Friday, September 16, 2011

Entering the Open Beta "Home Stretch" - Part I

Player Motivation, Player Control and Cheats

First a quick note; from September 15 - September 20 we are offering a 100% rebate G1C bonus for everyone who buys any items in the new APB Reloaded (version 1.5.3) which we launched September 15. Click here for some more information about this promotion. There are always issues with a major new version, and this promo will let people make purchases while knowing they get a complete 'redo' later on.

Hi everyone! I cannot believe it's been more than four weeks since my last post! 

A lot has happened in the past four weeks, so this post is going to be quite long (and hopefully filled with some great information). After the last entry, we left our offices and went on a pilgrimage to Cologne where the team participated in GDC Europe (we discussed APB in some of the seminars) and GamesCom (which is one of the largest consumer game shows in the world).

GamesCom was great, especially since it gave us a chance to meet players, many who offered us a lot of great feedback and good ideas for the development team to mull over (though it was also a little bit entertaining to watch some new APB players search for the XBox game-pad controllers), and it was also a chance for us to meet some of the more well-known APB players in person.

To make it even better, we gave away tens of thousands of codes to players who stopped by the booth, and a lot of other swag and items. It's always good when you get a chance to play Santa in the middle of summer.

Upcoming Development Roadmap
In August the development team focused on finishing up the first 1.5.3 version build (which we released today). Builds 1.5.3 through 1.5.7 represent the "Home Stretch" for the entire Open Beta process, and after 1.5.7 we anticipate considering making the fateful leap to the Live version of the game (wooo!).

Version 1.6 is scheduled as the first Live (non-Beta) release, but before we actually get to 1.6, we still have a lot of work to complete, so today I will cover the most drastic upcoming changes, discuss a lot of the overall issues in the game and what we are doing to address them, and finally next week I will share the 1.5.3 through 1.5.7 roadmap as a link at the top of this page so you can see some more details about the upcoming changes.

Issues spotted in Open Beta
The first 90+ days of Open Beta have been great in helping us identify how players actually interact with the game, where players (like yourself) go, what you do, what you are willing to pay for, what you like to spend time on, what customizations you like, what cars you drive, what players you group up with, how you make your clan, what you hate, what you like and what activities motivate someone to continue playing the game (and sending virtual love-letters to the staff), and what issues and problems drives someone to rage-quit (and makes them email us 15 tickets in a row that all start with FFFF---KKK). The amount of data collected in Open Beta has been staggering. Unfortunately we have to now prioritize and structure this insane amount of feedback into actionable things.

Issue (1): Lack of Player Control
One of the core issues the game suffers from is the lack of player control. Not 'control' in terms of changing your character or designing a clan (which obviously are great customization features in APBR), but simply the inability to pick the types of missions and gameplay you like to play when you want to play them.

Unlike traditional games, APB Reloaded uses the "Mission System" to assign you missions while you drive/walk/sprint around the city (of course only if you remember to 'press K' - which is another annoyance of those we observed from watching people play at GamesCom).

The main problem with this fundamental design is that you may not be in the mood for the next mission you will be assigned. Even if it's a good mission, you might not have the right crew, time etc. for that particular game type. But as soon as the mission is assigned - that's it - you are committed (or if you quit, you of course lose Threat Level and thus risking your "Motivation" - so the Threat Level system is ANOTHER problem altogether which I will address below).

How are we going to return player control to the game, while still letting people have a wide open 'Living City' experience?

The first answer we are pursuing is "Fight Club" / "Proving Grounds," now scheduled as our 1.5.4 release. These missions, which you will be able to trigger directly from the district select screen, are the first iteration of what will become a series of dedicated matches that teams and players can launch and get a pre-defined "tweak-able" experience. We will also be able to tune what is included in the pre-defined experience on a weekly or monthly basis until we have given it the right length/content/feel (and take player feedback on which encounters are the most engaging and fun).

The idea is to give you the chance to jump in to a violent 10 v 10 (or similar) death-match or territory capture in a very small isolated portion of a district (which - by the way - also solves some 32-bit and low spec machine issues by being much smaller than the standard districts) for intense short-burst action. Think of it as a PuG clan fight, but with open ended groups/teams on each side and without all the Clan Mechanics.

While this provides insta-match content for players to experience, it also helps us try out new map changes and game-types which if successful, will be added to the main game maps as well.

We will have a whole post about these insta-missions, and how it relates to other districts and features still under development. In the current schedule Fight Club / Proving Grounds are in version 1.5.4 and Clan Warfare is in version 1.5.7 (check back next week for the details of the roadmap). We are really excited about the possibilities of this system, and letting players use it to get to the 'meat' of various types of action in just one click (again - without removing the current open ended districts).

