Sign in to follow this  
ApochPiQ

Multiplayer FPS design principles

Recommended Posts

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.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
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.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
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.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
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

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
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.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Quote:
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 ;)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Quote:
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).

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Quote:
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.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Quote:
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.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Quote:
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?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
I have to say that Modern Warfare is the only CoD game for which I have enjoyed the multiplayer, and I thing that is because they balanced it perfectly - even with the worst gun, one can handily take out someone with a rocket launcher and the chopper perk. Modern Warfare 2 has completely screwed balance, and I stopped playing it after a few hours.

I do love playing Halo, but I don't think it has ever had decent balance either. Halo CE was a pure sniper-fest (mostly with the overpowered pistols), except on the one or two maps where it was easy to sneak up behind them. Halo 3 also suffers from a complete overuse of sniper rifle and battle rifle. And don't even get me started on the grenades - even with halfway-decent aim you can sticky someone from halfway across the map.

The appeal for me in MW is the balance and the speed, where one plays many rounds over the course of a few minutes (because almost any engagement results in at least one player's death), and one has a 50/50 chance of getting the kill. For Halo, the appeal is completely different. Encounters are rarely fatal, so I can play very strategically, drawing back to recharge shields, etc.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Gameplay needs to be somewhat balanced for twitch to work... if you've got the drop on someone, you shoot first, you even get a headshot, but they can spin around and kill you due to weapon imbalance... then the twitch aspect is ruined.

When this happens, you've got to compliment your twitch skills with some higher strategy - positioning, maneuvering, team organisation, etc...

This example happens in counter-strike with pistol VS AK. However, that's admittedly an extreme example.
The way I see most shooters, is strategy decides who goes first in the twitch fight. If you're both equal on strategy, then you twitch-off at the same time. If you're better on strategy, you get to twitch first, but if you're not good enough, they get to twitch back. Repeat until one dies or (occasionally) manages to retreat.

If the weapons are complicated/specialized enough, then there's a 3rd level to this abstraction. The choice of weapons by both players influences how effective their twitch attacks will be.

In terms of a turn-based dice game:
Strategy -> Initiative
Weapon/class match-up -> Damage roll
Twitch skill -> Roll to hit

The less extreme the differences between weapons are, the less that 'damage' matters -- it's just initiative and roll to hit.
Also, the less important that aiming skills are (e.g. console auto-aim), then the less 'roll to hit' matters -- it's just initiative and damage.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
I, too, tend to prefer Halo games over CoD games, and I still think Battlefield 2 was the best BF. I don't know if anyone else feels the way I do, but for me a twitch shooter is a straight-up roleplay experience. I love to pretend I'm the imaginary super-soldier I'm playing as, and that archetype is often at odds with the fundamental rules of game design. Everyone's been talking about balance and gameplay and theme, and those are the key ingredients. Balance is what makes a game good, for me, and losing fair and square feels a lot better than winning due to semi-ethical behavior.

For instance, I hate to get a positive kill/death ratio by camping a corner and spawn-killing with a grenade launcher, but if the game rewards it (I'm looking at you, Modern Warfare 2) I'll do it all day long. If I go toe-to-toe with a guy and die because I hit the melee button when he had 7% shield and he took the time to fire those last two bullets and deplete mine before delivering the coup de grace, I'm angry at myself for being impatient, and I respect the victor.

I find that all games with standard maps and loadouts have a learning curve. If you play Halo and don't know where the sword is, you're going to get your ass handed to you by sword guys until you learn that tactical features of the map and take proper advantage of them. Same goes for rocket launchers in Quake or the best hiding place in Splinter Cell or the right configuration of ramp-blocking buildings in Starcraft. That's a core level of competence, and dying as a newb to vets who know what's up is neither shameful nor indicative of bad game design. If you don't know what a bishop does, you won't win at chess.

Once those skills and lessons are in place, though, the balance that's revealed is entirely on the shoulders of the designer. If the fast-sprinting knife-wielding gas-canister-holding ninja can shank me before I pull the trigger on my shotgun, then I think there's something wrong with the "shooter" I'm playing. If a half-dozen teutonic knights can burn and pillage and annihilate a battalion of archers, pikemen, catapults, swordsmen and lancers, then there's a flaw in the game's balance.

