Image via Steam user MVDK.
Written by Matt Thrower
Fifteen years ago I thought myself the god of Unreal Tournament: an untouchable colossus of speed and firepower tearing through every difficulty level with consummate ease. So naturally, as soon as I got broadband I tried out for a high ranking clan. They wiped the floor with me, blowing my avatar asunder with the same insouciance I had playing against the bots and laughing as they fell before me.
It was the beginning of a long and illustrious career of being Very Bad Indeed at online games. Yet here I remain, regularly clocking hours on Left 4 Dead, Call of Duty, and DayZ and regularly left propping up the leaderboards.
I m hardly alone. Public servers commonly have their fair share of deadbeats alongside the clan members and twitch kiddies who rule the maps. The gaming demographic increasingly includes middle-aged people with kids and mortgages who want to kick back in the evening and have some fun, but don t have the free time to practice. And, predictably, the more experienced players slaughter them, time and time again. Why do we keep coming back for more pain?
Suckers for punishment
Lennart Nacke, who researches affective gaming and entertainment computing at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, suggests it might be connected to something he calls the feedback loop of self-regulation. We need four things to regulate our behavior: standards, monitoring, strength and motivation, he tells me. People in online games form their standard by participating in matches and monitoring their own performance. Every time they engage in another match they get feedback on their prior performance and adjust their current efforts.
But doesn t that mean that practice would eventually lower their motivation when they reached their desired standard? The randomness of the players and the randomness in the twitch games themselves mean the standard is constantly adjusting, he says. It keeps the players in a monitoring loop of their own behavior and this leads them to come back.
StarCraft 2: Making you wish you had extra hands since 2010.
This desire to practice and improve is a colossal motivator, an effect more widely known as positive reinforcement. Mia Consalvo, Research Chair in Game Studies at Concordia University, agrees and she has some data to back up her opinion.
In my research on why people cheat, I found that most players went to great effort not to cheat they wanted to earn their achievements in games fairly, via their own efforts, she says. This leads me to believe that often, players really want that sense of accomplishment that comes from their own efforts and skills via play. That suggests that such players are earnest in wanting to advance in the game. And here that takes the form of multiple plays, even without success.
There s substantial research to back up the hypothesis that, counter-intuitively, failure actually encourages further participation. A 2011 study of internet chess by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Sami Abuhamdeh suggested that players actively chose more capable opponents, and had the most fun against people that they beat only 25 percent of the time, on average.
This seemingly contradictory enjoyment of failure has a parallel in philosophy known as the tragedy paradox. Why do people actively enjoy works of art that prompt unpleasant emotions such as sadness and fear? There s no straightforward answer, but we re all familiar with the experience of bellowing the rage and frustration engendered by failure at the screen, and then quite sincerely telling our friends how great the game was.
Lennart points out that video games offer a uniquely good environment to explore this effect. They put us in an explicit rule context, where our boundaries are known and we can quickly observe the skills of other players, he tells me. This framing of a game allows us to set clear a goal for our behavior and it is much easier to monitor our progress than in real life, where the rules are not clear and the skills of our opponents would be unknown to us.
Raging against the machine
Lennart's explanation doesn't entirely explain why gamers like me, who ll simply never have the time or the reflexes to beat the teenage experts that throng the servers, continue to play in the face of repeated maulings. I know I m a hopeless case, so it can t just be the lure of potential improvement that keeps me going.
What s particularly interesting is how this attitude contrasts with that engendered by overly difficult solo games. We ve all played games with excessive learning curves and uneven difficulty spikes, and often the response is annoyance and frustration followed by throwing in the towel. It seems to me there must be something qualitatively different in playing against other people, but what?
Consalvo thinks that it might just be me. I've known players that have attempted particular moves or levels in single player games up to 100 times, she relates, so we can't say they would just give up against the computer. It seems to depend on the persistence of the player and their investment in a particular game. Players will vary widely at their 'frustration point' where they will give up.
Quake Live: Browser play means it's even easier to lose than ever before.
Equally, some of those effects that make failure actively pleasurable when playing online also apply to the offline world. Nick Yee, a research scientist who s been studying online games for over a decade, points out that it used to be near impossible to beat games. Most people who played Pac-Man or Tetris never beat the game, but they kept playing because it provided a challenge and allowed them to sense their own improvement.
It s the same psychological feedback loop that we ve already encountered. Winning in itself isn't necessary to create engagement, Nick says. In fact, one could argue that not winning at Pac-Man and Tetris were precisely what kept people playing.
Lennart, however, suggests it might be related to the unpredictability of a human opponent when compared to a bot. If the standard of the game is too high, the frustration threshold will be hard to overcome for players, he tells me. But against humans, the randomness of the opponent influences how we build our standard and makes it harder to form comparisons, essentially keeping us engaged for longer because we haven t yet met the standard that we rebuild every time we engage in gameplay.
