Barrage: Casual Games can be Hardcore, Too

Imagine cancer in video game form. I mean it – a malignant tumor in the shape of a PC or iOS game which spreads its festering tendrils through the rest of the industry. I’m RocketEthereal and this is Barrage.

If I had to pick one game that best exemplified the idea and characteristics of cancer, it would be Subway Surfers – because I haven’t played Candy Crush Saga and I never ever will.

Subway Surfers bears all the hallmarks of cancerous game design. It’s a free infinite runner on iPhones and iPads in which you must swipe left and right to switch lanes in order to dodge obstacles and collect coins and powerups, swipe up to jump, and swipe down to slide. Bumping into an obstacle will set you in a “vulnerable” state for a few seconds, during which bumping into something again will result in the “save me” phase. I’ll explain that in a moment. Should you run face-first into an obstacle, you will immediately enter the “save me” phase.

Before we move on, the “save me” phase is a way to stave off death. You’re given a short timer and prompted to save your endlessly running protagonist by spending premium currency – this allows you to continue your run where you left off, thus saving your score and continuing to build on it. Every successive decision to save the player character doubles the cost of doing so, so it gets expensive rather quickly.

There’s two currencies, like most F2P games: Coins, which are everywhere and easily ammassed over time, and Keys, which are the currency used for the “save me” phase and which are rarely awarded for performance or randomly found on the subway tracks.

You with me? This game is casual cancer – but it’s also extremely hardcore. We’re not talking “Dark Souls” or “Super Meat Boy” hardcore, either. This level of hardcore requires obsession.

How can that possibly be? Well, it’s actually quite simple. Subway Surfers has a two characteristics that can turn it into bloodthirsty competition.

Massive popularity. TouchArcade claimed just a couple months ago that Subway Surfers has been downloaded over ONE BILLION times across all platforms. That is, iOS, PC, and Android. This makes it the fourth most-downloaded game in history.
A knowledge of how to abuse that popularity.

Subway Surfers is designed around keeping the casual player playing, sure – but its emphasis on growth and competition is the core source of player investment. It’s got multiple mechanics in place that encourage players to develop ridiculous amounts of mastery, even though the game itself is relatively easy:

Persistent score multiplier growth. In other words, people who have been playing for longer will get higher scores for each second they’re playing, period. This is accomplished through “mission sets.” A mission set contains three fixed missions such as picking up 5 of a certain powerup, dodging 12 of a certain barrier, or scoring 40,000 points in one run. That sort of thing. Completing a mission set will permanently raise your score multiplier by one… and I’m not sure what the ceiling is, just that the mission sets gradually take longer to complete as you progress through the multiplier levels.
Live “chase counter” high score tracking. When you’re approaching the score of one of your Facebook friends, or someone in your “Top Run” group (I’ll explain that in a moment), their portrait appears to the side with the score difference between you and their high score. This is a powerful motivator to push as hard as you can and break your friends’ scores.
The “Top Run” system puts you in a pool of a few players who will compete over the course of a week to get a better high score for that week than each other. A live scoreboard parses this pool of players out into tiers based on their numbers – Diamond, Gold, Silver, Bronze, and… an unnamed tier for those who are either truly awful or do not care. I’m not particularly sure if there’s any sort of reward for ending the week in a high tier, but it gives you an opportunity to prove yourself against other skilled and not-so-skilled players in a limited environment.

When you combine the sheer number of people going for high scores in Subway Surfers with constant high score comparison, the result is that you have insanely dedicated players scoring in the billions – someone on my friends list, the person at the top of my high score board, has scored 25.6 billion points. Compare that to how I’m doing in this video. I don’t even want to think about how long I would have to maintain one run for in order to score that high.

The fact is, the mere presence of such heavy competition arguably makes Subway Surfers a more difficult game to succeed in than a lot of difficult single- and multiplayer games. I’m pretty sure that when measured up against their respective player bases, I am better at Counter-Strike than I am at Subway Surfers – though maybe I just haven’t leveled my multiplier up enough yet. If you disagree with me, I invite you to add me on Game Center if you’re on iOS – search for “Ethereal –” and we’ll see just how hardcore you are. This has been Barrage.