Returning to roleplay, an FPS game, especially on console, isn't really a simulation of a gunfight. All the bodily contortions and situational awareness and use of positioning and light and angles and psychology that make a gunfighter effective are traded in for things like bunny-hopping, grenade spamming, rocket-jumping and noob-tubing. These are all great gameplay devices, and games like Team Fortress 2 or Tribes go out of their way to codify these meta-game elements into the core of their game.

Halo does a good job of making the game a game. It rewards a good stealth backstab, not with an ephemeral medal, but with a short cutscene that represents a tradeoff between guaranteed assassination and momentary vulnerability. It represents health in a way that's both immediately intelligible and manageable in the context of a gunfight. It makes the melee powerful, but introduces rules that govern the perfect moment to strike, and that allows it to feel like a last-ditch maneuver, but not a flail.

Call of Duty: Black Ops pretends to be about Cold War commandos doing battle, but it's every inch the video game that Unreal Tournament or Duke Nukem ever was. I enjoy the game, and it's in my Xbox 360 as I type this, but I think of it as a hybrid between a good FPS and an MMO. Genuine advantages are imparted by "leveling up" (compared to the purely cosmetic offerings in Halo: Reach), including weapons, gadgets, superpowers and even access to gametypes. The grind governs everything, and while I'm genuinely impressed, delighted and compelled by the way they've used the in-game currency (Wager matches? Yes, please.), the actual game offers a thousand opportunities to say, "Oh, that sunuvabitch, just wait until I can use the gun he's using."

Unlockables are a great way to keep players playing, but a hojillion man-hours logged on the game doesn't always mean it's a better game.

Setting's also a factor. "Realistic" games tend to be brown and grey, with scrubby bushes and dirty paneling all through them. I'll take the crisp lines and clearly marked side-paths of a Halo map any day.

Truth be told, I loves me some Rainbow Six, and a slower, more deliberate game always feels better to me. My own training in room-clearing and threat neutralization was from a police perspective, and treating a tactical situation as a puzzle is always very rewarding to me. There's nothing I hate more than checking all my corners, communicating with my buddy and then having some moron in a ghillie suit come dashing into the room, absorb three bullets with his chest and then kill me with a stab to my thigh.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Quote:
Original post by Stroppy Katamari
Console FPS and competitive - do those really belong to the same sentence?
You can argue about console vs pc players all you want, but you can't make a claim that console shooter plays aren't competing against each other. Of course they are. Saying that they aren't isn't just foolish, it's nonsensical.

That out of the way - some of us don't like Halo or COD. There are many examples of shooters where the shooting part isn't the most important element. You don't need perfect aim to win a round of execution in Gears of War; it's the team that communicates and can think strategically that wins. GRAW, Rainbow Six, are two other examples of games like this. You can tell you're playing one when rushing toward the enemy always gets you killed. A match between skilled players involves very little shooting, and a great deal of positioning and sneaking and running away.

The key here, I think, is the retreat. In some games, retreating is a viable tactic. Most don't give you the framework you need to setup situations where a strategic retreat is possible. I've never seen anyone retreat to lure a group of enemies into an ambush in Halo, but it's a common tactic in Gears of War.

Let me add -
Quote:
Returning to roleplay, an FPS game, especially on console, isn't really a simulation of a gunfight. All the bodily contortions and situational awareness and use of positioning and light and angles and psychology that make a gunfighter effective are traded in for things like bunny-hopping, grenade spamming, rocket-jumping and noob-tubing.
That's exactly what I want from a shooter. And it's why I play the shooters that I do, and not Halo or COD. It's pretty hard to bunny-hop in a game where you can't jump, you can't rocket jump when the game doesn't have rocket launchers, or the splash damage at that range is fatal, and you can't spam grenades when you can only hold two. But this breed of tactical shooters does give you a chance to do all those other things. While being terribly unrealistic in it's management of health, Gears of War manages to present a more realistic version of gun fighting than Halo or CoD.

As for noob-tubing - if there is a strategy that works, it will be used. Why don't the experienced players use it, if it's so effective? Stop bitching about it and learn to counter it. Or use it.

[Edited by - Deyja on November 13, 2010 12:00:48 PM]

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now

Sign in to follow this