Saturday, February 26, 2011

Movement: The Significator of a Competitive Game

So, you want me to let you in on the secret on what lends strength to a competitive game? Whoops, my title gave it away. One word answers the question clearly: Movement. Over the course of this Audley Enough blog entry, I'll highlight a few competitive games, and how they manage to be successful.

And ALL of them revolve around movement.

First off, I'm going to start with what I consider to be the greatest competitive game around currently. That would be the national sport of South Korea, where a certain Boxer is known as king. No, it's not Pugilism. It's StarCraft. Well, for this article, StarCraft II, but the concepts remain largely similar.

StarCraft II (in a competitive setting) starts off with two players, pitted against each other, with nothing but a bare base to start. Players amass forces and send them to destroy each others' bases.

Apart from knowing which units to pick, how does StarCraft 2 manage to be a competitive game? Movement incentives.

What are these movement incentives?

Well, unfortunately, your base does not provide you with infinite amount of resources, and there is a limit of speed on how fast your worker line can mine. So in order to out-resource your opponent, there is but one option: Expand.

You must leave the easily protected confines of your starting area to expand. The game provides you with one relatively easy expansion referred to by players as their "natural." Again, the resources are limited. However, players are offered a choice once their opponents begin to expand: Do you attempt to restrict your opponents movements and invest in offense to stop their expansion, or do you expand yourself, and continue to tech up and defend until it becomes an opportune time for another expansion?

In addition to expansions being a primary incentive to move, StarCraft II added an additional incentive for players to move at least part of their forces across the map: Xel'Naga Watchtowers. Controlling these watchtowers allow you to preemptively scout moving enemy forces as they attempt to venture into your territory. For skilled players, this means knowing when you need to switch off a more Macro-based play into a defensive stand, or sometimes when you need to move your units to a different front in order to defend the on-coming attack.

The majority of StarCraft matches are decided very quickly, with one player securing an earlier advantage due to more intelligent movements. You'll notice, however, that for the longer games on smaller maps, the match quickly degrades into a stalemate as movement incentives are collected. Amoebic masses of units will squirm about the center, weighing each other out, but more or less will not attack one another until one side has a decided advantage or opportunity.

Although these situations are tense, they ultimately weigh out to a less competitive situation. It boils down to which player has the greater unit composition at 200/200 supply. If both are fairly even, it ends up being who is the first to grow impatient. Especially in a Terran versus Terran setting where Siege Tanks must move in order to change their attack ranges, the first player to unsiege loses his tactical advantage and is more likely to lose the game.

In a Terran versus Protoss match, unless a player makes a mistake of moving his Colossi too close to the Viking Flower of the Terrans, the two groups will dance about the middle, waiting until the other makes a mistake big enough to capitalize with a few unit kills. Either one side will commit at this point and go all-in, or they will simply back off, replace their unit, and begin the perpetual unit-ball dance again.

Without anything to strive for at this stage in the game, the more PATIENT player has an advantage over a more SKILLED player.

The second competitive game I want to mention is Defense of the Ancients. Actually, I'll talk about League of Legends (due to being more familiar with it), but touch on similarities to DotA.

A typical game of LoL has three lanes connected by a river and several winding paths through the forest, and endless amounts of minion (creep) waves leaving your team's Nexus along those three lanes, attempting to push to the enemy's Nexus, going through three towers and an Inhibitor.

Now, if there were no incentives for moving, players would simply split up into the lanes and endlessly farm those minions until their hearts' content, or until an enemy made a mistake and died in the lane, at which point you could push a tower.

The first movement incentive in the game is rather intrinsic from the champion bounty bonus (meaning, you get more gold for killing an enemy champion). Leaving your lane (at the risk of losing out on EXP and gold from creep) allows you to attempt to kill an enemy champion. This is called "ganking." It is the most basic movement incentive in the AoS genre. Killing the inhabitants of a lane allows you to push the lane uncontested and attempt to kill the towers (which also give a global Gold bounty).

Beyond this, there is a rather large movement incentive that actually occupies most of the map. This is called the Jungle. In League of Legends, each team's Jungle has two main incentives: The Golem Camp (Blue Buff) and The Lizard Camp (Red Buff). Both of these buffs give the champion who kills the respective Golem or Lizard a rather large boon that improves their ability to combat enemy champions.

