game Analyst.  Literally the role of this person is to essentially give balance and clarity feedback about the game and new features before they ever reach public consumption.  They're game testers, but rather than seek out bugs or ensure things work properly... they look for ways to break them balance-wise...or look to make sure that, as a player, the purpose of any skill or item is clear and the majority of its use-cases match developer intention.

That sounds like a pretty decent job, but here's the catch: You have to be -at least- Gold League in League of Legends to even apply for this job.  That's right, you have to PROVE you are good at the game before they even consider you for the job.  And the majority of people they hire for this position, when such applicants are available are Diamond+.  Statikk, who is now a member of the design team, joined Riot a few years ago as a Game Analyst.  He was the 11th-ranked player at the end of Beta and a top elo player at the time of his hire.  Classick held the #1 spot at one time, he's now either a QA Analyst or Designer.  Jatt, the commentator, was hired at Riot as a Design-team member before shifting to his position as commentator...he was a professional jungler for Team Dignitas prior to being hired by Riot.

League of Legends has one major thing, design-wise, that sets it apart from pretenders and other games of the genre, as well as many other games in general.  From a base design standpoint, it seeks to make sure that everything is 1) Clear and 2) Consistent.  Skills that are too complex for a new player to understand require too much of a burden of knowledge to play with or against; they're frustrating for new players and confusing to spectators.  League of Legends avoids skills like these.  Apart from critical hits and Sion/TF's passive, there are almost no random effects still in LoL.  Although the game had several when it was first designed, they've slowly been weeded out...and even the existence of Crit at level 1 has been cut down to requiring a rune investment, when previously it could exist from masteries or even characters' base crit scaling.

This design purpose makes sure all the power is in the player's hand, but that using a skill better than another player is nuanced to the point that a good player learns how to do it from experience, rather than randomly doing it or randomly failing it because the game engine said so (*cough* Bloom *cough*) and using a skill poorly is usually clear because, well, either you missed or you got killed afterward.

I forget where you mentioned Titanfall and Destiny because I forgot to make a note of it while watching your video, but I do want to include a prediction regarding Titanfall.  The game will flare up and die quickly.  At launch, there will inevitably be problems with the online platform (See: Electronics Arts publishing.) -- but once those frustrations subside, the remaining players will be sorted into two categories: The really fucking good players, who enjoy it because of its unique movement mechanics and clear ability to separate the good players from the bad...  And the bad players, who hate it because of its difficult movement mechanics and the fact that they're getting shit on by players who are clearly better than them, as they struggle to improve and give up, moving onto something easier for them to manage.  As the latter category dwindles in size, the gameplay will stagnate and slowly bleed players to other, newer games where the casual playerbase is larger, and there's more potential for growth.  It will be like Tribes: Ascend all over again.  Regarding Destiny... I don't think competitive console FPS players will stick around it for long.  I think it will appeal more to the crowd who prefer Borderlands over Halo/CoD, and seek to fulfill that same lootfest thirst (see: story coming up in a few paragraphs).

I don't believe the Forced Grind to 30 before playing ranked is a good thing, nor is the forced grind for Runes.  I disagree with the concept of Forced Grind, but I do acknowledge that there is something there that is important, and it ties back into the social comparison and something you briefly mentioned regarding Halo in your discussion about Ranks (when you mentioned the katana on the back of your armor)...and it's another specific position you'll see game companies hiring for, and Bungie constantly attempted to hire for near the end of Halo 3:

Player Investment Design.  What is Player Investment?  It's how tied a player is to the game.  In World of WarCraft, a player gets invested because they want to get their Warrior to the level cap with the top tier equipment and be fully decked out so they can finally go raiding.  In League of Legends, it's unlocking more champions and runes with your IP.  In Reach, it's getting that Inclement Weather armor effect so you can look like you're doing the electric slide all the time.  In CoD, it's unlocking the guns and prestiging.

I'll relate this to a personal story...

