Tuesday, November 19, 2013

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

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

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

You made great points on the social comparison and genetics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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