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Casual Encounters - The Evils of Streaks, Perks and Level Unlocks

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Online multiplayer has always been about core gamers. In this day and age, when over 40 million individuals play Call of Duty every month, developers have a big incentive to court casual gamers as well. This is part 3 of my "casual encounters" series. Part 1 tried to establish that catering multiplayer to casual gamers is still far from us, and part 2 tried to tackle the basics of how to get there.

If you're looking to alienate casual gamers, over-emphasis on streaks, perks and level unlocks is the way to go. I've abandoned too many good games because their efforts of extending playability have simply become too much of a bother.

By definition, casual gamers are not looking to dive too deeply into any multiplayer universe. Making you jump through too many hoops until you actually get to the fun part is a sure way to lose this crowd. This may be easier to grasp with an analogy. Try to look at the typical casual gamer as the notorious modern male: immature, seeking instant gratification and terribly afraid of commitment. You are probably not going to get a meaningful, long-lasting, loving relationship from someone who just occasionally wants to have some fun.

Level Unlocks

I get the idea behind level unlocks, I really do. There's a science behind starting you off with a fairly limited character and letting you unlock more skills, abilities and weapons as you progress. This is an excellent method to prolong an otherwise quickly tiresome game and squeeze several hours more from your average player. Unlocking is extremely gratifying, and as experience shows, the best way to feed an addiction is giving it time to grow. Throw too much at a junkie at once, and they are very likely to overdose.

Progression-based unlocking has become one of the basic building blocks of gaming. I can't think of a single classic campaign where you start off at the same level you finish with. I agree that in a single player campaign, this is a must. In multiplayer though, the story is completely different.

So why is there such a great difference between single player and multiplayer. For starters, playing through an entire campaign (and progressing your character to its single play-through maximum) usually takes 5-10 hours. I've yet to see a game where you can max your multiplayer character in 5 hours. Gamers tend to play multiplayer for far longer than single player, and progression is stretched accordingly. In addition, single player difficulty is made proportional to your level of progression. As your character becomes stronger, you start meeting tougher new enemies. It wouldn't make too much sense if you were butchered by the final game boss when you've barely unlocked anything. This ridiculous behavior often happens with multiplayer though. A day old player, armed with nothing but the basic barely functional gun is matched against an army of level 70 veterans who make the final game boss look like a stroll in the park.

Casual gamers are low on investment time. It makes sense to expect them to invest a total of 5-10 hours in a single player campaign and reward them with a maxed-out character at the end. It gets problematic when you expect them to invest 100 hours to get the same thing in multiplayer. This is made far worse when their competition often does have access to higher levels. Being butchered for a 100 hours makes sense if I know that one day I will do this butchering myself to young players. When I'm perfectly aware that this loving relationship will not last over 50 hours... it simply doesn't.

So what should developers do? Dropping progression-based unlocking altogether in multiplayer loses too many points with core gamers, so you obviously can't do that. What you can do is offer a few gaming modes where everything is unlocked by default to everybody. Call of Duty Blacks Ops 2 tried to do just that with League Play. What did they get wrong? League play offers zero control over which game modes you participate in (free for all/team deathmatch/capture the flag). Some modes (like the party modes or combat training) don't even appear there, making the overall experience for a gamer never looking to unlock anything quite limited and repetitive. In addition, the entire concept of a league and competitive ranked play is pretty much the opposite of what a casual gamer is looking for.

Streaks and Perks

It has become quite mandatory for a multiplayer game to offer some sort of perking mechanism to reward good players with successful streaks. The mechanic is pretty straight forward. Kill a bunch of players in a row without dying (or complete other objectives if this isn't plain deathmatch), and we will reward you with a perk that is otherwise very hard to come by. This perk can be a special powerful weapon that nobody else has, a devastating attack that rains fire over half the map or any other treat that makes your life easier on the expense of others.

If all gamers were created equal, this mechanic would make sense to me. It's a competition and we should reward the best. Giving them medals and high scores is boring... letting them humiliate their competition further is much more fun. For them at least. Earning these streaks is a big part of what makes the game exciting for experienced players. If you had the living s**t kicked out of you, just practice practice practice... be the next one that earns a streak and have your sweet revenge.

Now let's examine this mechanic from the perspective of a casual gamer. If I'm a casual gamer, chances are that I'm already not as skilled as veteran players. Practice makes perfect + I'm not willing to put the hours in = I'm already getting my ass kicked. Earning a streak?! Hell, I'm just trying to stay alive between consecutive kills. Arrgg.. Stop killing me! Why does his bullets hit and mine miss all the time?! I gotta take some time and learn this map, they keep creeping up on me! Oh I see this guy! I'm finally going to have my revenge on killing me 5 times in a row! WTF?! Where did this nuclear bomb come from???

