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ApochPiQ

Multiplayer FPS design principles

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So the recent release of Call of Duty: Black Ops has gotten me thinking. Anyone with some time logged with FPSes on the Xbox 360 is aware of the eternal holy war over which FPS franchise is best: Call of Duty, or Halo. Players rarely seem to like both games, and instead strongly prefer one series or the other. With Black Ops now facing off against Reach as the latest contenders from each line, the debate only intensifies. I have friends who swear by the Black Ops multiplayer, and others (who are more like myself in their tastes) who loathe all things Call of Duty and yet will play Halo for hours on end.

I'm curious as to where this comes from.


My speculation is that it comes down to a fundamental difference in design philosophy. Halo has always placed a very careful emphasis on balanced gameplay. (I'm speaking strictly of the competitive multiplayer experiences here; not co-op or single player type modes.) Sure, Halo has power weapons and some "sweet spots" on certain maps, but for the most part, if you're good with a weaker weapon, you can overtake a team that holds a set of stronger weapons.

By contrast, Call of Duty seems to favor... something else. I personally can't stand the CoD franchise's multiplayer, and I think it comes down to the fact that CoD represents the very antithesis of game balance. Modern Warfare 2's loadouts and special reward abilities are a classic example of this. Certain players, by virtue of simply playing the game a lot, are handed more powerful weapons and abilities; this serves to increase the gap between weak and strong players rather than narrow it.

As a result, my experience with both franchises has been one of stark contrast. Even as a Halo newbie back in the 2003-2004 era, I could hold my own in a firefight and occasionally do fairly well for myself. Sure, I wasn't a top-ranked player by any means, and the regular players could slaughter me handily - but I had enough of a chance in any given fight that I felt like skill was attainable. I could survive long enough - and enjoy myself long enough - to learn to be good.

This started with Halo: CE on the Xbox, with a handful of us hauling our ancient tube TVs over to each other's houses and futzing around with a mass of ethernet equipment for an hour before we could actually play. One reason I kept coming back to Halo LAN parties was the simple fact that the game felt immediately accessible.

Halo 2's introduction of play over Xbox Live only deepened my appreciation; here I found the opportunity to compete against literally thousands of other random people from around the world. I started out with fairly mediocre skills, but as with Halo: CE, I continually felt like improving my game was within my grasp - like the sole thing keeping me from winning more games was my own skill level.

Once again I found a welcoming experience in Halo 3. By that point it was familiar enough that I could hold my own outright, but new enough that there was plenty to learn. And again, through the entire experience, I never felt like the game itself was to blame for my losses (lag issues aside). If I wasn't winning enough, it was because I wasn't playing as well as I could have - and there was always a fighting chance to learn how to play better, even against highly superior opponents.

Finally, this has all culminated with Reach. Enough things changed from the Halo 3 gameplay that it's really a new experience, and despite the token familiarity of a handful of maps and weapons, it's honestly a very different game. Armed with my past Halo experience and a little bit of determination, I was able to learn and master the game fairly quickly, and now play regularly and enjoy the whole thing.


So what about Call of Duty? I started in the CoD2 days on the PC, coming from a background of Return to Castle Wolfenstein and more heavily RTCW: Enemy Territory. The first thing I found difficult was the adjustment to instant-kill combat versus the more slowly paced pump-him-full-of-lead design of RTCW and ET; but that was easy enough to overcome with time.

Where things got messy was in aspects of the map design; certain fields were just horribly asymmetrical (in a power sense, not a geometric sense) and unbalanced. It's been too long to remember any names or specifics, but I can recall dreading certain maps on certain server rotations because they always devolved into sniper campfests or grenade-lobbing contests. It was also sadly uncommon to see certain weapons used; there were one or two that were clearly superior to all others, and they were utilized virtually exclusively.

I found that with CoD2 I dearly missed the flow of play that occurred routinely on maps in ET, and I found the lack of weapon and tactical variation to be boring. After a few months, I quit CoD and didn't play again until Modern Warfare.


MW and MW2 caught my eye largely because of their excellent reception among the gaming community; I figured it was worth a shot to play them because so many other people I knew were enjoying them.

I wasn't able to play either for more than a few minutes before giving up in disgust.


There was no tactical planning, no coordination, no teamwork. Even in random matches with total strangers in Halo I had better luck getting cooperative teammates - and most of the time in Halo I play with complete goofups. Again only a tiny subset of the available weapons and loadouts seemed to be favored. Worse yet, most players knew the maps so well that they just sat in a handful of sweet spots and camped like hell. Trying to play MW2 in particular was an exercise in self-torture; spawn, get hit by a grenade launcher, die, respawn. I didn't get to even try half the loadouts because I spent too much time getting sniped or grenaded to death by someone who knew exactly where I'd pop up next time the spawn timer ticked over. Attempts to get help from my teammates - so I could at least attempt to join the fight - fell on deaf (or, worse, puerilely rude) ears.

