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And... Scene! – PVP Done Right

How to build a consistent experience in the chaotic world of multiplayer? An in-depth look at a brilliant indie game has many of the answers...

I can’t tell you how many PVP games I’ve tried that I quit within the first few days. The games may have beautiful graphics, solid mechanics and even a decent story behind them… But in the end it makes no difference. They quickly devolve into repetitive little shoot-outs, with a blaze of success one minute and then a string of failures the next. Things manage to become both chaotic (in terms of running around, looking for enemies) and repetitive (as you either win too easily or die over and over again).

After a parade of dissatisfying games I just kept returning to the classics (dear god, I love you Halo and Brawl), giving up much hope of finding any game that could do PVP in a consistently satisfying way.

And then, a little less than a week ago, I struck gold.

It was late evening, around 11pm Eastern, when I was browsing through a selection of free demos off Steam and decided to try one I’d never heard of before, a game called Metal Drift


Not only were the graphics beautiful, the mechanics a delight and the concept immersive – but they had done something that I’d long given up as impossible. They’d brought a consistent, orderly and yet achingly exciting progression to PVP combat.

This article is about how they did it… And how you can too.

But before we can get to that, we'll have to backtrack a little… Back to the world of theater and film as we explore the elements that form the backbone of Metal Drift’s incredible gameplay.


The Power of Scenes

While “scenes” are usually associated with movies and plays – the concept's principles can be applied to any time-based medium… And is possibly even more appropriate to games than it is to the theater from which it originated. After all, when you get down to it, what is a scene anyway?


A scene is one of the building blocks of a larger work, one with a clear beginning and end.

Alright, so we have a definition – but now we’re in for a much more important role. It’s time to delve into the inherent power of scenes and how to use them to make your work so much deeper.

Every single scene turns on at least one specific value – a positive or negative shift. In novels, theater and film characters struggle for what they want before finally either achieving a short term goal, or else being set back. Powerful artists tend to balance positives and negatives, following one with the other, just as a roller-coaster balances its ups and downs for maximum excitement. If the audience is subjected to an endless march of tragedies we quickly wear out our capacity to care. In the words of Robert Mckee; at the first tragedy we cry, after the second we sniffle and at the third we laugh. In fact, the repeated use of tragedy is a well-respected comedic device.

So… See the connection to video games yet? If you do, pat yourself on the back. I’ll wait. For the rest of us, let’s apply all of this to the art and design that we love so much.

Video games are constantly marked by scenes. In Super Smash Brothers each flurry of blows before the characters finally take a breather (whether because they’ve both stopped their attacks for a moment or because one is flying off the screen) is a self-contained building block of the larger battle – and it’s easy to see who came off better in that round of fighting.

For one player, it was a positive scene. For the other it was negative. And just as losing consistently gets far too frustrating (repeated negatives) and always winning gets boring after a while (repeated positives) excellent game designers should do their best to make sure that their games are designed with a natural, balanced, scene progression in mind.

If you want an example of this, look no further than the most brilliant execution of this principle I’ve ever come across. That’s right, it’s time to get into Metal Drift.



Metal Drift

Metal Drift is one of the most exciting and dynamic games I’ve come across in months. Its creators take the excellent concept of standard tank-on-tank combat and then added one tiny element that made all the difference…

A ball.

In Metal Drift you take on the role of a drift-tank pilot, driving a cross between a NASCAR race car and a hover-tank in a sport known only as… you guessed it… Metal Drift. Players race for the ball and try to dodge through the opposing team’s tanks to make it into their goal. And yes, the standard method of stopping an enemy drift-tank is to use that handy dandy cannon on the top of your own craft. Blowing things up is still satisfying as ever, but the innovation of the ball as a focus for action lends a much stronger overall flow to the game. But even more than that – it adds a constant feeling of progression. It isn’t every man for himself in tank-on-tank combat… Every second the ball is getting closer to somebody’s goal. Each shot, turn and rush of movement contributes to a steady progression one way or the other… Adding to the excitement.

Stunningly, this hectic and fast-paced game – put completely in the player’s hands to the tune of allowing up to twelve-person games manages to produce a clear and consistent structure made from extremely ordered scenes.

Think about that for a moment.

