Tag Archives: quake

Time Investment as a Resource

Time spent in relation to how well you play a game is an interesting concept. There are always people all across the spectrum – some become proficient fast, some slow. Even chess has young prodigies that can challenge older “hard-earned” grandmasters. And yet, experience itself is a huge boon even in a game where younger players can quickly catch up to older ones.

As a proponent of skill-based gaming, my stance has always been that your skill should simply be your skill, and time spent shouldn’t affect anything. Granted, time spent will always affect at least the meta-game (the aspects in a gaming environment not under your control, such as your opponents play styles and tendencies), but I’ve mostly only meant the extreme cases where games actually increase your ability to perform better through time-based activities. In an acronym: MMO’s, or massively multiplayer online games.

Although not all MMO’s have this feature, most do and it has become a cliché of the genre. You start out with a skill level of 0 in fighting, you attack and kill a rat, and you gain 1 fighting skill throughout the duration of the fight. Or 10 experience towards your next level (increasing your attributes and combat ability), or perhaps the rat drops an item that you can equip which makes you do more damage to the next rat you face. There are many methods that could be employed, but they all share the same time requirement trait. This is in direct contrast to traditional tournament games such as first person shooters, real-time strategy, or fighting games where you simply enter the match, play the match, and then leave the match with nothing of permanence affecting you in the next match (again, aside from possible meta-game aspects such as your mental state). Given this, these games are usually considered to be much fairer and thus much better competitive games as the only resources are raw knowledge and “skill” (knowing how to play the game and having the ability to do so). Of course, you have to expend a third resource to gain knowledge and skill, and that’s time.

After thinking about how many hours a lot of top tournament players will spend practicing a day in their chosen game, it seems a bit strange to keep my prejudice against the MMO system of skill gain. At the end of the day, what is the difference between a Starcraft player spending 12 hours a day practicing a match-up, versus an MMO player spending 12 hours a day to advance his character? If your character still requires out-of-game skill and knowledge to be played better in the latter system after he is “capped” (you are no longer able to expend time to advance his in-game skills), how is it any different to the former game?

Starcraft: Brood WarStarcraft: Brood War is the most popular e-sport game currently.

Another dynamic in MMO’s that I believe I touched upon in another article is community status. Much more so than one-match-at-a-time genres, your role in an MMO community plays a huge part, as social aspects are a huge part of persistent world gameplay. One recent example of this is in EVE Online, where the group of players in Goonsquad managed to use their social presence to influence a key member in a huge rival alliance, which ended up with the total collapse of that alliance. Even though Goonsquad was enormously outnumbered, their community and social placement in the game allowed them to overcome a very large threat they may not have been able to deal with on the terms of the normal game rules (i.e. combat). In this example, the time investment leading up to this gain for the players would have been purely meta-gaming related. It had nothing to do with the players’ character skills, they all could have been freshly made and still have carried out this operation. It’s also worth mentioning that “the Goons” as they are known play many games, and have earned such a reputation that merely hearing about them coming to play your game, or on your MMO server, is enough to make some people quit or stay away from that game on that basis alone. Even when they choose to play a game that is based on time-based skill gain, their long-term gained social presence gives them an advantage in the meta-game. Ironically, EVE Online is the prime example in this regard as well: the method in which you train your character is by selecting a skill, and then the game tells you an amount of time until you get better at that skill – this time passes regardless of whether you are online or offline, thus your overall skill is directly related to your character’s age.

EVE OnlineCCP’s EVE Online places more emphasis on community interaction than most games.

“Macroing” is yet another interesting concept the MMO genre brings to the table. This is the act of gaining character advancement in a game without necessarily having to pay attention to the game itself – basically, advancing your character “for free”. The time investment is either much slimmer (i.e. a “semi-attended” macro, where you can do something else and simply check back from time to time), to not having to invest at all (unattended macroing: your character “plays itself”, gaining skill in the process). Macros can come in many forms: from sticking a penny in your keyboard to hold down a key, all the way to a custom program made specifically to play your character with specific settings (also called a bot or script). Whether be it a macro, bot or script there is usually a fairly big time investment for the author to actually create the method employed. After he distributes it, there can still be a time requirement for the people who acquire it to learn how to use it, but it is much less given that they don’t have to actually come up with the concept and create the method by hand. In either case, there is time spent in the process of setting up your character to work on its own (saving you time in the end – spending time to make time). What’s interesting here is that while macroing is often called a form of cheating or exploiting, one cannot deny the fact that the player is using this to his advantage. Essentially, the player is becoming a prodigy – advancing in the game faster than other users. Remember also, even if the macro goes at the same pace (or less) than another user playing “legit”, the player using the macro can spend his time to strengthen his community role which, as discussed above, is certainly one way of becoming more powerful at a game.

