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The “Problem” with Mass Effect 3’s Multiplayer
by Taekwan Kim on 03/07/12 01:24:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


I’ll try to be brief on this one, especially since I haven’t played nearly as much of the campaign as I probably should before making a post like this. But I wanted to talk about how the multiplayer experience almost soured the game for me until I was capable of mentally separating it from my reading of the single player campaign.

The problem is this: Mass Effect 3 single is (at least so far) a bleak, bleak game where the authorial voice clearly and explicitly communicates the dire need to work together for something as urgent and emotive as basic survival in the face of inevitable death. And by authorial voice I mean everything from the campaign mechanics and reward systems to the narrative and character interaction.

Consider the scene (minor early spoiler) with Khalisah Bint Sinan al-Jilani. A lot of us remember her as something of a recurring joke, but the way she is handled in the latest encounter (particularly the Paragon outcome) is masterful and full of poignancy. The scene manages to invert expectations, give some real depth to Khalisah, and truly drive home the desperation and humanity’s ability to rise above it.

That’s the narrative side. This is then immediately followed (if the player takes the Paragon path) by a supremely satisfactory “War Asset Acquired” mechanical outcome which elegantly reinforces that narrative. It’s a case where mechanics, player assets, and narrative all work in concert to deliver a concentrated and tightly knit message of the need to cooperate, or at the very least, overlook personal and petty issues for the sake of the greater good.

This message comes apart in the multiplayer, mainly as a result of the way it measures player performance. Immediately, the fact that it measures performance at all with respect to other players makes its goals clear: it’s about competition. And in this case, it’s not only performance competition, but also competition for limited resources, which tends to cause selfish play—exactly the kind of experience that is the direct opposite of the authorial message of the singleplayer game.

The multiplayer game’s system of rewards and measurements, taking on too many cues from multiplayer FPS’s whose goals are blatantly and singularly competitive, grants points to those that deal the most damage and make the most kills. This ends up reducing the game to a frantic search for more targets to kill before other teammates do, and this fraught competition destroys the authorial voice of the singleplayer game.

The problem is mitigated if the player manages to have a full team of relatively even players (similar skill levels, N7 ratings, etc.), but it’s difficult to come across a team in which players don’t go off by themselves in attempts to score more points. Instead of being about working together to reach a common and desperate goal, it becomes about getting as much personal and selfish input as possible before someone else can get their edge in.

That’s actually all fine, and I personally enjoy the multiplayer game for itself (it really does scratch that arena play itch that’s been bothering me since ME1 [remember the somewhat miserable Pinnacle Station?]). But again, the structure of the multiplayer game necessitates a mental compartmentalization process of disassociating that experience from the singleplayer one if the player is to avoid feelings of dissonance from conflicting authorial messages.

Which is honestly too bad in that it didn’t have to be that way—changes as (relatively) minor as distributing scoring more evenly (that is, it becomes more important to reach common goals than execute kills) or removing scoreboard-driven player measurements altogether (I've had people leave games because my Level 20 Engineer with utterly overpowered Falcon was outscoring other players by 30-40k points--that's just no fun for anyone [except me]) would have gone a long way towards a multiplayer experience that would actually have enhanced and worked seamlessly with the singleplayer’s message. (Imagine the desperate cooperation which L4D often manages to invoke working in tandem with the singleplayer game.)

I want to say before I finish, though, that the situations and character presentations in Mass Effect 3 single have so far continually blown me away, scene after scene. Just that moment with Khalisah alone had me feeling all weepy, and I don’t think I’ve played a game with this much gravitas in a long, long time.

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Gumby Gumberson
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It seems as though you were not paying attention when you played Mass Effect 3's multiplayer mode. Everyone shares XP at the end of the match. The XP earned by all players is added up, and each player receives that amount. In fact, mechanisms such as Revival Bonuses, Survival Bonuses, and Full Extraction Bonuses serve to completely dismantle your argument as Mass Effect 3's multiplayer goes out of its way to be as cooperative and non-competitive as possible.

