Something to Lose: The Pitfalls and Potential of Competitive Multiplayer

Chris Watters examines how some games are spoiling online competition and what others are doing to save it.


The video game industry runs on competition. Every day, millions of consumers flock to virtual sporting arenas, fight clubs, racetracks, and battlefields to face off against other players in a broad variety of contests. And it's no wonder; the emotional highs and lows of competition translate beautifully to the digital realm. The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, the fellowship of teamwork, the pride of improving your skills, and the simple pleasure of play can all be found in competitive video games.

In fact, given their ability to manipulate rules, systems, and mechanics far beyond what is possible in the real world, games have the power to intensify competition in unique ways. Experience and reward systems like the one pioneered by Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare are prevalent, systems in which victorious players earn a deluge of cosmetic and concrete rewards. These prizes can certainly make winning more gratifying, but they can also have a subversive effect that erodes the very basis of competition.

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The problem is that such prizes aren't reserved for the winners. Losing players also earn rewards, just at a slower rate than their victorious opponents. In such systems, even the losers haven't really lost. Getting a consolation prize is all well and good, but by softening the impact of defeat, games like Call of Duty diminish the emotional range of competition. The sweetness of victory is diluted by the knowledge that you also would've made out alright if you had lost. The energizing fire kindled by the frustration of loss is doused, replaced by carrot-on-a-stick motivation to just keep cranking through matches and earning rewards. When the stakes are trivialized, the competitive spirit becomes a pale shade of what it could be.

Fortunately, there are games that recognize the value of losing and do some clever things to preserve its power. One of the most basic ways that games encourage players to care about losing is rank. Not a Battlefield 3 or Killzone 3-style rank that can never decrease regardless of how poorly the player does, but a Halo 2 or Street Fighter IV-style rank that rises and falls depending on performance. Ranks like these play a critical role in many matchmaking systems as they aim to pair Starcraft II players of comparable skill, or minimize the likelihood of one-sided matches in League of Legends.

But therein lies the limitation of rank; it is entirely dependent on how much the player cares about their standing.
Competitors in these games often care deeply about their rank, surging with pride when they move up and churning with frustration when they get bumped down. Rank becomes an indicator of status and skill, and for players who hold their current number or league standing dear, it can be a strong motivator to avoid loss. But therein lies the limitation of rank; it is entirely dependent on how much the player cares about their standing. There are no in-game consequences for holding a lower or higher rank. The player is placed in a different tier of competitors, but they still experience the same game content. These kind of rank systems rely on players to motivate themselves, but other games take a more active role in stoking the competitive fires.

While rank systems exist outside of the gameplay proper, some games use in-game consequences to punish losing. In the classic hotbed of competition, Counter-Strike, players can improve their loadouts using money they earn during the match. Lose the match, however, and your loadout is reset to the default, leaving you at a disadvantage. Gun Monkeys uses a similar monetary system to govern your overall progress. You use money to buy guns for your loadout, but high-level weapons are expensive. In order to unlock them, you must stockpile winnings from successful matches, but one loss can bankrupt you and leave prime equipment well out of reach. In America's Army, players who violate the rules of engagement by injuring teammates or civilians risk stalling or reversing their progress through the leveling system, and can be automatically kicked from the game for serious violations. This system is particularly interesting because negative reinforcement isn't simply used to discourage losing; it's used to encourage players to play the game a certain way.

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The driving simulator iRacing takes this kind of encouragement seriously. In order to access more than just a handful of rookie-friendly events, you need to earn a higher license. Interestingly, though there is a skill rank similar to the ranks discussed above, it is your safety rating that directly affects your license progress. This safety rating measures your performance independently of race results. Every time you collide with another racer, hit the wall, stray off track, or commit graver safety infractions, your rating is diminished.

In iRacing, as in America's Army, this negative reinforcement does more than just discourage poor performance. Maintaining a high safety rating is required for higher level licenses that give you access to a broader range of official events. Players who race recklessly are limited to a small number of events, while those who respect the rules of the track are given greater opportunities. This cultivates an online community that is dedicated to a certain standard of competition. Without yahoos careening around the track, competitors can focus on the finer challenges of racing, enjoying a heightened sense of realism and more intense competition.

…negative reinforcement isn't simply used to discourage losing; it's used to encourage players to play the game a certain way.
In these two examples, having something to lose strengthens the core mechanics of the game and brings players together in the same competitive spirit. But in The Last of Us, the threat of loss exists outside of the core mechanics of the game. In the team-based competitive multiplayer mode, you must kill the other team by outmaneuvering, out-crafting, out-shooting, and out-bludgeoning them. Your performance in each round moves you along a linear unlock path that grants you new weapons and survival skills for your custom loadout. Taken at this level, it isn't much different from the everyone's-a-winner competitive systems described earlier.

