Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Designing Necromancy, Part 1: What is Dead May Never Die

So, most of my Audley Enough blogs focus on other games, designed by other people. Last December I had a brief stint that broke that trend where I talked about my Pokémon-esque pet battler called Tensai.

Today, I unveil my WIP Card Game, Necromancy.

Before I actually talk about Necromancy itself, I'm going to talk about what inspired me to make it, and how the game came together. If you're not interested in that, skip to the bulleted list down below.


Some time last year, I got gung ho about making a Tetra Master (the FF9 card minigame) inspired card game without randomness. It began with each player placing two cards face down on the 4x4 grid to act as “trap characters” that could be activated later. This would, in theory, encourage players to plan their actions around their pre-set traps.

I never finished Sortie, mostly because I felt that at its core, it was missing something (and, as is common with projects from me, I ran into a bout of depression that pulled me away from working on anything for a while, then just never actually got back around to working on it). However, I still felt in the back of my mind there was a market gap missing in the world for “a real life card game that plays like Triple Triad and Tetra Master.” But work was shelved.


The day before I actually began working on Necromancy, I was working one of those dreaded all-day shifts at my fast food job. Since the work there is mind-numbingly droll, I tend to distract myself by thinking about game projects. In my head, I was toying around with an idea for a board game in my head. The general concept of the game is that players would attempt to create a tower 8 units tall in order to win. Seems simple, right?

There was a catch – you could only build UP by also building OUT – in order to have a tower 2 units tall, you needed a stack one high adjacent somewhere. In order to have one 3 units high, you needed one nearby that was 2 (which meant you needed a third nearby that had to be 1 high!), and so on. You could build your stack on any tile, even if your opponent had already begun stacking there. (However, for you to place the third tile on a stack, you would still have to have the second tile on an adjacent stack, you couldn't just play a third tile on an opponent's stack next to a 2-stack also featuring only opponent tiles.)

I didn't explore the idea further, since it was just mulling about in my head while at work, but I liked the idea of stacking resources. And further, the idea that you and your opponent could stack on the same tile.

Mark Rosewater

If you don't know the name, you're missing out. While checking my phone at work, I saw Morello, a Lead Designer from Riot Games had tweeted to someone who was wondering about getting into game design from being an Electrical Engineer, recommending they read Mark Rosewater's blog for mechanics discussion.

Mark Rosewater is an employee of Wizards of the Coast, and has been a designer on many, many sets of Magic the Gathering over the years. For a long time, he ran a column on the Wizards of the Coast website discussing the design of Magic the Gathering (You've probably seen me link his Timmy/Johnny/Spike thing before.)

I buckled down and started reading some of his old, old articles (from back in 2002). I saw him mention cards that worked from the Graveyard. And I got to thinking...

What if there was a card game where the only playspace was the graveyard?


And that is when I took to Twitter and Skype, asking people for the first five things that popped into their head when thinking about Necromancy. Many people mentioned skeletons, or zombies, or liches, or ancient curses. A few mentioned the color green. Corpse Explosion was a recurring response from the friends of mine who knew Diablo 2 like the backs of their carpal tunneled hands.

When trying to concept the game, I thought over a few ideas, but there was one constant: the game would be based around players discarding their cards in order to be able to summon monsters.

Then I thought back to Stockpile, what if they could discard their cards onto a card their opponent discarded? Obviously, this would be a problem (with potential card theft, or simply confusion) if Necromancy were a deck building game, so when I got convinced the Stockpile idea was the right way to go, it was automatically decided that Necromancy would be a single deck game.

  • But what is the GOAL of Necromancy?
    • It's simple, to control more souls than your opponent.
  • What are souls?
    • Souls are the face-down cards discarded by a player onto the Graveyard.
  • How do you control them?
    • By summoning a creature on top of them.
  • How do you summon a creature?
    • Discard it face up onto the stack of souls!

From here, it was clear the stack of souls would act as the resource for the casting cost to summon stronger undead creatures. Using the Stockpile mechanic of being able to stack souls or summon creatures on your opponent's stacks means both players vie for control of the Graveyard simultaneously. Perhaps your opponent wants to summon a big creature somewhere, but you interrupt him by summoning a weaker one on top of it.

I definitely also wanted to include the ability to battle in the game. So I thought about the different types of undead. Skeletons, Zombies, Ghosts, Ghouls, Shades, Vampires, Mummies, Liches, and various other beasts. Skeletons and Zombies tend to just attack things. Ghouls and Vampires are more focused on consuming souls as they wander the night. But Ghosts seem more peaceful. Sometimes they just possess things.

So I divided the potential Actions creatures could take into three categories: Move, Attack, and Possess. The Attack command is divided into two further subgroups: Destroy or Consume. (Whether you may Destroy or Consume is determined by your card, not by the player.)

Creatures that are already summoned may spend their turn repositioning by using the Move command. This can be used to get in range to attack an enemy creature, or simply to pick up souls placed adjacent to the creature, increasing the size of its Soul Stack. (You may not add souls to a Soul Stack where there is already a creature.)

Adjacent Creatures may do battle by Attacking. If the creature is a Destroyer, it simply turns the opposing monster into a face down Soul on its Soul Stack upon a successful battle. If it is a Consumer, the target creature and its Soul Stack are added to the Consumer's Soul Stack to create an even larger stack, all under the control of one player.

Ghosts, Shades, and select creatures of the other types may Possess adjacent creatures. By Possessing a creature, they abandon their own Soul Stack and attach to the new creature (whether you do this to your opponent's creatures or your own is up to you). Possessing does not change ownership of the creature, so the Soul Stack still belongs to your opponent, but you gain control of the creature. You can move it closer to your own larger creatures to be destroyed, or simply have it build up to be really strong for other nefarious plans or traps.

Wait, did you say traps, Audley?

Of course I did. Did you forget the Sortie section already?

There's a trick to facedown cards. Although they are Souls that fuel the summoning of creatures... there is also a command I neglected to mention. Overtake.

If a Soul Stack exceeds the casting cost of a facedown creature (one used as a Soul to fuel a summon), and that facedown creature's casting cost is greater than the casting cost of the active creature on top of the stack, then the player who placed the card facedown may elect to Overtake the active creature, turning the old creature into a soul and summoning their facedown creature to take over the stack. (And again, it doesn't matter who originally summoned the creature. You may overtake your own creatures after having them “Pac Man” other souls by moving around the Graveyard. Wakka wakka wakka wakHOLY SHIT THAT'S A BONE DRAGON.)

That concludes the majority of the base mechanics, apart from one additional tweak I made that I'm still not sure about, it is simply something I'm testing to add further flavor – I've designated the first tile upon which a creature is summoned in the game “The Crypt” – each card has an additional effect for being on The Crypt. So, while you may want to quickly get out a creature in theory, you also want to try to get a strong creature on the first tile, as their Crypt effects are much stronger.

So, how did I create the cards?

Upon seeing how many different types of Undeads there were and knowing the game was going to be a single deck game, I had an idea. What if each class of Undead were a Suit in a regular playing card deck? That's right, Necromancy is a modified version of a standard 52+2 card deck. (Though, I don't currently have anything set for the Jokers. I'll come up with a plan some time.)

The base set's four suits are Skeletons, Zombies, Ghosts, and Ghouls. The other Undead types I've mentioned are pre-planned expansions, because I am a business man and hope to make money off this endeavor. ;)

Assuming the game reaches print, the cards won't have Spades, Diamonds, etc. – they'll simply be ambiguous suits that can be used in place of any of the standard suits. So if you have the base set, and buy one of the two-suit expansions, you could mix and match the suits as you please to make a standard 52 card deck to use for Poker, Blackjack, Spades, or whatever card game you prefer.

When does the game end?

Currently, the “end” conditions are:
  • When either the Graveyard is filled with 16 active creatures, OR
  • When there are no cards left to play.

