The Frag Limit


Smite – Review
December 31, 2012, 10:41 am
Filed under: Hit Scan | Tags: , , , ,

Review Score: 94 / 100

Review Stats:

  • Gameplay – 10
  • Fun Factor – 10
  • Competition Value – 9
  • Replay Value – 9
  • Intangibles – 9
  • Total Score – 47 (x2) = 94

Game Information:

  • Platform(s) – PC
  • Release Date – Still in Beta as of 12/31/2012
  • Game Modes – Arena, Conquest, Domination, Joust

The Nitty Gritty:

Hi-Rez seems to have done it again. Hi-Rez has made another wonderful, original game which is completely free-to-play and not necessarily pay-to-win. This time the Hi-Rez team has put together a fancy MOBA title which is entirely set in the third-person perspective (as opposed to the traditional isometric perspective of most other MOBAs). This small twist on the camera position has created an entirely new gameplay experience for this beloved esports genre. The change in camera position has made the MOBA more appealing to “twitch” gamers – which is to say; those gamers who prefer quick, reflexive action as opposed to strategic action – and has also made it more appealing to those gamers who simply cannot “get into” the top-down isometric gameplay of traditional RTS games. This simple change in game design cannot be overstated enough as its importance is paramount in this latest offering from Hi-Rez.

Smite is the “Battleground of the Gods”, as its slogan states. In Smite, one can take on the role of many different “Gods” from classical mythology. Gods from five different pantheons (Greek, Norse, Egyptian, Chinese and Hindu) are available at present time and Hi-Rez has stated that more pantheons may be opened up in the future. At present time there are about 30 Gods which can be played from these five different pantheons. Smite players can battle it out with such well known deities like Zues and Thor, or play lesser known higher-beings like Bakasura and Xbalanque. Whatever God one chooses, it should be noted, that all are pretty well balanced in spite of each God have a unique set of skills and abilities from which to use. I will discuss more about this later.

Gameplay:

The gameplay in Smite is spot-on. Indeed, everything about it just makes the game a blast to play. Starting with the unique camera angle (for MOBAs) the game has a twitch-based aspect to it which makes almost every shot a “skill shot”. Many Gods have basic attacks and special skills which allow them to shoot or aim in a specific direction. This fact makes it so that if one can aim at one’s target, then one can also miss one’s target. Artemis, for example, shoots arrows for her basic attack. These arrows have to be aimed and shot correctly (judging for distance and lead time) to hit the opponant. If these basic attacks are executed carelessly then many shots will be missed – thereby rendering the entire exercise pointless. Many other attacks and abiliites operate in the same manner throughout the game. This aspect of the “skill shot” makes it so that game becomes quite fun and entertaining from a tactical perspective. One can never tell who may win a battle until the battle is completely over as the presence of skill shots in the game may influence who wins and who loses at any given time.

Another thing that makes the game really fun to play is how well balanced the game is. As noted earlier, in spite of each God having their own seperate and unique skills and abilites the game balances these differences rather well. While a newly released God may require some balancing (after being accused of being “OP” or “overpowered” by the players), most Gods that have been around for some time are not going to being superior to any other God. Most Gods are “equal” (although due to the complexity of the system, however, the balancing will never be perfect). Hi-Rez has shown some chops in balancing these Gods rather well so that the game is fun for everyone to play (which is to say; it is fun to play every God), while at the same time not making every God a carbon copy of every other God (each God is unique).

Fun Factor:

The well-balanced gameplay in Smite makes the game really fun to play. The different skills and abilities of the different Gods makes it feel like one has the ability to change the outcome of the battle (and one does have that power), but at the same time those unique skills and abilities never overwhelm the game. The game always balances at fine edge and it is at this edge which awesome battles and skirmishes occur.

While accounting for one’s own actions, one must also be dependant on one’s team as Smite is very much a team-oriented game. This team aspect is perhaps one of Smite’s greatest assests. The fact that each player has to depend on one’s teammates for success means that each player ought to play as a team member, or simply find a different game to play. Indeed, since all of the gamemodes in Smite are no more than 5 versus 5 players, it is paramount that one focus on aiding and serving the team. If one does not and “plays solo” if you will, then there is no doubt that one will catch flak for those actions. Diregarding the team will not only result in a loss, but also in shame and ridicule from other players.

How, one may be asking, is this fun? It is fun because heavily team-oriented games are difficult to find. Sure there may a number of different games out there that cater to multiplayer action, but most of these games are FPS games and have larger team sizes (up to 32 versus 32). In a setting such as that it doesn’t matter so much if a few people “go rogue” here and there. But for Smite, everyone needs to play as a team member. And it is this team focus which makes the game so fun to play. Before one’s knows it, one will be playing like a well-oiled team member constantly on the look out for one’s own teammates. Coming to the aid and rescue of a teammate being attacked by enemy players and being thanked by him is exetremely gratifying. Likewise, it is also extremely gratifying to coordinate a surprise attack on enemies with other teammates (such as in a “Gank” – or a flanking movement) and then hear the “Nice Job!” voice messages fly. Moreso, it is extremely fun when you can actually play with people you know via VOIP or in real life. Pairing up with a friend or in a five man team is perhaps one of the funnest gaming experiences one can have.

Competition Value:

Smite has a lot to offer in the area of competition. The game is well-balanced, fun to play, well-designed for team play and leans towards competitive action. The game’s most important gamemode (Conquest) is a team-focused 5 versus 5 match instance in which opposing teams must destroy the other team’s enemy towers, pheonixes, and minotaur to win. This gamemode is similar to other traditional MOBAs such as League of Legends and Defense of the Ancients and is rather simple and straightforward in its design. The mode consists of only one map in which three “lanes” or paths and two main jungle areas make up the entire playable area. This trim design may seem sparse for gamers from other genres, but for Smite (and other MOBAs) this simple, mirrored map acts as just a nice place to display the talent, teamwork and tension of the two opposing teams. It could be said that the map in Smite is like a basketball court or football field. Although it is simple in its design, it also provides the foundation from which all the action of the matches manifest. The elementary design of the map aids and brings forth the potential for great gameplay.

