Pick Up Groups
Out of all my recent gaming, Sniper Elite 4 has proved the most entertaining. The engaging mechanics and stealthy gameplay have held my attention and kept me engaged. So far, I spent over seventy-two hours playing through the campaign and DLC. After watching several You Tube videos I was tempted to try the co-operative mode, something that I don’t always do in these sorts of games. Overwatch allows two players to work together as sniper and spotter respectively, to complete objectives within a custom map. It requires communication and co-ordination. It should also be noted that multiplayer in Sniper Elite 4, is dependent on peer-to-peer connection rather than dedicated servers, with the players hosting the games themselves.
So far, I’ve found that my enjoyment of co-op mode has been significantly less than that of the campaign due to the human factor. None of my Steam friends own Sniper Elite 4, so I’ve have been dependent on the grouping service built in to the game. You either host a game yourself and wait to be assigned a partner or join an existing game. Therein lies the proverbial rub. Pick up group mechanics have no scope for quality control. So far, I’ve grouped with players who have refused to communicate, have no concept of teamwork and who quit when things don’t go their way. Furthermore, if they’re hosting the game then you find yourself kicked back to the lobby with nothing to show for your work. It’s an old story. One that will be very familiar to anyone who has ever played an MMORPG and used the instance finder tool.
Pick up groups can often bring out the worst in human nature. You are randomly grouped with complete strangers who are anonymous and are driven by their own need for gain. Manners, decorum and social etiquette are purely optional as the system has no means to impose them. Thus, we encounter players that do not know how to play the instance they have joined, or those who are happy to just go AFK and wait for the end reward. Abuse and unpleasantness are common place in chat and if the group undertaking is unsuccessful, then blame is often thrown about. Even if your PUG manages to avoid these problems, they are often extremely soulless experiences. The auto grouping in Guild Wars 2 and the PVE queues in Star Trek Online simply facilitate tasks and require minimal or even zero social interaction.
Now some players will argue that the frictionless grouping that PUGs provide with no need to communicate directly, is a boon rather than a bane. I will concede that this really is a matter of personal preference. However, mechanics that allow you to abandon a game that you are hosting at the expense of others, or quit a group thus leaving the rest of the players in the lurch, are problematic. For Honor had a major problem with the this. If you or your team are losing then there is no imperative to stick around. There is often no penalty or sanction for abandoning an ongoing game that you may be hosting and no recompense for the other players. This is something I also regularly encounter in Overwatch, which seems to have more than its fair share of petulant and bellicose players.
Justin Olivetti referenced the group finding tool in LOTRO recently and discussed how compared to other MMOs, it was an underused facility. Group content seems to more driven by Kinships in that game so players tend to look directly to their colleagues and friends to run group content. Using the instance finder will seldom provide you with a group. STO has a similar problem. Featured group content or that which provides tangible rewards attracts players. However, older and less popular content doesn’t fair so well therefore you can spend hours looking for a group. I also think there is a particular type of troll in that game that delights in joining group queues and then waiting to the last moment to decline the launch invitation, thus consigning the remaining players back to the lobby again.
Sadly, many of the flawed mechanics we encounter in online games exist because they are the most practical way to address a logistical issue. Player hosted games negates the need for dedicated servers and their associated cost. Group finding tools do exactly that, yet offer no further options. The burden to police the group’s activities falls to the players themselves and there’s precious little they can do if things go pear shaped. But what are the alternatives? If grouping with other players is problematic, then bots are really the only immediate alternative. This is an option in games such as Overwatch, For Honor and some of the Call of Duty franchise. However, it is not necessarily an ideal solution as bots do not provide a comparable experience to human interaction. Their use also doesn’t address the root cause of this problem, namely human behaviour.
Like many things in life, the lowest common denominator disproportionately shapes the experience for the majority. Returning to Sniper Elite 4, although I did have some poor co-operative games due to bad grouping, I also had some thoroughly enjoyable interactions. It’s just a shame that PUGs are such a lottery. Ultimately, it is down to the developers of games to maintain community standards. What is the point of having strict terms and conditions if you have no intention of enforcing them? Furthermore, if I cannot enjoy aspects of a game due to others, I am effectively being excluded from experiencing the entire product. Considering the cost of premium titles these days, why should I pay the full price for a game I can only partially play?