Monday, March 31, 2014

The Kitchen Sync - For the Team with Everything but Teamwork

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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