Moving to control your team's Jungle (which is usually done by a dedicated Jungler early on in the game, and later done by the champion who benefits from the buffs the most) allows your team a significant advantage. In addition to this, it allows your team one champion who is free to gank any lane which allows the opportunity. The Jungle's existence reduces the passivity of laning by offering a movement incentive to the player who controls it. Skilled junglers will attempt to disrupt one anothers' jungle (venturing into the risky enemy team's territory to try to steal a buff, or kill the enemy jungler while he's low health from the powerful monsters there).

Finally, there are two more primary incentives: Dragon and Baron. Baron does not spawn until 15 minutes into the game, so earlier focus tends to revolve around controlling the Dragon. The Dragon gives your entire team a substantial amount of gold. It resides in the lower middle portion of the map, meaning both teams have a fair shot at killing it. Several teams tend to group around this objective to slay it, or bait it for the enemy team. Additionally, enemy Junglers around the 10 minute mark will attempt to gank middle or bottom lane in order to ensure their team has a numbers advantage, then proceed to Dragon while pressing that advantage.

Baron Nashor, the other incentive, grants a team-wide buff that greatly improves your combat ability (though, he requires most of your team present to take down. Attempting to kill him alone usually results in death!). Because of the power of his buff, teams gravitate toward him as games drag on. Once he has been secured, a new movement incentive is given: The team with the Baron buff can push down enemy buildings a LOT more easily, because attempting to fight a team who has the Baron buff is risky at times, and borderline suicidal at others.

These various objectives ensure gameplay continues moving the majority of the time. In higher levels of play, these objectives are constantly guarded by the watchful eyes of a Sight Ward or a Vision Ward (the latter able to detect stealthed units, including other wards). The game becomes a cat and mouse battle to see who can control the buffs and push the towers the best, and the TEAM of greater skill will more often come out ahead (although imbalances in the game can often cause the better team COMPOSITION to beat out a more skilled team... that is a story for a different time.)

Finally, we come to Halo. And now that I've touched on two games that are fairly successful (for the most part) at encouraging movement... I'm going to go more in-depth on the Halo games.

I shouldn't have to point out what the movement incentives in Halo are. Power weapons, power weapons, power weapons. In the earlier games of Halo series, the power ups of Active Camo and Overshield also filled this role. First, I shall give an example of a map from Halo 3 that handled movement incentives very well.

Rat's Nest.

Wait, Audley, why the heck would you mention a map like Rat's Nest? It was rather closed off, and there were lots of individual battles and...

And the Rockets were as far from a power position as possible, the Active Camo was in one of the most easily killed spots on the map, and the Sniper was in a place of limited sight lines. The map was perfect, from a competitive stand-point.

With the limited sight-lines, the risky positions of power weapons and power-ups, and the relative enclosure of the map, it meant the team with better team work, and better ability to win individual battles almost always won. The matches were usually won by a team that played better throughout the entirety of the match. And, although matches were usually over quickly, they did NOT feel like they were decided solely by the opening push.

Now, two examples of maps that were NOT good, competitively speaking.

Valhalla and Avalanche.

Okay, Audley, now you're being downright blasphemous. Those maps were awesome! You're retarded!

Hear me out. On Valhalla, there is a single, solitary, one and only movement incentive: The Spartan Laser. Both teams are given a Sniper in their base, and typically, unless something tricksy happened, they kept control of their Sniper for the majority of the match.

In the majority of matches, the team that controlled the hill FIRST also controlled LASER, and thus controlled the game. The hill was far and away the power position of the map (although it was important to control Pelican and Turret to -secure- the hill, having at least one person controlling the hill at all times was key.)

Once you've secured the hill... what do you do? In non-objective gametypes, the answer is: "Nothing." You stop where you are. You play it patiently. You've got such a huge advantage at that point, off your single opening rush, that there's no reason to rush and potentially make a mistake. At this point, movement is no longer a requirement for your team. Assuming you're not making mistakes, movement is no longer an OPTION for the opposing team. The game degrades into a stalemate. Barring a mistake by the winning team or SPECTACULAR play by the losing team, the team who had the better start will win, rather than the team that is always better.

Of course, this isn't to say hill control was a guaranteed win, but it was such a huge advantage for the winning team, in addition to being the only movement incentive on the map, that there was no reason to attempt further movement and risk losing its control.

