Competitive Gaming 456

…Continued directly from Competitive Gaming 123

A quick review of what that our 1,2,3 was:

1. A level playing field.

2. Effective skill-based matchmaking.

3. Accurate and fair skill & result-based ranking.

What’s always amazed me is that there’s so few competitive games that currently or have ever managed all three of these basic core criteria very well, or even at all in most cases.

One caveat is that, generally, super-hardcore-tournament & clan competition stuff succeeds in adding some or all of these functions at times; but only for the very best & dedicated gamers with the most free time. For example, I’ve used a massive chunk of my XBox Live friends list & Xbox gaming time in effectively providing me a pool of players around my skill level & with good connections to me at Street Fighter 2 HD Remix, and I’ve been to (and run my own!) tournaments for it to provide some kind of actual ranking system. Another great example is how MLG creates completely new ruleset versions of games like Call of Duty to make them be a fair competition; but these examples are not the same thing as these features being available to all players as part of the actual main games. Again, the excellent “3 Keys to a Great Competitive Game” on MLG covers how important it is to provide a single consistent ruleset and matchmaking that makes competitive games attractive to beginners and ‘casual’ players; not just the super-hardcore, I’ve also covered this before.

Let’s look at some recent competitive games and see how they stack up against these criteria:

 

StarCraft II Wings of Liberty

StarCraft II Wings of Liberty: 1,2 & almost all of 3.

Competitive Gaming Design Review:

StarCraft II online with Battlenet 2 is the poster game for exactly how things should be done as far as competitive gaming design goes. It’s no wonder it’s the one of kings of the e-sports ‘scene’ and I’ve put many many hours into playing it competitively, despite the fact the actual skills it tests and competitive challenges the game offers aren’t even that close to my taste. It’s why I almost could summarise this whole of my points into “do it like StarCraft II” if you want to create a good competitive game environment. The only criticism I have for it’s gaming design system is the fact you can only have a single ranking & matchmaking value despite there being 4 race selections available in the game (including ‘Random’). (Note: I also know people have criticsed StarCraft II WoL’s design for being good only for competitive players, something I can appreciate too, but is outside the scope of this article). What’s embarrassing for other competitive games is that StarCraft II even does perfect team-based matchmaking and ranking, better than all other games – and it’s barely even designed or intended as a team game, being primarily played as 1v1.

 

Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo HD RemixSuper Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix: 1 and most of 3.

Competitive Gaming Design Review:

The online gaming system is actually what lets this amazing game down. Even though it’s close in skill-tests and design goals to being my ideal competitive fighting game, playing the basic online ranked match is more like playing “Super Akuma Fighter 2: Lag Turbo-Button Remix” at times. Of course this is all Crapcom’s fault for not bothering to patch Akuma for balance reasons (even though the game’s designer and the player community have called for it) and for leaving it with a barebones ranked mode – much like almost all XBLA games. The only way to play around it at all, as I did when I played Ranked, was to self-matchmake on ping time by only EVER joining matches – never hosting – so that you can see the ping time before you join a match. Otherwise, if you host, you are pretty much guaranteed some idiot in Mexico playing you with a 500 ms ping, and no amount of good net coding (and this has one of the best!) can deal with that, and you have no option not to play them either if you don’t want to take the loss for quitting. Even using this method, you’re still playing with the odds that your opponent won’t be using the broken Akuma or cheating by using turbo features on their joystick/pad. And there’s no skill matchmaking that is EFFECTIVE as covered here. The ranking system is, however, really excellent, but working within these parameters it doesn’t always mean too much. However the fact that luckily most of the actually good players don’t use Akuma or turbo really helps – so at least if someone is highly ranked on HDR, you can pretty much guarantee they actually are a really good player (at least with the character or characters they use in Ranked match), unlike with many poor systems. Unfortunately the ranking system also only gives you one score across all characters – so basically assumes you only use your best character in ranked mode, which won’t always be the case (or the preference) for everyone.

 

Super Street Fighter 4 Arcade Edition 2012Super Street Fighter IV Arcade Edition: 1 and part of 2 & part of 3.

Competitive Gaming Design Review:

As I’ve covered before, SF4’s competitive gaming design seems to have good intentions, and is frustratingly close to getting it right, but trips over on many of the details. The ranking systems are per player “Player Points” (PP) or by character “Battle Points” (BP) but both are semi-grindable, and have been hacked at the top of the leaderboards in most versions of the game. Also not all the SF4 series games have accurately dealt with quitting and disconnecting which can make both scores innaccurate (but remember “Quitting is not the problem – the penalties are“), and I can’t be completely sure about the latest PC version I’ve been playing – but it seems likely to be good, as I’ve yet to have anyone ‘plug pull’ on me to attempt to avoid a loss. But back to BP and PP – the trouble is that neither score really provides a fully effective matchmaking or ranking measure. PP are used for matchmaking and it’s epitome of the “progress-based matchmaking” problem described in the link by MLG above. I recently started playing SSFIVAE2012PC (I love that acronym) and thanks to the PP system it clearly has no idea how ‘good’ I really am even after many a large number of matches. I put it on “same skill” “same area” parameters when I’ve played over this last weekend… This has resulted in a 16 match win streak or something crazy for me, and the majority of those fights were not very competitive at all. After I’ve played enough games (like now) my actual PP is probably becoming more reflective of my real current skill, and it does start to work a bit – again as long as I and everyone else is only using their best character in ranked mode. The best things about SF4 though is the “Fight Request” mode. This means that you can continue to play vs the CPU whilst ‘matchmaking’ is in progress – in reality though there’s no matchmaking perse, it’s just allowing certain other players to browse and challenge you or not, based on the parameters you’ve set, but it is pretty close in effect to being the same thing. Fight Request is such a nice touch, as is being able to matchmake on Region & then back out of any match with a poor net connection to you before you begin without penalty – which gives some pretty effective network based matchmaking too. Add this to the sort-of working BP/PP system and you probably have the best competitive gaming design amongst modern fighting games around right now, it’s just sad to state it’s still way behind where it could easily be with a bit more thought.