The First Play Test

Today, I played against myself in the first test of Necromancy and it was illuminating. A few of the problems were execution-related. I made a few mistakes (I'm a noob at my own game).

  • Consumers were really strong and could snowball hard.
    • Part of this was because of one of the card's effects that made it get stronger as its Soul Stack increased. Part of this was because one of the Possessors also buffs a card based off the card's Soul Stack. So the big creature got really big.
    • Another part of this was because the creature was on the Crypt, so the Crypt filled its duty of being a focal position of the game. With the Crypt's location being variable, it means there is a lot of inherent variety in how each game can play out, even if players draw the same cards every time in the same order.
    • Although one creature got really big, there actually was an avenue of counterplay. Because the Graveyard is a 4x4 space, there are 7 spaces that the player controlling the Crypt cannot reasonably reach. As a comeback mechanic, a player can simply Pac Man souls on this L-shaped tile area until they can summon their own fearsome monster.
  • I probably made a mistake in deciding players may only take one Action per turn.
    • I'm still deciding whether to change it to “One Action per active creature” or leave it as-is.
  • Possessors make good Soul fodder and good Overtakers for the player with the lead.
    • If you have the lead, a creature that leaves a Soul Stack behind upon possessing another creature is less risky.
    • This is part of the execution error I had. I was playing myself, so I knew exactly what card was where, and I still moved one of the trailing player's creatures onto a stack with a Ghost that then managed to Overtake the lower cost creature that had moved onto it. That play essentially sealed the game away.
  • There doesn't seem to be enough encouragement to summon weak creatures. Not sure if this is personal perception bias from me playing against myself, or if this is an actual issue. Will have to find out when I actually teach other people the game and play it then.
  • The game had a lameduck ending.
    • Mostly this was because the Consumer got so far ahead that it was unstoppable, and the one creature that gave the trailing player a chance to come back was slain, but lameduck endings are no fun. I will attempt to find a way to make each game go down as close to the wire as possible.

Anyway, that's all I can tell you about Necromancy at its present state in design.

If you own a deck of standard playing cards, and are interested in attempting to teach other people Necromancy and playtesting it yourself, and can be trusted to actually share feedback on your own perceptions, game issues, potential balance issues, et cetera, please, contact me on Twitter @TiberiusAudley and I will be glad to share the info on the base set of cards, as well as a copy of the rules in order to fulfill your own desires to summon and control the undead.

Hope you enjoyed the read, and I look forward to presenting you with a well-polished, strategical card game some time soon!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Audley's Workshop: Carvin' Niches for Killin' Bitches

Back to Audley's Workshop we go! In today's blog, I'm going to be talking about some various Halo weapons as well as PlanetSide 2's incarnation of the Vanu Rocket Launcher, the Lancer, and finally, my favorite FPS weapon design of all time. The general focus will be weapons with very distinct niches, whether they underperformed or overperformed in those niches.

First, the gun labeled the Type-25 Carbine...but more commonly known as the Spiker. This gun looks badass. Like other Brute weapons, blades are a big part of its visual design.

I was one of the top 10 players in Spiker kills in Halo 3 according to HaloCharts back when the website was active and tracking stats through Bungie's API. So, if you're reading this and wondering, “Why does this MLG kid think he can talk about a social weapon?”...first off: I'm a BTB kid, not an MLG one. I only got into competitive 4s because there was a more established scene. I will always feel BTB is the more “pure” Halo experience and the better representation of the game's beautiful sandbox. Hell, I even took down Disco (top Social pilot) in his Banshee with Spikers once. Hitting a Banshee with short-range projectiles is not an easy task. I knew my way around the Brute equivalent to the SMG.

But wait, equivalent to an SMG? ...the Spiker is supposed to be a Carbine. Or a Spike Rifle. Why is Master Chief able to dual-wield a rifle from a species of creature more than double his size? Why is it treated like a submachine gun instead of a RIFLE OR CARBINE as the weapon name says?

Some quick notes about the Spiker:
  • Higher damage output than the SMG, and more damage to shields
  • Projectile, harder to aim
  • Spikes affected by gravity (and inertia, they move more slowly as they go)
  • Larger spread than any other weapon in UNSC/Covenant sandbox
  • Deals 2 more points of damage (TWO. REALLY?!) than default melee.

So the Spiker suffers not only from an identity problem (SMG RIFLE WHAT ARE YOU DAMN IT), but also suffers from its gameplay not matching its visual.

There are two routes we can take to make the gun feel better to the player. We can embrace the Covenant/Brute SMG identity, or we can turn the gun into a true Spike Rifle. Given the Covenant already have the Plasma Rifle to rival the SMG, but don't have an equivalent to the Assault Rifle in the context of Halo 3... let's take the Spike Rifle along the latter route. No more dual wielding.

Since the Spiker is meant to be a Brute weapon, this definitely means we need it to be fearsome up close. Brute combat was very much about rushing. Besides, the weapon has GIANT FUCKING DOUBLE BLADES attached to it. Halo 2 took the right approach to the Brute Shot's melee identity during the big patch that reworked damage, allowing a momentum Brute Shot melee to kill a target in one hit. This made the Brute Shot a fearsome close range weapon (even though the weapon itself was intended to be wielded at range.)

So step 1: Greatly increase the Spiker's melee damage. None of this 2 damage shit. Make it a one hit kill. Because you should never be in range of a Brute.

Step 2: Since we're making it live up to the Rifle moniker, rather than working as a dual-wielded SMG, we need to increase the effective range. To do this, we need to reduce the effects of gravity (projectile drop) on the spikes and reduce the enormous bullet spread of the gun. Just to make it fire a bit straighter in general, so medium range becomes a reasonable distance to try to deal some damage.

Okay, so now it's a rifle. And it's a scary rifle in melee range. But what about that old “Audley gives everything unique identity or a niche to fill” bit? Don't worry, I'm getting to that.

The Spiker fires super-heated spikes. It's not unreasonable to think they would cool off as they traveled. Plus, we've already mentioned the bullet velocity decreases as they go.

So because of this, we can take the route PlanetSide 2 takes with nearly all of its weapons – have the damage fall off at longer ranges. Up close, the Spikers spikes will deal enormous amounts of damage per bolt. Further away, the damage falls off slightly, decaying a small amount below the AR's damage output. In short, the weapon becomes stronger than the AR in closer quarters, but weaker as the range increases.

And now we've made the Spiker live up to its name as the Type-25 Carbine / Spike Rifle. And made it live up to its visual of the blades.

(Of course, if you wanted to turn it into a Tier 2 Power Weapon rather than just “the Brute AR” could go a step further and have the super heated visual of the glowing weapon also transfer to the weapons to where its damage increases at higher RoF / the damage carries longer range before the falloff occurs, but this would probably be a bit much / borderline superfluous.)

Since we're on the subject of Pseudo Assault on the anvil...

The Halo 4 Suppressor.

Even down to the bolts, this gun was basically a re-skinned Spiker. But we've already adjusted the Spiker. Let's not give the Suppressor the same treatment. In the context of Halo 4, we have the Assault Rifle... humanity's relatively low shield damage, high health damage automatic weapon...and the Storm Rifle, the Covenant projectile high shield, low health damage automatic weapon. It's fairly boring and doesn't create any interesting decisions or improved niche to make the Suppressor a “neutral” version of this where the damage is in the middle. I believe (might be mistaken) the Suppressor had the highest RoF and the highest bullet spread of Halo 4 Automatic weapons.

So...let's change that. Let's give the Suppressor its own unique niche among Automatics that no other Halo automatic has attempted. After all, the thing is called the Suppressor. Let's go all out on its capabilities for suppressing fire (extinguisher).

Call it plagiarism, but there's actually a weapon from another game I think would fit perfectly for the Suppressor's intended niche.

If you know this weapon, congratulations, you've played one of the most fun arena game series of all time, Armored Core. This is the “Finger” – it had various different prefixes over the franchise's different games.

But this gun was AMAZING at close ranges.