One thing to note about the competition value is that Hi-Rez has a somewhat strange relationship to it. They made this wonderful, well-balanced game that caters to competitive play, yet they don’t actually offer anything in the game itself (or on its website, or in any other form) that caters to competition. Hi-Rez has built the place where all of these great, exciting, team-based matches can happen, yet they have not built a place where people can actually compete. Hi-Rez has done nothing to encourage team-based competition outside of actually just playing the game in a casual manner (by pubbing). They offer no sort of official tournaments, nor leagues, nor even ladders. At the very least they could have an official ladder system to encourage team building and team gameplay. But nothing of the sort exists. Hi-Rez should take a cue from League of Legends and incorperate competitive opportunities directly into its marketing plan. Surely, if this competitive sector grows then the whole game will grow and Hi-Rez will stand to make some nice dough (just look at LoL). It is a wonder why they haven’t supported this area.

Replay Value:

The replay value for Smite is very high. Given the numerous Gods that one can play and the ever expanding gameplay options in this game, this game has a lot to offer. Getting accustomed to all of the different intricacies of just one God can take upwards of 20 matches alone – if not more. To be really good, it may require even more time with that God. Multiple this by the number of Gods available and you have yourself a game that can be played over and over and over agian. Furthermore the competitive nature of this game makes individual players strive to become better and better (for bragging rights of course). Also, if a player is on a team, he or she will often play with their team to practice or to do competitive battle. This greatly amplifies how much a player will come back time and again to play the game.

Intangibles:

Smite has a lot going for it, but one of the best things things that it has going for it is that it is free! Smite is completely free to download and play. Of course, there are only a limited number of Gods that one can choose to use once in the game, but different Gods rotate in and out to allow players who have not unlocked certain Gods to play those Gods. Furthermore, if one plays enough, they can get enough experience points to unlock a new God completely free of charge. One may be wondering how Hi-Rez makes any money at all. Well, they do sell “gems”, which is the in-game currency used to purchase skins (new models of a God) and new Gods themselves. If a player doesn’t want to wait for the God rotation and/or doesn’t want to grind it out to gain experience, he can just go to the Smite store and buy some gems. However, Smite can be played almost entirely without having to spend a dime – which makes it great for those gamers who are on a budget.

The other big thing Smite has going for it is that it is a FUN and UNIQUE GAME! While MOBAs have been around for awhile, the use of the third-person perspective creates almost an entirely new genre in and of itself (it is a sub-genre of sorts). The third-person perspective makes the game quick and “twitchy” and due to this draws in a entirely new crowd of gamers. Smite is also a lot of fun to play. If a player can get over the high learning curve, Smite has a lot to offer in depth of gameplay. This deep gameplay makes the game really exciting as players are always looking for ways to improve their Gods stats in every match by attempting to select the best “build” they can for their Gods. The gameplay itself is also very addicting. The combination of tactical and strategic elements in the game will always have gamers on the edge of their seats trying to get those minor advantages which add up over the course of the match into great advantages. There is never a dull moment or lull in the action. For these reasons, Smite is a game which should not be missed. Smite is a fantasic game!



Battlefield: Bad Company 2 – The Importance of Graphics
December 23, 2012, 12:19 pm
Filed under: Side Strafe | Tags: , ,

A few months ago I wrote a short blog post discussing the importance of sound in Bad Company 2. After playing the game some more since that time (bringing my total time played close to 150 hours) I have also come to realize that there is more than just sound at work in the game. Due to this epiphany it seems that now would be a good time to discuss the importance of graphics in this game (and in all modern day FPS games for that matter).

Similar to how sound operates in Bad Company 2 the graphics of the game help create an “added value” to the gameplay experience. While some believe that the gorgeous graphics may not be necessary, I tend to disagree and think that the graphics of the game are an integral part of the entire experience. The graphics lend themselves to creating a better game instead of distracting players from it, as critics suggest. While I understand the argument about perserving the purity of gameplay, I can’t agree that graphics, in the case of Bad Company 2, detract or distort the overall gameplay structure. Let’s take a look at why I have come to this conclusion.

In older competitive games, and even occasionally in newer ones, gameplay was king. Quake 3, Return to Castle Wolfenstein, Counter-Strike, Tribes, Unreal and so forth all emphasized gameplay. Gameplay was first and graphics were second. Sure some of these games had decent graphics, but the graphics were always part and parcel to the gameplay experience itself. The graphics never rose above their lot in life than to just “pretty up” the place where the action occurred. In the overwhelming majority of these cases maps where created for gameplay purposes alone and graphics were added to just “put the lipstick on the pig” if you will. This approach was widely accepted through the “caulk block” style of mapmaking (a term from the Quake mapmaking lineage which focuses on designing maps for gameplay first and then for asthetics).

Nowadays we have an almost reverse situation: Graphics are king. In most of the important games today (Call of Duty and Battlefield series) most of the emphasis is on graphics and perhaps less is on gameplay. While gameplay is still strongly considered, it has probably lost a lot of clout that it once had – or, at least, it is not as “critical” as it once was. Gamers today appreciate great graphics and, as long as the games play well, they are not so concerned with really outstanding gameplay (this of course refers only to competitive, multiplayer FPS gaming). To get an example of what I mean here simply consider the older games to the newer ones (Tribes 2 to Tribes: Ascend, RTCW to Wolfenstein (2009), and Call of Duty: United Offensive to MW3, etc).

But what about Bad Company 2? Or in that case, what about all of these other games which I just said focused less on gameplay than on graphics? Does Bad Company 2 really suffer gameplay wise because of its graphics? Or does it just seem like that (especially when studied from the lens of a late 90’s/early 2000’s point of view)? Is Bad Company 2 really any less of a game (gameplay wise) because of it’s superb graphics? Perhaps the game is just different; and as a result of its focus on providing high quality graphics the gameplay is different as well. Perhaps it is not even fair to consider the two seperate eras of multiplayer gaming in the same way in the gameplay department. I believe this may be true because; the graphics of today’s FPS games lend themselves to increase gameplay opportunities. It is the very graphics which are despised by some groups that lend themselves to manifest an abudent gameplay environment. Let me explain.

