On being cannon fodder

Cuz I was getting butchered. Geddit??

I played some multiplayer in Modern Warfare 3 the other day because, well, I am a sucker.

Now, I have a not-so-secret aversion to FPS multiplayer. I am absolutely terrible at it, which is a big part of why I dislike it so. I have never been much of a “twitch” gamer, and I love to absolutely jam on every button on the controller as hard as possible, especially in those tense, firefight moments. This is an “end user” problem, to be sure.

However, another reason I am bad at it (and why I don’t enjoy multiplayer) is that it’s often really freakin’ hard to get better at it when I’m thrown in with a bunch of experts and my average life-expectancy is in the sub 10-second mark. While this isn’t an insurmountable hurdle (“rookies” get better all the time by playing with experts – hell, the trailer for the game even points this dynamic out), I find it very difficult and incredibly frustrating.

I’ve played other FPS multiplayers like Halo 4 and Team Fortress 2, and the feeling is often the same. I can’t even figure out where I am on the map before I am dead and getting tea-bagged. Again, I’ll reiterate that this is (at least partly) a problem with me. I’ll happily concede that I am lousy and impatient at these games, and I know my experience is not universal. I do, however, think there are some structural problems to really effectively learn how to get better, at least in my experience with MW3 and similar games.

One way to get better is to simply play, and to get worked over thoroughly, and learn what not to do. A little tough love to harden your spirit and senses and all that. I find that method pretty disheartening and disempowering, however. I may be too coddled by games which support my learning so steadily and comfortable (I’m looking right at you Portal. Looking with loving, tender eyes…). Games which let you fail gracefully and in such minimal ways are a core part of what makes them so interesting and effective in the first place (part of Gee’s “Psychosocial Moratorium Principle”). And yes, even dying like a redshirt in MW3 multiplayer is still a pretty safe failure. The difference for me between the two experiences is significant: in one, I feel some frustration, but also a sense of progress, of learning what went wrong and how I could get better; in the multiplayer, I feel really, painfully incompetent and, worse still, like I have no chance of getting better since I can barely get my bearings before dying horribly.

That's right, GLaDOS. Keep coddling me.

That’s right, GLaDOS. Keep coddling me. *MWAAA-HA-HAAA*

Some of this is a structural problem with this particular game. I played the other night as a level 1 (which the game kindly refers to on your in-game tag “FNG”). The rest of the lobby was made up with level-capped players (currently level 80), with a smattering of mid-30s or 50s. These are players who pretty clearly have played the game enough to level up (a strong signal) and are very likely to be competent or proficient (a weak signal based on their level). They are experts in this domain. Further, they are likely experts in other CoD multiplayer games as well as other FPS multiplayer games which share the same basic controls and strategies. They likely have better gear, too, since they’ve been able to level their characters and unlock those “perks”.

Now, none of this is the game’s fault per se. The game has been out for a while now, so the player base is now likely composed of dedicated players (and in particular, players who haven’t migrated to the newer Black Ops II). There are likely few new players picking up the game for the first time, so the ratio of experts to noobs is pretty high. Further, these dedicated experts are probably dedicated experts because they are good at it. That is, it’s probably rare that a level 80 player in a year-old-or-more game is lousy at it – they would have quit long ago (or are masochists, which is a possibility given the kinds of abuse spewed over voice chat. Srsly kids, just STFU and play). In other words, the group of players in my lobby have self-selected to be really, really good at this. As a FNG, I face some pretty tough odds at succeeding, especially since I am not just a newb in MW3 but a total noob when it comes to FPSes in general.

In other words, the group of players in my lobby have self-selected to be really, really good at this.

Where it is structurally problematic is the way I got put into a lobby with these expert players in the first place. It may be the case that there simply weren’t enough players of similar level (and maybe ability) as me in order to make a lobby. Perhaps I was getting all that there was to get and should be glad I didn’t get auto-kicked. It may be a very different case in a brand new game (or at least one that a lot of newbs would be playing). Still, it felt a bit…overwhelming to see 15 other level 80s waiting in my lobby, knowing I was about to be absolutely destroyed. And then getting absolutely destroyed. Ideally (and it likely does work this way), I could get put with a more homogenous group of skills and levels. I don’t necessarily blame Infinity Ward – this is the “community” changing the system based on their actions (veteran experts stick with the game while others leave; lobby is now filled with really good players who I am matched with because that is all that makes up the player base now). I get that. Still, well, uh…..kids these days.

It is actually possible when you think about it....

It is actually possible when you think about it….

Even more problematic, though, was how the game divided the teams. I was in a lobby with 10 other players. When the match was set to launch, the game divides the players into teams what seems like randomly. I was placed on a team of five, with 20 level 80s, a 41, a 17 and me. The other team was five level 80s and a level 77. They did not appear to be a clan or a group as far as I could tell (they had different clan tags, and only one seemed to have a mic). Adding the total “experience” together (and yes, this is a bit unscientific since 80s could have vastly different experience, and level is not necessarily a one-to-one correlate…but I’m going to do it anyway), my team had 223 combined levels, while the other had 477. Worse still, they had another damn player. It got slightly better once the match started as a level 55 joined my squad. Nevertheless, the game put together what seems like really imbalanced groups. While I can’t discard the fact that the other team might have been pre-made, there seemed to be no such indication in the lobby. I’m going to assume that the division was arbitrary.

