Secrets behind successful multiplayer - part 1
Foreword by the author: I apologize for spamming to promote my blog post a couple of weeks ago. That will never happen again.
Call of Duty's multiplayer is no e-sport . It’s not even a solid foundation for long-term play . At launch , there’s hundreds of thousands online . Two weeks later, it quickly fades down. Advanced Warfare isn’t likely to change that (but there’s still a chance). How many people play Ghosts daily on Steam? 2000. Left 4 Dead 2 has a daily player count of 11 000, CS: GO – 113 000, Payday 2 – 25 000. What is this sorcery?
Look at the most successful titles ,those that have summoned huge , committed communities - pretty much any game made by Valve , same for Blizzard and Riot's League of Legends. What do these have in common? Your answer may be: " They're extremely well balanced and bug-free." I think that’s true but incomplete.
A lot of elements contribute to a multiplayer game’s success, but they aren’t equally important. Imagine a long arrow, heading to the right. Put dots on it. Each dot represents an element. From left to right we move from the deeper, simpler , yet more important systems to the less important, more complex, more superficial ones. What element would the first dot be?
Responsiveness. The first thing you’ll think is netcode. Correct. But there’s another component – the controls. The latter isn’t an issue for CoD . After all, it’s notorious for low latency. Killzone 2 is the complete opposite . I consider it a very interesting franchise ,but Guerilla Games have committed a big game design sin – the unresponsive right analog stick. Responsiveness defines how seamlessly you are connected to your avatar. It need to be in sync. If controls respond slowly to your decisions , then your victory depends more on the “luck” factor.
Netcode. Here’s my story with Blacklight : Retribution . I used to play on U.S. based servers and performed horribly. My k/d was 1:2 (or worse!). All my attempts to improve were futile. Then strange things began to happen. Whenever I took cover , bullets would still reach me. I took a look at the scoreboard – my ping was extremely high .On every U.S. server. It was about 450 milliseconds (ms). “Mili” means one thousandth and 450 ms is almost one half a second. Unacceptable. The worst part was that I couldn’t realize that during gameplay , because latency is like a stealthy spy. Then I switched to Europe servers , which is closer to where I live. My ping immediately went down- 115ms, almost 4x less. I'd turned into a solid player. My k/d – 2:1 . 2 times more kills for 2 times less deaths. That’s 4 times better results. Now I always check a server’s ping before entering. The lesson here is that the lag could’ve easily been the fault of the netcode. Could have. So ,please, dearest developers...don’t ever ,ever again pull a Battlefield 4.
Balance & stability .Remember what we said earlier? Professional gamers and long-term players are very sensitive in these regards. Whether you're proactive or not, balance is not up to you. If it is bad, the user will most likely get frustrated and stop,because he/she has put a lot of effort into one (goddamn) game and sees little in return. In e-sports, it is unacceptable. There are stakes, prizes. No pro gamer wants to worry if the enemy has an overpowered gadget. It's very bad practice to have dramatic & frequent updates. Say, you're using the AWP in CS : GO. You're striving for mastery and you've had quite some progress.(because you're awesome!) Then Valve rolls out a patch , which brings a lot of re-balancing, meaning that all you've learned is obsolete. Not a very good move from the dev team, eh? That's why games have "beta" phases. (Interesting fact - DOtA 2's beta lasted 2 years. ) That is, almost all games except CoD!
It's best to have most of the balance nailed right from the get-go.
Let's make our answer more complete. Any other reasons for successful multiplayer? Sure. And one dot ahead we go.
Replayability & promoting mastery. I was once reading a PDF about the AI systems of Left 4 Dead , where Valve explained the "philosophy" behind their design . One goal in mind - replayability. They believe that's the main ingredient for building long-term communities. Replayability has recently become synonymous with "depth". FTL: Faster Than Light is deep and, thus, replayable. So is an obscure game called Teleglitch. But there's a little bit more to Valve's interpretation of "replayability" Valve tends to keep its games fairly "light" in terms of content (at launch, at least)- number of guns, maps ,game modes. We may understand this as quality over quantity . But there's more to it - People get intimidated when there's too many options. The less choices there are, the easier it is to choose . This, in turn, encourages players to master their guns. In Call of Duty, things are different . Players are encouraged to try out as much as possible. This means lack of focus.
I want to go further. After all,this is an “epic” search for truth. “Epic” also means “huge”. To the next dot!
If you asked someone to explain why CoD's multiplayer is unbalanced, besides the first reason, most often you’d hear “it has a perk system and is unfair” . I don’t think this is entirely correct, but it’s approaching the truth. So allow me, gentlemen, to elaborate.
Just because playable characters have different stats ( we’re using this to judge perks, because the sole purpose of perks is to alter your stats), does not mean the game is unfair. Team Fortress 2 is an excellent example. There are 9 classes. All radically different from one another. An even better example is Dota 2 ,which has over one hundred heroes and retains phenomenal balance. So what's the issue?
I've created a theory. It's called the three principles of perks.
1. Perk consequence.Perks must come with consequences. Those of CoD offer incremental upgrades, but no setbacks. If there’s a perk that adds 5 points to your health , it won't diminish your stats in another regard( sprinting, amror,etc.).
2.Perk accessibility. Perks must be equally accessible. Not CoD's issue, as beginners get default perks, but it may be another game's issue.
3.Perk Identification. Perks must be identifiable.CoD's perks are hard to identify. Due to this, you cannot know your opponent’s toolset , thus, moveset , and predict what might happen next. This predictability absolutely MUST exist. In TF2 , each class has a unique character model. The weapons differ quite noticeably . They’re easy to spot. In Call of Duty, Halo 4 or Blacklight : Retribution players can’t fully predict their opponents' moveset and create a good strategy. No wonder MLG dropped Halo 4 . In Team Fortress 2 ,no experienced player will sprint towards a Heavy. They'll die instantly. How would you know someone was a Heavy if the game didn’t have 9 radically different character models? Reskin it to CoD's visual assets and the balance will break immediately.
(DotA 2 is built upon these principles – click on any character and you know their stats. There's also a real-time shop. Upgrades don’t come at the cost of downgrades - they raise the price of losing – the stronger your are, the more cash opponents receive after your death)
To be continued...
Please ask me questions, tell me some of your ideas & opinions and say whether you agree with me or not. Part II will come soon :)
CoD(right): "I'm going e-sports!". Me(left):"No, you're going to bed."
DOtA 2 and its real-time shop.