The flutter in your chest mimics the butterflies in your gut, your eyes dilate and the world is clear and for the first time, every time, you feel alive. Your palms get sweaty, but you don’t lose grip as you walk the tightrope between bellowing a war cry and quiet obsession. This is the epitome of thrill. This is eldest of human interactions. This is fight or flight. This is conflict.
Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? It’s no wonder why more advanced civilizations have tried to recreate it through a coliseum filled rush of empathy conceived by ancient Romans. But more recently, through the aid of technology, we’ve eliminated the need for empathy, pitting us directly into the Flavian Amphitheater while pacifying the consequences. We do this by hacking our emotional responses through interactive visual and auditory stimuli, otherwise known as video games. So how do game developers hack our brains in modern times to give us this rush of conflict? There’s a short and long answer. There’s a whole ‘nother boring blog about what makes a person want to fight another person, because we all know in secret what those reasons are, but the simple short answer is you give them a single objective to fight for.
So let’s build on that. There’s a finish line drawn in the dirt a few meters away and you have to get there before “the other”. What’s your first instinct? You race towards it in a straight line and you just happen to have your bare foot past the finish line before your opponent. I throw you a strawberry. Strawberries are dope; they’re juicy and it quenches the thirst you’ve built up from actually moving around for once. You smile. Now I say it again. Get to the finish line before the other person.You look at the person next to you, and they’re gritting their teeth. They stop when they catch you staring and they turn their head forward, focused on the goal. They want that strawberry. Strawberries are dope.
Just look at ‘um.
3,2,1, GO! You take your first step, same as before, because it worked last time and the next step you take doesn’t actually happen. You’re laying flat on your face. The jerk tripped you. To you, this is called bullshit. To them, it’s called Strawberries are dope. To me, I call it funny, and the game has just changed. It’s now a game of physicality, not just speed. Next time I say go. You’re forced to leap over their outstretched leg and you leave them in the dust or not win the strawberry. You do it. Nomnomnom. One more time. Go. They deck you in the head. Game over. This is called a “meta” or the game within the game. The finding and exploiting of the most effective route to victory given the game’s current set of parameters.
Sounds a lot like the rest of life, doesn’t it? I think we’ve all learned something today.
Anyway, eventually that whole beating each other’s asses until you cross the finish line thing gets a little stale. The same person keeps winning every time and they’re eating all the strawberries and only people who emulate that same person ever end up getting close. So all the strawberries we were donating to watch these races just go in our own mouths because it isn’t fun anymore. So, like these people, I’m going to abandon this barbaric strawberry metaphor because I value your intelligence and I think you got it. Good games evolve over time to keep that thrill of the clash alive, to keep you constantly engaged and thrilled. Bad games stay stale.
So obviously we have to add variations like a ball or a basket or a virtual rifle, maybe some rules like don’t deck people, don’t pass the ball backwards or you can’t use Akuma. If you do these correctly, it won’t hurt “the integrity” or the original intention of how the player was supposed to achieve their established goal. These rules and variations are obviously tricky. If you make too many changes, the game won’t develop a meta naturally and players won’t establish a hierarchy of dominance, which is one of those dope strawberries that’s built into the human psyche, and if you change too little, you’ll get the repetitious example above.
League of Legends is the most coherent illustration on how this is done. You’ve heard of LoL, and if you haven’t, just ask one of your friends and they’ll beg you for an intervention. It’s an IV drip of combat. You’re racing your opponent to gather currency by kicking their ass and slaying waves of your their minions. Your character gains experience from those feats unlocking abilities, and the more currency you earn buys items, together making your murder loop more effective. The end goal of that loop-race is to blow up your opponent’s starting point and to do that you have to destroy defenses towers on the way. Those defense towers are also only vulnerable while their powerful magic cannon slays your own waves of minions, instead of you. There’s also a jungle where powerful creatures give your heroes specific boosts and more mulah upon being slain. It’s basically conflict wrapped in conflict like those bacon wrapped beef tips. Did I mention there’s a pool of 134 different selectable characters with varying roles and abilities? Because there’s 134 different characters with varying roles and abilities. It sounds complicated. Because it is.
While the players may insult your intelligence, the game never will.
The good news is after a handful of games and usually a dealer, I mean enabler, I mean friend, you actually learn it fairly quickly. The softer-than-it-probably-should-be learning curve is due to the beauty of the game’s design. It gives you a slow and steady chance to learn organically on your own. This is due to the map design being straightforward and the built-in flow of the currency system means each game evolves familiarly, giving the most novice players an elemental understanding of a complex game. The developers understand the parity of having such a wealth of dynamic variables, so they are constantly riding the lightning, sometimes dipping their toes into that “too-many-changes” water, but they have a strong sense of their game’s integrity and at least one ear to the voices of their players and fans. The proof is in the pudding. League is in the top three of eSports peak viewership, player base, and the amount of strawberries they give out when you win. I can’t quit you strawberries.
