We’ve written so much here on Agoners about competitive gaming, as per our definitions, that I thought it might be useful to re-state a few things in a single article. A bit of a re-statement of our beliefs; a competitive gaming manifesto if you like.
Gaming design for competitive gaming should always mean these three things:
1. As level a playing field as possible. This means that as much as possible everyone is playing the same game with potential access to make the same choices. This means that forced grinds to unlock or ‘level up’ options are not acceptable. Uneven playfield games are simply not valid as competitive games.
Things like buying a better PC, a bigger screen, or a different controller are of course outside the scope of this point – usually – although at certain tournaments of course that may not be the case. But this is exactly like someone buying better shoes or rackets to play tennis – it’s not intrinsically designed into the sport of tennis that the player who’s played for longer also gets a better racket.
If there are alternative non-grinding ways to pay to unlock competitive game content, or additional DLC characters etc, then this is ok from a strictly gaming design standpoint, although it may not be ok from a fair business model standpoint. As I’ve highlighted before, it probably says something bad about the game and business model too. If grinding is an optional way to avoid paying, then that might be a fair option too eg: you could grind the single player mode to unlock characters in the competitive mode for (vanilla) Street Fighter IV, but there should have also been an option to buy them immediately too if you wanted to (but in the case of fighting game characters, it would usually be far better not to lock them in the first place).
The key thing here is up-front clarity so people know their options and what they are getting and how much things really cost. Something like fairly and clearly priced and known-ahead-of-time balanced extra characters in a fighting game that you can still play against and practice against without purchasing them as playable options to yourself is likely ok; this is more like knowing you’ll have to buy a full set of high quality golf clubs to compete at the highest level in golf eventually. Something like Magic The Gathering’s business model where they try to hide that the cost of buying a single competitive Standard deck runs to hundreds of pounds, due the amount of rare cards needed, is not really a fair business model, despite the fact it’s still a level playing field if you’re willing & able to spend enough. The other big factor here is whether after ‘buying everything’ you will get fair matches vs other equally equipped players. In something like Street Fighter, as long as the characters are reasonably balanced, even someone who has purchased or unlocked more characters to select from, doesn’t start at any advantage once the actual match begins, whereas at all but the highest tournament levels of (constructed) Magic play, you’ll probably have some games that are just trouncing people who don’t have as good cards as you.
Although tangential to the issue (and more about game balance), it’s worth noting here that it is a very dicey area when unannounced extra content comes along, that offers some clearly better or very different options than those in the standard game, shaking up the metagame so much that you’re no longer necessarily playing the same game or practically requiring you to purchase it if you still want to compete. It’s this type of situation that frustrates me in something like Magic: Duels of the Planeswalkers, or sometimes with fighting game characters. Map packs are also on the dubious side in FPSs, and very similar to this situation (and even worse if they split the playerbase).
Overall I believe that the fairest business model, for both the developer and the player for an ongoing competitive game is a subscription that gives you access to everything, or alternatively pay-to-play with access to everything, ie: the old arcade business model. However if no development is ongoing on that game, then that subscription should be very cheap because the players are just paying for the servers, leaderboards, website tracking etc, although I do, of course I understand all the other economic factors here. But the current ‘normal’ business models are clearly a complete mess and make little sense for ongoing competitive games; as returns are front-loaded into a single purchase of a disc-based game, the players of the separate single-player content are often effectively subsidising the competitive game, companies attempting to claw back revenue against the costs of ongoing support or 2nd-hand sales with add-ons and DLC that fracture the player base further, or coming up with ‘free to play’ games that enforce purchases for grind-avoidance just to make money. Surely a business model where you pay for what you’re actually playing just makes much more sense. The current packaging of puzzle/challenge content that’s designed to be completed, together with a competitive games that are (or should be) designed to be ongoing under a single payment scheme just can’t continue forever. To me this is the root cause of a lot of the problems with the business model most videogames today use, and the friction it causes players with regards to DLC, pre-order incentives, ‘nickel&diming’ customers with add-ons, pricing of downloads and mobile apps, additional subscription services etc. Cracked.com got this right in 2011 as it’s #1 Most Ominous Trend in Video Games.
I should add here (in 2017) that some free-to-play models have proven to be viable for fair competitive video games. Recent exemplars like DOTA2 show how this business model can actually work by selling cosmetic items, whilst maintaining a level playing field within actual matches. Heroes of the Storm is another example that, temporary character balance issues aside, is pretty much fine as a fair competitive but free to play title. And Overwatch has demonstrated that selling cosmetics to existing players of a single-purchase competitive game can prove to be a viable continued revenue stream for ongoing support & new features.
More about (the lack of) level playing fields here.
Note that skill matchmaking actually works best if it is not absolutely perfect – I tend to think of this more in terms of sports being broken into different leagues as the overall standard of players or teams rises. Trying to get perfectly matched games or attempting to ‘force’ 50:50 win/loss results all the time is actually often bad for players psychology & enjoyment.
