Tuesday, April 9, 2013

What Makes a Solid eSports Game?

The ESL is one of many popular eSports event franchises around the world.
eSports is on the rise in a wide range of genres, with the support of outlets such as Twitch.tv and dedicated casting organizations such as the North American Star League (NASL) and Major League Gaming (MLG). Growing numbers of viewers watch live events from aroudn the world, and big-name sponsors like Alienware and Intel are taking notice and backing events, players, and teams.

Developers and publishers of eSports games find themselves in a new world of opportunities, where suddenly their entertainment products become a way of life for professional competitors around the world, and an obsession for legions of eSports fans. Owning the intellectual property of an eSports-centered franchise brings a new level of sustained revenue and interest that basic multiplayer games, and even most MMO's, cannot achieve. Up to now, it would seem that the games that become successful in the eSports world have been flukes, gaining popularity over similar titles through a combination of great design, compelling visuals and loyal playerbases. Based on what we've seen in successful franchises such as Starcraft 2, League of Legends, and Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, we can now begin to analyze the things that all of these games have in common, allowing us as developers to understand exactly what our games need to have to gain popularity in the world of eSports.

Let's start with the basics; the obvious elements. Balance is key, and is never taken for granted by serious players. Balancing different races, weapons, abilities and stats is a constant exercise for developers of eSports games. Players must always feel that they have an equal chance at victory, and that their opponents do not have an unfair advantage. Balance becomes even more of a challenge in games with asymmetric factions (different races with different units and structures, for example). Constant play-testing is key in the delicate act of balance. Play-testers should include the widest range of gamers possible: from in-house testers to beta testers; from veterans to casual players; from young players to older.

Controls have to be tight, logical, and above all, customizable. The mechanics of controls are of paramount importance to veteran players, and each player has slightly different preferences for control schemes. The player must feel like he is in full control in an eSports title. Any lag between commands and execution can ruin a competitive experience, as can randomly unresponsive controls. Players should be able to quickly perform any action that logically fits within the framework of the game, and they should be able to do it without looking at their keyboards. Again, bringing in the widest range of play-testers possible can help greatly here. Never make assumptions about controls. Always seek feedback from players and testers.

Skill-based competition is the only type embraced in the eSports world, and for good reason. MMORPG PvP has never broken into the world of eSports due to its heavy reliance on gear and character attributes, for example, while first-person shooters have always had a presence. Skill-based competition goes back to the issue of balance. Each player should feel that the only thing that can lead him to victory is his own personal skill, not the contents of a character inventory or a collection of hard-earned perks. The most popular eSports games build in achievements and vanity rewards to make players feel as if they are accumulating goodies, but these rewards do nothing to provide an unfair advantage.

Emergent Strategy
The possibility of emergent strategy may be the most important design factor that rockets games to eSports stardom. Emergence, an elusive yet well-studied concept in game design, can be simply defined as a simple framework of rules and systems, out of which can emerge countless variations of play. Minecraft is today's shining example of emergent design; think about how simple Minecraft's mechanics and controls are, and how vast the number of different creations have come from it (everything from a 10,000 foot tall portrait of Barack Obama to a fully functional MMORPG).

This is the essential element in an eSports game: the players' ability to create, refine, and evolve their strategic options within a deceptively simple framework. Consider how the four ability slots and 6 item slots in League of Legends allow players an unlimited number of character builds, or how a defined set of structures and units in Starcraft 2 can be used in an unlimited number of ways. Even first-person shooters like CoD:BO2 provide emergent possibilities, since players can deploy such a wide range of tactics all around a map.

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