Issue (2): Cheaters - and the Perception of Cheaters
APB is a Server-Side game. This means that barring various programming snafu's, there really are very few things you can do in the game to actually cheat. Unlike peer-to-peer games or games that rely more on the client being authoritative, APB is impossible to cheat with things like 'one shot kills' or 'invincibility cheats' and similar cheats of those types. The server rules all. Therefore (again barring coding mistakes, which do happen on occasion) most of these types of cheats are useless against the game.

However - there ARE things that the game is vulnerable to - specifically two items; aimbots and wallhacks (opponent 'ESP tags') since those two types attack the local client and exploit locally hidden information (players behind walls etc.). There is nothing quite as frustrating as finding a good hiding spot, only to be 'magically' found by your opponent. We agree.

We have two ways of attacking this issue, one is to change actual game code that will make certain exploits much harder, and the other is to work with an enhanced cheat deterrent system. The pros and cons of PunkBuster (or according to the community - the Cons) are quite well known, even though just last week it banned 2,000 players in one swoop when it was able to suddenly detect the latest evasion attempt from a cheat maker. The issue with PB is that it remains one step behind the aimbot/wallhack makers. But there is a solution for this issue in the pipeline as well.

Cheat solutions in 1.5.3 through 1.5.7

Starting with 1.5.3 we are making various aspects of cheat coding much harder to perform and/or easier to detect. Because it's cheating we are talking about we cannot really disclose exactly what we are doing, but as of this patch key cheat functions are starting to break in really odd ways. There should be plenty of frustration in the cheat maker side over the next several builds, though 1.5.3 has only implemented a portion of these changes. The goal is to get to make cheating a non-issue by the time we go formally "Live" with the game. As you can imagine, that's a tall order, but based on recent progress (some not yet in the game), we are starting to feel better about the prospects of solving this issue.

In a later patch closer to Live we have a much more drastic change that will also be rolled out, in addition to the road we have started down in 1.5.3. The goal is to have the full suite of changes in place before we release 1.6.0. 

So - What do you mean by the "Perception" of cheating?

IF there are only TWO serious types of cheats that even work in the game, how about the 'perception' of cheating going on? Why is this perception rampant? (see Issue 3 for another critical problem - that also causes rage and/or cheat anger - so all these issues are tied together).

First Perception - Snapping
First - there is an oddity with the game itself. Snapping is part of the game (!). If you run in one direction, but are looking behind you, the moment you hit 'fire' your character on all opponent computers will appear to make an instant 180 and 'snap' in the opposite direction while firing the shot. Good players can make it appear they are 'multi-snapping' by being very exact. The effect is very easy to test with two computers opposed to each other.

The result is that in many matches you often perceive your opponent 'snapping' to you (almost magically), since you don't actually get a copy of the opponent's camera movement, only the end-shot (snap). That's not cheating. That's normal game play. When you face an extremely good player, it's very hard to NOT think they are cheating. Mostly because the visual appearance of the opponent (snapping around to different targets) makes it look like something is amiss (compared to playing MW2), but also because most of us think NOONE can possible beat us or have better map awareness :) . We know we are awesome :) (again - not saying that aimbotting and wallhacking cannot happen - just that often it also appears to be happening while it's really NOT taking place). Snapping CAN indicating cheating, but only when players target multiple targets that are large angles apart in a split second. Unfortunately the two types of snapping (legitimate and the real cheatin' kind) are hard to tell apart.

We will release some videos to show this in action as well.

Second Perception - Magic Bullets
Second - not all misses are noticed by opponents, often due to how bullet flight is handled. If you are being shot by an enemy all bullets that HIT your avatar will always be readily apparent. Bullets that MISS are still sent to your computer, but we often see test players in our focus tests that do not realize that a large number of bullets were fired in their direction during an intense firefight, and that many of them missed. This can lead to a perception that opponents magically HIT YOU with every shot they fire (and magically never missed!), though in reality your enemy is shooting more shots in your direction than you might realize. 

Third Perception - Cheats that Aren't
Third - there are some supposed cheats (some that are even sold to people) - that in fact are not cheats at all. The best example is the 'no-spread' supposed cheat. If you use a 'no-spread' cheat and fire at a wall - you will THINK that bullets are hitting a wall and strike a tight area (or even easier - you can muck with local INI files and see visual changes in your client without having any effect on the server or opponent games). That's because it's a client side change. But, in spite of what you might see on a wall, shooting another player is handled entirely on the server. Turning on a 'no-spread cheat' might make you FEEL you are aiming better (and maybe you DO aim better because you 'feel' better) - but you are actually just as spread-y against opponent players as you were before the 'cheat' from the point of view of the server and the opponent player. Ie the cheat has no effect other than on your computer.

