Monday, May 25, 2015

Audley's Workshop: Balancing an FPS Sandbox

A while back, I did a blog on having certain weapons appeal to multiple playstyles, referring to the horribly vague MtG archetypes Timmy/Johnny/Spike to label the players to whom those weapons would appeal.  It focused on having weapons in Halo be both fun and competitively viable.  I mentioned the Halo Reach Grenade Launcher as the pinnacle of success for designing weapons for all players, then pointed out three examples of weapons that appealed to two archetypes and failed to meet the standards for the third.

Today, I'm revisiting Audley's Workshop with a focus on tweaking some weapons from the Halo series to make them more viable competitively or more appealing to the broader player base.  There won't be any focus on Timmy/Johnny/Spike here, just strictly on some weapons that get overlooked in Halo for either being shoved too far into a niche, being too unreliable, or simply not having enough identity on their own to be embraced by the players.

The Needler.  Everyone knows the pink mist.  Or, in a strafe battle, the pink missed.

Halo 3 and Halo 4 had decent incarnations of the weapon, but even then its niche was very difficult to abuse and relied heavily on flanking and catching players by surprise in order to get kills with.  By the time a player had time to turn and react to the first needle connecting in H3, the others were already locked on and tracking to set up the super combine.

But as we move into Halo 5, where the Thruster is readily available, and players are going to be able to quickly break those lock-ons, how does one make the Needler more useful?  Hell, the weapon already had trouble keeping up with any side-to-side motion, whether strafing or simply running in a straight line perpendicular to the wielder... so where is the Needler missing power?

While you may think, "Hey, the Needler's tracking could just be improved to make it harder to dodge!" -- reducing counterplay isn't a wise decision for a weapon that is theoretically a very fast kill weapon between time-of-engagement to time-of-death.  While the actual travel time of the needles makes the kill time long, the actual time to react from being shot is substantially smaller.  Reducing post-reaction counterplay is not the way to go.

"Well then Audley, I guess you have an idea?"  I do, and I've mentioned it on forums in the past.  You know what weapon the Covenant never had a true successor to in Halo, despite having plenty of CQB weapons?  The shotgun.  What if, instead of a standard melee, using the melee with the Needler unleashed all of your needles in a uniform cone ahead of you?  If seven, or eight, or whatever the arbitrarily chosen supercombine number happens to be managed to lodge themselves in the target, you get the insta-kill as usual.  Suddenly the Needler is a much better weapon in CQB, which immediately improves its definition in the sandbox.

This also improves the Needler's options versus a player running perpendicular to you; instead of simply praying the tracking decides to work at your range, you lead your shot and unleash.  If they aren't terribly far away, and you angle your shot (melee) correctly, enough needles will land in their side to score a medium range kill with the Needler.  (Audio cues will be necessary for this "MULTIPLE NEEDLES INBOUND" situation though.)

Voila, the Needler is now the best weapon in Halo history.  You're welcome, Bung343.

Oh, nice, the Plasma Rifle.  A weapon that gets praised in Halo: CE for fitting well into the sandbox with its hitstun and quick camo uses.  Hardy LeBel did a wonderful job with this gun and making it useful in Hal-oh, wait, you're telling me outside of HCE no one uses the Plasma Rifle?  Because it's a shit generic automatic weapon with no niche or role at all?

Well, we need to fix that!  No weapon should be useless.  Let's talk about how to make it better, without treading down roads been walked before, such as the hitstun method which limits counterplay potential.

As a visible projectile-based automatic weapon, the Plasma Rifle is a weird beast.  Players can literally dodge the shots (unlike the hitscan incarnations of the Assault Rifle) and see where they need to move in order to stay ahead of their opponent's reticule.  This is good, it offers counterplay.  The slower projectile speed compared to most weapons in the game makes it difficult to use.  It leaves us with an unreliable weapon, especially at longer ranges.

In non-Combat Evolved Halo games where the Plasma Rifle is available to be used, its most common role is for a quick couple of shots followed by a melee.  A pretty shitty niche as other CQB/melee weapons outshine it in that role, and other automatics (SMG/AR) outshine it in gun roles.  As a gun, the Plasma Rifle is pretty shit.  Its other common use, in H2A's case, is to put a couple of shots in, back down into cover while you switch to your BR, and finish with a headshot.  A role where it is outshined by a Plasma Pistol (outside of Warlord, where there is no PP).  Uh oh, looks like we have a weapon that isn't very useful in its intended niche.

So how do we make the Plasma Rifle more reliable at range, or stronger as an automatic?  How about we do both at once -- by removing the limitation that each shot fired only has one particle, instead splitting it into two?  To make the weapon more effective at range, the plasma could feature a dissipation effect -- where the plasma spreads out, becoming able to hit a wider area at range.  This would still have significant damage versus shields, but be relatively useless versus player health.  The damage would still degrade at range based off how much of the spreading disc of plasma hit the player, but the focus here is to soften shields.  The second part of the damage would remain in the center of the disc, increasing focus on hitting your shots accurately as a player gets low on health (in line with Halo's core combat philosophy across the series where you body shot until a player is low/out of shields), then headshot.  The central portion of the Plasma Rifle's bolt could convey headshot bonuses, as well as pack a substantial punch to health any time it connects to an unshielded player.

Suddenly you've got a weapon with nuance for use (do I focus on aiming accurately or just try to drop shields as best as I can, do I have teammate help?) while it still has potential to stand on its own as an automatic, due to having a centralized point of increased damage for penetrating health and finishing off players that have had their shields dropped by the high energy plasma.

But let's not stop there; I've only been talking in 4v4 so far, there's another niche the Plasma Rifle was absolutely overshadowed by its UNSC BTB, versus vehicle health.

It makes zero sense to me that UNSC vehicles are so resistant to plasma damage.  That shit should shred the fuck out of vehicle health.  C'mon now.  Bump up the UNSC vehicle health damage from Plasma-based weaponry.  UNSC vehicles are built to withstand other UNSC vehicles' weaponry, not Covenant weaponry.  UNSC ARs/Magnums/Rifles should not be stronger against vehicles (outside of rifles versus weak points) than Plasma Rifles.

Okay, now we've buffed the Plasma Rifle to viability.  Who are we looking at now?

I'm afraid I don't recognize that weapon.  I don't think I've ever seen anyone use it.  What is it?

Oh, that's the Carbine?  I thought that thing was just a myth made up by those bastards that played playlists as Dinos and ran around shouting "wort wort wort" to be funny.

Here we have an example of a weapon that is perfectly capable in its own right (usually, I think in H3/H4 they intentionally made it weaker than the other options just so they'd never have to bother worrying about it.) but which rarely gets used apart from a pick-up to hold as a sidearm in case you run out of ammo in a power position you don't want to leave.

The Carbine has no role of its own, it's simply the "harder to use Covenant BR"; I say harder to use because it's single shot, versus the BR's burst.  Mistakes are punished more, and it's high shots-to-kill leave plenty of room for mistakes.

So how do we give this thing a role?  Sage Merrill had a pretty good idea once.

But if this blog is to jerk myself off--err, challenge my own design mind, I need to explore a different avenue.  One that doesn't involve "oh just aim for the body if you can't aim and you'll get a flashy kill; it'll be sweet I swear."

First let's examine the canonical design of the Type-51 Carbine.  By design, it is meant to be a riflesque version of the Type-33 Light Anti Armor Weapon...also known as the Fuel Rod Gun.  The Carbine literally fires supersonic radioactive projectiles at the target.  It's most often wielded in campaign by Jackals, the "snipers" of the Covenant military.

So using this knowledge, what can we do to the weapon to give it some identity?  Looking at its Big Sister counterpart, the Fuel Rod Gun, we know that the fuel rod "deploys" after being fired a certain range -- making it move much slower and explode upon the next target it hits.  Thinking about this, Carbines could do the same after a certain range.  Within their intended range (max red reticule range or whatever) they could still fire the standard method that ultimately operate like any other rifle in the game, but as you extend beyond that range, the fuel rod "decays" turning the bolt into an explosive projectile.  This could make it useful for pinging targets behind cover in long range skirmishes, damaging light vehicles as they attempt to flee, or packing an extra punch against smug DMR wielders who think their superior range gives them safety.

