Online Shooters: Does size matter?

battlefield4 huge map

After Respawn’s announcement that the highly anticipated Xbox One and 360 game Titanfall would not only ship without a single player experience, but would only support up to Six vs. Six battles, we at Twinstick Gaming got to discussing the pros and cons of the huge 32 vs 32 battles of some games (e.g. Battlefield), compared to the more intimate carnage of others (Splinter Cell’s Spies vs. Mercs, The Last of Us: Factions, etc).

When it comes to online shooters, does size matter?

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Anonymity vs. Responsibility

Anonymity:

As far as player experience is concerned there is a gulf of difference between games that throw you onto the pock marked, massively multiplayer war zone scenario and those that drop you into a darkened corner of a small map with silenced weapon and knife. Despite the fact that ‘shooters’ is a term launched at a lot of games, anyone who has spent considerable time with more than one of these will be able to tell you just how different games supposedly from the same genre can actually be.

Taking Battlefield 4 as an example, there is a certain amount of anonymity afforded to the player in this kind of experience. Battlefield presents the player with an enormous, multi-layered map that has quite literal highs and lows (the ability to scale a skyscraper, then leap out of a top story window and parachute back into the battle below – as an example). It then fills the map with 64 players (32 – a piece), as well as tanks, jeeps, boats and helicopters. It also presents you with a massively destructible environment and changing objectives, meaning the look of the map and your role within it can easily be completely different at the start of the skirmish compared with the end.

battlefield-4-skyscraper-falling
Dueling with helicopters while buildings crumble – all par for the course in Battlefield 4.

It’s awesome to behold – but also a LOT to take in. Alliances with your human controlled team mates can be quickly forged – even playing without a chat headset – as you run through the map, healing or resupplying each other and trying to kill anything that moves.

However, when the battles are so long and on such a grand scale, you start to feel like you are just a small piece of one giant moving puzzle. A mere irrelevant cog in the wheel of a war machine. For some (most in fact) this is an overwhelmingly good thing. It means that you can feel like part of the force protecting an objective while your team mates attack, or the one of the brave soldiers pushing forward, behind enemy lines trying to capture that tactical position.

battlefield 4 warfare
Running away from explosions is always a good rule of thumb.

You can be the hero that happens across a fallen comrade and takes down his assailant before reviving him and dragging him back into battle. In short it feels like war. You may be a small part of a narrow loss, sweeping victory or epic comeback – and you’ll have your stories to tell.

But ultimately, if you stuff it up repeatedly, have a kill/death ratio of 1:17 and spent most of the game trying to work out which button throws a grenade and which one lets you crouch … no-one really notices. Like the punter in the NFL or a substitute in football, you have just as many wins and losses as the rest of your team, but no-one really cares what you did.

Even Call of Duty: Ghosts with its 9 vs. 9 player count (next-gen only) offers enough people to allow you to have a pretty terrible day at the office, but it not be too detrimental to your team. In fact, one of the main issues with the Call of Duty setup is that even on team deathmatches, team work is never really required. One good player can completely clean up and win it for the team – rendering the remaining 8 players largely superfluous.

Responsibility:

Contrast this with experiences like the Splinter Cell multiplayer ‘Spies vs. Mercs’ or The Last of Us multiplayer element known as ‘Factions’. Each game is fought between teams of just 4 players each (or even less – before the recent Splinter Cell: Blacklist, Spies vs. Mercs was a strictly 2 vs. 2 experience). Maps are much smaller and stealth plays at least a small feature of every round played.

On the small scale maps, objective based teamwork is a must.
On the small scale maps, objective based teamwork is a must.

Initially, games like these may seem much less intimidating when there are only a few of you playing on a small map. Again, the games offer changing objectives and different game modes – so though stealthy play, silenced weapons and hidden corners are all put to good use, you still have to be fairly mobile and make your way around the map. Whether you’re killing from the shadows or hurling flaming explosives into those corners to expose the hidden enemy within, the action is fairly constant and just as intense, albeit in a much more intimate way.

The biggest difference in the smaller player count only becomes apparent after you’ve spent a little time on the games. Your actions have a real weight in these skirmishes. You have a responsibility, as a team mate, to do your part – and do it well – if your team is to succeed.