Are there any cheats right now?
Yep. No bones about it - that some people are using wallhacks and aimbots (or after the current update, are certainly trying to use them with the 1.5.3 build), and there clearly is a delay before they get banned. Therefore we are very interested in seeing the changing pattern during this patch version (1.5.3) and then followed by the upcoming 1.5.4 through 1.5.7 series of builds. What will players do? What will the cheatmakers do? We will all find out!

Other possible solutions - player kicks?
We often get the request to implement cheat-vote-kicking. A small sidenote, when Zak/Qwentle jumped in to Combat Arms for some quick analysis on how they handle something he was trying to work on, he was quickly vote-kicked by the Combat Arms players for being a 'cheater' (something you can do in CA). He clearly was NOT cheating, but he was simply just very good at playing the game, even though he had a brand new character. So player-banning also have problems.

So - what are we going to do?
In 1.5.3 we have done some interesting stuff. In x.x.4, 5, 6 and 7 we are doing additional interesting things. Depending on how they work out, we will start disclosing exactly what has changed. Let's first see how people react to them...

Third issue: Wrong Motivation Goal - and Driving People Nuts (aka the evils of Threat Levels)
So - not only do you have a lack of player control (ie you get handed a random mission, and if you quit it you lose Threat Level) you also start thinking (incorrectly) that Threat Level is actually something you really want to care about as a progression metric and a community status symbol. It was never intended to be either.

We really apologize for not addressing this earlier... Threat Level (or ELO rankings or Glicko Rankings) should actually never be a driving factor for your enjoyment of the game, but partly because of how they are presented, it's become the ultimate status symbol.

To use a golf analogy, if I had to continually show my golf handicap (which is not great) and every day I played I was constantly shown Tiger Woods' handicap (which, even in his current slump is probably a sub-zero handicap), I would simply not feel all that great about myself. Or having my high-school football team compared to a professional football team every day (American football or European football - same issue :) )

In games like Golf (or Tennis, or Football) we get around this comparison problem by simply 'grouping' ourselves in logical cagegories, divisions and leagues. NFL teams (or Premiership / Bundesliga teams for the football games where you actually use your FOOT) are never ranked against or compared with high-school or low category club teams. And that's for a good reason. It doesn't make sense.

We are working on a drastically different way of representing Threat Level and progression in the game. Some aspects will be the same (a cool symbol), but what the symbol means will be radically different (and potentially more informative).

Here is our latest idea of how we will do this. You will be assigned a skill rating and a progression. The skill rating (based on the underlying system we have today) will give you one of four colors; Green, Bronze, Silver and Gold. Players will be assigned one of those four colors based on skill rank.

The actual symbol will be one of 20 different symbols (initially) representing the progression you have made in the game; 0-9, 10-19, 20-29 etc. So you will get a different progression symbol every 10 levels from 1 through 195 (until we expand the 195 to permit higher levels as well).

In all matchmaking locations where today you see the Threat Level symbol, you will instead see the new combined Skill / Progression symbol giving opponents information both about your general threat, as well as your progression through the game.

This way you actually get better information about the gear and content that a player is likely to have equipped. Especially for Gold players there is significant difference between a Gold who is progression 25 and one who is progression 125,since the higher progression player has a lot more versatility in equipping the right gear for the right encounter. With the current TL system, this critical information is never communicated.

Will you EVER get to see the 'real' underlying detailed skill information? Potentially yes - in particular in our upcoming Clan Warfare system you are likely going to have the ability to 'see' your mates detailed data (partly so you can build the most competitive clan fighting team to defend your clan ladder rankings). There is becomes important info (and not unlike how WoW deals with the ELO levels, and the same reason you can only see your own team's detailed rankings, but not your opponents).

New contacts coming soon

Now in order to expand the game for those player who are already high level, we are also working hard at adding new levels of progression above the current contacts.  Those who have completed both organisations for their faction will be given the chance to work with several specialists which we are adding in the next several versions of the game leading up to the Live Launch.

In addition to expanding the Progression range above 195, new rewards for working with these contacts will also include High level Vehicles, Symbols and the first parts of Tactical Gear / SWAT Gear (Helmets, Pads, Loadouts, Webbing Armor etc).

More importantly, they’ll also unlock a plethora of new Modifications that are not yet in the game, giving players new options and choices to make when deciding on the best mods for Weapons, Vehicles and their Character.

Back to the Grind-Stone...

These are the three areas where we are really putting a lot of focus as we race toward the first 'Live' finished game. As we roll these features out, we hope to continue getting your feedback (though, you may want to wait with final feedback until the features are live :) ), and then get to a successful 1.6 Live Launch.

Next week I will post the updated Roadmap at the top of this page, so, check back then for more details about the upcoming changes, as well as the design details of Proving Grounds.

Until next week,

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