A few weeks ago, NullPointer was kind enough to post an excerpt from an interview with Kevin Franklin, Halo 4’s War Games Lead Designer, in the Official Halo 4 Strategy Guide (post: http://www.neogaf.com/forum/showpost.php?p=45337613&postcount=3987). It contained a few bits that I found simultaneously fascinating and frustrating. Here is the excerpt in full:
Is Halo 4’s multiplayer aimed at the hardcore multiplayer gamer, or have you given thought to the more casual player who is really intimidated by competitive online play? One of our core goals right from the beginning was called “Halo for everyone”. We wanted to broaden the experience, but its always tricky to do when you have so many high expectations of a competitive game. So our first approach to this was Regicide. I remember back in Halo 3, there (was) a somewhat successful experience where for your first ten games or so, you’d start out in Boot Camp, and it was always a free-for-all, always on one map. As a result, you didn’t have to worry about disappointing your teammates. You just got to go in and fire at the first thing that moved. It was a good entry point, although it had issues later on in the game where players were exploiting the game to get into that hopper so they could kill the newbies. But if you had six people who had never picked up a controller before, it was a good starting experience. … What I love about FFA is its both highly accessible for new players and very competitive for experienced players.With Regicide, its a free-for-all game, but the player is King and gets a crown over his head. Everyone knows where he is on the map, and there’s a big bonus for killing him. Originally we wanted it because that way, players who were in last place could catch up by making a couple of King kills. We found early on in playtests that most players who were three or four kills back, statistically speaking they had already lost. And we didn’t think that fit with the new player experience. So with Regicide, if you’re a new player and not in first place, you have some opportunities to catch up quickly. Also, in standard free-for-all, we used to find that experienced players would learn to get a sense of who the weaker players were, and would race to kill them off. But in Regicide, the player with the crown is worth so much more than anyone else, they are the entire focus. So it gives some of the less experienced players the chance to relax a bit. … We thought it would only be for new players, but the more we saw our experienced players playing it, the more we started to hear them talking about strategies. So we added tweaks like giving bonuses to the player who’s managed to stay alive as King, so for example if you are King for 30 seconds we give you an Overshield. It’s ended up being a really unpredictable game type, and I think games come down to the last two or three kills, and lots of big comeback victories. What makes a good multiplayer game?A lot of things going on there. I think at the deep core design level, I think a near-perfect-loop, for a game that you want people to be playing 5000 games or for ten years or whatever, that loop needs to be nearly flawless. And then, your goal is to fire that dopamine hit, and to make that happen you have to make successes as awesome as possible, and minimize defeats. So getting that player psychology is huge.
What is it about multiplayer that gets you fired up?
I have some rules about multiplayer design. One is that strong players should be able to easily dominate weak players. We try to mitigate this with good matchmaking, but nobody likes a drawn out game, especially when you know who’s going to win. The most exciting games are the ones that go down to the last kill, or the last second. Those moments of triumph, stealing that final kill in the last second.So those are the things that a single-player game can’t give you. Those moments.And I think you know you have a good multiplayer game when those moments start happening every single game. You can’t just script that action. It can only emerge from gameplay between humans.
Halo for Everyone – Noble Goal, Botched Execution
Let’s start at the top. Easing new players into the game is an admirable goal, and something that online games are generally very poor at doing. Most don’t even put in the effort of trying. Here’s the issue I have with their implementation: You want players to go in and not get frustrated, right? You want new players to have a fighting chance. Then you implement a progression system where new players will be pitted against players who have more combat options at their disposal. An SR-1 going in will not have access to Promethean Vision, but will inevitably be matched with those who do. An SR-1 going in will not have access to the Stealth mod, which would at least give him a soft counter to Promethean Vision users. You might be saying to yourself, “Well, it unlocks so quickly that you just have to put a few games in before he’s on equal footing!” They’re going after people who are already intimidated by online multiplayer. Will those players put up with more than a few games of being handicapped and not knowing what is killing them? Somehow, I doubt it. This isn’t like Call of Duty where the presets are genuinely useful – most of the Halo 4 MP presets are dramatically less effective than the optimal customized options that people have put together. An AR/Hardlight Shield preset user is going to be relatively useless against a PV or Jetpack/DMR/Shielding/Stability user, and players that aren’t already good at Halo or shooters in general are going to be frustrated. I powered through it, as hardcore players will, because I used years of experience to overcome the handicap that the game placed on me. I suspect others did not fare as well.
