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| Multiplayer Decision Systems (6 comments )|
by: obsolete (29) | Posted in cluster FiringSquad Editors Challenge Round 1 Prelim 1
Posted 76 months ago ( edited 76 months ago ) in category DEFAULT
Difficult decisions comprise the core of any great multiplayer game, but truly great multiplayer games are hard to find. Multiplayer games need to invest players in the outcome of the game by empowering players with choices that matter. Multiplayer game designers must dig a little deeper to come up with a theoretical architecture that can support the framework of a fun “difficult decision” system. In the world of storytelling, common wisdom suggests that conflict drives most stories, keeping readers absorbed page by page and moviegoers scene by scene. In the world of gaming, a similar wisdom applies, with design theorist Chris Crawford going so far as to suggest, “Games are conflict”. At the root of great games are great conflicts, and at the root of great conflicts are difficult decisions.
Difficult decisions stem from two primary archetypes: the choice between irreconcilable goods and the choice between the lesser of two evils. Irreconcilable goods are two desirable items, objectives, or rewards that are mutually exclusive. The closer a decision matches this ideal, the more difficult the decision. In a story, the hero may have to choose between saving the hostage and capturing the evildoer. In a game, players may have to choose between new spells, character types, weapons, powerups, etc. The lesser of two evils provides a foil to irreconcilable goods, requiring a decision even though every outcome is negative. The classic storytelling example is when the villain forces the hero to choose which hostage dies. In gaming, players often have to choose which path to take through a level, even though both of them are dangerous. These two decision archetypes provide a solid framework for making fun games.
As this framework suggests, the closer a decision matches one of these pure archetypes, the more difficult the choice. The higher the difficulty, the more the choice engages the player, and when correct, players feel pleasure in accordance with the amount of difficulty. Players also consider the potential consequences of a decision. If the consequences are greater, again the decision becomes more difficult. Thus, the consequences of a decision not only serve as reward or punishment, but also affect the difficulty of a decision. Multiplayer games compound this feedback by incorporating interactions between players. In addition to making decisions, now players must predict the decisions of other players, whether friend or foe. A difficult decision is a product of the related consequences and interactions, and the two primary archetypes provide a model for what the consequences and interactions should be.
Difficult decisions drive the core gameplay of all great multiplayer games, including Quake 3 one versus one deathmatch (“q3 1v1”). As the title suggests, q3 1v1 pits one player against another, which means every decision a player makes is at that player’s sole discretion. Players control their fate—success or failure depending on the quality of their decisions. Players have several variables that affect their ability to succeed: health, armor, weapons, and ammo. They must also consider spawn points, line of sight, and movement through the level. At first, beginners may not realize how many decisions they are making (or not making), but veterans understand difficult decisions drive the mechanics of the game. Although matches typically last fifteen minutes, the first few minutes often determine the final outcome of the match, especially when one player consistently makes better decisions than the other.
At the start of the match, the two players spawn at two random spots. The players spawn with 125 health, 0 armor, two weapons (machinegun and gauntlet), and 50 bullets (machinegun ammo). Both health and armor count down to 100 at a rate of 1 unit per second, and both have a maximum value of 200. Plus-25 health bubbles and plus-50 health bubbles can increase health to a maximum of 100. Plus-5 health bubbles and the mega health (plus-100) can increase health to a maximum of 200. Armor comes in three varieties: yellow armor (+25), red armor (+50) and armor shards (+5), and all armors can increase to the maximum of 200. The gauntlet is a melee weapon that does 50 damage. The machinegun does 7 damage per bullet and fires 10 bullets per second. The players start the match on equal footing with full knowledge of the systems that affect their decisions.
Depending on the level (for the purposes of this discussion we will look at pro-q3dm6), players have several starting options. Pro-q3dm6 has the following weapons: a rail gun, which does 100 damage per bolt and fires 1 bolt per 1.5 seconds; a rocket launcher, which does 100 damage with a direct hit and fires 1 rocket per .8 seconds; a plasma gun, which does 20 damage per orb and fires 10 orbs per second; a grenade launcher, which does 100 damage with a direct hit and fires 1 grenade per .8 seconds; a lightning gun, which does 8 damage per cell and fires a cell every .05 seconds; and two shotguns, which shoots 11 pellets that do 10 damage each and fires 1 shot per second. In general, the rail, lightning gun, and rocket launcher serve as primary weapons while the others serve secondary uses. The skill of an opponent with certain weapons can greatly affect decisions, especially on a map like pro-q3dm6 where the weapons respawn 15 seconds after being picked up. A player can keep a weapon away from another player by picking up that weapon every time it respawns. Similarly, armor respawns every 25 seconds, health respawns every 35 seconds, and ammo respawns every 40 seconds. Pro-q3dm6 has a yellow armor, a red armor, a mega health, and an assortment of ammo, armor shards, and health bubbles. A major part of the strategy involves knowing when items will respawn, and using that knowledge to make decisions about what to do next. When a players has the item timed and is able to keep that item away from the other player, that player has “control” of the item. Control of items determines who has the advantage in a fight, and often determines the ultimate victor.