Casual gamers are not aiming for streaks. Even if we score them, we rarely bother going into the full details of the perk combinations and what they do. If it's not part of the basic gameplay, don't bother us with it.

Canceling streaks and perks is probably out of the question, since competitive core gamers live for that stuff. So what can developers do? Well, one option is the magic solution of having a separate game mode where streaks and perks are disabled. Uncharted 3 tried to do just that with a mode eliminating medal kickbacks and boosters. What did they get wrong? They named it "Hardcode" and made sure it's crawling with the best of the veterans... This was actually harder to play than usual. Another obvious solution is improving skill-based matchmaking. If all players are of the same skill level, streaks will not be so one sided and frustrating. Another idea is sharing the perks with the entire team (noobs included). So if one player on the team scored the streak, someone else from his buddies may get the chance to drive the nuclear bomb.

It's pretty clear that casual gamers and core gamers are two different breeds. They are quite difficult to mix, and if you make this mistake, both sides will end up complaining. Our conclusion from this part? Making the separation should not only be done during matchmaking, it should also be done during setting of the rules which govern gameplay itself.

I've been playing CoD BLOPS 2 for the past few days. Dear Mr. Vonderhaar, I've got a post planned just for you. Anyways, the next part of this series will be about creative solutions to core-casual inbreeding. Stay tuned, things may get quite bizarre.

Casual Encounters - Matchmaking by Skill

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As a proud casual gamer, I am disappointed to see that even AAA titles are struggling with catering online multiplayer to casual gamers. This post is part 2 of my "casual encounters" series. Part 1 tried to establish that there is a problem, the next parts are all about how to fix it.

There is certainly more than one way to make multiplayer more approachable for casual gamers. I'll save the more creative ones for later posts. With this post I want to tackle the basics - what's usually broken with how matchmaking is done and how to improve.

Well, what's broken is pretty straightforward - skill is commonly not factored in, and even when it is, it usually misses the mark. It is ridiculous that a level 70 veteran is matched against a day-old noob, and you'll be surprised at how often this happens. With franchises like Call of Duty attracting 40 million active monthly players, the matchmaking pool is obviously big enough to expect this never happens. Treyarch is questioning why doesn't everybody play CoD multiplayer, well.. that's definitely part of the answer.

What Is Skill?

If we want to base matchmaking on skill, we should first define correctly what skill is. You know what.. It's more fun to point out what skill is not. Skill is not my rank/level/XP. These levels of progression measure actually how long I've played the game. I will eventually get to level 50 with Uncharted 3 multiplayer, and guess what.. I'll still suck.

The only way to determine my skill is examine how well I perform in actual matches. Now don't sneer and say that's what league play is all about. I'm a casual gamer, I don't want to be part of a league, I find ranked competitive play intimidating, not fun. Measuring my skill should be done discretely in the background. Just like I don't care about my ping or latency scores, I don't want to be constantly reminded of how bad you think I am.

There are many methods to measure skill. You can count how many kills I have, how well I complete team objectives, etc. You may claim doing this is complicated and expensive, I beg to differ. Let me suggest a very simple mechanism that I expect to perform rather well, and should be a breeze to implement in any online shooter:

My skill is basically a number. in the end of every match, every decent game shows a score board where all match participants are ranked from top to bottom (according to whatever objective the match had). If I'm in the top half, increase my skill by 1. If I'm in the bottom half, decrease by 1. That's it. After enough matches, it should reflect pretty well how good I am. And remember, I don't ever want to see this number!

What Is The Metrics?

Except for a rather poor movie pun, metrics are the heart of a matchmaking algorithm. Developers favor metrics which effect game performance - attempting to make the game run as smooth and fluid as possible, minimizing lags and jitter. This is usually done by matching players from the same region, or taking Internet connectivity parameters into account (ping and latency). These parameters are impervious to who's playing the game. They just measure your connection quality. After calculating the metrics for all players, the matchmaking algorithm itself is rather simple and involves matching together players with similar sets of numbers.

In addition, the matchmaking process is usually divided into 2 main steps. First, choose a group of players to play together. Second, split them into two teams (in case of team matches). I've seen too many good games (Uncharted included) which seem to take skill into account only in the second step. You know, dividing the noobs equally. This is a mistake. Skill must be one of the metrics used for the first step.

