Premature Climax

Many of my multiplayer gaming frustrations can probably be attributed to the excessive deployment of high variance tactics. Gamers take outrageous risks where they would normally not be warranted. If the risks pay off, they win big and feel awesome. If the risks do not pay off, they lose quickly, call something OP, then get another round to try to win big. After all, the downside of losing an online game is not that huge, especially if you down-weight the negative.

If you are the sort of person who plays Civilization on settings like “epic” and “marathon,” the idea of “win big or lose fast” is probably anathema. Whatever game you are playing, you are planning to settle in, focus on the fundamentals, operate efficiently and perhaps aggressively, and build to a satisfying climax. And then this twerp decides to throw absolutely everything at his first attempt, either failing miserably and quitting (smack talk on exit optional) or winning and declaring himself the best player ever (smack talk required).

This is where I place the distinction in an RTS between “rush” and “cheese.” Rushing is a perfectly legitimate tactic. It is early aggression that can be very successful, and a good player can rush while still developing a backup plan. Cheese usually involves overcommitting to one tactic that has a simple counter but is difficult to resist without that counter. When Cheese Fails is a series devoted to watching StarCraft II players fail at cheese. You will see people mis-execute their cheese, execute it successfully but have no idea how to follow through, get countered, and every other way your cheese can fail.

Playing Team Fortress II, you see players who stick with Spies and Snipers because they can get one-shot kills. You will see Snipers who get only headshot kills not because they are aimbotting but because they never dip the crosshairs below head level: miss or one-shot with no in-between. You will see other players using exactly one tactic for hours, such as placing an Engineer turret in the same location, charging with the caber, or sticky-trapping a particular corner. When it works, they get free kills; when not, they tend to die instantly. (You can tell who is actually good by their Plan B.)

You see these people in MMOs trying to clear dungeons as quickly as possible. They over-aggro, and if the AE works, they clear enemies in record time. If it does not work, they curse at the tank and/or healer, quit, and try again with a new group. Having a margin for error is for other people.

A key aspect of high variance tactics is total commitment to one path. If you do not hit the counter, you win. If you do, complain about the counter and try again. This also applies to tactics that usually work but still fail against an obvious counter. For example, your D&D mage is awesome but prepared no way to deal with golems except whining to the DM. For example, many games have some sort of stealth that allows you to ambush your targets at will but is completely ineffective around a detector. It is not just that counters to your favorite tactics exist; the particularly grating player is the one who knows almost nothing beyond his favorite tactic, is always all-in, and is morally committed to the notion that it is the counter that is cheap rather than his tactic.

As some of the examples suggest, this is not a strictly PvP problem. Having these people on your side is similarly annoying, especially when they expect you to support them to help their cheesy one-shot succeed, especially when they take credit for any success because the big numbers are by their names. Having one member of your team flame out within the first three minutes is enormously frustrating. It can mean that everyone loses and starts over because you cannot complete your objective without the full team, and this one person unilaterally decided (before even starting) to win now or leave.

When it works, few of us will refuse easy points, gold, whatever, but it definitely feels gimmicky and unsustainable, and the flash in the plan often flashes quickly or quite violently.

I have also placed some emphasis on attitude. With or against a mature player who is aware that s/he is taking a large risk, you may not get a complete and satisfying game experience, but you will at least have a gracious personal interaction. S/he is a fierce competitor who tried a risky gambit this time, likely calculated to be effective given the circumstances. You can respect that where another player might just be annoying for trying a gimmick. If the mature player recognizes a cunning or lucky counter to his/her gambit, s/he will respect that as the risk inherent in the tactic, rather than complaining about balance/teammates and quitting. Context and intent matter for your perception of meaning.

If you were playing American football against a team whose Plan A was an onside kick followed by a Hail Mary pass, win or lose you would wonder what was wrong with those idiots. Many gamers know little else.