So, now, Audley, why Avalanche?

Avalanche did one thing right: It put the laser away from a power position (although it ultimately ends up NEAR its spawn once a team has full control and their laser guy just camps partition until he can get a shot on the Hornet). However, barring a Black Screen, only one Laser could exist on the map at a time.

What did this mean? Once the laser was secured, a team could simply bring it back to their side of the map, hold on to it, keep it secure, and never have to leave their side of the map.

Avalanche became a turtle fest once laser was secured. Supporters of Avalanche will say "But it made such tense games that were so fun to play in!" But they're not as COMPETITIVE. A team with an advantage is told to just sit on that advantage. In both StarCraft II and League of Legends, it's different. As quoted by a commentator of the GSL StarCraft II league: "When you're ahead, there is one thing to do: Get further ahead."

On both Valhalla and Avalanche, this was not the case. You were to get ahead and PROTECT that advantage. Both teams were given similar tools, except for the one neutral incentive to move, and the team that secured that incentive no longer had the need to move.

On Rat's Nest, this was less the case until your ass was pressed firmly upon the spawn points of your enemies, keeping them from being able to do anything.

This case is also true for Standoff. Although the laser is equally powerful in Standoff, you are NOT encouraged to sit back and just protect your laser person. You man up, press their line, get someone in their base, and run a hog to just demolish your opponents until they're so demoralized they cannot fight back.

In the MLG incarnation of Halo 3, one could compare a gametype such as Amplified Team Slayer or Narrows Slayer (both of which were CONSTANTLY active, regardless of how much players would bitch about spawns), to a gametype such as Pit TS, which featured little movement at all for three minute spurts.

A game of Pit Team Slayer was more prone to upsets, due to its drawn out nature and the fact that a little advantage turned into a long stalemate. Narrows and Amplified required a much more proactive approach, despite one having no power weapons or power-ups at all (Amplified) and relying on its permanently open sightlines as a movement incentive (MOVE OR DIE!) and the other combining these open sightlines with power weapon spawns located away from power positions, to encourage the team with the advantage to move in order to keep up their advantage.

So where does that leave us with Halo Reach?

Well, Halo Reach's matchmaking has stripped us of one of our most important movement incentives: Active Camo and Overshield. It elected instead to allow Active Camo to be selected at the start, and Overshield to be replaced by the option to start with Armor Lock.

This alone already suggests the matchmaking incarnation of Halo Reach is less competitive than its predecessors.

Now, to compare the BTB maps with me singlefold criteria:

A single power weapon lies in the middle of this map, and is not a guaranteed kill even when aimed well. While it's good to have them, neither team is going to actively move to them to attempt to gain or further an advantage unless there is no risk involved.

A Sniper is on top of the base. Combined with the ability to spawn with Active Camoflage, the only movement incentive for the Sniper is sightlines. Moving too little leaves them at risk of being killed by the enemy Sniper. Moving too much leaves them at risk of being killed by the enemy Sniper. So, they're left to find a nice hiding place and peck away at the enemy team from a distance.

The Wraith is given to both sides... a vehicle that can fire across the map at long distances, as well as instantly kill any enemy vehicle that comes nearby.

All players are given DMRs, which means attempting to step into the open at any range can (and usually will) lead to being lit up like the fourth of July. Moving? Ha, you're funny.

As much as I hate this map, it's more competitive than Hemorrhage. There is one powerful movement objective on this map. Any of you who just thought "The Laser, Audley, the Laser!"

No, you're wrong. Shut up.

There is a spot behind each base that, once a tank is placed there, pretty much ensures you're going to continue to get farther and farther ahead. If you have a tank there, your Banshee is pretty much free to roam, your tank is able to spawn kill, and the rest of your team is free to move as they please.

Additionally, there are less open sight-lines, apart from when approaching the enemy base, so a little more movement is encouraged.

Yes, Boardwalk. The most important item on the map spawns in the most death-trappy section of the map. VERY well done, Bungie. However, for Slayer you made one mistake.

The Sniper that spawns up on the perch really hurts this map's movement incentive. Controlling that Sniper, as well as the Skybridge, leaves your opponents with only one true path to attempt to hurt your Sniper (and little reason for your team to leave their power positions, save for maybe two people to dip down to Rockets periodically to re-secure them.)

