Sunday, September 7, 2014

Sticking To Your Guns: Appealing to Various Playstyles with Competitively Viable Weapons

If you've ever had a conversation with me about playstyles in a game, whether it be a card game, a video game, or a Tabletop game -- there's a good chance you've heard me reference the Wizards of the Coast archetypes for Magic the Gathering players, Timmy, Johnny, and Spike. For this Audley Enough, I'm going to examine how FPS titles can make weapons that appeal to all the archetypes – even the guns designed for Timmy and other casual players to enjoy solely in the campaign, in order to make them fair in competitive play and therefore a weapon Spike can enjoy.

If you haven't read the Wizards of the Coast article about the archetypes, and don't have time to, let me summarize:
  • Timmy likes to live large. In card games, he likes big creatures and big spells, and to win by outright dominating. In an FPS landscape, Timmy's the one rushing for the tank or the Rockets no matter what. He wants power at his fingertips.
  • A Johnny wrote the Yu-Gi-Oh anime. He likes combos. He likes to use deck-building in card games as a form of self-expression. Winning is nice, but he wants to win on his own terms. When a Johnny player stumbles upon a Shooter, there are two things that appeal to him: being rewarded for smart choices and pulling off that perfect weapon usage to get that sweet kill. (Think the Walshy-trademarked “insta-splode” in Halo 3. That's something a Johnny introduced to the community...before Spike perfected it.
  • Spike wants to win. Period. He wants the best, most efficient tools at his disposal to do so. He wants to win every game if he can. Spike also likes opportunities to outplay his opponent mechanically and feel like he's rewarded for being better at the game than his opponent.

As a lifetime Johnny (with a generous helping of Spike mixed in), I'm a player that really enjoys being able to play a game my way, whether it's the most effective way to play or not – I love to win, but I like to win by forcing a player to react to the unexpected. In some games, I do this because I know my limitations and that I won't win a straight up battle of skill, but I still want to win.

In a card game like Magic the Gathering, where deck-building is a large part of the business model, creating cards that appeal to a single player archetype is fine. You don't care if Spike likes the 8/8 monster with a ridiculous cost for its effect – if he gets that card from a booster pack, he simply won't use it, and he'll go buy more booster packs until he gets what he wants. It's not a problem for a card to not have broad appeal.

In a First Person Shooter, however, a gun that doesn't appeal to Spike may be outright cut from the game when the game is put into the hands of tournament organizers. Shotguns, “Noob Tubes,” Needlers, and the like are often cut out of the competitive console shooters we see. They don't fit into the line of thinking common among Spikes (and let's face it, if you're organizing a tournament, you're at least a half-breed Spike.) in terms of what “outplaying” an opponent is. Spikes have almost a tacit chivalrous code in terms of what constitutes “proper fighting” in their mind – if you used a CQB weapon you're a total LAMER right? (These types of Spikes are what Sirlin would call “Scrubs” – but they make up a large portion of Spike communities. They don't care about letting the game evolve around the things that counter their concept of proper play.) We meet top mid at daybreak, 20 paces, first to 4shot wins.

You may wonder how you determine whether a weapon (or a player) is a Timmy, a Johnny, or a Spike in a shooter – I devised a set of three questions, with each one being directed toward a specific player archetype – chances are if you are anything but a Spike, it will come through in the first two questions.

  1. Regardless of how practical it was to use it, what is your favorite weapon in any Shooter you have ever played?
    1. This is generally the Timmy question, though a Johnny will shine through as well. Timmies will answer power weapons. Johnnies will answer weapons that were hard to use. My personal answer was the Shock Rifle from Unreal Tournament – a very Johnny weapon.
    2. Spike will usually answer the “default” weapon from whatever his favorite shooter was.
  2. Regardless of how reliable the weapon was, what weapon felt the most satisfying to use optimally?
    1. This is generally the Johnny question, though a Timmy can spring up here. Johnny will answer a weapon that felt genuinely difficult to use well.
    2. The Timmy in me really liked the Redeemer from Unreal Tournament and answered that here.
    3. The majority of Spikes I saw answer this question responded with some sort of Sniper Rifle, though a few included the “default” / utility weapon from whatever Halo they liked best, or whichever CoD they played the most of.
  3. What weapon you've used in a shooter felt like it had the most impact in a game or match? (This doesn't just mean it was stronger than all the others -- keep the ammo and spawn timer of a weapon in mind.)
    1. This is the Spike question. No matter what archetype you are, you answered something strong here. Whether you're a Timmy or not, that probably meant a power weapon.
    2. Coming from a BTB background, I answered the Halo Reach DMR due to its sheer versatility – again, that's the Johnny in me bleeding through. I'm not Timmy enough to answer Rockets or Sniper to this – which were the prevailing answers in my polling.