Because it was a MACHINE GUN SHOTGUN. It had an absurd rate of fire but also fired multiple bullets at once.

Now put that in Halo.

Turn the Suppressor into a gun that fires a METRIC FUCKTON of bullets, all at the same time. A barrage of bullets, blazing across the sky. It becomes a complete melter at close quarters. Give it a large enough magazine and it can become a weapon that, although inefficient for killing at range, could at least sustain enough swarm of bullets to scare off those who fear bees.

(Shotgunified Automatic weapons in Tower of Guns are also pretty fucking badass. Or automatic version of the Shrapnel Trumpet. You know, whatever.)

Speaking of shotguns in Halo 4...

The Boltshot!

Because who doesn't want to SPAWN WITH A SHOTGUN, right?

Someone at 343, in the creation of the Halo 4 sandbox, thought to themselves, “Creating a gun that can deal instant kill damage, and being able to use that gun off spawn is definitely a healthy thing for this game.”

Granted, functionally its instant kill was similar to the Plasma Pistol – gated by a charge-up that was required before the gun fired. In theory it wasn't too oppressive. Unfortunately, when you arm potentially everyone in a game with a weapon that can instant kill, the problem is that everyone in the game will take the weapon that can instant kill. When that weapon is range gated, it leads to gameplay issues.

The Boltshot was a unique pistol. And a cool design. But it was unquestionably too powerful.

So, what can you do to the Boltshot to keep its identity of “Shotgun Pistol” without turning it into the Halo 3 Mauler but also keeping it from being a one-hit kill weapon?

  • Nerf the damage. Make its charged up damage deal full shield damage, but make the body damage fairly weak, such as taking 3 charged shots to kill a foe. With this change, you can make it so the effective range of the charged shot isn't forced to be immediate vicinity.
    • This will encourage using the pistol form's headshots to finish off a foe, turning the gun into a self-sustained noob combo.
  • Increase the charge-up time slightly. Since it's not killing foes with the Charge now, it doesn't need a slow charge.
  • Decrease the amount of ammo consumed by a charge-up to 3. This will further encourage charge shots + follow-up pistol bullets.

With these changes, you turn the gun from an outright shotgun pistol into a gun that's balanced for skill. It's got the pseudo-shotgun identity of having a ton of burst damage at close range, but you still need to be able to land the pistol headshots in order to reliably finish a kill. Unlike a true Noob Combo though (the Plasma Pistol + Battle Rifle combo from Halo 2, if you're for some reason unfamiliar), this one-weapon version is limited in range. So there's still room for swapping out your weapon for a better version.

I've done a good job with my segues so far this blog... but now I'm all out of good segues. A good one for this next weapon is a bit out of Reach.

The Plasma Launcher. Also known in the BTB community as Blueberries. This gun was actually pretty useless in the vehicle killing niche. Where it should have theoretically been strong.

It could take down a Warthog, but what couldn't? The Warthog's armor was paper thin and shredded easily by a team's worth of DMRs. Which, coincidentally, had a stronger scope than the Plasma Launcher.

The true terror vehicles of BTB were tanks, the pseudo-tank Revenant, and the Banshee. Tanks could nearly shrug off the damage. The Revenant was agile enough to escape the extremely slow engagement time. And the Banshee only needed to do a single roll to break any lock-on that was attained.

So basically, you have a useless power weapon on your hands. Because again, the DMR out-ranges the Plasma Launcher, so even against foot soldiers, the weapon with the potential to one-hit kill is outclassed.

The draw of the Plasma Launcher was supposed to be it's ability to fire multiple sticky grenades at once, in addition to its lock-on functionality.

I will give credit where credit is due, the slow projectile speed means there's plenty of room for counterplay to the power weapon. Unfortunately, combining a necessity to lock on to truly be effective with a slow projectile speed means you're really hurting for effectiveness. So what can we do to make the Plasma Launcher more useful without making it overpowered?

For dealing with infantry, giving it the ability to lock onto multiple targets with a single charge could help a lot, turning the weapon into a “crowd control” weapon, rather than a “Okay I pick you.” “Now you.” one by one weapon. Allowing each of the four grenades to seek out a different target with up to four potential locks puts more power in the hands of the wielder in situations where he is outnumbered, with opportunity to take everyone down with him, if he's fast enough on the draw.

With the amount of armor abilities in Reach that catered to mobility or defense (read: basically all of them), there were plenty of ways to escape a Plasma Launcher bolt if it was coming your way. Because of this, speeding up either the grenades' travel time or the target acquisition speed is important for empowering the weapon. Players who complain about power weapons being powerful when given so many tools for counterplay BEYOND JUST DODGING, WHICH IS ALSO POSSIBLE will learn the power of the blueberries.

But how do we make it better against the Banshee?

If you improve the travel time, keeping the lock-on time the same, you can edit the Banshee to only be able to shed ATTEMPTED locks, rather than already-secured ones. The Banshee when piloted by ace pilots probably won't spend enough time without flipping to get a lock on in the first place, so this would generally solve that problem.

As for making the weapon more effective against tanks, that's simply a matter of the player wielding it getting in a position where they won't be killed attempting to get a lock on.

That's all for Halo on this blog, but it's time to talk about another “rocket launcher” that featured a charge-up time. The PlanetSide 2 Vanu Sovereignty Lancer.

In the original PlanetSide, the Vanu Lancer was essentially a 6-shot rifle that dealt significant damage to vehicles/armor. PlanetSide 2 mostly tried to keep that in tact, but turned the Lancer into a bitchified version of the Halo Spartan Laser, with three levels of charge up damage.

As with many of the weapons in PlanetSide 2's arsenal, the weapon had to be balanced for “What happens if a fuckton of people use it?”

As a result, the weapon felt almost useless for a single person to use. It didn't fill a niche of a “rocket launcher” at all for an individual. If you were by yourself, it was almost always more efficient to carry a dumbfire or a lock-on rocket launcher as a Vanu soldier, because it meant you could either kill infantry that approached or scare off vehicles with the threat of a lock on.

So how do you balance an anti-vehicle weapon for scale? How do you make a weapon that is potentially oppressive for squads of people to use feel satisfying for an individual to use? This is an important design question for every piece of the PlanetSide sandbox, as well as being important to ask in games like Battlefield or Halo in the case of BTB and upcoming Warzone. (Hell, in League of Legends we saw three instances where a summoner spell taken by an entire team ended up problematic because of how stacking them worked. Heal, Promote, and Fortify all had design problems regarding scalability.)

So now, what do you do to make a weapon such as an anti-vehicle laser interesting/useful for an
individual, but not overpowered for a squad?

The Lancer's identity was supposed to be a sort of “Anti-Vehicle Sniper” – it even required some degree of leading your shot despite being a laser beam.

Unfortunately an easy answer like “give vehicles weak points to aim for” was not an explorable option for PlanetSide 2 since that would mean additional sprites were necessary which would have destroyed game performance.

I do believe the Lancer was the longest range “Rocket Launcher” in the game. So wielding it, even as an individual, meant one could at least harass vehicles from far out of their engagement range. However, because of Engineers' potential to repair a vehicle more quickly than a Lancer could damage it, it wasn't really possible to do relevant chip damage to a vehicle.

Instead of buffing impact damage, giving the Lancer a damage-over-time effect which does not stack (but similar in power to the amount a single Engineer could repair, with a duration roughly equal to a charge time for another Lancer shot) would allow a single Lancer to feel impactful against a target – ensuring that each shot would be impactful, while the damager-over-time would offset the potential for the vehicle's driver to simply hop out and repair until the Lancer-wielder ran out of ammo. Additionally, since the damage-over-time effect does not stack (simply reapplies), having multiple Lancers firing would not make the weapons any more fearsome than usual in a group.

It would empower an individual, but keep the groups in check.

And so the PlanetSide 2 Lancer is more satisfying for an individual and still relevant in its niche as the Anti-Vehicle Sniper.

