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Beta Impression: Titanfall

Let me just put it out there that this abbreviated Beta Impression should by no means be indicative of anything. Titanfall had me by the nucleus accumbens before I even got out of the goddamn tutorial. I can sum up why in one hyphenated word: wall-running.

Run for about 30 meters or so...

Run for about 30 meters or so and then jump…

...wall-run, leap off, double-jump (!), and then pull yourself into the 2nd window.

…wall-run, leap off, double-jump (!), and then pull yourself into the window.

If I had to use an un-hyphenated word, it’d be “mobility.” Take away the guns and giant death machines raining down from sky, and Titanfall is everything that you loved about Mirror’s Edge. I mean, double-jumps! I haven’t had this much fun simply moving around since… well, Mirror’s Edge and maybe Tenchu. I’m spending so much time belaboring this point because I had a big stupid grin the whole time I was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-ing every single match. Goddamn is it fun to run around.

Now, Titanfall has some problems. And I don’t mean graphical problems (I had 50+ fps at high everything) or beta-esque problems like bugs or whatever. I mean, some pretty structural problems, or at least issues to keep in mind. First, the guns are a bit ridiculous. There is your standard assault rifle, sniper rifle, submachine gun and shotgun that is a one-hit kill (sigh). Then there is also the “Smart Pistol.” What does it do? Oh, it locks onto players and instantly kills them when you get three locks.

Titanfall's version of the noob-tube.

Titanfall’s version of the noob-tube. Except worse than that, really.

That screenshot is from the kill cam I watched after wondering how I instantly died. You might notice that the guy is cloaked. Actually, every player has a cloaking device by default, although the Smart Pistol can defeat it (taking a few seconds longer to lock on). You might also notice how the line curves a bit towards the end. Yeah, Smart Pistol bullets can bend around in mid-air. You don’t have to lead your target or even aim directly at them – as long as they’re within the blue box on your screen, you’ll get your locks, and just pull the trigger.

Look at that Pro Skill.

Look at that Pro Skill, killing me in midair at a full sprint.

Now, this gun is also tremendously fun to use, especially when you use it to kill the NPC fodder running around as they die in one lock. But every time you die to it, you’ll be thinking “Bullshit.” Doubly so when you’re dueling some guy who’s dancing around the sky and instantly kills you because he doesn’t have to aim.

About the biggest, most important thing I can talk about is the 6v6 limit to matches. I mean, I filter out anything that isn’t 24v24 or higher in Battlefield 3 & 4. While I was playing though, I have to admit: the environments felt pretty busy. Admittedly, this is entirely because the devs seed the battlefield with NPC fodder troops that you can kill for XP and to accelerate your Titan timer. As some other bloggers mentioned, I didn’t entirely notice all that much damage coming from them either, but it’s possible that is a beta thing. Still, it’s usually worth shooting them to get your goodies faster. Plus, they definitely add to the sort of manic ambiance with their shouts, gunfire, and even random quips.

How are the Titans themselves?

It feels all Warhammer 40k up in here.

It feels all Warhammer 40k up in here.

The Titans are fantastic. You get to call one in every 4 minutes, and the timer speeds up by 15 seconds every time you kill a Pilot. They feel powerful without feeling omnipotent, and it’s sometimes correct to call one in and not pilot it – letting the AI engage with the enemy is a great distraction as you cap a strategic point. Every player has an anti-Titan weapon by default, so it never devolves into that depressing Battlefield scenario when a tank rolls by and you can do nothing about it. Plus, if shooting rockets at a Titan doesn’t sound badass enough, you can run up to and “Rodeo” (in-game term) one yourself, which involves scrambling on top and shooting your weapon into the circuitry.

Despite being positively juiced about this game, I still want to make sure you come away with a wet blanket firmly wrapped around your shoulders. Because for how amazingly fun and slick it feels – I let out an audible groan of pleasure when my Titan snatched me out of the air and deposited me inside the cockpit like a goddamn anime – I cannot help but worry this is one of those wirehead moments. In other words, I worry it’s all surface-level pleasure without deeper substance.

I guess it’s arguable as to what substance Battlefield or the latest Call of Duty have, but I feel with Battlefield at least that there is a good variance in map experience precisely because there are 32 different enemy players to run across. While getting matched against 6 clan members isn’t a total shut-out here necessarily (you can still kills NPCs), matches last less than 10 minutes and you can get stomped even faster than that.

