Friday, February 8, 2008

Standing in a wall (the evolutionary process of online game play)

After a very frustrating night of trying to play a good game of Call of Duty 4 I realized something. There's an evolution in how people play games online. Now that I know what to look for I can remember going through the same thing while playing Gears of War and even all the way back to Star Wars Battlefront.

The first evolutionary stage a game goes through I'll call the "Advent" stage. The game is just released and all the hardcore fans swarm the stores to pick up their pre-ordered copies. There's a thrill and excitement when they put the disk into their system and start to play. The game is new and everyone is new to the game so everyone is on equal ground.

A lot of the time spent in the "advent" stage is spent just looking around and figuring out how everything works. You try different weapons, play different maps and work out different strategies. If you find a great vantage point to snipe from you're excited . . . and hope to remember where it is and how to get there if you should die. Kill to death ratios are brushed aside because what really matters is just playing the game and enjoying what you've waiting so long for.

The second evolutionary stage of a game's release is the "second skin" phase. In this phase you're starting to learn all the nuisances of the maps. Where the best ambush sites are, where the best sniping sites are, and where best to lay low if your mother calls you on the phone while playing. You've learned what weapons work for you and what ones don't. You've learned short cuts and how to control spawn points. You might not always be successful at it but you feel like you know this game and your characters fits like a second skin.

This is the phase that people start to look at their kill to death ratios. You start to get serious about the game play. You've seen it all and you like it (or you wouldn't still be playing) so now it's time to get down to business. You admire good shots that take you out. You watch and learn from other players. You ask for and give advice about anything that will raise you up in the standings. And you start to smack talk the other teams. Get them off their game so they're easier to kill.

The third evolutionary stage (and the one that I think Call of Duty 4 is in right now) is the "glitcher's" stage. You find yourself getting into matches where it seems everyone is glitching. They've found ways to exploit the code in the game to stand in walls and still fire at you but you're unable to shot them. They've learned that you can throw a grenade through some walls instead of trying to find a window or doorway. They know how to make special jumps to get to places the developer's probably didn't have in mind when the made the game. And in some games they can find a way to go "outside" the map in one area and re-enter back in another all while being out of the field of play so they won't risk getting killed.

This is where all the jerks come out of the woodwork. They brag and talk smack before the game and once the game starts they find the closest place to glitch and take full advantage of the situation. They don't care about playing a clean game. They want the kills but not the deaths. They want the status and prestige or being on top without having to be at risk to get there. To them game play is a joke. Instead of saying "I'm such a pathetic loser that the only way I can kill you is to stand inside of a wall so you can't get me" they say "Ha ha I killed you from inside a wall."

When this happened in Battlefront everyone would beg the host to boot the person from the game. Unfortunately if you were playing on a dedicated account there was no host to boot players. Because of that a lot of players wouldn't play on a dedicated account because they didn't want to get stuck with glitchers. In Gears of War we did the same thing. We even went so far as to close the room down in the middle of a match if we thought more than one person was glitching.

Call of Duty 4 has been out since the first part of November. Plenty of time for gamers to move through the "advent" and "second skin" phase of the evolutionary process. Now after three months we're finding ourselves in the "glitcher's" phase. And if history is any indication we're going to be in this phase for some time. At least until the next two or three big shooters come out. Why?

Because the last phase of evolution is the "true fan" phase. This is where everyone else has moved on to play other games except for the true fans of a game. Battlefront has released in September 2004 yet there are people still playing that game on a weekly basis. Why, especially with all the awesome looking games out there? They play it because they're fans of the game. They're the gamers that really get into the game. They love everything about it and tolerated the glitchers while they played. The excitement they had when the game first came out is the same excitement they have every time they play. Unfortunately in order to get to this phase of the game you have to play through all the glitchers.

I have some friends who are starting to talk about putting up Call of Duty 4 because all the glitchers have come out to play. They love the game but the frustration of playing with glitchers is more then the love of the game. If they stop playing the disk will probably become of coaster for their beer or a Frisbee for their kids. Either way they're missing out on playing a good game in the future.

And for some reasons I think each evolutionary phase is getting shorter with each new game released. With the advent of gamerscores and achievement points players are more concerned with kills/deaths from the moment they put the disk in the tray. And the glitchers are finding things to exploit from day one instead of learning how to play the game the right way.

If we go through the evolutionary process faster with each new release, how much of an online life can some of these games have? Will everyone be burned out of Gears of War 2 within two months? Will Halo 4 (and you know there's going to be another Halo game) last more than a month? And what will late comers do when they pick up a game for the first time a couple of months after it's release only to find it doesn't have much of an online community left? Who knows?

Unless glitchers stop glitching it'll be very difficult for most gamers to get to the "true fan" phase of the evolutionary process. Games will lose large chunks of their long term fan base to cheaters. Games will be forgotten in months instead of years. And some people might no longer call themselves "gamers". And all because someone wanted to stand in a wall.

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