PVP games are notoriously hard to map out. After all, we designers don’t control anything once the game begins. In single player campaigns, we can place enemies at certain areas – allow for healing stations and save points and clear, linear progress... But when players make up both sides of the conflict, all bets are off. The only thing we get to do is design the environment of the level itself.

However, as Metal Drift demonstrates, that is more than enough.


Step 1 – Get to the Action

The moment the game begins every player is rushing toward the same focus point – the ball lying in the center of the arena (shown on both your screen and radar in an elegant reference to keep track of the action). At this point you either begin a race for the ball itself or else run to your chosen position to support your own ball-runner or defend against the opposing team. Additionally, you may have begun this scene mid-game, respawning after your tank’s destruction with the ball already in the possession of one team. In this case, your strategy might change slightly – but regardless, you will either be trying to get to the ball in order to shoot down an enemy carrying it or else to defend your own team.

Either way – you have to get to your chosen position once the scene begins. Then step two takes over.


Step 2 – Fight for the Ball

Whether you’re fighting to keep the ball or else desperately trying to shoot down a defender, the process is the same, while trying out different weapons and upgrades keeps each individual clash fresh. Bear in mind that these are fights on the run. The ball carrier is trying to survive long enough to get to the opposing team’s goal – while the opponents are trying to shoot them down in time. Thus, these rushes achieve a steady structure no matter the players involved. If the opposition is non-existant, the player running the ball can race from one side of the field to the other in about fifteen to twenty seconds. Thus, no run will ever last longer than that before either a goal is scored or the ball carrier is destroyed. And, since the ball’s location is always clearly visible on the screen, the ball carrier can’t hope to hide – neatly eliminating drawn-out search sessions. They have to run for all they’ve got.


Step 3 – A change in the characters

Now, any individual scene ends once one of three things happen. Either a goal is scored, the ball changes possession, or else one of the tanks is destroyed. Once a tank is destroyed, it has to wait ten seconds before respawning, which effectively takes it out of the action for the rest of the goal attempt. A tank’s destruction is a much subtler change than a goal being scored, but it alters the action in an intensely fundamental way, and one that every game designer will find incredibly useful. It’s something called the French scene…



French Scenes

All right, ready for a quick international theater lesson? Good.

French scenes are an artistic device that every designer should have up his sleeve. Created during a time when the accepted French play format involved only a single time and place, not allowing for the traditional ways a scene shifts (by either changing places or times) – playwrights worked on a brilliant solution. They decided that if they couldn’t move the time or place around the characters… They’d just move the characters around the time or place. After all, a scene’s characters determine the nature of that scene – so by having a new character enter the entire scene can change.

For example, take a situation that we’ve all been in at some point or other – two young sweethearts alone together. Perhaps they are alone in a garden or perhaps in a darkened living room, nestled together on a couch. This scene is a lovely, heartfelt, intimate moment… Which changes completely once the girl’s mother walks into the room.

End of scene.

Let’s apply this to Metal Drift. It’s a big difference when you’re running the ball without an enemy in sight, versus having one right behind you – firing ion bursts into your screaming engine. The moment an enemy tank appears the entire dynamic of the run changes. The flickering apprehension has turned into sharp teeth-gritting tension, one question burning in your mind: Can you make it in time?

The constant destruction (exits) and subsequent appearances (entrances) of enemies and allies changes the dynamics of the scenes in strong, consistent ways. And this is where the real excellence of Metal Drift’s design comes in.


Balancing Positives and Negatives

Metal Drift clearly does a solid job of creating an ordered, exciting structure in what can often be the chaotic and unbalanced mire of PVP combat. However, even the most consistent PVP games still run into the problem of balancing positives and negatives. What can you do to make sure that the teams that pull ahead don’t get too far ahead? How do you make sure that a completely player-fought game has a well-balanced mix of positive and negative scenes to make the game more engaging for everyone?

It’s in answering this challenge that Metal Drift rises above many other games that I’ve played… And it does it in three simple ways.

First of all, Metal Drift managed to resist the temptation to include very long-range weapons (such as sniper rifles and their kin). Thus shooting down a ball-carrier usually means being very close to that carrier. This means that once a ball-carrier is destroyed, the loose ball is often closest to a member of the other team (the one that shot them down). The ball is likely to change possession and begin its race to the other side of the court – instead of continuing on towards the same goal. In this way, a change in direction is a lot more likely than continued triumphs of the same team.