So, how do you incorporate weapons that would appeal to Timmy and Johnny without making them “banworthy” weapons for the competitive scenes where Spike likes to show he is and forever will be the best? Well, that's what I'm here to talk about. Aren't you glad you have such a well-spoken Aud-onis like myself to assist you in these troubling game design conundrums?

First, let's take an example of a success story. And... you know, despite the fact that the game's core design was a miserable failure competitively... I have to point to Halo Reach.

SUCCESS, the Timmy/Johnny/Spike special: Halo Reach: The Grenade Launcher

This is a beautiful example of fine game design from its very core to all of its practical applications. It's a power weapon, with the potential to instant-kill – congratulations, you've appealed to Timmy. Holding down the trigger after firing prevents the grenade from exploding right away, and when you do release it, it blows up instantly with an EMP blast and the potential to kill the target. Congratulations, you've appealed to Johnny. And, because of the mix of Timmy power and CLEAR ability to outplay opponents with the “cooked” grenade mechanic, you've given Spike a weapon that he knows he can show off his power with. Welcome to the League, Halo Reach Grenade Launcher.

And going a step further, since the above only applies to 4v4 settings – the Halo Reach Grenade Launcher's EMP-capabilities appeal to all three archetypes in Big Team Battle as well – stopping a vehicle in its tracks means potential to highjack it or destroy it. So even though the Grenade Launcher alone isn't likely to kill a vehicle, it's great for combatting them and getting you out of a hairy situation with just one cooked grenade giving that terrorizing tank a close shave.

I don't want to harp on the Grenade Launcher too much – if you've played with the Reach GL, you probably know well enough how good it felt to get a kill with the weapon, and how it had plenty of room for mastery of Spikes, versatility for Johnnies, and power for Timmies. So we'll just stop there.

FAILURE, the Timmy/Spike abomination: Halo 3 Spartan Laser

This may be controversial – retrospectively, a lot of people still like the Spartan Laser. I fucking hated it. Part of it is the fault of the Halo 3 BR on large maps being about as spray-on butter for making toast (sure, it got the job done eventually, but you had to fucking push the button so many fucking times when all you wanted was a goddamn piece of toast for fuck's sake buy some real fucking butter.)...but a bigger part of it was just how overpowered the Spartan Laser was.

Now, I say the Laser is a Timmy/Spike weapon, with little appeal to Johnny, because there's simply no finesse to it. I mean, some Johnny players may like it because they want to specialize in keeping vehicles down. But it's on such a long respawn timer and there's usually only one on the map for 16 people to fight over. When it comes to using it, the thing's a bit too easy for a Johnny to truly care about. Spike likes it because it means his enemies aren't going to be running any vehicles, so they have to fight him with their rifles. Aww yeah, that's the shit Spike likes.

So why is the Spartan Laser a failure? Well, in addition to not really being adopted by Johnnies (clearly I speak for all Johnnies, #forumlogic), its sheer existence and possession in a game meant an entire other playstyle was off-limits to the team that didn't possess the laser. If your team had the Laser, you're free to run vehicles. If your team didn't have the Laser... WELP GOOD FUCKING LUCK BUDDY.

If you wanted to run a Warthog on Standoff or Valhalla, and you didn't have the Spartan Laser... well, somewhere on the map there's a Spike hiding behind a rock, pointing a red dot at the rock while the rest of his screen is watching you try to utilize a few rocks for cover and that cave to sneak around behind the hi—AAAND IT'S GONE! Goodbye Warthog, you're dead now. Two kills to the enemy team, good job mates!