Ultimately, this change gives the Carbine a unique role as a dual-threat weapon; a rifle in standard ranges with some potential for splash damage or anti-armor potential in extreme ranges (hello BTB crowd!).  Suddenly the weapon has flavor that allows it to stand out from the other weapons of its niche, and you may actually remember it exists!  (And hey, making the Covenant Rifle explosive isn't that farfetched, we DID have a Supercombining Needle Rifle.)  And for those of you who can't visualize how I imagine the longer-ranged Carbine bolts to work...just imagine the Phoenix from Perfect Dark.

One last Halo weapon before I delve into my "bonus" topics...

"Audley, I didn't play Halo 4.  What the fuck is that?"

Don't worry, it's not a morning star.  It's the Pulse Grenade.

I encountered a poll on GameFAQs asking what the most useless weapon in Halo 4 was, and the #1 answer, with 40% of the vote (passing the Suppressor, Storm Rifle, and the Gravity Hammer) was the Pulse Grenade.

In my experience, this wasn't true.  Melee+Grenade throw was an instant kill with Pulse Grenades active...sharing this knowledge even convinced Eric "Gh057Ayame" Hewitt to include Pulse Grenades on-map in his Team Throwdown settings which were used for competitive tournaments during H4's lifespan.

So, if I'm so convinced Pulse Grenades were one of the strongest CQB weapons in all of Halo 4...why do I feel the need to talk about them?  It's all about player perception.

When you see the Pulse Grenade's animation, and its name, you expect it to be a sort of delayed-explosion that deals a ton of damage.  In reality, the Pulse Grenade's damage is front-loaded.  It takes place instantly in the giant circle of doom you create.  Add in Halo 3's Power Drain animation to a player's knowledge base, and you expect the Pulse Grenade's giant orange doomglobe do also deal significant damage over time.  Nope, not the case.

Literally the only good uses for the Pulse Grenade were to finish off players who were severely weakened -- the delayed effects were negligible at best and completely avoidable at worst.  But the instant burst of a well-thrown pulse grenade (or, in the primary usecase, a pulse grenade thrown at your feet immediately after a melee) was unavoidable, and made the pulse grenade a potent option as a finishing tool.

So, to reiterate clearly after all that jumbled rambling...

The Pulse Grenade needed nothing more than an animation fix to better clarify it's purpose to the users.  It was an instant burst tool, not a delayed-damage like most grenades, nor an AoE drain like the Halo series' past tool, the Power Drain, which carried a similar animation.  Clarity of design is just as important as unique flavor and potency, otherwise your users simply won't grasp how good it actually is.

That's all for my Halo weapons to rework...Now for two bonus guns.

Perfect Dark - Reaper.

OH DEAR GOD THIS THING WAS A MONSTER.  Viscerally, it was one of the most fun weapons to use in the history of FPS.  But in terms of viability...dear god, the weapon was ass.  It wasn't really intended to be a serious use weapon from what I can gather; hell, in game canon terms, humans aren't even supposed to be able to wield it, only the Skedar are.

If you didn't play Perfect Dark and are wondering what the fuck a Reaper is...  Imagine you took the bottom of a blender or food processor and made it the size of a chainsaw.  So you have a giant rotating fan-o-death that can shred people to death.  Got that in your mind?  Okay, that's just the SECONDARY fire mode of the Reaper.

Now imagine, for the primary mode...  That each of the tips of the "fan blades" can fire bullets, and as the fan spins faster, your rotating death fan of doom and despair fires faster as well, and is essentially the fastest firing machine gun in the history of anything ever.

Got it?  That's the Reaper.  Don't got it?  Here's a video.

With great fire rate comes great inaccuracy.  Dear lord the thing was inaccurate.  Unwieldy.  The melee secondary fire mode was fun, but mostly useless unless you had a really good corner to hide in for ambushes.

In terms of fun factor, the Reaper was fantastic.  It was a weapon you'd pick up just to watch it spin as you were hypnotized by murderous glee.  Unfortunately, there was just no way to reconcile its RoF with its accuracy to make it work for players...or was there?

The Reaper's kill time was surprisingly fast, when bullets actually hit.  Myself, I'm not a fan of randomly making bullets miss because you arbitrarily want to limit a gun's power.  Drastically reducing the damage per bullet and increasing the accuracy could've gone a long way to making the Reaper a bit less farfetched as a tool -- and as a cost for the increase in accuracy, tuning the recoil to actually RECOIL (rather than again, just being a random spread of bullet trajectories).  Alternately, taking the Halo "ripped-off-turret" approach of reducing the player's movement speed could also curb some of the power given back to the player by more consistency in the weapon itself.  A final route, though probably too ahead of the technology curve for Perfect Dark's day could've been to greatly increase the magazine size (from 200 to 1000) and add the potential for the gun to overheat as it approached its faster RPMs, leading a player to want to micromanage the heat and avoid spinning too fast.

And the final gun... Quite possibly the most hated gun in FPS history...

The Klobb.

How could this have been fixed?

Just delete the goddamn useless piece of shit.

That's all for my random blog on FPS sandbox design, hope you enjoyed.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Why I support AR/Pistol Starts over BR Starts as the Competitive Option in Halo 5

Over on the TeamBeyond forums, there's been a debate raging for weeks now over what we believe the starting weapons should be for competitive settings in the upcoming game, Halo 5 Guardians. If you've been following the thread, you can skip to the section with bullets, because I'm starting off be reiterating some of my points made in the thread.

For a decade now, it has been whatever the game's best-suited headshot rifle was labeled (usually the BR). This has caused a schism in playlists, where “casual” gametypes (and some ranked, in TS playlists) would start with the game's standard automatic weapon and “hardcore” gametypes would start with a headshot rifle. We've heard counter-arguments during Halo 4 that in order to return to Halo's past glory we need to “keep it vanilla” – and while moving toward a more standardized weapon set across the whole of the game would help, it ignores the reasons we moved away in past games.

In Halo 2, there were three starting weapon options for UNSC weapons: SMG, Magnum, and Battle Rifle. Let's take Lockout for example. Say everyone starts with SMG/Magnum. One team gets control of Sniper tower and BR tower. The SMG can't really fight at a range from building to building capably in Halo 2. Nor can the Magnum (a shame it wasn't the HCE Pistol). And a BR spawns on TOP of the BR tower. In the high ground.

Let's move to Warlock. 4 BRs on the map. All on high ground, that can only be reached from two methods: Lifting up a slow lift and then jumping out into the open onto the platform, or walking up a ramp from one direction onto the platform. Very predictable methods where, if you don't ALREADY have a BR, but your opponents do, it's damned near impossible to grab one.

In Halo 2, the range discrepancy between the BR and the not-BRs was high. To exacerbate that problem, the BRs were often in places of optimal use case already, so once you grabbed them, you had little reason to move. Design-wise, this makes starting with not-BRs incredibly snowbally. But it's illogical to say “We did BR starts because the SMG can't fight the BR.” – the placement of BRs on map were equally at fault. (Let's skip the irony that Bungie intentionally stripped the Magnum of power from CE to 2 in an effort to gut skill gaps to force closer games and then set up maps in an absurdly snowbally manner.)

In Halo 3 we returned to BR starts again, although the range discrepancy of the weapons and their placement were much more sensible. (Granted, that range discrepancy was fixed by nerfing the everliving fuck out of the BR to the point that it was essentially useless on large maps, making BTB a nightmare.) The pistol was still useless. A desire to stay away from Spray and Pray anything fueled the decision to keep the BR as the starting weapon, and rightfully so.

In Reach, the Beta pistol showed promise, but at launch it was clear we had no option but the DMRNG. In Halo 4, an enormous debate arose over whether the BR or DMR should be the starting weapon (disregarding #TeamOrange who all believed the Light Rifle to be the superior skill gap weapon to use). Ultimately, the BR was chosen despite having random spread and being burstfire, when the mostly-cosmetic bloom and single shot of the DMR made more sense for a competitive rifle. Why? The DMR shot too far. It was too oppressive in the game, and would assist players in aiming over literally entire arena-sized maps. Despite very correct and well-articulated articles opposing the BR, the BR was healthier for the game and simply felt better. The Pistol was a lot better in this game, but it was still ultimately a lottery cannon.

With Halo 5, however, things have changed. Automatics now have headshot multipliers (they're more skill-oriented, and less spray-and-pray). They have the definitely-not-ADS-nope-not-one-bit Smart Scope to encourage using them at range. The Pistol is the fastest killing headshot weapon in the game, and had what we were told were bugs (flinch, recoil) that made it unwieldy. Additionally, the Pistol could fight at a range beyond two feet in front of you, already making it superior to the H2/H3 incarnations that we had to avoid like the plague.

