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1. Getting In - 2. The Game Experience - 3. Visual Style - 4. Business Model - 5. The Community

2. The Game Experience

 In many cases, players are willing to forgive some inconvenience if it means they can have a great experience. It's the heart of a game; the core elements that hook players and keep them coming back for more. It's what we pay for, and what the developer invests their blood and sweat to create. In the case of online multiplayer games, it's essential that this game experience manages to quickly grab players and not let them go. This section examines the enjoyability of the games' core experience.

Metal Gear Online

Metal Gear Online

I just had the best Metal Gear Online experience ever.

To be honest I wasn’t even expecting to enjoy it when I started, but I was pleasantly surprised to find myself being sucked in. By far, it was unlike any session I'd played before. This time my aim was pretty good, while my sense of strategic timing and awareness was at its peak. My team didn’t know each other prior to the match, but we seemed to be on the same frequency; we cooperated like a unit. The opposite team seemed to have their gig together too – just not quite as much. This meant it was intense, back and forth, and made a lot of sense. A couple of times I was right near the top of the chart at the end of the round. That’s never happened before.

Thanks partially to my leading example, we started using the SOP system on a regular basis, spammed voice commands to stay in synch, and moved through the maps as a deadly force. My self-chosen role, I admit, was primarily to flush out hidden enemies with grenades or blast anyone I came across with my shotgun. Eventually, after matches, the other players were typing out how much fun they were having, getting excited for the next round. Something magical happened in the land of brown Metal Gear Online saluteand gray, I dare say. One guy even recognized my character ID and complimented me on some old podcasts I did for Metal Gear Solid: The Unofficial Site. I’d call that icing on the cake.

So finally, I see the true appeal of the game.

What I learned from my surprisingly fun play session was that the game can actually transcend a confusing jumble of random action, dominated by whoever happens to be the highest level player on the server. I learned that when a team communicates, moves together, and stays vigilant, it brings the best out of both sides, and starts to make real sense. I learned the importance of picking the right weapons for the job before a round, and then switching between them as the situation demands. I learned that although some maps will always be garbage, some of them aren’t terrible once you get used to them.

I learned those things now, after playing dozens of frustrating games and trying several different modes, over the course of months. I learned that it’s too little too late for me. I've been disappointed too often, or worse yet, disconnected for no apparent reason before I have a chance to warm up. About a third of all my games have ended with a disconnection or a host leaving suddenly. Thanks for showing me your hidden potential for the first time, MGO.

Having seen its bright side, I still believe that the biggest problem Metal Gear Online has is its indecisive, muddled design. As with the single-player mode, the multiplayer doesn’t know what it wants to be. Is it a stealth game with shooter elements? No, not enough stealth for that. Is it an action game with stealth elements? Possibly. A realistic war simulation? No, it can’t be that one. I don’t recall any real soldiers running around with cardboard boxes tucked in their pants or crouching on the ground looking at porn magazines while a war is going on. The confusing game design seeps into every aspect of the experience and ultimately creates too many problems to be redeemed.



Controls and Map Design


Let’s talk about movement and aiming first. MGO has typical third-person shooter controls, utilizing the left joystick for movement and the right joystick for looking around. Shoulder buttons do the aiming and firing, while the main buttons are for various actions. So far, so generic; you can't judge a game by the button layout, you need to see how it all comes together. For example, running is pretty slow in MGO. And unlike many FPS games today there's no 'sprint' button either, so your maximum speed won't send anyone's head spinning. Your character just plods along casually, making you feel vulnerable to enemy fire. Since you're an easy target you'll feel the urge to keep your gun aimed and ready the whole time in defense, but if you do, you’ll be walking even slower, plus your aiming will drag to give you better precision. You're an even bigger target now.

Simple problems like this can quickly force players to get creative. Perhaps the idea is to move strategically, sticking to cover whenever possible? That makes sense. Or at least it makes sense until you realize that, at any given time, there are two dozen vantage points and hiding places you could be shot from, sometimes in the most random of places. MGO maps are complex labyrinths, filled with windows, holes, nooks, crannies, ledges, ladders, vents, corners, corridors, walkways, rails, cracks, and enterable dumpsters. Add to this a dozen empty cardboard boxes scattered randomly throughout the map in order to make your own feel camouflaged if you choose to equip it, (since nobody has the patience to check all of them,) and you have an even bigger mess. The maps prevent familiarity, which is a shame because refinement and innovation of the familiar is what high-level play is all about. Just think about chess. Every piece is visibile and every possibility can be calculated in advance. Familiarity is good because it advances the game into higher level psychology. Metal Gear Online Blood Bath
The map "Blood Bath" is a lame jumble.