I have played several thousands of hours of Diablo 2 in my life.  Several.  Thousands.  And for me, I didn't really enjoy the game when I played it.  It was a chore.  But there was always one thing about the game that appealed to me...(that I now look back at disdainfully, but fully recognize it was what kept me playing the game)... Because Diablo 2 had unique items and runewords with very specific effects, and there were places on the internet that I could see all the skills and theorycraft some awesome build... I could plan out my end-game character the moment I started playing a new character.  I could have every detail of the character down to the rings on their fingers ready before the character even started into the game...but there was one obstacle:

I still had to level that character up and FIND or TRADE for those items.  So to do that, I had to grind.  I hadta power level to the point that I could just run Mephisto all day with my 600% Magic Find gear on in order to find either the items I was looking for, or similarly valuable items that I could potentially use to acquire what I wanted.  Just so I could see if the build I'd made for my character beforehand was as good or fun as it seemed on paper.  My Cold Sorc with full Energy Shield with an Insight RW+Prayer Act 2 Merc was almost literally immortal once I got her build.  (The exception being wh en she encountered unique mobs with Extra Fast+Mana Burn or if Baal managed to clone himself.)  I didn't care that the gameplay was tedious at that point.  I just wanted to build the character I had thought up.  And for me, that kept me playing for THOUSANDS of hours.

It isn't that a game needs to be competitive.  But a player needs to have clear goals.  Whether it be beating the next fucking level of Candy Crush (at the expense of all your friends on Facebook, or your significant other's debit card that mysteriously went missing), or in the case of Peter Molyneux's strange game where players clicked away at an enormous cube made of smaller cubes where the lone goal was to reach the center...  Players will keep playing until their goal is reached.  Ranks make it easier to make it clear what the goal is.  Top level external competitions and LAN events make the goal more attractive to the best and most skilled players.  But neither of those are truly required for longevity.  Diablo 2's PvP was a mess, unless you participated in LLDs (low level duels) where a strict level cap was enforced to ensure the massive late game balance and problem of dying too fast was a problem...but a massive majority of the player base didn't play for that.  They played to farm items to complete their build they thought up...to farm more items to complete another build they thought up.

One final note, and this is just a nitpicking bit... You mentioned a need for a report function, then mentioned "You have Community Managers, use them." - just pointing out, it's actually the Player Support team's job to deal with reported players; not Community Managers.  Player Support handle problems with the game, such as billing inquiries and such, and are also the team that ultimately issue bans in cases of abuse or extreme circumstances.  They are referred to in MMOS as "GMs" or "Game Managers" -- but they are not to be confused with COMMUNITY managers.  While the LoL Tribunal system was a joint effort of CMs, Player Support, and Game Designers, the system is overseen by the Support team.

I only nitpick this because a friend of mine has been Community Manager at a few game development companies, and at one, he constantly bitched about how the company essentially only wanted him to be a glorified forum moderator.  When, at his previous jobs (Flagship Studios, Garage Games) he drove initiatives to improve player investment, market the game, foster fansite appreciation, and even develop some additional website features.  Community Managers are a much broader, high-level job than someone who has time to sit and read xAnauiram420's report on how l33tSn1p3r was obviously cheating, and his teammate fRaNkLyMyDear didn't give a damn and just AFK'ed all game.  Again, it's Semantics and nitpicking, but it's still something to note for future reference.

Audley Enough, we agree on a lot of things here... but I wanted to expound upon some of your ideas and bring to light some things you may not have been aware of.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Halo 4 Global Championships: When Marketing Campaigns play Dress-Up as eSports

Disclaimer: I want to make it absolutely clear that 343, the players, and the commentators were absolutely fantastic this weekend.  Nothing I'm about to say is directed toward any of those three groups unless I explicitly mention them in the statement.

So...how about those Halo 4 Global Championships?  They were pretty fantastic, right?

Audley Enough, it left a bitter taste in my mouth.

I saw some tweets about how it was a great tournament.  And here's where I'm going to stop you, and correct you.

That was an awful tournament.  It was a good show.  It was a good (expensive) marketing campaign.  But again, from a competitive integrity standpoint, that tournament was terrible.

First, the format.  A...100+ team FFA feed into a 4-player 1v1 BEST OF ONE finals?  The fuck is that?  Best of one?  Really?  Now, time constraints are one thing, but getting yourself so constrained that you have to limit yourself to best of ones for GRAND FINALS for (one of) the LARGEST PRIZE POOLS Halo has ever seen?  That's pretty fucked up.  Seriously.