The second example is a cautionary tale. They say once a good girl goes bad, she’s gone forever. This young dime was once the prototype to eSports in North America. Her name was Halo. You might know of it from your older brother or because Microsoft spends a crap load of money marketing the game, but that’s neither here nor there. Halo was the founding title of the now iconic Major League Gaming and had a show on cable television; a legit one too, it wasn’t even sandwiched between Cheaters reruns. MLG and Halo also pioneered streaming tournaments live on the internet in the early 2000s about 6-7 years before Twitch was popular enough to talk your moderately open-minded wife into making it your day-job. So, what happened to you, dearly beloved? Poor game design influenced by a brittle console gaming infrastructure that crumbles under the whims of pop culture.
In the mad dash of the post-Call of Duty 4 phenomenon, designers rushed to incorporate as many of CoD’s core elements as possible. This dash was meant to meet the sales demands of publishers who believed that in order to sell as much as Call of Duty every game must have sprint, a level up system, weapon load outs, or to be able to aim down the sights. CoD’s fun and at the time unique mechanics spread through the industry like wildfire, torching other game’s “outdated” intricacies in its wake. I’ll get flogged by “real gamers” for writing this, but CoD is a good game. It’s an arcade military simulator, like EA’s Burnout or NFL Blitz with guns, It’s like playing in an 80’s action flick version of war. The mechanics are thumb blisteringly fast and fluid and those quick adrenaline inducing twitch kills are its main emotional conflict. This was intentional. Words and sounds pop on the screen when you get kills, giving you a “casino rush.” Bing. Bing. Bing. The meta revolves around those twitch kills, finding ways to keep your opponent in front of you so you have a higher percentage chance of being a winner, winner, chicken dinner.
Actual picture of Call of Duty’s sphere of influence.
So, like a bad movie prologue, it was only a matter of time before CoD’s popularity scourged its way over to Halo. Halo was exposed due its distinct disadvantage of being a AAA title on consoles. “AAA” is just the short way of publishers saying “we’re going to spend a ton of money on this project, so we’re going to tell you what to do even though we don’t really know what we’re talking about.” Publishers depend on games like Halo to make their end-of-year fiscal goals, so they’re extra ornery about its success. To them, Halo is a “just” a shooter, like CoD, so it makes sense, right? Wrong. Halo’s conflicts have always been structured differently. Halo is what they call an arena shooter, meaning there are weapon pickups on the map, and ideally, the harder they are to obtain, the more efficient they are at getting kills. In order for this to work, players have to start off with a serviceable starting skill-weapon. So if a player makes a mistake with a weapon they’ve picked up, they’re punished for it. If you haven’t noticed the trend, good game design is always walking a line. If the starting weapon takes too little skill, the fights are bland and unrewarding, if it isn’t strong enough, the game will snowball out of control, and if it’s too strong, pick ups become less useful. The original Halo balanced this beautifully and thrived in an internetless desert because it understood these basic concepts. The starting weapon was strong and killed fast if aimed skillfully, and the weapon pick ups weren’t just guns that killed faster, but better situationally. This is called utility. For instance, while Plasma Rifles didn’t have a quicker time to kill, they had a stun. So if you get blindsided you’ll have a harder time turning around and out-shooting your opponent. Imagine having a shotgun, which is the universal close range utility weapon; can’t kill a canary at more than 50 yards, but it’ll blow you away if you can see the orange of their visor. You’re prowling around looking for a kill and you notice the Plasma Rifle is missing from its normal spot. Egads! Your adrenaline spikes. It builds suspense. You know, if someone gets the drop on you, your hard earned shotgun is now useless.
So now that we know Halo’s weapon pick ups are efficient, but specialized killing machines, there’s obviously more of an emphasis on obtaining these weapons, so conflicts will naturally happen around them when they appear on the map, especially if they’re on a static timer. This creates a fun game within the game. No longer are you just trying to control what’s in front of you, but now you have to secure a harder position on the map in order to obtain this newly spawned machine of killing. This creates a dynamic opportunity for opposing players to turn the tides. Add Halo’s shield system and there’s another layer, because it takes a couple shots (or a few depending on the Halo…) to deplete a player’s shields before you can finish them. This design decision promotes team shooting. So now optimal map positioning has evolved into overlapping lines of sight hawking over weapons your team has to control, creating a natural conflict centered around multiple rotating positions established by the intermittent spawns of murder machines. Sound complicated for a game about space soldiers pew pewing lasers? That’s because it is, and if you played older Halos you never noticed you did it because the game’s maps and weapons were designed to induce this meta.