Strategic movement in MGO, unlike chess, requires either a paranoid awareness of your surroundings or a plain old fashioned hope-for-the-best dash to the next "safe spot", and neither is very enjoyable. You could argue that proper teamwork is the solution, as I found out recently, but if the point of the controls and bizarre map design was to encourage teamwork, they didn't do a very good job making it obvious. Group awareness is many times more effective than individual awareness, and in all honesty the "SOP" system is the best feature in the whole game, especially when combined with the “monomania” skill that lets everyone you’re linked up with temporarily see enemies you’ve hit, even behind walls or hide in a box, but for as great as it is, hardly anybody uses it. Every time somebody dies, they're out of the loop again. Squad organization should be pushed by the game automatically, not obscured and hampered by ignorant individuals.

Ambush Alley Complexity

AMBUSH ALLEY. A perfect example of convoluted design. From this one point, looking in one direction, there are at least 11 points of interest forcing the player to split his attention. Look at every blue square as a potential threat. Even if this were a Duck Hunt style game, with character movement and camera locked, it would be intense.

Once you take into consideration the other 270 degrees of vulnerability, with a maddening number of entrances and exits, it becomes impossible to plan effectively. On the other hand, if we removed 80% of these areas the tension of the map would be concentrated on a few key areas, rather than being diffused and split up all over the place. Suddenly you can plan better, making the game more chess-like and predictable, encouraging real strategy. It's refinement of the familiar. This map, like almost every map in MGO, is notorious for sloppy randomness and a lack of proper game flow.



Level System and Reward Points


Level GapModern Warfare be damned, there’s no way that mixed-level servers allows for proper game balance, and balance is what makes or breaks a multiplayer experience. It’s not a question of being thrown up against players who are too good for you — it’s a question of being thrown up against terrible players who will kick your ass because of their statistical advantages. World of Warcraft’s PVP suffers from this same problem, and so does pretty much any multiplayer game with level gaps. When numbers dictate your effectiveness, there’s bound to be plenty of situations where the better player loses. And then loses, and loses. Skill will always be an important factor, but it takes a back seat when there’s a level gap. From a design perspective, this kind of system directly teaches players to race for the “top” and get those higher numbers. Players will automatically do this in the most efficient and easiest way possible. Symptoms of this disease include frequent team-switching in order to "stack" teams as much as possible in one side's favour, dedicated grinding servers, and neglect of every game aspect that doesn't increase a number.

It should be no surprise that pretty much one-fourth of all servers in MGO are actually practice servers designed to offer players the chance to mindlessly grind their “skills” by repeating certain actions endlessly, like robots. If you do these actions enough, you’ll eventually have an upper hand in real combat. Is this good game design? You can blame players for doing it wrong, but the game takes ultimate responsibility for rewarding bad habits in the first place.

Counter-Strike, the most popular online shooter in history, has served as a shining example of the alternative. No levels, no statistical advantages, and no Skinner Box to give people the illusion of progress. Steam’s handy statistics page shows us that, the day before writing this, 170,000 people were playing the ancient FPS at the same time at some point. That’s not the total number of players online yesterday; it’s the peak number of players online simultaneously, if you combine the two versions. One-hundred seventy thousand players. This is a 1999 game with a community that has suffered a massive schism, seen hardly an update for years, and has witnessed a hundred newer games come and go. How do you account for the fact that it still has more people playing on Steam than Team Fortress 2, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Call of Duty: Black Ops, Left 4 Dead 2, and Battlefield: Bad Company 2 combined?


Now I’ll grant that those statistics don’t represent the number of players across all platforms, but regardless, Counter-Strike’s ongoing popularity towers in the sky as a testament to timeless multiplayer design; design that emphasizes balance and refinement above some complicated system of stat-building and unfair level advantages. It shuns the bells and whistles, and comes out stronger as result. Where will these other games be in ten years, you think?

