Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Call of Duty, Black Ops and Sniper Design

Unless you've been living in a bubble separated from all video game related press, you've heard of the Call of Duty series. Modern Warfare and its sequel both sold phenomenal amounts of copies, and Black Ops, the latest in the series, had pre-orders in the millions. I'm not going to review the game and tell you it's good and bad points. The game delivers a game typical of the current style of the series: a short high-octane single player campaign supplement by its multiplayer component. However, there has been a significant amount of discussion regarding a particular design element of Modern Warfare and its change in Black Ops. That issue is quickscoping.

Quickscoping (also "quick scoping" or "quick scope sniping") is a mechanic in Modern Warfare 2, whereby using the "Sleight of Hand" perk and the aiming assist mechanism of guns with a sniper rifle, a player is able to pull off one shot kills on other players in medium to short range. There is some skill involved in terms of the aim and the timing, but it makes a sniper a dangerous proposition even at closer ranges. A quick search will turn up video demonstrating the mechanic and countless kills using it.

Why scope when you can quickscope?

In released Black Ops, Treyarch (that's the developer - they share the series with Infinity Ward, who were responsible for Modern Warfare 1 & 2) has taken steps to counter quickscoping by introducing error into the aiming assist mechanism, meaning that when you zoom in you won't lock directly onto exactly the location you were looking at before you zoomed in. In this way, quickscoping is not really possibly, because you'll need to correct your aim before being able to fire a killing shot. As a result, proponents of quickscoping have decreed that snipers are worthless in Black Ops.

I'm sorry to anyone who believes that, because it is a truly ridiculous argument. Snipers have instead been switched to the role that they are meant to fit: a long range combatant. Funnily enough, this is what they do in real life. Of course, the immediate counterargument to realism is "but this is a game and it is meant to be fun". I wholeheartedly agree, but because it is also a game it should therefore be balanced. Take a leaf out of the book of MMOs, or heck, even Team Fortress 2.

The scout: fast, agile and squishy

Balance implies that there are multiple roles within a game, and there is no one class or player can perform all roles well. This is where quickscoping completely fails the test of good game design. Snipers are the only class that can perform effectively at long range. Other classes can score hits, but it comes down to luck more than skill. Therefore they have a distinct advantage over other classes in that role, and game design dictates that if you had an exclusive ability (or at far better at it than anyone else) then you should have an equivalent shortcoming. But quickscoping means that snipers are almost as effective as people equipped with assault rifles in medium range, and even at close range, they've still got a reasonable chance of pulling off a single shot kill against someone using a shotgun or sub-machine guns. This completely breaks all rules of balance by allowing a quickscoping sniper to excel in virtually any situation, which is the epitome of bad game design.

There might be those that argue the quickscoping made sniper rifles more viable by allowing them be used at more ranges, and thus reducing the likelihood of camping. This is an even worse argument, because this overlooks the fact that generous killstreaks in Modern Warfare 2 made a defensive camping style of play more attractive than sniper rifles ever could.  Even ignoring this, making sniper rifles more useful in close combat does not make camping less attractive, it just makes a different style of play more lucrative rather than solving the initial problem.

Modern Warfare's Wetwork. Hello snipers.

The truth of the matter is that campers and the act of camping isn't the problem. After all, we've been told it's a legitimate strategy. The problem that we're dealing with here isn't the fault of the designers of the gameplay mechanics, nor the players. In this case we actually have to lay the blame on the level designers. It's level designers that create layouts that allow snipers to have highly defensible positions that are extremely difficult for people to reach. It's level designers that create sniper hideouts with an extremely large field of view to allow them to pick off people with ease. It's level designers that don't create balanced maps to set each style of play on a relatively even playing field.

That said, I know they have their work cut out for them in creating such levels. It's not an easy task, but I can't help but feel that the level designers for the series need to improve their tradecraft in this regard. The realism and aesthetics are usually fairly good, but the mechanics of some of the levels simply don't work. I found that Wetwork degenerated into a combination of sniping and countersniping, or explosive spam in the centre of the ship. I'm sure you can think of other levels that suffered similar weaknesses in terms of repetitive gameplay, although it's certainly not a problem exclusive to Call of Duty.

Of course, I could mention other design issues in like combining Danger Close and One Man Army or elaborate on how killstreaks promote camping, but I imagine I might attractive enough hatred from FPS players with this post without covering that ground as well. Maybe I'm not "pro" or "semi-pro" when it comes to FPS games, but I understand game balance. In that regard, quickscoping does nothing to support game balance thus getting rid of it can only be a good thing.


  1. The answer is play ArmA2. And then listen to people complain about snipers.

  2. From Homefront to Medal of Honor, everything that seemed to be somewhat different ended up being a spin on the Call of Duty Formula.COD WW2 Hack