They absolutely nailed the sound effects.

They absolutely nailed the sound effects.

Supposedly the PC version of the beta is going to be opened to the public soon, so I recommend trying it out for yourself if you can. My interest in the game went from around ~20 to over 9,000 based on playing it all day Sunday, but I don’t know if I’m willing to pull the trigger on even the discounted pre-order price of $48. I have over 250 hours in PlanetSide 2, over 100 for BF3, and only about 38 hours in BF4. Will Titanfall meet or exceed any of those? Hard to say. There are unlocks, achievements, XP, and all the “normal” FPS trappings. I just… sigh, I just don’t know how long the honeymoon will last, you know?

Until it does end, I suppose I should be getting back to getting busy while I can.

Fixing MMOs: The Social Solutions

Last time, I talked about the problem surrounding traditional MMO social structures, or the lack thereof. Today, let’s come up with some solutions.

Increase Mobility

One of the most radical ideas (or so I thought) turned out to be top suggestion from multiple people in the comments of the prior post: reduce or eliminate the tyranny of the server. I believed this to be radical because on the surface of things, de-emphazing servers necessarily destroys server communities; something that LFD is almost universally recognized as accomplishing, right? Yes… and no. The problem is Blizzard only went halfway. If a friend plays on Maeiv and I am on Auchindoun, why can’t we play together? RealID is making baby-steps in this direction, but the hemorrhaging community does not have time for that baby to grow up into a paramedic and stop the bleeding.

Here are some methods that could work:

  • Free, unlimited character transfers, aka the nuclear option.

Not particularly practical (Blizzard would lose a lot of money besides), but it is technically an option. It may encourage mass migration, give shelter to ninja-looters and the like, and other such social upheavals. Ultimately though, it may be better than to simply allow people to fade into account cancellation when they feel trapped in a server “community” they no longer enjoy (and don’t feel like gambling $25 escaping).

  • Free, limited character transfers.

Say, 1 character move a month with the option of purchasing more if desired. This would prevent mass exoduses, while still allowing friends to follow each other around in a measured way. It would also allow someone to “test the waters” of a server in a more meaningful way than making a level 1 toon and observing Trade chat.

  • Eliminate named, permanent servers entirely.

Essentially, set up the servers like an ice-cube tray and as each server fills up, it spills over into the next server, and divide it all into game regions. One huge benefit of this would be to allow there to always be a steady population of people leveling in every zone for group questing, etc.

Example: if I went to Borean Tundra right now, there may be 1 person questing there on Auchindoun, and maybe 5 on Maeiv, and 50 on Tichondrius. Under this methodology, there would be 56, up until an arbitrary cut-off. And if the cut-off is 100, I would have it start transferring people to a second zone instance at around ~70 so the 101st guy isn’t off by himself. The key would be to make it subtle, with no load-screen or anything. With phasing technology it should not be a problem.

Of course, if you find you enjoy spending time with someone, how will you ever find them again if there are no specific servers? This brings me to my next overarching social solution:

Introduce an informal ranking system in LFD (and elsewhere).

This suggestion needs its own entire section. Ranking people in the LFD system is frequently suggested on the forums, but the point of my ranking system is different, and it isn’t even technically a “ranking.” On the forums, people believe that being helpful/geared/experienced should be rewarded with faster queues and being grouped with similarly good people. That is actually self-defeating. It is in the community’s best holistic interest for there to be 1 experienced/helpful player in every group – letting all the cream rise to the top simply makes the bottom groups congeal into a hardened lump of terribleness. I believe players need to know what they can aspire towards before they understand what social behavior the designers want to encourage.

So, essentially, my informal ranking system would be the equivalent to a Facebook Like or Google +1. This feature is something that a player will have to initiate themselves (there is no post-dungeon survey), possibly through right-clicking a player’s portrait. What the +1 does is make it more likely that they are grouped with that person in LFD, and/or otherwise present on that player’s server (under a fluid server dynamic) in the future.

That’s it. There are no rewards for having the most Likes, nor any visible indication of how many you have. Giving this +1 to someone does not notify them, nor does it add them to a Friends List (although it will let you easily do so on your own). I briefly imagined something like a title or special effect to occur if you get 100+ Likes or whatever, but it is important that there be no incentive to game the system. It’s not a democracy, it’s not a popularity contest; it is a more generalized form of self-selection.