I tried to like MW2. I really did. I like the concept, the world is interesting, and I like the idea of realistic combat (although I personally happen to feel that CoD fails miserably to deliver anything vaguely resembling realism).

I won't be trying Black Ops.



So what's the point of this? Just another fanboy shilling for Halo? Just another whiny guy who doesn't like getting killed in one shot? Just another skill-less noob who has to have an energy shield to live long enough to figure out how to use a gun?


Hardly. My favorite play mode in Halo 3 (and continuing forward in Reach) is Team SWAT, where you play with no radar, no shields, no special abilities, and a headshot is an instant kill. Sure it takes place in space with cyborg supersoldiers, but at that point it's all decorative; it could just as easily be a bunch of Marines in Iraq clearing houses.

I like my Halo fast and furious - and many people I know have commented that SWAT seems suspiciously like CoD in space. And yet, even ignoring the community as a potential source of the difference in experiences, I consistently find Halo a better game than the CoD franchise.



Incidentally, I tend to avoid game types that involve a lot of vehicles for similar reasons - they overpower the game and make it too difficult for the underdogs to come back. Reach does a decent job of allowing a losing team to regain control even if they don't have a large selection of vehicles (mainly in the Invasion modes) but it's still shaky.


It seems clear to me that I find something in Halo's meticulous balancing to be appealing, and that that quality is lacking in CoD for whatever reason. What I'd like to see is some exploration of what exactly that stems from, why CoD is missing it, and why so many people still seem to love the game and dislike Halo.

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You mentioned no tactical planning or teamwork in CoD so can I ask which game types you were playing? Headquarters and Search & Destroy are much more team based than say TDM or Domination and a team working together will always beat the randoms that are off doing there own thing.

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When it comes to gameplay and king-making, MW2 is definitely intrinsically shit. I get the feeling that the larger draw to it's multiplayer comes largely from it's real world ballistic content and sheep-syndrome rather than the merits of the actual game itself. Amusingly, it's predecessor suffered from many of the same problems, however rather than solving them, they were horrifically exemplified in the sequel.

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Disclaimer: I prefer mouse & keyboard over a gamepad any day.

I've played both Call of Duty and Halo, and I prefer Call of Duty. It's hard for me to say why, exactly. I think it's just what I've been playing for the past few years. I didn't have the original xbox so I never really got into Halo. I first bought Halo a couple of years after it was released, when the price went down to like $20. Played it a little, just never really got into it. It seemed like I was always at the bottom of the scoreboard, with no improvement. I bought the first Call of Duty just because I thought the demo was absolutely amazing. The feel of the gameplay was perfect. Whatever Infinity Ward did to make the gameplay so sweet got me hooked, and I can't quite put my finger on what made it so great. The aiming of the gun was free and didn't feel inhibited by weird inertia or acceleration. The guns sounded and felt like they were doing damage instead of just painting a blood texture on the other players. The 3D iron sights really immerses me into the game. And they have followed this mysterious formula for the past several years. and I'm still loving it. I played the original CoD, MW, MW2, and I just bought BlackOps. Modern Warfare 2 was fun for a little while when everyone was new to the game. But I stopped playing because of the glitches, noob tubes, and the quickscoping bs. I was skeptical of BlackOps because it was made by Treyarch and not IW, but so far I'm really enjoying BlackOps multiplayer.

As for being balanced, I really dislike perfectly balanced games like Halo and TF2. I could have a rocket launcher, and other player could have the pistol that you spawn with, and the other player could completely own me. In TF2, every class has a perfect counter. The heavy is easily countered by the spy, the soldier is easily countered by a pyro, the engie is perfectly countered by the demoman. Having this perfect balance just makes the game boring and frustrating. In CoD, it's really up to knowing the map, and being quicker at aiming->shooting

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Console FPS and competitive - do those really belong to the same sentence?
COD4 multiplayer was apparently pretty well balanced with promod, but the series' focus as a whole is obviously not on balance. The impression I get is that COD = grinding and lots of fireworks.

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Original post by ApochPiQ
Halo has always placed a very careful emphasis on balanced gameplay. Sure, Halo has power weapons and some "sweet spots" on certain maps, but for the most part, if you're good with a weaker weapon, you can overtake a team that holds a set of stronger weapons.