So finally, we come to my favorite weapon from any shooter ever.

It comes from Unreal Tournament (big surprise)

This is the Shock Rifle. A glorious projectile weapon with a hit-scan alternate fire method.

I'm not here to redesign the weapon or suggest any methods on how to improve it. I'm just here to share the gospel of a fantastic weapon.

The gun could fire either straight laser beams or “shock cores” which traveled significantly slower than the laser beams. The shock cores could then be hit by the laser beams and detonated from a range, dealing a massive amount of AoE damage that usually killed a target it one hit.

It's a brilliant skillful design with tons of nuance and mastery. Good counterplay due to the slower projectile speed of the instant kill. Tons of clarity of what's going on. Every gun should strive to be as awesome and satisfying as the Unreal Tournament Shock Rifle.

And if the Shock Rifle weren't cool enough, they took that gun concept and put it into a vehicle as well, known as the Hellraiser, which could rapid fire Shock Cores, and then detonate them in a chain of explosions. Just in case you needed to feel truly epic.

With that, this blog is donezo. Hope you enjoyed the read!

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Audley's Workshop: Lockout Reforged

Lockout is one of the most polarizing maps in terms of fan perception. Some love it, some hate it. Very few neutral opinions exist about the map. Still, it is one of the most played maps in Halo history.

However, just because something is the most played does not make it the best. And in Lockout's case, the map had plenty of design issues that contributed to the hatred it received from those who did not enjoy.

Starting off by speaking of the pure default vanilla slayer settings (SMG starts and everything) on the map, Lockout was problematic.

Games were often extremely snowbally because the strongest point of the map also featured the spawn of one of the two Battle Rifles on the map. Once you had top control, you had little incentive to move. Because you had rifles.

To make matters worse, even if the players down low were equipped with rifles, their sightlines were rather limited in terms of what they potentially could see up top. The only time they had the option to engage a player from below is when the top player chose to expose themselves – there were no sneaky sightlines a player down low could use to combat someone positioned well up top.

Some of this was offset by the multiple jump shortcuts to hasten your ascent of the map, but most of these were in areas that already had strong map flow. Areas such as Shotgun or Sword spawn had extremely limited options in terms of routes you could take to leave. And by extremely limited, I mean one and two respectively. This could lead to situations of helplessness or feeling like the player has no decisions to make when traveling these portions of the map.

Because of the weapon layout and map geometry, there was also no way to balance starting spawns for players. While certain initial spawn layouts could mitigate some of the advantages and create potential tradeoffs for teams, the weightings were never quite even.

Even in the case of BR starts, the map was segmented enough that Slayer could devolve into stalemates with players afraid to even attempt peeking versus an enemy Sniper. The lack of decent flank routes on the map lended no assistance to the issue. Movement incentives were limited pretty harshly (and made worse by Halo 2's weapon spawning system ensuring a weapon did not respawn until it was dropped.)

Overall, Lockout had a number of problems.

  • Impossible to balance initial spawns versus weapon layout + map geometry
  • Weapon Layout gave too much power in the hands of the team in the lead
  • Poor sightlines from the bottom of the map to fight back up high.
  • Poor map flow / lack of decision points for lower areas of the map
  • Standoffish TS gameplay with poor movement incentives.

But before we talk about solving issues, let's also talk about what Lockout did well.

Lockout was a great ball map, with three primary set-ups: Library, Sniper, and the “blue room” strategy. This is owed partially toward how few routes there were on the map, partially to the ability to “reset” the map by throwing the ball off, and partially due to the choke points to approach any of the buildings. A team in control could keep control with a numbers disadvantage (3v4) due to the choke points keeping things straightforward.

None of the power weapons were truly in the best place to use them. So, while I say there weren't very many movement incentives, you were at least encouraged to move with power weapons. Sniper was strong at Sniper tower, but attempting to use it from S3 meant you were heavily exposed from BR tower (and at risk of being barreled).

Sniper tower was able to be controlled by a single player with either of the CQB power weapons (Sword or Shotgun). If that player also had Sniper, he could one man army the entire tower by himself. This created several high points for the player, without being overly uncounterable by opponents, so long as they had Rifles.

In short: the map was good because you were encouraged to move from power weapons, but it struggled because you were not encouraged to move from (or to occupied) power positions.

Finally, before I talk about my solutions for the map, let's talk about what H2A did with Lockdown to make the map a little more tolerable.

  • Elbow was made a bit bigger, with cover, to improve the ability for bottom blue spawners to push Snipe tower.
  • Elbow was given a Carbine to ensure even in SMG start cases low spawners had access to at least one rifle.
  • Icicles were placed above BR tower, top middle, and Snipe tower to allow low spawners to at least put pressure on sightlines they couldn't see by dealing tons of area damage.

The Elbow changes are great and a step in the right direction for the health of the map, while the Icicles are gimmicky and still leave two minute windows where low spawners are virtually helpless.

So let's talk about what we can actually do to improve Lockout.

First, let's fix the Snowballing Rifle problem. I mentioned H2A Lockdown placing a Carbine on Elbow. While this is the right idea, let's make it a Battle Rifle instead. Specifically, remove the Battle Rifle from the top of BR tower. Now let's equip bottom BR spawners. Put a Battle Rifle inside BR1 or somewhere along the Sword room. Maybe even have a Carbine replace the Plasma Rifle at the suicide spot in Snipe tower. Regardless, take rifles out of positions where players WANT to use them, and instead put them in areas where they need to pick them up to fight back against players with power position control. This will encourage (in the case of SMG starts) players who have already picked up Rifles and moved into power positions to leave power positions to refill their ammo reserves, encouraging movement on the map.

With regards to the poor sightlines from the bottom of the map to fight back when players are up high, there is one sightline that's actually pretty close to being good. From Bottom Sword, you can see the ramp along the side of Snipe tower, commonly referred to as “Shortcut” due to the jump from top middle.

A few factors limit the potential of this sightline.
  • The ramp is the same width as the rest of the balcony and the back of Snipe tower, ensuring the bottom of the ramp blocks any and all potential to shoot someone standing up there unless they intentionally jump onto the rail. If the ramp were made thinner, it would slightly expose players standing around S2.
  • The Library building overhead is too thick-walled, ensuring that the players down low cannot get a proper grenade angle to grenade the top of Sniper tower without stopping movement for a substantial period of time. Widening the “roof” of Snipe tower and shrinking the thickness of Library walls could empower good grenade-chuckers to enable a push. (Additionally, having the outer mountain wall hug the Sniper tower more tightly could improve grenade angles from down low.)
  • This area cannot see the main portion of S2, no matter how the player maneuvers. Widening the dance floor around Sword could increase the vision players at Sword are able to get, allowing some low position support fire and team shooting.

Another area where sightlines could be improved is from bottom blue's door / bridge to under glass. Some problems:
  • The enormous top middle corner toward Elbow blocks any possible sightlines of top Snipe, though it does enable sightlines to S2. This prevents a team who wants to push Snipe and double spawned Blue from having one player take pressure off an S3 Sniper from Bottom Blue while the other pushes Elbow. This portion of top middle never sees relevant gameplay and could be thinned out to improve sightlines and the ability for bottom blue players to grenade S2.
  • The railings on the bridge are not actually tall enough to use for cover unless a player is on the “wrong” side of them. Opening up the flat portion as an entrance to the danger rails could improve flow to these “wrong” sides and enable players to use the rails to BREAK sightlines as they push for a flank opposite of where the opponents are positioned, using the shortcut jumps toward S1 or BR1.
  • There is no way to break the sightline from Library Window as you push out of Bottom Blue, meaning if a player is positioned back BR and another in Window, you're likely going to die before you can make it halfway up the bridge. In this instance, this may be a “deal with it” sort of situation, though increasing the railing height at open ramp near BR2 could cut off enough of the back BR sightline to allow this to become a 1v1 situation.