: Zubon

In the original Nintendo Tecmo Bowl, the Minnesota Vikings (if I recall correctly) had a hand-off, reverse, and fake-reverse bomb. That fake-reverse bomb took forever but had a very high success rate for 50+ yard gains; failure meant a 2-second sack and try again. As a child, this was the greatest thing ever.

7 thoughts on “Premature Climax

  1. Wilhelm Arcturus

    Hrmm… going to have to chew on this one for a bit. There is something about video games and their underlying digital nature that leads us to “one best” tactic to start with, even if you are somebody who plays Civ at the marathon setting. It is part of the efficiency thing and playing to ones strengths, and it can be terrible when you find out that your best setting has a flaw. Sometimes you can just regroup, sometimes not. I remember the boss in the second act of Diablo II. If you got to him and hadn’t invested anything in cold resist, either in talent points or gear, you were hosed. Yet to get to him you had to fight through a desert. Hrmm. I think the “just once” talent point reset in Diablo II got put in for just that scenario.

    Reply
    1. Curuniel

      I’m not sure if I’d say it’s “something about video games” but it’s definitely a prevalent mentality among gamers – akin to a tabletop ‘munchkin’ I think. When everything is represented by numbers (again, trace that back to D&D), maximising the numbers efficiently becomes the game for some people. Your chances for success are neatly represented in math. I’ve found that gamers tend toward quantifying everything (as that’s what the games are based in).

      Plus, as Zubon said, in most video games the consequences for failure are minimal; we’re meant to have as many chances as we want to get it right. That means we can try something unwise and not really suffer if it doesn’t work.

      Reply
  2. Kalu

    Outside of the “mature” player, one has to wonder if many of these people are even aware of what they are doing or how transparent their qq and objections are to the mechanic that foiled their plans. That last of course assumes they were not being honest in their objections or behavior, but what if they were?

    We assume they know better, but is it possible they don’t? If statements in forums and chat, where this kind of thing is rampant, are indicative, these players are actually ignorant of any misbehavior that is rude to players around them. I think we ascribe to them that they know better so we can ignore the alternative conclusion, that a great number of players are hopelessly socially retarded. We say things like, ‘Well, players are online and are anonymous so say things or behave in ways they otherwise would not.” I don’t buy that excuse. What is there to gain by being rude and obnoxious to players around them with the behavior you so accurately describe? The answer is a rhetorical, nothing. They just don’t know any better. That is sad indeed.

    Reply
    1. Zubon Post author

      There is a running debate (for centuries) on whether to assume inability or unwillingness to do better (less charitably: stupidity or malice). Hanlon’s Razor is commonly invoked. There is a side debate on which is worse; some people are comforted by a lack of malice, others traumatized by “this is really the best he can do.”

      Another option is ignorance, which is a temporary inability, although how temporary depends on how willing someone is. A hard part of curing ignorance is making someone aware of it. You need to know a certain amount to know that there is more to know.

      Reply
  3. kiantremayne

    I think you’ve put your finger on two different problems – adaptability and sportsmanship. There’s a problem with MMOs not valuing adaptability in general – WoW’s raids tend to be designed around characters that are optimised to do one thing well, and the whole ethos of the game and its competitors/imitators has been to push players towards making characters that are one trick ponies that perform that one trick very well. These players feel somewhat cheated if the game then throws them a curveball and that trick that has served them so well up until now doesn’t work. You would need a game where every fight is different right from level 1 to train players into expecting to have to vary their tactics. WoW doesn’t EVER do that – high level dungeons and raids tend to have a gimmick or a dance, but nothing that fundamentally requires players to vary how they play.

    As for sportsmanship – the essence of sportsmanship is showing respect for your opponent, win or lose. The trash-talking kiddie PvPer has no respect for any opponent, and if you don’t respect your opponent how can you possibly accept that you have something to learn from him?

    Reply
  4. Pingback: Responding to Incentives | Kill Ten Rats

Leave a Reply