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Competitive Multiplayer: Collective Misunderstanding pt.4

The point of this article is not to point out flaws or insult anyone. Whether you make games, intend on making them, or just interact with other gamers, understanding how gamers think is useful. Being able to match up what we know of game design with how various gamers react to such design elements is key in putting our critical-knowledge to good use. Let's take close looks at what gamers actually say and look at their statements form different points of view.


I've taken quotes from episode 77 of Weekend Confirmed released on 9/9/2011 (skip to 42:00). I've listen to all of Garnett Lee's podcasts for years. So, I'm a fan that understands where Garnett and the crew are coming from. This time they're talking about Resistance 3. Here's what was said (roughly transcribed): 
JEFF CANNATA: "[limiting the player to carrying 2 guns at a time in Resistance 2] was a terrible choice. Now that I can carry an entire arsenal with me at the same time [in Resistance 3] I'm aloud to make decisions and play the game in a creative way based on what I'm enjoying and how each weapon works and what I like about each weapon."
This description really highlights the difference between the kinds of predictable, guided experiences single player games can offer versus the "chaos" of multiplayer. Garnett and the crew played Resistance 3 on normal. And it's clear they liked creativity and freedom they could exert working with the game's unique weapons. The reason this freedom exist is probably due to the relatively easy difficulty level and that single player FPS campaigns are not designed around forcing players to learn hard counters based on the interplay of weapons. In general, the game will let you progress with a wide range of skillful play. At the same time, playing this way sets up an expectation that easily clashes with the typical experiences in a multiplayer environment.
GARNETT LEE: [after describing strategy/tactical options in Resistance 3] "it rewards you for playing around with all of those different ways of playing the game and that's why [common FPS tropes are] fine because I need to really be able to understand what I'm doing to really enjoy playing with all of these tools."
I don't know how much Resistance 3 rewards the player for playing differently/creatively, but I think Garnett simply explains that the game gives the player the space to use the different weapons in different ways to effectively play. It's not a reward so much as an allowance. But what he says next is key; Garnett admits that he needs to understand how everything works to not only use the varied weapons but to enjoy them too. Put another way, his enjoyment of the creativity comes after he's able to understand the tools, scenarios, and possibilities in the gameplay.
ANDREA RENE: "I'm not going to try to pretend like I can...pwn people in multiplayer. That's just a lie. I get too panicked in those situations. I like being able to have my own strategy. When you're in multiplayer some D-bag on the other end of the line is just... trying to search you out so he can T-bag you. That's just not my M.O. That's just not how I like to play game."
Being overwhelmed is something that makes games less enjoyable for Andrea. I think most people share this preference. Andrea states that she likes having her own strategy, which is pretty telling. Since a strategy is a specific plan of action that requires knowing things, Andrea basically said if she doesn't have enough knowledge skills for a game, she can't play comfortablyor effectively. This makes sense. It's also telling that she juxtaposes this statement with the one that follows. I can't help but think that Andrea misplaces the source of her non-enjoyable multiplayer experiences from her lack of knowledge skills (a key element in her enjoyment of a game) to how a specific type of gamer behaves. Perhaps with a bit more skill, the T-bagging D-bag wouldn't even be an issue.
GARNETT LEE: "On the multiplayer front I think there are definitely some issues. .. What happens when you play multiplayer [is] because people are unpredictable and you have more ability for them to manipulate the situation tactics than the AI does, that big arsenal suddenly becomes a problem because you don't get to play to the tactics of your arsenal and take on an enemy that AI. Real people are then throwing things into the mix. I still think shotgun is way way way out of balance."
Now we can clearly see how the expectations and perceived abilities fostered in single player experiences become an issue for Garnett's enjoyment in a multiplayer space. I think it comes down to the fact  that Garnett felt he was more skilled (creative and knowledgeable) than he was based on his ability to beat the normal campaign. But as soon as he entered the multiplayer space, his lack of knowledge of interplay barriers, and other emergent possibilities with the weapons prevented him from playing to his expectations. 
Garnett thinks the shotgun is unbalanced. And it may be for now. But metagame evolution has a tendency to change the effectiveness of mechanics over time. Focusing too much on a particular perceived over-powered mechanic can easily distract someone from focusing on what they can do to gain more knowledge and get better at the game overall.
GARNETT LEE:"It is very intimidating I think for new players to come into this game because they are going to get steam rolled [by skilled players who have leveled up]. That's one sort of approach to multiplayer, and it's a nice chaotic thing. How do you keep bringing people in? How do you handle that balance situation?.. I really like Resistance 3. I can see myself playing it for an hour or maybe 2 hours a week here and there in multiplayer. But if it's so driven by the perk system and the player persistence system, how do I do that?"
New players will always get steam rolled by experience players in every skill based game. I explained this obvious reality at the end of part 2 of this series. But Garnett is talking about more than a skill gap. He's talking about designing matchmaking systems so that players can more fairly compete and learn. Keeping people from being discouraged with a game is key in keeping them onboard and developing long term fans. Sometimes, keeping people happy means designing features that sustain their pride, egos, and even ill-conceived notions of their own creativity. Not everyone is suited for the harsh world of competition even if they think they are.
JEFF MATTAS: "You don't . It's another one of those games that you have to play all the time to stay competitive."
The way Mattas makes this statement seems off to me. "It's another one of those games." Those games? All skill based games require players to practice consistently to stay competitive. One way or another, when you don't practice either the metagame (containing key emergent knowledge) will develop without you or your skills will become rusty. I know Mattas isnt' talking about the highest level of competitive play, but thinking of any skill based multiplayer experience in this way is indicative of a misconception. 