So how do you make the Spartan Laser acceptable? Well, what are its problems?
  • It kills vehicles too quickly – there's almost no counterplay once you're targeted. (Again, part of this is the fault of the H3 BR being a shitty weapon. Teammates can't descope the Laser user.)
  • It's too easy to use for that instant-kill potential.
  • On Valhalla, it spawns in the most important control point on the map, so the team that gets map control gets the weapon best at keeping map control as well (heavy snowball mechanic.)
  • In 4v4 situations, the charge is too long to allow it to be reliably used as an anti-infantry weapon. I mean, how often do you see SERIOUS players picking up the Spartan Laser in default Team Slayer on Construct? You'll see it in Lone Wolves when a person can rely on having Gold alone and laser into the purple lifts, but that's about it.

Okay, so apart from the 3rd problem up there, this is actually a pretty easy group to fix. You know that long charge time...and instant kill discharge? (I don't have exact numbers, so let's throw some placeholder numbers – you charge up for 2 seconds to kill in 0.1 seconds.) You may not realize it, but that discharge actually fires 5 shots...five individual laser shots that each deal a lot of damage. So this is actually a really easy design to fix – you take that 2s charge time, and you shift some of it to the discharge time. Instead of charging for 2 seconds and discharging in a near-instant, drop the charge time to 1s (or slightly longer), and make the 5 discharges in subtle pulses over a full second as well – to get the full kill on a person, you hold the Laser over them for 2 of the 5 pulses – you've now not only nerfed the Spartan Laser, but you've also added one of those LoL Core Design philosophies I went so in-depth in my last Audley Enough about: Meaningful Choices.

If the Spartan Laser's discharge is done over a longer time period, it has a lot more potential as a multi-kill weapon against infantry that are clustered – and it's also weaker against vehicles, as they have a chance to stop in their tracks, or in the Banshee's case, roll AFTER the Laser has begun firing in order to attempt to evade – it requires more skill for the Laser user to secure the kill (Hey, Spike, here's more differentiation for you!) – and given its new increase in versatility, and the faster charge time making it more ideal against clustered infantry, Johnny can decide to pick up the weapon in smaller maps and attempt to utilize it to live his dreams of being a Ferguson police officer.*

*Note: I played Cards Against Humanity for the first time last night. I won handily. I make no assertion that every, or even any, Johnny player aspires to work in law enforcement, nor display questionable moral code should they choose to do so.

FAILURE, The Johnny/Spike red-lasered step child: Halo 4 Light Rifle

I wanted to like the Light Rifle. It was a really cool design for a utility rifle. It did more damage scoped than unscoped and fired in a completely different manner (single shot instead of burst). The single-shot scoped variant could kill in one less shot than the burst-fire mode, meaning relying on your single shot skill rather than some “oh you only missed a little” burst-fire (though I can't actually recall if the LR allowed partial-hits with its burst mode). But you could also mix in the unscoped shots with 2 scoped shots in a way to keep the same shots to kill, so cases of rapid-strafing or jumping in close range combat could allow you the freedom to choose when to scope (or simply press-hold-release the scope button to scope in for the shot and unscope after).

The Light Rifle was a prime example of a weapon that displayed two vastly different aspects of gun skill: accuracy and calculation. The calculation portion was where the gun became Johnny bait. In a battle of Light Rifles, the better gunner almost always won – whether it was by more-accurately four-shotting in scope, or by knowing you could dodge or force a missed headshot with the scoper's flinch and a timely jump to get the leg-up while you elected to remain unscoped.

The Light Rifle didn't live up to its hopes and dreams though, and wasn't really adopted by the player-base despite its very competitively-conducive design. And part of that is because when it came to the default Rifles, there was a clear-cut choice for Timmy. The DMR didn't kill much slower than an LR 4-shot – and it also had much more forgiving aim-assist and in the case of BTB maps, the longest red reticule range of any rifle (30 longer than the LR and 60 longer than the BR/Carbine). It wasn't really a contest. Timmy wants power, Timmy wants the DMR. And when it comes to a DMR versus an LR in regular combat situations... you lose the finesse required of winning an LR vs LR. You pretty much have to go for one of the Four-Shot methods... and your opponent has a weapon that helps him aim more. You're trying to play craps when one of the dice says 4 on all 6 sides. It's not easy.