Taekwan Kim
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Good points, but I would say this: are these bonuses comparable though to the amount of XP you wrack up for solo kills, not to mention solo kill bonuses such as 25 biotic kills or headshots, etc? From what I've seen, players that do excessive damage far and away gather the lion's share of the XP (edit: I guess the question is, how much do you care that another player is earning much more of the team's XP than you; or, once you hit level cap, more points than you?). When you see a level 8 Vanguard with negligible N7 rating significantly "outperform" level 18 adepts (in the order of several thousands of points) by ganking all the kills with charge, something seems a little off.

It's possible the problem is actually about balance: players actually are cooperating but certain classes/weapons just do significantly more spike damage than others, so it feels competitive as a result of "kill steals", etc. But I would question if ME3 multiplayer truly went "out of it's way to be as cooperative and non-competitive as possible"; why are there even scoreboards at all?

Very much admittedly, though, I've only played about 20 or so multiplayer games, so maybe I really wasn't paying attention.

Danilo Campos
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My multiplayer experience couldn't be more different.

One thing that's great about the ME3 multiplayer is how much it rewards collaboration and cooperation. You get meaty points for assists, which means two or more players can share a baddy and still get handsomely rewarded. And still have fun. There are even medals for racking up assists, so you get even more points for being consistently helpful.

Playing as a Vanguard, nothing is more fun than having another biotic on the squad to set up combos to detonate.

Overall, my impression is that they've been very successful at creating a truly cooperative coop game. Especially in Silver and Gold difficulties, going off on your own can be a suicidal proposition. A few rounds as a corpse is enough to encourage teamwork in the most independent of players, in my experience.

Taekwan Kim
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Mmm, it's very much possible that I've just consistently had bad luck with teammates (although, I tried to base my analysis as much as possible on the way XP is distributed).

Taekwan Kim
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I think I should clarify something: it seems I am giving off the impression that I am arguing that ME3 multi was poorly done, or that the method of scoring is inherently wrong or some such, which is not at all the case (I probably should not have referred to the rather old American political slogan "it's the economy, stupid" in the post summary, given it's such an old artifact and that this site has a global audience).

Again, I enjoyed ME3 multi quite a bit, and I think it's great that it's in there--it's exactly the kind of thing that I've wanted out of the ME series to get more replayability out of the games.

John McMahon
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I haven't delve into the multi since the demo, trying to see how my single-player campaign impacts the Galaxy Readiness which so far (5-7 hours in) not much. Maybe there's more out there i haven't found, but anyway.

I just which the multiplayer wasn't a survival/(play until you die) mentality. I would much rather have missions with objectives and optional objectives, than wave after wave of nameless enemies. It had gotten old for me a long time ago.

Why can't each mission have a separate story and a mechanics that isn't about killing waves of enemies. They did this in Pinnacle Station and it's not any better with other people.

David Serrano
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@John McMahon

"I just which the multiplayer wasn't a survival/(play until you die) mentality."

From the start, EA's target audience for ME has been the Gears of War fan base. Which is why ME multiplayer is basically a rehash of Horde mode.

John McMahon
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I can't really speak to who their target audience was. But there are plenty of success stories when it comes to cooperative multiplayer aside from Gear's revivial of the survival mode.

Jason Tocci
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What's strange about ME3 multiplayer is that it LOOKS like it rewards individual accomplishment, but it actually doesn't. Showing score breakdowns at the end of a match counts for nothing more than bragging rights the actual XP everyone earns is the sum of all four players' scores. In fact, you can maximize team score by letting one or two players have nearly all the kills, and let the other players focus on assisting (so you then get two or three players each contributing medals for assists). And what really boosts team score is if everyone stays alive (for the "X waves survived" and "full extraction" medals), rather than one person going off solo to try to hog all the kills.

