Yesterday I talked about skill in first-person shooters. Mark and Jay Barnson both weighed in with comments that got me really thinking about deathmatch for the first time in a few years. I want to expand on some of the ideas I talked about before. I’m going to relate a true story, and at first all of this is going to seem like a lot of bragging. If you can endure the anecdote, I’ll have some humble pie before the end. Deal?
Way back in ye olden times of 1997 or so, I was playing a 1-on-1 Quake deathmatch against a friend. This was a LAN game, and we were just a few feet away from each other. We both knew I was the stronger player, but I went easy on him. Still, the game was still frustrating for him. At one point, an hour or so into the game, something odd happened. I came into a room, and knew he was coming, even though I couldn’t see him yet. I fired a rocket. He rounded the corner just in time to get hit in the face with it. Here is what the scene looked like:
So he ran through a door, crossed a room, and suddenly collided with a rocket that was already on its way to intercept him. I fired the rocket well before he came into view. How did I do that? If we were strangers playing online he would have probably accused me of cheating, but we were friends and he could, if he wanted, glance over at my screen and see I was not using any sort of cheat. He was frustrated, but assumed it was some sort of fluke.
Then I did it again.
Here is the corner where I would see my friend explode.
Now he was annoyed and wanted to know how I was doing this. I wasn’t even sure. I’d just had a gut reaction, and I couldn’t explain why I’d shot the rocket at that precise moment.
It happened a third time. My friend was angry by this point, and was determined to figure out what was going on. It was too easy to replicate for it to be luck, and neither of us was willing to believe I’d developed ESP.
Again, he came through the door, but this time he stopped short of the corner and my rocket sailed by in front of him. Then we both realized that it was the sound of him opening the door that had tipped me off. When he opened the door, I was aware he was coming and fired in anticipation of him coming around the corner.
This isn’t as hard as it sounds. In games like this, everyone runs at the same fixed speed. Doors open as you get near them, so you can run through without breaking stride. Players tend to travel in a direct line to wherever they are headed. So, it was a fixed interval of time from the time I heard the clunk of the door opening to the moment he came into view. After playing for an hour on the same dang level, I’d become accustomed to this interval and was reacting to it like Pavlov’s dog. Door sound? Shoot! To an unfamiliar player, this just seems like magic.
This story teaches us three things:
- These games are far deeper than they seem at first glance.
- This depth can lead to a huge disparity in skill.
- I am a lousy friend.
In my mind, I divide players into five categories:
- Total Newbie:
This is someone who is totally new to the concept of first-person games and the mouse / keyboard interface. They bump into walls. They stop moving when they shoot because can’t aim and run at the same time. I’ve taught a few people like this to play. Invariably they will do things like encounter an object on the ground and come to a full stop:
“What’s that?”, they ask.
“That’s a healthpack.”
“Do I need it?”
- Casual Player:
This is someone who has leaned how to move. They can run, jump, dodge, hit moving targets, duck, circle strafe, and otherwise navigate fluidly. They probably think of themselves as accomplished players, and are outraged by all the “cheaters” they meet online. In the earlier story, this was about where my friend was.
They can’t understand how other people can be so impossible to kill. After all, aren’t they are just running and jumping the same as everyone else? They can’t run faster or jump higher or have more health than anyone else. Those guys must be cheating!
- Experienced Player:
This is someone who uses audio clues, as in my story, to know where the enemy is. They notice things less experienced players don’t. They can run into a room, observe that two of three health items are missing and the elevator is down. They will then extrapolate where the enemy is (they didn’t take the elevator, they didn’t use the door I just came through, they didn’t use the big door because I didn’t hear it, so they must have run down this side hallway) how much health they have (they didn’t get the last of the three health items, so they must be at full health now) and where they are headed.
The experienced player will be waiting when the other guy gets to wherever he’s going, and the other guy will never see it coming. To the other guy, it seems like magic.
