Friday, January 2, 2009

Always Connected: Competitive Play

Always Connected is a series of posts about online gameplay. Part one focused on cooperative gameplay and now part two is focusing on competitive play.

The obvious opposite to playing cooperatively is to instead play competitively. Playing games against one another is nothing new, with modes like Deathmatch being staples of FPS games for a very long time. Online gaming has only increased the popularity of competition with PC gamers playing against each other over the Internet for many years. With the consoles now online enabled as well, those experiences have transferred to the consoles and now it is quite easy to fire up a game of Halo, search for a match and be playing within minutes.

For someone like me, the fact that the consoles are online now means that I can actually play multiplayer games. It doesn't matter whether it is cooperatively or competitively, before online gaming I generally didn't get to play multiplayer in any game due to not having any friends that were also into gaming. This has changed in the more recent years, ironically as online gaming has become more popular, as my wonderful girlfriend is a gamer and so is our best friend. Regardless of that though, I maintain that online gaming has changed my life for the better because it provides me the choice to play something with other people if and when I want to. Don't get me wrong, I have had some multiplayer experiences in the past, with Mario Kart 64 and Perfect Dark being played a lot during my childhood but the reality is that I didn't really play games with other people until online gaming became a normal feature of the consoles.

Now that I do play games online I find myself thinking about the various things that go with it. Anonymity is the first thing that comes to mind and how the various people from around the world act and react to different situations. Using my own experiences again as an example, the first night of my Xbox Live subscription showed me two very different sides of online play and how it can be both a good and bad thing. Easing myself into the service I spent the first half of the night playing with some friends who were already used to playing online but also realised that it was new to me. These friends were patient, answered any silly questions I may have asked and also demonstrated to me that playing online can be a fun and rewarding thing to do. We raced each other in Burnout 3: Takedown, shot each other in Halo 2 and when we weren't playing anything, just chatted. Doing this showed me that while we were playing against each other, socialising and enjoying our games together was great and we all had a wonderful time that night.

Later that night the other side of online play was shown, the side that is referred to in the industry when discussing the reasons why people are put off playing online. I'm sure I don't need to elaborate much further on the issue so instead I will say that it was a surprise and I could not help but feel disappointed in the gamers out there who decide to act and react like that while playing games. Games are supposedly meant to be about fun and yet here these people are caring more about ruining the experience for others than having an enjoyable time for themselves. It comes across as sad and as has been said countless times before, really hinders any progress we hope to achieve in evolving our medium and expanding its audience. I am used to it now, but on that first night it was off-putting and like many others I was considering canceling my subscription and never playing online again. In fact the only reason I continued to play online was because of my friends and thankfully the end result has been a few new friends made and countless, memorable times online in the various games that I own. I now believe that online gaming is important and I am glad to see that it has become more popular over the recent years, but it has a long way to go yet and I really hope that the journey is improved as we near the overall destination.

To extend on the above, I can't help but compare the various online sessions that I have had and wonder why these experiences vary to the degree that they do. Without meaning to generalise, it's easy to use a FPS title (and really, take your pick) as an example of games where disappointing and perhaps even insulting online sessions can and will take place. They are arguably the games in which competition is at its most fierce and players seem to be more aggressive with their attitudes because of the competition and desire to win the match. Some out there would even argue that the violence is a factor, but that is a topic for another day. When I compare my time playing Gears of War online with say, a racing game in Forza Motorsport 2, the attitude and general manner of players is vastly different and it is something I have found myself pondering many times. Racing online in Forza has been a more laid-back affair for me, with other players being respectful of you as a driver and not biting your head off if you make a mistake and accidentally cause a crash that takes you and them out of the race. The community of people who play that game seem to be nicer, more willing to just have fun with the game and are open to other players not necessarily being as skilled as they are. It makes for a more enjoyable time and really, that is what it should be about. I will look into my times playing these games and others in future posts of the series but for now I will say that comparing them has been baffling and intriguing and no doubt something that I will continue to analyse in the future.

Competitive gaming has even seen players form careers out of the experience with big name tournaments like Major League Gaming and the now defunct Championship Gaming Series allowing players to test their skills against players all around the world for prize money, sponsorships and even a little fame. These tournaments have become more popular over the years but due to not really having direction or an identity unfortunately haven't found a way to satisfy audiences nor expand the interest of competitive gaming as a whole. As someone who wants to see the industry progress and evolve as much as it can, that is disappointing but is also quite understandable given that games are much more fun if you are playing rather than someone else.

In the end, competitive gaming is here to stay thanks to online play connecting players across the world and that looks set to continue as connection speeds increase, gaming evolves and more and more people start to play and enjoy games. Combine that with the wonderful cooperative experiences that can be had, plus who knows what to come and you have a very bright future for people who want to play with or against each other.


pete said...

Unfortunately, I'm not an externally competitive person: I'd rather battle myself, and my own limitations, than someone else. Having said that, pseudo-trash-talking with mates in a Halo-fest is always good value. Regardless, that explains why I dislike Achievements based on Ranked online play ;)

Gaming girlfriend, eh? Rare as hen's teeth. Congratulations, you jammy bugger ;)

Steven O'Dell said...

I'm not a fan of Ranked online Achievements either although perhaps for a slightly different reason to you. I don't like them because they rely on other people. To me that is wrong because Achievements are meant to be your accomplishments in a game, not a group's or whatever. That is why I commend a game like Call of Duty 4 for not including online Achievements. That said, I do understand why they do it so I guess it is something that just needs to be accepted.

Believe it or not, my ex (now our best friend - the one alluded to in the post) was also a gamer but not as 'hardcore' as my current one is, who in turn isn't as 'hardcore' as I am. But either way, I am indeed extremely lucky to have a better half who shares an interest in gaming. I cherish that fact each and every day.

Joseph said...

I admit I'm fairly new to the online gaming scene, but I can see where you're coming from in saying that there are different experiences for each game. With Mario Kart Wii, no matter if you were in front or last place, people would still respect that fact you were playing with them. I mainly played with a few forum room buddies, and we just laughed and discussed some of the moments we shared, like everyone nearing the finish line only to have the last placed player get a bullet bill item and zoom past to take the win.

The competitive nature of games means you have to expect some comments like “haha, got you!” or something like that. But yeah, there are some moments when you feel uncomfortable. During one of my Unreal Tournament 3 sessions, a team mate of mine in a deathmatch would constantly shoot at me rather than take out enemies. I don’t know why, and don’t really care either. Another moment, which I feel embarrassed about actually, was during a brawl match in Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts. The match had us piloting pirate ships and trying to destroy each other. I ended up winning the match and said “Avast yee matey” as a bit of fun. It turned out I was playing against a kid (not a big surprise really considering it was a Banjo game), and he said something about him eating his food so he couldn’t play and that he hated me. As stupid as it sounds, it put me off playing online while wearing a headset. I like to win and all, but I don’t like people hating me. Perhaps I was a bit childish myself in making a pirate reference, but I was excited because it was the first time I actually used the headset in an online match.