Modus Operandi

This is a piece submitted it to PC Gamer (UK) magazine all the way back in 2006, but didn’t really receive any feedback. Still, I put a lot of effort into this piece, and I’m not down heartened at all by it. Anyway – it’s now here if anyone wants to use it. Usual rules apply, especially the critique and comments.

It’s funny really. There are roughly over 28,000 video games listed on the MobyGames database – probably more by the time you read this. Of those approximately 5200 are on the PC, and that number is ever-increasing every day. With so many games, come so many genres – from the humble FPS to the Acroynm-phile favourite MMOFPRPG, and if we want to break it down even further, we’ll find that a lot of games offer alternative play modes in which they can be enjoyed. Heck, I remember when the only way to play Tetris was to just try and not let the blocks fill the screen, nowadays they probably offer some sort of Time-Group-Survival-Attack-In Space mode!

CS 1.6

Yet, for some reason, as gamers, we still like to get sucked into the old classic staples of gaming, and the game modes that have been around for many years. One example is the hugely popular DeathMatch mod for Counter Strike. Bomb defusal and hostage rescuing are thrown out of the window, and instead of waiting for the rest of the team to be killed before the next round, these servers basically give each player unlimited respawns, allowing them to jump back into the action as soon as they are killed. There are of course, some variations on this mod, such as servers that give Battlefield-style ‘tickets’ to each team, only allowing a certain number of respawns before the other team can claim victory. -So why is this mod so popular? David ‘Bailopian’ Anderson, creator of the most popular DeathMatch mods for Counter-Strike feels it’s a case of diluting a successful formula: “I believe CSDM is popular simply because it compresses CS gameplay. It’s ideal for taking a break from the normal round system and practising pure shooting. Five minutes of DM can feel like thirty minutes of normal CS.”

There are over 1,200,000 players who play arguably the King of DeathMatch shooters, Unreal Tournament 2004. Those players have spent around 700 000 hours playing the classic DeathMatch mode. Compare that with another FPS favourite; Capture the Flag, which has only seen over 150,000 hours of playtime spent upon it – that’s only a fifth of DeathMatch player hours. Why is DeathMatch so popular? Anderson seems to think it’s a matter of simplicity: “DeathMatch is the simplest (and probably the purest) form of gaming. There are no objectives other than your own skill. Thus it is very easy to develop, and very easy for gamers to easily adapt to.”

In that case, does this mean we’ll only see DeathMatch and Team DeathMatch in UT2007? Hopefully not, and there is some hope in the statistics. Onslaught, a gamemode introduced in UT2004 has a rather healthy hour count of nearly 600,000 hours. Additionally, UT is also home to many, many mods which introduce new gaming modes such as Air Buccaneers and the sport fans favourite – Deathball. Away from UT, there are other online shooters and mods enjoying a similar success. The popular Half Life 1 mod The Ship, as I write this, has just received a commercial stand-alone release in an all new Source version.

The Ship manages to try something rather different with the usual DeathMatch model; instead of trying to kill every other person on the map, you’re given one single target, which you must kill as discreetly as possible, while someone else has your name and is trying to do the same to you. Another major difference between this and the “regular” shooters is that most of your weapons – although not all- are melee based, requiring you to get a little more up close and personal with your victim. Additionally, The Ship adds needs, not unlike the ones found in games like The Sims that each player must also satisfy in order to keep themselves in good condition to make the kill. As a result, the gameplay involved is far slower paced than your normal DeathMatch mode, and games turn out to be fairly methodical in nature, with smart players taking the system and using it to do things like creeping up on their opponent while they relieve themselves on the toilet. So this could be considered proof that, in theory, gamers can utilize a level of thinking above the usual run and gun. But the real question could be: do they want to?

Clearly, OuterLight – the company behind The Ship hopes so: According to their website they “believe in making original, genre defining games to delight and amaze the gaming public.” Clearly these guys have big ambitions, with a desire “to push the boundaries and realise the possibilities inherent within games as an interactive entertainment medium.” Some may say that these are nothing more than words, but then, they may just have the guts needed to make it. After all, they had the balls to release something as different as The Ship. And it’s not as if it has been easy to get that far. In fact, one of the struggles has been of course, the bane of contempt for those who champion the smaller developers, the Publishers. As Mark Morris, one of the Directors of Introversion (developers of the much championed Darwinia) famously said, “We didn’t want publishers fucking up our game.”