Glider, a World of Warcraft bot programGlider is one of the leading World of Warcraft bots used to advance characters and farm gold – the game’s currency. The program has become so controversial as to inspire lawsuits from WoW’s creators, Blizzard.

This is all relative, since in actual tournaments these things almost certainly wouldn’t be allowed. Of course, in most tournaments we do not have to worry about this – but now that the World of Warcraft Arena has become a tournament game in and of itself, it could be cause for concern that players may used some ill-gotten advantage to strengthen their avatars. Fortunately for that game, however, it’s not a very big deal to “max out” your character to a point in which he would be equal to others in tournament play, so it’s not an issue in the big picture. If a game does come along where the time investment is much higher, and it becomes competition worthy, it will be interesting to see how these cases could be handled. On the other side of the coin, the standardized “match-at-a-time” games are also starting to bring in some time-based concepts to the table: we are starting to see first person shooters where you gain experience, ranks, and access to more varied equipment based on your avatar’s skill or experience.

In the end, I think the bigger question aside from which version of time investment is superior, is what goal is the person asking the question trying to pursue. Even monetary gain can be had via both systems – tournament earnings versus playing letting bots run their characters, earning them items or money that they can sell for real world currency. It’s all relative to each person’s particular goals at the time of asking said question.

The Enigma of Multiplayer Gaming

Multiplayer games and how they sustain their player population has always mystified me. Especially as a huge fan of independent games and game studios, and the common struggle to keep a low-brow indie title retaining players when it is necessary to the game’s overall health (i.e. a multiplayer game).

Being a first person shooter fan for most of my life as a gamer, this is by far and away the field I have the most experience with. When Quake came out, the hobby of hacking game files and creating maps for the older 2D FPS games had grown into something more as players started banding together to create bigger projects in the form of modifications, or mods. Quake mods encompass some of the most popular game types today, including Capture the Flag, Rocket Arena and of course Team Fortress. In those days, finding players usually wasn’t hard even if the players needed fairly advanced knowledge in order to get Quake and the mod up and running, and then configuring Quakespy, MPlayer or whatever server browser they used to find games. Still, even though they faced these technical barriers mods grew and flourished, some even surpassing the popularity of the original Quake deathmatch. Most modifications in this era were simple changes in the games rules. Although there were some “total conversions” (mods with custom artwork, audio and other assets); most fell into the more simple category, even the very popular ones. Mods are usually multiplayer as well, since they are created by people who are passionate about the game, and at this point those players are usually much more interested in the multiplayer aspect of a game.

Today, mods are better than ever, with some mods even matching retail games in both graphics and features. Mod teams often go on to pursue jobs in the game industry as a result of the skills they learn, and the mods they create are as fun, balanced and unique as ever. Accessing mods is a breeze as there are many websites that link them and mirror their files for download. Playing them is as easy as playing the game they’re a modification for. So why, then, is it so hard for mods to retain players when in the past they would retain a huge player base even when it was more underground?

One potential reason for the decline in activity – even after the rise in quality – of mods is that there simply isn’t an influx of players anymore. When Quake mods were big, Quake was big, and when Half-Life mods were bursting at the seams, Half-Life was winning awards at a staggering rate. Half-Life itself was even over-taken by one of its own mods which has since turned into a retail game: Counter-Strike. In fact, I believe it is now more responsible for the ebb and flow of mods than Half-Life itself. Now that the Counter-Strike player base has stabilized and is no longer growing at a fast rate, we have seen mods on the decline. Players are happy to stay where they are, rather than when they were new to the game and open for playing new mods. Thus, even though mods are at the highest quality the players have ever seen and much more easily accessible, it is harder than ever for them to retain players.