At the initial spawn, players make their first difficult decision: which item to go for. Depending on the spawn point, one player (“obsolete”) may be able to grab the lightning gun, the yellow armor, and the mega health, but that move could allow the other player (“Grax”) to get the red armor, rail gun, and rocket launcher. Depending on the opponent’s skill with certain weapons, this move may play exactly into their hand, as having a rail gun can be a distinct advantage in an open map like pro-q3dm6. Since the rail gun is essential, Grax knows that obsolete will have to go for the weapon at some point. When obsolete makes a move for the weapon, Grax can either trap him or take control of the mega health, completely eliminating obsolete’s health and armor advantage and giving Grax moderate control of the three most powerful items: red armor, mega health, and rail gun. The first decision of where to go at spawn is one of the most intense and engaging because that action will flavor every other decision for the next few minutes, and sometimes, the entire match.
Much of the decision-making in q3 1v1 follows the same basic idea exemplified above: “where should I go next”? Although this often follows the archetype of irreconcilable goods (as when seeking items), the choice between the lesser of two evils is often just as important and just as fun. Following the above example, suppose Grax traps obsolete as he goes for the rail gun. Because Grax successfully countered obsolete’s opening move, he is rewarded with trapping his opponent in a dangerous position. Obsolete realizes his mistake, and perhaps has lost some health and armor, and hasn’t even reached the rail gun, but still has some options. He knows that Grax will have to choose between pursuing a somewhat difficult frag, retreating for the red armor, or retreating for the mega health. Depending on the decisions of both players, obsolete may be able to recover or even take advantage. In this situation, obsolete can try to retreat to the YA, drop down to the armor shards and potentially take mega health or red armor, attack Grax directly, or take a defensive position and wait. The reason this choice is both difficult and fun is that any one of the choices could be the right answer given the circumstances. Compounding the difficulty, obsolete must make this decision in seconds or less before Grax can gain complete advantage in position. If he attacks, obsolete must also decide which weapon to use—he could poke away at Grax with a machinegun and maybe drive him back, or he could try a full-on charge with lightning and hope Grax misses a rail shot or two. A combination of decisions affects the consequences of the action, so even if attacking Grax head-on is the right choice (suppose Grax took some pot shots and has low health), that decision might be fatal if obsolete doesn’t have enough cells for his lightning gun.
Every decision affects the next in q3 1v1, and players must also take into account the opponent’s decision. Almost no decision in q3 1v1 is easy, which is what makes the game so fun. Even something as simple as picking up health or an armor shard may be a bad idea because it could give away a player’s position as well as the timing on the item. In 1v1 games between top players, opponents often hear their opponent more than they see them, using sound to predict the opponent’s next move and set a trap. Add in the metagame of varying opponents playing on different levels, and good choices in one scenario become bad choices in another. No single strategy is supreme, meaning that most decisions will maintain a high level of difficulty.
Precisely because the difficulty level is high, q3 1v1 offers players a great opportunity to achieve recognition, which motivates further play. Within the game, players have minor rewards such as consecutive rail shots or victory messages. Most of the glory is achieved outside of the game. Players such as Fatal1ty have made a living playing video games based on their reputation started in q3 1v1 tournaments. Even 7 years after Quake 3’s release, the CPL has announced a $500,000 tournament tour. Extending into mainstream media blurbs, the subculture creates recognition for a large audience. Even small additions such as player handles have allowed people to build a brand behind their name, and a reputation behind their clan tag. When people are able to get very good at making difficult decisions, they gain the respect of their peers and even make watching such competition a lively pastime.
Despite success as a competitive gaming platform, non-hardcore gamers shy away from q3 1v1 and similar games. Doing a better job of teaching newer players how to play the game could make the experience more rewarding for everyone. If players aren’t aware of the decisions being made during the game, they miss the fun of the game. Learning by dying at the hands of experienced players repeatedly turns all but the most hardcore players away from the game. Better feedback and instruction built into the game could help new player’s see a path to steady progress. When players are empowered with ability to make decisions, they begin to have fun even when they fail…and can greater appreciate success when it happens.
In addition to teaching new players, the core gameplay systems should change to encourage more strategy and decision-making rather than pure aim and reflexes. Several weapons output too much damage and allow players to make poor decisions but still come out ahead. Rail gun damage should be reduced to 75 per hit, machinegun to 5 per hit, and lightning gun to 6 per hit. These changes allow the outcome of a battle to result from tactics and strategy rather than allowing the player to dominate with a single weapon. In addition, when a player dies, it will have more impact that is negative because the default machinegun won’t be as effective and gathering armor before attacking will become more important. Analyzing the decision system of a multiplayer game reveals the strengths and weaknesses of a game’s design. Sometimes even small tweaks can make or break the delicate balance of difficult decisions. Overall, these are minor changes, and q3 1v1 is full of tough decisions that reward knowledgeable players with an immensely fun experience, proving that difficult decisions are often the most fun. More multiplayer games could take advantage of the same design that makes q3 1v1 such a compelling game. The decision system in a multiplayer game must create meaningful choices for players, allowing players to feel the consequences of their actions, for better or for worse.
|6 User Comment(s) • 4 root comment(s)|
| Tectonic (3) Feb 18, 2007 - 09:15 pm|
|» Thanks for getting the competitive voice out :)|
Nice article. Someone who appreciates the depth of a competitive deathmatch game and refuses to allow gaming to reduce to mindless entertainment, taking it more like a chess match than watching a Schwarzenegger film.
For those of you initially wondering why someone would play a game, or much less write an article around a game released in 1999, this is why! There is more to deathmatch gaming than clicking on the player closest to you!
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