Such an apparent imbalance just seems kind of wrong. For equity’s sake, the game should probably take the player level’s into account when making the teams to promote some semblance of fairness. It’s no wonder I struggled – we were (arguably) half as good as the other team. Something similar happened in a different lobby with different players – again, a very sharp division between the teams. And I ended up on the short-handed, less experienced team again. Yes, I’m qq’ing a bit, but it still seems like a problem. If nothing else, it felt like a problem – I noticed this imbalance and it made me worried and frustrated, and in turn likely affected my play. I imagine it might be something like walking into a classroom with a bunch of particle physics majors and trying to take a test, or engage in a debate. I am simply out of my league and will likely not participate, not get much out of the experience, and really start to hate that class. I’m predispositioned to feel inadequate and deficient, and I probably live up (or down) to that bias.

Seriously, screw you math.

Seriously, screw you math.

Another really problematic feature is the gear bonus/unlock system. As players level, they unlock more equipment, better weapons, mods which improve performance and damage, and other “perks.” Now, this is not uncommon (my much beloved Mass Effect 3 multiplayer has something similar where I can unlock new kits). It makes some sense in terms of promoting continued engagement; players are encouraged to keep grinding out matches in order to unlock better and more effective gear. It can be an effective motivator and keeps players engaged (something the publishers love, especially in the era of microtransactions and pay-to-win games).

But it is also incredibly discouraging and—arguably—incredibly disadvantaging to new players. When I was matched up with a bunch of level-capped players, they not only have more experience (and probably skill), they have weapons and equipment which makes it even more likely they can kill m more easily. I am handicapped against better players, making the divide even greater. Again, boo hoo to me – after all, these players too had to level up and unlock the gear themselves. Some of them may have been early adopters and geared up alongside others at a similar pace; they faced less disadvantages. Others may be latecomers and face similar obstacles and persevered despite them. But structurally this seems incredibly damaging to those outsiders who come to the game late. It’s rigged against me.

I suppose it’s not unlike features of the “real” world; institutions disadvantage people all the time (schools, banks, employers, and so on). But why? It certainly doesn’t feel fair to me, as an outsider or newcomer. I feel more discouraged and less likely to participate because of it. Who does this help? It probably doesn’t benefit Treyarch, since I may be less inclined to recommend the game or buy future games. It may help crystalize a loyal community of insiders but exclusionary practices aren’t exactly good for expanding a customer base. It may serve to keep those hardcore/determined players in those roles – they are gatekeepers and thus have some sense of exclusivity or eliteness. I won’t discount this motivation (it’s not all that surprising) but I wonder why the design of the game seems to promote this bias. Again, it might seem simple enough to segment elite players into their own bracket, or newbs into theirs. There must be some reason I am not seeing (beyond simply having no newbs to segment off in the first place, which is a distinct possibility). Nevertheless, as a learning tool, such a designed and de facto way of punishing low level, new entrants seems like the worst possible way of promoting adoption, encouraging development, and ensuring mastery.

Who does this help? It may help crystalize a loyal community of insiders but exclusionary practices aren’t exactly good for expanding a customer base.

There was, however, one particular feature which I found compelling, and a really interesting example of a tool for analyzing and learning from the gameplay. MW3 has a “theater” mode where you can replay the match from a number of different perspectives, including first-person views of you or any other player, 3rd-person/over-the-shoulder views, and a free-floating camera which you can position anywhere on the battlefield. Other games have a similar feature (several of the Halo games, probably more). This was the first time I really played around with it and it was very informative.

I replayed a match in which I got utterly demolished. It was on a bombed out highway/road area with lots of corners and grade changes. It was the first time I had played that map, and the second or third match I had played at all. In the theater mode playback timeline, there is a little read hash mark at each point when I died – mine looked like a metronome ticker or something, with a death almost hypnotically rhythmical. I watched a few minutes of the match from my perspective and over the shoulder of a couple of players who scored well in the match. It was interesting to see how they moved and where they seemed to congregate. I then switched to the free-floating camera and pulled straight up and out so I got a static tactical/overhead view of the map. I watched players of the opposing team group up around one particular part of the map (some kind of good sniping area apparently) and then a team of two or three players which moved around the map counterclockwise, cleaning up kills and pushing players into the sniping lanes. I watched them repeatedly kill me mercilessly as well. Good times.

In all, I found it to be a really great tool for analyzing the map layout and the behaviors of the players. The first-person and over-the-shoulder views were great for isolating particularly good (or bad) players and watching their movements specifically. It is sort of like a walkthrough or tutorial from each player, albeit without overt instructions or commentary. At the very least, it provides a really good tool for modeling successful strategies and actions. The overhead/tactical view gave another perspective on the macro-level interactions; I saw how the team operated as a cohesive unit, and watched them implement their strategy as well as adapt when something went wrong. It seemed pretty clear that the opposing team had extensive experience, if not with each other than at the very least with the “norms” of that map (the sniper alley and the “hunter” team).

Watching these different views and having the ability to replay them repeatedly provided me with some great insight into how I should be playing. The theater tool is a really cool way of letting players analyze particular parts of the matches that interest them (I could watch myself, or watch an expert, or watch the tactical view, and switch between them). I found myself thinking what a cool tool this might be in other instances: a physics experiment, say, or maybe a conversation or seminar class or something. I don’t know exactly what these might look like (I assume that physics simulations do have these kinds of tools, and I don’t know how a debate replay would work beyond just a recording) but the concept of on-demand, user-guided, modular review tool just seems so….promising in so many cases. Implementing it? Well, I’ll leave that one alone for now to chew on it a bit more.

The concept of on-demand, user-guided, modular review tool just seems so….promising.

The gist of my observation, however, is that MW3 and other similar games provide some really great analytical tools and models for how I can learn from my own performance as well as other players (the “community”). I have access not only to a replay of the actions but an opportunity to look at how these actions interact on the larger level. I can see (if I look carefully and am disposed/interested in doing so) how I am expected to act and can adopt this position in my future matches.

If only math class had a theater mode….

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