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Barrage: Are You a Toxic Gamer?

Buckle up ladies and gents, this rant is gonna be a toxic one. This… is Barrage. And it’s gonna be toxic because we’re going to talk about video game toxicity. What the hell does that even mean?

A few years back, Riot Games, the creators of League of Legends, decided that they were tired of losing paying customers because someone on the internet called them a shithead or they AFK’d in the middle of a ranked match. I can’t say I blame them. A lot of ARTS and MOBA players are very, very rude people who justify their rudeness because someone else isn’t as good at videogames as they’d like.

The key word that Riot used to describe this troublesome behavior was “toxic,” which is a synonym for “poisonous.” They used this word because they felt that rude people were poisoning other people’s game experience, and because words that use a hard X sound are fun to say. Exuberant. Extrapolate. Ex, er… et cetera.

And so, to make their community a happier place with fewer people calling other people shitheads, they created the Tribunal, a player-powered system in which League users would examine “cases” in which people were accused of being toxic and decide whether or not they actually were. The automated side of the Tribunal system would then mete out a punishment based on how bad the verdict was and if they were repeat offenders. The result was a much more positive chat box in League, and with far fewer AFKers and rage quitters. Of course, this was all because people were scared of big collective brother seeing what a terrible person they were, and not because of any real effort to cultivate healthier mindsets.

Riot was just the beginning of the use of this word, however. With millions of League players, some started to leak it out into the rest of the gaming world, calling out people they perceived as “rude” for being “toxic.” See, the results of Riot’s well-intentioned efforts couldn’t be argued with… and thus, Riot Games, developer of the most played video game in the world, created the precursor for the “safe space.”

Punishing people for using words can be justified pretty easily. I hate to defend anyone who undeniably verbally abuses people they’re supposed to work with on the internet – so I won’t. However, should assholes have their free speech restricted?

The problem isn’t that we’re shutting up assholes. The problem is that there’s no line drawn in the sand. The reason that people were shut up in the first place was because they were creating a negative experience for other people, but the fringe of today’s culture is consumed with the idea that you have the right to not be offended – and they get offended at everything! They’re rather vocal about it, too, which means that a tiny, tyrannical minority of people whose feelings are hurt with unreasonable ease are dictating to everyone else what does and does not constitute acceptable behavior, and you should be silenced if you ever slip up and say one mean thing.

Online gaming used to be a different place, where you were forged in the fires of war. Internet fighting was serious business, and you got yelled at if you were screwing it up for your team. It was a bad place to leap in and just have fun. However, I argue that the more serious online arenas where this takes place, such as Defense of the Ancients, are just as unfun when you’re learning how to play the game because of how hard you’re destroyed in the absence of the knowledge and experience you need to actually have a good time. On the contrary, online gaming is not all fun and games. It’s where you train to be a warrior because you want the challenge of dealing with other people. And frankly, when you’re training to be a warrior, you should expect that you’re going to get taunted and trash-talked. It’s not just rude, it’s a part of gaming culture.

That said, most big multiplayer games now ship with a report feature that allows you to take action against another person for “harassment.”How intolerant of discomfort, and how stubborn do you have to be to not mute the offending player, leave the game and join a new one, or just shrug it off because some other idiot’s text-pixels shouldn’t affect you at all? It’s just some other idiot, who gives a shit what they think?

As an aside, the “no sexism or racism” rule in nearly every gaming community somewhat amuses me. It infantilizes the people in it because it says that they’re not able to work out their own issues and talk things out like adults.

A culture that thinks “toxicity” is indicative of a terrible person who shouldn’t be playing the game is a toxic culture. Instead, we should be working to encourage each other, befriend each other, and forgive each other when someone explodes. Riot notes that three out of four convicted players reformed, and did not revisit the Tribunal. Why can’t we do that with positive measures instead of negative ones? Everyone just needs to chill out, drop the ego, and understand that sometimes, if you want to play online games, someone is going to call you a shithead. This has been Barrage.