Let me say this again for all developers to hear because this is critical - when matchmaking players together, do not rely only on network connectivity parameters. Always take the players' skill into account. If I'm playing with a group of veterans who kill me every 10 seconds, I don't really care if my dying happens with lag or without.

Matchmaking Without Numbers

Up until now, we've used somewhat sophisticated numerical algorithms to implement better matchmaking. This is not a requirement. Let me argue that many of our objectives can be achieved by a far simpler approach.

Online shooters usually have several gaming modes to choose from (deathmatch, teams, capture the flag, etc). Imagine you had another option to choose from - called "the kiddie pool". The kiddie pool isn't anything special, I will probably be exactly the same as one of the other simpler popular modes such as deathmatch or team deathmatch. The only special thing about it, is it's name.

How will this play out? I don't see any hardcore gamers going into the kiddie pool. Well, that's basically what we've wanted to achieve. Problem solved, let's go home.

In summary, we can agree that good skill-based matchmaking isn't too much to expect. I'm not an expert and I've been able to give plenty of ideas. The most important of which is a rather simple one - keep skill part of it.

There's a new CoD coming next week and I'm already preordered. Treyarch is complaining not enough of us casual gamers are playing their multiplayer, next week I'll tell you if it's their fault or not. Also stay tuned to the next part of this series, this time about perks, kill-streaks.. and criticism.

Does Anyone Care About Matchmaking?

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I'm frustrated with modern day multiplayer. In this day and age, is decent matchmaking in online multiplayer games so hard to achieve? How can you expect casual gamers to thrive if they can't find somebody to play with?

Up until several months ago, I was an XBOX360 guy. The problem with my XBOX though, was that I didn't really make use of its multiplayer capability. I'm just a casual gamer you see, and XBL subscription wasn't worth the 5 hours of weekly gaming I do. Well, a new PS3 changed all that. A couple of exclusive titles I've always wanted to try, and all the free online multiplayer I can dream of.

My personal PS3 favorite has always been the Uncharted series, so I got my hands on Uncharted 3 and got to business. Finished the campaign on hard (wasn't that hard really), and set my way to play online with others.

I sucked.

Oh.. I sucked so bad.. it wasn't even fun to play. It's not that I'm a total noob, I've been playing FPS and TPS games for a better half of my life. I did finish the entire campaign before starting multiplayer, so I did get some practice. But for some reason, I was lucky to land more than 3 kills in any match.

This got me thinking. Is online multiplayer reserved for the sole enjoyment of core gamers? Do I really need to invest hundreds of hours in practice so I can have fun too? Is there a place for casual gamers such as myself?

1. Is The Industry Even Interested In Casual Gamers?

Maybe I'm not the target audience.. naa.. that can't be true. The industry is all about expanding the target audience these days. Everybody can be a gamer, go buy your grandma a Wii. Franchises today are so watered down and dumbed down (anyone said CoD), that pushing casual gamers away doesn't make sense.

2. Are Casual Gamers Mostly Focused On Single Player?

That can't be true either. Most single player campaigns don't last for more than 10 hours. Uncharted 3 is a perfect example. A game should have some replay value if I'm expected to buy it. Nothing brings replay value like online multiplayer. Casual gamers may spend much less time gaming, but we enjoy interacting with other people all the same. We are social creatures too.

3. Maybe I Just Didn't Find The Right Game

Well, that can't be true either. You can't get more mainstream than the Uncharted series. It certainly isn't reserved for hardcore gamers. One could claim that Naughty Dog is a weak studio, with subpar multiplayer... Let me stop you right here. Did you look at Naughty Dog?! These guys are awesome! Their games are amazing. I think about The Last Of Us and I start drooling. These guys still put patches out for Uncharted 3. And this game was released a year ago (to the day actually, check).

4. Is Matchmaking Important To Anyone But Me?

Hell yeah! Think about it for a minute. It may be annoying for me to get killed every 2 minutes.. but think about my teammates! Arrggg.. This guy!?! Stop dying already! You're ruining our team score!! Even the guys killing me got bored after a couple of times. Bad match making is bad for everybody.

Then what's wrong with the industry? I think we've established that matchmaking needs to improve. This is something so trivial to do... which is somehow neglected. It's important to separate between the pros and the not so pros. Gamers should be able to play among their own skill level. I deserve to kill more than 3 people in an online match!

What do you think? Are you happy with the level of today's matchmaking?

Next post I want to throw around some ideas on how to improve matchmaking. I refuse to accept that this is some complex unsolvable problem. I'm pretty sure that with a couple of tweaks you can drain all the complaints out of me. Naughy Dog, stay tuned.. and bring your notepads!