There is, however, another element in play. When you enter the competitive mode, you are cast as the leader of a camp of survivors who exist nowhere else but in a small virtual petri dish on the multiplayer menu screen. The game challenges you to keep your group alive for twelve weeks until they can be evacuated to a safer place. Each match represents a day and, crucially, an opportunity to gather the supplies that your camp needs. If you have a good match, you can feed your survivors and even add population to your camp. Do poorly, however, and your survivors will become hungry, sick, and even die. Lose all your survivors and you must start the twelve-week challenge all over again.

This challenge exists separately from the aforementioned unlock progression. You can earn one-use boosters by growing your camp and completing timed mini-challenges, but these small bonuses have little impact on the core combat. The whole system is an ancillary part of the multiplayer mode, and you can enjoy the intense competitive action immensely without caring whether your survivors live or die.

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But odds are, you will care. You will become attached to your survivors, especially if you've taken advantage of the clever Facebook connection option that populates your camp with names and faces from your friend list. You'll delight in seeing short messages that tell you your coworker is skinning a raccoon or your old roommate is repairing the north wall. When you see that your cousin is feeling desperately hungry, you'll flinch a little bit in spite of the fact that you know it's a fabrication. Even if you don't import names you know, you'll still take risks to grab supplies on the battlefield to avoid losing survivors. You'll feel creeping dread as the match wears on and you know you haven't been doing well. And at the end of a timed challenge when you don't have enough medicine to save everyone, you'll feel remorse when you have to choose which two survivors to save and which one to let die.

And those feelings, however fleeting or frivolous they may seem, are what makes this system so compelling. The Last of Us doesn't wound your pride with status loss or hurt your chances with material loss, it stings you with emotional loss. By creating a system removed from the core mechanics, The Last of Us' multiplayer mode transcends the idea of competition for competition's sake and gives the player something greater to fight for.

Not only does this resonate strongly with the principal themes of the campaign and make The Last of Us a more cohesive whole, it demonstrates the remarkable power of games to do more with competition than simply provide an exciting way for people to play. Some games soften the competitive stakes while others cultivate strong competitive communities, but ultimately these are replications of what competition is like in the real world. Imaginative systems like the one in The Last of Us show that competition can be enriched by context, that play can be elevated by emotion, and that video games are uniquely positioned to deliver such engaging experiences. Let's just hope the competition takes notice.


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Avatar image for gzg9jg

I'm impressed with how the last of us is doing the competitive mode, having that emotional element to the game play seems awesome. I hadn't given it much thought but I'm going to start the competitive mode asap. I also found it cool that you can import your friends names and faces.

Avatar image for supasonic02

The lack of motivation for competition is the reason why Halo 4 was such a huge disappointment to me. I prefer halo 3 and it's ranking system, and if rank mode wasn't your thing you could always play social slayer . Im sick of the cod system.

Avatar image for docampo

As a Gamespot fan since its beginning, I get very disappointed when Gamespot let guys like Chris Waters present his almost childish opinion about video games. This article seems like was written by a spoiled child who wants all the XP for him and others whose life is dedicated only to play video games.

Avatar image for DoogyDonDoogy

This is a silly article I would argue that just as a player motivates themselves to keep their rank high, so does a player motivate themselves to unlock perks quicker. Not to mention the motivation of keeping your K/D at a decent #.

Gun Monkeys , Counter-Strike, & America's Army who plays those games anyway? I'm willing to wager those aren't "top-tier" popular games and for good reasons too. Who would want to play games with such punishing online play? I think people tend to get forget and gloss over the fact that video games are meant to be fun. Not all of them have to gift you with some enlightening experience.

"The whole system is an ancillary part of the multiplayer mode, and you can enjoy the intense competitive action immensely without caring whether your survivors live or die."

That quote right there says it all, I read this article twice and on the second reading I got what he was talking about with The Last of Us Multiplayer that does sound pretty cool. Still I feel this shouldn't be the blueprint for where online multi-player should go. Sure it's fun & fresh for this game but everyone shouldn't take this route.

I like the notion of other developers taking note, though if they elect not too and just make the game just plain old fun without the emotional investment or punishing deranking systems I'll be A-OK with that.

Avatar image for Dragonborn569

How exactly did the overrated MW4 pionered experience and reward system in multiplayer? You're an old hag, I though you'd know that such systems existed in MMOFPS for a very long time. Understood? You moronic COD fanboy.