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Barrage: You Don’t Know Shit About Call of Duty

I’m about to tell you about one of the most underappreciated triple A franchises of all time. That’s right, it’s Call of Duty, and this… is Barrage.

Whoa, whoa. Hold the phone. Has ANY video game franchise ever been more accused of being the same old game every year? Has any franchise ever been more disrespected, where if you play any other game in the genre and you don’t like something or you’re not very good, you’re told to go back to these games? Madden and other sports games don’t count because they’re based on static, unchanging arenas and new entries in sports franchises are enriched only with slightly better graphics, updated rosters, and one major new feature that replaces a feature from last year.

Now, I’m not saying that Call of Duty is perfect, or even fantastic. On the contrary, the franchise has had a lot of issues in recent days. Such issues include overpriced DLC, bad netcode, rehashed maps and reused assets, and weapon imbalance, among other things. Is Call of Duty deserving of the criticisms it usually receives, though?

Let’s start with the skill level of Call of Duty players, which is implied to be the lowest of the low. There is no lower insult to a first person shooter player than “Go back to Call of Duty.” At least when someone tells you to uninstall, they’re not telling you to go back to a kiddie game. Here’s where you need to understand one of CoD’s strengths. I want you to pay attention to this match. I am a first person shooter veteran and I’ve played every major game in the franchise. I’ve never played on this particular map before and I’m not sure when it was added to the game, but also note that there are no hackers or aimbotters in this lobby. Pay attention to the scoreboard especially at the end of the video, when you get to see just how well some of these people who have been playing Advanced Warfare for several times as long as I have are.

Now take into account that Call of Duty is designed to be accessible, which is the reason people think it’s so casual. Guns are generally hitscan, and people generally have low health pools. The highest number of times you’ll have to shoot someone in the body is about six or seven, and that’s with the lowest damage-per-bullet guns at long ranges, where damage falloff comes into play.

What critics are missing is that due to the speed of the game, especially recent entries – hell, look at how insanely fast Advanced Warfare is – the skill ceiling is monstrously high! In order words, Call of Duty embodies a hallmark of great game design – easy to pick up, difficult to master.

Let’s move on to the “same game every year” accusation. Ugh, I feel filthy even acknowledging this, but there’s so many people who believe it to be true. A cursory search of the franchise will show you a significant evolution over the course of the many years Call of Duty has existed. Call of Duty 1 and 2, for example, were slow World War II shooters with non-regenerating health that required you to pick up health packs. Call of Duty 4, Modern Warfare, was groundbreaking both in its modern military setting and in its level-based progression system, not to mention the introduction of perks, killstreaks, and heavily customizable multiplayer loadouts. Just take the jump from the near-featureless CoD 2 to CoD 4 and there’s an incredible change of pace.
The next installation in the franchise was World at War, by Treyarch. World at War introduced the famous “CoD Zombies” mode that took the four-player zombie co-op formula and radically shook it up by setting players in an enclosed map that offered them guns, perks, upgrades, secrets, and new areas in exchange for a point-based currency earned by killing zombies and maintaining defenses.

So where did things appear to go wrong? The consensus is usually Modern Warfare 2, which was the next entry in the franchise. Modern Warfare 2 did little to add to the franchise, with the exception of a sizable series of co-op challenges that put one or two players in a special scenario and required them to complete specific objectives. However, Modern Warfare 2 also invented the customizable “calling card” system that’s been employed in a multitude of shooters, including Gotham City Imposters, Battlefield, Planetside 2, and more.

Black Ops, Modern Warfare 3, and Black Ops 2 all did little to expound upon the formula, it’s true. They all tried to be slightly different, and they were, with different guns, maps, campaigns, co-op features, progression systems, and loadout customization, but the action was generally the same.

Then Advanced Warfare came out and added exo suits, which is why everyone is boosting around and flying all over the place. It’s harder to track a player in this game than it is in Unreal, if the player is good.

