Boom! Headshot!

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!

9 thoughts on “Boom! Headshot!

  1. Very interesting & great title ! Several of the behaviours documented are certainly noticeable, such as rounding corners and shooting techniques. That there may be more insidious elements promoting these these tactics is fascinating.

    Another tactic that comes to mind, along the same lines, could be classed perhaps as an FPS Bomb and is essentially a DoS attack. Increasing the strain on an opponents graphics card so as noticeable lag is introduced. This could be done by increasing the number of elements in a players FOV to such a level the players machine is unable to process them correctly.

    E.g. In CS:S, smoke grenades are quite taxing on a graphics card, utilising a number of them can cause a players screen to become quite ‘jerky’ and may decrease player response time and accuracy. The players with more powerful CPU/GPU combinations will suffer no slowdown.

    This is obviously a somewhat less subtle tactic than manipulating minor nuances in network code and is quite well known, so perhaps not so relevant.

    In general though, with broadband so common and latencies involved being extremely low, I can’t see such tactices being particularly prevalent. A typical server will involve a range of pings from maybe around 20 up to 70 (anecdotal values from CS:S servers. Players simply don’t play on servers where their ping is much higher). A gap of 50ms is very small, and on average the gap will be in the order or 20-30. Taking an average of 200ms seems to me to be somewhat overly pessimistic.

    However, I shall be keeping an eye out for such tactics in the future. I never realised I was doing so much research previously. My supervisor will be delighted.

  2. Gavin — thanks for the good comments 🙂

    Re: smoke About the smoke being used as a tactic against those with inferior PCs… I am aware of the “no smoking please” rule in many servers, but I’d never considered that someone might smoke deliberately because he had a fast PC and thought he could gain an edge. Certain games can have smoke effects disabled at graphics driver level, or even in game settings, and so this also reduces people’s confidence in the effectiveness of smoke.

    Re: latencies. I agree with you that my example with an average ping of 200ms is pessimistic for serious clan play, but it may not be that crazy for public servers, and this is where the casual players get the most harsh treatment from the pros. If the pros keep themselves to themselves, then that’s just fine.

    While it is undeniable that most serious players strive for low pings, remember that it may still be a myth that lower ping is better. So I agree that high pingers may not be prevalent, but when they do come along, and then beat the low pingers, it all starts to seem unfair. I also believe that Valve’s lag compensation algorithm starts to behave very counterintuitively indeed in the case of asymmetric ping.

    There is a little empirical evidience that high pingers can in certain circumstances perform better. I note the work by Dick et. al in my paper (reference #1), who did do a proper scientific survey of about three or four shooters. They say in their NETGAMES 2005 paper :

    “For the objective game results, Figure 7 shows the relation
    between average GOS and latency. For Counter Strike the
    results are indetermined as there is no clear relation between
    the score and the latency. Surprisingly, the highest game
    score on average is achieved under the worst network condi-
    tions.”

    Whether it’s 200ms or 20ms, I still believe the effects manifest themselves — it’s just about the degree of human conscious observability. Furthermore, even with no network transport latency at all, my paper still can tot up about 250ms latency from temporal buffering and frame processing.

    I really need to get round to making a proper recording rig that can produce 1ms accurate synchronised video footage from several different players machines of the same combat encounter. Then we can really see some of these effects unfold in “slow motion”.

  3. The inverse of the above is also true. I know of someone who is extremely skilled at BF2, but has a machine that can barely run it. In order to run the game he turns a lot of the advanced features off, especially those concerning lighting and shading. The result is that what you might see as a bushy bush casting a lot of shadow on the floor he would see as a thin wiry bush with no shade at all. You think you are perfectly hidden. He thinks you might as well be in the open.

    Knowing the guy well I know he does not do this deliberately, he really has no choice in the matter. However it would not surprise me that other people will sacrifice the experience of the richness of the game in order to rack up more kills. I’m sure we’ve all seen screenshots of DirectX exploits that do just this.

  4. I am sure this guy doesnt do it intentionaly if you have a slow computer it has to be done but i know someone who thinks winning is everything this can be very frustrating to play. He ettempts to win by manipulating game rules in his favour this saps fun away from the game and he is in no way the only person who does this. Losing a fair game is normal get beat by the better player get practice play them again but when you lose to someone who makes it so you have little or no chance of winning gets very annoying.

  5. There is an additional form of server-side compensation for latency. The server for Half Life and Half Life 2 (and thus CS, Team Fortress, etc) will maintain a buffer of the past few seconds, or a few hundred frames. Each client request and response is tagged with which frame the action took place – and thus if it is received 300ms late, it can essentially be inserted into the past, and the repercussions are calculated for the current frame.

    Often in Half-life based games, two players will shoot at almost exactly the same time, and both must wait about 200-300ms before they know who was hit.

    This has also lead to a number of exploits, such as speed hacks (informing the server that you actually moved that way about 1.5 seconds ago).

    This is especially important in games where bullets are NOT beams, such as Team Fortress. Instead, bullets and rockets are visibly moving projectiles which can be strafed around – indicating that they have a time component.

  6. Gavin, no I’d not seen that. Thanks for an excellent link!

    This “disruptor” gamer seems to be most worried about (using my terminology) first mover advantage caused by temporal buffering.

    However, I think his analysis rig is much more interesting than the conclusions he draws. Synchronised video clips side-by-side is great; I wonder what his synchronisation method was. Although in my experiments I did have a network bridge which could shape the traffic to make unusual lag effects, I didn’t have any decent recording set-up.

    This post also shows that Valve really have opened up a lot of their engine to internal tweaking/ jiggery-pokery — credit to them! Only pity is that the tactical engagements in counterstrike are a bit more limited than in other games to analyse (no vehicles, fewer postures, fewer slow-moving projectile weapons etc.), though I agree it still is probably best classed as “tactical”.

    Maybe I should post a link to this paper in certain gamers forums. But I don’t want LBT to be overwhelmed 😉

    Cheers, Mike.

  7. Excellent article.

    Latency or LAG is an issue that faces some gamers.

    It is usually down to PC spec and or connection speed. But we no see some players using software to limit their connection speed and lag as a result.

    What ever next????

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