By Jason Waddell (Trunkers)
Things are changing in the world of eSports. Since its inception, the most significant barrier to cultural acceptance of competitive gaming has come not from parents and local news reports, but from fellow gamers. Especially in the early years, Major League Gaming and its tournament players were viewed by much of the general gaming populace as people who stripped the "fun" out of games. No vehicles or sprawling maps in competitive Halo play. No items in Super Smash Bros. Melee. Fox only. Final Destination.
When you spend your free time reviewing MLG tournament footage or visiting dedicated strategy forums, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that the average gamer isn't deeply interested or invested in competitive gaming. For my own part, I've looked to Penny Arcade and its forums over the years as a barometer for the greater gaming culture. The Penny Arcade forum community's reception to various MLG tournament scenes has changed dramatically over the years, from plain rejection of competitive Halo 2 and Melee to excited discussion of StarCraft 2 and League of Legends.
The difference? It comes down to having gameplay settings that work across all skill levels, growing a unified player base, and ensuring that the game rewards pros and amateurs alike.
Eliminating Glitches with Developer-Intended Gameplay
"The Javelin Glitch is truly the ultimate in bullshit. It is a mechanism by which a person can explode when you shoot them—not simply with a grenade, as the Martyrdom Deathstreak allows, but directing concussive force outward with the broad profile of an aerial bombardment. Imagine a pinata that includes not candy, but damnation. That’s the Glitch in a nutshell."
-Jerry Holkins, Penny Arcade
Certainly, Modern Warfare 2's javelin represents the extreme end of the spectrum when it comes to game-altering glitches, but it's important to realize that for a broad swath of gamers, use of any non-developer intended gameplay is viewed with equal disdain. While it may be easy enough to say "no Johns" and move on, at the end of the day the presence of competitive glitches is simply bad for business. Most crucially, glitches create a divide in the community between those who perceive glitching as cheating and those who embrace it with a playing-to-win attitude.
Unfortunately for MLG, the Pro Circuit was built on the backs of games whose core competitive gameplay hinged upon various degrees of glitching. Halo 1 was host to double-meleeing, power-up sharing, grabbing items through walls, grenading down weapons and power-ups, and even power-up timing. And more. As for Melee, the average player knew nothing of wave-dashing, ledge teching or even z-cancelling—core aspects of play for competitive gamers.
While the discovery and implementation of these hidden mechanics kept the hardcore entertained, they created a significant barrier to entry, in terms of both attitude and skill. The result is that playing competitively became an arduous opt-in process. Games like Street Fighter and StarCraft 2 are so successful partly because there's a seamless transition between beginners and experts. There may be mile-wide skill gaps, but you're playing the same game. All players exist on one axis, and getting better naturally progresses you towards higher level play. When the competitive gameplay is so fundamentally different from the game's core experience, that seamless transition disappears. You could be the world's best at Halo 2's default matchmaking settings and it wouldn't begin to prepare you for a Pro Circuit tournament. Achieve a Grandmaster rating in StarCraft 2, however, and you're ready for primetime.
Players are willing to put in the effort to learn advanced techniques, so long as they feel they are playing the game as the developer intended. Using the Penny Arcade forums as a reference, many of the same people who openly opposed wavedashing in Melee and BxRs in Halo 2 could be later found whittling away at incredibly intricate BlazBlue combos or perfecting their last-hitting timing in League of Legends. The difference lies in developer intent. BlazBlue shipped with a DVD explaining character-by-character strategy and combos, and League of Legends makes its gameplay transparent through a series of tutorials.
As much as veteran Major League Gamers look back on the days of double-shotting and backpack reloading with the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia, glitching needs to become a thing of the past. Sure, those same types of mechanics can still exist in games, but not as glitches. Gameplay techniques should either be directly promoted by the developer or patched out entirely. Loading screen tips are a great way to ease players into the nuances of advanced play without overburdening beginners, and could even be tailored to suit the skill levels of the players. For StarCraft 2, perhaps a new player would be shown a graphic displaying the difference between a regular move command and an attack-move command, whereas an intermediate player would see a three-panel explanation of the extractor trick.