The Elbow becomes the only path an enemy may safely take to get near your team's Sniper (far back of the map? Nope, sorry, you're in Sniper sight lines.)

Biggest weakness: Not symmetrical! Competitive (slayer) maps should always be symmetrical! You don't want one side to have an intrinsic advantage.

Speaking from a Big Bro Slayer standpoint, Tempest Slayer is excellent.

With two Snipers in VERY weak positions (directly across from a Rocket spawn), teams are encouraged to move constantly to attempt to secure those areas for when the power weapons spawn.

Sight-lines are open enough that teams can assist-fire one another, but closed and short enough that a well-timed rush through the opening can allow a player to cross the map if he chooses to take the risk (and not be guaranteed to die!)

With most of the spawn points in the open, behind the base, it also has the reminiscent feeling of Standoff, where a team in the lead relies on their Warthog to press their advantage.

And finally
Low Sniper, Tunnel Sniper, Low Wraith and a Neutral-ish Laser in a spot susceptible to death.

A high power position that leaves you open to fire from all sides in exchange for the ability to fire upon all sides.

And a Banshee for each team.

Excellent. None of the power weapons are placed in a location that discourages a team with the advantage from moving away from that position. Most of the power weapons are placed in a location completely fair to both teams (exception: Laser).

This map did everything right, except for BE SYMMETRICAL. For non-symmetrical gametypes, the map is perfect. For Slayer (symmetrical), it's probably the best choice we have in BTB right now in terms of competitive merit.

There are a few ways to improve the potential for these maps to be competitive.

For Hemorrhage, the best option (and I'm laughed at every time I suggest this) is Magnum/AR starts, with a few extra DMRs placed on the map, and either the Revenant or the Warthogs removed. Without the Triple Zoom Death-ignated Marksmanship Rifle, players without a vehicle would be forced to move up in order to support their team. The Magnum is a very underestimated weapon (although, I agree its clip size is far too shallow...)

Additionally, the teleporters would need to be balanced in placement to make the movement OPPORTUNITIES equal for each team.

For Paradiso, better symmetry in movement potential for each team is the key to making the map more competitive. Blue side is given less reason to move, as they are given greater opportunity to control the mountain, and an easier time keeping that control.

For Boardwalk... the removal of the top Sniper (and movement of low Sniper to where Defensive Shotgun is now) would be the key way to balance the map and encourage movement. The one place where the Sniper cannot truly remain eagle-eyed becomes the place he must control if he wants additional ammo.

For Tempest, I would make no sweeping changes. (for Big Bro. For standard BTB Slayer, giving Tempest spawn zones to make it symmetrical would be more than enough.)

For Breakpoint...making the Laser more truly Neutral, and balancing the opening potential for each team would be the only changes I would make.

Additionally, one more important change needs to be made: Powerful Armor Abilities (or power-ups) need to become Movement Incentives.

Since the Overshield does not display properly, it's ruled out, but the potential for a Custom Power-up DAMP (Damage Amplifier) or DRED (Damage Reducer) with Color Swap could be given instead.

Making players have to fight for the ability to bait with Armor Lock, hide in Active Camo, fly with a Jetpack, or roll around the map with Evade greatly improves the potential for movement incentives outside of power weapons.

Imagine if BTB Countdown had only two Armor Lock abilities, located at the bottom of each base. Teams would CONSTANTLY be fighting from the bottom of the map to attempt to control the two immunities to grenades. (Of course, grenade count would need to be reduced to curb the nadespam that led to Armor Lock being the best choice in the first place.)

Imagine if BTB Paradiso featured a Jetpack that spawned directly below Laser. Rather than rushing through their portals, the teams may instead rush a Ghost or Mongoose to laser side in an attempt to secure that Jetpack for a faster grab.

Imagine if Slayer on Tempest featured a solitary Evade in the center of the map, or Holograms at your man-cannon (allowing you to lift more safely by using a holobait)...or Drop Shields somewhere in the vicinity of (but not directly on) Sniper, allowing your team to shield the middle of the map to secure their pushes...

Imagine on Hemorrhage if the Sniper could not hide in Active camo all game, but instead had a periodic pick-up that gave him 30 seconds of the invisibility and required him to use it well! BLASPHEMY!