FPS titles have traditionally been a showcase of multiple maps and sometimes multiple game variants.  Hell, even Quake Live, which still gets played at Dreamhack events has Best of 3 finals showing off three different maps.  And if you're unfamiliar, its format is always 1v1.

By my next statement I mean no offense to the winner, Aaron Elam...but when a player openly admits to only having practiced for an event for about a week prior and ends up winning Two HUNDRED THOUSAND dollars at said event over players who have put in substantially more time and effort...you know the format of the tournament is a little fucked.  Again, don't take this statement wrong.  Ace played fantastically and he earned his win...but as someone who preaches practice, I can't help but feel if there was a little bit more consistency required of the tournament, he may not have seen as great of success.  I still extend my congratulations to him.  Hey, he was the first Halo pro to have ever had me on his friend's list.  I can't hate.

Secondly, the trailers.

Okay, what the fuck.  This is a Halo tournament, right?  It's the HALO FOUR GLOBAL CHAMPIONSHIPS, right?


For this to have been as marketing-focused as it was, I'm confused as fuck as to what Microsoft was actually trying to market.  I mean, they gave us some of the most limited scope of what Halo has to offer as humanly possible -- FFA and 1v1s of a team game... And then they go off and show us three trailers for three different shooters all coming to the XBox One console.  This event's about Halo, right?  So why are you trying to draw us to different shooters, Micro$oft?

Thirdly, the production.

Wait, the production?  Those production values were insane, Audley!  What are you smoking?

I'm not going to disagree that the production values were insane.  But the part that bugged me about it was how painfully scripted it was.  If you couldn't tell the two hosts were reading from a teleprompter, you weren't watching.  Granted, they would go off-script on occasion...but in those instances, it was the only time the two would actually engage each other or their surroundings during the show.  Otherwise, they just kept looking forward.  You could even feel when they felt the teleprompted jokes ("Spartan badassery") were too forced, and grit their teeth to grind through it.

I know Riot and the LCS use teleprompters, and often the casters read from it when setting up transitions.  However, most have enough genuine character of their own merit that it doesn't feel as awkward.

I do want to make it clear -- I enjoyed my time in Benaroya Hall during the finals.  It was a good show.  It was executed very well, and the games were intense and fun to watch.  But when I see people praising the event and lauding it as proof that "Halo is back!" and "343 gets it" I just shudder.

I repeat what I've said all along: Halo 4's launch state being poor isn't 343's fault.  That launch state is a publisher issue, not a developer one.  Publisher determines release date, and when something's released with no beta, tons of bugs, and missing content, you don't say "Oh, well clearly that's what the developer wanted.  What idiots."  That's a "Big Daddy Moneybags decided we had to release by this date or we wouldn't get paid."  Oh, and by the way... Microsoft Game Studios published Halo 4.

Also, how soon do you think an event that size will get done again?  Microsoft and Virgin gaming just spent hundreds of thousands of dollars for a tournam-err, excuse me, MARKETING CAMPAIGN, that had a couple months worth of qualifiers, weeks worth of headaches for the staff that had to moderate the online qualifiers (I honestly feel for Bravo and bsangel after seeing some of the tweets they got every time a loss or a leave happened during the Online quals.).  If they manage to do another one of these before PAX Prime of NEXT year, I'll be speechless.

Microsoft still hasn't shown that they understand eSports...neither from a format standpoint, nor from the standpoint of building storylines.  Hell, there wasn't TIME to build storylines with this mega-condensed faux-tourney they held this past weekend.  I don't even recall Bravo or Goldenboy mentioning that Ace's older brother happened to be at the Halo 4 GC as well (and, if you saw, ran onto stage to hug him when he won).

So for me, this was not an entirely reassuring experience.  It still shows a deep ignorance of competitive gaming from the corporate dogs at Microsoft and there's still miles of room for improvement in nearly every avenue.  I hope Microsoft takes a more serious approach to one of its most historically successful franchises and attempts to turn this into a more focused attempt to bring the series back to what it used to be, rather than an attempt to dump money onto a game whose fans are turning away from it in a half-assed attempt to bring them back to the game.  I sincerely hope the latter is not the case.

