Role-playing, interrupted

Can we construct the act of playing a MOBA as role-playing? The different construction of “role” as a set of game actions and expectations illuminates the variation in performative acts. We might argue that because most players don’t imagine themselves as a mermaid looking to save her homeland, or a man out to avenge his wife’s death, that playing a game like League of Legends does not involve role-playing. On the other hand, League explicitly constructs “role” as a set of actions, behaviors, and limitations: the “marksman” role stands out of the way of incoming damage and attempts to dole out damage to enemies, while the “tank” soaks up damage and attempts to disrupt the enemy team. A lead Riot designer, Morello, describes the working definition of role as corresponding to “the type of value they contribute to a team, or else communicates the fundamentals of their playstyle. It sets expectations for what a player’s experience will be like and what they can do for their team.”

These roles were formalized (and changed from earlier terms) in July 2013, coalescing into a set of six terms that relate to vernacular distinctions:

  • Assassin: a relatively squishy champion who focuses on eliminating a single target. Ex. Akali
  • Mage: a caster who uses spells to get ahead and mostly deals magic damage. Ex. Veigar
  • Tank: an unkillable monster who takes one for the team, repeatedly. Ex. Mundo (I love Mundo)
  • Support: a champion who can either make plays with good initiation, or make plays with disengage (and then there’s supports like Soraka who are sustain bots). Ex. Nami (I also love Nami)
  • Fighter: a champion with some brawling ability who can also deal damage. Ex. Renekton
  • Marksman: a champion still generally referred to as “AD Carry,” who deals lots of scaling damage through basic attacks. Ex. Caitlyn

See Morello’s post, linked above, for his descriptions of these roles. (I tried to summarize them in one sentence, partly to offer my own interpretation of these, but partly just because I need to practice that kind of synthesis of vernacular comments, “word of god,” and my own interpretations.)

In formalizing these terms, Riot has used them as champion filters throughout their site and the in-game client (e.g., the store, or when searching for available champions). To this end, Riot has assigned each champion a set of roles, usually a primary and a secondary role. For example, Leona is a Tank/Support. Riot has also used this set of roles as part of the new Team Builder queue, wherein players select a champion, a location, and a role, from this controlled vocabulary. In this queue, the champion and the role are not restricted in any way, although a role is suggested for the player based on the formal assignment of roles discussed above. For instance, selecting Caitlyn places a star next to the “Marksman” role in the drop-down menu, but a player may also elect to play Caitlyn as a tank.

The drop-down menu for selecting a role in Team Builder, listing all six roles.

The drop-down menu for selecting a role in Team Builder. Marksman is recommended for Caitlyn.

Now that we’ve established the general idea of roles in League of Legends, let’s talk about how players role-play (using my expanded definition of role-playing). To perform a role involves a combination of actions (verbs) and items (object nouns). Within the context of League, actions are things like casting spells, performing basic attacks, and moving around. Items refer mostly to the choice of items bought, but using my definition can also refer to the rune and mastery pages that add several small advantages like a small percentage of extra health, or a tiny bit of crowd-control reduction. These action and item sets also accompany an expected attitude: the marksman is supposed to be careful about positioning, build items that give massive physical damage, and take kills for themself. (Draven is perhaps the embodiment of the marksman attitude.) In contrast, a support is supposed to set up kills for the marksman, get them out of danger, and avoid taking champion or minion kills (more gold for the lane partner). Playing a support champion according to the role is often a thankless task, and Riot has attempted to rectify this: recognizing the competing actions expected of the role was step 1. Items, too, reflect the expected attitude: stacking items like Mejai’s Soulstealer reward kills but punish deaths heavily—the mage or marksman role. (n.b.: Before you say I don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m not suggesting you go out and build a Mejai’s on Caitlyn. Maybe try it on Kog’maw, though.)

What I’ve been calling attitude, in the previous paragraph, is actually the performance of a role. The strange thing about games like League, perhaps, is that success in the game is tied to success in this performance—according to the current meta. The “current meta” is the informal understanding of roles that most players assimilate and contribute to, a kind of invisible script. This can be frustrating to try to accommodate to, as a role player.

Screenshot of Game Lobby with Two Players

Screenshot of game lobby with two players in selected roles.

What things like Team Builder attempt to do is to generate an ad hoc script in “conversation” with players. This conversation takes the form of showing one’s hand and selecting a desired champion, position, and role, in that order. Once a player has chosen these, they go on the market, and team captains can add desired players to the team. If a player doesn’t like their team, they can leave without penalty. In this way, Team Builder makes it possible to negotiate their own roles to perform in game, rather than attempting to fit into an existing, and perhaps restrictive, script.

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How do we talk about communication in multiplayer games?

I’m posting this now because it’s been percolating for weeks so I might as well.

In other news, I’m getting tired of these titles, but I like the consistency…sigh. Problems in academiaaaaa.