In Bad Company 2 (and in other contemporary titles), the graphics are often “bettered” or “improved” by adding additional world objects. For instance, if we look at the video above, we see a comparision of the same map in both Battlefield 1942 (2002) and Battlefield 3 (2011). One thing that is immediately noticeable when comparing the two maps is that the original map has far less world objects than the newer version of the map. The BF3 version contians a whole range of different objects which “litter” the landscape. Such things as busted-up concrete walls, oil drums, fences, crates, wires, antennas, shrubs, signs, billboards, heavy machinery, light machinery, rock structures, garbage and so on and so forth. All of this stuff which makes the game “better” in a graphic sense (or, at least, makes it more realistic), also adds to the gameplay experience. In essence, all of this stuff allows for more opportunities to hide and conceal oneself. And due to this new opportunity to hide and conceal the tactical and strategic opportunities for the overall gameplay aspect increase. Indeed, the gameplay increases proportionally to the amount of junk littering the landscape (to an extent). For this reason, one can now say that the graphics are not just there to make the world “prettier” or “more realistic”, but instead are there to also help encourage a finer gameplay experience.

If we look at the same video that I posted in my “Bad Company 2 – The Importance of Sound” post, we can see some of the things that I am describing here in action. While the player in the video is mostly “running and gunning” like a maniac, we can still notice how the abundant world objects in the map landscape help “sheild” him from other players. Likewise, he is also “sheilded” from seeing other players to a certain distance. In his first kill in the video, for example, due to the thick shrubbery and forest, the player cannot see the enemy until he is almost right on top of him. In an older game, that enemy would have been spotted a lot earlier due to less world objects in the landscape. If we examine the rest of the video in the same manner we will notice a number of different situations which all have the same type of tactical asthetic to them. The player and the enemy (or enimies) typically don’t spot each other until they are at a somewhat closer range.

The “closeness” of these types of experiences in contemporary FPS games creates a whole new range of gameplay opportunities. While the orginal intention to add these world objects to the landscape may have been driven by a desire to have “better graphics” (or, more “realistic graphics”), the end result is a world environment which is much more lush, dense and finer grained. This “lushness” has, as we have seen here, created a whole new range of gameplay opportunities and situations – ones that we indeed cannot dismiss as being trivial. The lush world of our modern day games has created a whole new gameplay experience. To hide in the thick brush, to take cover behind a low concrete barrier with concrete rumble laid asunder, to sneak up behind an enemy from the maw of a burning pile of tires, to camp out in a destroyed bunker, to wait and then strike and attack from the cover of a pillbox or small antenna radar room – these are the things which make modern games great. These are the things which have been created for “graphics”, but have incidentally improved, to an impressive extent, the world of modern day gameplay.



The Problems with Esports – Revisited.
December 19, 2012, 4:49 pm
Filed under: Team Chat | Tags: , , , ,

A few months ago I wrote a little blog post (which you can see below) entitled “The Problems with Esports”. This post generated a fair amount of discussion amoung certain circles regarding esports and the potential it may have, or may not have, to grow into something really tangible and great. That discussion died down quickly, but it is always ongoing, lurking their in the background. The questions raised and the hope for a better esports tomorrow is always on the hearts and minds of those who love multiplayer competitive gaming. Its been a long road, but games with strong esports elements to them are still alive and well and the passion is still there among both casual and “professional” gamers alike. Yet we wait for the answers to just resolve themselves, at times, and we hope that the pieces will fall just into the right place so that we can see our beloved games rise from the private (yet intense) hobbies we have into something more along the lines of a mainstream, brightlight, multimillion-dollar entertainment extravaganza (similar to how the UFC went from being “underground” to the big time in the matter of one short decade or so).

However, it is somewhat of a vain notion to think that esports will just “arrive” some day and that esports will find its proper place amoung the traditional, mediated sports heavyweights (read; professional sports). This will not “just happen”. Attempts have already been made at capitalizing on the esports gravy train (or what looked like a gravy train at the time) and most of these attempts have not boded so well. The CyberAthletic Professional Legeaue spent A LOT of money to host world-class tournaments that offered big-cash prizes on a semi-annual basis. But despite its attempts to offer these healthy prize pools and extravagent tournaments it could not secure the sponsers nor the fanbase required to sustain the overall operation. The Field of Dreams notion of “build it and they will come” simply did not hold true. The fans did not come.

So, we must ask ourselves (competitive gamers of all kinds) what is it exactly that “fans” are looking for? What will make the everyday Joe a fan of esports? What will attract the hardcore, or even the casual, traditional sports viewer to the world of esports? To answer this question we should consider some of the things that I have already written about (see previous blog entry), but we should also consider this: Fans of traditional sports are fans of individual teams and, in as much, they are also fans of individual players on those teams. Fans of traditional sports are fans of “uniqueness” – which is to say that they enjoy, respect and marvel at what is discreet, what is seperate, and what is refined.