The final area of Lockout needing sightline improvements is at Elbow, but H2A Lockdown handled this quite nicely by offering cover and more dance floor. If the above change to elbow top mid corner was made, shrinking that area, it's possible that combined with the H2A changes, this portion of the map could have a sightline to Library front door or Window, combined with jump shotting. This could encourage Sniper movement or simply encourage BR players to move to this otherwise suboptimal area to trade shots in stalemates.

But we still have an issue of map flow at Shotgun and Sword spawns specifically. As a general rule of thumb, players should have 3 directions from which they can leave a position once there. For both of these positions, this is not the case.

Surprisingly, the issue can be alleviated in a manner that barely requires any additional geometry on the map. By extending the Sword bridge area out toward bottom middle and creating an entrance slightly above the back of Shotgun which can drop down into Shotgun (but also allow a person at Shotgun to jump out the back and move to Sword, you've increased Sword exit options to 3 (Shotgun, Under Glass, or BR1) and Shotgun exits to 2 (Bottom Blue, Sword). You've also increased the counterplay options to the infamous Blue room strategy, as now Shotgun has two entrances, one of which is substantially safer to approach than the other. This method has yet another advantage, in that it will allow players moving from Sword to be able to see S2 as they push, giving another Low->High sightline option that was not previously available.

While this doesn't quite get Shotgun to satisfy the Rule of 3, we can mark that off as a valid tradeoff for one of the map's strongest weapons being placed in its weakest position.

This new route can also enable new flank opportunities for players not keeping a close watch on bottom middle, increasing movement incentives or potential for Slayer gameplay.

These changes to bottom middle, Sword, and Bottom Blue alleviate many of the issues that plague Lockout TS, but still don't fix the issue of the impossible to balance initial spawns versus the weapon layout and map geometry.

H2A Lockdown gave us the Library versus S2 initial spawns, but in this case, Library has the advantage opening, due to the ability to deny Sniper, get Sword, and equally contest Shotgun, while also having access to the strongest position on the map and the most important early spawns for KotH.

Moving the Library team to BR2 would give them even better chances of getting the Sniper off the start at the cost of delaying Sword (and preventing the fast Sword boost back to Library)

Moving them to BR1 would deny any chance for them to contest the initial Sniper. Moving them to Blue would deny them access to any power weapon other than Shotgun.

The best available solution in Lockout's case (and in any Asymmetrical map where balanced initial spawns are not an option) is to delay the initial power weapon spawns – leave only the neutral one (Shotgun) up for grabs at the start, and place teams away from power positions (Spawn them at Sword / Elbow or something of the sort.) This lets them vie for whichever positions they value most and prepare for a delayed spawn of power weapons once the match has gotten underway and initial battles where neither team had a distinct weapon advantage have resolved.

With these changes, Lockout would be in a much healthier state for gametypes that aren't Oddball, enabling the map to feel less like having teeth pulled when selected for Slayer or other options.

And with that, this visit to Audley's Workshop is finished.

Calling the Shots Part 4 – Taking Rounds

We've talked victory conditions and knowing your limits, and even a bit on when it's okay to just go crazy. Today, I'm going to talk about how to allocate resources.

In some team environments, one player determines who gets what resource over the course of a game. In others, it's simply first come, first serve. Maybe it depends on the situation. Maybe it depends on the victory conditions. But regardless, knowing what qualifies as a resource and how to determine who gets it is an important aspect of shot-calling.

Since the majority of my audience are Halo players, I'll address the context of resources in Halo first.

What are the resources in Halo?

If you're playing along at home, your first reaction was probably “POWER WEAPONS!” And congratulations, you got the #1 answer on the board. But power weapons aren't the only resource in Halo.

Map objectives are another obvious resource. Whether it's Oddball, Hill time, the Flag, the Bomb. Someone says “Hey, take hill.” He's allocating a resource.

But from there, what qualifies as a resource becomes a lot more subtle. I'll make a bulleted list.
  • Power Weapons
  • Objectives
  • Power Positions
    • What? How can a position be a resource!? Power positions are important areas of the map which offer escape routes, sightlines, and combat advantages. But you don't want everyone to be in the power positions. Some players have to keep moving, pushing for objective, cutting off pushes, flushing out players, et cetera. Determining who gets to stay in the power position is allocating a resource.
  • Help
    • Other players responding to your call-outs, pushing behind you, or watching your sightlines are a resource. Your teammates are a resource. Who they decide to work with on a moment-to-moment basis determines who receives that resource.
    • As an example of a team that uses this, listen to Towey coach Evil Geniuses. Often, he will tell a player who has just spawned to “Go help x” – he's allocating the resource for the team and ensuring a player isn't left stranded on the enemy side.
  • Communication
    • Even call-outs are a resource. Because it's hard to hear when players talk over one another, it's important to make sure communication is streamlined. A player on the opposite side of the map from teammates should not be trying to talk over those who need to communicate their plans to work together (unless it is pertinent information to those three.) An isolated player making callouts of players his teammates have no possible way to see is flooding a resource, giving information that isn't valuable or useful.
  • Ammo
    • Apart from literally being a resource for your guns, ammo is a resource that sometimes has to be discussed among the team. In stalemate situations (especially H2A's Lockdown TS), a player with a Sniper may not need their Battle Rifle ammo, while his teammates need it for trading or creating shield advantages to set up a push. Allocating weapon ammo among teammates to ensure everyone is combat capable can be the difference between winning or losing a stalemate situation's resolution.

As you can see, there are actually several resources in Halo that need to be split up among the team. Knowing who needs to receive what resource at what time, or who should forego a resource to do something else (such as pushing up and letting the next player to spawn grab a power weapon on your side), are key to shot-calling toward victory.

What are the resources in LoL?

In League of Legends, there are even more resources to track. Many are less nuanced than in Halo, so I'll keep my bulleted list a bit more concise:
  • Gold (minion waves, tower gold, assists)
  • Experience (minion waves)
  • Farm (jungle)
  • Ganks (or pressure from a teammate's presence in general)
  • Vision (where your wards are)
  • Vision denial (where you clear enemy wards, who gets the ward kill)
  • Summoner spells (how many do you expend for a kill)
  • Abilities (especially ults, how many do you expend for a kill / to save someone / who do you use them on in a team fight)
  • Buffs (red/blue/abilities)
  • Globals (TP pressure, global range ultimate pressure)
  • Wave control (what waves you set up to slow push, what waves you just flash farm)

Much of LoL strategy revolves around power spikes and funneling farm into specific players. Whether it's to get them to their power spike sooner, or to get them into a state to counter an enemy power spike, you want to make sure farm goes where it's needed. Experience comes with farm. Who do you try to make sure stays ahead in levels? Do you sacrifice EXP on your support/jungler and rely on team fights / skirmishes to catapult them back with the catch-up mechanics of the game?

Ganks and jungle pressure can determine the outcome of a lane. Determining who gets said ganks may depend on champion match-up, skill match-up, or the opponent's priorities. As a shotcaller, you have to know who needs pressure when.

Expending too many summoner spells (or long cooldown ultimates) for a gank can leave you vulnerable for a long period of time. If you're planning a gank 90 seconds before Dragon, do you all flash to finish the kill and the moderate gold spike? Or, do you let him live, knowing you'll need those flashes for the potential team fight at Dragon? Those flashes could mean a tower kill. Or, if you're out of sync with the team, one flash could mean the play gets turned around. Before the play is made, the shotcaller should make it clear if you're burning summoners and ultimates or not.

Vision needs to be rotated depending on your current focus on the map. Pink wards are not meant to stay in the same place all game. They need to be moved to ensure zones of denial or longer lasting vision. Deep wards need to be placed to know what's coming in a situation. Sometimes, placing deep wards can be risky and requires the escort of your jungler as a support to get the wards down. (Note KT Rolster, or last season's Samsung White often having Score+Piccaboo or Dandy+Mata respectively synchronizing their backs and duo-invading early on to ensure they can get wards down together.)

