Code Breakers and Battle Grounds

Online gaming, it’s a bit of a weird one really isn’t it? It’s not quite in the realms of love and hate for the divide it creates but it’s not far off; maybe closer to an X Factor final instead. I’m still at a bit of a crossroads on my viewpoint; I can’t quite decide which side to back. Sure, it has its ups and downs, and the experiences can be both immense and catastrophic within the space of five minutes, but my thoughts on this subject are not so much with playing online, as with the role it can play for the games themselves.

Over the past decade online gaming has taken one hefty climb in popularity, and much of that is due to the increased accessibility of the internet, and the ability (as well as price) of the systems needed to do it. Needless to say as a result, more and more of our games have taken a giant sideways step to being more online compatible, and that is where I am most undecided.

During my time playing video games I have undergone many transitions as technology has improved; compare the controllers of an Xbox 360 to a Super Nintendo to see how far it’s come! However, the biggest transition for many has been the struggle to adapt to online game play, as our very own Joanne discovered in her article Taking the Big Step Online.

Although I have clocked my own fair share of online hours I still find it difficult to always accept that it’s the way forward or neccesarily the best way to enhance games, after being let down by titles that should have been epic but settled for less to please solo and multiplayer gamers alike (Hello Bioshock 2!). In a world where technology is evolving so fast and the internet is a digital monster, is there a way to allow games to be compatible online, without sacrificing the gameplay as a result?

A 'Must Read' for anyone interested in the theories behind video games

What makes games fun?

During a recent reading session to expand my academic knowledge of the gaming industry, an article by Dominic Arsenault and Bernard Perron took my eye and made me think about why online gaming doesn’t always work out for the best. Their work is centred on understanding why and how we play games, and the mechanics of why they are fun.

In their essay ‘In the Frame of the Magic Cycle’ they speculate that ‘game play’ is the meeting between the gamer and the game and that essentially what makes it fun is unravelling its code of how to play it. Each game, they argue, is created through a system of rules and codes of conduct (eg. RT = fire weapon, head shots will be an instant kill, etc), and it is the unpicking of this system that results in mastering the game and ultimately winning, whether it’s through perfecting swift button combinations, solving puzzles, or an accurate trigger finger.

As we progress through games, we learn to predict their challenges and the programmed responses to our actions. Take Street Fighter 4 for example; while the difficulty levels make adjustments to the ways in which the computer controlled character will react against the player and the strength of their attacks, ultimately success lies in mastering the actions of each fighter, utilizing their move sets to understand how the computer will respond to your advances, and using your chosen fighter to defeat the CPU. Goodbye Seth!

However Tomb Raider, despite its generic differences and style of play, is no different.  As I play my way through exotic jungles, opera houses and long forgotten tombs, I learn to look out for hidden crevices, or ledges to hang and jump from to reach new areas; I begin to predict the moves of the programmer and use it against the game to progress through each level and win.

Online gaming therefore offers us a different challenge entirely. While we can go into Gamestation, pick up a title and master its codes of gameplay to defeat it, in the world of online gaming we are merely using the game as a platform, a battleground, against an unpredictable human response. When online, our developed assumptions of how a game will react are stripped away, as we face an unknown style from a different player entirely.

Although we are still able to refer to our set understanding of the games codes (its characters and their possible moves), we now use it to battle against an unfamiliar player whose responses we have not faced and therefore cannot predict. For example, I know that Blanka could throw an electric attack, or Ken could Shoryuken my backside into next week, but will my use of Chun Li’s kick attack provoke the same response as it would do if I was to use it against the computer? Winning the battle comes down to who has the ability to adapt the quickest and use the experience gained from solo game play in the most efficient way.

Even after considering the ways in which we play games, I still could not fathom why some games just do not work online. While I can understand the appeal of the challenge, to place my wits against those of someone else and revel in my potential glory, why is it that some games just do not give me that desire, even though the option is there?

It seems to me that games fall into two initial categories, those that are made to challenge the individual into breaking its code, and those designed to play host to online battles between individuals. While it should remain possible to offer both, the general design and appeal for either style of game play are often too different to be compatible at a high level. Those rarities that just offer it all are masterpieces, your Michaelangelo’s and Da Vinci’s that give outstanding campaigns and online challenges to boot.

Let’s start with code breakers; I refer to them as this simply because their sole purpose is to take on the programmers’ codes of play and win; it’s head to head, gamer vs. game. Despite the rise in popularity of online gaming, I have now started to find it a relief when I pick up a game that doesn’t have ‘Xbox Live Compatible’ written on the back of the case as this usually means that the sole focus of attention has been on making a solid solo campaign rather than creating an average all rounder just to say it has an online feature.

A code breaker is about being swallowed whole by a game, about not caring what the rest of the world is doing because you’re too busy saving it or pitting your wits against a gritty challenge! Assassins Creed, Batman Arkham Asylum, Mass Effect, Final Fantasy and most Action/RPG styled games in general are perfect examples of code breakers to the extreme. Most rely on cracking thought provoking puzzles, exploring large areas, complex battle systems, weaponry and a variety of enemies over hours of missions and trials.