To get an idea of what this means let’s take a look at one of traditional, professional sport’s greatest heroes, Michael Jordan (of course, however, any person, on any professional team, has the same opportunity to be examined in the same manner in which I examine Jordan as the nature every individual is “uniqueness” (every individual is unique). Indeed, professional sports is littered with an overabundant population of current and retired examples from which to choose. This is, in fact, the whole point in itself: The success of professional sports stems from the unique potential of every player). In the video below we see a video reel put together by the NBA which highlights some of Jordan’s greatest plays. Let’s examine a few of the highlights in this video. The #10 highlight shows Jordan coming down the court with about 7 seconds left in the game. Jordan covers a lot of ground at a qucik rate of speed to position himself close to the basket. At about 8 feet out from the basket he pulls up for a shot. His tongue is sticking out. He elevates straight-up in perfect text-book form for a jump shot and shoots the ball gently over an extremely tall defender. The ball swishes the net in one pure movement and the game is tied. The #7 highlight shows Jordan recieve a pass from far down the court from Rodman. When Jordan catches the pass right near the out-of-bounds line he expertly loops the basketball behind his back to save the play and to trick the defender in one swift movement. He then covers a good bit of ground and quickly excelerates to the basket. At about 5 feet from the basket he jumps and pumps the ball from side to side to shake off the last defender and then finally he lays the ball in the basket. The commentator notes “that guy is pretty darn good”. The #3 highlight shows Jordan standing just outside of the three-point line with the ball. He looks around and trys to decide what move to make. Should he pass, should he shoot, should he just take it in? An instant latter his mind is made. He acts as if he is going to pass, but then he swoops the ball in a wide arching movement (to shake off the defender), then starts to attack the basket. A huge forward comes in to defend the basket and decides to just foul Jordan. The forward lays his gargantuan arms over Jordan’s shoulders as Jordan lifts off into the air. But Jordan has too much power and finds a way to loop the ball low and behind the basket and to bank it high off the top of the backboard and into the goal. Jordan’s tongue is sticking out the entire time and the fans, as the annoucer notes, “are delirious here in Chicago”. Finally, in the #1 highlight in this video we see Jordan first knock the ball out from the opponant’s hands by coming up from behind him. The ball bounces around a bit (off the opponant’s leg and hands) and is eventually scooped up by Jordan. Then a little bit later, at the very end of the game, we see Jordan make a strong offensive push towards the basket. He acts as if he is going to just drive the ball all the way to the hole. But instead of doing that (maybe because he saw too many defenders), he ducks his head low, places his left hand on the defender’s right buttock and pulls back in one great, swift movement. The defender nearly falls to the ground trying to keep up with Jordan’s misdirection as Jordan squares off for a shot at the top of the arch. The ball hits its mark perfectly and the Bulls win the game. The commentator can only say, “oh my goodness, . . . oh oh my goodness” at this impressive display of unique talent.

Of course, many more examples may be very similiar to the one’s examined here. Michael Jordan is just but one star in the NBA. There are many others who have also shined just as bright in their talent, their style and their execution on the basketball court. There are also many, many others who have shined in other professional sports as well. Indeed, this is the nature of professional sports. There are stars that draw and entertain fans. Likewise, there are also teams that do the same thing. Teams that coordinate well together – better than any other team – find a synergistic relationship between the members of that team and create something greater than the sum of its parts. This is exciting to watch as well and will draw many, many fans. It is also a unique phenomenon just like the unique player.

There are also many other things to say about “uniqueness” in professional sports. For example, what did Michael Jordan do in between his highlight plays? What actions did he perform and what mannerisms did he have on the court that were unique? How did he shoot the ball at the free-throw line? Was his free-throw shooting as interesting as what other people have done on the free-throw line? Was Jordan as interesting as Shaq (who’s hands were as big as the ball itself and couldn’t save his life with a free throw)? What about Dennis Rodman? What did Rodman do that was unique at the free-throw line? Or better yet, what did Dennis Rodman do that was unique off the free-throw line (which is to say, in the rest of his life outside of basketball)? Rodman is well known for his crazy antics, his crazy hair, his crazy tatoos and such. Did these unique elements, manifested by his unique personality traits, create a sort of “aura” around him both on and off the court? What kind of draw did Rodman have on fans due to these elements? Some may like him, some may hate him, but one thing is for sure; the man was always interesting and a spectacle to watch.

More can be said about this. Indeed, it’s not just the people who are “special” or who stand out that exhibit uniqueness. Uniqueness is found in each and every player in every professional sport. The way a player ties his shoes, the way a player warms up on the sidelines, the way a player holds a bat, the way a player throws a ball, the way a player trains, the way a player negotiates a contract deal, the way a player jumps or ducks or dodges all are examples of unique character traits. Each and every thing that a each and every player does in each and every professional sport is unique. This is true because humans are unique creatures. Each human is discreet and differentiated from other humans.

Now is a good time to return to esports. I have asked here what it is that draws fans to professional sports. I answered this by saying that it is the uniqueness of the players and of the teams of each respective sport. Now this question must be asked: Do esports allow for the same kind of uniqueness that is present in professional sports? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Esports do not have unique, discreet, seperate players. Yes the people who play esports behind the screens are unique (of course), but the characters, or “players”, in the game that is being played itself are not unique. The characters in esports titles are identical. Not identical in the sense that there are not different roles or positions that can be played on any given team, or in any given game, but that these roles are exactly the same across the entire gamut of human players who play each role. In other words, humans can only select to play a limited number of players or roles in any given game (usually about 4-6 different roles in a FPS title).

Here we see the draw of the uniqueness of professional sports get greatly reduced and severely diminished. Instead of watching a Michael Jordan, or a Shaquille O’Neil, or a Dennis Rodman (or anyone else for that matter) we instead see the exact same character perform the exact same actions over and over again. For example, in the game of Tribes: Ascend we see a Sentinel who physically looks (and who physically moves and “acts”) exactly like every other Sentinel in the game. There are no defining physical traits to the Sentinal skin other than the ones created by the character designer. The Sentinal cannot stick his tongue out when he snipes a Capper from far afield (and if he could do that then that would only be another animation created by the animator and that animation would be avialable to all who play the Sentinel – thereby rendering that animation UN-unique). Furthermore, the Sentinal can only go as fast, fly as high, and sustain as much damage as every other Sentinel in the game. Sure some gamers will be better at using the Sentinal class than other gamers, but the Sentinal is still the exact same for every gamer who decides to use him. One Sentinel cannot condition himself better, workout harder, eat better, and train smarter than another Sentinel. One Sentinel cannot study the game more or practice a certain move and improve his skill in performing that move better than another Sentinel. One Sentinel cannot fly longer or ski faster due to his workout and training regimen. No amount of conditioning will change this fact (for it is true that Sentinels cannot even “condition” in the first place – they are not unique creatures). Every Sentinel is the exact same as every other. Every Sentinel is defined by the character designer, the animator and the game designer who made him. The Sentinel cannot vary from this hard-coded data. This is a fact. In much the same way, the same things hold true for every other type of character or role that can be played in every esports title (the characters and roles are limited by their design and by their functionality, and they cannot vary from that design).