Let’s talk talking. How do multiplayer games implement easy, fast communication? Communication is one of those things that we take for granted in off-line (analogue?) play because it comprises so much of the play experience that it is invisible. For example, a tabletop role-playing game only exists when players communicate to the GM what actions they are taking. Similarly, a game of chess-by-mail only exists because two people write to each other and state the move they wish to make. Communication is, quite simply, the name of the game.

In both of these examples, players communicate intent within rule systems. It’s not as easy as I made it sound up there; communication isn’t the only thing reifying these game instances. The established structures of rules and notation and yes, communication styles, empower players to act in meaningful ways.

It’s never as easy as “give them voice chat and they will come”. Opening up such a system to the public invariable invites abuse and trolling, and does not always work well with the existing game. Players in a group of friends often use outside services such as Skype, Mumble, Teamspeak, or Ventrilo. On the other hand, these things are not friendly to strangers trying to create a cohesive group from within the game itself.

Multiplayer games, especially ones with large and diverse player bases, have taken different approaches to easing communication inside game spaces. There are a few that I’m familiar with through play, and a few that I’ve been pointed towards through exploring this. I do not present these with any extended commentary, but just to show the range of options and the questions raised by each one.

Team Fortress 2 supports voice chat in game through a simple press of the “v” key, though this feature may be abused; players have the ability to mute other players for their own sake. More interestingly, Voice Commands are built in to the default key bindings of the game. These voice commands are often context- and character-sensitive. There are three menus of voice commands, accessible from the “z”, “x”, and “c” keys. Each of the menus has a set of 8 commands further triggered from the 1-8 number keys, with 0 reserved as a cancel. The commands are pieces of information that the designers felt required easy and fast communication between players; they are pieces of information that make the experience of play qualitatively better.

Looking at the voice commands in Team Fortress 2, we see certain categories repeat. Most important are the calls to the medic for help:

Due to its importance and universal nature, the “Medic” call by default has its own separate keybind (default E).

– “Voice Commands”, Team Fortress Wikia

But beyond that, there are a set of commands for informing team movements (z3-z6), commands for revealing information about enemy team movements (x1-x2), requests for aid from the support classes (x3-x7, and the aforementioned “Medic” call), as well as general communication such as “Thanks”, “Yes/No”, and all of the calls under the c menu. With this set of 24 voice commands, players should theoretically be able to communicate their intent in a restricted domain (the game space). Anything left over is then relegated to voice chat or text chat.

With this kind of system where critical pieces of information are bound to particular keys, conveying that information is easy and leaves no room for trolling (except creatively, such as by spamming “Put dispenser here” as a heavy, which leads to a chorus of “pootis pootis pootis”).

In Left 4 Dead/L4D2,as in Team Fortress 2 Valve have taken cooperation as the goal of gameplay. The GDC slides that I’ve linked before (“Replayable Cooperative Game Design: Left 4 Dead”, Michael Booth, GDC 2009) take one slide to focus on “vocalizations” (“Requiring Cooperation: Vocalizations”, slide 25 of 71). As described in this slide, these vocalizations are automatically generated by the player characters and NPC human allies based on contextual clues. They have three main purposes that enhance cooperative gameplay: “Improv[e] situational awareness”, “Communicat[e] short term goals”, and “Encourag[e] cooperation via a baseline of camaraderie” (slide 25).

With Team Fortress 2, we’ve seen what happens when you take communication of situational awareness and short term goals, and map it to keys rather than leaving it to players to type up long statements in chat, or to press a button and then voice chat to the subset of the server that is currently on a third-party service. It makes for easier teamwork, and often a friendlier set of interactions. (I wonder. This is based on personal experience.) It also models the appropriate forms of communication for the system, as these are the twenty-four commands that the designers have chosen as vital to the experience of play.

With Left 4 Dead (and L4D2), we can see what happens when, instead of mapping those to key-presses, you remove those from the conscious decision-making process of the player. The human allies will always produce vocalizations, regardless of whether they’re played by a human player or controlled by AI systems.

We also needed a way for the AI characters to shout out important facts in the world. If I’m playing with my friends, and one of them sees an ammo cache in a dark corner, then my friend can just tell me. That’s an important thing to know; the ammo is in different places every time. … Once we did it for the bots, we realized it was pretty cool for the human-controlled characters to do it also; it’s a bit of additoinal roleplaying, and more convenient than having to call out yourself.
– “Rule Databases for Contextual Dialog and Game Logic

…To be continued…

The Beautiful Game?

Something older, but still mine!

With a game like this, where every player’s movements matter, communicating with teammates is essential, and playing with friends in the same room takes play to a whole new level. You talk, of course, because talking is faster than typing and why would you type when she’s two feet away? Sometimes, he gets loud and you know, without even hearing it, that you need to hurry back to your base and help defend.

I wrote this in December 2012 as part of Culture Ramp’s series on “What it’s Like to Play” (link goes to series).  I looked at the movement and communication in Team Fortress 2 as the same kind of movement and communication that I was personally used to as a soccer player.

Have a go and tell me what you think.