I feel Halo Reach really reduced some of the movement incentives with the armor abilities by default, and it really hampers a lot of the potential some of the maps otherwise have. Improving this movement incentives will greatly increase the competitive merit of the game, and remedy the stale, repetitive gameplay like what exists on Hemorrhage.

So yeah, if you're looking to make something competitive, you have one task: Look to make the players who are WINNING move.

There should only be three conditions under which a winning team no longer has any reason to move:

1) The enemy team has begun fighting back evenly.
2) The winning team has pushed the enemy team all the way back to their spawns, and their spawns are being completely controlled.
3) The winning team has won the game.

If none of these three conditions are met, and your team in the lead doesn't want to move... you have succeeded only in making a situation where the team with a superior opening is given a victory on a platter.

If Slayer in Halo were a 2 minute long game, that would be fine. However, games have a 15 minute clock and a 100 kill score limit. Something needs to fill in that time other than sitting there watching paint dry.

You may try to argue that making the winning team move leads to a greater chance that the losing team will come back...HOWEVER, there are two possible ways the winning team got in the lead in the first place: Luck, or Skill.

If it was luck, they likely will lose to a better team that got down early. If it was SKILL, the team that had the advantage in the first place shouldn't have any problem retaking their abandoned map control once they regain the tools that helped them get it in the first place.

So if you're looking for competition, there is only one word for you:



  1. Good article. I haven't thought of some of the maps in Reach that way.

  2. I do have a question though, now that I think about it. Why is it (in your opinion) that high elo play in LoL typically features longer laning phases than say normal or low elo games?

    Is it because they have some sort of idea of optimal time in which they should play passive and gather resources before going into a 'movement' phase?

  3. An unoccupied lane means experience and gold that is going down the drain. Players will grab the EXP from lanes as long as they can until one team is fully grouped.

  4. I agree armor abilities should be placed around the map instead of selected from the start.

  5. Very relevant analysis on the "movement incentives" contributing to the competitivity , and I think every object on the map, even if it's a plasma pistol on Hemorrhage, can be this "strategic thing that makes you move your ass from the base" if it's done well.

    So yes, lesson learn, sir ! And practicing since October (with ilovebtb) to find a cure for Halo Reach ..!

    P.S. : but I do think that Valhalla was not so "frozen" as you pretend :P ; during our championship, we observed more and more teams which could take the advantage by taking Pelican and T3 locations whereas the other team stupidily stood on the middle map. But mainly you're right !

  6. The problem with attempting to take the pelican and T3 locations is that they're all choke points, which means one player (and another supporting from hill) could often prevent any movement through that area.

    Hill control was important, but it doesn't mean your entire team was on the hill. Placing players on Pelican and Turret to keep a cap over those bottleneck was a large portion of keeping those areas shut down.

    In Slayer, it was pretty rare players would actually PUSH through Territory 3 or 4 (from Waterfall side) or through Water Cave and Waterfall Shotgun (from Beach side) in order to attempt to get more kills. If you had the lead, there was no reason to attempt to go further forward than the 50 yard line of the map (counting Pelican and Turret).

    It usually took either a LOT of luck or really good Sniper support to break through to retake Pelican (from Beach side, pushing through 4) or to retake Turret (from Waterfall side, pushing through Water Cave)...and both of these were the pre-requisites to retake hill control.

    And that's why I use Valhalla as an example of a map that does not encourage movement at all.

  7. (Sorry, my words are simplistic since I can't use my native language to discuss about this very interesting theme, but I hope this will be understable)

    Once again you're right, even if I still believe this map was quite dynamic when two teams which have a similar "level" were fighting on it, but you helped me to point out what was my thought : the fact that the middle map hill hosts what was The key : the Spartan Laser. I think this kind of combination could be avoided and, maybe if it doesn't answer to the whole problem, it can help to have some interesting "twists" .

    But, in fact, I'm an objective player, and I think that's because objectives induce movements and epic things (and are probably easier to organize some good teamwork) :D

    Thank you for your answer !

  8. My two main issues with Breakpoint are:

    1. Laser placement should be more neutral.
    2. Banshee respawn timer is 90 seconds.

    It needs to be bumped up to 120 - 180 seconds. The quickness of the respawn, only encourages camping the Banshee spawn versus actually timing the Banshee spawn.