Friendship through failure
This was starting to chime a little better with my personal experience. Maybe the attraction is as simple as the humanizing element; the huge pull we have toward sharing activities, even if it s with faceless strangers who might be thousands of miles away and want nothing more than to repeatedly blow us to pieces.
Mia thinks that could well be the case. Being social is not always about communicating it is also about engaging in a shared activity with others, she says. Sometimes that means simply being among other people; it could mean engaging in a group quest or even PvP or other competitions.
The point that you don t have to talk or even text with other players online in order to feel a sense of companionship from them is also one that Lennart makes. They are just enjoying the company of other people and even if they could not communicate with other players directly, they are still enjoying the shared language of playing the game.
Dota 2: So complex, you can deny opponents XP by killing your own minions.
Lennart and some colleagues ran a study on this hypothesis, analyzing several months of log files from a large site that matches players for online board and card games. They found that while user s behavior mirrored many aspects of real-life socialization, they were forming only transient relationships and talking very little. What could explain their actions?
The main point here is that games themselves are a form of communication, he tells me. They allow us to communicate with other humans by monitoring and comparing our behaviors in the game to others and witnessing personal growth in an easy to understand constrained environment. Games, even the competitive ones, are in my opinion one of the most social ways we can interact using technology today.
And there s my answer. I play a lot of board and card games, and have long been aware that a big part of the draw for me is the enjoying the company of friends and family and gaming at the same time. I m no good at those games either, but I do have a fantastic repertoire of funny stories about my spectacular failures.
So I m happy to carry on being the bottom of the pile just to have the pleasure of knowing that behind all the nicknames on top of me are real people, and I ve contributed to their game, their narrative, their own repertoire of anecdotes. Whatever my losses in the game, I ve won a little victory in my real world life.
Valve updated Counter-Strike: Global Offensive today with two additional maps and a refit of the Classic Competitive matchmaking system. Vertigo, a classic Defusal map, returns with a Source facelift to its multi-leveled mayhem and shadowy camping nest corners, while Monastery chills things out with an Arms Race among the snowy promenades of a windswept temple.
Classic Competitive matchmaking now involves queuing up until 10 player matches are found before starting a game. Group queuing and matchmaking with friends are also possible through a "Play with Friends" option. Head over to Global Offensive's website for a short FAQ on the new matchmaking.
CS:GO should be with us come summer, according to Valve, giving us a bit of time to train our mouse hand muscles and hone our twitch headshot skills before inevitably suffering repetitive death at the hands of seasoned CS 1.6 pros on release. Those pros can't touch console bros, though. Valve's Chet Faliszeck yesterday told Joystiq cross-platform play is gone from CS:GO. Awww.
There's a good reason, though. "The beta has proved we want to update not just the beta, but the game itself post-launch frequently on the PC," Faliszeck told Joystiq, "To do that we need to separate the platforms so one doesn't hamstring the other. So for that, we have removed the idea of cross-platform play -- essentially make all platforms stronger by not mixing them."
Seems fair. It'll mean more updates for us PC players, most likely. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is currently in beta. You can complete a Steam survey for a chance to claim a spot ahead of release. Meanwhile, let me introduce you to some new CS:GO screenshots. I'm sure you'll get on like a house on fire.
Sep 22, 2011
Valve are incorporating the immensely popular Gun Game mod as official modes in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. Arsenal: Arms Race and Arsenal: Demolition are the two new modes. They'll be playable across eight new maps created with help from the creators of the original mod.
Gun Game replaces Counter-Strike's cash-for-guns system with a kills-for-guns system. Everyone starts with a pistol and gets a new weapon for every kill. Those unfamiliar with Counter-Strike might recognise a very similar mode appearing in Call of Duty: Black Ops, but the original CS mod was the real deal, and it will get official backing when CS:GO is released early next year.
Valve have sent over nine new screenshots, showing some lovely jungle areas. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive doesn't seem to be pushing the Source engine especially hard, but it's a significant step up from Counter-Strike: Source.
Oct 14, 2010
Ever fancied yourself as a Counter-Strike master? Ever thought about going pro? There's a lot to consider, even once you're among the best players around. Professional gaming's no easy gig, and there's far more to it than simply knowing how to aim a crosshair at an opponent's face. As such, we've been chatting to Elliot Welsh, aka. 'wez' of leading competitive gamers Team Dignitas, to find out his ten top tips for moving up the ranks in the world of professional Counter-Strike.
1. Get your hardware sorted
If you want to compete on an even playing field, the last thing you want is a dated rig or sloppy internet connection holding you back. In a game whose combat is as finely balanced as that of Counter-Strike, just a slight framerate drop can be catastrophic. "Low fps can affect your recoil, bullet registration and smoothness of your game," says Elliot. "If you're stuck with a terrible computer, you don't really have much chance online against someone with a top-end machine. Also, a good computer and connection will be the same conditions you'll be playing on when you turn up to a tournament, so you won't have to adapt to different conditions when you set up on the day."