Avatar image for Strategygamer22

Yesterday, my friend and I were playing Black Ops 2 split screen online. I was utterly horrified. Instead of trying to work together and capture points in order to win the match, everyone was just running around shooting each other because that was the best way to get XP. Winning didn't matter in the slightest. As much as I enjoy having progress and unlocks tied into multiplayer, when it becomes the driving factor of the game (instead of the actual gameplay) the game is effectively ruined. With the exception of a select few games (DOTA 2, LoL, Team Fortress 2) I stick to either single player or split screen multiplayer.

Avatar image for lbryson8

I agree with the Halo example. They need to bring back ranking where you can move up or down. I cant tell you how many times ive beaten someone who has prestiged a bagillion times in COD but been completely man handled by someone who is level 2. There is never a sense of rank and you never know how you compare except at the end of each individual match.

Avatar image for ThAdEa82

For cod, since its coming out soon: matchmaking is broken. Clanned up boosting spawn trappers all day on sunday, also I can see penalizing players but in order to really benefit from something like that, issues like horrible lag, rage quit offenses for repeat offenders, 18,000 bullets to kill 1 guy, when you knife, it actually registering as opposed to shooting at an opponent several times only to have their knife register all day every day. Competitive multi can be fun as long as those competed against are also competitive gamers

Avatar image for frylock1987

I dont have a problem with competitive multiplayer...but I do have a problem with it when they start to call themselves "Athletes"

Avatar image for dante_gunslinge

On-line trophies are necessary, but in some games like Red Dead Redemption some of the important trophies can be obtained only with the help of other players, and without those trophies we cannot get a Platinum. THIS IS SO WRONG. There should be on-line trophies but the necessary trophies for the platinum must not need the help of other on-line players cause this makes some of the trophies impossible to get if the other player don't want to help :( :)

Avatar image for dante_gunslinge

50% single player and 50% multilayer that makes a game worth buying :)

Avatar image for echo316

I hate playing online multiplayer and wish developers would STOP making online multiplayer trophies mandatory for achieving platinum, such as for The Last of Us.

I can appreciate it as a push to get you to try the online feature but I resent the fact that I have to dedicate countless hours to playing a mode of the overall game that I really dislike and am horrible at in order to attain my platinum. I would much rather focus my time and energy playing the single player which I actually enjoy.

The whole social aspect of online gaming should be optional and not obligatory.

Avatar image for TheOneAndOnlyDC

So because you don't enjoy multiplayer those of us who do shouldn't get any trophies? I personally don't enjoy playing single player in a manner that requires searching every single corner and having every discussion. Nor do I necessarily enjoy playing the single player campaign 2-3 times over. I don't expect them to remove trophies for those who do though. As an online gamer it i lame when a game has zero multiplayer trophies.

Avatar image for echo316

@TheOneAndOnlyDC I'm not saying that there shouldn't be trophies awarded for multiplayer achievements, rather those should not be mandatory for achieving a platinum trophy. But yeah, I see your point how some single player trophy achievements can be just as tedious, time consuming and require multiple campaign playthroughs that some may not enjoy either. One thing I do credit Naughty Dog for is just how vastly different the single player and online multiplayer games play. The multiplayer is definitely a valuable addition and experience to the game. I just have never been good at online gaming.

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@RaveNRolla @echo316 Hey thanks for the awesome tips! I'm still at a pretty low level so I'll be sure to look for that booster when it becomes available.

I played factions for 2 hours last night and do admit that it is slowly growing on me. I was even able to manage 5 downs in a round of Supply Raid which is ashamedly a stellar performance for me...even though I died like 8 times which probably hurt my team more than the downs I made.

My aim is so terrible. At one point, this guy was down and I tried executing him with my burst rifle from a near distance but he managed to crawl away to safety. FAIL.

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@echo316 i got a tip for u tho if u really hate the mp and/or are bad at it. make a loadout with the booster crafter lvl 3 (5 loadout points) as soon as u unlock it and just craft a lot of stuff to create gifts for ur teammates. giving 1 gift grants u as much points as downing an enemy. so u should be able to complete both journeys like this. furthermore the stuff u give ur teammates should also make it easier for ur team to win. leave easy missions like giving gifts or shiv kills for the 100% population risk events and u should be good. of course u still have to invest sum time (168 matches to be precise) but who knows maybe u'll even start to like it :)

Avatar image for jeck7788

The clan system of The Last of Us is the worst part of the multiplayer in my opinion. I could care less about keeping some fake arbitrary clan members alive, nor do I care if they are hungry, or how large my clan grows to. I wish they gave an option for people to play without worrying about the clan. The goals don't help and actually hinder the gameplay, because you have too many people just focused on trying to reach the ever more difficult goals to accomplish, not playing as a team, and quitting matches because they didn't reach the goal. I'd much rather they take that away for those who don't want to worry about that, and instead add infected into the MP.

