Thursday, January 16, 2014

Killer Instinct, Rage Quits, and Titanfall

One of the things I like so much about fighting games is that you build up tangible skill. Through repeated practice and trials, your muscle memory evolves to the point where you can pull off some really sick stuff just off the cuff, and that frees up your mind to think up the really dirty stuff that comprises higher level play.

The downside to all of that is the obvious: if you're out of practice, you need to knock the rust off before you can really get down to business again. Some players re-sync faster than others; it usually takes me a few games before I get back into my groove.

But just getting back into the flow of things would be way too easy, so I decided to make things more complicated by introducing two factors: a new controller and alcohol.

The new controller bit is something I'm overall happy about: my recent acquisition of a CronusMAX adapter has allowed me to use my MadCatz TE fightstick for Killer Instinct, and overall it feel infinitely better than a controller.

I enjoy using a joystick with Killer Instinct for different reasons than in other fighting games though. In a lot of fighting games - particularly 2D fighters - using a joystick feels almost like a necessity due to how complex some of the moves are and how you're required to chain or flow them all together. Having the extra precision of a joystick made those motions a lot easier once I got used to it, which surprised me because I was happy to play fighting games on a regular controller ("pad" in fighting game parlance) for every fighting game in the years before.

Killer Instinct presents a different challenge: the moves themselves are easy to perform (every move is some common fighting game special move motion, and there are no "double motion" moves to be found anywhere,) so the extra precision of the joystick isn't strictly necessary.

What I do find extremely helpful is having easy access to the full set of attack buttons (KI uses the traditional Street Fighter configuration of 3 punches and 3 kicks.) In trying to play the game on a pad, I found that I had a really hard time switching between face buttons and triggers (I played with lights and mediums on the face buttons, and heavies up top on the right bumper and triggers,) so once I used one set of buttons in a combo I had a hard time switching between the two. With all the buttons laid out in front of me it was way easier to dance around and vary up my auto doubles, which will be a big help in getting better at KI in the long term.

Unfortunately, because I had spent time playing the game on the Xbox1 pad, I'm feeling like I kind of need to re-learn it on the joystick. This has resulted in a condition clinically referred to as "dickfingers"; I'm dropping things left and right, screwing up buttons, and in general flopping around like it's week 1 all over again. In fairness: I was slightly drunk when I was playing last night, which didn't help, but I think even stone cold sober I've got some adjusting to do.

All of that is kind of a preamble for a quick story that sadly representative of one of the bad aspects of playing fighting games online.

Killer Instinct is kind of bare bones right now, having only two different online match choices: Ranked and Exhibition. Ranked is common in most fighting games: battle it out with other player to climb some kind of ranking ladder. Winning matches ranks you up, losing matches ranks you down.

Exhibition is essentially an online Versus mode; two players play against each other until one person decides to move along. Unlike Ranked, there is no risk or reward for playing Exhibition matches. Most of the time people are playing to try out new characters, new techniques, or just to take a break and play some matches with zero consequence.

Last night I sat down with an hour or so to play, so I decided to try out Exhibition. I've never played any matches under that mode, and I figured it would be a good format to knock off the rust and try to get used to playing on a fightstick.

My first match was a little odd. Killer Instinct normally has exceptional netcode, but this match was kind of hiccup-y at the start. I also noticed my opponent was doing some very odd things - seemingly random attacks, trying to throw me when I wasn't anywhere near him, things like that. I've heard that in some cases players have ended up de-synced after getting hit with lag, so each player is essentially playing their own version of the match (in theory, I'm spazzing out just as hard on his end as he is on mine, since we're operating in different timelines now.) I'm not sure if that was what was happening, but for whatever reason the match felt odd.

I won that match and I finished it off with an Ultra (quick explanation in case you aren't familiar with KI: a super flashy, automatic combo designed to end the match with a "bang," but it takes a few seconds to play out.) Here's where I admit I committed a faux pas: it is common courtesy in KI to end your Ultras early (you can cut the whole animation short by pressing both medium attack buttons,) to save your opponent from sitting through a long animation that a) they've probably seen a hundred times already and b) is rubbing salt into the wound of their loss.

Not only didn't I end it early, but I decided to try for a super fancy double Ultra, which is technically impressive but is also like rubbing salt in your opponent's wound while nailing his girlfriend.

My opponent's response (and the reason I think the match may not have de-synced, just been really wonky): he quits the game, dropping me out of the match and costing me the credit for the win.

On one hand, I understand the frustration. I've had to sit through my fair share of double Ultras, and while it's neat to see and hard to do, it is frustrating when you just want to get back to playing. On the other hand: man the hell up and sit through it. You lost, and this is the consequence. Be happy you don't have to drop $0.50 in the machine just to try and get revenge. What was even more remarkable was that it's an Exhibition match: it's not like he was going to rank down or lose anything.

But, no big deal. Maybe he had something he really needed to attend to, or maybe his cat stepped on his power strip's on/off switch at that moment (this has happened to me more times than I ever thought would.)