In both games, it's important to be able to identify your resources and determine where they need to go. A good shotcaller must gauge who needs what when.

If you're struggling to determine how to allocate resources, ask yourself some questions when faced with a decision:
  • What are the victory conditions right now?
  • Who is important to fuel our path to victory?
  • Who is closest to the resource?
    • Do they need it?
  • Will we lose anything if x goes for this resource?
    • Is it worth it?
    • Who else could take it instead?
  • Are we transparent in our resource allocation?
    • Can/Will our opponents try to counter it?
  • Can we deny our opponents' resources?
  • X doesn't have the resources they should, do we sacrifice them and put resources elsewhere?
    • Or do we sacrifice elsewhere to put resources on them?
    • Which path is safer?

Obviously you can't ask yourself these questions each and every time a decision arrives. These are just an exercise to improve. As you improve, you'll find yourself giving better valuation and distribution naturally. As you begin to efficiently distribute resources in a game, you will find yourself with more advantages and leads to press in a game.

That's all for this relatively short bit. Part 5 will be a bit delayed, but I'll discuss how to identify less apparent advantages in order to determine when you have a lead or the ability to create a lead out of a mismatch.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Calling the Shots Part 3 - The Efficacy of a Loose Cannon

If you're a League of Legends fan, chances are you've heard the memetic repetition of "Chaos-style" as an explanation describing Unicorns of Love's gameplay in the European LCS. You've probably also heard certain analysts refer to said chaos as "just mistakes."

I'm here to offer a neutral perspective.

I mentioned in Part 2 that it's important to know your limits in the context of a game. You should also be able to objectively admit when an opposing team is superior to you, whether in regards of execution or strategy. It's okay to say “I'm not as good as they are.”

When your opposition have a superior strategical understanding compared to you, how do you win?

You fuck over their plans.

Okay, joke aside: you execute better. You rely on your manual dexterity and ability to pull off risky, low percentage plays in order to bridge the gap. In short, you gamble on your own skill.

In most cases of competitive gaming, players rely on high percentage plays in order to safely position themselves on the road to a victory. After all, safe play avoids mistakes. No mistakes means no room for being punished. But when that route doesn't work, fuck Order. Embrace Chaos. The primeval strategic void.

Keep everything fast paced. Keep everything hectic. Don't leave room for your opponents to breathe or set-up. Don't let battles resolve.

While Unicorns of Love are generally given as the example of a team that lives and dies on their “chaos-style” shotcalling – full of sub-optimal calls and plays that don't necessary make the most strategical sense, there's one team that are notorious for taking the opposite approach.

Elements/Alliance have always been a team afraid to pull the trigger when they're behind. Rather than risk a mistaken call, they avoid taking any shots at all and simply allow themselves to slowly bleed to death.

Froggen, the mid laner of Elements, is often regarded by many as quite possibly the best European mid laner of all time (and rightly so, he almost managed to win a season of OGN Champions). So in terms of execution, it's hard to believe Elements have much to fear from one of their highest impact roles potentially making a mistake.

Quit being a chicken, Froggen. You're the best. Act like it.

I mentioned in Part 2 to always assume your opponents will play the game properly – here I am going to contradict myself. When you've assessed you are mechanically better at the game than your opponent, assume you can force a mistake. Look for the opportunity to force a mistake. It doesn't matter how sub-optimal the call you make is. Make a call. Any call you can feasibly execute. Just go do it.

Before the Halo portion of my readership run away thinking this only applies to LoL, wait. Because I've even used specific examples in the past of the same notions. When I made a bracket preview for the HCSSeason 1 Finals, I mentioned in the Denial vs Str8 Rippin match-up that I thought Str8 Rippin could be favored on Shrine Team Slayer. My exact quote: “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.”

In this case, Str8 had a ton of explosive talent on their team with Str8 Sick, Prototype, and Naded's dominant Free for All gameplay. They were all players likely to win individual battles or be able to naturally react to battles going on elsewhere to clean them up – faster reactions, so to speak.

Chaos increases the degree of reactive gameplay required. Because it's harder to decide or predict what will happen next. You have less opportunity for proactive planning due to the increased pressure across the map, and thus must simply play your opponents rather than your own game.

If your opponents out-skill you, or execute better on an individual level, they will come out ahead in a chaotic situation.

And if you're thinking I'm talking out of my ass, and there's no precedent for using sub-optimal tactics to upset someone with superior strategic or tactical understanding:

Try reading about Anti-computer Tactics from chess. 

In the “Brains in Bahrain” event mentioned, the player knew he was superior in late game decision-making over the computer, so rather than try to play generally optimal openings, he chose to take the generally “riskier” route of playing hyperconservative (the best defense is a good offense!). Once he survived the computer's pre-planned strategical opening, the computer was in unfamiliar territory with less decision trees to allow it to properly analyze the situation. Because of this, the player managed to win two consecutive games. (In retrospect, this may be what Froggen is attempting to do when he plays so passively from behind.)

So, now that we've established that intentional sub-optimal gameplay is a real strategy with at least some merit... how do you go about shotcalling this manner?

The most important thing to note is that every voice is important when playing chaotic. You need a much higher information flow than slow-playing or taking a methodical, measured approach.

First, you need to identify a weakness in the enemy line-up. Whether this is a strategic weakness they have, or a player who you simply expect not to react properly to a surprise engagement from your team.

Attack the weak link. Regardless of whether contextually attacking that point makes sense at the given time, do it anyway. Even if it means giving something else up elsewhere. Don't hesitate.

Do they have a top laner who relies on being on an island? Send four people up there, dive the tower. Push the tower. Start to push another tower. Someone's coming? Abandon the push, go engage that player rotating up through the jungle.

Is this Lockout TS stalemate being held together by a player sitting BR1 who's known for losing BR fights? Hard push down low. Get people underneath library to ensure the spawns get split when you inevitably secure a kill or two. Now raise the pace. No huddle offense time.

(Mild tangent: Another League of Legends example of putting power into individual execution rather than team strategy can be seen in Season 3 Lemondogs. Lemondogs were a team that lived and died by 1-3-1 split pushing. They all had confidence they would outplay their opponents, so why wouldn't they just pressure every lane, right?)

This brings up point two: put your best players in position to make big plays on their own.

Pressure somewhere. Let them pressure somewhere else. You don't need to be in the same location to be impacting the game in the highest manner. (DO YOU FUCKING HEAR ME COAST? YOUR OLAF DOES NOT HAVE TO STAND NEXT TO SIVIR WHEN HE'S FOUR KILLS AND 200 CS UP OVER HIS OPPONENT AND PUSHING AN INHIB UNCONTESTED!)

If your best player needs to be on his own in order to be effective, PLAY AROUND THAT PLAYER, rather than around the enemy team. Make the enemy team react to that player.

Peacock somewhere, feigning strength. Make it look like you're going to do something you have no intention of doing to see if there's a reaction.

Point 3: Once shit has hit the fan, keep throwing more shit into it.

Again, the point of Chaos-as-a-Gameplan is to introduce situations your opponent has not experienced (but you possibly have) in order to come out ahead.

The more pressure you keep applying, regardless of how wise it is, the more likely the opponent is not to know how to react to it, and to make a mistake.

And finally, call off the dogs when you've obtained a clear advantage.

Unless you have no game sense at all and don't know how to play properly with a lead, then once you've gotten a lead, you should play like you have it. If you think your lesser-executing opponents can wrest control of the match back from you while you return to optimal play, then chances are you were going to lose regardless of what strategy you employed.

Anyway, again, “chaos style” shot-calling is not “just mistakes” but rather intentional sub-optimal shotcalling in order to try to shift the game out of your opponent's comfort zone and into a manner where you can reign supreme.

It is not a be-all, end-all approach to playing a game, nor should it ever really be your first choice. It requires a high level of execution (much like S4 Fnatic's obsession with kite comps). If you are confident you are better at executing on a micro level than your opponents, by all means, try to play a chaotic style of play. It's admittedly a bit disrespectful, and by definition not the best way to play. But it can work and has valid reasons for doing so.