Avatar image for Speranza318

The Last of Us is the best multiplayer system I've come across in this genre of games. I've seen no cheaters so far (IE autoaim, damage invulnerability, teleporting, etc). A week 0 player can kill a week 120 player using smoke and a shiv with no unfair perks or any BS that favors "time played" over skill.

The only downside for us "competitive players" are the people who boost to get their population to 512 (which you will see a lot of on the leaderboards) and their parts per second artificially increased. Obviously these players are exploiters, but at the end of the day it doesn't matter to most players. The perks can be unlocked regardless of these people. The real challenge is simply staying alive and once you've unlocked all your custom outfits (some of which are very challenging like the skull mask and depend on game to game performance), the multiplayer simply becomes killing the other team and outmaneuvering them/playing as a team to outsmart them. It's a really nice system overall and more games should go by this model where you can simply rely on skill and tactics over spawn camping, unlocking superior guns and perks to bomb entire maps like, lets say, COD does.

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@Speranza318 The Last Of Us needs to have a separate leader board for the "No Parties" rooms. As you mentioned, there is no way people got their population to 512 without cheating. And since they have made the welcome addition of rooms without parties, I would like to have a leader board that reflects how well players do against other players that are actually trying.

Avatar image for Ariost

I know this probably wouldn't work, but if these developers claim their MP isn't tacked on or is worth the experience. Seperate the two, charge $29.99 for the MP on one disc and $29.99 for the SP on another disc. Then will see how much people really want MP on every game.

Avatar image for Goobshoeriot

@Ariost Whoa whoa whoa.. careful there.. That's the kind of logic they'll use to sell you a $59.99 game AND Multiplayer at $19.99.. ex: EA Online Pass. That's a great idea and I like it tho, don't get me wrong. A lot of games come out with multi that just feels forced so yea I'd save money and buy the SP only. But if we open up those doors Someone will find a way to exploit it and rape you for more money

Avatar image for PutU2REM

The problem with raising the stakes in competition is that it can often make the competition more bitter and less fun. It encourages the win-at-all-costs attitude that often permeates competitive activities, leading to even more players who exploit every last imbalance they possibly can, stuff their playstyle with as much cheese as possible, spew invective when they lose, and gloat when they win.

Personally, I don't find any of that behavior attractive. I like relaxed, easy-going competition where everyone gives their all but isn't too upset when it isn't enough. That attitude becomes more difficult to maintain the higher the stakes become.

Avatar image for Zidaneski

What TLOU did really surprised me. I scoffed at the clan faction system when I first heard about it but it grew on me before I even realized it. I don't play the multiplayer much but I was scared to let my friend play on my account (newb) because I was afraid he'd get all my clan members killed, lol.

Avatar image for DrowNoble

Multiplayer in some games is an afterthought, like in the new Tomb Raider. It's there just to be there, so they could say the game has multiplayer but doesn't fit with the fans or the them of the game. In this case, it's wasted as development time should of been spent on the single player experience instead.

Sometimes it's forced upon you, whether you want it or not. Mass Effect 3 exemplifies this. You have a readiness modifier of 50% to start so any readiness points you earn in single player are halved... unless you play multiplayer. Again, this was essentially tacked on since the game was single player previously to just say "we have multiplayer". Yet, Bioware took it a step further and basically required it if you wanted to get your overall readiness ratings up. (note: I'm aware that at this time the rating is meaningless as the endings were pre-determined by Bioware)

Then we have WoW's early multiplayer days. When first added it was a ladder system that took into account the number of kills and honor points you earned. Win matches, earn more honor. Kill players closer to your level earn more honor. Kill vendors/newbie players lose honor. This meant that people actually cared about winning matches. There were rewards that required a certain rank to acquire. With only one Rank 14 per server per week, the best rewards were given to the best player. Then Blizzard changed it to the current system. Now, honor is always earned and the points straight up buy gear with no ranks required. As a result, no one cares about winning or losing as you still earn points either way. Fishing in the AV battleground was a common occurrance as a result until Blizzard removed fish from the lake.