 

Call of Duty Modern Warface 2 (or any recent COD game up to, perhaps, Black Ops 2): None.

Competitive Gaming Design Review:

Although it offers a myriad of different modes of competitive play online & stats leaderboards out of it’s backside, none of them offer any of the basic competitive gaming criteria necessary, making this is a complete joke of a competitive game. The amount an organisation like MLG has to change to make a title like COD even playable in a competition simply ridiculous – it’s really a totally different, “somewhat COD-like” game at that point. This is the epitome of anti-competitive gaming system design. About the only thing it does right is finding a match for you with a good network connection for you. I’ve heard that, finally, COD Black Ops 2 might offer some kind of decent skill matchmaking system for those paying for COD Elite or something – but that remains to be seen for me how well it actually does it. It seems extremely unlikely to me given the basic COD design has been as anti-competitive as possible for so long.

 

Left 4 Dead 2Left 4 Dead 1 and 2: 1, but absolutely terrible at 2 and none of 3.

Competitive Gaming Design Review:

Well there’s nothing to grind at least.. but these games are both so atrocious in their matchmaking, they are effectively anti-matchmaking – making it as hard as possible to get any chance at an even match of skills (or even players) in most game modes, and wasting as much of their players time as possible sitting in lobbies waiting for games to begin, or being dropped in half-way through a match!

There’s no ranking and no long term goal at all, apart from trying to get, or more likely boost for, the Versus mode Achievements. Whilst these games can be a lot of fun as co-op challenges and as ‘casual competitive’ games, they are absolutely hopeless in terms of competitive gaming design, which is such a terrible waste of some tremendous ideas and mechanics.

 

Halo Reach (especially Arena/ The Arena mode): 1, part of 2 & part of 3

Competitive Gaming Design Review:

As identified by MLG –

…hand and hand with streamlining the game settings; the less fragmented your player base, the closer you can match players in multiplayer.

Halo Reach – and indeed all Halo games and almost FPS titles seem to go hellbent against this obvious point by immediately fragmenting their player base in a multitude of “playlists”. Halo Reach exacerbates it in a particularly obvious manner by having it’s ranking system only apply to one particular mode of play (Arena). And worse, they had a farce of a non-Win/Loss based individual ranking within a team game for a long time until they sorted it out, which drove away a lot of initial players who might have been interested. It smartly introduced the ‘season’ concept to its ranked mode too, but then had an awful execution of it for at least a year until they discovered a sensible way to do it – and it’s still rather flawed by not correctly highlighting prior achievements.  It totally fails at doing proper team ranking for a team game, instead giving you some pseudo-individual score. It’s matchmaking systems are actually extremely good, but again, the fragmentation of the player base hurts it incredibly here. The beta test version of Halo Reach actually had much better matchmaking than any of the modes of the production release, mainly due to it having so fewer modes of play! About the only way to make Halo Reach’s ranked mode – Arena – work accurately is to always play with the same full team for an entire season. This is very likely to give you an accurate reflection of your skill as your league ranking – however matchmaking will probably leave a lot to be desired unless you’re around the ‘average’ team in the Arena mode – which is actually very highly skilled due to the very small community of players in that mode. And whenever you play without the same set of pre-determined teammates it all starts to fall apart.

In other modes, Reach becomes completely un-ranked but often offers better matchmaking, depending on how many players are in that mode. But the best way to get really good matchmaking is to play on your own, which is frustrating in a team game.

Overall, Reach is in a similar state to SF4 – probably the best competitive gaming design of any FPS currently around, but still frustratingly far from where it could & should be. Under perfect conditions in the right game type you can get great matchmaking, under perfect conditions you can get great ranking systems – but Halo Reach’s gaming design means you can’t ‘have your cake and eat it’ – for no good reason.

Fact or Opinion?

Note I’m not saying that any of the above competitive games are or aren’t great games in my opinion – I’ll leave that for our Reviews. Whether a competitive game is great and fun for you (or me) all depends on what kind of skill tests and gameplay mechanics you like to be challenged to compete on, and other things like good tutorials, flavour & theme, are massively important too.

But I do not believe that these competitive gaming design ideals are debateble or a matter of taste. A competitive game either has them or it doesn’t. For anyone who actually wants to compete – win or lose fairly against their true calibre of opposition – these are all things you would always ideally want, even if sometimes the details can be debated. Of course if you’re not playing a game competitively, but instead casually, then these things won’t necessarily be important to you at all – and in fact could even get in the way of playing the game the way you find fun as has been the case for some players of StarCraft II.

Players & readers may get confused over this distinction competitive games they love rather than their competitive gaming design systems. So I intend to always make this distinction going forward on Agoners, and we will cover this in all future reviews, and I’m also going to retrospectively update all previous games reviewed. It’s quite feasible to have a game with mechanics and systems I generally really love (SF2 HD Remix) yet I cannot recommend it in terms of it’s competitive gaming design. A really poor, and in fact anti-competitive gaming design also tends to put me off any titles that I don’t already have a great interest in (for example, Call of Duty) so much so that I probably cannot enjoy them enough to even treat them to enough gametime to do them a proper review at all.

How do games you play stack up? And why does this, or doesn’t this bother you as a competitive gamer? I’d love to know more about what you think! 🙂

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