Take Factions as an example. regardless of the mode you play, you will be part of a team of no more than four players. If you play with your team, take down the enemy when you can, revive your team mates when its safe and attack or protect objectives in a coordinated way, you can be extremely competitive on the game. Likewise, regardless of mode, if you have even one player who tries to be a one man army, goes rogue or even just makes poor choices when trying to support (coming out into the open to revive you and getting you BOTH killed in the process, for example), the result can be hugely detrimental to your team. A weak link is soon exposed by an experienced opponent and your only real hope for victory is that they too have a weaker or less experienced player.

Making the best use of your surroundings and team play is the only way to survive in Factions.
Making the best use of your surroundings and team play is the only way to survive in Factions.

Your actions count for at least a quarter of your team’s success or failure. Suddenly, the worm turns and what seemed like a less intimidating, more intimate affair, becomes an imposing responsibility, not for the feint of heart. Even the best players in the world can be dragged down to his or her team’s lowest common denominator.

The upside is when your team does win, you know that you were an important part of the battle, which feels like much more of an achievement and allows you to feel much more part of the team. It’s a high risk, high reward approach.

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Balance and Stability

Of course, setting your game’s player count isn’t just to do with map sizes and play styles. A big part of the developers decision comes down to keeping the game balanced and, perhaps most importantly, keeping the game stable.

battlefield 4
Game on hold…

The balance aspect is simple enough in theory. If you have a high player count on a small map, the game becomes too frantic and confusing. Putting 32 players into a space the size of a double garage might make for high kill counts and continuous explosions – but it would be impossible to keep track of and would ultimately be no fun to play. Players would be lucky to survive for more than 5 seconds per life.

Conversely, place eight players into an enormous, sprawling cityscape and they will be lucky to find each other at all before the time runs out. The equation is simple. Big maps equals lots of players, small maps equals fewer players. However, this is a very imprecise science and usually takes developers hours upon hours of play testing, removing players or sectioning off parts of the map until the game ‘feels’ right. Even then, it being such a subjective process, its unlikely that every gamer will agree that the balance is ‘right.’

Even with the balance right for the game, there is the question of stability. Battlefield 4 launched with multiplayer maps that were truly epic and supported up to 64 players – it has also been plagued with stability issues and bugs.

Processing that much information on that grand a scale is understandably challenging for the hardware and the servers – so some hiccups are to be expected, but Battlefield has suffered so much under the strain that, even after three updates, some players are still having game-breaking issues.

Solid servers, superb graphics, falling behind the competition?
Solid servers, superb graphics, falling behind the competition?

Say what you will about the Call of Duty series lack of innovation and the ‘I in team’ dynamic, but the servers have been pretty rock solid, showing far fewer problems than their nearest competitors. Of course, CoD supports less players online in each game. You’d be forgiven for thinking that smaller scale games guarantee greater stability and thus less problems. However, this is not always the case.

One of the advantages of having a smaller scale online experience is that with a significantly lower player count, dedicated servers for the game may not be required. Again, looking at Factions or Spies vs. Mercs as examples, a cheaper option for developers is to have the games using p2p or a ‘host’ to run the game through. Essentially, this is a little like having one of the players act as the server for the other players.

Unfortunately, the downside to this simpler, cheaper setup is that it CAN massively affect the game’s stability online. If the host has a poor connection (or your connection to the host isn’t solid), the result can be game breaking lag or latency issues (which often looks like players disappearing or stuttering across the screen). Worse still, the human element comes into play.

Connection interrupted - never a good sign.
Connection interrupted – never a good sign.

If your team has a strong start against the hosts team – the host may drop out of the game (referred to as a ‘rage quit’ – as a player can’t handle losing and so quits out in a rage. Think of a 5 year old losing at Snakes and Ladders and you’ll get the idea). When the host drops out, this ruins the game for everyone and you’ll typically get bumped back to the menu screen and have to go through the arduous task of trying to get into an online match all over again.

It CAN work incredibly well, especially playing p2p with friends (who aren’t 5 year olds branching out from Snakes and Ladders), but you are open to these kind of troubles at some point.