So let me repeat that. THE PISTOL IS USEFUL AGAIN. And less importantly, the AR isn't a “let me camp around a corner and just shoot+melee you” weapon. It is also useful at range.

The reasons we avoided ARs and Pistols in previous titles are gone/heavily mitigated in Halo 5. We have good reason to try them out as the starting weapons from the get-go, and avoid separating the entire community into our we-don't-like-your-gametypes-we're-going-to-make-our-own...with-blackjack...and-hookers “hardcore” settings.

But before you rattle off all your reasons why you think the BR is more skillful or use reasons like “we've used the BR for a decade, why should we change now?” or “hodor hodor hodor” to try to dissuade me from continuing my support of the AR/Pistol... let me return to a rubric I've used in past Audley Enough blogs.

Riot Games' six core gameplay tenets they use for League of Legends. You know, literally the most popular PC game in the world, and the esport with the greatest success world wide in terms of viewership. I wrote about this six gameplay tenets as they relate to twelve of my favorite vehicles from Halo history in some blogs last summer, but now it's time to relate them to guns!

As a refresher, those six gameplay tenets are:
  • Mastery – Mastery is essentially a constant ability to improve. In Halo, that can range anywhere from improving your shot, to route-taking, to map positioning; basically, any way you can get better at the game, there's always room to get better. In short: Mastery is your Skill Ceiling.
  • Meaningful Choices – Meaningful Choices are where there are tradeoffs to your decisions made in game. Whether that means you have to mitigate weaknesses or simply take less risky plays, it means you're constantly making a choice that isn't already made for you.
  • Counterplay – Counterplay means there is room for your opponent to outplay you with what they are provided. In League of Legends, this commonly gets confused with building certain items to counter things, when in reality it is focused on moment to moment gameplay and the ability to fight back regardless of build.
  • Teamplay – Teamplay is where a team comes together to bolster their strengths, cover weaknesses, or simply work together toward winning the game. In League of Legends, this is focused around having team compositions need to provide certain roles to the game. Despite denial from pro players, this also exists in competitive Halo, where players' playstyles provide roles similar to a MOBA's “tank” “carry” or “support” roles.
  • Clarity – Clarity is simply the presentation of information in a clear and precise way. Any important/relevant information should be communicated to the player. This won't actually be relevant for this discussion.
  • Evolution – In Riot's definition, evolution more refers to their constant addition of new mechanics or rebalancing of old ones. For the sake of this argument, it will focus on how the weapons affect an evolution of a metagame.
So first, let's start with Mastery. It will be quick to go over. Regardless of the starting weapon, there's a clear skill set related to accuracy with a gun. I'm not going to argue either choice has an outright greater skill ceiling, but I will point out that, assuming the Pistol has a shorter red reticule range than the BR – then pistol fights at medium range (for example, health pack/BR to Carbine on Shrine) or longer become more about the player's dexterity rather than the game's assistance. Based off the H5 beta, the Pistol was capable at Medium range. Less so at longer. The BR, on the other hand, had aim assist across the entirety of Truth, leading to much easier time killing players who exposed themselves. While battles directly between the weapons in their intended range don't have much discrepancy, encouraging more skill rather than surefire kills in ranged battles is a good thing (see: Halo 3.)

Now, the tenet where I feel AR/Pistol greatly supercedes the BR: Meaningful Choices. If you spawn with a BR, you almost never have a reason to drop the BR. Your BR is love. Your BR is life. You almost never have a reason to swap to the Pistol, even if it kills faster. (Because why should I go into the range where Pistol is better?) The situations where a Pistol is better than a BR are outshined by situations where other weapons in the sandbox are better than the Pistol (why get a Pistol secondary for my BR when I could get an SMG?).

On the other hand, if you start with a Pistol, you have a much larger array of choices. Do I want to be more effective at range and sit back with long range support fire? Let me drop my AR or Pistol for a BR or DMR. Do I want to push harder? Let me drop my AR for an SMG. I can't push now, should I drop my SMG for something else? Because of the more limited range of engagement with your Pistol start (but again, still more than capable in most regards, especially once the recoil/flinch are removed), you have more room to shape your ability in combat. You have clear tradeoffs of effectiveness at long range versus effectiveness at close range based off which weapon you choose to pursue. The pistol is strong, and a very capable Utility weapon. But maybe you just like to play passive. You can bet players like Roy or APG are going to be in your face with their Pistol, though. Fuck your slow-killing BR!

Counterplay. Now, this is where all the pro-BR supporters will chime in “HEY IF YOU SPAWN WITH BRS YOU CAN FIGHT ANY RANGE OFF SPAWN BUT IF YOU SPAWN WITH PISTOL YOU CAN'T HAHA, BR IS BETTER RIGHT?” But again, this is where you're overlooking the fact that... oh, hey, the pistol's actually decent at medium range. You CAN fight back off spawn. Even on big, open maps like Truth. I do have issue with the BR spawning P2 and DMRs in the bubbles, rather than being closer to the safe spawning areas to readily equip a player to fight back off spawn, but in general, the weapons are in positions where players can reach them without dying, and use the amount of maneuverability tools available in H5 to fight back. Granted, yes, BR starts are marginally better with regards to counterplay than AR/Pistol starts would be, assuming a situation like H2/H3 where one team has secured BR/DMRs and the other are all dead. This discrepancy is more mitigated by map design and weapon placement, however. Keep rifles out of power positions and the players in them have reason to move – whether it be that they ran out of ammo, or that they didn't already have a rifle. Imagine back to my Halo 2 example of Lockout's BRs spawned BR1, Elbow, and Top Blue instead, or Warlocks spawned at the bottoms of the ramps, rather than on the Plats. You've instantly better equipped the “losing” side to fight back. Combine that with the fact the non-BR weapons are already comparatively stronger than they were in H2, and you've brought the gap to a manageable ratio.

As I said in the bullets, Clarity doesn't really relate to this argument. The only relation to clarity would be for casual viewers who tune into a competitive stream and wonder “why are they spawning with different weapons than I spawn with in matchmaking?” but given Halo's tiny viewership currently, I don't believe this to be a relevant issue worth worrying about at the current time.

Now regarding the Evolution of the game. I've written in the past about how I believe movement to be the most important aspect of a competitive game. (That even applies to competive card games, where the only things moving are resources.) Longer range weapons promote more stale gameplay. We'll probably never see DMR starts ever again, but DMR starts on large maps in Halo Reach provided absurdly stale games, because players simply couldn't push anywhere without being melted. (Note, competitive people, I'm referring to BTB here, not MLG). Hemorrhage was a joke that relied entirely on Wraith and Sniper usage to get anything done, because they were the only things that could fight from outside the range of a DMR or without dying instantly.

How does that relate to the BR / AR+Pistol argument? Tangentially. Maps with more open sightlines (see: Truth) lead to slower gameplay when the player is more equipped to fight at range. If you can't poke out without being chunked, you don't want to move. If you don't want to move, the game becomes a stalemate. Stalemate games, while they highlight a different skillset than the faster paced variety, also give an advantage to the underdog. Take Pit TS for example in Halo 3. More upsets happened on that gametype than any other. Not because “oh, this team was actually better all along” but because stalemates make it easier to keep an advantage. If no one's able to manage a pick-off, the stalemate keeps going until a viable power weapon or power-up breaks it (Prophet's Bane not really good vs BRs, btw.) If you got a lead in Pit TS, you kept that lead until Rockets respawned unless you just fed kills to the enemy Sniper. If you got the next set of Rockets, you probably kept the lead and won. No one was going to push you while they didn't have rockets unless their Sniper got a pick-off.

With AR+Pistol, although the Pistol's kill time is faster, it requires more care and precision to get those all-the-way-across-map kills. (But in terms of base-to-tower, it's much more reasonable.) If you have the Prophet's Bane you can sprint and thrust and actually move from cover to cover without being melted from multiple angles. You're encouraged to move and push! With more movement, there's more room for in-the-moment decision making (more meaningful choices?!) and much more excitement factor spread through the course of the game.

