I love MOBA games.
In case you’ve been living under a rock and you don’t know – MOBA stands for Multiplayer Online Battle Arena – the awkward mouthful of words used to describe the genre of games like DOtA and League of Legends.
(for the record, I prefer Valve's term: ARTS - Action Real-Time Strategy, but I've never played DOtA, so I feel like a poseur if I use it)
I’ve played League of Legends for years, but as a hardcore mobile gamer I’ve been waiting for the real MOBA experience on mobile.
And recently, I found it.
VainGlory, made by Super Evil MegaCorp is a fantastic MOBA designed and built from the ground up for touch devices. It’s got all the bells and whistles familiar to long-term players of the genre, but carefully scaled so that the experience doesn’t become bloated or overly complex.
I've been happily playing VainGlory for roughly three months now, but something very interesting happened just the other day. Vain Glory released their new big patch – version 1.6.1.
Up until now, matchmaking had been based on a background algorithm that used my player ranking and my rate of dropping out of games into account. And under those criteria, I was very, very happy. Sometimes I’d win, sometimes I’d lose, and occasionally I’d be so impressed by the players that I teamed with (or played against) that I’d add them to my friends list.
And most importantly - minimal rage.
But 1.6.1 changed match-making , so that now there are two cues for players. One is labeled Casual Match, and the other is labeled Ranked Match.
And suddenly I have found that my fun in playing the game has greatly diminished.
Because now, no matter which cue I pick I have a meta-game context that immediately categorizes my experience in a negative light.
If I select Casual Match, then somewhere in the back of my mind I already feel like I’m chickening out from playing against “real” players. Not to mention the fact that I also feel like there’s a strong chance that I’ll get paired with folks who aren't taking it seriously (because they're just "casual" users) and so might leave the game, or worse – they might suck. So just by selecting this cue, I already feel apprehensive.
With Ranked Match it’s another, equally toxic story. In this cue I’m immediately worried about messing up. I’m concerned about every death, or mis-play. I’m worried that, if I don’t win I will somehow slip down the galactic ranking system into oblivion. And even worse, I turn that same hyper-vigilance on my teammates. If I’m playing in the jungle, and you die twice in lane? I’m pissed because you’re “feeding” the other team. If you’re playing support, and you mess up and last hit minions and steal my "farm", I’m pissed because you’re gimping my late game carry.
Both are equally awful experiences.
Even my family commented on my mood around the game. My kids suggested that I stop playing because that I seemed to be unhappy all the time and my wife threatened to take my iPad away from me, for my own good!
I thought about my own reactions to the patch, and it got me to thinking – perhaps this is the origin of rage – the contextualization of play in a way that assigns the game enough potential negative context to outweigh the positive outcome of playing or winning.
I can just hear the people out there reading this right now and saying “Carry harder, noob.” But this is a short-sighted response. After all, if you have a bad experience on any other form of monetized social activity online, you won’t keep using that service. If you felt like a loser every time you tried to buy something off of Amazon, you’d gravitate to another shopping solution pretty quickly. Gaming culture is often blind to our own weird idiosyncrasies. Instead of questioning old solutions and demanding more, we can be quick to blame the alienated (or the neophyte).
I think a much better answer lies in examining how we approach the social tools of gaming: matchmaking, friends lists and player profiles.
When I was working on the original Halo multiplayer, I noticed an interesting phenomenon – something I called the “controller drop”. At the end of some matches, players would drop the game controllers like they were hot, stand up and walk away from the console. To me, that was a sign that something was wrong with the experience. Perhaps the map was imbalanced, or the game type was too difficult. Maybe the weapon placements were unfair, or the overall weapon balance was off. Whatever the cause, it left the players with the desire to drop their controller and walk away rather than playing again right away. I desperately wanted to avoid the controller drop, and constantly sought to balance games, maps and guns so that the experience was more playable. But without a more sophisticated approach, my tools and solutions were limited to a brute force approach.
But I had bigger plans. (I always have bigger plans) One feature that we had to cut from our multiplayer plan was a playlist system that would track a player’s favorite maps and game types and serve them up repeatedly with variations.