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Respawn’s experiment

What Respawn are about to attempt is something very different. They are pitching the idea of huge scale skirmishes (48 ‘players’ in a battle is not to be sniffed at), but have found a way to potentially insure both the stability and given themselves the freedom to include a progressive narrative or controllable events throughout an online death match scenario.

Taking out the human players will always be more satisfying than battling AI.
Taking out the human players will always be more satisfying than battling AI.

There is a similar experience that has been popularised by recent shooters like Gears of War or Treyarch’s Call of Duty games. The ‘Horde Mode’ (GoW) or ‘Zombies’ experience (CoD) pits you and a bunch of your friends (or other human players at least) against waves of AI controlled enemy combatants. The main objective just being to survive as long as you can. There have been some loose narratives and ‘boss’ battles tacked onto these experiences, but they are very much a human vs AI affair over a set map at heart. These are certainly proving popular, even Infinity Ward’s most recent Call of Duty: Ghosts tried to emulate the success by introducing ‘Extinction Mode’ (which was exactly the same, but had aliens instead of zombies…).

Respawn’s reported attempts to blend these two experiences have not been well received, but bare in mind the people complaining haven’t played the game at all, so it’s certainly a premature complaint. But this is certainly a topic that will be discussed and debated right up until the March, 2014’s release date (at time of writing).

On one hand, it could be fantastic. 24 a-side brutality on an enormous scale with free flowing movement, sprawling, destructible environments, freaking huge mech robots (or Titans) that fall from the sky and all with the dedicated servers and outstanding stability. The stability comes from the fact that, though the teams are 24 on 24, there are actually only 6 human players on either side, the remaining 18 will be controlled by some technically very impressive AI.

And therein lies the problem.

No matter what the payoff, the fact that the majority of your team mates and opponents are AI controlled ‘bots’ will not sit well with some gamers. Which ever way you slice it, this will need to be perfectly balanced in order to not switch gamers off.

Players love to engage in online battles to pit their skill and prowess against others from across the world. To take the fight online is to try and prove yourself against other skilled players. Yes, fun should be at the heart of it, but the fact that a lot of these games have a ‘prestige’ type system, a recorded kill/death ratio as well as win and loss statistics shows that there is a certain amount of showing off and one-up-manship at play too.

No matter your caliber, success is never guaranteed.
No matter your caliber, success is never guaranteed.

If Titanfall sets the AI bar too low (predictable enemies running on rails) then human players will do their best to exploit this. Running up high scores, long kill streaks, etc. by targeting the feeble AI players will render a lot of the progress you make and prestige elements irrelevant. Make the AI too skilled, however, and you run the risk of turning players away from the game completely. It’s all well and good being taken down by a human opponent of greater skill – but to be sublimely defeated by advanced computer AI that runs the show while your human opponents hide in a bunker will be game breaking.

Though this is the developer’s first title, the caliber of Respawn’s staff is undeniable. Headed up by Jason West and Vince Zampella, the people developing the title are largely made up of the team that developed the greatest Call of Duty games (arguably two of the finest first person shooters ever), Modern Warfare 1 and 2. They were the brave minds, that took risks and created something special in the FPS genre, before the annual Call of Duty updates strangled any innovation out of the franchise (West and Zampella having been dismissed from Infinity Ward prior to the creative nose dive).

Regardless of the team behind the game, Titanfall still represents a gamble – perhaps a calculated risk, but a risk nonetheless. If the experiment proves successful and gamers respond well to the human/AI hybrid experience, expect every company developing online shooters to follow suit. We’ll see dozens of ‘me too’ shooters keeping the action on a grand scale while keeping the human players on a more manageable level.

If, however, this game proves to be the sock shoved down the front of the trousers, inflating the appearance of the meager offerings held within, expect Respawn’s Titanfall experiment to be short lived and a swift rethink on strategy before the inevitable Titanfall 2 is announced.

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The Bottom Line

It’s an interesting time for the online shooter. The next-generation consoles are allowing for some great things to be attempted, but the unfamiliarity with the consoles is also presenting a variety of challenges for developers too. It may still be down to personal preference as to whether size matters in online shooters, but things look as though the old adage will hold as true as ever:

It’s not the size, but what you do with it that counts.

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