Additionally, with regards to Evolution (off the topic of movement now), there's more room for player identity, tying back into the choices a player makes. Aggressive slayers like APG, Roy, or Ninja who like to rush constantly will likely prefer the fast kill times of a Pistol over the sit-and-wait approach of a BR. On the other hand, zone control-focused players like Ogre 2 will likely prefer weapons more equipped to fight at range. They find their comfortable corner of the map and position in a place where they can put shots on anyone anywhere they feel like. They'll go hunting for BRs or DMRs. Sniper players on maps without the Sniper may hunt for a DMR for the “next best thing” in marksmanship, disregarding their pistol entirely. This ties into the tenet I realize I skipped in my ranting... Teamplay. Individual playstyles have more room for “role” identification, and teammates may cover gaps created by a player's choice in equipment. The more open the sandbox is, the more the kids will get to play in it.

That pretty much covers all I wanted to say. AR/Pistol offers more meaningful choices and room for evolution as a whole and as an individual, with a comparatively small sacrifice to available counterplay (the main area that forced BR starts in past titles in the first place).

AR/Pistol Starts for Competitive Halo 5, Audley for Color Commentator 2015. Jet fuel can't melt dank memes.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

HCS Season 1 Finals Bracket Preview/Breakdown/Predictions

If you're reading this blog you probably know the PAX East HCS Season 1 championship is this weekend, starting tomorrow. I've posted my predictions on forums, but I wanted to give an in-depth preview of the bracket and my predictions throughout the bracket with explanations on a gametype-by-gametype basis.

The event starts off with a play-in match between European Wildcard qualifier Vibe and 8th seed Noble Black, a team that came together after UGC St. Louis, starting from scratch with 0 points and managing to qualify for the finals with only online cup results and a top 12 finish at Gamers for Giving. Some people think Noble Black is lucky to be at the event, but their consistent placements online definitely earned their spot.

So without further ado... Play-In Gametypes:
  • 3 Flag Shrine
  • Slayer Warlord
  • Oddball Lockdown
  • Bomb Warlord
  • Slayer Shrine

There are two possibilities for how this match will play out, depending upon just how good the European teams actually are. 3 Flag Shrine will go to Noble Black, period. Noble Black show up when it comes to Shrine gametypes, and Sanc has always been a map that Maniac thrives on. If Vibe are stronger than I'm giving them credit for, they can take Slayer Warlord and Lockdown Ball, but I'm hesitant to even give them those as a possibility. If the series manages to go to games 4 and 5, Warlord Bomb will go the way of Noble Black thanks to Arkanum's control of ramp portals during bomb pushes, and Slayer Shrine will once again go in Noble Black's favor. Because Shrine. I'm conservatively predicting a Noble Black 3-2, but I really think it will be a 3-0 in their favor. That team is better than their seed, despite the GFG choke.

That takes us to Winners Bracket Round 1.
  • Flag Warlord
  • Slayer Shrine
  • KotH Lockdown
  • Flag Shrine
  • Slayer Warlord

Evil Geniuses vs Noble Black
Roy and Snipedown on-host on Warlord? Noble Black has no chance taking game 1. Slayer Shrine is their best chance to prevent a 3-0, but I think Roy's aggression and willingness to challenge anything will throw APG off his game and overwhelm Noble Black. Evil Geniuses probably won't drop a Lockdown King game for the entire event. 3-0 EG. It's a long shot to predict the series going to a game 5, but even if it does, it's another Warlord gametype on EG's host. EG will not lose this series.

CLG vs eLevate
Ogre 2's penchant for portal control will be too big a thorn in eLevate's side for them to handle in game 1. Add on CLG's host for it being a Warlord gametype, and you've got a recipe for a 5-0 or 5-1 win for CLG in game 1. eLevate take host in game 2 on Shrine TS, one of their best maps/gametypes, so they have a good chance at victory in game 2. eLevate and CLG both struggle a bit on Lockdown King, but between Heinz and Ogre 2, CLG have much better objective players and will take game 3 for sure. If eLevate does get the upset in game 2, they'll have a good shot at pulling off a victory in game 4 which is their absolute best gametype, Shrine Flag. I don't see them winning either gametype, and even if they do, game 5 is a Warlord, CLG's best, on CLG's host. 3-0 CLG actual prediction, possibility for 3-2 in CLG's favor if eLevate plays their hearts out.

Denial vs Str8 Rippin
Ryanoob's grenades and portal shenanigans will be too much for Str8 on Warlord Flag. Their BRs are good enough to make this a fight for Denial, but it won't be enough. Game 2 I actually give Str8 the benefit of the doubt and think Naded will come up huge for a surprise win. Str8's key to victory will be to keep the game fast and chaotic – don't let stalemates evolve. The less structured the game is, the more it's in Str8's favor. However, games 3 and 4 on Lockdown King and Shrine Flag will secure the series for Denial.

OpTic vs C9
This is the series I am least confident in predicting. Cloud 9 are an enormous question mark that depend entirely on how hot their shot is and how cool Hysteria's head is. Flag Warlord favors Cloud 9 – their shots are stronger and they'll outslay OpTic regardless of the result. However, due to C9's questionable decision making on flag routes, I have OpTic taking game 1. Game 2 is Shrine Slayer. Everyone on C9 plays Shrine well...except for Ninja. Ninja's poor positioning and hyper-aggressive playstyle on the gametype leads him to 15+ deaths per game on the gametype. OpTic will win a close game 2, with Ninja probably in negative numbers. King of the Hill Lockdown is another gametype that could go either way. I have OpTic winning it, but no confidence in the pick. If the series DOES go to game 4 or 5, C9's chances of winning the series skyrocket, as Shrine Flag is much more suited to their playstyle, and a Warlord Slayer to close out the series is the perfect gametype for them to shut down OpTic.

EG 3-0 Noble Black (Confidence: 90%)
CLG 3-0 eLevate (Confidence: 80%)
Denial 3-1 Str8 Rippin (Confidence: 85%)
OpTic 3-0 C9 (Confidence: 10%)

Which brings us to Winners Bracket Round 2 / Losers Bracket Round 1. They both have the same gametypes.
  • Oddball Warlord
  • Slayer Lockdown
  • Bomb Shrine
  • KotH Warlord
  • Slayer Shrine

Evil Geniuses vs OpTic
Warlord on EG's host should favor them, but I have OpTic pulling off a game 1 victory here. Big performance out of Contra will fuel an OpTic set-up that will give them just enough of an edge to squeak the victory. Lockdown Slayer will be the Snipedown show, while Bomb Shrine will remind everyone just how strong Roy is...again. Back on Warlord off EG's host, EG will exact revenge with the momentum from the previous wins. 3-1 EG.

CLG vs Denial
Warlord Ball. CLG's best map vs Denial's grenades. I have Denial edging CLG out in this one, but it could go either way. Snakebite will determine who wins this game. Slayer Lockdown I give the edge to Ogre 2 and CLG's patience. Once again, Denial wants a structured slayer game where Ryanoob can out-think his opponents. If Royal 2 can misposition enough that it keeps spawns hectic, CLG can strong-arm their way to victory. Bomb Shrine I'm giving to CLG on the back of Royal 2's Sniper. Heinz MVP. Warlord King goes to Denial's host and Ryanoob's grenades. Game 5 on Slayer Shrine – some say CLG is weak on Shrine. However, I think they'll cling to an early lead and manage to trade kills evenly enough that they crawl to victory. 3-2 CLG.

eLevate vs Str8 Rippin
Oddball Warlord on Str8's host. Giving it to Str8. Lockdown Slayer. Assuming eLevate can shake off the game 1 loss, either Gabriel or Spartan will catch fire in game 2. That momentum will carry over into game 3 on Bomb Shrine and eLevate will push ahead to a 2-1 lead. Back on Warlord with eLevate's host, I give them a slight edge. Not completely confident they'll win game 4, but I do predict them to do so. If the game goes to Game 5, eLevate still hold the edge despite Str8's host, as Shrine is their most comfortable gametype. 3-1 eLevate.

C9 vs Noble Black
Oddball Warlord on Cloud 9's host favors Cloud 9 rather heavily. APG is the key for Noble Black to pull off an upset here. Game 1 could go either way, but I'm picking C9. Slayer Lockdown is nightmare fuel for Noble Black after GFG. If they couldn't manage to shut down the Suddoths on the gametype on their own host, why would I expect them to shut down C9? Fortunately Game 3 puts them on Shrine, Bomb. Noble Black will take game 3 with Maniac's Shrine play. Warlord King on Noble Black's host is a game that could also go either way – I'm still giving the slight edge to Cloud 9, and predicting them to take the game and close the series 3-1 here. HOWEVER, if Noble Black can take either game 1 or game 4, Noble Black will win the series 3-2 as game 5 will put them on C9's worst gametype and one of their personal bests, Shrine Slayer.