The Ship

“Chasing deals is probably the least fun part of game development. Publishers are very demanding and we had to prove that The Ship, which we always envisioned as a multiplayer experience, would work as a single player game, there was even talk of console versions.” – So why did OuterLight have to prove that the game would work as a SinglePlayer game? There could be a few explanations; for instance, games like the Hitman series have already proved that methodical killing and slow, calculated gameplay can make for a great single-player game. It’s a given that unfortunately, the industry is getting to be a harder place for games companies to survive, and taking a risk on an unknown game is something risky to do for most publishers, and it was probably that simple unknown factor of Multiplayer that could have caused this. But what can the Devs do about it?

Does it boil down to people like Valve and their content delivery system STEAM to encourage creativity? Such a platform, that delivers games direct to the consumer, must be a benefit to small companies such as OuterLight and Introversion, as they don’t have to worry so much about how the publisher will take on board things like marketing in a store as such, making the box look nice or even have to deal as much with the publisher trying to force their product in other directions from what the team originally envisaged. All an enterprising gamer has to do is click a button, input their details and the game is on the hard drives, without having go to the shops. Such an easy and relatively cheap method of getting a game to a consumer is surely a boon to both sides of the industry. And since the rising popularity of STEAM in the last few years, games that might otherwise be overlooked on the shelf get a chance to share the same sort of recognition, not to mention the easy delivery of after sales support only available through systems like STEAM. It’s obviously a method worthy of merit, because we now have people like EA muscling in on the action with their EA Downloader service, and more recently, gamers have been enjoying the ability to receive 2K’s PREY through the Triton service.

Still, it’s worth noting that both Darwinia and The Ship have, or will have, retail releases as well as their availability on STEAM. Heck, Darwinia had been available for over a year before the deal with STEAM helping it reach an even wider audience. Does this mean Publishers are more willing to take a risk? Or does this actually mean that the method doesn’t work that well, and developers rely on a retail release in order to get their release out to a larger audience? Or maybe in the end, it boils down to us, the consumer. In an age where we are more frequently questioning the originality of games, we have to ask who is really to blame here: The Publishers, who are too afraid to take this risks? The Developers, who aren’t trying hard enough to come up with truly imaginative ideas? Or maybe it’s our fault for being too stubborn in our playing styles to try anything new?

Valve recently announced they are to be bundling a new puzzle game, called Portal with the release of Half Life 2 Episode 2. The game uses a pretty advanced concept of using portals which can be manipulated by the player in order to solve increasingly tricky puzzles. Indeed, it’s an interesting concept, spawned from Freeware puzzler Narbacular Drop . The game certainly looks interesting, and initial reports say it’s a great game, albeit incorporating some very, very hard concepts to get the average player’s head around. However, a lot of people who have had the fortune of being able to play this game are saying it’s worthy of $20 on its own. So why are Valve bundling it with, firstly, the established single player franchise of HL2 Episode 2, as well as the long awaited (but still relatively established name) Team Fortress 2?

Is it a lack of confidence in the game, or a lack of confidence in the gamers?

References:

Information from http://www.mobygames.com/moby_stats Exact figure as of 25/06/06: 28,294

Information from http://www.mobygames.com/moby_stats Exact figure as of 25/06/06: 5,155

http://www.tcwonline.org/~dvander/csdm/

Information taken from http://ut2004stats.epicgames.com/index.php Exact figure as of 25/06/06: 1,247,440

Information taken from http://ut2004stats.epicgames.com/totals.php Exact figure as of 25/06/06: 687,745.1

Information taken from http://ut2004stats.epicgames.com/totals.php Exact figure as of 25/06/06: 164,531.5

Information taken from http://ut2004stats.epicgames.com/totals.php Exact figure as of 25/06/06: 586,240.3

http://www.theshiponline.com

http://www.theshiponline.com/aboutus.php

http://www.theshiponline.com/history.php

http://www.nuclearmonkeysoftware.com/

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