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Aaron Waite Aaron Waite
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Dumbing It Down

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Correcting multiplayer balance

A few months ago, I wrote on the subject of 'Halo 4' and how it was a completely different beast than the previous iterations of the series. Rather than continuing to work with the core gameplay that made the series great, 343 Industries took unnecessary measures to make sure that the skill gap was roughly an inch. Between sprint, random weapon drops, changing the scoring system and loadouts, the game was built for one purpose, and one purpose alone: to make sure casual gamers felt like they weren't left out.

I'm gonna stop right there, because I know you already think that I hate casual gamers. I don't. I really don't. My wife loves 'Animal Crossing,' and it's pretty much the only game she plays. And why not? It's a non-competitive title built around the sole idea of being relaxing and laid-back. 'Animal Crossing' is made for gamers like her.

However, the problem arises in competitive play when you balance the game around the lowest common denominator. In 'Halo 4,' this was built around empowering players that weren't doing well while allowing the players that were topping the leaderboard to be subject to chance. Bottom dwellers would suddenly have a random rocket launcher dropped at their feet, allowing them to work their way up the leaderboards with minimum effort. Map knowledge and control benefitted veteran players very little, and when your best-laid plans start to fall apart due to the roll of the dice, you're not rewarded for actually putting time into the game to get better.

It's not that I think casual players shouldn't have fun, too. 'Halo 2' was hugely popular because it had an excellent matchmaking system that sorted you with players of your own skill. Players that had put the hours in rose up the leaderboards and faced off against other people that wanted to take the game more seriously, casual players were rewarded by playing against people of their skill level who mostly were there to just chill out, relax and take a load off. The 'Starcraft' series is another good example of building the game to be played at the highest levels first, and then allowing people to be as good they'd like to be. On the surface, you can play the game in multiplayer and have a good time, but if you put the time in, you can ascend to the point of many of the professional players, basically reading a match like Neo reads the Matrix. Same thing goes for 'Super Smash Bros. Melee.' I spent years upon years playing this with my siblings and having a blast, but underneath the veneer of a party game beat the competitive soul of a fighting game as hardcore and technical as 'Street Fighter.' 

It all comes down to one simple rule: for any multiplayer game to be successful, you cannot build the game around casual players. This will severely impact the longevity of your game, because no one bothers to play a game they can't improve in after a while. If you give players a very high skill ceiling, they will push themselves to attain it, and those core players will become the foundation of your community for a long time.
 In the case of 'Halo 3,' a year after launch, there were 1.1 million people playing daily. A year after 'Halo 4?' They struggled to break 20,000 players. Thirteen years later, 'Melee' has a competitive scene even larger than it once was, and its very simplified sequel 'Super Smash Bros. Brawl' hasn't enjoyed even half of that audience for half the time since its 2008 release. 'Starcraft' was played for over 15 years in South Korea, becoming what many consider to be its national sport. And the reason for the longevity in these titles? They were simple enough on the surface to attract new players, and then hooked them with the ability to improve themselves indefinitely.

Developers: don't hold the players' hands. Give both casual and competitive players a place in your game, but don't put a lid on the skills of those that would play your game until Armageddon. If you do this, I promise you, both groups will appreciate your games much more and much longer.

Aaron Waite would like to reiterate that his incoming child will not be named 'Paper,' Light' or 'Heavy.'


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