EG 3-1 OpTic (95% Confidence)
CLG 3-2 Denial (75% Confidence)
eLevate 3-1 Str8 (70% Confidence)
C9 3-1 Noble Black (30% Confidence)

Winners Bracket Finals / Losers Round 2
  • Bomb Warlord
  • Slayer Shrine
  • KotH Lockdown
  • Flag Warlord
  • Slayer Lockdown

Evil Geniuses vs CLG
Warlord Bomb will be a tooth and nail fight between EG's host and CLG playing on their best map. I give CLG a slight edge, but this game will be hard to predict. Slayer Shrine will favor EG. Once again, Roy's aggression will lend them the advantage. Lockdown King again leans in favor of EG – their roster is just better equipped for King of the Hill gametypes in general. I'll never count out Lunchbox in a KotH gametype. Game 4 goes back to Warlord on CLG's host, which favors CLG. Series closes out on Lockdown TS, where I give the edge to Snipedown's route-taking and EG's host. 3-2 EG.

eLevate vs OpTic
Warlord Bomb will be on OpTic's host. eLevate have the skill to beat OpTic, but Flamesword and Assault's communication will be the difference maker in game 1. Slayer Shrine will depend on who has the hotter Sniper between the two teams, but I give the slight edge to eLevate. Game 3 goes to eLevate's weakest gametype, Lockdown King of the Hill. OpTic should have no trouble wresting that game from eLevate's hands and potentially putting eLevate on tilt going into game 4. Although Game 4 will be eLevate's host on Warlord Flag, I think OpTic will play with an annoying enough playstyle to keep eLevate off their gameplan and close the series. 3-1 OpTic. If the game goes to Game 5, it will be another game depending entirely on standoff Sniping, meaning the game will either be in the hands of Ace or Munoz, depending on which team holds the rifle.

Denial vs Cloud 9
Warlord Bomb will be a tough game to call between superior firepower and smarter play. I give Denial the edge in game 1. Shrine Slayer will be yet another everyone-does-well-but-Ninja-plays-too-fast-and-the-team-loses for Cloud 9. If he can let off the gas pedal they may be able to stop Denial, but his death count will be the nail in the coffin for game 2. Lockdown King favors Denial, though Mikwen's occasional tendency to overstay at past hills may give C9 some beneficial spawns. I still think Denial will take the victory in game 3, and close the series 3-0. However, if C9 take any of the first 3, they'll have the edge in Game 4 with host on Warlord and have the potential to push to a Game 5 Slayer on Lockdown, which could also go either way. Still, I don't think it will reach that point. Denial should have no problem making their way to Losers Round 3.

EG 3-2 CLG (80% Confidence)
OpTic 3-1 eLevate (95% Confidence)
Denial 3-0 Cloud 9 (70% Confidence)

Losers Round 3
  • Flag Warlord
  • Slayer Lockdown
  • Bomb Shrine
  • Oddball Lockdown
  • Slayer Warlord

OpTic vs Denial
Denial's host and grenades on Warlord face off against OpTic's superior communication and teamwork. It will be a close game that will probably go to time, with a low score. I predict a 3-2 flag victory for OpTic in game 1. Game 2 goes to Slayer Lockdown, where I think Flamesword will have a rough game and Denial will take advantage. Game 3 on Bomb Shrine I put in the hands of Ace's sniper to free up pushes to push OpTic ahead in the series 2-1. Oddball Lockdown will highlight Ryanoob's clever objective movement and awareness of his teammates' positioning as Denial makes set-ups out of nothing and tie the series, pushing it to a hype game 5 on Warlord Slayer. Denial's host, grenades, and Mikwen's BR will secure Denial's 3rd place finish with a wider margin of victory than would be expected for a game 5.

Denial 3-2 OpTic (Confidence: 75%)

Losers Bracket Finals
  • Oddball Lockdown
  • Slayer Warlord
  • Flag Shrine
  • Bomb Warlord
  • Slayer Shrine

CLG vs Denial
Oddball Lockdown could go either way. I give a slight edge to Denial, but I think big plays out of Heinz and Snakebite will lock the game up for CLG. Slayer Warlord on Denial's host will present a fairly even match-up, but Ogre 2's portal control versus Ryanoob's portal shenanigans will go the way of the veteran Ogre 2 and CLG countering logic. Game 3 on Shrine Flag will come down to whether or not Cloud and Mikwen can shut down Royal 2, but I think Heinz's tendency to always be there to help a teammate will push CLG past Denial with a series sweep in 3 close games. Should the series go to game 4, CLG still have the edge on their best map, but Denial can still put up a solid fight in Bomb Warlord. Slayer Shrine will come down to whoever can win the standoff Sniper duels. Still, my prediction...

CLG 3-0 Denial (Confidence: 40%)

Grand Finals
  • Flag Shrine
  • Slayer Lockdown
  • Bomb Warlord
  • Oddball Lockdown
  • Slayer Warlord

Evil Geniuses vs CLG
Game 1 will be a tooth and nail fight between the two teams and I'm expecting a 1-1 tie at the end of regulation. I think this game will be won by a counter-cap after CLG barely put together a flag stop to save themselves from losing. That momentum won't help going into Game 2, however. Snipedown on Lockdown will push CLG past their limits. Bomb on Warlord on EG's host will still lean in CLG's favor, but solid slaying out of both teams will make it close. I once again give CLG the victory on this gametype. Oddball Lockdown goes back into the hands of EG, with coordinating plays from Towey stopping any push CLG attempts to make to break a set-up. Game 5 is a recipe for a 50-49 finish – but I think CLG will pull out all the stops and manage to emerge victorious in the set and reset the bracket.

Predicting CLG 3-2 EG, with about 50% Confidence.

Grand Finals Set 2
  • Bomb Warlord
  • Slayer Shrine
  • KotH Lockdown
  • Flag Shrine
  • Slayer Lockdown

Evil Geniuses vs CLG
Bomb Warlord again? Okay, well it's EG's turn to win right? Nope, Warlord Bomb 3 straight victories for CLG this event. Shrine Slayer should favor EG, but with CLG on host and wearing on EG's nerves with the extended series and pressure of a grand finals, I think Ogre 2's experience wins out. Game 3 onto KotH Lockdown will be EG's chance to come back into the series, and I expect them to take the game due to Royal 2 flubbing with spawn control and Lunchbox's superior positioning to zone players off the hill. Game 4 on Shrine Flag will be either the game Snipedown catches fire or CLG puts the final nail in the coffin. EG will need to outslay CLG to come back into the series. I predict CLG to win this set 3-1, but should the series go to Game 5, the setting will be Lockdown Slayer where spawn control, host, and Snipedown's route-taking will favor EG.

Predicting CLG 3-1 EG, with about 25% Confidence.

Either way, I'm quite confident the Grand Finals will be a match between the two GoodGame Agency teams, and the real winners of the event will be Alex Garfield and Kelby May for the exposure they get out of the Halo audience. Regardless of who wins, this season finals stage is set to have some fantastic series with some wiggle room for upsets, and great positioning to prepare for what's to come in Season 2.

Thank you for reading!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Zoning: Victory through Eminent Domain

One mistake novice players will often make in competitive games is assuming combat needs to be constant, that only through killing or attempting to kill someone can you accumulate advantages. More experienced players know this not to be true, but most aren't able to verbalize what it is they're doing that separates them from the lesser skilled kill chasers.

But that's why Audley is here to explain what that thing is...and it's an important term you'll hear often in League of Legends, but rarely hear it applied to First Person Shooters, even though it is used in almost an identical fashion. That term is Zoning.

Zoning is controlling an area of the map and forcing your opponents to react to you rather than their actual target. You'll see it often used effectively in laning phases of a LoL match. One player will have an advantage, but not enough of one to ensure a kill. What do they do? They put themselves between the enemy and the minions, forcing the enemy to either take damage to get farm, or back off and concede farm. You'll also see it in team fights of LoL where a tank or bruiser will stare menacingly at the enemy AD Carry to prevent them from joining a fight, or force them to deal with the tank first while the rest of the tank's team deals with the AD Carry's front line.