Second, the game features colored energy fields that only one team can pass through. Blue tanks can freely move through blue energy fields while red tanks can freely move through… Well, I’m sure you get the idea.


No Reds Allowed

There are often many blue energy fields near the blue goal which makes defending your goal a lot easier than assaulting the opponents' (again increasing the likelihood of a turnover in ball possession). However, even if the blue team fails to stop the reds from scoring, it’s a lot easier for them to get back to the center (where the ball respawns), while the reds must take a slower, more roundabout route. This makes it significantly harder for a team that just scored a goal to get back to the ball before their opponents do. All that, from just a few clever walls.

Finally, Metal Drift’s creators used a classic principle of setting respawn points for destroyed players closer to their base than their opponent’s. This means that any tank that is destroyed materializes in a much more defensible position, meaning that it’s easier to defend your own goal but harder to get to the other side of the field in time to help a scoring attempt. This again favors the defenders and makes a string of one-sided goals even more unlikely.

But balancing positives and negatives can only take you so far. Scenes don’t do anything on their own – it’s important that the scenes lead somewhere, build somewhere… Each gaining in intensity until a climax is reached. Without that, a story or game runs the risk of feeling repetitive. In the spirit of consistency – let us venture once more into the lightning-fast gameplay of Metal Drift and explore the subtle mechanics that steadily build to an exciting climax.


The Peak of Climax

Anyone who’s ever taken a writing class has heard tell of a story’s climax. It is a mystical, mythical point in a tale – the summit of the story’s power where the action explodes into the grandest, crowning achievement of the character’s journey. The entire story spends all its time building up to it – to that point where Luke Skywalker makes his desperate run down the Death Star’s trench and destroys the space station once and for all (or, until the third movie when they do it again).

In games, it’s called the “final boss”.

As my partner in crime, Alex Kerezman, has written an absolutely excellent article about climax in games and how every moment of the gameplay must be about how it explodes into a brilliant ending – the peak of the game – I won’t explore the subject in depth here. But climaxes are not limited to the story-driven campaigns of most games we’re familiar with. They are just as appropriate, and a great deal more subtle, within the realms of PVP combat. It is this use of progressively building micro-scenes until the game explodes into a climax (sometimes literally) that ties all the elements of Metal Drift together.

As you race toward your opponent’s goal every single breath hinges on whether you will be able to make it in time. The closer you get to your opponents' goal, the more time they have had to shoot at you. You watch your shields and health bars tick down even as the goal pulls closer… Can you make it in time?!?

If you do, it is often just barely – and exciting beyond belief.

And if you explode in a shower of flames and shrapnel… It is often just on the edge of the goal.

Either way, it’s thrilling.

If acts are larger units comprised of scenes – then each act ends with a goal being scored. And all the while the defenders are chasing after the ball-carrier with one thought in their heads…

Can I STOP them in time?!?

Whether you can or you can’t – a story has been told, the energy building until it explodes into a climax – whether the blaring horn of a goal being scored or the shattering explosion of the ball-carrier bursting into shrapnel.

And then the ball drops down again and the next act begins.


Closing the Curtain

As Metal Drift so wonderfully proves, the power of scenes and story structure is not limited to the theater. Its creators, Black Jacket Studios, have taken elements from the older art-forms to stun and delight players with climactic action and defined scenes… And they did it with only a few simple mechanics. You can too.

It’s important to bear in mind that simply having scenes in a game isn’t enough. Every combat game contains French scenes, when characters die and leave the picture, but not every game makes use of the scenes. After all, bad movies have scenes as well – lots of them. It isn’t enough to have scenes in your game, or even to be aware of them. It is the way those scenes are structured that matters. Positives and negatives should be well balanced (though not of course so that it is impossible for a run of victories and defeats to happen) and the tension must build and build and build until it explodes into a Climax. Metal Drift does that so smoothly and subtly that it has to be seen to be believed. If you haven’t already grabbed a copy of the demo, you might want to give it a try.

So next time you sit down at your favorite game, take a look at how the designers try to bring out order from the chaos of player decisions. In the words of Stephen Sondheim, “Putting it together. That’s what counts.”

And… Scene.

-Dan Felder, WhyGames Blog

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