Let’s be honest – if you still think that Call of Duty is the same game every year, then you probably aren’t criticizing much more than the fact that most loadouts boil down to darting across the map and aiming down sights at someone, then holding down the left mouse button. How would you change that, anyway? This has been Barrage.

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Barrage – Asymmetrical Multiplayer is Awesome

In Left4Dead 2, the general consensus amongst low-skill players is that the special infected players in versus are overpowered. Amongst high-skill players, that the humans are overpowered. In Nosgoth, low-skill players will tell you the vampires are overpowered. Higher skilled players will speak to the contrary. Here, in Primal Carnage, the paradigm is pretty much the same as in the other two cases, likely due to the fact that humans are cunning and versatile creatures capable of using a huge variety of lethal implements, whereas more bestial entities such as zombies, vampires, and dinosaurs tend to be locked into a method of combat that aligns with their physical properties. In other words, the skill level of the person holding the gun generally holds more sway over the balance of the game than the skill level of the person who doesn’t.

That doesn’t matter, though. It doesn’t matter that the humans are generally going to have the higher skill ceiling, because when a multiplayer environment forces players to take turns so that each player experiences both sides of a conflict, no matter how asymmetrical they are, the game remains generally balanced. This is the beautiful of asymmetrical multiplayer games.

For the sake of clarity, let’s define this concept. True asymmetrical multiplayer exists in any environment where one team or entity is restricted to wildly different gameplay from that of their opponents. In other words, games in which gameplay is purely class-based are right out.

Some sources, such as Wikipedia, may claim that any class-based shooter which has the slightest amount of difference between teams qualifies as an asymmetrical game. For example, Battlefield 3 and 4. The only differences between teams in these games are the infantry and vehicle spawning points, and their objectives, sometimes. As this is only asymmetrical in that it is a basic attack/defense scenario, I find the definition more fitting of games that bear a clear distinction.

Asymmetrical multiplayer environments have brought us a ton of creativity and unique experiences. In addition to the aforementioned titles, there’s also Evolve, the four humans vs. one monster shooter. While repetitive and unfortunately burdened with DLC, it was a great idea and it was executed well. There’s Natural Selection I and II, and Tremulous, all three of which pit teams of humans and aliens against each other, and all three of which have generated cult followings. Dying Light featured a mode in which one powered-up zombie player had to protect several nests of eggs from a group of humans. Star Wars Battlefront I and II had completely different classes and vehicles available to the light and dark sides.

Unfortunately, I’ve just named nearly every single significant contributor to true asymmetrical gameplay. It’s not a terribly popular concept, but why is that? This concept is a goldmine of fun game design!

Asymmetrical design empowers developers to create nearly any kind of scenario they could possibly dream up. I don’t want to complain about the trend of humans versus zombies, vampires, aliens and dinosaurs, because the games that we have are awesome, but there’s a ton of space to explore. So far, every major asymmetrical multiplayer game has been a shooter. Why not execute this concept with another genre? A real time strategy game where one side has an overwhelming force available to them from the moment the round starts, and the other side has to strategically configure defenses ahead of time. A tower defense where one player is devoted wholly to the creation of an army of creeps that can overwhelm an opposing player’s structures. A puzzle game where a powerful, mastermind villain has to ruin a group of adventurers’ attempts to match 3 their way to victory.

As long as the players in these games take turns playing on each side, so that each player faces the same set challenges, the game will have a foundational balance. Only by borking the balance so hard that one side wins every time or almost every time can the concept be ruined, and that would likely be an easy problem to solve through number tweaking. The playing field would remain fair.

The key in the value of asymmetrical multiplayer is that it pulls us away from the generic. It’s composed entirely of unique experiences. Merely “playing as the bad guy” is common, now, but playing as the alien, the monster, the archvillain? These are still relatively new experiences that deserve to be further explored. And if you haven’t thoroughly explored the games I’ve already mentioned, now is a great time.

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Barrage – Regressive Progression

Gaming is afflicted with a terrible disease, a sort of two-sided cancer which has long-enriched our experiences, but is also burdening us and dampening our fun – often without us realizing. This dreaded condition is… progression.