The downfall then for code breaking games, is that the multiplayer function (if present at all) is secondary or sometimes disappointing in comparison to the campaign strands.

Now take Halo 3; an undoubtedly popular game that is still incredibly successful, and widely played three years after release. When looking at the initial responses to the game, several things were apparent. Firstly, the game scored incredibly well with reviewers and fans on a general level, most opting for ‘over 90% perfection’ or ‘best game in the universe, yada yada yada’. However on closer inspection one thing became notable: while the multiplayer element was fantastic and ground breaking, the solo campaign sucked!

The story was weak, the levels were too short and the ending was enraging; so say all of us! Bosses were poor, the A.I. of the characters on Masterchief’s team were generally useless and it looked pretty much like Halo 1 and 2 with little variation or development… and yet, people bought it literally in their millions, and will tell you it is amazing because they can take a rocket launcher and fire it up someone else’s ass.

Although that is a very basic summary of its multiplayer appeal, it is still hard to deny that Halo 3 was always going to be a battleground game; that is to say it was never about unravelling the story, although many were at least interested by the plot. It was always going to be about getting online and giving everyone else hell in a Halo themed war zone.

I can’t help but wonder if the Campaign play would have been better if they hadn’t put their attention solely into making the multiplayer spectacular. It is possible to argue that they only stumbled their way into the online phenomenon with Halo 2 after screwing up its campaign modes, and then just carried on running with it once they discovered people didn’t care as long as they could run around with a sniper rifle and take down people on an international level. Would we have been disapointed if the singler player missions were absent entirely?

There is, of course, one major benefit of online compatible play that gives multiplayer games the edge for developers: re-playability. Due to the unpredictable nature of online challenges, no multiplayer game is ever the same. As a result the renewed challenge of any given round presents a fresh way to take on the games rules, while perfecting your own abilities.

Take Left 4 Dead 2 as an example; while its campaigns offered variations in style and location, available weaponry and pick ups, after solid amounts of game play I mastered its code; I knew where zombies generally spawned from, where pick ups were likely to be, and most importantly how to take a tank down without using a medipack. Like its predecessor, Left 4 Dead 2 then offered a multitude of online multiplayer modes, even giving me the chance to play as a zombie and act like the CPU to take other players down. The teams would always be different, and my teammates interchangeable.

Now it’s no lie that some multiplayer modes have more longevity than others, because eventually even the variation of online play becomes repetitive once you have mastered the skills available, or a bigger, better game has hit the shelves. The more adaptable solution to really enhance the games people are playing (be it a code breaker or battle ground) and keep the gameplay fresh is by using Downloadable Content and Expansion Packs. This is by far my personal choice in the way forward for online compatibility, although the technology itself has been used on consoles dating back as far as the Amiga and many additions are also available through bought discs (e.g. The Sims and Grand Theft Auto 4).

These additional downloads for your game (for a small price of course) will then give you access to different challenges, releasing a new lease of life into an old game. From my own gaming experiences, despite Left 4 Dead 2’s potential to keep my game play fresh, its multiplayer too began to tire. Valve’s use of DLC has transformed their game’s online lifespan once again, offering ‘mutations’ gameplay as part of their ‘The Passing’ pack; a weekly challenge with a new set of rules. One week you can be struggling to survive campaigns as they’ve turned the health packs off, the next you could be fighting off the horde with a gnome. It is the perfect combination between multiplayer and DLC, offering new bends on their rules to throw at survivalist’s worldwide.

Us gamers can be a fickle bunch, we don’t linger unless you give us a real reason to, and while the added ‘bonus’ of a multiplayer feature can tempt those on a real corker of a title to stay a little longer, the games that are recieved as less than perfect could be losing out altogether if the main game was also compromised for the sake of including it. The prospect of downloadable levels and new challenges is surely a safer way to keep a game fresher for longer, like foil wrapping for a loaf of bread, without compromising the taste of the initial game.

So what then for the masterpieces, the games that have it all? They are a rarity, and change the way games are played. It’s primarily about balance, bridging the gap between the two gaming experiences and knowing when to break the rules. Grand Theft Auto 4 is a perfect example of a masterpiece. It’s a huge, phenomenal, hard, humorous challenge; it’s the game of life with a gangster twist. Forget collecting your tax rebate, shoot a hooker and steal her cash instead. Grand Theft Auto works because its online options are as fruitful and as varied as the campaign. The realm of Liberty City in itself is a work of art, because of the amount of time and painstaking effort ploughed into it to make it work.

After several hours of gaming, you get swallowed whole by its gravitational pull; you believe in it. You live in it. You can wake up, grab your car and listen to Iggy Pop on the way to your next job; grab a burger at Clucking Bell and meet a friend for pool after. More importantly, the transition from solo to multiplayer is a fluid one. By the time you reach online options you’ve become so invested in the game that teritorial gang warfare, or completing low time deals is old hat; you’ve taken down Boccino and Pegorino, what’s another few random kills to add to the list?

