Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Playing as a Team: Section 8 vs Team Fortress 2

As a follow-up to my Section 8 Review, I wrote a comparison of Section 8 and Team Fortress 2 in the hopes of illuminating design decisions that can shape player behavior. Originally published on Bitmob.


In an attempt to capture the exhilarating feeling that comes from team-based multiplayer shooters, I recently picked up Section 8. Promising a number of innovative features, such as the ability to “burn in” anywhere on the map and engage in aerial combat via jetpacks, the advertising gave me high hopes. And those high hopes were not least not initially.

Playing through the single-player campaign and quick matches against bots was entertaining, if not groundbreaking. However, the experience completely changed upon connecting to a random server. Section 8 is a team-based game, but I quickly discovered that no human player on the server was attempting to play as a team -- they weren't coordinating attacks, going after major objectives, or fighting over control points.

I left. Unfortunately, the situation was similar on every server I joined. What should have been coordinated team efforts repeatedly deteriorated into basic deathmatches.

Why was no one playing as a team? The case could certainly be made that the majority of players were still learning the game, given that it had only recently been released.

Or perhaps the lack of team play was a result of more fundamental design issues. In my two year experience with Team Fortress 2, from beta to today, I have stumbled across exploiters, hackers, and overall bad seeds, but there has never been such a glaring lack of teamwork as I experienced in Section 8.

When a game isn't played properly, who's at fault? Should the blame go to the gamer or the developer? In an effort to explore the disconnect in team play across two online multiplayer games, I compared three design features that each game shares, but has implemented in a different manner....



Class Distinctions

Section 8’s available character classes represent different choices in weapons, equipment, and passive modules. The last loadout option adds a role-playing element through minor manipulation of various attributes, like shield strength and movement speed. Section 8's class system also includes a good deal of overlap. Classes share weapons and equipment; both the Assault class and Engineer class use the assault rifle. Players can even create custom classes and choose each specific item in the loadout.

However, unlike Section 8, Team Fortress 2 classes are completely unique in almost every aspect, from weapon loadout to hit points to movement speed, so each class has very specific strengths and weaknesses. These weaknesses require aid from other friendly classes in order to compensate. For example, Medics have the ability to heal teammates, but are almost completely useless in combat. As a result, they gravitate towards the stronger combat classes, such as the Heavy and Soldier, for protection. In turn, those combat classes are able to constantly maintain a high number of hit points and survive longer. Symbiotic relationships naturally develop.


Section 8's design philosophy results in classes with similar strengths and weaknesses, which encourages players to act independently but doesn't incentivize class-based teamwork, as friendly players have no need to compensate for others' limitations.

Map Design

Section 8 provides players with the ability to burn in (spawn) anywhere on the map; drop from the sky and land close to teammates, in an isolated area, or directly into enemy territory. Of course, this flexibility works best with vast, open maps. Once on the ground, players can travel in any direction to find enemy combatants, control points, and Dynamic Combat Missions.

Team Fortress 2 maps are much more constricted. Players spawn from the same area, and though they can take multiple routes to the main objective, there's essentially only one direction in which to travel.

Like herded sheep, Team Fortress 2 players naturally travel together because of the narrow map design. And when they find the enemy, they fight together, or complete objectives together. Consciously or not, allies use teamwork.


In Section 8, players have to consciously decide to burn into the same area if they want to travel together, which is impossible with a lack of communication. Players then have to agree on one objective, which is again impossible without adequate communication. The game offers a much greater sense of freedom, but with that freedom comes independence, and in a team game, independence is bad.


Section 8 features Dynamic Combat Missions -- these objectives range from capturing a flag to escort missions to bomb placement derivatives. All dynamic missions can be activated on any map, with multiple missions sometimes active at any given time, in addition to the usual battle over control points. In short, there's a lot going on.

Team Fortress 2 has similar objective types based upon control point, capture the flag, and escort dynamics. However, due to the game’s constrained nature, each map revolves around only one objective. A player can choose to play a map that requires capturing points or stealing the intelligence, but not multiple objectives.

Again, Team Fortress 2 offers little freedom of choice, but the end result is a team that works together to complete a known and understood objective. Section 8's wide range of options can lead to opposing decisions by teammates. Someone who enjoys capture the flag missions may naturally gravitate to those when available, whereas a teammate may be more interested in capturing a point, and another player choose to ignore the objectives altogether and engage in basic combat.


Herding Sheep

The opposing design philosophies of Section 8 and Team Fortress 2 are fairly evident. The former title provides a great deal of freedom and choice to the player, whereas the latter is much more restrictive.

However, from the character classes to the map design to the in-game objectives, Team Fortress 2’s restrictive nature is geared completely towards forcing players to work as a team.

Does that mean Team Fortress 2 is a better game than Section 8? Despite both being team-based multiplayer shooters, they are very different experiences, and choosing one over the other is a matter of personal opinion.

In fact, the entire issue of team play is moot when experiencing either game with other knowledgeable and motivated individuals. In both Section 8 and Team Fortress 2, working as a team will always be more advantageous than not, and there are no inherent obstacles in either game to doing so.

Nonetheless, it's interesting to see how certain design decisions can affect how people play a game. Even anti-social and independent gamers can be coerced into playing with a team mentality, whether they realize it or not.

Of course, regardless of any amount of coercion, there will always be those individuals who go against the grain....

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