“Oh, come on Ethereal! Not every leveling system is a skinner’s box.” You’re right. Not every leveling system is. However, there are other negative aspects to progression than simply that of shallow rewards and psychological manipulation. The specific aspect I’m concerned with here is that progression encourages you to play a game for a reason other than the merit of the game itself.

Let’s take two first person shooters, for example. They’re pretty similar, except that one allows you to level up, and the other doesn’t. The game that allows you to level up automatically has a leg up on the game that doesn’t simply because of the cheap pleasures of arbitrary accomplishment and showing off a number that’s larger than someone else’s. Should that game have that edge? It hasn’t done anything intelligent in terms of design, or provided anything unique in terms of experience, with this hypothetically average progression system.

Progression systems can bear a lot of value. For example, locking difficult-to-use content behind a certain rank allows developers to force players to familiarize themselves with the game before they attempt playing with advanced tools that require better knowledge than they possess, or to prevent new players from ruining the experience of other players. This was the idea behind the ranking system in Counter Strike: Global Offensive. You can’t play in the ranked queue until you achieve rank 3, which takes a few days of play.

When cosmetic or status-boosting content is locked behind a progression system, however, the content can encourage players to play the game more because of a desire to earn that content. It effectively turns the game into a job.

CS:GO has a badge that’s only available this year, and which requires you to reach rank 40 – the maximum – before the year ends. If you don’t reach rank 40 before then, it’s gone forever. Don’t be mistaken, the primary intent behind the existence of this badge is not to reward people who play a lot. It’s to get people to invest more time, and thus, make players more likely to invest extra money in the form of microtransactions. Valve executes a lot of tactics similar to this, but that’s a topic for another time – this is just an example of nasty player motivation.

Note that I’m not saying that developers should always avoid rewards that are temporarily available, but rather that such rewards should be granted for doing something cool instead of doing something a lot.

To summarize the problem with bad progression systems, they cause all but the players who truly do not care to worry, however slightly, about what they’re missing. The game becomes an obligation instead of a source of relaxation. Reach level 40 before the year ends for an ego badge. Beat all the challenges before the season ends for an ego skin. Grind more wins than the other guy before November for a key that will open a content box.

To play devil’s advocate, this sort of method is a decent vehicle for encouraging competition between players, but you have to have an environment that requires competition in order to win the shiny medal, instead of one that simply requires you to exist for an extended period of time.

There is also the argument that because a leveling system indicates how long someone has been playing for, that it’s valuable because it gives you an idea of who you’re allied with and what you’re up against. It’s undeniable that in a game like Planetside 2 that a level 100 player almost certainly has far more experience than a level 20 player. Of course, levels are not actually representative of skill, just experience. It’s often pointed out in multiplayer games across all genres that ultimately, the arbitrary number that represents someone’s experience is essentially meaningless, unless the game requires new players to play for some time in order to get ahold of the basic mechanics, mastery and knowledge that’s required to competently play the game.

So what’s a better solution? You could try measuring experience by actual player experience – that is, the number of multiplayer lobbies they have completed, or the number of hours they have been in battle. The only downside then is that players might lord their playtimes over each other, and express disrespect toward newer players simply because they haven’t played as much. However, this tidbit of information has proved useful in competitive arenas such as Team Fortress 2, where teams require potential recruits to have played a number of hours that would indicate that they have a good understanding of the game, and are more likely to have the necessary skill for competition against excellent players.

Ultimately, skill based games do not require any sort of leveling system. Instead of levels, use milestones achieved through skill and invested time to give players a way of measuring their competency. Or, if a game isn’t that complex, don’t involve progression at all. Let a player’s guns do the talking, like in Quake or Unreal Tournament 2004.

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RocketStomps: Pac-Man – Championship Edition DX +

In RocketStomps, we launch ourselves at a game with the intention to get good or die trying. Our efforts to top leaderboards, conquer achievements and beat games are accompanied by commentary examining gameplay nuance and strategies to win at any cost. In this series, Ethereal tackles the reimagination of an arcade classic: Pac-Man: Championship Edition DX +.



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