Zoning is an important part of high level League of Legends, but it's also an important part of Halo that goes completely overlooked, both by audience and even by some pro players.

So, “Audley,” you ask, “How the fuck do you zone someone in Halo?”

The most obvious answer to this, and often the only time you actually hear the term used in the context of shooters, is through grenades. Although Halo doesn't have Smokes or Flashbangs which are designed with that sole purpose in mind, its frag grenades are strong enough to force a player to reconsider moving in the direction they wanted. Seeing a grenade indicator in your path will force you to either stop or go somewhere else.

But zoning through grenades is elementary. Anyone can pick up the concept of “Oh, let me grenade down this hallway that guy's probably going to go down so I can beat him there or maybe damage him on his way out.”

The level of zoning most players don't consciously acknowledge, even if they do manage to pull it off from time to time, is more based on their positioning. Let's take an example from H2A, with recent application.

Warlord King of the Hill. Hill is at Blue, about 10 seconds in. The camera is on Contra for OpTic gaming. Where is he? Yellow flag, near Health pack. Ha, noob, quit statting kid! But wait... someone has spawned at Red. And they desperately want to get to Blue to clear out Contra's teammates from the hill. What are their options?

  1. Push across top middle. WELP CONTRA'S GOT SHOTS IN THEIR SIDE.
  3. Drop low and sneak across the bottom? STILL SHOTS IN THEIR SIDE FROM CONTRA.

On Warlord King, on any of the side base hills, you almost always want to have a player in the base counter-clockwise from the hill. The reason for counter-clockwise rather than clockwise is just related to the angles, sightlines, and available cover for shooting toward the hill, but especially in the case of Blue hill, there's the added bonus that the hill rotates directly to you at the end of its countdown.

For Red and Blue hills, having a player hang near the Health pack of Green/Yellow respectively gives you a clear sightline on the hill, cover from anyone in the hill or top middle, angles on anyone leaving the base directly across from the hill (the most likely spawn), and puts you at an angle that forces them to turn AWAY from the hill in order to deal with you or dislodge you from your power position.

Back to the example, Contra managed to stay alive at Yellow all the way until the hill moved there, where he was finally taken out, but he'd managed to keep the enemy out of the hill and allow his team to gain time. Underdeveloped Halo IQs would just assume Contra was stat-whoring, when in fact his positioning is what was securing the hill.

Let's go back to the example and play out the scenario a different way. The player elects to try Ramp Portal, but Contra gets 2 shots into them. They back down into Red Nades. Between the options of “Throw a grenade and kill that motherfucker” or “Leave that person there.” what should Contra do?

If you said throw the grenade, you're failing to understand the importance of Zoning. You have a player that is more useful to your team alive than dead with their positioning there. At no shields, but alive, they aren't going to (usually) pop out and try to fight you or your team...and since they're alive, they're exerting spawn presence on the spawns around them, increasing the odds their teammates will spawn near them and reducing the probability any of Contra's teammates will spawn there. If you kill the player, that enormous negative spawn weight to keep your team from spawning there is removed AND you've added an additional negative weight to reduce the chances of the otherwise trapped player's teammates from spawning there, probably forcing them to instead spawn Green and be able to shoot at your person in the hill / be safe from your position at Yellow.

In King of the Hill and Oddball, leaving players alive at low shields in awful positions is a valuable tool. They are unlikely to challenge and are stuck dealing with the pressure they're exerting on spawns which will harm their team when you've left that player and use your 4v3 advantage to go kill the teammates.

Let's take another hypothetical. The hill is about to move to B on Lockdown (top BR). You're at BR2, and you've heard a call there are two people bottom middle. Your teammate JoeSchmoe227 is already back BR prepared to move up top for the hill. You have another teammate in Library, and the final teammate is stat-whoring at Snipe tower with Sword+Snipe. Where do you go?

There are two positions where you can go to effectively zone the opponents running across bottom mid from where you currently stand – you can drop to BR1 and just waste their time (but be on the same level as them, and thus risk death) or move to the Library bridge and try to shoot them as they come out from under glass toward BR1 (but give up the ability to cut them off from Open ramp if they ignore you and rush.) While both have their drawbacks, they have the enormous advantage of ensuring those players will not be reaching the hill full shields, allowing JoeSchmoe227 to clean them up and keep accruing hill time.

The final way you see Zoning used effectively in H2A is with regards to flag runs, especially on Shrine, but also on Warlord at times. The flag is across the halfway point after your teammate has run it through their hut, across your car, and into your rocks. But now the opponents have respawned in their rocks and rushed to try to get that clutch last second stop. They have two guys pushing your pillars and praying for a kill.

But you were clever and read this blog about zoning. You waited at your bonfire for them to get close, and as they pushed into the pillars, you leapt out into their BRs. They had to shoot you instead, or would die on your side with nothing done. Your flag carrier is free to run, while Tweedledee and Tweedledum are shooting some random idiot who was hiding bonfire with the intent to die. Flag captured. Game over. You won, because you escorted the final flag back and forced the interceptors to deal with you, rather than the objective. You zoned them. Good job, buddy.

There are far, far more applications of Zoning in competitive games than mentioned here, but I'm writing this solely to highlight the aspect of gameplay, because it doesn't get mentioned often, despite how enormous of a deal it is for setting up or even dynamically reacting to game situations. That's all for now.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Chemistry: Tendencies, Playstyles, and Comfort Zones Matter

I'm gonna start this blog off with an anecdote from my job. For those who don't know, I work in a local fast food kitchen. It's not part of a chain, and because business isn't great, we don't have the benefit of a high turnover rate with employment...which usually means shit employees and problems just have to be accepted, rather than replaced.

We have 8 different employees that regularly work in the kitchen, and everyone is supposed to be able to handle all the responsibilities in the kitchen. One person is dedicated to keeping us stocked on cooked chicken tenders. Apart from that, we also have to have wings, fries, and toast cooked (with some additional cooked-on-order foods like catfish, mozzarella sticks, fried mushrooms, or burgers). And then there's a need to plate/box all the food. I've noticed that depending on which 4-5 employees we have present on any given day, the nights can go a lot differently. Prior to clean up time, there are essentially three responsibilities in the kitchen to keep things running smoothly.

We'll call these 8 employees Jed, Mary, Roger, Bessie, Dana, Andy, Tim, and Mike.

Mike is the owner of the restaurant. He only works lunch shifts, and prefers to handle cooking when he's not doing business-related things. He's good about keeping the chicken cooked -and- being able to keep fries, wings, etc. stocked so we don't run out.

Tim is new, he's essentially useless and shows no desire to actually learn how to do anything.

Jed and Roger both like to plate. Although they sometimes cook the chicken, regardless of whether they're plating or cooking chicken, they almost never pay attention to the stocks of fries, wings, etc. So when they are around, someone else has to pay attention to those tasks. They tend to only cook those things when we have completely run out, meaning customers have to wait on their food.

Mary and Bessie generally prefer to cook. When they're not cooking, they prefer to leave the kitchen and work on stocking other things like our baked beans, sauces, and whatnot. Bessie is hated by everyone for her inability to do any of the tasks the correct way, and tends to have the worst-tasting chicken (because the fryer burns and that taste gets into the chicken) so other people in the kitchen with her don't want her cooking. Or stocking.

Andy does all of the tasks well, and focuses heavily on making sure we're stocked on fries/wings/etc. at all times and never run out, while also making sure we're never overstocked so food will get cold (which Mary and Dana will tend to do.)

Dana is the owner's wife. She almost exclusively plates, though she is good about handling the other duties as well when necessary. Regardless of the fact that she is basically the immovable rock of the plating table, Jed and Roger will still try to exclusively plate while she is there (and it really only takes 1 person to plate unless we are super busy). This typically means that if she is there with Jed/Roger, we'll run out of fries if the chicken cook is in the middle of cooking chicken, because no one will be looking at the fry pan.

So, let's take a four names out of that and create an imaginary scenario of how a night would go.

