Friday, 1 October 2010

Instant Feedback: How to utilise the sandbox without breaking it

Note: I wrote this design piece around 7 months prior to publishing it here after a particularly frustrating string of experiences playing the utterly disappointing Gears of War 2.

To preface this piece I must declare that the original Gears of War was perhaps the most influential videogame for me personally in the last 5 years. It singlehandedly pulled me into the online console shooter market. Countless hours were spent rolling about with my shotgun, or pulling instinctive headshots with my sniper, to the point where I managed to max out all the achievement points on offer, a simple feat for most games but a “serious” medal of dedication in Gears’ case.

It’s safe to say however that the success of Gears multiplayer component was in fact an accidental one. The intention was to create a team based third person shooter that relied heavily on the franchise’s signature cover mechanic, and although that remained, certain emergent trends were brushing against the gameplay tide Epic intended to instil: the Gnasher shotgun being the primary offender.

Epic’s design and marketing centred on the Lancer assault rife, with its instantly recognisable chainsaw bayonet. Players spawned into the multiplayer fray with this weapon in hand, a decision which caused the amusing scenario of every player switching weapons immediately upon the beginning of a round, a trend as predictable as black clouds foreshadowing rain. The shotgun was the player’s choice, and the most effective weapon for medium to short range combat.

Not only this, but players would rush towards the specified weapon spawns on the map with the intention of picking up a “power weapon” most popularly the sniper rifle or the Boomshot, with the torque bow also proving a devastating tool in the right hands. And what would be lying on the ground in the wake of acquiring this power weapon? The Lancer.

Clearly Epic were perturbed by this weapon discrimination, the audience were neglecting their design decisions with no respect for the way they wanted their game to be played, and with Gears of War 2 they had their opportunity for retribution.
Amongst an influx of gameplay changes, one most affecting for hardcore Gears fans was the “nerfing” of the shotguns effectiveness. The shotgun was the fan’s baby, a tool that by now many players had grown so accustomed to after hours upon hours of play. Unfortunately Epic wanted to elevate the Lancers effectiveness in medium range combat situations, and in conjunction with the inclusion of stopping power, decided removing what made the shotgun such a popular weapon to use was the best way to do this.

Gears 2 presented a completely new shotgun. The spread was random, meaning the weapon couldn’t be relied upon in any situation, creating a scenario that left the player feeling cheated, with them performing the required moves in a combat situation to prevail, only to have the weapon act in opposition to the engrained experience they have been used to for hundreds of hours previously. What this also means is a distillation of skill, as a players skills cannot be relied on for victory, with this random spread preventing an accurate representation of their abilities. One feature of scientific experiments is “a fair test”, and if Gears 2’s multiplayer was such an experiment in player skill, as all successful competitive activites must be, it wouldn’t be considered a fair test.

Not only this but Epic diluted the shotguns co-operation with the roll mechanic. One popular aspect of Gears multiplayer for fans was the trend of shotgun rolling. This was once again a way to increase the gap between the skilled players and the less skilled ones. Skilled players were able to manoeuvre themselves into an advantage in a combat situation with a precise roll, as they were coming out of this roll they were then granted instant access to the shotguns devastating close quarters power, gibbing their opponent into bloodied pieces.

In Gears 2 however the decision was made to impose a handicap for these skilled players to stop them shotgun rolling. As players tried to fire coming out of their roll, nothing happened. An artificial time delay was put in place that made the player once again feel cheated, with on screen events contradicting the past experiences that have provided such gratifications over the past few years. The shotgun was gone. Its randomness and sluggishness slowed the pace down to a point that Gears 2 didn’t feel like Gears.

All in the name of the Lancer.

So why do players prefer to use the Shotgun, Sniper rifle, Boomshot and Torque Bow over the Lancer, or indeed the Hamerburst?

Instant Feedback: The visual and audible reward for a feat of immense skill and accomplishment in an online shooter.