I think multiplayer should only go into a game where it fits with the theme and style of the game. It also should give some rewards that a casual player will never get, reserved solely for the ones that devote time and effort into acheiving higher ranks. A few nice rewards for casual players are needed however, just keep the best ones only for those that really spend the time playing.

Avatar image for arqe

@DrowNoble Remember all those "Alterac Valley" battles. After server reset "Alterac Valley" gates are opens and closes after 1 week becouse none of the teams can win.

Avatar image for DrowNoble

@arqe @DrowNoble I admit that once people stopped caring about winning since "it's all about the honor points" I was one of the ones who started fishing in AV. Why waste time fighting and getting killed when I can quietly fish and still gain honor?

Heck my server would even have "losing AB groups", you go in and intentionally allow the other team to 5 cap so you can get the quick honor points. Requeue, Repeat.

Avatar image for Wej_accept_it

Feels like this article highlights yet more reasons why so many reviews of TLOU were better then the score it got here

Avatar image for TomMcShea

@Wej_accept_it The Last of Us has amazing multiplayer. I even said as much in the review.

Avatar image for Tech-head

@TomMcShea @Wej_accept_it

If you thought the multi-player was amazing and gave the game an 8, then you must have really hated the single player...

Avatar image for Speranza318

@TomMcShea @Wej_accept_it The key that makes TLOS shine above other MP games is the fact that every player can kill another regardless of their "weeks played". A Molotov will kill someone if thrown right - there's no "haha noob I have a perk that makes me immune to fire and now I pwn you" system. If you aim, shoot, and maneuver better than your opponent, you win.

The competition to do well in TLOS is purely outfit then the thrill of the hunt once you met the unlock requirements for your outfits. If you see someone wearing a skull mask or a black rancher hat, you know they did a very good job across 12 weeks to earn those items. Even when you "boost" which is fairly obvious when you look at leaderboards, it's not easy to keep a population of 130-140 into week 11 and 12 and some bad luck matches or a disconnect can screw you up.

I hope more online games take this approach in the future. It's rare to see a MP game that is not "loot/perk based" do so well and retain it's thrill across many hours.

Avatar image for King9999

Good article. As a fighting game player, rank doesn't count for much as the top online players are likely to be cheaters. This is one of the reasons why local play will always be superior to online play. I wonder if some kind of degrading rank system would help curb cheaters? Basically, the idea is that your rank goes down over time when you're not playing the game. Maybe after a month or so, your rank would begin to drop; that way, the cheaters can't take the #1 spot and sit on it. At the same time, it could encourage more playtime, and maybe produce better players overall.

Avatar image for inaka_rob

Ahhhh. Halo 2! My friends an I fought tooth and nail to get our rank up on that game. Well earned upper 30's if I remember. But of coruse even that system was effed up with people cheating. Getting their friends to help boost their rank. Plenty of times we owned level 50's becuae they sucked donkey nuts and just cheated their way to the top.

Avatar image for EL_Bomberdor

I have to admit. As much as I hate the COD style release map packs for cash every two minutes I would enjoy new TLOU maps. ND bring out some good ones because you kinda show the likes of COD how to make good maps.

Avatar image for BloodMist

Wolfenstein Enemy Territory invented the FPS ranking and level system with perks, just so that everyone knows.

Avatar image for s_h_a_d_o

No mention of Strife, and it's developmental approach to re-educating online [MOBA] players...

Avatar image for WickedCalm


Avatar image for Gamer_4_Fun

I am shocked how great the last of us multiplayer is. They somehow brought the slow paced, tension filled gameplay into frag fest multiplayer we know so well. It is the game I finished 4 times in a row (on my 5th run).

Avatar image for godofwarbfcodfa

@Gamer_4_Fun sadly for me i cant play a game more than once on a campaign

Avatar image for MikeRobe867

@godofwarbfcodfa @Gamer_4_Fun Depending on the game, the second time is usually better for me, because I actually know what I'm doing, and can avoid making certain mistakes that took away from the experience (especially in games with RPG elements)

Avatar image for Gamer_4_Fun

@godofwarbfcodfa Obviously won't be as fun as the first time. But oddly, this game holds up extremely well because of the solid gameplay mechanics.

Avatar image for godofwarbfcodfa

just cause i made the switch to cs go i got a bit angry u didnt mention the cs go ranking where u can derank or rank up by ure skill and performance ONLY

Avatar image for ---Cipher---

It all went downhill once we started awarding "participation" ribbons....

Avatar image for ninedot

Well written commentary - really agree with what is being said here. Keep up the good work Chris Watters

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Cheers, @ninedot !