Anyway, in closing...  I want to thank 343, all of the players (even Gamesager), Goldenboy, Gh057Ayame, Microsoft, Virgin Gaming, and PAX Prime for enabling the Halo 4 Global Championships to happen.  It is a step...maybe not in the right direction, but at least in a less-wrong direction...toward bringing Halo back to the limelight.  And without all of their help combined, I wouldn't have had the opportunity to rant about it.

It was a great experience, and the finals were extremely tense.  Regardless of my gripes, I'm still elated that I went.  And I hope to see more in the future.  I leave you with photographic proof that "Halo is dad" though.  Gandhi and Maven casting Call of Duty:

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Fighting Chance: Randomness in Competitive Gaming (and Sports)

If you're reading this, you probably play video games.  In fact, you probably enjoy competing, or attempting to compete in video games.  And if you're like me, you really hate arbitrary systems that limit your ability to outplay your opponents.  Often, people will talk about how "random shit" screwed them out of a win, or a kill, or whatever.

So...what is randomness?

The dictionary has a few different definitions both formal (from statistics) and informal regarding the word "random" - but for the sake of this blog, I will be using a bit of a fusion of the definitions.  In the context of competition, the word random means...

"Unable to be accurately predicted or controlled based off the knowledge any participating player has available to them at a given time."

To clarify, this means any action within the rules of a game taken by a player cannot, by definition, be random.  Being unable to predict an opposing player's actions is not an act of randomness, but rather an act of them out-playing you.  Sirlin covers the concept of reading and predicting an opponent's actions quite well in his article about "Yomi Layer 3."

In competitive gaming, many of the anti-randomness camp tend to cling to the argument, "There is no randomness in real sports."  But, let's take a closer look at that.

Say you're playing baseball.  A ground ball is hit toward third base.  On its way there, it hits a rock in the ground and bounces toward second base instead.

It is highly unlikely and completely unrealistic to expect that any player participating in the game has an intimate enough level of knowledge of the field's terrain to know that there was a rock there likely to cause such an awkward bounce.  This is an act of randomness.

Say you're playing basketball.  You go to participate in the tip off.  The referee (not a player participating in the game) throws the ball up, but the referee's hand is not level, sending the ball closer to you than your opponent.  Neither you nor your opponent had any idea or say in this occuring.  This is an act of randomness.

Football, wind during field goals.  A sudden gust or cessation of gusting can completely change the outcome of a kick.  Unless the wind is completely consistent, the wind's effects are random.  Nature is random.

Granted, many of these random factors are limited and often will only occur in edge cases.  Most random factors are able to be reacted to in a way that does not overall affect the outcome of a game.  And in most cases, the random factor is not enough to outweigh the differentiation in skill.

Of course, I emphasize my use of the phrase "in most cases" and point back in recent history to the "Inaccurate Reception" -- a play in the 2012 Packers/Seahawks game in which Seahawks QB Russell Wilson threw an interception to Packers' defender M.D. Jennings, which was ruled by the officiating staff as a completion to Seahawks receiver Golden Tate.  Even after video review that showed overwhelming evidence this was an incorrect call, the call stood, giving the Seahawks a win in an otherwise lost game.  This outcome, completely unpredictable and uncontrollable by the players (and wRONG by the actual rules of the game) was a random factor (by the above definition) that determined the outcome of the game.

This randomness extends into various video games, even those of a competitive nature.  Often, random factors are met with a certain level of disdain from the players.  Critical hits and status effects are referred to as "Hax" by the players of Pokémon -- and in niche competitive communities, moves and items that increase the randomness (lowering accuracy, raising evasion, increasing crit chance) are forbidden.

In many shooter series, the gun's bullet trajectory can be random through mechanics such as bloom or bullet spread.  This sort of mechanic proves especially problematic in games of higher kill times, as the longer an engagement lasts, the more opportunity there is for the randomness to affect the outcome of a battle between individuals.

Throughout League of Legends' development, various random factors such as "chances" to stun, critical chance being available at level 1 through masteries, the ability to dodge basic attacks (and at one point, towers), and Gangplank's ultimate have all been either stripped or reworked in a manner that makes them more consistent and predictable.

So, clearly with the fact that randomness can affect the outcome of a game, or greatly influence it without the player being able to predict it, randomness is bad, right?

I won't use my catchphrase (No, shut up, you're wrong.) here, but I will offer further insight on why a certain degree of randomness can be useful.