Sad But True - Why I Like CoD

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Liking Call of Duty isn't very popular on GameSpot and similar gaming communities. If I didn't know better, just flipping through the comments I would get the notion that CoD isn't a very popular game. Well.. this is obviously incorrect. According to Nielsen, the new CoD is practically number 1 on 2012 holiday wish lists. It's just that some time along the way, this once celebrated franchise has gathered a pretty vocal opposition. I get the rant, it's not cool to like CoD nowadays. Holiday season means a new CoD title. Always the same recycled formula wrapped in a shiny PR bow. Activision only cares about profits. DLC is too expensive. Rant rant rant. Then why is it so damn popular?! Simple! The general public is a mass of brain dead zombies who don't understand what's true gaming is all about and swallow whatever Activision shoves their way. Hell, I like CoD and if that makes me brain dead.. so be it. Contrary to your beliefs, I'm not 15 years old.. I'm actually a bit over 30. I've been a fan of FPS for a better half of my life. I played the original Wolfenstein 3D and Doom when they were released, had after school Quake parties, Unreal Tournament, Half Life, Duke Nukem, Halo, MOH... And guess what, I still like CoD. For the sake of versatility, let me speak on behalf of the evil empire and tell you why I'll probably spend the yearly $60 on CoD BO 4 a few years from now. First, a few words about myself, just to help you label me under all the appropriate stereotypes: 1. I don't consider myself a core gamer. Playing about 5 hours a week, but can also go without gaming for months at a time. 2. I prefer consoles over PC. I'm just tired of chasing the hardware. I'm also lazy and they're easier to connect to my big screen TV. 3. I own both a PS3 and XBOX360. I may be a casual gamer, but I have my limits. No Wii, no kinect. 4. I suck at multiplayer. I can easily beat Uncharted 3 on hard, but I'm lucky to have more than 3 kills in an online match. I'm telling myself it's just because I can't put the hours into it :) I think CoD is great. I'm looking forward for every title. Never been too disappointed till now and I don't have any real complaints about Activision. How can that be? Here's how: 1. Change is overrated Or in other words, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. I like the CoD formula. It works for me. Like many others, I'm a creature of habit, I don't like change. The most I can handle is keeping the graphics up-to-date. If I need my creative gaming fix, I don't turn to Activision. Two of my favorite games this year were Journey (PS3) and Machinarium (iPad actually). If I need fresh, I go there. If I want to shoot people, I just need my old reliable gun. 2. CoD is simple Gaming is an outlet for me.. that's how I blow off steam. I don't play competitively, and I'm not any good even if I were. I actually admire the simplicity of the CoD mechanics. The buttons never change. You can only equip 2 weapons. Just pointing and shooting. No brain surgery. Take the FIFA franchise as a counter example. The last FIFA I actually enjoyed playing was the 1998 France world cup version. Tried to pick up one of the recent ones, and I couldn't wrap my head around the controls. What happened to the good old pass and shoot? Why the hell can I do a 360 dribble and end it with a fake pass? 3. The campaign is satisfying The campaign is usually my favorite part. Every 6 months I get an urge to waltz around and shoot people. Virtually I mean. I grow tired of it after about 10 hours. Well, there's a CoD title out every 6 months (or some other clone). Campaign takes me about 10 hours (we've already established that I'm not super good at it). Me = happy clam. 4. CoD is popular I'm not really a "follow the herd" type of guy, but there's a big plus in a popular franchise. I want to play multiplayer with people who suck like me. The more people out there, the better chance I have of playing against others with my skill level. It's no sport playing against level 70 Uncharted 3 players with all weapon perks maxed out. I never play more than once a week, let me have my fun too. 5. I appreciate the investment in production I remember when games where all about the engine and gameplay mechanics. Unreal Tournament had no voice acting, no cinematics, no script, no plot. Nowadays, game engines are pretty much held back by the hardware, and they're pretty much all the same. I don't expect anything groundbreaking on this front. I'm also ok with the gameplay.. I don't think the human eye can even see 60 FPS, I'm happy with what we have now. I enjoy movies. I like big productions. A good production requires attention on script, casting, acting, locations, music. I kinda like that games like CoD have a long list of credits which is impressively focused on these aspects as well. 6. Big production = big money = big risk Keeping the movie analogy, I like big productions. Don't get me wrong, I do like an indie movie here and there, but there's a warm place in my heart for an over-the-top Hollywood production. Guess what, you can't do those without at least a 7-figure budget. It's no surprise that movie studios invest the big bucks in franchises that are less likely to fumble. That's how the world works. That's why we have 10 reboots of Superman, Spiderman and Batman.