Mods aren’t the only multiplayer games that have seen issues, however. It has become increasingly hard for most games, aside from the few most popular, to retain multiplayer player bases. Ironically, the games that do the worst in this regard usually advertise themselves as multiplayer only – which should ensure that the multiplayer is better than other games. However, history has proven that the games that often get popular usually boast both a single player campaign as well as multiplayer, even if it means that the multiplayer will obviously suffer in some form as a result. More sales simply means more potential players, and players are much more willing to invest into a compelling single player experience than an unproven multiplayer game, even if the single player aspect of a game only lasts for the very beginning of its lifespan. Id Software even considered their multiplayer only game Quake 3 a failure, when it proved to be one of the best multiplayer FPS experiences to be had, even to the point of the Cyberathlete Professional League re-implementing it after trying other newer, more modern FPS games which all ended up failing. Of course, mods are a different story, but are also hard to include in this comparison since a healthy mod player base depends entirely upon the game it is a mod for – one could argue that Counter-Strike is a multiplayer only game and sees massive popularity, but we must remember that it started out as a mod for Half-Life, a critically acclaimed single player game.

Perhaps having single player is necessary if only to advertise the game to players, as if to say “buy me, at least you can be secure in the fact I have a single player campaign”? Although, this makes no sense as, again, the single player is simply a short storyline incursion usually halfway between a movie and a novel. A game only becomes truly long-lasting when it has a multiplayer component. So why does it seem that games need to have a single player component, and why are players so afraid to purchase multiplayer only games, even in this new age where having a computer basically assumes having an internet connection? This brings me to my next point, the MMO genre.

As if to prove everything I’ve said so far wrong, MMOGs came into existence, whose acronym says it all: Massively Multiplayer Online games. These games almost seem to ensure high player numbers simply by employing a subscription based model (even after purchasing the game box), as if to say “pay us money and we will continue to provide a multiplayer service”. While it is true that most MMOs see a much larger cost and development time (and thus should see larger player counts due to hype, advertising, etc.), the fact remains that to the untrained eye they are simply below-average games. Only very recently are we starting to see MMOs that break the mold and tell stories in compelling ways similar to single player games (however, ironically, the one that performed best in this regard, Age of Conan, was considered a failure mostly due to other issues), yet still MMORPGs have grown to having unimaginably large player bases almost without any rhyme or reason. The quality is almost a non-issue in comparison to “normal” games. The genre insists a subscription model, which many gamers claim they refuse to play on principle alone: “If I buy a game, it’s mine; I shouldn’t have to spend more money just to continue playing it”. Yet still these games manage to bring in immense numbers shadowing other genres. Even stranger still is that this genre is almost entire computer-based, when we are in an era of console domination.

Age of Conan was much friendlier to a non-MMO player, yet still failed to see great success compared to other more “ordinary” games in the genre

In almost every way it appears that the MMO genre is a complete anomaly when it comes to gaming trends, but of course there are very compelling reasons for these players to be there such as social aspects and a true sense of progression. Interestingly, FPS games are starting to implement some of these features in the form of friends list and actual rewards for playing the game for longer periods of time (such as Call of Duty’s system for unlocking new weapons and perks).

Another anomaly in multiplayer gaming that must be mentioned is a Warcraft 3 map that seems to break all of my aforementioned rules. While it’s no mystery as to why Blizzard’s RTS games retain large numbers of players, it is interesting that Defense of the Ancients (DotA), a custom map for Warcraft 3, has become a huge phenomenon. When refreshing the “custom games” browser in Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne at nearly any time of day you will find an overwhelming number of DotA games populating the list. This game-in-a-game has grown so big that the playerbase devised its own set of rules and regulations (for lack of a decent set in the rather poor options playing a “custom game” gives you), even to the point of creating custom programs for this game, and the developers have even announced that they are creating an entirely new stand-alone game in the same vein as DotA. So how did this happen? While DotA was not the only interesting game type to expand and eventually grow from Blizzard’s RTS line-up (you just may have heard of a little thing called tower defense), one can’t help but wonder how it came above all others and not only survived, but flourished in the worst of conditions: unlike FPS game servers, where even they have a hard time supporting new games, Warcraft 3’s game hosting is abysmal in comparison, and DotA is a game that is very unwelcoming to new players. Yet still it has managed to flourish to the point of being a real world tournament game where players compete for money.