More Show & Tell

Under the traditional MMO social model, you are frequently limited to appearance, actions, and incidental text to communicate your personality. “Err… but Az,” I hear you say, “isn’t that basically everything?” No, sir or madam! In an MMO, your appearance is limited to the gear you happen to be wearing (or a costume, if you are lucky); your actions are entirely limited to the location and time in which they are performed (typically dungeons or raids); and incidental text just happens to be whatever you have said in a particular channel, on a particular topic, at a particular time.

While you can certainly develop impressions of a stranger, especially if you encounter them in an unique or extreme circumstance, kinship generally requires time precisely because it’s difficult to give an accurate representation of one’s character in a single sitting. Traditionally, the “solution” was enforced grouping and the pre-LFD dungeon situation in which placing voluntary strangers in close proximity for long durations was supposed to spontaneously generate communities. This “worked,” just like placing soiled rags in the the 17th century lab’s corner “worked” at spontaneously generated rats.

Repetition is required for communities – people are more asocial in LFD precisely because you aren’t going to see anyone again (unless you have a ranking system, of course). We can, however, condense the process via Show & Tell. What this means in a general sense is instead of blooming into a flower in front of others over time, you do hours and hours of blooming beforehand and invite others into your garden. Some MMO methods include:

  • Player Housing

Blizzard has strongly resisted the demand for player housing because they are afraid of players sequestering themselves away in instanced communities. Which, of course, makes sense in the 17th century spontaneous generation sort of way. How can players envy each other if they aren’t AFK outside banks and auction houses on the Flavor of the Patch mount?

But that’s just it: players generally have a preternatural desire to express themselves any way they can. Player housing would not be about having somewhere to chill out waiting for a LFD queue, or even arranging your trophies and armor sets in aesthetically pleasing ways. It would be about designing and decorating a virtual space for others to look at. You already know the meaning behind that piece of gear that’s been sitting in your bank for the last four years. Other people don’t know, and deep down I believe it is a common human desire for said object or achievement to be recognized and acknowledged as something meaningful.

Player housing is something that can easily be half-assed and end up making the game worse, yes. It will take development time and resources to make work right. If I cannot put that Light of Elune potion I’ve held onto since level ~20, four years ago, under a glass with a little plaque explanation, then I would consider player housing a failure, for example. But if you ever walked into a house with something like prominently displayed, you would see a facet of my personality that you likely never would have unless the topic somehow came up.

  • Character/Guild Bios

To an extent, Blizzard already has this in the crippled form of the Guild Finder. Which, incidentally, you cannot even use unless you happen to be guildless.

The idea behind the Bio screen is to have a sort of poor-man’s player housing without the instancing. A simple whiteboard allowing curious passerby the ability to see what you are all about. Beyond the obvious player ramifications on RP servers, I also imagine it as a way to perhaps allow you to highlight which of your in-game achievements are your favorite, or other demonstrations of skill, perseverance, or luck. Or, hell, as a way of passively advertising your WoW blog. Unsavory characters may use it to transmit keyloggers and such, but it really is not so different than what happens in text form already. And besides, Bios would require you to be actively inspecting/looking someone up, rather than getting it forced upon you Trade Chat style.

Conclusion

This is running pretty long already, and about to be buried in BlizzCon news besides. The sort of bottom line here is that most MMOs are woefully stuck in the Dark Ages, and need to catch up to the emerging trends and zeitgeist of the day – specifically in the realm of social tools. For as much as I despise Facebook and “social media” in general (for their nefarious ways), it is worlds easier being able to locate and interact with new people from multiple locations with similar interests as yourself, while flexing your Show & Tell muscles all the while.

The sort of subscriber revolt going on in Cataclysm had many causes, but I strongly believe the #1 reason had nothing particular to do with LFD or difficulty or boring grinds per se, but with the sort of cascade effect that happens when the underlying social structure has been weakened by those (and other) things. In other words, I think LFD and hard heroics and boring grinds can be fine as long as you have the social tools to keep people together in the midst of it. A return to the vanilla/TBC model without a LFD would have been equally disastrous IMO, unless social tools were added too.

If you have critiques or alternative ideas, let me know in the comments below.