ANDREA RENE: "That's exactly why I don't do a lot of multiplayer. Because I don't have the time to devote 3 or 4 hours a night every night to playing multiplayer. I enjoy it too, but there are very few games where you as a casual player can come in and actually compete unless you are just soo skilled at that particular game that you can do it casually and come in and still be good."
Competition is tough, but not 3-4 hours a night tough. Pros may practice many hours every day, but just practicing about 5 hours a week can give you a competitive edge. However, it really depends on how you practice and quickly you learn, which is greatly influenced by the the attitude you have. Yes, there are very few games were people who don't practice can pop in every now and then and compete against people who do practice. Most are luck-based games, and most people don't bother competing with these. 
JEFF MATTAS: "And a lot of it is about map memorization. You get in there and... you can be as good as anybody but your first several matches while you're learning the ropes is going to be learning the map. And if guys are taking you out every 5 seconds while you're doing that..."
I think Mattas reveals his misunderstanding here. We know that knowledge skills are the most important skill for staying competitive in the long run. Knowledge of any and every complexity in the game will probably come in handy eventually. So, it's not just map memorization. Gaining knowledge is a completely naturally process that happens with repeated exposure. Knowledge is power, and if you're still learning the ropes of a game or a level, then you don't have as much power as someone who has the knowledge. If you're getting killed while trying to learn you shouldn't be discouraged. You willingly chose to take the hands-on approach by throwing yourself into an online game. There are other ways of studying a game if one doesn't have the patience to fight through it.

Here's a quote from a

JAMIE: "P.S. To ALL online Gamers:  Please STOP WHINING!!!!! Stop whining about campers.  Stop whining about the noob tube.  Stop whining about people who jump around.  IT’S A GAME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  If you are getting your a** kicked, then you are doing something wrong and the other person is doing it right.  Figure it out.  Internally.  Without whining. Good Day Sir!"

Seems like competitive gamers have to develop some thick skin. Aside from trash talking, which is never necessary, competitive gamers seem to generally fall into two camps; whiners and tough gamers. I believe our new understanding of competitive gaming can help explain this trend. Basically, being wrong is typically disorienting. Even as babies, experiencing new things that change what we know and how we think puts us into a focused and somewhat subdued state. The older we get, the more confident we become in our knowledge of the world. By internalizing models, stories, and facts we grow comfortable within our world view and the expectations it generates.

With any learning process, especially trial-and-error, we expect to make mistakes and get it wrong more than once. In a game, you might not know that a new weapon has a fire based side effect, but after testing it a bit you'll quickly catch up to speed. The problem is, acquiring bits of knowledge like this is simple. And the mistakes made testing out small things are easy to wrap our minds around. It's a different situation when you find out that your entire conception of how more complex models are shattered, even if the model is how a game works. Such an experience is even harder to take when it's some other player who forces this reality onto you. Such is the nature of interplay barriers and competition. It's their will against yours.

With no words exchanged, competition is like engaging in a conversation. And losing badly is like the opponent telling you everything you know, think, and attempt is either wrong or not good enough. With delicate egos and expectations on the line, this reality can be too much. And like Andrea, instead of looking within to identify the source of the problem, it's easier to blame others. But players who preserve, pushpast their own hurt feelings, and stop making excuses are more resilient. When their understanding of how the game is played is broken, they quickly begin repairing it. As if squashing their hurt feelings, these players often adopt a "keep your head down, wait and see, fight through it, no complaining" type attitude. Such is my theory on where the "suck it up" type attitude that some competitive gamers have comes from.


If you have any other quotes or articles that would make nice additions to this series, send them my way. In the meantime, contact me to play some multiplayer sometime. Should be quite an interesting experience.  

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Reader Comments (2)

You've convinced me that competitive multiplayer lends itself inherently to a particular type of experience, which the game designer has much less ability to change than most players might expect.

However, I'm not sure how to apply this to my own game development efforts, other than to avoid competitive multiplayer altogether because of these difficulties. But there are some games that would only work with competitive multiplayer that are still worth making - how would I approach those?

It seems that only a small subset of players (perhaps not enough to make a game profitable) can enjoy the rigors of competitive play with strangers, and that maybe a useful alternative is to focus design effort on play with friends, which games like "Words with Friends" have popularized. That seems the most promising to me.

What do you think?

September 28, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteraxcho

@ axcho

I can't be too specific because I don't know what idea you're mulling over or the exact problem you anticipate.

In general, I think a huge part of player enjoyment comes from their expectation. The more you leave the player alone to come up with their own ideas of how the game "works" and the less you teach/coach them steering their minds to the right direction, the less successful you'll be.

Playing with friends goes a long way in preserving a certain kind of positive atmosphere, but it isn't without its problems either.

Let me know what kind of gameplay idea your'e thinking of.

September 28, 2011 | Registered CommenterRichard Terrell (KirbyKid)

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