Dana, Jed, Tim, and Roger. You have 3 platers and a useless body. Whether Jed or Roger are cooking doesn't really matter, because neither of them will see that we are running out of fries until we are actually out of fries. Tim will keep us stocked on toast, but other than that will only do what he is directly instructed to do (unless a salad gets ordered, he can do that! What a swell guy.) But because of the lack of attention to sides/wings, this kitchen staffing will likely be behind for the entire night, leading to a lot of frustration from Dana who will be repeatedly waiting on food so she can plate, while Jed or Roger stand over her shoulder trying to help plate only to find there is no food.

Now let's take...
Mary, Bessie, Andy, and Tim. Now you're left with no one that actually plates, unless Andy plates. Tim doesn't really know how. Mary and Bessie are both very slow at plating, and Bessie tends to get confused by the tickets. But, because Mary and Bessie tend to leave the kitchen if they aren't cooking chicken, this leaves you with one cook, Andy plating, and then Tim. Unless Andy continuously tells Tim to drop food, then either the chicken cook Bessie/Mary has to keep foods cooked, or Andy has to leave the plating table and put orders on hold just to keep the food supplies up.

So far, we're 0 for 2 in making a good crew for a night.

Let's take a lunch shift. Which is usually Mike, Mary, Bessie, and either Jed or Roger. Mike's good at keeping everything stocked up while he's in the kitchen. Jed or Roger can handle plating. Great! Doesn't matter if Mary or Bessie peace out of the kitchen, you've got plenty of food, and someone to make the orders. The only problem arises when Mike wanders off to sit at the desk / place truck orders / goes to talk to someone he knows in the dining room (he's the owner, he can do what he wants.). Then you're left with Mary or Bessie to cook, which typically won't happen until you've run completely out of chicken and customers are left waiting.

A good crew typically involves pairing Dana, Mary, Andy, and either Jed or Roger to be a gopher for things away from the table that Dana may need (whether it be slaw/beans/potato salad for side items, or to grab the non-hot/mild sauces for wings, which are stored on a separate table from our steam table). Andy keeps the fries/wings stocked, Mary keeps the chicken stocked, and Dana+Jed/Roger get the plates out in a timely manner.

Without Dana there, adding Jed or Roger to keep plating controlled, along with Andy to keep fries/wings stocked, and anyone assigned for cooking keeps the kitchen running fairly smoothly.

If Mary is there but Dana isn't, Mary usually is not the chicken cook because she's the Manager for the night, which means Mary is usually absent from the kitchen if Dana isn't present (#TheDuo?). If Mary is not in the kitchen, and Andy is not working, then problems begin to arise of running out of fries/wings/etc.

Now... what does all of this rambling about kitchen staff have to do with gaming?

None of us in the kitchen have a specific role. We are all (except Tim) trained and expected to be able to do everything as required. But, because of the tendencies of how people work, shifts can go a lot more easily or a lot harder depending on who is scheduled for the night.

Apply this to Halo. You can say all you want that roles don't exist in Halo (and, to some degree, it is true). But everyone has their preferred playstyle, and tendencies they've developed over thousands of games.

Whether you're a player who likes to sit in power positions wailing on people with your BR, or a player that likes to put 1 or 2 shots and play a rousing game of hide and seek, or a player who likes to focus entirely on the objective, or a player who likes to grab Snipe and go blain kids all have a playstyle. Finding a team of 4 players with playstyles that don't clash greatly improves the way that team can work together.

Right now, among teams competing in the HCS, I'd say there are 4 teams with an actual “support” type player – a player with a selfless playstyle or focused on setting up the rest of the team to succeed while their performance doesn't NECESSARILY look that fantastic (disclaimer: being labeled a support player does not mean you go negative, it just means if you are going negative, your performance is still benefitting your team). Those 4 teams I would label as having a player of that style...also happen to be the top 4 seeds currently.

Str8 Rippin and Cloud 9 both have tremendous talent on the team, but struggle against these others. Part of the blame belongs on the natural chemistry of those teams' rosters. The playstyles and tendencies of those players are too similar, so it's hard to just naturally end up in a proper set-up in an objective gametype. Does that mean it -can't- happen for them, or can't just click and be successful? Not at all! After all, these players know how to do the other tasks...they're just not used to them, and when doing them they're not in a comfort zone with tons of experience knowing exactly which way to juke with the flag, or where to set up to zone people off going for the hill even if they're not going for the hill themselves. They just simply lack the experience from being forced to do those tasks.

Hopefully this blog gives you some insight on why I'm a preacher of the “playstyles matter” school of thought.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Designing Tensai, Part 5: Making the Stars Align for Perfect Stats

So, since I've pretty much beat the core combat system to death for these Tensai blogs, I thought I would cover something a little lower-impact but, in my eyes, equally important to setting up a Pokémon clone for competitive success. And that's individual monster customization.

I already touched on the equipment that can be equipped and swapped to modify and adapt strategies on the fly, but there's an additional bit to the Pokémon formula that competitive players love to tweak, but it's covered in such a horrendous mess of never-really-explained mechanics and bits and pieces of information that were hidden from the player until the most recent generation.

I'm talking Effort Values, Individual Values, Natures, et cetera. In Pokémon, your monster gained “effort points” or “stat exp” each time it defeated another Pokémon, which could build up to boost your effectiveness in that stat. This was a sort of under-the-hood customization option that wasn't really clear to players until Generation 3 where the formula was adjusted to be a stat point for every 4 Effort Points you accumulated with a max of 255 effort points (the formula in generation 1 was the square root of the stat EXP you'd gained, with a max amount of 65,535, so 63 stat points just like the latter system). An individual Pokémon could not accumulate more than 510 effort points (which meant if you got 63 points in 2 stats, you had only 6 points, or 1 stat point left to be acquired).

If you didn't already know any of this stuff, there's a chance you're confused right now. And that's a big problem. The EV system is a convoluted mess that's hard for a player to learn and track. Furthermore, since the Evs in a stat could max at 255, but the point yield stopped at 252, there was an ability for players to “waste” a stat point they could've acquired had they not stopped training a specific stat. This is not true in Generation 6, but the fact that three generations existed with this limitation is a rather depressing notion.

When it came to the competitive scene, EVs were generally used either to boost offense or defense depending on whether a Pokémon was a sweeper or a wall, with EVs being assigned to Speed to reach certain break points to out-speed certain common match-ups the monster may face. Overall, this is a great use of the customization stats – players could choose to risk going second against a bad match-up for an extra punch against match-ups where speed was irrelevant. A meaningful choice had to be made in team building for what the player wanted out of their Pokémon's capabilities when building their EVs.

Then we have Individual Values and Personality Values. These have effects on your Pokémon's stats, appearance, and which ability (passive) it gains. IVs affect which version of Hidden Power your Pokémon gains, and whether or not your Pokémon can truly max out their stats. And yet, if you read the Bulbapedia pages I linked for them... it's an even more convoluted mess than EVs I described above. I'm not even going to attempt to describe how IVs work, because the system is so needlessly complex just for the sake of adding grinding to the single-player game for completionists who want the perfect creatures.

Well, Tensai's original designs were to be a standalone battler; no single-player. The grind is unnecessary, so variations in stats between different creatures of the same type were not a requirement for the game. Leveling up was also not present in my game, so having additional stat bonuses (like EVs) gained from battling other creatures was another unnecessary inclusion. But I still wanted the level of competitive customizability offered by natures, EVs, and the like, as well as the inclusion of a Hidden Power-like move with a variable element based off something other than the element of the creature using the ability.

Fortunately, Tensai was set in a fantasy world I've been world-building for years, and one of the core concepts of that world happened to fit perfectly into what I was looking to do in order to emulate Pokémon. So now it's time for a bit of a fantasy storytelling about the world of Astral Gate.

I mentioned back in the first blog the world had seven elements: Fire, Metal, Ice, Wood, Air, Water, and Earth. In addition to this, there is a duality of the spiritual and the physical, which I borrowed from Plato and labeled Aether and Eidos. Each of these seven elements pair with the duality for fourteen signs of their astrological Zodiac. Some examples are the Eidos Fire sign, a flaming bear known as Guiredaro, the Aether Wood sign, a giant rooster with leaves in place of feathers known as Cockatrees, or the embodiment of terror from the Eidos Metal sign, the Razor, a creature made of sharp bladed edges with the body of a scorpion and the head and aggression of a wolf.