Since Spike wants to win, and Timmy wants the most powerful weapon – and Timmy is favoring the DMR, that means Spike also wants the DMR (hey, it's the most powerful.) – so the LR gets left in the dust for Johnnies alone to play with. Sure, you could master the LR enough to the point that it was formidable even against a skilled DMR – but what's the -point-?

So how do you fix the Light Rifle for everyone to like a little more? Well, let's reassess its problems...
  • Weaker up close since you don't want to be in scope in close range fights where flinch will affect your aim more. Heavy reliance on quick-scopes in short range.
  • Shorter range on long maps (prior to DMR nerf/LR buff in the Weapon Balance patch.)
  • Freak occurrence where there was a method that made it take 6 shots to kill instead of 5 unscoped or 4 scoped, not sure if the bleedthrough issues that caused this were fixed.
  • Felt” harder to aim than DMR/BR.
  • Longer range than BR/Carbine not able to be accentuated on smaller maps.

Unfortunately, these problems are a lot harder to really deal with – and some of it just the actual feel of the gun rather than practical issues. I'm not entirely sure myself if the aim assist on the LR was different than that of the BR or DMR, but I know it just seemed like it was more difficult to aim – even though it was my personal preferred weapon.

The slower kill time than the other rifles in its unscoped variation made it unappealing to use short range – so bumping that up to better compete would help. I think the weapon balance patch actually took the WRONG approach by slowing the unscoped rate of fire for the LR. Make it MORE competitive against the others in its unscoped form. You don't want it to lose in the core stages. Hell, after the update, it killed 0.3s slower than the DMR, while the BR and Carbine closed the gap to the scoped LR to a mere 0.2s (1.2s vs 1.37/1.4). Its low unscoped rate of fire meant that to combat the “midrange” rifles, you had to be scoped in the entire time. If instead you raised the unscoped rate of fire (but nerfed its RRR to lower than the unscoped BR/Carbine, matching the AR or other automatics) you'd give a window for the BR/Carbine to be favored, while still enabling the LR-wielder to weave in scoped shots well enough to take advantage of their faster kill time, so long as they didn't miss the assistless unscoped shots.

To reiterate: Increase the unscoped LR's rate of fire while keeping its damage low (Hell, nerf it to a 6 shot if you want) but make it so you aren't outright punished for utilizing the LR out of scope. Nerf its unscoped aim assist if you don't want it winning in closer ranges.

The disproportionate advantage of the DMR over the LR was fixed with the weapon update – though I think the nerf wasn't quite strong enough – because I felt both deserved to be nerfed, not the LR buffed while the DMR was lightly nerfed. The RRR of both was roughly 25% longer than BR/Carbine and 20% longer than the Magnum (wait, the Magnum was longer than the BR/Carbine? Yep. Pistols are better than Rifles, silly.)

But you have to make the weapon -feel- like it really is the strongest of them if it has the POTENTIAL to be the strongest, and that's the department in which the Light Rifle failed. Timmy didn't want to touch it, Spike wanted the DMR pre-nerf and the BR post-buff. Because the LR just wasn't worth the effort to learn. And so the LR ultimately devolved to a Johnny-only weapon that not even Johnny really wanted to try to use. Make its base power strong enough to compete and its optimal power strong enough to overpower, and you've got a weapon even Timmy won't overlook, and Spike and Johnny will be much more interested in.

FAILURE, the Timmy/Johnny unrealized potential: Halo 3 Brute Shot

This is a weapon I feel was drastically overlooked by the competitive community, and really isn't as big of a failure so much as it was simply not given the chance to shine the way it could've been. This was a weapon I used whenever I had the opportunity. As a BTB player, knowing how to use the Brute Shot was an undervalued skill that could help on any map.

