Mar 292010

To some, there might be an appearance of conflict on this site. I’m a self-admitted ‘agoner’, that, whilst having quite skill-test-specific tastes, generally enjoys ‘hard fun’ and high challenge levels in games, and is reasonably well-disposed to punishment in games.  So, why then do I care so much about improving matchmaking & rankings, game balance, reducing execution complexity, improving the gaming environment, and improving training modes and ‘easy modes’ – all the things you read about a lot here on Agoners?

It’s partly because there are some games that I am very experienced at, enough to at least consider myself in the ‘upper’ skill bracket for some games, whereas there are other genres where I am a comparatively new & unskilled player – and so I can see these issues from all sides at once. I know what it’s like to be at or close to the ‘tournament level’ player, yet I also know what it’s like to be a complete “n00b” at a new competitive game.

But there’s something even more important to it: if competitive skill-based games are to survive vs the world of non-competitive “casual” games then a constant influx of new players – these very ‘n00bs’ or indeed these ‘casuals’ that may realise the fun in improvement at a competitive game, are exactly what’s needed. The reason for this is that competitive skilled communities will naturally reduce themselves down to a smaller and increasingly hardcore elite, it’s hardwired into our human chemistry. Read Testosterone and Competitive Play over at Lost Garden, and Glory and Shame: Powerful Psychology in Multiplayer Online Games:

“The result is an intriguing purification of the community. Only the elite winners stay around. This elite community creates an even more competitive environment that in turn creates and drives out more losers. New players attempting to enter into the community are inevitably of low skill compared to the hardened veterans and are immediately classified as losers. They also leave. Competitive games slowly boil their community down to an elitist core that actively resists and inhibits audience growth.”

“What they fail to understand is that the principle reason more people aren’t playing hosted persistent online games tonight is due to shame – the experience of it, or the fear of it. I challenge you to name a single massively multi-player online game that does not absolutely require that every new player undergo a period of embarrassment or humiliation. Yes, learning any new game requires that you do badly before you can do better, but multi-player has an audience, which, as noted above, is unique in all of entertainment. Multi-player gaming requires that you not only perform poorly initially, but that you do so in front of other people.”

Is good matchmaking still really that far out of reach? *ba-boom-ching*

These articles cover exactly why the design tenets I rail on about matter so much for multiplayer competitive games. That latter quote was written in 1999, yet still rings true today if you apply it to competitive games. For other games, it’s been solved simply by becoming non-competitive (eg. WoW, CoD). However the idea of good matchmaking is to have a competitive game were almost everyone wins and loses in equal amounts. Particularly this would reduce the ‘shaming’ stage for new players to allow them to experience some glory and some shame at the same time.  This does inevitably remove some of the ‘hard agon’ and moves it closer to the concept of ‘true agon‘ – which I think has far greater appeal. I stumbled upon a great example of this debate in this thread at quarter-to-three (incidentally, all of Cad’s posts in that thread are great!); I really believe there are more people that do want competition, but want it ‘at their level’. And even the lowest level they can stumble into online, is far too high for them, thanks to the very fact these communities only cater to the elite.

So to have good matchmaking and allow ‘casual’ play levels to flourish, a game also needs to find a way to retain it’s ‘casual’ playerbase. I think some of that is a self-fulfilling prophecy though. I don’t think closing off part of the game with pointless level-up fake-achievement mechanics and such is the way to do it; unless they somehow don’t directly affect the actual skill matching mechanic (Blizzard may have actually snuck something along these lines into StarCraft II with it’s league points system, but I don’t know for sure yet as their Ladder FAQ is currently rather vague). I think a properly controlled and successful matchmaking system (in a reasonably decent game!) can retain players inherently by being such a system.

Another quote from those articles I referenced earlier:

“If the stadium in which the NFL Pro Bowl was played was filled with pro football players as its only spectators, imagine the psychological impact upon the players on the field. Now imagine that every new football player had to play in front of this audience from the moment they first played football. Imagine that every beginning football player had to take to this field and play amongst these players. This is multi-player gaming today.”

What games need to do, and have the capacity to do when online and played in huge numbers, if they tried to do it, is to allow that ‘stadium’ to instead be a small playing field with only a handful of equally skilled players on it. As I’ve mentioned a number of times, the sports analogy is perfect for competitive games that are in all actuality ‘e-sports’. This is how sports get big – by having multiple levels of restricted competition open to all comers, especially including new players. It’s what’s known as “grass roots” development; and it’s for exactly the same reasons why sportspeople should care about these grass roots. Without them, the interest in the sport will inevitably die off over time. Note – although spectator sports have other kinds of appeal, almost every popular spectator sport has some kind of grass roots entry level activity to it that ‘normal people’ can take part in. Of course I find it ironic that video game versions of sports do as badly if not worse than the real sports the emulate, as this guy laments (well, that and many sports video games are generally nothing like their real-sport counterpart, more on this in the future on Agoners).

Of course since it’s never really been done yet, it’s going to be up to pioneering games like StarCraft II and Halo Reach to see whether this point works or not.

“Shelter your young. Perhaps the most powerful developmental tools the multi-player game has at its disposal are rites of passage, yet only rarely does it employ them. Don’t tack on training to your game. Make raising your players part of the game.”

Good matchmaking could certainly form a part of this, but again, there’s only really StarCraft II that I know of doing anything significant here with training modes and ‘beginner’ maps and leagues and such.

The point is that these innovations actually help the top level ‘pros’ in the long run as much as they help the new players they are made directly for.

  3 Responses to “Agoner Agony: Why “noobs” and “casuals” matter even to a hardcore elite”

  1. BlazBlue is a great example of a game that, like most, utterly fails at training a new player, here’s a wonderful article about it here:

  2. And another fantastic related article about why bots are such a useful addition to online modes, both as a training method, and to allow more players to enjoy a game:

  3. […] when it comes to catering to non-hardcore players; they really don't do nearly enough. This is sad for everyone though, even the hardcore guys like yourself. I'm putting all the links here to save repeating myself – […]

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