Again, it is by definition an unsafe way to play. Much like trying to aim a loose cannon.

This concludes part 3 of Calling the Shots – although this one was more aimed toward responding to a perspective than how to actually improve as a shotcaller, I felt it belonged in the series. I'll be working on Part 4 soon as well and trying to get that out soon.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Audley's Workshop: Another Visit to the Halo Sandbox

Time for another visit to Audley's Workshop! Back on the subject of the Halo sandbox this time rather than maps. And this time, I'm going to be talking about something very near and dear to my and the majority of Halo players' everywhere's hearts. A piece of the Halo sandbox that was welcomed with open arms and loved by everyone who ever used it.

And in case you haven't caught onto the sarcasm just yet...

I'm talking about Armor Abilities (and some Halo 3 equipment).

Now, you probably already want to stop reading because I mentioned those two awful words that made many a Halo player stop playing. But I encourage you to stay, even after I make this shocking next statement: I liked the idea of armor abilities. I just despised the implementation, both from the perspective of a player and from the perspective of a designer.

Today, I'm specifically going to be speaking about the abilities that were designed to increase your survivability. And although I stress mobility is survivability, I'm not going to be speaking on mobility today – we'll save that for another time. For this subject, we're talking:

  • Reach Armor Lock
  • H4 Hardlight Shield
  • H3 Bubble Shield
  • H3 Regenerator
  • Reach Drop Shield

Before I delve into any individual bit, I want to point out why these are generally all bad for Halo's gameplay. The general consensus among players that complained about them revolved around two arguments. The first, “It lets an idiot get away with making dumb plays and survive.” The second, “It slows down gameplay.”

To anyone arguing the former: No, shut up, you're wrong. It increases the amount of play options available to a player by giving them more opportunities to survive an encounter or wait for help. Them taking a survivability ability alone does not guarantee the “dumb play” will work. It enables them to make larger perceived risks with the knowledge they have more safety than is immediately apparent. This is actually a positive in my eyes.

But then you take the latter. Slowing down gameplay. Making it more time consuming to punish players for overextension is frustrating in the best case scenario. In the worst case, it gives the aggressive idiot time to be saved by his teammate. (Audley, weren't you just saying they can take more perceived risks? Wouldn't this be one of those?)

Let's talk Armor Lock.

Armor Lock was by far my favorite (and probably my most used) Armor Ability in Halo Reach. I adored its two primary functions: Parrying explosives and EMPing vehicles.

Unfortunately, Armor Lock was overtuned. Although it was meant as a method to survive fatal damage and to disable vehicles, it ended up being far stronger. Vehicles had to be terrified of attempting to splatter players running across an open field, as Armor Lock wouldn't just EMP their vehicle. It would outright destroy it. The attempted splatter would deal more damage to the vehicle than running full speed into a brick wall or colliding with another vehicle.

Rather than being used to survive fatal damage, players would hold Armor Lock for its insanely long duration and wait for teammates to come clean up. In some cases, such as Slayer variants on Countdown in default settings, full teams of Armor Lock played their own version of leap frog alternating armor locks to take down opponents. It was a grave oversight that led to extremely poor emergent gameplay.

The nerfs given to the ability when 343 took over were too conservative. Armor Lock had two distinct niches in which it could exist, as outlined above.

Gutting the duration of Armor Lock to only let it last a fraction of a second (you know, to make it specifically avoid bursts of damage) would've gone a long way toward making the ability require skill to use rather than “Let me go make a dumb play and bait people while I'm invincible.”

Further, removing the self-inflicted vehicular suicide functionality (and replacing it with further stressing of the Armor Lock's original intent of EMPing the vehicle) would also have made the ability less daunting in the context of Big Team Battle or open maps.

Even with these two extreme nerfs (duration and reflected damage), Armor Lock still is the dominant choice in its niche (surviving fatal explosions and avoiding being splattered by vehicles) – but “edge case” (read: THE WAY IT ACTUALLY GOT USED ALL THE FUCKING TIME) uses of overextending and sitting in your impenetrable glowy fortress of autofellatio for 5 seconds while praying your teammates saved you would be completely eradicated.

It also wouldn't effect the little known aspect of the Armor Lock EMP that I abused – where the shields of a player would be drained when used at melee range, allowing you to instantly kill a player with a melee if they stood over your armor locking body. This added a nuance to CQB encounters, and if the Armor Lock duration were more along the lines of a quarter of a second rather than several seconds, it could lead to players attempting to block an enemy melee and immediately countering with EMP+Melee of their own if CQB devolved into a fist fight.

Armor Lock is fixed. But let's stay on the same track for our next subject.

The good ol' Hardlight Shield.

This was another instance of an armor ability that had really cool moments, but ultimately degraded into a “Oh, fuck, I'm going to die so let me just hold onto this button as long as I possibly can and pray for deus ex machina or for them to run out of ammo!” ability.

Hardlight Shield was really cool when you deflected a rocket right back at the rocketeer and killed him with it. It was a rare occurrence since the deflection angles were really awkward and hard to figure out (too much curve to the shield, made it really hard to actually aim.)

Like Armor Lock, HLS was a really cool parry option introduced to Halo. And also like Armor Lock, rather than embracing the Parry identity, it was given a lengthy duration which turned its identity into a hulking Riot Shield-esque ability which slowed your movements while blocking any incoming damage from that direction.

343 definitely learned lessons from Armor Lock in Hardlight Shield's design: shields didn't recharge during use, and the immunity to damage was only directional. They seem to have also decided Armor Lock's immunity to being splattered was too strong and allowed HLS users to become pavement paint.

Hardlight Shield was essentially a nerfed Armor Lock – you are still exposed to damage from most directions (and even some areas on the front, like your feet) and still susceptible to grenades, so long as they're thrown a little extra distance. Because of these additional vulnerabilities, I managed to convince Gh057Ayame to include Hardlight Shield for testing as one of the potential Armor Abilities to call down with Personal Ordnance in Team Throwdown settings.

However, despite being a “nerfed version of Armor Lock” its dragging duration allowed players to use it while trying to hobble back into cover during a losing fight, or to simply wait for a teammate to be able to help. I recall seeing Pistola use the ability in one AGL tournament to great effect, as the Wizard of staying alive would certainly do. He abused its power well and made sure to annoy enemy players by appearing to be overextended, but knowing he could get back to cover if he truly wanted to.

I think one of the biggest mistakes in the Hardlight Shield's design was the continued focus on reduced mobility in exchange for its damage mitigation. So Audley, what would you have changed about Hardlight Shield if you had been its designer?
  • Reduce the duration. Maybe not a quarter second like Armor Lock (since this is much more vulnerable) – something closer to 1-1.5s. A full 1v1 kill time worth of timing, but no more.
  • Leave the player's mobility completely in tact. That's right, even allow them to sprint with the Hardlight Shield up. This encourages a player in a hallway battle to activate their shield and rush at the unsuspecting foe. It encourages making aggressive plays with the ability.
  • Normalize the deflection of the shield / Flatten the shield. Make it so things hitting you head on are deflected directly back (in most cases, it seemed things went off to the right.). The ability to deflect rockets back at the rocketeer (or Scorpion tank shells) was one of the most interesting interactions of the ability. HIGHLIGHT THIS INTERACTION.

With these three changes, the Hardlight Shield encourages more aggressive usage, while also giving it a more highlighted niche as a strong ability to use in choke points. With the improved deflection and the maintained mobility, it also increases the potency of selfish use of the ability, rather than having to rely on teammates to help you, or encouraging use defensively to stall for time.

Hardlight Shield and Armor Lock are now more fun to play with and against. Let's move on.

Halo 3 gave us the Bubble Shield and the Regenerator, and Reach bastardized them with its Drop Shield. All three were extremely important in the context of BTB, but were absolutely banned from competitive 4v4 settings. Drop Shield made Oddball games extremely one-dimensional.