Now some may argue at this point that that gamers have the ability to utilize the characters and roles (the players) in an esports title better than other gamers and that this gives them a way to give the characters uniqueness. For example, a really good “professional” gamer can control his character better, faster and more aggressively than another gamer using the exact same character. This control lends itself to being “unique” and special. While this is true (some people are better at playing than others), it is only true to an extent. The control weilded by the “professional” gamer, while lending him the ability to win matches, does lend him the ability to be a “better” character. The character or role used by the pro gamer is still the exact same character or role used by the other gamer. The professional gamer just knows how to get more out of that character or role than the other person does. The fact still remains that the base attributes to that character or role are the exact same between the two gamers. One gamer cannot condition, train, or build his character better than another gamer. Therefore, uniqueness does not exist for the professional gamer. In other words, a professional gamer cannot be a Michael Jordan simply through his control of a pre-designed character alone. A professional gamer can only be a Michael Jordan by being the character itself and not a proxy of that character (which at this point in time is still not possible).

Another argument that could be made about uniqueness in esports is that since the gamers who play the characters are unique (and indeed they are) then the characters that the gamers control don’t have to be unique. This is, to a very small extent, true. As we can see in today’s esports world, some professional gamers do have a sort of unique aura to them (one example may be Fatality from Quake 3, among others), but how much does this aura draw fans to watch these gamers play? Is the uniqueness of the professional gamer enough to draw real fans? I say that it is not. It is not because the professional gamer, while unique, does not appear in the game itself – he only appears through proxy. The gamer does not bring uniqueness to the game (except maybe in a very small way by his mastery of the pre-designed game framework – he can play the game better and smarter than other gamers). But this mastery is enough enough for a flourishing world of uniqueness that is present in all other mainstream, professional sports. In the NBA, for example, every player on the court is unique with his own set of skills and abilities, whereas in esports, every player in the match is NOT unique but is the exact same as every other player. This difference cannot be emphasized enough. This is the major problem with esports: The complete lack of unique character traits.

So, as we can see, there is a lot of room for improvement in esports. Indeed, if esports is to ever to become a mainstream, professional sport (like the NBA for example), there will have to be much work done in the area of player uniqueness. This is a tricky thing to resolve, however. For at the moment that a game developer says that they will make their game “more unique” and adds more animations, or more skills, or more abilities to their game they have in essence “missed the point”. The point is not to increase skills or abilities in a game for at the moment that one does that then they have only created a more convoulted character, or characters, to their own game (and they have essentially made their game less balanced). Furthermore, if they offer the same helping of new skills and abilities to every gamer out there, then uniqueness is lost again as every gamer will have access to it (thereby rendering the game UN-unique again). Perhaps a game designer could design a game where unique skills and abilites could be greater for some gamers and weaker for others, but this does not seem like a very fair approach and of course there would be much controversy in light of such a situation. Everyone would want to be the “superstar” and no one would be satisfied with being a mere “run-of-the-mill” character. There is also the idea of “virtually reality”. If a gamer could further integrate himself into the playing experience via headmounts, VR treadmills and movement tracking devices and so forth then the player’s uniqueness would be greatly amplifide. The gamer would become the character and not just act as a proxy of it. But this stuff is very expensive and not available on a mass scale. Only time will tell if esports will ever find uniqueness, but one thing is for certain; until they do, esports will struggle for real, paying fans and esports will continue to flounder like it has for the past 15 years without question.

Please tell me your thoughts on this matter below in the comments section!



The Problems with Esports.
August 15, 2012, 12:18 pm
Filed under: Team Chat | Tags: , , ,

The concept of esports has been around for some time now.  Ever since the first player met another player online (perhaps in Doom) or in a competitive environment (perhaps in Pong), players have thought about the idea of actually qualifying and competing in game tournaments for money.  The idea of holding tournaments and matches for cash prizes based on skill and talent has been held as a possibility – if not a probability – in the minds of thousands of gamers the world over.  Surely, just as in other sports, if a game has well-crafted rules, is well-balanced and is in general just plain fair for all participants involved, then why shouldn’t it be a viable option for competition?  The only difference between a video game and a real life game is the fact that video games are held in a digital arena right?

Well not so fast.  If there is one thing that we have all learned in the last 40 years since Pong came out is the fact that esports have struggled, and have struggled mightily.  From the earliest cash prize tournaments to the most recent, winnings for tournament victors have not been so great at all.  Indeed, these winnings have been, by almost all standards, abysmal.  The lack of winnings is however only one of the major problems that inflicts the world of esports.  But first, let’s talk about why exactly there is no money in “money” tournaments.

One of the biggest problems with esports has traditionally been the absolute lack of dedicated fans supporting esports on a wide scale and on a consistent basis.  Sure there are fans that make it to the random events around the world (particularly South Korea) and sure these fans often end up dropping some money to watch their favorite players – but the number of these fans is incredibly small.  For all of the players who actually compete in live tournaments there are probably an equal amount of fans – if that.  When comparing this ratio of fans to players to a standard professional sport – such as NBA basketball – it fails to add up.  Indeed the ratio of fans to players is much, much greater for standard professional sports; perhaps with 25,000 live paying fans to 25 players for a NBA basketball game or even 70,000 paying fans to 70 players for a NFL football game.  It’s easy to see the inherent problems with the lack of fans in esports just by considering these ratios.  Ultimately if there is not a significantly greater amount of fans to players, funding such events becomes exponentially more difficult.  And it is left solely to sponsors.

Another major issue with esports is sponsors.  While there are a handful of companies that sponsor events, teams and sometimes even individual players, there are not enough participating (or giving enough money) to create real incentive for players.  The average prize winnings are typically around five to ten thousand dollars and this is not enough money to actually make people want to become “professional” and dedicated video game players.  Of course, this lack of funding from sponsors is to be expected as it is really all just a business proposition – that is, how much money is enough to satisfied the immediate need (a new tournament) to get the company’s name, brand and image out there.  Often times this amount is not much at all and a simple ten thousand dollar check seems to do the trick (if there were more fans though, there would be more sponsors and ultimately more money – so its a “catch-22”).