First, I'm going to bring up the game Connect Four.  This game has no true randomness.  Each player has full control over the actions he or she takes.  There are no arbitrary influences on the game except for the selection of who goes first.  So, this game is a perfect example of determining who is better at the game, yes?

No, shut up, you're wrong (there, I got to use it.)  Connect Four is a SOLVED GAME.  If played correctly, it is impossible for the first player to lose.  He or she can force a win regardless of any action taken by the opposition.  Checkers is a solved game.  Played perfectly by both sides, the game ends in a draw.  Chess is, with our current level of technology, too complex for an absolute solution, but has been solved for all 7-piece end game situations.

Solved games mean there is an ultimate barrier on the level at which a player can out-play another.  Ultimately, the game's rule set already has determined the winner, and the interactions of the players are completely meaningless.  This is poor.

If we were, however, to remove all randomness from the games I mentioned above, only one of those could eventually become a solved game (Pokémon.)  The others all have one distinct difference from board games that makes the implementation of randomness completely unnecessary.

They each require mechanical skill.  Players can out-position, out-maneuever, out-shoot, out-itemize, or out-skill their opponents in various ways through methods of both strategic and mechanical play.  Inconsistencies in gameplay more often come from the player's failure to properly control rather than the game determining they have failed through arbitrary rulesets, dice rolls, et cetera.

Let's take a closer look at Halo.  In Halo Reach, for example, Bungie implemented a mechanic known as Bloom.  As a player fired faster than the arbitrarily determined ideal rate of fire, the gun's accuracy would drop, leading to missed shots regardless of the player aiming properly.  This was counterintuitive given the game's comparatively long kill times (compared to not only other Halo titles, but more specifically to other shooters which included Bloom, which often have instant kills for headshots).  In any individual engagement, players' primary goals are to kill the opposition prior to being killed themselves, which means firing at the fastest rate of fire is often optimal, even if it becomes a gamble.

In this system, players were not punished for missing (as they would be in the case of an instant kill headshot game) -- but rather, punished for engaging.  Scoring a kill merely meant you had to immediately disengage (which was not often possible) or else start out at a huge disadvantage in any ensuing engagements.  This drastically reduced the power of an individual in games.

This implementation of randomness is completely unnecessary, as it only serves to limit the individual's capability for outplaying, rather than to facilitate the potentially intended goal of assisting less skilled players in scoring kills.  If the designers wished to include a cadence to assist newer players, the "bloom" should've been replaced by a sort of on-board aim assistance for the gun.  As the rate of fire increases, the computer's "processing speed" decreases, reducing the aim assistance and bullet magnetism of the gun and making the bullet actually fire more accurately in regards to the player's reticule.  In the case of high levels of player skill, the players can shoot at the max rate of fire without being punished for their level of skill.  In the case of lower levels of player skills, players can fire at cadence with moderate accuracy and still be able to score kills in a consistent number of shots.

In Halo 4, a new form of randomness was implemented in the game's Ordnance system.  Personally, I like ordnance.  I even don't mind some degree of randomness in the ordnance.  However, the implementation in the release version of Halo 4 was entirely out of whack.  Players could get anything from a set of extra grenades to the most powerful weapons in the game, just for earning enough points to call down a weapon.

Players could press any of three directional pad buttons to call down a randomly generated weapon, item, or power-up upon acquiring Ordnance.  Interestingly, there were three "classes" of weapons in the game -- Human, Covenant, or Promethean.  I found it odd that the Orndance choices were not first tied to selecting one of these three classes to further specify what kind of weapon ordnance the player could then get.  After selecting a class of weapon, the three directional options could've then been reduced to something along the lines of "Close Range" (Shotgun, Scattershot, Energy Sword, Gravity Hammer), "Explosive" (Sticky Detonator, Concussion Rifle, or any of the grenade choices), and "Powerup" (available to all 3 class choices, randomly selects Speed Boost, Overshield, or Damage Boost).  The "up" button could be used to return a menu and investigate the other options.  It would reduce the randomness and improve a player's ability to quickly determine what they want.

