Sunday, August 23, 2009

Can't Fight This Feeling Anymore

In competitive gaming, there's a shared thread between 'dominant' tactics and builds. In games where players can select a wide variety of options, patterns emerge between what is the best and most dominant strategies. There are 4 main characteristics I'd like to go over today, and talk indepth about one of them.

1: Hard control, and barring that, control effects in general. All of these threads have similarities in that they restrict or reduce your opponent's options. Hard control is the ability to completely remove your opponent's ability to move or fight back, typically through stun, knockdown, or similar effects. Other control effects include reducing your opponent's options by restricting their movement or ability choices, or reducing the power of these options (damage or accuracy reduction, etc.) I'll be focusing on this one today.

2: Persistent entities. MMO players generally refer to them as pets. This can include traps and area denial tools, lingering projectiles or delayed effect projectiles (eg. Gier in Arcana Heart) and similar tools. Pets allow a player to restrict the opponent further. At its simplest, a ranged character with a melee pet can force the opponent to keep moving to escape the melee pet while able to function at his ideal range. Pets can often do debilitating things or just deal threatening damage, controlling where and how your opponent moves, which is very powerful. Some pets can even perform defensive functions, which lowers the amount of concentration a pet master has to spend on staying alive. Even if developers do their best to balance pet classes, they tend to become more powerful just because having a seperate, persistent entity changes gameplay.

3: Spike or burst damage. This is the act of depleting an opponent's life rapidly, without allowing them much time to defend themselves. Large amounts of burst reduce the value of healing, because healers must react in a small window and heal large amounts of life immediately in order to be effective at all. Once an enemy is dead, further healing isn't useful. This also takes a person out of the battle before they really have a chance to fight back or defend themselves with any type of active defense. A typical spike might take as few as 2-3 seconds, or as many as ten, depending on the game. In fighting games, this typically refers to characters that can deal lots of damage or win the fight off a single opening. Burst damage needs to be balanced by the ease in dealing it - if it's too easy to set up a burst/get an opening, it tends to be overpowered.

4: Mobility (and stealth, by extension). In Guild Wars, skills that increase your movement by only 20% for brief periods are treated as gold. This is because mobility is so critical in competition. Characters with extremely fast movement can dictate the pace of a match, while slower characters must take their opportunities to attack within the windows that the faster characters give them. A melee fighter who is not allowed to get into melee range due to a lack of speed never gets to fight at all, and a ranged character fighting another ranged character who has the flexibility of speed can pick and choose his moment to strike and his opponent must react. This is really huge for competition. Stealth, teleportation, and other means of controlling the distance in the fight are an extension of this because they do the same thing - manipulate the distance at which the battle is fought and dictate the pace of the battle. A stealthed opponent can control when a battle starts, just like a faster opponent can.

Today I'm only going to talk about control, because each of these topics is really huge.

Control is the most frustrating thing to fight against. In a fighting game where characters use fast recovering moves to leave you on the defensive, you can be made to feel helpless. In a MMORPG when you are permanently stunlocked, feared, or held you are literally helpless with no way to escape. Although perma stun builds can be an element of bad game design, they can also lead to more gameplay depth (WoW). The cost of frustration on a player unfamiliar with perma stun is jarring, though.

Quite simply, getting locked down permanently isn't fun. It doesn't matter what game you're playing - if it's EVE and your ship is getting jammed, warp scrambled and webbed, your ship can do nothing except drive at a slug's pace in most cases. Even burst damage is more fun than that - at least when you're bursted down, you're dead and then you've lost and you can go do something else or try again, or respawn if it's that sort of game. When you spend 10 or more seconds staring at your screen or holding block, it's like you have basically lost but the game is forcing you to witness your death for the next minute. People call these tactics lame or 'cheap', and rightfully so - they aren't fun at all. Even when there are counters, if a novice doesn't know or doesn't have the counter, the match becomes unfun.

Guild Wars takes the hardline approach by making hard control impossible for long periods. Interrupts happen instantly, so it takes one person's constant effort to completely lock an enemy down. Knockdowns are very hard to 'chain', so repeated knockdowns are generally uncommon. Instead, light control is sprinkled throughout a game that is built far more on mobility and burst damage, and surprisingly, active defense is pretty viable (and actually essential).

I think that FPS games luck out since in most cases (barring a few weird exceptions like the Sandman in TF2) hard control or control at all is pretty much not present. Symmetry in FPS games (where each player or team has the same options) also makes the other elements a non-factor, since every player has access to more or less the same options. Also, even if there were control elements like stun in an FPS, knockdown or stun would quickly lead to a death, rather than the 10 second lingering (or more) that most MMORPGs tend to have.

Fighting games treat hard controls completely differently. Typically, a hard control is a combo starter, since the opponent typically can't block. Sometimes (most Mortal Kombat games) this leads to infinites, but in most cases, a hard control is landed, which results in a combo, which either puts the players back in a neutral state, or leaves one player at an advantage. Knockdowns can be seen as a form of hard control though, and once knocked down, a player's options are few, allowing the attacker a large degree of flexibility without necessarily granting the attacker any free hits.

Even soft control is kind of meh. Soft controls reduce your ability to fight back, or can simply remove one option available to you. If one takes a control like Guild Wars' blind, it can still be heavily crippling to someone who depends entirely on non-magic combat. In MMOs where high-end builds tend to be specialized for one type of strategy, crippling that one strategy with a soft control is almost the same as getting pegged by a hard control.

Stacked soft controls can be worse than hard control - in the EVE Alliance Tournament 6, people used sensor dampeners to reduce the enemy's locking range rather than ECM to jam their locks outright. Stacked sensor dampeners led to enemies literally being unable to lock at any respectable distance, forcing players into knife-fight distances if they wanted to attack at all. In City of Heroes, stacked accuracy debuffs can give a foe 5-10% accuracy even with buffs to overcome it, which effectively keeps an opponent from fighting back.

The same reasoning behind controls doesn't apply to the reverse. Buffs that affect the same variables as debuffs tend to be very tightly controlled, often placing caps, stacking penalties or just outright lack of stacking at all in order to restrict people from turning teammates into gods. Debuffs and controls on the other hand tend to be very loosely controlled.

What does this all mean? Well, it means that controls are always something we need to look out for. Whether it's infinite stun/knockdown combos or range floor debuffs, our builds need to include ways to counter or otherwise weather the storm of control. If the game is too focused on control and debuff to the point where it makes matches a matter of who lands the first stun, maybe the game isn't worth playing.