The next major issue with esports are the games themselves.  Unlike traditional, professional sports games, esports games have failed to find a platform of consistency in design and rules.  Basketball, football, soccer, baseball, tennis, etc. all have a simple arena or field design and straightforward goals and rulesets.  These games all take place on a standard size field or court and always use simple geometric lines and shapes to distinguish areas of play.  For example, a basketball court is nothing more than combination of rectangular and semi-circular areas and lines with a goal (hoop) for both sides.  Pretty straightforward.  On the other hand, video game arenas are almost always complex.  These arenas have wildly varying geometric shapes and areas.  For example, terrain is a common feature in most mulitplayer games and the space in just a fraction of one of the areas of a specific digital arena is many, many times more complex than the entire area of a standard, professional real-world sport.  Now, the argument could be made that complex digital arenas are ok as they lend themselves to the structure and gameplay of the specific game they cater to.  However, I disagree.  The complexity of digital game arenas are perhaps one of the major reasons why esports have failed to take off.  There are two reasons why this is so.

The first reason why complex digital arenas prohibit the growth and success of esports is because there is no standard.  The many, many hundreds and thousands of online games that have been released over the years have done nothing but segment and divide an already fragmented community.  And each new game that is released only serves to further add more diversity and differentiation.  One would think that is would be good (and it is good for casual gaming as more games published means more playing options), however, for esports, this is the worst thing that could possibly happen.  Simply put, the more games there are, the less likelihood that any one game will be the clear “winner” for the general esports platform.

The second reason why complex digital arenas prohibit the growth of esports is because they are difficult to understand.  Perhaps these arenas may not be difficult to understand for the gamers who play them, or even for the players who watch esports, but for the major, general audience out there – the same audience who watches traditional sports games – esports are almost impossible to watch.  One look at an esports match and nearly 99% of this audience is completely lost as to what is happening and why.  This is a huge problem!  If grandpa can’t come into the living room and flip on the tellie and figure out what is happening on the screen before him (sports-wise), forget about it!  Any hope at all for the success of a new sport will be immediately lost the moment that new viewer determines that these games are too difficult to decipher and understand.  Therefore, what needs to happen, is a “dumbing-down” or a simplification of esports games into their most basic elements.  Doing this would allow more people (perhaps not everyone – but at least a good amount) to easily digest and “get” what is going on.

The last major issue why esports have failed to take off is because of the broadcasting quality.  Of the thousands of online multiplayer games that could qualify to become esports platforms, only a handful of them have any sort of semi-decent broadcasting quality.  However, none of these games have anything truly great.  The camera-work, the announcing (casting), and the general production value is nothing to get excited about in the least bit.  And compared to the level of quality that is standard for traditional professional sports, esports simply don’t compete.  Long story short, what this basically means is that mainstream viewers are never going to be interested in esports as the method and quality of delivery is incompatible with what they are use to.  Simply put, for these majority of viewers, watching an esports event is like watching microbe cells divide and conquer under a microscope.  They can get a general idea of whats going on, but they have no idea how or why it’s happening.

Esports have many problems and many challenges at present time.  And in order for our beloved esports to become anything great – that is to say, for esports to have any sort of popular, mainstream following with great prizes and great competition – there needs to be a lot of changes and improvements made to the fundamental structure and delivery of said games.  In short, there needs to be less games vying to become the esports title, there needs to be simpler game arenas (arenas which are more accessible and digestible by mainstream viewers (less geometry)), there needs to be better broadcasting quality all around and there needs to be more fans.  A lot of this is a catch-22 in that you can’t have an improvement in one area without an improvement in other areas (for example, to get more fans, there needs to be better broadcasting quality, but to get better broadcasting quality, there needs to be a fanbase to pay for such improvements), but given this there is still hope.  The challenges are great, but perhaps with enough dedication, support, hard-work and a little luck, esports might just find solid ground and become something truly great.



Creating a Persona in Online FPS Games
August 8, 2012, 10:39 am
Filed under: Side Strafe | Tags: , , ,

Multiplayer FPS games have been around for some time now.  And over the years these games have done a number of different things to create different types of environments for gamers to create “online personas”.  Such things as name tags, clan tags, skins, mods and other customizations have allowed gamers to distinguish themselves in the gaming arena.  Typically, the more of this type of customization in any particular game has made gamers generally happier and more satisfied with the overall game experience of a game as this type of customization has allowed for players to say “this is me” and “this is what I can do”.  Classic games such as Return to Castle Wolfentstein and Quake 3 (among others) specifically allowed players to add a large number of different characters (such as !, $, *, :, ?) and a number of different colors to modify their names.  This, in addition to skins and mods, made these game very personal and unique for each and every player who played.

Moving along into more recent territory, FPS games now-a-days have almost altogether left behind player customization.  With the exception to a handful of games that let players buy or create their own skins, there are almost no games today that feature any kind of mod support to allow players to modify their skins as they see fit.  This is a huge change from the last generation of FPS games where modding was an important part to the overall game experience.   Likewise, games these days have almost altogether disallowed the modification of names and clan tags.  Almost all games these days force players to use a boring white text for their names and also force players to use a “standard” clan tag (for example, using only bracket’s instead of other special characters).  These things may seem relatively minor, but in comparison to the games of yesteryear, there is virtually no way to distinguish oneself inside the game world and this is very unfortunate.

Just comparing the differences between the two screenshots posted here (the screenshot above is from the new game Tribes: Ascend released in 2011 and the screenshot above that is from Return to Castle Wolfenstein released in 2001), one can immediately see the difference in naming convention and how that convention can change the “identity” of the unique individuals in each game.  While it may not seem like an incredibly important difference – and perhaps the screenshot where all the names are white may looks a little prettier – by simply allowing players more flexibility in creating their names, game designers also give players a huge amount of freedom in defining their own unique personalities.  One example is this; in the game Return to Castle Wolfenstein, players could modify their names and clan tags to reflect and adhere to an overall clan “theme”.  For example, there once was a clan called “WolfJeager” and their clan colors were mint green and black.  They used these colors because it was also the same colors that they used for their website, forum posts and other community sites.  Since WolfJeager maintained this consistency between every place they frequented, WolfJeager created a certain “online presence”.  And everywhere one saw the colors mint green and black in the world of RTCW, one immediately was aware that WolfJeager was around.  Unfortunately this type of scenario does not exist anymore do to the fact that colors and detailed name modification no longer exists in most mainstream games.