In other words, Mass Effect 3 multiplayer has an underlying scoring system that rewards cooperation and conservative play, but the stats you see at the end of the match imply that it values something else entirely. Given how aggressively some players are at trying to net the highest personal score, I suspect many don't realize this.

Taekwan Kim
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I think this is an issue I really need to clarify myself on, as it seems I've rather failed to do so. As seen in the above comments, the fact that everyone gets the total sum of the team's XP has been pointed out before. But I would say that's rather missing the point: the problem is that people actually _do_ care about those individual bragging rights as much as they do about their kill/death ratio in any other FPS multiplayer game, even when they are aware of this team XP mechanism.

My counter-suspicion to your suspicion that people don't realize these team scoring mechanics is that people _do_ realize them, it's just they _don't matter_ to them. As you noted, most of the behavior Mephisto listed above are more or less direct results of people caring more about their score than teamplay; the fact that one encounters so many such aggressive players (including lvl 20s) should tip us off.

For people who care about their personal score, the fact that the team gets the total sum is just a post facto band-aid--an afterthought at best. And really, once you've maxed out a couple classes a few times, nobody actually cares about XP gain as a value in itself unless they are really chasing after those N7 rating points (in Gold, you're probably playing a level 20 _anyway_).

Consider: about every 4 or 5 pub games I play, someone inevitably leaves because of score gaps (it really seems to bother people that much and that frequently). It's quite possible to utterly dominate the game on any difficulty with the proper setup using a Falcon, and I end up regularly causing score gaps of 30 or 40k points despite staying with the group and not rushing off alone to kill stuff. Performance aside, this also basically means there's not much left to actually kill, and it's a frustrating experience when someone seems to be stealing all your kills--denying you the recognition you feel you deserve for executing a difficult task, or even the opportunity to try it.

Personally, I try to play as cooperatively as possible, especially since at this point I care more about getting the credits from objectives than anything else. But even among friends, it's hard to completely ignore points because they're the only evidential measurement (outside of time for completion) of whether or not one's game is improving or how effective one's build is. After all, a large portion of the fun of the multiplayer game is to maximize the efficacy of your build.

But since the means of measuring this can only happen within a setting where your performance measurement is necessarily impacted by other players (unless you are capable of straight up soloing), it becomes competitive if only so you can see just how well your build works. When you score low, it feels like an invalidation of your build, especially with respect to higher scoring builds--something which many players can't help but take as a personal insult given the time they have invested in their build (hence all the quitting). And what is the point of even working for credits in the first place? So you can make a better build.

It's a strange thing about human nature. Whenever we are placed in direct comparison with others--particularly in terms of performance--it's difficult to avoid engaging in all sorts of defense mechanisms unless we are capable of recognizing the reality that these comparisons are meaningless anyway. We tend to latch on to the most visible and external of measurements in our attempts to present our self-worth, particularly in such an extroversion valuing society as the one we now live in. That which is measured too often dictates that which is considered important (because it's simply harder to see the unmeasured). So ignoring these is a surprisingly difficult skill, and one that many players (myself included) I've encountered in ME3 (and games--or indeed life--in general) have trouble realizing or abiding by even when realized (because nobody else does). And surely, telling ourselves we don't care about these measurements when in fact we do is itself a common defense mechanism.

The unfortunate reality is that it's very difficult for many to toil away for the good of a group unless they are given recognition for their efforts--even if not so much just for recognition itself, but the reality that without recognition there is less allowance to perform support roles. And ME3 just gives a lot more recognition to players who do the most damage. I might be scoring 90k in a Gold challenge game, but maybe I wouldn't be able to do that nearly as easily if it wasn't for that decoy that salarian engineer put up. But nothing in the game itself recognizes that, which also too frequently means that nobody else on the team recognizes the value of that engineer to the team--particularly in pub games.

Finally, I want to point out this article once again that I mentioned in one of my earliest posts: