First, a confession. Despite the fact I do most of my gaming on an Xbox 360, I haven’t played a online shooter on LIVE for over a year. My account has been languishing in Silver for as long as I can remember.
Console games themselves are, in part, to blame. In truth very few are genuinely worth playing online. Halo, Battlefield maybe? FIFA if you like sports, Borderlands if you like co-op and, of course, whatever iteration of Call of Duty tickles your fancy. That’s about it.
But the main problem is the cesspool. The jabs, the racism, the abuse, the hordes of youngsters that camp, use exploits — the folks that are far too well versed in video games for their own good.
Long story short, when it comes to online gaming, there are just so many obstacles, and it’s the job of a game like Call of Duty Black Ops II to remove those obstacles. It’s the game’s job to provide the path of least resistance. To help those who want to play, but could just as easily list a litany of reasons why they shouldn’t bother.
“None of us like getting our asses kicked, and we don’t really like kicking everyone else’s ass all the time either. If you know you can walk into any game and just lay waste to the field, what good is that?”
Treyarch’s Director of Communications, John Rafacz, is unilaterally correct. None of us like getting our arse kicked; particularly when it comes with a healthy dose of verbal abuse and virtual testicles dangling atop our foreheads to ‘sweeten the deal’.
It’s a genuine issue. As someone who spent most of his early adult years playing Halo, the jump across to Call of Duty — with its wildly different pace, mechanics and strategy — is quite intimidating. And for Treyarch, that is a small problem. In order to grow its audience, Call of Duty has to become more accessible to those who haven’t spent the last five years building up a very particular set of skills.
But how can they pull this off? John says yes. And he believes it all starts with ‘Combat Training’.
“There are three components to it,” he explains. “There’s a thing we call boot camp.
“Boot Camp is a mix of human and AI players versus a mix of human and AI players for full XP credit for the first ten levels. You are actually ranking up. Beyond level 10, once you pass that threshold, you start earning half XP. Then there’s Bot Stomp which is just you and your buddies wailing on the AI.
“If you mix in those three modes of play, you find a real safety zone. You can play with your load outs, figure out what kind of player you are, hone your skills.”
Matchmaking systems also play a part, but in my years of playing shooters online, I’ve yet to come across a system that worked as advertised, or didn’t turn from a functional algorithm into something stupidly competitive. It’s a real problem, one that speaks to the heart of online shooters and the issues they have with their audiences.
“Competition should be fun at any level,” says John, “because you and I, no matter what game we’re playing, we love to win and we might even be willing to lose if we were challenged or had a great game that was exciting.
“That’s what gave rise to the thing we’re calling league play. This is a more robust matchmaking system. On day one you start playing and after a short while it starts to rank you. This is where we start matching you with people of like skill. Hopefully someone new to the game won’t be matched up against a true master.”
It’s all well and good to talk about ranking systems, but try as you might, herding folks of similar abilities into one specific pen is difficult, and individuals always slip through the net. Everyone, no matter how robust the matchmaking, has been on the receiving end (or delivery end) of an absolute slaugherfest.
But that isn’t necessarily what sours the experience. Most rational adult human beings are okay with losing badly at a video game, it’s the social aspect — the abuse, the stupidity — that drives most folks to distraction.
Ironically, that’s the element that the most difficult for developers like Treyarch to control.
“We try to influence and control that as much as we are able,” admits John. “The ability to report players for offensive language, offensive emblems, all of that will be in place. There’s a certain extent to which we hope people will be able to police themselves, and there’s no way we can personally account for bad apples, so we try and give people the tools to help people help themselves.”
In a recent interview Jenova Chen, the creator of Journey, said something that stuck with me.
He said: “[N]one of us was born to be an asshole. I believe that very often it’s not really the player that’s an asshole. It’s the game designer that made them an asshole. If you spend every day killing one another how are you going to be a nice guy? All console games are about killing each other, or killing one another together… Don’t you see? It’s our games that make us assholes.”
I ask John — is Treyarch turning gamers into assholes?
“There was a point where at five pm every day you would hear the crackle of gunfire over the desks in my office with all of us doing the exact same things you’re talking about. And it is awesome. So when you’re talking about that environment, when you are in an office and you hose someone down, then go over to their desk and taunt them personally, that’s just another level of fun.”
But in an anonymous setting — pragmatically, mechanically — Treyarch is trying its very best to encourage a style of gameplay that encourages less friction and more teamwork.
“The team has replaced kill streaks with score streaks,” he says, giving an example. “Score streaks are designed to reward people who play to an objective.
“If you are the high K/D player, there’s still a place for you in the Call of Duty tent. We still love you. Rewards for that skill will be available. But if you apply that skill to the benefit of your team? We’ll reward you even more.
“We’re trying to make sure people are focusing toward a more co-operative style of game.”
Will Black Ops II solve everyone’s problem with online multiplayer? Probably not. Will make playing a group of strangers in an anonymous environment a little more bearable? Maybe.
Or maybe not, it’s difficult to tell, but it’s a step in the correct direction regardless. Maybe I’ll get that Gold upgrade after all…