Unlike the Halo 2 Brute Shot, the Halo 3 iteration packed a much stronger punch (though, sadly, its melee potential wasn't as impressive. I missed the Halo 2 jumping one-hit beatdown.) Four body-shots with the Brute Shot would kill a target, or a full clip of nearby shots could finish off the target or leave them at half health. It was great on Rat's Nest for taking out CQB campers who waited atop doors – either by outright killing them with splash damage or by using PHYSICS and SCIENCE to bounce them off the ledge. Those same Physics made the weapon a terror to any improperly positioned Warthog on Standoff.

Why does Timmy like it if it's not an instant-kill weapon? I mean, it's a fucking grenade launcher, sort of. With a big-ass blade. The LOOK of it screams Timmy weapon. It may not have delivered to the power fantasy Timmy wanted when he picked it up, but that's why Spike doesn't really give many fucks about the weapon. Meanwhile, Johnny knew its stun potential and the ability to send a Warthog re-enacting Dane Cook's “flipped into a Ravine” routine (literally...) were not to be trifled with. It was strong in tight corridors as well. It was an underestimated weapon – Johnny's favorite.

On 110% damage settings (read: Halo 3 MLG settings) the Brute Shot was actually worthy of being a Spike weapon. It became a 3 body shot kill. Half a clip direct to kill, a full clip indirect. That's a fucking good Spike weapon. I'm not entirely sure why the weapon was never given a chance in MLG – perhaps they just felt the longer-spawn timer Rockets were better for game health (and, given how stale Pit TS became, I think Rockets may have been the ONLY thing that could've broken those stalemates) but on maps like Onslaught, Construct, Amplified, or maybe even Guardian, the weapon could've seen some use, somewhere, perhaps. Maybe not, but it wasn't really given the chance it truly deserved in Halo 3's hayday.

So, if I'm sitting here saying the Halo 3 Brute Shot was a failure, why am I praising it? What could've been changed to make it a better weapon?

  • The blade needs to be implemented in its design – it LOOKS like it should be a great melee weapon, but it's no different than any other. It literally only deals 2 extra points of damage. I don't actually know if this has any effect on whether or not 1shot+melee is a kill or not (as opposed to the 70 damage normal melees vs 72 brute shot) but the Brute Shot itself doesn't actually feel like the melee is better than a gun's melee. (Also since the weapon has splash damage, the idea of a 1shot+melee at CQB range is a bad idea... it semi-stuns both players and makes you feel like you're punishing yourself for trying to kill at close range even with the melee coup-de-grace to follow the shot.)
  • Three direct shots for a kill in default settings – half a clip so a skilled player can get 2 kills with a clip. This was implemented in the Brute Shot's Halo Reach / Halo 4 sister weapon, the Concussion Rifle. This change is necessary for Spikes to not feel like they're guaranteed dead in a 1v2 if they have this weapon.

That's it. That's really all it takes. After all, we saw the Concussion Rifle in the Halo 4 Global Challenge as a core part of the design and focus of the 1v1 matches on Skyline. The only noticeable mechanical difference between the Concussion Rifle and the Halo 3 Brute Shot is its shots to kill on default settings. No need for 110. Buff its damage, makes it stronger for Spike – it's still strong enough for Timmy (better than a BR or AR if you land your shots, it's pretty fucking rapid-fire!), and versatile and unique enough for a Johnny.

I have other examples I can offer from non-Halo games, and got a lot of good answers to my 3-question poll when I posted them on forums, Skype, and Twitter – so I may revisit this subject in the future, but for now, I think I've rambled enough. I don't want to wreck your eyeballs too badly while they're still recovering from the massive two-parter on vehicles. (Speaking of which, I may revisit this same subject and apply it to vehicles.)

But for now, you'll find that Audley Enough, the most beloved weapons in shooters are weapons that could appeal to all three of the player archetypes described herein – even if they were ultimately the core weapon of the game's design. Take the Tribes Spinfuzor for example... an instant-kill default weapon that required ridiculous finesse to use... though, Tribes' steep learning curve makes it a game only Spikes and Johnnies can really stick around, as Timmies will feel useless even with the power weapons at their disposal off spawn. But thanks for reading and remember, if you have something to say in response, post a comment or contact me on Twitter @TiberiusAudley.

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