With the existence of this concept, I not only had 14 creatures ready to add to my game, but also the ability to compress EVs and Natures into a single menu option that players could change when setting their team in order to determine which stats were boosted, by setting a critter's star sign. Each Zodiac would boost one stat by a reasonable amount, one by a small amount, reduce one by a small amount, and another by larger amount in my initial designs (there was a distinct possibility these would've been changed, especially stat penalties, which are generally not well-received by players, even with the positive trade-off of gaining the stats they want.)

I mentioned Hidden Power as well, a move that in Pokémon, could be any type depending upon the user's IVs (and prior to Gen 6, had variable power as well). For the sake of porting this move into Tensai, I simply created an attack move called Zodiac that took the element and essence depending upon the star sign assigned to the creature using the move, enabling some creatures to use moves not of their own element (but with a lowish base power). This was great for those who wanted to use a Health Pack or non-elemental weapon but still wanted the additional option of elemental coverage. Whether the move was physical or 'special' (in Pokémon terms) was determined by whether the Zodiac sign was Aether or Eidos as well.

In the event that this system was oversimplified and caused player frustrations between stat customization and the assigned Zodiac move element, I had the option to more deeply mimic the Chinese Zodiac and its use of Inner Signs and Secret Signs (since the primary Chinese zodiac is based off the year in which you're born, while Inner is based off the date, and Secret based off the time of day.) where a player could assign a second sign solely for the purpose of determining the element/duality of the Zodiac attack move.

For the sake of a standalone battler, this Zodiac sign based system (which, admittedly, isn't a unique idea; Final Fantasy Tactics has used it, and I'm sure others have as well.) happened to fill all the needs of the stat customization options of Pokémon with none of the grinding or needless complexity from the original iterations.

That's all for part 5, regarding simplifying the tangled web of numbers and bits and bytes and nibbles of hidden or only partially communicated information that is the Pokémon IV EV PV LV DV R2D2 system of values that create the variations between monsters in the game. Not sure what the next part will include; I still have to talk about the passive abilities in more depth, but I've nearly covered the majority of the core design of the game at this point. Hope you enjoyed the read!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Designing Tensai, Part 4: Weapons of Mass Prediction

In the early stages of Tensai's design (well, early is relative, I spent less than a week on the actual core systems design on Tensai before going straight into content design of moves, creatures, and the items), I made the decision to give each creature two equippable items: a Weapon and a Trinket.

Trinkets were essentially Pokémon held items. There were analogous ports such as my own version of Leftovers, Life Orb, and the Choice items from Pokémon, but of course... because of the good ol' trusty ACTION TYPE SYSTEM I've been beating an entire graveyard of dead horses about... there were some unique additions to the system.

The Primordial Switch and Reversal Charm trinket would be announced when a critter holding them swapped into battle, because their effects were QUITE important. The Primordial Switch trinket reversed the elemental hierarchy (so Fire would no longer be strong against metal, ice, and wood, but instead be strong against rock, water, and air.) The Reversal Charm would do the same for Action Types, reversing the flow into the opposite direction.

Pokémon's Arceus “Plates” made their own analog home in Tensai's treatment in the form of Amulet trinkets, which boosted the power of elemental damages by 20%. Of course, since elements aren't the only damage types it meant I also got to make Trinkets for...ACTION TYPES! These trinkets carried a bonus effect in addition to boosting damage of that Action Type: the creature holding that item would enter the battlefield in the Stance of their Trinket. (This Stance ONLY applied on entering the battlefield, not when idling on a turn, so if a Creature had a passive stance already, the Trinket wouldn't overpower the Creature's innate ability.

I tried not to go too heavy-handed with Trinkets, and stick close to the proven designs from Pokémon; with plans to balance or make additional creations/subtractions after playtesting to see what worked and what didn't. With trinkets out of the way, it's time to talk about the other items: Weapons.

I created the Weapon slot as a second answer in addition to Action Types to help alleviate problems of being in an elementally disadvantageous situation. Basically, Weapons were a generic move that is available to all creatures, regardless of their element. There were Rods, Halberds, Shields, Clubs, and Slingshots (to represent Magical, Aerial, Defensive, Melee, and Ranged action types) of each of the seven elements as generic 25 Essence-cost moves.

The general expectation behind the standard weapon choices was that players would look to equip a weapon that fully covered their type weaknesses (A Fire creature would want a Wood weapon to have strength against Air/Water/Rock creatures that counter it.) Of course, with Pokémon moves like Toxic, Substitute, and Rest being prevalent in TMs and able to be learned by nearly all Pokémon, there were weapons like the Kitchen Knife, Decoy, and Panacea respectively to translate those moves into a Weapon option for critters of Tensai, at the opportunity cost of type coverage.

But the buck doesn't stop there for items. I'd added one additional battle command option for players that didn't exist in Pokémon: The ability to swap items between your Critters. For example if you had an active creature that was getting low health (but likely able to survive an idle turn), you could swap your damaging weapon with a Panacea to fully heal and fall asleep for a few turns. If you had a creature with the Flying passive (Aerial Stance) that also relied on Aerial moves for its best damage, and had reason to fear your opponent's ranged moves, you could use your turn to swap your Trinket for a Reversal Charm held by another member of your team, adjusting your strategy on the fly.

If you wanted to bring in a creature with a Choice item in Pokémon, after using the move you are locked into using that same move until you swap out the Pokémon, sometimes losing a type advantage you'd backed the opponent into just because you couldn't undo your move selection. With the ability to swap items in Tensai, bringing out a creature with a Curse of Speed (Choice Scarf) could enable you to use your superior speed to knock out an enemy, then instead of swapping out your creatures, simply swap your Trinket to another member of your team, freeing up the ability to use any of your moves. While it would cost you a turn, you would not forcibly lose any positional advantage you had earned through the use of the Choice item.

The ability to change weapons also gave one other option: to sacrifice the elemental advantage your weapon was intended for to ensure you had Action Type coverage over your opponent's creatures after scouting his moves. Say, for instance, your opponent favored a Magical move for damage, and you did not have a Melee move in your creature's 3 move set, and currently had the Flowing Halberd (Water Aerial) weapon equipped. You could trade the Halberd to a creature with the Stone Club (Rock Melee) in order to get access to a move to negate the incoming damage of their largest threat, either forcing them to use a less efficient move by threat of you having a counter or forcing them into a game of chicken.

This ability to trade items between creatures could allow a player to cover situations their team was not truly prepared for by giving creatures action types that weren't prepared in team creation, and created dynamic customization as the battle unfolded.

I was a bit worried that even with the weapon slot, players might feel only 3 moves per creature was a little underwhelming, so I also made sure to design each creature with its own Signature Move. The giant flaming bear zodiac (I'll go into this when I talk about the world design of Tensai) creature Guiredaro had the ability to use Bear Hug, grappling its opponent and transferring any other negative status effects from the user to the target. Guiredaro was designed around setting himself Aflame (a damage-per-turn status effect) and then transferring that status to the opponent. The other fire zodiac creature, the Firefly, was designed around setting itself Aflame to heal itself, as fire-elemental moves healed it. Its signature move, Burn Up cured negative status effects and THEN set it Aflame.

One of the metal zodiac creatures was a squirrel themed around magnets; its signature move was called MagLev, which inflicted the status effect “Juggled” for one turn – a status effect that tied back into my Action Type system by ensuring if an Aerial move hit the target next turn, it took double damage (similar to a critical hit, only specific to one Action Type). If your creature was Juggled, you had to be extremely wary of an incoming Aerial attack. So you could prepare a Ranged attack...but again, the layers upon layers prediction come forth.

By making Signature moves for each of the creatures, it also adds a specific expectation of what the Action type that creature will use for its primary damage source once a player becomes familiar with the game. If you see a Guiredaro Aflame, you know he wants to Bear Hug you, a melee move. This preconceived expectation of a player's moves helps dictate the flow of an average battle, but as players become more intimately familiar with both the game and one another, it adds inherent depth into the possible interactions.

Combined back with the ability to swap out items, the semi-scripted nature of battle created by Signature Moves helps allow a player know what's coming before it comes and prepare for it by getting their items where they needed to be before they needed to be there. Or after. Whatever.

Regardless, the Action Type horse army has been sufficiently beaten to death, so my next blog on Tensai is going to focus on something else. Not sure yet what it will be. Could be the Astral Gate world in which Tensai is set (a fantasy world I've been worldbuilding for nearly 6 years now.) Might be just the Zodiac alone. We'll see when I get inspiration to write again. Thanks for reading!

Part 2
Part 3