Diary – Dieing is no fun

You should probably avoid it.

My first experience with Ghosts multiplayer was fun. True, I died a lot, but I snuck some kills in, learned some of the game dynamics, and generally improved my skills. Over the course of several matches, I increased my lethality to the point where I wasn’t always last. I was a serious threat for second to last. On rare occasion, I reached third to last, but never by the end of the match. My second attempt did not go so well. In one match, I died about 9 times in under a minute and often without a chance to fire a single shot. I once unload a clip into an enemy who then destroyed me. This was, unsurprisingly, not fun. Let’s see if we can’t get to fun.

The reason for my total failure the second time was fairly simple, I was completely outmatched. The Ghosts PC community has dwindled to the point where only die-hards remain. Those individuals have maxed out their levels, know the maps, and have generally mastered a game and a genre that I have one campaign’s worth of experience with. In a just world, I would be escorted off to my own little corner of the server to play against equally skilled kittens. We would merrily paw each other until the game took pity and declared one of us “the winner”. With server populations down, Ghosts must merge all skill levels to achieve critical mass to start a game. In short, there is no justice. Only pain.

This highlights the importance of good matchmaking. When players of vastly different skill levels play together, the elite players inevitably dominate. This has a number of deleterious effects. First, it clamps down on learning. In the aforementioned bout, I barely had a chance to move, much less begin to understand the intricacies of the map. I never got to try out weapons or tactics and, even if I did, there was a good chance that they may not have worked given the gulf of skill and equipment. It’s hard to learn if you’re totally ineffectual. The second issue is that it slows progression down. Modern multiplayer FPS’s often include a leveling component that increases the player’s abilities as they succeed. If the player isn’t succeeding, then they aren’t accessing the very things that might help them do so. It effectively punishes the player for starting out. Finally, it’s not fun for either the elite players or the new ones. For elite players who have devoted considerable time to improve their skills, mowing down the helpless may hold some entertainment value, but it doesn’t produce the tense matches that great stories are made of. As for the new players, the constant loss is frustrating. Stifling a player’s attempts at enjoying your game is the worst way to start them off.

That being said, skill matching is incredibly difficult. There isn’t a single metric that denotes player skill. High kill count may suggest a competent player, but if their death rate is similarly high then they might just be a fan of explosions or are feeders of better players. Furthermore, if the players figure out the algorithm used, they will undoubtedly exploit it. High kills get you first place? Prepared for suicide tactics. Low deaths? Watch out for extremely conservative gameplay. It’s impossible to implement a rankings system that doesn’t shape the metagame. This must be handled with care lest the best players adopt boring or frustrating tactics to ensure a high ranking. That’s no fun for anyone.

Other games have done this well. Starcraft 2 stands out for its tiered play system and hidden criteria. It generally matches evenly skilled players and occasionally throws in advanced opponents to see if a player is ready to move up. It maintains a sense of progression the keeps players engaged rather than frustrated. Regardless of how it is done, multiplayer games need to ensure that player’s play against similarly skilled opponents. This ensures they are constantly challenged, but rarely face the game ending feeling that they can never win.

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