There is also undoubtedly a very strong demand for online MMORPG’s such as World of Warcraft; another masterpiece to add to the list. While you can argue that the game is entirely centred around being an online battle ground game, the main development for players is to master their characters with the aid of human players in a co-op styled gameplay (labelled as Player vs. Environment). Despite the technicality of using an internet connection to do so, the option to complete many of its challenges on a solo basis is equally possible. The transition, once leveled up, to take on other characters in a Player vs. Player battle is once again a far more fluid transition, should players opt to take it on.

There is a definite fine line between the benefits of staying solo or going global; but what it boils down to is that some styles of game aren’t designed, on some basic level, to be compatible online, and some are made for it. Usually I would say it’s best to have a taste of both worlds, but if it means sacrificing the quality of the game as a result then surely it’s better to pick your realm of gameplay more appropriately rather than try to cover all the bases?

Maybe it’s because I come from a generation of Mario and Sonic, where online gaming was a futuristic dream and Google hadn’t even been invented yet, but by attempting to understand what makes the game fun, maybe developers could then suit their games’ rules and codes of play more wisely. Online doesn’t always mean better, and many gamers have grown up where the challenge of taking on a game alone was the only option out there. Of course, the multiplayer title is just as fun for those who like to take part, but could we ever see the day where if a game has no online option available, that a multiplayer would have no built-in solo campaign either?

Occasionaly we get a game that gives us the best of both; a shiny campaign to get our teeth stuck into that also offers a glorious online platform to revel in, but the compatibility of an online option should definitely be considered more carefully before being delved into; keeping more games as solo corkers rather than middle of the road let downs, or half a game for those who like taking on the world alone.







6 responses to “Code Breakers and Battle Grounds”

  1. […] here to see the original: Ready Up » Code Breakers and Battle Grounds Mmorglive a-very-strong, assassins-creed, asylum, batman-arkham, demand-for, final-fantasy, […]

  2. Ninja avatar

    Excellent article Loz! For me, The Darkness is an example of a code-breaker. Maybe not even the best example but meh! I’d also say The Orange Box is a masterpiece, in a roundabout way, and I want to play it now.

    Thanks for the heads-up on that article 🙂

    GTAIV is a bit like The Sims, isn’t it? I never thought of it like that before!

  3. Sarah avatar

    nice read Lozzy! good new subject to think about. its true that when games try a both solo and online they tend to both be a bit rubish. somtimes you end up with a better game when the makers concentrate on one or the other!

  4. Tony avatar

    I think that the game type is also key.

    I like sports games, particularly FIFA and those are all about playing against my mates. I have played against total strangers and got tonked everytime – wasn’t much fun! Hence the idea of running around an area trying to avoid getting shot by some spotty teen doesn’t really appeal much…

    Non-sports games are all about the story for me. I like to be drawn into the world and feel that I’m part of Bruce Wayne’s or Nathan Drake’s respective adventures. With a good cut scene where I can have a drink!

  5. The Rook avatar
    The Rook

    I’m not a huge social person, so playing online I’m still usually quiet and doing my part without talking much, and this is why I prefer single player games. I can play at my own pace, choose my own direction to explore and stop and start when I want.

    I like picking up games and knowing that there is no online component to it because then I have a better chance of maxing the game out to it’s full gamerscore and playing the harder difficulties adds more longevity to the single player experience whereas in the past completing the game once was enough to more on.

    I agree that I would like the developers to concentrate on making the most of the single palyer experience rather than just tacking on some sort of online mode just to have it there.

    Good read Lozzy.

  6. daiphoenix avatar

    I quite enjoy both of these aspects of gaming: the single-player campaigns (the personal challenge, the exploration, the story, the music, art, , etc.), and the multiplayer gaming (the external challenge, the competition, the pwnage, etc.).
    But do I think of these as quite separate, and I agree that they should not necessarily be present in the same game. And I also get annoyed when one these aspects gets disregarded for the sake of the other. Personally, my most prominent example is the Starcraft I expansions, and later Warcraft 3 and its expansions. While I fully enjoyed the original Starcraft, I found that all the later games in this sequence were increasingly worse in terms of the story and single-player campaign. Warcraft 3 culminated in ridiculousness. I had lots of fun later with the multiplayer, but still I hoped they hadn’t forsaken the single-player campaigns.
    I sure hope that is not the case with Starcraft II.

    Regarding this: “that a multiplayer would have no built-in solo campaign either”
    Well, if the single-player campaign is merely a multiplayer game with bots on it, no extra story, and no extra gameplay, then I already consider that game to be a “multiplayer-only” game. Even though the term is not strictly correct.
    Left for Dead 1&2 are an example, so is Quake 3, Quake Live, a few of the UT games, etc.

Leave a Reply