There are few things that will make a player chuck a title to the local used-game shop faster than being repeatedly thrashed by a glitch they don't even understand. It feels like cheating, like being violated, and you certainly can't expect players to stick around for future expansions if they feel that their only options in multiplayer are cheating or losing. Jerry Holkins' first response to Gears of War 3? "It’s good because it has the power to banish the Magical Teleporting Chainsaw."
Unifying the Playerbase with Developer-Intended Settings
"But also, I wonder how much it helps that there is a single map. Sometimes you want more maps, to be sure. People usually want more of X. But as an observer, you’ve got a foundation. You know where the “goal” is, and this helps… A game you can watch, and understand! Crazy, I know."
-Jerry Holkins, Penny Arcade [referring to League of Legends]
Summoner's Rift: League of Legend's deceptively simple map
High-level gameplay hasn't always provided an enjoyable spectator experience, particularly to players who are new to that particular game. In the past it has been entirely possible to play a game for a few hours with your buddies, tune into a tournament broadcast and be completely confused by the onscreen action. The combination of the aforementioned glitching, new maps and advanced strategies can create viewership experiences that are impenetrable to beginning players. So how does a game succeed, both for those who play it and those who only want to watch others play it?
It's important to realize that, traditionally, the conflict between competitive and default settings was born of necessity. Competitive settings didn't come about because the default gameplay wasn't fun. Quite the contrary. The inherent fun-factor in a game's core mechanics drives players to play for hours on end. As players progress in skill, certain types of gameplay hit their expiration date. For example: in Halo 1, as our skills increased, even my casual neighborhood friends grew frustrated with Blood Gulch. It simply became too easy to spawn trap the other team, particularly when vehicles entered the picture.
My friends and I didn't set out to become tournament competitors (especially since these experiences predated any tournament scene), but certain elements of the gameplay simply stopped providing satisfaction as we improved. We naturally shifted away from Blood Gulch and Sidewinder in favor of Damnation, Chill Out and Hang Em' High. It's no coincidence that when I finally discovered MLG in 2004, I learned that their tournament settings were nearly identical to the ones we were by then using in our living-room LAN sessions. We both independently gravitated towards gameplay that remained fun and rewarding regardless of skill level.
Halo and Melee, both released in late 2001, were not designed with the demands of the eventual country-spanning 10-stop 2004 MLG Pro Circuit in mind. In each case, considerable and continual changes to gameplay settings were required to maintain a competitively viable and interesting tournament environment. Melee players faced dozens of questions that persisted for the game’s entire lifecycle: which items, if any? Which stages should be banned? Counter-pickable? Stage striking? In what order do character changes occur between games in a set? How should a set continue when players are meeting for a second time in a tournament? Ultimately, both Halo 1 and Super Smash Bros. Melee found competitive followings, despite the wholesale changes to the default gameplay. So where's the problem?
When your default gameplay stops appealing to players who reach a certain skill level, gamers are faced with a choice: either repurpose the game to provide a more enjoyable high-end experience, or move on entirely. Effectively, when competitive settings differ from developer defaults, gamers must choose to opt in to the tournament scene. Often times the barrier to entry is fairly significant; you have to visit forums to even find like-minded players and learn an entirely new way of playing the game. Particularly frustrating for players is the fact that skills attained in the default game don't necessarily translate to the competitive environment.
The end result is a strikingly wide rift between those who have opted-in to tournament settings and those who haven't. Any member of the Halo 2 community can attest to the eternal flame-war that perpetuated between the mlgpro.com and bungie.net forum members. The high barrier to entry produced two diametrically opposed factions of players: those who wanted balanced tournament settings and those who couldn't imagine anything more loathsome than resolving most of your firefights with the battle rifle.
This barrier doesn't exist in all games. In games like StarCraft 2 and Street Fighter, there is no clear gameplay distinction between competitive and non-competitive players. When you're all in the same pool, there's no resentment of the competitive community. Ken didn't get much respect around the web until he went on Survivor, but players like Daigo and Boxer were adored wherever they were known.
