It’s about time I confessed to playing online tactical shooters. These are warfare-themed multiplayer games that pit two teams of 16 — 32 players against each other, to capture territory and score points. These things can be great fun if you are so inclined, but what’s more, they’re big money these days. A big online shooter like Counterstrike might sell maybe 2 million copies, and tactical shooter Battlefield 2 has almost 500,000 accounts on the main roster. The modern blockbuster game grosses several times more than a blockbuster movie!
In this post, I consider a vital problem for game designers — maintaining the quality of experience for the casual gamer — and it turns out this is somewhat a security problem. People gravitate towards these games because the thrill of competition against real humans (instead of AI) is tangible, but this is a double-edged sword. Put simply, the enemy of the casual gamer is the gross unfairness in online play. But why do these games feel so unfair? Why do you shake the hand of a squash player, or clap your footie opponent on his back after losing good game, but walk away from a loss in a tactical shooter angry, frustrated and maybe even abusive? Is it just the nature of the clientele?
This post introduces a draft paper I’ve written called “Boom! Headshot! (Building Neo-Tactics on Network-Level Anomalies in Online Tactical First-Person Shooters)”, (named after this movie clip”), which may hold some of the answers to understanding why there is so much perceived unfairness. If the paper is a little dense, try the accompanying presentation instead.
Do you want to know more? If so, read on…
The simplest cause of unfairness is cheating. Game developers spend much time and energy preventing modification of client code, and tracing and punishing the “punks” who do use cheating software.
But there’s a more problematic and widespread cause of unfairness: the nub of hardcore players who are very experienced or skilled — and who will repeatedly swat you like a fly if you are a ‘noob’ (a newbie=a beginner). If you don’t know what a hardcore player behaves like, watch this video… “Boom! Headshot!”, which lends its name to the post title. These guys are often perceived as cheats, and have no way to defend themselves. In fact, perception issues aside, its no fun to play a game of football if most of you have only just learned to pass, yet there’s one David Beckham on the other team.
I believe game manufacturers would pay good money to learn how to design their games so that the most talented players do not appear to others as dirty cheats, but as professionals in their field, admired and envied by their peers. So what issues would we have to solve, to make the casual gamer happy (and to make the game designers rich too)?
(a) we stamp out cheating
(b) we segregate players by ability (it’s called “leagues”)
(c) we design games where the best players will be seen to win fair and square
Now cheating (a) has been a problem in the past; it’s not so bad nowawadays. But, yes, it is an arms race, and also a discussion topic for another post.
Segregation (b) sounds all very well, but there are practical issues, especially if you have a player base of half-a-million. Firstly, how do you evaluate players? Scoring points for kills or wins is very imperfect because the more time you put in, the higher you rise. Go on stats averaged over time, and people who play irregularly will hate being relegated from their league. How do you deal with rising stars with inconsistent performances? How do you deal with two brothers of differing skill sharing the same account? Worst of all, some people get pleasure out of being a big fish in a small pond, so they’ll deliberately hang out in the lower league areas to exasperate the casual players. This is hard to stop when there are cheap disposable identities, and the people who are the greatest threat to you are not newcomers but experienced players (the inverse of the usual reputation problem in, say, P2P systems). It is a clear security challenge to figure out how to stop these griefers.
This leaves us with (c) — winning fair and square. This is also a security challenge of sorts: how do you design a game where people cannot play dirty, whether deliberately or unwittingly? Well before considering this challenge, I actually got rather fascinated by trying to understand what it was that made the best players so good in the first place. Some of them are practically god-like: impossible to outwit tactically, and impossible to beat in a back-to-back stand-off at dawn. Are their reactions superhuman? Are their PCs wildly overclocked, and worth eight grand each? Or are they superlative tacticians? We can only find out why they are so often thought to be cheats, and stand a chance of designing games that help them win fairly if we find out the how and the why of their current dominance.
As a result of two years of investigation, observation out in the field, and limited experimental work with game client/servers on the local network, I think I have found out how they do it. I believe they use what I call “Neo-Tactics” — special tactics which take account of the low-level network properties and shortcomings of the virtual world, and exploit these to magnify their already human advantage. It’s a bit like Neo in the Wachowski Brother’s film “The Matrix”, who can fight qualititatively better because of his understanding and manipulation of the matrix around him. Just like Neo, I don’t think the very best players actually understand exactly how they do it (or they may have false justifications) but yet they still can do it — they have been smart enough to learn empirically what works best, and it’s not what you’d expect. It’s also not what you’d call fair when you’re on the receiving end of it.
Would you have thought, for example, that strafing out and shooting from round a corner is a qualitatively better tactic than popping up from behind a wall? That even on a flat-featureless map, an attack from a point of the compass may work better than one from a mixed axis direction (such as north-east)? Or that bullets fired from a rifle in semi-automatic mode cluster in flight, where as those from auto mode do not? This is the sort of bizarre anomaly around which a smart player can build a winning tactic, even if they don’t fully understand it.
I’ve written a draft paper, cannily titled “Boom! Headshot! (Building Neo-Tactics on Network-Level Anomalies in Online Tactical First-Person Shooters)”, which gives a eight to ten examples of Neo-Tactics, and for those not familiar with the scene, spends a good five pages explaining how online games work and laying the foundations. Please feel free to go ahead and have a look.
Please note that I present a theory of Neo-Tactics, and while I have strong evidence to support some tactics, others are pure theory with no experimental, or even strong observational backing — they are tenative hypotheses needy of further investigation. This is one of the reasons why the paper remains a draft!
Most of the work refers to my tactical shooter of preference “Joint Operations: Typhoon Rising”, made by Novalogic, a pioneer of combat simulation software for the U.S. Military, and the fourth in a series of online games stretching back to 1999. But there are also observations relevant to Valve’s Half-Life: Counterstrike (and CS:Source), Battlefield 2, and really just about any tactical shooter.
I’ve studied all I can, and I have only limited time to continue this research, so I’ve decided to put the paper out as-is, somewhat unpolished, in the hope that someone might want to pick it up and run with it, or collaborate with me. Alternatively, you may want to shoot me and my ideas down… but I warn you now… unless you know your neo-tactics, I’m gonna win every time. Boom! Headshot!