DotA sees commercial-like success as nothing more than a Warcraft 3 map

The mystery of what attracts players to multiplayer games is no less clear now than when I started. There are certainly some historically-proven safeguards a company can take to hopefully ensure players will play their game, which is a very important aspect when the enjoyment of said players relies on other players being online. Companies seem to be getting more in tune with what games need to support a community of players as well. Yet still, even today new communities spring up seemingly out of nowhere in the strangest of conditions where none of the modern selling points for games may be present. Some companies even seem to be harnessing this aspect of randomness, such as Valve releasing Steamworks, a new way for modifications to get more recognition via Steam. This actually works in their favor as, being that the mods are applications for Valve games, they will in turn end up getting more people to purchase the games needed to play the mods on if they rise in popularity. While on the same token, more and more multiplayer games are released still-born such as Savage 2 or Shadowrun. It will be interesting to see if this is a hurdle that can be overcome in the future or if the safe method of creating a single player game with multiplayer will continue to be the standard.

What makes a good esports title?

The struggling hobby that is e-Sports has gone through a lot of ups and downs recently, so this is certainly an interesting question to pose: what does make a good e-sports game?

The first thing that will come to many gamers minds will be the type of game it is. First-person shooter fans will be quick to defend the FPS genre, along with real-time strategy fans for RTS (and of course, the sub-genres within these genres for one-versus-one or teamplay, different rule-sets and such). However, I believe this division is what is holding e-sports back from becoming truly mainstream.

There have been some leagues – albeit none taken very seriously – that have tried to cater to this division in utilizing a multi-game format approach; however these have mostly been for fun or very small cash prizes and thus not gotten a lot of coverage or interest.

The most successful e-sport currently is StarCraft, and that is largely because the playerbase has refused to deviate from this title; thus allowing spectators ample time to learn and understand the game – and for the players to become extremely skilled at a single title rather than spread their skill thin as other e-sports players have to do quite often. It will be interesting to see what StarCraft 2 does to this e-sport scene, as real sports don’t have to deal with sequels, however I think the impact will be minimal as it has grown so large as to be a part of the culture itself in the main StarCraft hub, Korea. It is in every way, shape and form an “electronic sport”.

Overall, I think the biggest thing that a good e-sport title needs is consistency, which is mostly up to the players to determine. Everyone has their favorite games, but a decision needs to be made on a lone title to use as the platform for that specific e-sport genre. As we saw with the CPL, CGS, the old cyber games and other leagues rise and fall, the reason mostly seems to be due to the inconsistency with games being played and the lack of staying power. As with any sport, it is up to e-sports to have a good fan base to generate the revenue necessary to run them. With most leagues constantly bouncing from game to game, fan interest is very hard to hold and they seem to inevitably fail. The game needs to be simple to understand, yet have a large amount of skill and depth involved. It needs to have a good level of showmanship for the all-important spectators, and there needs to be a pre-existing level of fandom for the game itself – you cannot simply make a game specifically for e-sports and expect players to embrace it.

Given all of the aforementioned attributes, and the fact that game developers rarely seem interested in e-sports, I’ll have to chalk the answer to this question up to luck. As Korea became infatuated with StarCraft (due to it being one of the first titles released internationally there), it become more and more a part of the culture to the point of where it wouldn’t be considered strange to hear two people talking about it on the street. Although it is not strange to hear people talking about videogames in other countries, they are often talking about the topic as a whole, and not a specific game. Indeed, it is rare to even find someone with the same preference in games as you in most of America and Europe. If a game becomes truly explosive in popularity in these regions, and boasts the necessary traits to become an e-sports title, we may see resurgence in this hobby in these regions. Until that day comes, whether or not you can make a living off of professional gaming, I think e-sports will still largely be considered a hobby.

Originally posted at ugame blog