By Shaun Quaintance – I’m not the biggest fan of competitive online multiplayer games, personally I much prefer going alone or teaming up with a group of friends against the challenges set by a game designer than constantly get my ass handed to me by someone who, judging by their gamertag, has a fascination with blowing kisses and can’t tell an S from a Z. When I do venture into the realms of competitive gaming I can usually play just a few games before wanting to hop back into a single player or co-op campaign of some sort.
So, with all that in mind…why have some of my favourite games over the past year or so been competitive online multiplayer games? Has my taste in games changed? I don’t think so, I still love the games I’ve always loved and hated the competitive online games I’ve always hated. Instead, I believe it comes down to a recent shift in design for competitive games, a shift that has seen the core requirements for success go from twitch skills and reactions to timing and strategic choices.
The majority of competitive online games have been centered around twitch skills and reactions for a while now, of course there are a ton of other various designs and mechanics that go into each game but the very base was always whoever reacted first and fastest, be it through aiming or the correct input, usually who got the kill/points. This is all well and good for some people but you see, the thing is…some people, myself included, twitch skills and reactions are just a tiny bit shit. Again, this isn’t the fault of the designers or other players, it’s just one of those things and unfortunately they will only get worse as I get older.
I believe the current shift in designs can be traced back to the introduction of the MOBA. Although MOBAs have been in existence for over a decade now they didn’t really hit their stride until around 2010 with League of Legends. MOBAs brought with them a whole new look at strategy, timing and team play for competitive online multiplayer games. The popularity of the MOBA genre naturally meant that you would start to see other games borrow some designs and philosophies from it and this is the main moment where I think this shift originated.
MOBAs are one of several genres that work perfectly on PC but are just so damn hard to get right on consoles due to the different control schemes. So, if you want to create a competitive online multiplayer game for consoles as well as PC that follows the MOBA direction of timing and strategy how do you go about doing it? Simple, you integrate the key designs and philosophies into a genre that already works on consoles, a genre such as the FPS.
If you take the FPS genre and mix in the skill focuses of a MOBA you begin to get something along the lines of the competitive online multiplayer games that we see today. So, we’ve gone through one of the possible reasons for how this shift could’ve occurred but what about the why?
I mentioned earlier that my reactions have never been overly good for twitch skill games and that they will only diminish as I get older, while it is possible to improve your reactions and reflexes with practice the latter part remains universal for all of us. However, our minds can continue to learn and improve long after our reflexes have turned to mush. Focusing on strategy over twitch skills helps to improve the longevity of a game as you are constantly learning new tactics and play styles as well as adjusting to the ever changing ‘meta’ of the game with new updates. I’ve played Overwatch and Rainbow Six Siege for many hours, probably the most I’ve played competitive multiplayer games, and I still find myself learning new tricks to increase my chances of success.
As well as providing a higher skill ceiling that leaves more room for improvement the focus on strategy and timing over reactions, reflexes and dexterity allows for a game to appeal to a wider audience. Players who aren’t the best at using a controller or keyboard and mouse quickly for whatever reason, be it old age, lack of gaming experience or something else, can still be an effective player be learning the patterns of characters, their abilities and when is the most effective time to use said abilities. I’m about as useful as a turn right indicator on a Nascar when it comes to air shots in Rocket League however through learning good positioning and timing of the jump I can still provide my team with assistance through blocking shots and setting up counter attacks.
Classes also seem to be much more varied in strategic central games which help further increase the potential audience by providing plenty of play styles at different stages of difficulty to suit each individual. All of what’s been mentioned above allows for games to appeal to a wider range of players by having a low enough barrier of entry for casual players to hop on and enjoy themselves whilst also providing a high enough skill ceiling for more advanced players to constantly improve and compete.
However, all of this isn’t to say that there’s no way to improve this new shift in online competitive multiplayer. Currently these games have a large focus on teamplay and coordination between players. This can prove troublesome when you don’t have a group of friends ready to jump on with. A few of the current games have tried to provide experiences and modes based around fewer team numbers and even 1v1 modes however due to the core mechanics and designs being based around teamplay they aren’t as engaging, exciting and balanced as the higher player count modes.
Another problem is game length. Most of the strategic competitive multiplayer games recently have main game modes where matches can potentially last for a rather long time which can prove difficult when wanting to simply jump on for a few quick games. Again, there are modes provided that are shorter in length, however, the game wasn’t designed from the start with those modes in mind and thus don’t provide as good of an experience.
It remains to be seen if this current wave of competitive online multiplayer games will continue or whether it’s just a minor blip before twitch skills return to the forefront. The newly released For Honor appears to continue the trend whilst also trying to squash some of the problems mentioned earlier by designing classes that don’t have to rely on each other, thus allowing modes with lower player counts to still remain balanced and competitive, whilst also keeping the variety in play styles.
It will also be interesting to see whether other genres will take notice and begin to incorporate some of the mechanics and designs that are forming, either way it seems like competitive online multiplayer is changing in a big way at a fast rate and it’s a change that I personally am enjoying very much.
Keep on gaming.