If easing players into the game was really a big concern – big enough to fundamentally change the design of the game and its gametypes – why does Halo 4 not have any sort of codified tutorial? Why isn’t there a mode with bots to let players explore the maps and see how a gametype would play out before facing real players in that environment? Why aren’t the overhead maps from the strategy guide layered into the game, displayed during a loading screen before a match, complete with weapon placement and spawn timers? The ATLAS technology exists, why is it ignored in Halo 4? With DOTA 2, Valve is instituting a “mentor system,” where veteran players can sign up to play with new players and show them the ropes in a friendly manner. The MOBA genre is a far more impenetrable one than FPS, and this way a new player gets all the interactivity of a human being with the function and teaching capability of the best tutorial.
There are so many out-of-gameplay methods of giving new players information that allow veterans to completely ignore them if they so choose, but instead 343 chopped off the high end of the skill spectrum and broadened the lower end by removing metagame skills such as weapon spawn timer/location knowledge, spawn zone knowledge, and situational awareness during objective gametypes. The scoring mechanics of Regicide is a great example of this – a “blue shell” mechanic was put into place, as confirmed by Franklin above. The king, who is ostensibly the most skilled player in a match, has dramatically lower scoring potential because the ability to get a bonus is removed from his toolset. Franklin mentions that “a strong player should be able to easily dominate weak players,” yet we see players with fantastic K/D ratios losing Regicide matches to players with fewer kills, fewer assists, and more deaths than them. The bad player was given a scoring crutch – a waypoint that results in an often-weakend King, and a bounty to easily leapfrog him in position. Team Regicide heavily mitigates this – both teams and every player in each team have the same scoring potential (king bonuses aside) because each King is capable of getting the other’s bounty.
If a strong team can dominate a weak team, why should the weak team be handed situational knowledge in the form of CTF waypoints? The contradiction between what was said and how CTF plays suggests that our ideas of “dominating” are different in terms of either definition or breadth. When I think of times that my team has dominated another, I think of us having fantastic communication, calling out spawns and taking people out, not letting the carrier get out of our base because we called his location out, supporting a flag run as the carrier snuck out of their base, and just having the upper hand in every category. More than just slaying. When we dominate in Halo 4’s CTF, it is almost entirely the result of us outslaying the enemy, combined with a well-timed push forward. A team’s cumulative twitch/aiming skill has a massively disproportionate importance placed on it in 4, because team communication is not as vital given the glut of informational waypoints each MP mode (specifically CTF, formerly one of the most player-communication-heavy gametypes) has. Before, a team that was maybe not as accurate could beat a team that hit every shot because they could overcome their weaknesses with strong communication. Now, there isn’t really such a thing as truly weak communication because the important information is conveyed directly from the game to the player. There is still absolutely a gradient of skill there, but it is much easier to get by without talking than before.
The Near-Perfect Loop
Franklin mentions that for players to sink significant amounts of time into a multiplayer experience, the loop has to be as close to perfect as possible. But…what makes a loop perfect? Is it mechanical in nature? That certainly plays a role, and Halo 4 hits a lot of those targets. Structural? For me, I have to feel as though my direct actions and the direct actions of other players are what results in a win or loss, not the system favoring one side or the other. I want to feel like the playing field is level and that I just won a game without having anything handed to me. Player freedom is so incredibly important to my enjoyment of multiplayer games. I love being set down in a sandbox with a bunch of people who all share the same traits as me, who all have to follow the same well-known rules as me, and seeing who works well within those confines. Halo 4 fails in this regard: Global Ordnance (which I’ve written more than enough about at this point) flies in the face of decisive player action, as do the nature of many AAs and tactical/support mods, and so do many of the randomized elements that the gametypes feature (personal ordnance comes to mind). That isn’t to say that these things can’t work, just that the execution really has be nailed if they’re going to be attempted. Instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater and replacing past systems whole-hog, integrate them into a familiar system in moderation. That way, you can cover the weaknesses of each element by mixing and matching.
A point that sticks out to me: “And then, your goal is to fire that dopamine hit, and to make that happen you have to make successes as awesome as possible, and minimize defeats.” So…fellate the player as much as possible? This is a trend in multiplayer games that I have become incredibly sick of, because I think it completely misses the point of what makes multiplayer games awesome. If everything is awesome all the time and the announcer is constantly shouting “OH MAN YOU ARE ONE COOL GUY/LADY!” then eventually those rewards become meaningless because there is nothing special about them. People don’t need Steitzer shouting because they got a Headcase. That is not a meaningful achievement. People don’t need a ten second announcement string about a triple kill/headcase/comeback kill combo. They’re excited because they did that. When Steitzer is reserved for big events (“Triple kill!”) or gameplay information (“Thirty seconds to win!” “Alpha under attack!”), like in past games, his appearance is something of note. I have tuned him out entirely in Halo 4 and certainly in moments during Reach solely because he just does not shut up. All things in moderation.