The benefits of a unified player base are immediately evident. The spectacle of high-level play attracts new players to the game, and a fulfilling skill-testing experience keeps the existing player base active. When you watch the pros, you’re watching them play the same game that you play (even though they might be infinitely better). My last article explained how exciting tournament gameplay firmly hitched me to the StarCraft 2 bandwagon, and my newfound passion for the game has already caused several friends to follow suit.
Early competitive titles achieved balanced and competitive gameplay by stripping away many of their games' default features, but that isn’t inevitable; high-level Smash simply didn't play well with items, and Halo didn't have maps where vehicles were balanced and interesting. Of course, gameplay doesn't need to be vanilla to competitively viable. The Marvel versus Capcom series overloads every character with game-breaking abilities, and League of Legends is filled to the brim with dragons, unique items and powerful spells. In fact, I'd love to see vehicles work their way into competitive Halo play in an interesting and balanced fashion. It would require some thoughtful map design, but what fan wouldn't like to see Roy and Lunchbox hurtling between platforms in a daring Mongoose run?
Make Your Game Attractive to Beginners and Casual Players
For an article on competitive game design, this final section may seem rather unorthodox. In the world of eSports, Shadowrun stands as a cautionary tale for developers looking to create a game with a foundation in the competitive community. In terms of gameplay, Shadowrun did everything correctly. The shooting felt great, the strategy was deep and open to infinite creativity, and the core settings were a blast for beginners and experts alike. Shadowrun completely failed, however, in making its game accessible. Without features that attract and cater to beginners and casual players, a game is destined to die out.
Despite multiplayer games growing in popularity year after year, for a large portion of the gaming populace, video games are still a “come for the single-player, stay for the multiplayer” type thing. Shadowrun nailed the multiplayer, but simply didn't get enough customers through the turnstiles to keep the lights on. Reviewers panned Shadowrun's lack of a campaign mode, and gamers weren't willing to shell out the cash for a multiplayer only experience. In the years that have followed, multiplayer-only offerings like League of Legends and Team Fortress 2 have shifted to a free-to-play model to get players in the door.
And it was worth every penny.
In addition to the lack of a campaign, Shadowrun lacked a well-structured matchmaking system. It's well known that games and competitions are at their best when the teams or players are evenly matched, but it’s equally clear that players enjoy a system of progression that rewards them for simply playing even if their skills aren't improving. Certainly, modern matchmaking design has become very demanding and complex, and I think StarCraft 2 provides a good example of how to provide people with concurrent systems of progress; firstly and most importantly, the matchmaking itself is based on player skill and nothing else. I've logged 300 1v1 ladder matches, and they've all been enjoyable because the system matches me with players with very similarly skill levels. Note that this goes hand and hand with streamlining the game settings; the less fragmented your player base, the closer you can match players in multiplayer.
In StarCraft 2, thanks to placement matches and skill-based matchmaking, players reach the sweet spot of closely matched games almost immediately. 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.
StarCraft 2's matchmaking design succeeds in another area; it provides a visible system of progress that rewards players just for showing up and playing. With the bonus pool system, all players will naturally gain rank points over time, even if their skills are not increasing. These rank points don't affect matchmaking, but they do wonders for a player's psychology; almost every time you play, your displayed rank increases.
3rd Place on the Silver Ladder is still 3rd Place.
StarCraft 2 also caters to players of all types by making custom games easily accessible. Although it's clear from their interface that laddering is the primary focus of the multiplayer experience, it's never been easier to find players for whatever wacky mod you please. Simply click on the gametype, press play, and you'll be matched with other players looking to do the same. There's no need to visit a forum looking for like-minded players, or just manually add dozens of names to your friends list and hope you can scrape together enough players for a round of Monobattles.
The principles outlined here aren't necessarily principles of competitive game design, but just plain game design. Don't give players an excuse to leave your game. Whether it's frustration from getting consistently blown out in matchmaking, glitches turning you off from gameplay or the inaccessibility of fun alternative custom games, any barriers in design are bad for the health of the game. When you design a core gameplay experience that appeals to players across the skill spectrum, the community becomes more cohesive and players stick around your game longer. The incentives are all there. For a lifelong competitive gamer, it is great to see the results every time a developer gets it right.