Reward points, like levelling systems, are a cheap way of squeezing mileage out of a multiplayer game. You don't have to put work into making the game original or compelling if you can toss in some gimmicks that will hook the right kind of person. Digital accessories can be a problem too. Unlocking and purchasing digital accessories to dress up your character is a dangerous path to tread as a designer because it quickly becomes a game within the game, requiring its own balance and psychology in order to be fun. Loot gathering has its own challenges, incentives and pitfalls, after all. But just as players get tired of grinding their skill meters to unlock new statistics for their character, they can get tired of saving up in-game currency to buy stuff which, if you think about it, is actually being withheld for no better reason than to make you work. Unlike single-player games, where your character is entirely unique and the story structure is immersive, you'll never feel special in multiplayer, so those items mean something different. It doesn't mean you have something to enjoy for yourself — it means you have something to rub in everybody else's face. Multiplayer has you jumping in, jumping out, and jumping through the same hoops as everyone else. Everybody is in the same boat, fighting over the same stupid crap, and in the back of everyone's head we know that the end game is... well, futility. There will never be a conclusion to the grand adventure, only an anticlimactic plateau.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
Modern Warfare uses cheap psychological conditioning to keep players hooked — a tactic MGO tries to imitate.

Perhaps more importantly, by calculating the amount of time it takes to unlock all the really cool abilities and statistics, you can easily tell how long the designers expect you to chase the carrot at the end of the stick. In the case of MGO, this is an insultingly long time.

Even if you reach the top, what do you get? You've been conditioned to value points above play, and now there are no more points to get! Sounds like time to quit if you ask me. But by then you've spent enough money that it doesn't matter to the developer anymore, does it?

Again I point to Counter-Strike, where there’s nothing to unlock except the standard items that are reset at the start of every round. Your accomplishments are for your own satisfaction, not part of some contrived time sink. Do you suppose that thinly veiled Skinner Box incentives would have helped that game’s longevity, or hurt it? This time I think the numbers speak for themselves.

In the end, multiplayer levelling systems are a crutch to support weak gameplay. They're a nuisance to balance and fun, giving players a crude finish line and rewarding robotic grinding above real skill and creativity. Ultimately they obscure the true heart of the gameplay experience.



Learning Curve


A learning curve is the process of going from ignorance to mastery. Every game has a learning curve, from Scrabble to Poker to any videogame you can think of. The terminology, rule sets, and all the other elements that define a game depend on your ability to absorb information and put it into practice, starting with simple ideas and eventually moving up to complex, subtle strategies. That's the curve. The more steep a learning curve, the faster you're expected to master complex ideas; gentle curves make the learning process easy and gradual.

MGO is not a very complicated game, but yet it can be hard to understand. The problem is that it refuses to make itself clear. It has a sort of "StarCraft syndrome" in that it places the responsibility on the player, forcing them to learn the hard way, and trusting that all of the scattered elements will eventually be forged into an amazing product through constant experimentation, refinement and competition. But it's counter-intuitive, which means most people will never "get it".

Even clever people will assume that the natural way to play is also the way that designers expect you to play. They’ll also assume that every loss and every victory serve as a hint of how you should be adjusting your play style. It's learning by playing. Unfortunately, the lessons you should be learning by playing are constantly being outshined by ridiculous incentive systems, like a flickering candle next to blinding floodlights. Headshots and character level seem to be the key to victory, not the SOP system and teamwork. Behind it all is a solid game with potential for something pretty good (although not nearly as good as StarCraft,) but it stomps on common sense. This is where the chasm between the "hardcore" and the "noobs" lies. I admit that this chasm is inevitable in almost any multiplayer game, but a well designed game will makes the learning curve friendly enough to make both happy.

There are three kinds of weapons in MGO: primary, secondary and support. It's pretty much just big guns, sidearms, and grenades, but there are some interesting items if you scroll to the end. Why hide them in long, poorly designed menus? Why force players to navigate these menus during battle? You should never force players to navigate silly menus during a live match, because you’ll just be punishing exploration and experimentation. There’s a feeling of immediate pressure in multiplayer, even before the round starts: you’re anticipating the battle, trying not to slow everybody down, and now suddenly you’re supposed to browse through a big catalogue while there’s a war going on? Why not let people do this before the match begins? Or why not automatically suggest the weapons that match the skills you've selected? Common sense, stomped.

Or how about when there’s Drebin Points (the currency which allows you to purchase more advanced weapons during a game) are activated, why not arrange items by price instead of by arbitrary categories? That way you wouldn’t have to scroll past 13 different guns to find the entry-level shotgun, or the assault shield, for instance. Common sense stomped again.