More than anything, I think that quote is a disappointment because it resulted in a game that feels incredibly artificial. Make no mistake, all games are artificial constructs. But there is a difference between rewards feeling forced and feeling natural. Most of Halo 4’s reward systems fall strictly into the former category for me. Here is how it misses the point: When I throw a grenade underneath a Warthog and it goes barreling over my head and off a cliff as a result, I get that dopamine hit. I worked for that, and something cool happened. When I hit a single headshot and Steitzer shouts “HEADCASE” because he happened to hit the sprint button a second before, I don’t get that hit. I didn’t do anything of note. Halo is this incredible amalgamation of gameplay systems that all interact with each other. It is an emergent gameplay generator – put a bunch of players into it, throw in a vehicle here and there and some weapons, and you will get amazing moments. Amazing moments already have an announcer: me, my teammates who witnessed it. We already know it’s cool, we’re already shouting about it. They don’t need to call out mundane things like a headshot on a sprinting player because there is an abundance of cool shit happening already. All it needs is some space marine cosplayers and a motivation for them to try and kill each other in a fair, balanced rule system. Which brings me to the final section…
“You Can’t Just Script That Action”…but You Sure Did Try
“…nobody likes a drawn out game, especially when you know who’s going to win. The most exciting games are the ones that go down to the last kill, or the last second. Those moments of triumph, stealing that final kill in the last second. So those are the things that a single-player game can’t give you. Those moments. And I think you know you have a good multiplayer game when those moments start happening every single game. You can’t just script that action. It can only emerge from gameplay between humans.”
Here’s the thing. The above is absolutely true. The best games are 50-49. The best games have scores in the last second of the match. The best games are the best in part because they are rare, though. The best games don’t have gametypes that desperately try to prolong the action so that the match ends in the last minute. The best games don’t make offense ridiculously difficult so that every score is important (or a total fucking chore). The best games don’t inflate the score count so that more “awesome” moments can be experienced. Those incredibly moments just happen. As a result of well-defined, fair systems. As a result of player action, player communication. The best games feel like every moment is natural, not as though the game is fighting against the players, shouting “YOU ARE HAVING FUN” at them. And those things that the best games don’t do, that’s what so many of Halo 4’s gametypes do. CTF offense is so much more difficult than it was before, and it was already very difficult against an equal team. CTF games go to the time limit almost every single game I’ve played of it, because the score limit was increased to 5 on maps and in settings that make getting 5 captures an absolute chore (radar, mostly). The games aren’t drawn out because the players are evenly matched, they’re drawn out because the game says they should be. In old settings, a great team would blaze through a bad team on CTF Zealot 3-0 in 2 minutes. That happened regularly. In Halo 4, there is a high chance that a great team would get waylaid by the flag waypoint, or by the maps encouraging camping, or by the boltshot, or by an unlucky Global Ordnance drop, or by somebody using Active Camo. Games are more drawn out than ever. “Moments of triumph” have slowly morphed into moments of “finally, that should have ended a long time ago” as the push becomes very hard for players to do. Meanwhile, Sudden Death has changed so that the game will end even if a player is holding the flag and about to hit the scoring zone, requiring a game to be tied before the timer hits 0:00 in order to go into overtime. That is a common thing in sports like American football, where it works well…but if they’re trying to promote tense moments, why get rid of a mechanic that has resulted in dozens of them over the course of the last 8 years?
This isn’t a problem for a lot of gametypes in Halo 4, so I totally understand people who don’t run into the issues, or don’t understand where I’m coming from. Specifically, CTF, Regicide, and Infinity Slayer variants are where I’m experiencing this conflict between apparent intent and the result. Things like King and Oddball have received fantastic additions and I’m perfectly willing to admit that, so please rest assured that I’m not blindly hating on anything. I still play Halo 4 and am able to have fun with Halo 4, but frustration is starting to mount over some of the moments where I feel the game, not the other players, is what’s fighting me and holding me back. I should also mention that I admire a lot of what Kevin Franklin and the 343 MP team attempted – they had very lofty ambitions. I just don’t think that some of their execution worked particularly well. At a certain level, I’m just trying to put into words where some of my frustration is coming from with certain experiences the game offers, and it is all in hopes that something will happen to make them disappear.