Not a Game Podcast, and the Multiplayer Sweet Spot

The Not a Game podcast has just released its 40th episode, and I’m delighted to say that host Tom Hatfield invited me on this week! Not a Game is a weekly panel-type podcast with freelance games writers and developers discussing all manner of games-related topics.

Designed by Jacob Smiley

The “Not a Game” logo, designed by Jacob Smiley

In this episode: Tom, myself, Paul Dean and Jordan Webber discussed Halo 3‘s rather baffling plot, what we felt was wrong with Bioshock,  and the potential for a game-cum-storytelling platform like Storium.

We also discussed whether or not a game like DotA can be relaxing, which put me in mind of the multiplayer games I used to play online. In the podcast, I cited the example of Wintergrasp in World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King. I realised that I seem now to have left this sort of gameplay behind, in favour of so-called ‘couch co-op’ -and while there are many other, more nuanced reasons for this, the most obvious reason is that I want to include my partner in these games, rather than playing with friends. Still, I long for this sort of gameplay and until now I wasn’t consciously aware of it really being ‘a thing’. Now that I think about it though, there is real value to be had in creating a game which accommodates this relaxed, social play – both for building loyalty and allowing players to explore the game at their own pace.

I am inherently fascinated by strategy games, and have put many hours into titles like Command & Conquer: GeneralsCompany of Heroes and StarCraft II (though I still haven’t even installed my copy of Heart of the Swarm). However, my problem with them has traditionally been that the single-player campaigns are poorly tuned, with difficulty spikes actively jarring against my sense of progression. I almost never enjoy playing competitively against strangers, either – I end up feeling that there’s too much at stake, and it becomes stressful for me. The sad thing is that tends to be the feature such games are sold on, and so I feel somehow outcast by them.

I am, at heart, a co-op gamer and what I’ve loved about StarCraft II in particular is feeling able to explore the confines of a strategy game, working out the tactics and strategies I feel best suited to, all the while being able to converse with a friend or two. Considering that for a long while, my gaming partners were based halfway up the country, this also had real social value to me. So, I’ve always recognised this value as a gamer – but I now believe in the idea of nurturing this sort of behaviour as a step towards encouraging mastery at the players’ own pace.

I would go as far as saying that I learned far more about either of the games I mentioned earlier simply by creating a custom game with friends, than I did by playing the tutorials or campaigns. In fact, Company of Heroes proved quite a difficult game for me, and while StarCraft II has a superb single-player campaign it actually undermines the multiplayer experience by allowing you to use campaign-specific units. These perform worthy roles in single-player, but they would break multiplayer skirmishes. Even when combined with basic units which do appear in multiplayer, they have enough of an impact that they encourage tactics which simply wouldn’t fly in arenas.

So it is that my former house-mate and I spent a good 4 months playing lengthy, co-op campaigns against varying levels of AI – something we structured around the game’s rather nice achievements system – before we began dipping our toes into multiplayer competitions.

StarCraft II

Of course, I’m not so naive as to believe that ‘co-op vs AI’ had prepared us for human opponents either, but it did lend us something of a sandbox in which we could explore key tactics, such as getting a feel for building times and resource acquisition, and working out which units work well together. The race for barracks, for example, can be drilled down to split-second timing, with demands on precise construction of exactly the right number of gatherer units so that you don’t over- or underspend resources. Unless you’ve been given the chance to practice this art, you’re likely to be swamped early on in a game and perhaps never understand how the enemy player beat you.

One can also practice this solo in custom games, of course, and many do, but personally I feel there’s a lot can be said for simply having another player at your back. Not only can you share tips and observations on the fly, you can also mix strategies up much quicker, such as by combining a force of mostly-infantry with mostly-vehicles – broadening your experience of what you can deploy but also how enemy players might work together. All this and the chance to stay in touch, contributing to a relaxing and fun evening? I adore this style of co-op play.

All of which adds up to an increased sense of player confidence, the likes of which tutorials and single-player campaigns cannot deliver. I strongly believe that the chief reason I don’t play FPS games competitively, in multiplayer, is because the combat is too far removed from what I’ve previously encountered (or in other words, been taught). The punishment for that, dealt by the hands of other players, can feel severe. There are FPS games which allow offline custom games, but the nature of the genre means that AI opponents will simply never match up to a human player – and with death a mere button press away, there is very little room for experimentation.

Strategy games allow me a chance to at least feel sufficiently comfortable with a game’s intricacies that I can step into a competitive match and not feel like I’d lose outright. I’ll often lose anyway, but I can do so knowing not only that I have co-op multiplayer to return to, but that it’s also not because all my tactics are wrong. It might be that I need to tweak my build order against a  particular kind of factional player, or that other players have adopted an unwritten and unexpected tactic for advancing through a particular map.

It just so happens that while playing multiplayer co-op, I wrote a few strategy guides and walkthroughs of my own for StarCraft II‘s single-player campaign. The articles have not aged well in this age of patching, but if anyone is interested they can be found along with a bunch of World of Warcraft gameplay guides at Manual Override.