Alternatively, they could've been organized in a manner that focused on primarily what they improved -- Left = Mobility.  Speed Boost, Jetpack, Thruster Pack.  Down = Defense.  Overshield, Hardlight Shield, Regenerator.  Right = Offense.  Damage Boost, various mid-tier weapons like the Railgun or Concussion rifle.  The main reason I defend the possibility of randomness in the Ordnance system is that regardless of the choice, they are all better than whatever the CURRENT state of the player is.  There's no chance that the randomness will yield a worse outcome.

In League of Legends, there are very few random factors remaining.  Currently Twisted Fate's passive and Critical Chance are the two most notable.  Twisted Fate's passive is mostly a non-factor as it averages out to the same effect over the course of a game.

Critical Chance, however, is a factor that has had to be limited and hammered by design into a form that was made acceptable due to various abuse cases due to its random nature.  Once again, this is an ability that doesn't have to be random.  Rather than critical hits being left to the whims of a calculator, they could instead occur on a pattern.

For example, the Brawler's Gloves grant an 8% chance to critically strike.  On average, this means a player will critically strike once every 12.5 attacks.  Instead of this system, it could generate a range (for example, 10-15) of "focus" per attack.  Once the amount of focus reaches 100, a critical hit occurs.  (Yes, this is still random.  It does keep the element of randomness, but takes away the most important element that makes randomness bad -- unpredictability.)  This would also serve to eliminate problematic edge cases of double critical hits or long strings without critical hits.  And since the next "critical hit" would be a trackable occurrence, it would encourage interactivity between players in the case of a laning phase in which one player has generated enough focus to crit.  It brings about more options for outplaying and counterplaying situations while reducing the randomness tied to one of the last bastion of offenders of RNG fuckery remaining in League of Legends.

Now, to return to Pokémon.  I mentioned randomness is necessary to prevent it from being a solved game.  Do this mean I believe that, on a given attack, a player should suddenly be able to deal double damage and disregard any defensive bonuses of the target (how crits work in Pokemon)?  No.

The primary issue with the randomness in Pokémon, as a competitive game, is that it is ABRUPT.  There is no chance to react to the issue.  A crit will always come without prior warning, and will often completely screw you over.  This is a huge negative.  However, crits do serve a positive purpose in some occasions.  They can prevent guaranteed stalls, or help break a wall attempt in an otherwise hopeless case.

So, how do you eliminate the abruptness?  It's really quite easy.  You delay the effect of the crit until one turn after the game has determined a crit occurs.  This could be done by replacing "Critical Hit" with "has been knocked off-balance!"  -- where an off-balance character is treated as +0 on defense upgrades, and takes double damage from the next attack to occur.  This status effect always only lasts one turn.

A method like this proves more interactive for both the person getting the critical hit as well as the person who was hit, as once you are knocked off-balance, there are a number of choices you can make.  The player who has knocked the opponent off-balance will likely want to use their current Pokémon's most powerful move in order to inflict as much damage as possible.  The person who has been knocked off-balance has a few options they can select: 1) Leave in the current creature, hoping the damage is not enough and the wall can continue.  2) Use a faster move in order to attempt to knock-out the opposing Pokémon.  3) Attempt to swap out their Pokémon to avoid the critical hit taking effect.

If the attacking player guesses that the defending player will likely use #3, the mind games begin.  "Do I stick with my strongest move, or do I try to guess what Pokémon they will swap to, and instead swap my own Pokémon to something that will be strong against their likely switch?"  The level of Yomi (again, go read the Sirlin article I linked earlier.  He's a great design mind.) that occurs just from this one mechanic change greatly increases the amount of fun and interactivity between the two players while drastically reducing the amount of frustration from a random moment in the game, while still in essence keeping that randomness which can reduce or prevent the game from ultimately devolving into a "solved" game.

Randomness in gaming is not all bad.  It creates a certain level of chaos that can, in many circumstances, improve the interactivity between players.  However, randomness that exists as an unpredictable factor, or solely to limit the level to which a player can outplay another has no place in a game of skill, and wherever possible should be removed.

Audley Enough, very few games since the most popular early game, Pong, has seemed to grasp this concept and we are left with the artifact of 80s and 90s dungeon crawlers keeping random factors in our games.  As the competitive gaming envelope continues to get pushed, hopefully we can stamp out any remaining randomness that limits player skill and replace them with mechanics that instead reward skillful interaction over dumb luck.