If online multiplayer gaming was a socioeconomic system, it’d wind up being similar to the United States’ version of capitalism. 99% of the success in games are had by 1% of players, leaving the rest of the playerbase to claw and scratch for whatever tiny scraps of fun are left.
See, by tying equipment unlocks to success and time invested, Infinity Ward and Activision’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare set up a situation wherein the bulk of the playerbase served as woefully underpowered fodder for the online elite: easy pickings to rack up kills, which in turn activated killstreaks, which in turn racked up even more kills. It was a snowball effect. One or two elite players in a Modern Warfare match would feast on the other 15 or 16 players, rapidly accruing killstreaks and finishing with obscene kill/death ratios that were a stark reminder of that game’s imbalance. Later versions of the series attempted to rectify this situation, but the fact remains that the playerbase steadily dwindled as the games aged, primarily due to the fact that the players who play the most have a three-fold advantage over new players: general skill enhancement, map knowledge, and better equipment.
A new player attempting to jump into Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 6 months after release, for example, might as well be an ant. Their lack of skill and experience is compounded by the fact that basically all of the players still playing the game are so far ahead in terms of perks and equipment unlocks. This hypothetical new player might try bashing his or her head against the brick wall of progress for a few days before giving up, perhaps never to return.
With Black Ops 2, developer Treyarch has taken the first major step in correcting this problem, and that step’s origins begin in July, 2010, with the release of Blizzard’s StarCraft 2.
I purchased StarCraft 2 on release day, mostly on the promise of the excellent advertising campaign that led up to the game and the constant insistence by fans of the series that StarCraft was the Real Time Strategy game to play. I was not a veteran of RTS games, mostly due to a general ignorance about the genre and a need to mature into the mechanics. I was too impatient. Anyway, StarCraft 2′s campaign was amazing, and after finishing it I decided to dip my toe into multiplayer, anxious to try out its allegedly “industry-changing” matchmaking system.
The matchmaking in Starcraft 2 is based around player skill, but its way of calculating this skill is built upon a series of ladders. When a player first enters StarCraft 2′s multiplayer, they won’t be immediately allowed into the general population of multiplayer. No, they are forced into “qualifying matches” (a minimum of 5, no more than 50) on which to ply their trade. These matches typically are played on larger maps, giving players a chance to breathe and familiarize themselves with the game’s controls and mechanics without constantly being under the threat of an early-game rush. While the qualifying matches don’t teach the game mechanics, per se (the excellent training mode does, however), it’s a safe place to learn the game. It serves another purpose, as well. Your performance in the qualifying matches determines where your initial placement will be in the ladder. Win 5 straight qualifying matches and you might find yourself immediately placed into the upper Gold or Platinum ladders, while the opposite performance might find your near the lower end of the Bronze ladder.
Your growth as a player doesn’t end there. The game matches you up with players of similar ratings, and has a projected outcome based on those ratings. Your actual performance, then, is graded based on this expectation. Suffer a huge upset and you’ll find yourself tumbling down the ladder, while somehow picking off a player much more highly rated than you will lead to a quick ascension in the rankings. The matchmaking is balanced to ideally have you win about half of your matches, and in my experience with the game (which ended about a year ago), it worked. As a complete neophyte to the series, I won about 45% of my matches and walked away from the game in the upper-half of the Bronze ladder, accurately placing me just above players with little or no experience.
The step that Treyarch took was to create a League Play mode, which begins with a similar set of qualifying matches. After playing through them players are placed in a ladder and ranked within it based on their performance. As in StarCraft 2, players are then shifted up and down in the rankings based on their performance and their team’s performance in matches.
If this was all that League Play did, it would be a great new beginning for Call of Duty multiplayer. However, it also balances the other two big issues that plague the multiplayer community. The first is that the maps and game types are not chosen by players. Instead, the game selects different match types and maps that keep the experience fresh. In the first Black Ops game, the Nuketown map was a favorite of most of the hardcore Call of Duty community due to its close quarters combat which increased the number of kills in each match, thereby increasing the speed at which players level. Because of this, any player playing in a random Public Match would almost always play Nuketown, becoming the proverbial fish in the barrel for the players who would repeatedly vote for the map.
The second big issue is with the unlocking system. Placing new players so far behind (read up on how many players see a dramatic bump in their k/d ratio post-Christmas) in terms of equipment makes the early-game incompetence that so many of them face so much worse. League Play takes a dramatic step in unlocking everything the game has to offer, relying on players ingenuity and the game’s new Pick 10 system to allow a myriad of play styles that open up the game for everyone involved.
These three drastic changes to the series’ multiplayer formula are the keys to keeping it viable going forward. Sure, veterans will decry these changes and the implications they have for the success of the upper-crust of the game’s population, but the fact remains that balance is key to everything in a multiplayer game. Without a constant influx of new players (who now will find a much more natural progression curve in League Play), eventually the playerbase will shrink down to nothingness. Sure, Call of Duty seems like a massive powerhouse now, but stasis is the thing that will kill the series swiftly.
Black Ops 2′s League Play is a notice to the 1%. There’s a storm coming. They better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, they’re all going to wonder how they ever thought they could live so large and leave so little for the rest.