What I am getting at here is that customization is important.  What many game developers may see as “visual clutter” now-a-days was once considered an important way to support players and their unique identities.  By taking away the flexibility to customize one’s name – and even one’s appearance – games today forfeit the ability to give players a platform for individuality.  Hopefully, one day game developers will realize what has been lost and take the simple steps to remedy this unfortunate state of current affairs.



Battlefield: Bad Company 2 – The Importance of Sound
July 31, 2012, 11:18 am
Filed under: Side Strafe | Tags: , , , ,

Perhaps more than any other game Battlefield: Bad Company 2 requires gamers to pay special attention to sound and the aural environment.  This is particularly true when playing the “hardcore” squad deathmatch gamemode.  In hardcore SQDM, players must use their listening abilities to do a range of a number of different things – from finding enemies to developing offensive tactics to simply staying alive.  The sound is so important in this gamemode because there are no objectives required other than to simply kill the enemy squad members.  Players must focus on things like locating, surprising, routing out and ultimately attacking the enemy instead of doing such things as planting a bomb or capturing an objective.  This shift in gameplay coupled with a game environment that relies heavily on the absence of almost all HUD elements gives gamers a perfect arena to hunt, track and slay enemy opponents.

The use of sound in this multiplayer FPS is quite unique.  Not only is it one of the first games to really focus on delivering a cinematic, high-definition aural experience, but it is also one of the first games to promote the importance of sound as a tool for winning online battles.  Sure other games in the past have had decent sound (like the Call of Duty series) and sure other games have used sound as a gameplay device, but no other game has done it this well and to this extent.  The sound quality in Battlefield: Bad Company 2 is by far the best for any multiplayer FPS to date and the use of sound as a tool is also seminal.  Indeed, some of the greatest multiplayer FPS experiences this blogger has had to date has come from playing Battlefield: Bad Company 2’s hardcore squad deathmatch.

While the more popular Conquest and Rush gamemodes in Bad Company 2 are fun and engaging, nothing comes quite as close to the immediate and extremely personal experience of hardcore squad deathmatch.  In this gamemode everything is real.  The space you occupy is no longer virtual.  Instead, you are “in the game” and the incredibly detailed maps with their lush, sun-lit landscapes consume you.  The sound of a firefight off in the distance piques your interest and gives you a beacon to seek through the fog of war.  The clap of a sniper rifle signals the presence of a recon in the building next to you – hadn’t it been so loud you would have never known how dangerously close he really was.  In another instance, you are in a forest and standing still for a moment you can hear some bushes rustling up ahead – the enemy has just revealed their position.  Little scenarios like these pepper the hardcore squad deathmatch gamemode in Bad Company 2 and give the whole experience something vastly more than the sum of its parts.

This gamemode is a totally different game altogether from the more popular parts of the Battlefield series.  This gamemode isn’t about strength or firepower or even strategy so much.  Instead, this gamemode is about tactics.  And these tactics are all about what you can see and, more importantly, what you can hear in the world immediately in front of you.  It’s not a world for the faint of heart and most players end up dismissing the gamemode as “too difficult” shortly after first playing it.  But for those who stick around, and except the brave new world of multiplayer gaming, it can be quite an amazing experience and not like one that gamers have ever experienced before.



Return to Castle Wolfenstein – Review
July 27, 2012, 1:23 pm
Filed under: Limbo Screen | Tags: , , , ,

Review Score:   96 / 100

Review Stats:

  • Gameplay – 10
  • Fun Factor – 9
  • Competition Value – 10
  • Replay Value – 10
  • Intangibles – 9
  • Total Score – 48 (x2) = 96

Game Information:

  • Platform(s) – PC, Steam
  • Release Date – November 19, 2001
  • Game Modes – DM, CTF, Stopwatch

The Nitty Gritty:

Return to Castle Wolfenstein, released in 2001, was a greatly influential title that has largely been overlooked in recent years as being, for the most part, irrelevant.  This is quite unfortunate given the great popularity and importance of this game in its prime.  When RTCW came out in 2001, id software was the undisputed reigning champion of the first-person shooter genre having spawned the genre a decade earlier and having released hit after hit in the subsequent years following.  Anyone who played PC games at RTCW’s release was quite familiar with the mighty id software and their great lineage of critically acclaimed games.  Therefore, upon its debut, the game was in a perfect position to offer another great FPS experience for PC gamers.

And it delivered!  Return to Castle Wolfenstein was on of the first games in the burgeoning FPS market that offered a uniquely team-based, competitive environment for clans and/or competitive-minded gamers.  While id software’s previous games were primarily focused on solo player combat, RTCW, on the other hand, was specifically designed for team-based action.  In RTCW players had to play as a team to win.  Team coordination was extremely crucial as the player classes where specifically designed to fit specific roles.  The four classes (medic, lieutenant, engineer and soldier) all had specific functions necessary for the success of the team in the battlefield.  For instance, the medic had to keep his team’s health up by delivering health packs and by reviving comrades if they fell.  Lieutenants had to supply ammo and call in airstrikes.  Engineers where necessary for clearing defences and completing objectives.  And soldiers where primarily responsible assisting the team in killing enemies.

This class structure may seem simple and primitive by today’s standards as there typically are multiple roles and functions for each of the many different classes in modern games, but it worked.  And, it worked beautifully.  The simplicity of the class structure allowed players to focus on excelling in each role and in improving overall team play.  Additionally, players were also less focused on themselves and instead more focused on their contributions to the end result; which was to achieve the objective and obtain victory for their team.

The simplicity of the game design fostered a wide and rabid following upon the game’s release.  And would also help make it go down as one of the greatest multiplayer FPS experiences on the PC.