Halo 3's Bubble Shield saw four primary use cases.
  1. Place on an Armed Bomb to buy time to disarm.
  2. Place at a doorway in order to give space to escape and/or safety to board a vehicle
  3. Place in an open area with large space between points of cover to stop and recharge your shields before pushing up further.
  4. Place to bait players with larger effective range to come fight you inside the bubble (whether this meant you had a shotgun and were trying to get an easy CQB kill, or if you were hiding from a vehicle to try to bait them into splattering you but turning the tides with a Plasma Grenade or highjack.)

In most cases, these were pretty healthy for the game. But on smaller maps, numbers three and four become problematic. In a long ranged battle and afraid you'll lose? BUBBLE! Have a Shotgun and can't get close? BUBBLE! Down a shot? BUBBLE!

Although the Bubble Shield had many avenues for proactive use, it's also a strong stall tactic, with very limited options for counterplay unless you were already in close quarters. The Bubble could be destroyed from the inside (or knocked away with a grav lift or some of the ball equipment like Power Drains or Radar Jammers).

If you were outside the Bubble, you were shit out of luck. You had no way to burst the Bubble. No way to damage the Bubble. Nothing to do but wait. There's nothing fun about that.

If you were inside the Bubble, and no one came in, you were shit out of luck. You were stared at by watchful eyes. No way to damage them from inside your zone of safety. Nothing to do but wait for your eventual demise. There's nothing fun about that either.

Bubble Shields in these cases were the definition of anti-fun. Neither side gains any fun from using the Bubble Shield in this manner. For the side whose kill was denied by the cowardly option, their fun was taken away.

On the other hand, Regenerators in Halo 3 ended up being used quite a bit differently. The most common use case for a Regenerator was simply to tank long range shots while you won the gun battle. Because a Sniper or a grenade+well-timed shot could kill you within the Regen, the “bait safely with Shotgun” use cases were not available.

In the case of CQB combat, use of the equipment was not favored toward “whoever had the better CQB weapon” (as was the case for a Bubble Shield) but rather, “Who used the Regenerator?” – the person outside the regenerator continues taking damage until they get into range of the field (at which point they may also reap its benefits.) Whereas with the Bubble Shield, neither player may exchange damage until both are on the same side of the Bubble, much like dreaded shield doors.

Comparing the two directly,
  • The Bubble Shield was stronger at countering power weapons (as it made the person inside immune to external damage.)
  • The Bubble Shield had less options for counterplay, limiting such options only to players able to infiltrate the shield. The Regenerator player could be killed through teamwork, power weapons, or very good grenade+weapon usage.
  • In the context of impending CQB, the Regenerator gave more power to the player who used it as opposed to the player with a CQB weapon. A rushing player with a BR and a Shotgun was susceptible to a player inside Regenerator with a BR, but would likely win against someone who threw a Bubble Shield.

Overall, however, the two generally fulfill similar niches. I mentioned in my Rat's Nest post the Regenerator was better for aggressive plays while the Bubble Shield was better saved for protecting spawners or disarming a Bomb – this is still true (after all, can't mass-slay the people disarming the bomb with your rockets if they throw a Bubble Shield on the Bomb plant.)

Removing the Bubble Shield option all together, however, would be a superior option, as it prevents the earning of a power weapon from being countered by a much more commonly spawning piece of equipment, and increases the amount of effort a defending team must execute to disarm the bomb.

If the “I want to avoid this one Rocket” function a Bubble Shield brings is deemed necessary, the Regenerator could deploy an outward force field when first activated that immediately dissipates. You know... like a parry. (I seem to like those, yeah?)

For all other intents and purposes, such as temporary cover or time to regain shields...the Bubble Shield's functionality could've been covered by a piece of equipment we never saw used on a single Halo 3 map: Deployable Cover. In addition to having the counterplay options of “just go around it” Deployable Cover's design also caused the shield to disappear after a certain amount of damage had been taken, meaning regardless of duration, players wanting the shield to go away could make it go away.

In short, GET RID OF THE FUCKING BUBBLE SHIELD. (And maybe slightly nerf the Regen to improve the potential for a player inside one to lose a ranged 1v1 battle if the enemy fires perfect shots.)

But then we have this fucker...

The Halo Reach Drop Shield.

Because someone looked at the Halo 3 Bubble Shield and Halo 3 Regenerator and thought, “Hey, these two kinda overlap in their intended roles. Why don't we COMBINE them?!”

It didn't take more than a week of post-launch matchmaking to find instances of players spawning with Bubbles breaking a gametype. Nothing like trying to play 4v4 Oddball where the entire game is centered around a nigh-impenetrable dome of safety. Oh, your Drop Shield expired? I gotchu fam.

I mentioned Bubble Shields could only be destroyed from inside. Drop Shield at least realized this mistake and allowed it to expire based off damage (more like the Deployable Cover).

In BTB, we saw Drop Shield used on Boardwalk one-sided objective to troll chain bubbles of immunity while running a flag home or running a bomb in.

We rarely saw the Drop Shield used to create a “field of safety” from vehicles out in the field (partially due to how overpowered Armor Lock was) – it was occasionally used for attempted flag steals on Hemorrhage for getting into a vehicle. But even then, it was too big of a trade off to give up on other armor abilities to maybe get a flag into a vehicle if you managed to make it to the base without being destroyed.

Before it was realized Warthogs were essentially useless, it was common for drivers to take Drop Shield in order to recover safely if the vehicle flipped. But that didn't last long.

In Drop Shield's case, it exhibited the problem of trying to take an on-map piece of equipment and translating it into a repeatable use ability for players, regardless of cooldown. It's also a problem I'll address in a later Audley's Workshop when I talk about Empire-Specific Rocket Launchers in PlanetSide 2 (scalability – balancing a tool available to one person versus the tool being used by GROUPS of people).

Before Drop Shield was ever given the green light by Halo Reach's design team, two questions should've been asked:
  • For what reason should a player take this ability over the others?
  • What will happen if this ability is in the hands of every player?

After both of those were asked, chances are its problems would've been a bit clearer prior to its release to the general public.

And, as with the case of the Bubble Shield, it probably would've been realized that the Drop Shield had no true purpose belonging in Big Team Battle. In cases where the shield is being deployed to survive in the open field, are players ever actually advancing, or just delaying? In cases where the shield is being deployed to protect an objective, is there actual counter-play available with other abilities or who haven't gone out of their way to pick up a Plasma Pistol.

But rather than outright remove the Drop Shield... let's make it into something that can work in Halo.

The main issue, in my eyes, is the area of survivability is limited to where you cast the ability. So before we move further, let's change the name. Drop Shield is now Safeguard.

When Safeguard is cast, a somewhat small (half/a third of the size of normal Drop Shield Bubble) semi-transparent sphere is created around the player. The player who cast Safeguard may still use their weapons freely. However, any foreign bullets, projectiles, etc. that come into contact with the sphere have their damage reduced substantially (by ~80%) and transferred to the player whose sphere they have come into contact with. This sphere moves with the player as the player moves.

The sphere could also be given stages of damage like Reach vehicles, causing the bubble to shrink in size (with both damage and duration rapidly causing stage transitions) and decreasing the amount of damage mitigation from the sphere.

Now you've taken an immobile shield without much purpose outside of protecting an objective and turned it into a selfish defensive mechanism for turning a player temporarily into a pseudotank (still able to be killed), at the expense of being an easier target to hit.

This new form would encourage pushing across open terrain, aggressive flanks or engagements, and prevent players from stacking their shields as a sort of Road to Glory for flag or Permanent Thunderdome for Oddball. Players wishing to use Safeguard to protect teammates would be forced to actively use their bodies to shield their teammates.

Suddenly you've turned Drop Shield into a more active ability with more incentive for aggressive use and less room for abuse cases.

And my work here is done. Until next time, folks!