My next match is against someone with a better connection, and we have a pretty close, fun game that he ultimately wins. It is at this point I discover a really nice feature of Exhibition: you can instantly rematch your opponent if you want, giving you an immediate opportunity to redeem yourself (in fighting games, a rematch is often referred to as a "runback", with the implication that one person is looking to avenge the previous loss.)

We rematch two more times, and he wins both games (Sabrewulf getting you into the corner can be quite awful.) At that point, he opts to go to character select and switches to Jago. As with everyone who played the game at launch, I've fought what feels like half a million Jagos, and it's a tricky (though not unwinnable) fight for Thunder.

The next match comes right down to the wire with both players in "Danger" health status, and Thunder clinching the win with a back throw into combo into Ultra. This time I remember to not be a dick and end it almost immediately.

With a win under my belt against this guy, I'm ready for more matches. Especially if he's sticking with Jago, because I've fought against that character a lot. But this guy is having none of that, and immediately leaves the Exhibition lobby after the match is over (at least he didn't rage quit at the end of the match.) I can't really hate on him leaving as it's his right to opt out at any point, but it seemed a little low class. We're playing matches and having a grand old time when you're winning, but when I take a game off of you, "oh damn I gotta roll out"? Similar to the first guy, I don't know his situation: maybe he only had time for that one last game, and maybe that's why he changed characters (everyone has been there before.) I like to believe the best, but there are a number of players out there who are shifty when playing online, so it's hard to say for sure. I'm happy I won the one game I did, and I can't complain about getting time to play in general.

That shiftiness is one of the biggest issues Killer Instinct is facing right now: rage quitting is common enough in Ranked that it kind of throws the system off. I've had people rage quit against me even in the lowbie ranks that I'm at, and I've seen it happen a fair number of times when watching other players match videos. When you're playing against someone you don't know if their rank is the result of hard work, or quitting so that their losses don't stick on their record. Not that online rank matters to me, but it is a shame to diminish the system like that, and it is a slight against the people who have put in the time and effort to gain those ranks legitimately.

This issue isn't unique to Killer Instinct, however. I've played a number of different online, adversarial games (mostly fighting games and FPS games,) and rage quitting is just something you have to live with. You can't control whether your opponent stays in the game; they can opt out at any time. The important part is that the game needs to be set up in a way that it either punishes the rage quitters, or at the very least it needs to not incentivize the behavior. One of the reasons rage quitting feels common in Killer Instinct is because it's a very easy way to preserve your rank, so some players are going to do it every chance they get. I'm looking forward to seeing how Double Helix addresses this issue (based on tweets/forum posts I've read, they're aware of the issue and working on a solution.)

I feel like it's also more common in Killer Instinct because the time after a match has ended is extended by things like Ultras. For example: in a game like Street Fighter, the match is over when one player's life runs out, and then they fly through the air, defeated. If the match ended with an Ultra (not the same as KI), maybe you have to watch that animation play out, but that is about as bad as it gets. In Killer Instinct, it's possible for the winner to keep on hammering out a combo well after the match is over, which gives the other player plenty of time to reach for that power button/Ethernet cable/quit the application.

The reason I mention this is because another game I'm really excited about, Titanfall, is supposed to have a decently significant "post match" segment. I'm hazy on what constitutes an actual match of Titanfall, but my understanding is that after whatever victory condition is in play has been achieved by one team, that team then has to extract from the map. During this retreat, the losing team still has the opportunity to pick them off for points, which may or may not actually tip the balance back in their favor (something else I'm not sure about, but I love the idea of it all.)

I can see the idea behind this segment: in a lot of FPS games, the wins and losses are binary, so if your team is losing pretty badly you can fairly safely quit the game knowing that you weren't going to win it anyways. In theory, this post-match segment keeps both teams engaged right up until the end, because even if you were blown out during the main game you can potentially get revenge in the post game and possibly even end up victorious.

What will be interesting is seeing how well it will work. For instance: if we're halfway through a game that isn't going well, and half my team quits (not uncommon in FPS games, sadly,) unless the game is very good about refilling those depleted ranks we're probably going to continue to snowball into a loss, no matter what the post-match might have otherwise allowed us to do.

Also, how many players will quit out of despondence/apathy, instead of fighting it out? Some of my best friends are tenacious, mean motherfuckers in these games and that's why I love 'em. They will keep fighting you until the bitter end, so this post-match segment sounds like a wonderful time for us. But I have other friends who are more prone to have their spirits broken; to approach adversity with "why bother" instead of "lets see what happens." And I feel that reaction isn't uncommon among the gaming populace; the psychology that leads some people to retreat into gaming also makes them very risk and failure adverse, so challenges are faced with apathy or dismissal (a preemptive strike against what they may feel is the inevitable disappointment of another failure.) How many players will get to the extraction phase and Titanfall and say "we can't win, why bother?"

Titanfall presents an interesting scenario. Its addition of the extraction phase is a way to try to combat the issue of players giving up if a match isn't going their way (again, I can't fully fault players for doing this in the way conventional FPS are set up.) But it may also serve as an interesting psychological litmus test, if the margin is in a sweet spot: you could potentially win if you tried hard enough, but the odds are not in your favor. Do you step up and try, or resign yourself to your loss?

I'm very excited to see how this system plays out. Plus, giant robots.

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