One more example: I’ll run into a room and see someone die in a fight. Even if the killer is out of view, I know he’s there and (if he’s a normal player) that he’s going to want to run in and grab the weapon dropped by the guy he just killed. Single-player games have sort of trained us to grab stuff off the ground like this even if we don’t really need it. It’s a very dangerous habit to have, since it makes people very predictable. I can launch a rocket at the dead or dying player and keep moving. Odds are their killer will rush in just in time to ride the rocket. Again, to this guy it seems like magic. We never even saw each other and I pegged him with a rocket.
- Expert Player:
It’s hard for me to fully understand what makes these guys so good, because I’m not this good myself. I know better than to accuse these guys of cheating, but it feels like cheating when they beat me.
Items re-appear at regular intervals. Sixty seconds after you pick up an item, a replacement appears. Expert players manage to show up at exactly the right moment to get the respawning item. The item will literally materialize just as they pass over it’s spot. Thus, I never get the chance to pick it up. They have the ability to control an entire level like this, hoarding all of the good items and never letting anyone get a shot at them. The only way to get a good item is to engage the expert on his own terms, and prevail.
Or, they will deliberately skip grabbing easy nearby items that everyone else reflexivly grabs. This throws off the thinking of people like myself. I assume if the items are there, nobody has passed through here in the last minute. Usually this is true, but against Expert players this is a dangerous assumption.
These guys seem to know which way I’m going to dodge. They fire one rocket, then another. I leap out of the path of the first and end up taking the second one right on the nose. How did he know I was going to dodge that way?
Actually, let me hazard a guess: In a fight, getting close to walls is bad because rockets hit walls and the splash damage will turn a near miss into a kill. So, people like me tend to dodge into the open. People dodge perpendicular to the path of the rocket. Movement speed is the same for everyone. Taking all of this into account, my enemy knows – in the same way I knew my friend was coming around the corner – where I will be in a second or two even before I’ve decided myself. Stuff that I do that seems random is actually the same thing that lots of others do in the given situation.
These players are difficult to hit and almost impossible to kill for people at my level.
- Professional Player:
There aren’t many players like this in the world. The most famous example today is Johnathan “Fatal1ty” Wendel. I can’t really explain what makes these guys so good, since I’ve never been good enough to play against them. Even if I did, I doubt I’d live long enough to make any worthwhile observations. Still, anecdotal evidence suggests that there is at least as big a gap between “Expert” and “Professional” as there is between “Experienced” and “Expert”. There may be even more.
And now to the point: I suggest that there is at least an order of magnitude of skill between each of these levels. That is, in a game to ten points, a casual player will not get more than one point on an experienced one. I can say with certainty that experienced players like me don’t do better than 1-in-10 against experts. If you follow this to the logical conclusion, it suggests that the best player is at least 10,000 times better than a newbie. That is a game with a lot of depth!
I played Unreal Tournament for years. For a while I played every day. There used to be an automated ranking system that tracked every single online match and rated players accordingly. The site has moved since I last checked it in 2001, but here is someone’s local server stats that gives a peek at what the worldwide ranking used to look like. At the time, I worked myself into the top 5% of all players online, but an honest assessment of my skills shows that I never really reached “Expert”. This means I could do well against 19 out of 20 people I met, but of those 4% of the people I couldn’t beat, most were so good I couldn’t even score against them. They were so much better than me that they seemed unkillable. I could have them cornered and outgunned (an acomplishment in and of itself, or a very lucky break) and I would still lose.
There may even be another level between Expert and Professional – It’s not like I can tell the difference between someone 10 times better than me and someone 100 times better than me. Once I’m that far outclassed, the whole thing is a red blur of death and tears until I give up and log off in shame.
As I mentioned yesterday, it takes an amazing level of patience for a newbie to join the game at this point, and to stick to the game long enough to the point where they can actually get on the scoreboard.
Even worse: The problem feeds on itself. As Jay pointed out, accomplished players get bored with the standard game after a while and designers try to keep things fresh by introducing new mechanics and gameplay elements. The latest Unreal Tournament has five or six different vehicles, some of which have multiple positions players can take. (For example, driver, machine gunner, side gunner, etc) So, once you’re bored with standard combat you can then start learning about all of the different positions and maybe attempt to specialize in piloting one of them.
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