As for the link up system, why couldn’t it be activated by default, or toggled instantly regardless of where you were in relation to your team? Right now you have to run up to teammates and play a silly little animation in order to activate it, which may not seem like a lot, but it’s just another obstacle in the way of playing properly. Another chance to screw up. Plus it’s just not intuitive. Why bury the coolest stuff, even if only an inch deep? The answer, I believe, is an intentional learning curve: one designed to punish hasty “lone hero” types and reward strategically-minded squads instead. Metal Gear is supposed to a tactical series, so it makes sense to punish players who refuse to obey the rules of good strategy, right? But in this case, it's the games fault for making the core experience an unintuitive mess in the first place.


 Team Fortress 2

Team Fortress 2

Things have certainly changed in Team Fortress 2 over the past year. Everywhere you go, players are bargaining over hats and complaining about the balance of newly-introduced items. Turns out people really want hats. Yet the core of the experience remains as inviting, accessible, and charming as ever. You still choose from nine distinct classes – each perfectly suited to their specialist role – and work as a team to complete simple objectives. For a newcomer, the over-the-top chaos may be overwhelming, but unlike MGO there are no obstacles to make it harder than it needs to be. It’s a friendly, if crazy, world.

There’s a basic training mode that teaches how to switch weapons, attack at different ranges and so on, while an “offline practice” mode lets you play against computer bots without the pressure and unpredictability of real multiplayer. Metal Gear Online's version of "combat training", in which actual players do a terrible job pretending to teach newcomers (I've seen trainers who try to take it seriously: never works) is not missed. That's because, unlike MGO, the best way to learn in TF2 is to simply play. Tips and tricks are provided by the game wherever possible, such as while picking a class or loading a map, and most important of all, basic information is provided on a constant basis through the announcer’s remarks or by Spykill-cam screenshots, which show who just killed you. This seemingly tiny feature ensures that you probably won't make the same mistake twice during a match. While waiting to respawn, dead players can also watch their teammates in order to get a sense of what’s happening in the bigger picture. Little things like this keep you in the proverbial “loop”.

Rather than being given a generic template soldier to call your own and customize with barely-noticeable skills and a barely-unique appearance, the class-selection system throws allows you to quickly recognize and anticipate the abilities of your friends and your enemies. Refinement of the familiar. Chess wouldn't be very strategic if every piece had a random, hidden movement pattern.

The excellently-designed classes ensure that Team Fortress 2 rewards every kind of skill there is, from the twitch kids with no attention spans to patient defensive strategists; from crucial support-types, to daredevil hotshots. When you throw it all together, it's a fascinating ballet of rockets, flamethrowers and invisible knife-wielding spies. It's a work of art. It’s a tight, balanced experience that keeps you coming back for more, inviting you to experiment and strategize. You know what everyone can do, so you can anticipate and plan accordingly.

But having balanced classes with clear strengths and weaknesses is only half the reason why the game experience is so strong: maps are the other half.

Unlike the stupid density in MGO, the maps of Team Fortress 2 are carefully designed to be more intuitive and balanced. It’s like feng shui: thinking of how the energy flows from one area to another, like water, with areas of swirling tension and areas of open calmness. They’re simple enough to memorize and plan for, too, which is vital.

In fact, familiar patterns tend to be developed quite quickly; the “obvious” course of action is repeated unthinkingly by many Sniper scopeplayers. You may assume that this is a bad thing, but it only entices the more clever players to exploit the predictable and punish those who follow it. This is basic. This is how multiplayer should work. Proper map design allows this to happen.

The learning curve in TF2 may not be gentle either, but it will hold your hand through the experience, trying its damndest to help you understand where to go and what to do. The bottom line is that it’s easy to have a lot of fun. No matter which game mode you pick, or what type of skill you have, the game cheers you on. The clever "nemesis system" automatically highlights enemies who have repeatedly killed you, giving you a sense of rivalry and satisfaction when you finally get revenge. These rivalries are announced publicly, too, which means that your whole team can cringe or cheer at your struggle. It does all of this grace and style, asking you to not take it too seriously. Your deaths are never recorded, only your kills and points. Like a pair of stretchy sweatpants, it feels comfortable and accomodating to all sizes.

The statistics you earn are matters of personal pride, not literal advantage. Even those who manage to craft, trade or purchase new items are never too ahead of the rest, because patches are being made regularly with an eye for balance. Considering the number of new items to keep balanced, Valve is doing a phenomenal job.

The game itself is a marvel of multiplayer refinement, offering plenty for the dead-serious and casual alike in a package that feels fresh. Metal Gear Online, on the other hand, clings stubbornly to its difficult learning curve and cheap incentives.



Part 3: Visual Style

Back to Metal Gear Solid 4



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