Gameplay:

The gameplay in Return to Castle Wolfenstein was second to none.  The quality of the gameplay primarily came from the simplicity of the overall product.  In addition to the simple class structure, there were also just a simple and rather small selection of weapons in the game.  This small weapon pool – which is now all to un-common in modern gaming – naturally led to an excellent balance in the gameplay.  Each weapon had a specific purpose and fulfilled it’s role very well.  There was only one main gun for three of the four classes (a Thompson for Allies and a MP-40 for Axis) and the soldier class had a wider selection of armaments, though it was still quite limited (there was a sniper rifle, a venom “mini-gun”, a flamethrower and the ever-popular Panzerfaust).  In any given battle, the two warring teams would have to use the minimal options available to achieve victory (by mainly using the Thompson, mp-40 and the Panzerfaust).

Another important aspect of the gameplay was the small selection of gamemodes.  There was simply DM, CTF and Stopwatch.  Deathmatch and Capture the Flag were hardly ever played, so this left really only one type of gamemode for all the players to enjoy; Stopwatch.  Stopwatch was basically a time-trial for the opposing teams.  In the beginning of the match, one team would first have to set the timer by achieving victory by completing all of the objectives for each given map.  Then, in the next phase, the teams would switch sides and then the opposing team had to try to “beat the timer” set by the other team.  If the second team could finish the objectives quicker than the first team, then that team won the entire match.  This simple and ingenuous gamemode was revolutionary at the time for two reasons: first, it introduced objective and team-based gameplay to the masses and second, it was so simple.  Everyone loved stopwatch and it proved to be immensely popular for both casual pubbers and hardcore competitive players alike.  Most of all, this gamemode promoted balanced gameplay and, ultimately, an environment where shear gaming skill and teamwork was more important than anything else.

Fun Factor:

Return to Castle Wolfenstein was simply a blast to play and with out a doubt is this reviewer’s most favourite game of all time.  Return to Castle Wolfenstein did so many things right its difficult to find a place to start.  Probably the most important thing about the game is that it was so well balanced.  Closely following that is the fact that there was a very thin line between the casual public gaming and the more competitive world of clan-based warfare.  From the very start of the game it was difficult, if not impossible, to tell where pubbing ended and where competitive gaming started.  This fact makes all the difference in the world when judging how “fun” the game was from a competitive point of view.  To a competitive player, the public servers where just the training grounds for potential new recruits.  And the vast amount of players who played on public servers had perfect visibility to the competitive scene as well.

So it went like this; if you were new to multiplayer gaming, it wasn’t too difficult at all to see that there was more to the game than just what you found on the public servers.  Clans often recruited players on these servers and getting picked up by a team wasn’t difficult for most everyone.  Therefore, if you bought the game thinking that you were just getting a simple singlepayer shooter, not only were you surprised that there was a great multiplayer aspect as well, but that this multiplayer aspect was incredibly deep, exciting and challenging – depending on how far you wanted to take it.  This sequence of events – of revelations – made the game incredibly fun, fresh and exciting for months on end.  And, of course, being a part of the thriving and widely-popular competitive scene was exhilarating as well.

Competition Value:

If the point hasn’t been driven home by now as to the competition value of this game… let me just say that it was great!  At one point in time (probably around mid-2002), Return to Castle Wolfenstein had an incredible number of clans actively playing and competing for internet glory and cash prizes.  Both Teamwarfare league (still around) and the Cyber-athletic Amateur League (now defunct) had a thriving and incredibly popular scene for RTCW players.  As I recall, probably about 200+ teams were signed up at both TWL and CAL and were actively playing in ladders, leagues and tournaments.  The most popular way to play, of course, was the leagues – which were divided by season and by location (East, West and Central).  Both TWL and CAL had separate divisions dividing clans according to skill and overall performance for each location.  If you were a new clan, you started off in the “Open” bracket and had to prove your worthiness by winning some matches.  If you had success in the Open bracket you could graduate to the “Main” bracket were more challenging matches awaited.  For the best of the best, there was the “Invite” bracket for those teams who proved to be the most lethal in the clan-game.  And finally, for those teams that were the top of the “Invite” bracket, live tournaments were scattered throughout North America and Europe where select teams could fight it out for cash prizes.

Replay Value:

The desire to replay this game over and over again is very high.  This desire comes from comes from a of couple things.  First of all, upon Return to Castle Wolfenstein’s release, it was one of the first team-based games that became that became very popular and well-known.  Of course, other games that featured such things as deathmatch had been around for a few years but none of those games prior to RTCW’s release truly focused all of their attention on team-based gameplay.  The feeling of playing a multiplayer game in a totally new and interesting way was a great way to lure people back time and again.  People wanted to learn as much as they could about this new way of playing as a team.  Being dependant on one another and requiring one another for one’s own success in the game was truly compelling.

The other big factor for replayability came from the strong competitive angle of the game.  As noted in the previous section, Return to Castle Wolfenstein was a game that was very involved with competitive gameplay.  This gameplay enticed many, many players to become better by honing their individual skills and team-based communication/actions.  Casual players who once would have just played the game for several weeks now had a whole new world of opportunities open up to them in the form of clan ladders, leagues and tournaments.   Many found the potential glory of internet fame to be too much to resist and they set out on a course to become as good as they could possibly be.

Intangibles:

The intangibles of Return to Castle Wolfenstein primarily come from its unique positioning upon its release.  Having been one of the first popular games to feature team-based multiplayer FPS action, this game opened up a whole new world of experiences for gamers.  No longer did gamers have to just be satisfied with shallow deathmatch experiences or simple free-for-all matches, instead gamers now had to work cooperatively together in order to achieve victory on the battlefield.  This team and objective-based gameplay proved to be overwhelming compelling as gamers sought the next stage in the evolution of online team-based multiplayer gaming; clan warfare.

As noted above, the world of clanning made Return to Castle Wolfenstein great.  The game revolved around clans.  It didn’t necessarily matter how great a player you were on your own, but instead it matter on how great the clan was that you belonged to.  The status quo for gaming glory shifted from the individual to the clan.  And one’s name was no longer as important as it once was, but instead the clan tag was the almighty indicator of prestige and glory.  This “meta-game” of clan warfare and striving to become the best clan player you could be and joining the best clan you could find elevated the entire experience of RTCW to a whole new level.  Indeed, Return to Castle Wolfenstein was elevated to that special place where only a few other games in the genre could compete; the master class.