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Swiming with Sharks. Chaos/Fun vs Competition/Balance

I don’t know that much about the MLG.

I am just being honest. I’ve never competed in an MLG event. I am not a member of GAMEBATTLES.

As I write this, I am on an airplane headed to Dallas to attend the season opening event of the MLG and I have a long list of stuff I want to get done to change the fact that I don’t know that much about the MLG.

Many people worked really hard to get Call of Duty: Black Ops on the circuit. As far as I know, no Call of Duty has ever been on the tour before now. In a small way, that makes this weekend something special.

We’ve been trying to think really critically about what it means to make a fun, balanced, competitive game, meet the needs of hyper competitive gamer without taking anything away from the pure chaos (and thus fun) of the game. 
We’ve internally been debating the direct and indirect relationship between a balanced game and a fun game. The holy grail is a fun game for all types of gamers that is still balanced. This is easy to say. It’s really hard to do well.

Black Ops is close because it placed emphasis on other features to appeal to non-hardcore gamers (Combat Training, Theater, Emblem editing, Wager Match, and more.) All of those things are great, but take away development time from gameplay features (weapons, killstreaks, perks, attachments, and more.) You know, competitive stuff?

After we confirmed that Treyarch would be at this MLG event, I received some of the best instant feedback I’ve ever gotten. I knew immediately I wanted to take some time to talk to you about that feedback and get some discussion around it.

One video response we got said we needed to “keep the sharks out of the kiddie pool.”

This makes sense to me a macro level. However, a few things come to mind.

Isn’t the reason someone is a shark because the competition is not that tough for you in the ocean as a whole?

For some of you, as soon as you can only swim with other sharks, you are not going to be a shark anymore. This means you are going to lose more and (for some of you) this will make the game less fun.

Pretend for a moment that we didn’t let you play with people with a much lower skill, time played, K:D ratio, or any of the other metrics that have been suggested.

To be frank, actually meaningfully measuring individual skill in what is a team game that can range from 4-9 players, across half a dozen game modes, and can include randoms or a full team of people you know, isn’t an exact science.

Simply, if anywhere along the line you end up in the wrong bucket of players, your experience isn’t ideal. If you are over-qualified you are not challenged. If you are under-qualified you get crushed.

Sure you can break it down by playlist or game mode. You can bounce people with too high or too low of a win / loss ratio into the next sized pool. We can find plenty of probable solutions to the challenges; none of them are silver bullet and all of them require fairly advanced player feedback systems so you’d have some idea what is going on and all that gets in the way of just playing the game and having fun.

Pretend that the game has enough people online where this doesn’t adversely impact your matchmaking experience.

To be certain, it will. Nobody in your sized pool right now? Sorry. Wait till a slot opens up or more players sign on and maybe join your lobby. Want to play with friends? That will take longer as we calculate the mean or median skill across a disparate group of players and try to find a similar group.

The more skill you have as measured by however we measure such things, the harder and more rare it is that a similarly skilled player (let alone a team of players) is available for you to play against.

Simply not letting the sharks into the kiddie pool is a sound concept made difficult on a practical level.

Another common suggestion I received is “just make an MLG playlist!”

What does that even mean?

The MLG (and Gamebattles) use a rule set and restrictions that aren’t possible to execute at a playlist level.

Many folks misunderstand what a playlist is, how it works, and what is possible. Explaining it well is currently outside the primary purpose of this post.

It’s a chicken and egg problems. You don’t know what you need in the playlist until after the game comes out and is evaluated and we need to set up the rules to be playlist tunable before the game comes out.

Not that it can’t be done post ship, but its infinitely more risky, time consuming, and is now in competition with other development resources working on other things.

In a live tournament situation with an entry-fee as a barrier to entry and real person as an official to keep things honest, it’s a non problem.

As one gamer said to me. The MLG thinks everything is over powered. I don’t know if this is true. The person who said this might have been referring to MLG participants rather than MLG itself. This weekend I will be meeting with real MLG people and can learn the process they use for evaluating the game.

Regardless, we don’t like the idea of restricting game content by banning “this” or “that” and don’t think it is the right solution.

We did that with Barebones and Pure. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I understood the reasons, agreed with them, and did it. However these are some of the least popular playlists we have.

Where we go from here

First things first. We need to let Dallas unfold and I need to start to get some first-hand experience with what hyper or professional competitive gaming is all about.

Then we need to think long-term. The scope at which you could go back and retrofit a new strategy on a previous game is fairly limited. I am not saying we won’t look at it, but I am trying to set your expectations appropriately.

Think big picture and long-term now. I could imagine a framework for a self-policing, modifiable, rule set. New mechanics that lets the players have more direct exposure to game tuning.

The game will never be so flexible that a community of players can “tune it themselves.” However, that is not the only variable that goes into balancing.

The downside of this is that it only moves the needle on making the game more balanced without subtracting “fun” and doesn’t address the question of swimming in the right sized pool.

This one is a discussion.

Chaos / Fun vs Competition / Balance. Where does the needle land. How do you serve all masters correctly. Your turn now.

David ‘Vahn’ Vonderhaar
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