2. Find a team you get along with
Sometimes in life we're all thrown into a situation where we have to work with people we aren't so fond of. Like at PC Gamer, for example. Bloody scoundrels, the lot of them. But there's no doubting that getting on with your team mates is going to make things a whole lot easier down the line. In fact, it might even be better to pick friendly souls with potential to improve than switching in the cream of the crop without knowing them well. "Playing with people you get along with will make you enjoy the game much more, and undoubtedly be more likely to stick together," says Elliot. "Changing your lineup every month won't do you much good, even if you're replacing a player with someone slightly better."
3. Practice your tactics in the best environments
If you're considering competitive Counter-Strike, the chances are you'll already spend a fair number of hours playing the game. But practicing in the right environments is key to your continual improvement. Deathmatch servers are a good place to start - "You respawn as soon as you die, so you're constantly shooting and it's a good way to improve your gunplay," Elliot explains - and clan war practice is pretty much essential. Use a chat program such as mIRC to search for practice games against other teams, and try out all the tactics you've been mulling over in your head. "I'd advise having ten minutes after each match you play to assess what you did wrong, what you did right, and how you could improve," adds Elliot.
4. Watch demos of other players
Practice might make perfect, but there are numerous intricacies to Counter-Strike play that you may be able to pick up from others. Watching demo videos of other players is a great way to assess their mad skills without fear of being gunned down if you take too long to stop and stare. Professionals will have various different ways of moving, aiming, shooting and reacting to different situations. Just make sure you try out your own moves as well: "All players have different styles," warns Elliot, "and one player's style may not be suitable for you or your team." Demos from Dignitas' players can be found on their website.
5. Forget the rest, play against the best
It's always nice to win, so it might be tempting to select weaker opponents for practice matches. But this can be counter-productive. Unless you're playing at the highest level you're capable of, there's not a great deal of compulsion to improve - and certainly less you can take away from both victories and defeats. "Although playing against people below your own ability will still benefit you in some ways," Elliot explains, "playing against top teams will give you an insight into the level of professional play, and allow you to learn from high level players."
6. Communication is key
As with all team-based games, but perhaps even more so with Counter-Strike, it's important to be in good contact with your team mates throughout a match. A lack of communication can be the difference between a decisive victory and an embarrassing, crushing defeat, so talking to each other is tremendously important. But simply maintaining contact isn't enough: it's imperative to be efficient with your communications. "It's best to keep your calls about what's happening short and quick, and explain everything you know, such as how many enemies you see, if you see the bomb carrier, and what weapons they have," says Elliot. And be sure to get hold of a voice chat program such as Ventrilo or Mumble to utilise during practice: they allow you to speak to your team mates whether you're dead or alive, an advantage not afforded by Counter-Strike's in-game chat system.
7. Embrace the community spirit
You might be tempted to pour all your spare hours into improving your game, but there's more to being a professional Counter-Strike player than simply playing Counter-Strike. Your team could consist of the best players in the world, but if no one knows who you are, you're probably going to end up going nowhere fast. "Playing an active role in your country's Counter-Strike community means that there is more general interest, which means there will be more tournaments and therefore more oppotunities to practice in competitions and under pressure," says Elliot. "Also, it allows you to make friends to casually play with when your team may not be online, so you can still practice even if your team mates aren't around."
8. Master the three pillars of skillful combat
Elliot flags three key things to master in Counter-Strike combat: recoil, flashbangs, and smoke grenades. Counter-Strike's recoil patterns are very different to many shooters, and it's imperative to master the technique: "For most professional players, the general technique is to spray at close range, tap fire at medium range, and tap slightly slower at long range, all while moving in between taps to make you a harder target to hit," suggests Elliot. Meanwhile, good grenade use can make all the difference. "Again, watching a professional player's demo will give you some useful tips," says Elliot, "but it's always best to join an empty server with your team mates and practice them for yourself."
9. Financial advice
Counter-Strike isn't all about the combat tactics. It's also a game in which managing your money is key to high-level success. At a professional level, you'll need to make sure your finances are in check whether you're winning or losing, because ensuring your team is finely in-tune and well-timed with quick purchases is essential. Elliot's top tip? "If you find yourself short on money after - say - losing the pistol round, the best thing to do is save your money by not buying anything for one or two rounds, so you can save up enough cash to purchase a rifle and armour."
10. For goodness' sake, stick with it
It might sound obvious, but the only way you'll reach the dizzy heights of top-level professional gaming is to keep plugging away until you're good enough. It's a lot of work, and something you'll need to treat like a real job as much as play - even during those inevitable times when morale reaches rock bottom. "A lot of dedication is needed to become a professional," says Elliot, "and there will be times when you and your team are trying to improve and results may not always go in your favour. If this happens, the best thing you can do is stick together, and keep playing through it."