In the original Gears, when a player hit the enemy flush with a blast from the Shotgun they would proceed to split open, becoming a series of meaty chunks. This provides immense pleasure to the player, an empowerment above and beyond anything offered by the Lancer with its lethargic spray of ineffective bullets. This reaction I will refer to as Instant Feedback. My most memorable experience of this came in a match on the map Rooftops. Whilst in cover against the rim of the maps central section, I noticed an enemy jogging towards my position, unaware of my lurking presence. I sent a Shotgun round blindly over my position aimed loosely at his waist. The shells from my Shotgun tore through his knees, ripping them from his waist and sending his torso flying opposite to the rest of his body. This is Instant Gratification at its most defined, and it makes the player feel good in a way not many games can.

Further examples are the visual and audible cues provided upon achieving a headshot. The visceral sound of imploding skull, combined with the fountain of blood and bone exploding from where the players head used to be provides this sense of Instant Feedback that the Lancer and Hammerburst just can’t, and that is the reason they are not a preferred weapon to use for the player, because frankly they are boring. The sense of empowerment as the player hits an opponent with a cleverly arced Boomshot, once again requiring skilful aiming over arbitrary spraying, as your adversary is split into numerous chunks and propelled 50 feet into the air, is massive. Instant Feedback at its finest, in the finest game to employ it ever created, the original Gears of War.

Now how can you go about incentivising the Lancer with Instant Feedback without treading into the realms of ridiculousness, obviously you cannot have the player exploding in a fit of gore when shot by a few rifle rounds.

Interestingly, my theory of Instant Feedback can be noticed in shooters of a less visceral nature in other forms. For example, in the game Halo 3, the Battle Rifle is the preferred weapon of choice for skilled players as it rewards a good aim. The gun fires in a concentrated trajectory, travelling exactly where the player is aiming. Not only this but its semi automatic nature means it requires a physical pull of the trigger on each burst, transmitting the players inputs into specific, instant effects on screen. Furthermore when the visual cue appears that the enemy shield has dropped, the player knows he is one calculated headshot away from that always-gratifying ragdoll effect.

To relate this back to the Lancer, a system could be implemented whereby the Lancer and Hammerburst were combined to create a semi automatic mid ranged rifle that uses Instant Feedback to empower the player and choose it over the shotgun and the sniper rifle. The weapon should require a specific number of shots to get the enemy to a point where he is one shot away from an instant headshot., similar to that of a sniper rifle or a Boltok. For example, in Halo 3 the term “4-shot” relates to the amount of shots it takes to drop a fully shielded opponent, this could translate into the newly balanced incarnation of the Lancer. Furthermore the visual effect of the bullet penetrating the opponents armour and flesh must be visually appealing, spraying smoke and blood from the front and the rear, painting objects behind the enemy in a moist crimson. Not only this but the sound effect of the rifle must be chunky and meaty. It must crack and echo upon the surroundings, an audible cue to opponents that danger is close. Not to mention the audio effect as the bullet penetrates the opponent must sound like high velocity meeting flesh.

These audio effects are massively important to this overall pleasure of Instant Feedback. Imagine them combo-ing so to speak, whereby you are greeted to the sound of bullet hitting flesh once, twice then a third time, finally to hear the sound of the headshot, as bone cracks and explodes in a visceral fashion, feedback to the player that he has just accomplished something of serious skill, equal to a shotgun roll or a long ranged sniper headshot.
In its current form the Lancer is dull. It sprays puny bullets at a chunk of meat with little Instant Feedback. Even once the player has fired a significant amount of bullets at the enemy, they simply fall to their hands and knees, denying the player of any Instant Feedback in a visual sense, unlike the other weapons.

If you want to elevate specific sections of the sandbox, you must make them equally appealing, and with Instant Feedback you can do this. It is not a case of removing features to make other weapons bad qualities seem acceptable, it is about raising the Instant Feedback of the underwhelming weapons to a point that matches the rest of the games arsenal in its own specified role on the battlefield, in the Lancers case, mid ranged combat.