By contrast, Call of Duty seems to favor... something else. I personally can't stand the CoD franchise's multiplayer, and I think it comes down to the fact that CoD represents the very antithesis of game balance. Modern Warfare 2's loadouts and special reward abilities are a classic example of this. Certain players, by virtue of simply playing the game a lot, are handed more powerful weapons and abilities; this serves to increase the gap between weak and strong players rather than narrow it.
This is true for MW2, but the reason I spent hundreds of hours in MW1 MP was because it was perfectly balanced -- there was no "best gun" or "worst gun". Every single gun in the game was the "best gun" in a certain situation and for a certain play style. Even the low-level starting weapons were on equal footing with the level 50 unlocks...

That said, I don't know what they were thinking in MW2 because they royally f'ed up this balance... hence why COD4 still has such a vibrant online community (on PC anyway).
Quote:
Original post by Stroppy Katamari
Console FPS and competitive - do those really belong to the same sentence?
COD4 multiplayer was apparently pretty well balanced with promod, but the series' focus as a whole is obviously not on balance. The impression I get is that COD = grinding and lots of fireworks.
promod is lame. They "balanced" the game by making all the guns crap except for the AK and the AK-SMG, and by getting rid of all the perks (class skills) -- so it's balanced because everyone plays with the same kit.

There's actually several of these 'tournament rules'/'balance' mods (such as PAM4), but promod has come out on top in the US scene, probably because it just turns the game into counter-strike ;)

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Original post by Saruman
You mentioned no tactical planning or teamwork in CoD so can I ask which game types you were playing? Headquarters and Search & Destroy are much more team based than say TDM or Domination and a team working together will always beat the randoms that are off doing there own thing.


It was just a generic deathmatch type scenario as near as I could tell; if there were additional objectives it wasn't clear at all, but I suspect it was just a vanilla TDM.



Quote:
Original post by CirdanValen
As for being balanced, I really dislike perfectly balanced games like Halo and TF2. I could have a rocket launcher, and other player could have the pistol that you spawn with, and the other player could completely own me. In TF2, every class has a perfect counter. The heavy is easily countered by the spy, the soldier is easily countered by a pyro, the engie is perfectly countered by the demoman. Having this perfect balance just makes the game boring and frustrating. In CoD, it's really up to knowing the map, and being quicker at aiming->shooting


Interesting. This is exactly what I was hoping to address: the fact that some players apparently prefer thoroughly unbalanced gameplay.

What I'm curious about is why that preference exists. What is it that makes that experience "fun" to some people and "not fun" to others?



Quote:
Original post by Hodgman
This is true for MW2, but the reason I spent hundreds of hours in MW1 MP was because it was perfectly balanced -- there was no "best gun" or "worst gun". Every single gun in the game was the "best gun" in a certain situation and for a certain play style. Even the low-level starting weapons were on equal footing with the level 50 unlocks...

That said, I don't know what they were thinking in MW2 because they royally f'ed up this balance... hence why COD4 still has such a vibrant online community (on PC anyway).


Admittedly I didn't spend much time in CoD4 because at that point I'd already lost my interest in the CoD franchise (I forgot to mention that I'd played CoD3 single player on the 360, hated it, and decided I didn't care about CoD4; I also played Battlefield 2 for a while and lost my taste for "modern" combat games entirely for a while).

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Interesting. This is exactly what I was hoping to address: the fact that some players apparently prefer thoroughly unbalanced gameplay.

What I'm curious about is why that preference exists. What is it that makes that experience "fun" to some people and "not fun" to others?


I think it depend's on the player's skill set. People who enjoy perfectly balanced gameplay have skills of learning/knowing the best counter to their opponent and being able to use that effectivly to win the game. People who enjoy unbalanced gameplay just have better twitch skills.

I wouldn't exactly put the former under the umbrella of "strategy gamer" because both kinds of gamers use strategy in their gameplay to some extend.

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Original post by ApochPiQ
It was just a generic deathmatch type scenario as near as I could tell; if there were additional objectives it wasn't clear at all, but I suspect it was just a vanilla TDM.

Yeah in CoD playing the TDM game type everybody basically just runs around shooting with absolutely no strategy or teamwork. For team play you really need to play the modes like Headquarters, Search & Destroy, etc... especially on Hardcore which uses very high damage. Something like Hardcore S&D you will never catch a guy just running out blazing and not working with the team because he'll die in a second and have to wait for respawn.

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Original post by CirdanValen
I think it depend's on the player's skill set. People who enjoy perfectly balanced gameplay have skills of learning/knowing the best counter to their opponent and being able to use that effectivly to win the game. People who enjoy unbalanced gameplay just have better twitch skills.

I wouldn't exactly put the former under the umbrella of "strategy gamer" because both kinds of gamers use strategy in their gameplay to some extend.



Interesting conjecture... I think it does go a long ways towards explaining the preferences of players, but I can't help but feel that there's more to it.


Any other opinions?

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