Imagine if the multiplayer mode could track your enjoyment of map or game type and serve them up to you over and over. How? What if when a match ended, the game offered the opportunity to opt-in and respond to a few simple survey questions. Stuff like; was it fun? Was it the right length? Was it fair? Are you interested in more of this, or something new? The designers would have to build the questionnaire carefully, so that they were getting maximum insight from every survey that players responded to. But over time the player's profile could start to truly represent their play preferences, rather than just their dumb, virtual medals and achievements.
(I can’t think of a worse way to spend my time than pursuing meaningless virtual achievements. If you think they’re the bees knees then I honestly feel sorry for you.)
My dream for Halo was that players could start by authoring their own playlist of game types and maps, and that those lists would be refined based on their reactions to the games so that session would be continuously serve up experiences based on their preferences over and over.
You could extrapolate this to groups of players. If a group commonly teams up, you could identify how they perform as a group and what they seem to enjoy. I met one group of Halo players whose favorite variant mode was what they called “shotties and snipers” (just shotguns and sniper rifles), regardless of the map. It was an interesting experience playing with them, to be sure. The tailored play list concept would have been ideal for the "shotties and snipers" crowd, as they would simply have their house rules applied to their matches in different interesting permutations until they said they were ready for a change.
While we're on the topic of learning more about what the players, I also think there’s a huge missed opportunity for games to take advantage of individual player profiles.
Imagine if you could go into your player profile and answer a few, carefully selected questions, like;
- Are you highly competitive, or do you prefer to play for fun?
- Are you aggressive, or more passive?
- Do you assess situations quickly and form plans, or do you prefer to have a teammate direct you?
- Are you interested in the “metagame”, or do you just prefer to play your own way?
You could even come up with a simple system of profile identifiers and let players toggle simple characteristics on and off for themselves:
If players could choose settings like those, the information could be used in matchmaking along with whatever other invisible data that the game was tracking under the hood. (win/loss based on roles or heroes, on some maps, leave rate etc) You could also tie achievements and other score related acknowledgements into the formula as well. Did you carry a weak team to victory? Did you win a match, even though you had a teammate leave and you had to play down a player? If the game could identify these things, then it would really start to understand it's players.
In addition to the matchmaking possibilities, it would give players a shorthand glimpse at their teammates. At the start of a match, other players could glance at my profile and see:
They might get a sense that I’m going to try and call plays, and that I’m not going to be prone to taking crazy risks unless we’re losing, or if my teammates aren’t calling plays or listening to mine.
If the matchmaking system paired me with a player whose profile looked like this;
I suspect we’d probably make a good team. As an exercise, why not add your own profile tags in the comments below?
Better Friends List
Here’s another thing that boggles my mind about the social tools in games; my friends list is virtually useless to me. Perhaps there are some people out there who only add people that they know personally to their list – but that ain’t me. If you are a skilled teammate or opponent, I’ll try to add you. Heck, even if you just have one or two good plays I might try to add you, just because they impressed me!
But after a few days, I don’t know who any of those people are. And there’s no way for me to find out – was this person a good support? A strong laner? Did they seem to have a good personality, or did they just kick my butt really hard?
Here’s a simple idea: when you hit the "add friend" button, the game could simply capture the context that you’re adding someone.
Sample scenario - a match ends, and I’m looking at the scores of the folks who played, and I choose to add the other team’s assassin because he repeatedly killed me over and over. For me, his friend entry looks like this;
First, the simple details would help me remember the specifics of the match. If I was placed against an assassin in lane, I’d probably remember that. Beyond that, I could look at that stat line and think, “Ok – this guy is very good at not getting caught and killed, and the assists tell me he’s very aware of team fight situations.
You will notice that my improved friend list entry also has a few simple modifier buttons that I can choose to toggle at the bottom. For a respected enemy, all I might choose to toggle is "skillful", but for a player that I got to know a little better, it might look like this;
Again; these might not be the radio buttons that you’d really need, but at least I’d have something personalize the contact on my list. Maybe I could choose to mark folks I really want to team with as one key word or another. Then, if I’m looking over my friend’s list, I could even sort them by categories.
To me these kinds of refinements are the very logical extrapolations of the ecosystem that surrounds games and indeed every kind of interactive business today. In fact, they’re long overdue. It’s no longer enough to just offer great gameplay. Developers need to realize that there are lots of other areas in which customer service and user experience are strongly affected, and start building solutions in those areas as well.
I believe that realizing these kinds of systems would go a long way towards returning players to the simple joy of hitting the "Play" button and finding the fun experience that they're looking for.