Even MLG seem to understand just how important proper skill-based matchmaking is in “3 Keys to a Great Competitive Game“:
Consider the alternative of progress-based matchmaking. When all players start out ranked at the bottom of the totem pole and have to work their way up, players endure frustrating, lopsided matches all the time. In these systems, high level players will often win dozens or even hundreds of easy games before even facing off against equally matched opposition. The system is particularly ill-suited to low ranked players, who face not only a mix of their fellow low ranked players, but also a constant sampling of (possibly highly skilled) players with new or smurf accounts. When you’re getting randomly destroyed in some proportion of your matches, you’re probably not going to stick around for long.
Two more aspects are more or less critical to making matchmaking effective, depending on the nature of the game:
- For video games where players compete online you also often need internet-connection based matchmaking to make the matchmaking of a game effective – depending on the type of game it is & how much fast reaction speeds matter.
- Players must be matched within a reasonable timeframe, and/or allow the players to play other elements of the game (vs CPU, training etc) while waiting for a matchmade opponent(s). This will of course be a relatively smaller or bigger problem depending on the size of the community for a particular competitive game and the design of the game and the matchmaking itself.
More about matchmaking here.
3. Accurate and fair skill & result based ranking system, so you can tell, at least roughly, how good you really are and if you’re improving in skill at the game.
As has been covered before, this is the key long term incentive of a competitive game, and so it’s very important. Again, ranking into general groupings is fine, especially at the lower levels, and is indeed better for most players psychologically. Deliberately obfuscating some part of the ranking systems to assist in more positive player feedback is also fine – again, to use the sports league analogy, it’s great if you can allow players to ‘win’ at the lower skill leagues that they may play within – but competitive players need to have some kind of feedback. This also means that the displayed ranking to an individual player or team of players doesn’t have to be the exact values used for the skill-based matchmaking, in fact it’s better off being separated for these reasons. At the very top levels however, a precise ranking starts to matter a lot more, but if high-level tournaments and the like exist then they may take the place of any direct in-game ranking system anyway.
Some important points on what it means to be accurate and fair:
- Team games must do team ranking, not individual rankings, unless every player on the team really is trying to do identical tasks all the time – but that’s only a theoretical corner case, since that does not happen in any team game I am aware of and is probably impossible in any team game where any form of communication is allowed. Your team results when playing with random teammates is of course a valid ranking system, which gives some kind of ‘individual’ ranking but within a team game context, but it needs to be clearly broken down, especially if part of the team is known to you, but the other part are random strangers, as happens in many team videogames. Likewise individual stats could be interesting to show, but they are clearly something completely apart from an actual team ranking. Again the sports analogy helps makes this simple to understand. Team games are ranked by their team league position, and then also usually in tournament placings. Particular stats of individuals on those teams are also often tracked; but they don’t give a direct ‘skill’ comparison; and are only compared separately and different positions or roles on a team are evaluated differently (or sometimes not at all). You don’t measure every American football player by the amount of touchdown’s he scored, and you can’t even say that a player scoring the most TDs is necessarily the best individual player in the sport either, or even that he’s necessarily contributing the most to the team winning – which would the actual determination of each team’s aggregate ‘skill’ at the game.
- Different game modes, and/or different game characters must also be ranked separately if they are to be accurate – although extra aggregate rankings may also be interesting. This is especially important in any game with asynchronous design, for example most fighting games, if the ranking (& matchmaking) system allows you to be good with one character but still play with others. But you might also want to offer a ranking system that rated all players on their aggregate play with all characters too. Most team FPS titles are such a mess here, because they have dozens of different game modes, yet no separate or clear ranking systems at all (this also often hurts their matchmaking!).
- There must be some way for old lapsed players with high ‘rank’ to be replaced by newer current players, whilst maintaining their legacy to some degree. Most XBox titles have leaderboards that show Monthly or All-Time rankings to offer a meagre attempt at this. Whilst ‘ranking decay’ seems like an appealing solution (it did to me once too and I still believe with the right execution it could be ok), the psychological effect of that on players often isn’t very nice: If the decay is too rapid, players feel ‘forced’ to keep playing, and they can feel like they are in some kind of ‘ranking grind’. So another solution is to take a cue from sports again and use some kind of ‘season’ concept. But it’s very important to highlight players past achievements as well – just as people remember historically successful sports teams or individuals.
- Methods of cheating must be dealt with as much as possible for the ranking system to be meaningful. Some things, such as the use of turbo functions or “lag switches” on controllers, and hacking are hard (but not impossible!) to police – although it would be preferrable if possible to not design a game in such a way that these kinds of cheats were ineffective in the first place. Absolutely essential is that quitting (or conceding) must equal loss as I’ve covered before.
More about ranking systems here.
This article is continued into how some current videogames match up to these ideals in Competitive Gaming 456.