You just smiled.
Look, have you ever tried to clean your room when you’re a kid and it’s so filthy you don’t know where to start? That’s how I feel about Halo 5. Halo’s fifth installment feels good at first. They’ve changed the movement mechanics so there’s a lot of different and interesting ways to attack those overlapping sight lines, but the problem is they’ve incorporated a motion tracker into its final competitive settings. Radars are never good in any competitive game, ever. It adds a crutch to one of one of the most important parts of a rewarding a competitive title, awareness. Having awareness and predicting movements is a vital mental skill that’s now been eliminated completely. This also takes away from the stress on the clear and efficient relaying of information to teammates, because they already know where they are. Imagine if Basketball players had glasses that showed when an opposing player got close to the basket. Fans would have to wear helmets for all the balls flying into the stands. To make matters worse, players start with a secondary weapon that takes less skill than the primary with a very similar kill time while adding zero utility; the assault rifle. The AR’s only job is to have a player of less skill be able to kill a player with a pistol, the starting weapon, by being in the right position at the right time, which is made even easier by the fact there’s a radar that tells you exactly where they are. The weapons on the map also add no utility. They’re basically stronger versions of your starting weapons, and there’s a lot of them. So all the problems that you’re having at the base of it all are exacerbated by this wealth of bullet-hoses on the map, which are on 20-second timers, meaning they’re almost always there.
Can you tell I’m out of breath? I’m out of breath. I can’t do this anymore. I’m just going to skip to this part. At the very, very basic of it all, the emotional core of Halo is gone. The meta has evolved so it’s now more about rotating and hoarding 20-second low skill power weapons, hiding and ambushing with automatic rifles, and predicting the spawns of enemy players to collapse with your consistent and clear snowball advantage. There is very little chance for the controlling team to make a mistake or for the opposing team to make a comeback play because the pickups are just easier-to-use versions of an already unskilled starting weapon. The best situations that can be forced from these encounters are frantic coin flips before a truly powerful weapon spawns; spray and pray you come out on top, because even if you’re positioning to help your teammate, well, they are too. Now, this can be exhilarating, and it does create a lot of close series, among players who understand the meta. However, it’s not conducive to the integrity of the game’s design, and worse, it doesn’t feel rewarding.
Unlike League, or many other eSports like it, there is no ear listening to the voice of the players asking for change. One of the reason bullet-hose autos are so prevalent on the maps is because there are abilities built into the characters that can kill players instantly. It sounds preposterous, but it can work if there were more utility weapons on the map. Guns that halt sprint in their tracks or ground players who can hover in the air and flatten the enemy with a ground pound. Radar was supposedly the balance for these abilities, but seeing as that experiment didn’t work, 343 Industries, Halo’s current developer, can break this vicious web of codependency by increasing audio cues and/or increasing the amount of time needed to build up these Spartan abilities’ instant-kill effect. There are ways to bring the game back into prominence, but it’s almost as if there’s vested interest within the company to keep the game as easy as possible for new players, but, players don’t like easy. The proof is in the pudding or I guess in this case, the balloons.
Publisher’s don’t see these intricacies. They see the sales numbers, not understanding what makes CoD or any other popular game so enticing to people. They use phrases like “the casual market.” Whoa, I’m sorry. Did you feel that? That same shiver through your shoulders and down your spine? That same shiver when cheap toilet paper rips and you get doodoo on your fingers? That’s the shiver I get when people use the term casuals. Casual and hardcore gamers want to have the same thing. They want an emotional experience that provokes the word “fun.” It’s not about being easy, it’s about being rewarding. Gamers want to feel the rush, so give them something that’s just hard enough to tickle their dopamine receptors. That’s it. Humans want to earn their feelings. Players can tell when their accomplishments are fake, even if they’re not emotionally intelligent enough to say it, they’ll feel it and move on from your titles. Imagine your player is like a dog you used to give Beggin’ Strips after going outside and now you give him dollar store Puppy Treetz. Yeah, it’ll still go outside, but can you blame him when there’s a dark spot on your rug? People know Beggin Strips when they see it and I think modern designers are so worried about meeting these wild sales demands, so they can keep their job, they stop making competitive games, even when they specifically use the word “competitive” when selling it. Good games have integrity and to maintain that integrity developers need to be active. We don’t want Puppy Treetz. We want BACON. Or Strawberries. I’m hungry.
Thank you to everyone for reading the longest blog post ever, and if you want me to break down any more games or argue with me over the internet, please comment below! Also HUGE thanks to all of my subscribers and followers, and if you want to start now, follow my blog and check me out on Twitter.