Modern competitive online multiplayer gaming is in many significant ways unrecognizable, when compared to its ancestors. In the 30+ years since the pre-internet days of its infancy, it has changed so dramatically that it almost seems quaint to put games from the two eras in the same category.
At first glance, it's no different from going to a science museum and seeing a giant vacuum tube side by side with a transistor and an integrated circuit. The phenomenon began as an offshoot of the first text adventure games, but today, online multi encompasses genres as diverse as MMOs, FPSs, RTSs, and many more.
In terms of presentation, online multi has jumped from a text-only environment to a graphical interface, and has kept pace with all but the very best single-player offerings. On the connectivity front, today's broadband and improved netcode now make the days of logging in with a 2400 bps modem seem like riding a donkey with irritable bowel syndrome up to the starting line next to a Lamborghini.
Despite this lauded cavalcade of progress and advancement, when you strip away all the presentational and hardware elements that have changed over the years, the problems that faced online multi game design in the very beginning are exactly the same quandaries that modern developers still struggle with on a daily basis.
As it turns out, they do still "make 'em like they used to". In this context, that's not necessarily a good thing.
In the late 80's to early 90's, online multiplayer games were essentially the exclusive purview of the BBSs. A player would connect directly via modem (later through a telnet protocol) to a bulletin board system where "door games" would be hosted. These BBSs and the games they hosted were entirely text based, but allowed for competition in both real time and turn based gameplay.
Many BBSs were free, but others charged a fee to login and play door games. I was lucky enough to have befriended the sysop of a BBS that charged, and so I got access to many of the premier experiences of those times. It's still amazing to me how much bartering power that soda and Little Debbies have for gamers, even as late as high school; I got unlimited access to online gaming in exchange for a 2-liter of Jolt and a half-dozen Oatmeal Cream Pies.
Reading is fundamental! Indulging in TL;DR here usually results in death.
The most popular and prevalent form of door game, that persists to this very day, is the MUD (Multi-User Dungeon). The MUD is a text based environment that allows players to game simultaneously. The MUD has its roots in the earliest text-based games, such as Zork or its predecessor, Colossal Cave Adventure (amazing).
While many MUDs had a co-op hack 'n slash or role-playing focus, a whole other style of MUDs became popular that catered to those who wanted to play against one another. One of the popular PK MUDs that I spent a great deal of time with was Genocide. It was a D&D style fantasy PK MUD (the first "pure" PvP MUD) made way back in 1992, but it had a structure that is familiar even today.
Players would congregate in a lobby until all available slots had been filled or a sysop decided enough players were present. Once the match began, players would enter text commands (in real time) to move from area to area, use and equip items/weapons, and engage in PvP combat.
The skill portion of the game consisted of being able to enter commands in more swiftly and accurately than your opponents, managing the strengths and weaknesses of your class, and reacting appropriately to the strategies of other players. It was an extremely fun game, one in which you can see many of the design strengths of modern online multi games like TF2, the Halo series, CoD, and others.
That's not to say that Genocide didn't have design flaws that held it back from it's true potential; it did. The landscape of the game contained a limited number of premier weapons and items that respawned very infrequently, so once players learned the layouts of all the domains and areas, victory was almost entirely predicated on getting to that bad-ass loot before your opponents did. Once that happened, stalking the spawn points of the best gear became the easiest way to pick off your under-equipped prey.
Over time, every match became basically the same: first, you race for the best loot, and then there's a slow agonizing demise for anyone who got left without a chair when the music stopped. Is this beginning to sound familiar yet? The very first time I played Halo 2 online, I recognized the exact same pattern for weapons and camping spots.
With DLC, new map packs can temporarily mask this flaw in the genre, but it's merely a band-aid; within short order, most players have the new maps memorized and it's back to business as usual. Both then and now, victory becomes less a matter of skill or dynamic strategy, and more a matter of memorization and rote execution.
Thinking. It's not just for breakfast anymore.
Despite the frustration, people sprinting for loot in Genocide was eventually semi-tolerable, because there was still the skill aspect of entering in the commands correctly and faster than your opponents. However, just as I was making peace with the reality of gear racing -- enter the wonderful world of macros. Players began using macro overlay programs to auto-enter huge strings of commands.
If you knew the route (by this point everyone did), the macro inputted the commands in such rapid succession that a regular player would be 4 rooms from the start point while a macro user was already pulling the damn Sword from the Stone. It killed what fun was left in that game for me. Today, I can't help but feel a huge wave of deja vu every time I read about a new exploit, hack, or cheat surfacing in MW2 or similar titles. Modern online multiplayer games face the same demons.
A quick side-note of interest -- as the first true PK MUD, Genocide was known for being a game where evil-minded trash talk flowed fast and thick, like blood from a head-wound. Many players, myself included, are dismayed at the ignorant, hateful, and idiotic things one hears in the average lobby or match of any game on XBL. But today's gamers didn't start that fire, it was always burning; I learned words and phrases in 1992 that I wouldn't say out loud to my worst enemy now.
As much as I'd like to blame the state of XBL immaturity on the young'uns of the new millenium, 13-year-olds were just as stupid and malicious back then as they are today. The struggle to ensure mostly positive social interaction is yet another concern that the games of today inherited from their progenitors.
Looks like the sticky grenade just respawned.
I wasn't only playing Genocide back in high-school. I also scratched my competitive multiplayer itch with several turn based space trader/raider BBS games. TradeWars 2002 became popular around 1986, and Solar Realms Elite (SRE) followed later in 1990. They were both extremely popular games because of the addictive nature of their gameplay.
While they were also text games like Genocide, they consisted mostly of elements like buying and trading commodities to earn profit, creating and maintaining planets or starbases, and upgrading your ship's offensive, defensive, and cargo-carrying capacities. A player could log on once per day (or whatever interval the sysop set), and each time they received a finite number of movements, attacks, etc. Building up your ship and your empire were immensely satisfying, and I spent many a late evening waiting for the family to fall asleep so I could tie up the phone line and take my turn.
Unfortunately, I ran into a wall with these door games as well. There were a number of players that had been growing their empires long before I ever started logging in, and they were unstoppable juggernauts. They had nearly unlimited resources and capabilities, and they gave no quarter to the new and defenseless.
Anytime I would set up a planet or starbase, they would continually raid it and steal all my resources; I just never had enough fighters to mount any kind of defense. With all my resource generating options choked, I couldn't grow, expand, or upgrade in any way. I eventually had to let the game go.
With Genocide, the main factor for victory was memorization of areas and loot locations. With TradeWars 2002 and SRE, the determinants for winning were being among the first to begin playing on that particular BBS, and grinding out enough resources that you could smother any new players attempting to gain a foothold in the game space.
Ferengi would call this game edutainment.
Again, I see several modern parallels. EVE Online is almost a direct descendant of the BBS space trader games, and despite its complexity and supposed freedom, if you enter the game now, you have few real choices. You can join one of the factions which is already established in the game, or you can wallow in independent obscurity. New players are forced between choosing to climb the corporate ladder, or ekeing out a meager living while avoiding all institutional powers, Firefly style. The full potential for fun in the game is made available only to a select few players who exert their considerable influence over the rest of the population.
Even in recent games that aren't directly connected by genre, you'll see this same "first in, always win" effect at play. Battlefield: Bad Company 2, while an amazingly good multiplayer experience on many levels, shows undue favoritism to players who picked up the game immediately. When existing players have access to weapons and gear that newbies don't, the learning curve increases dramatically for said newbies, and advancement occurs at a much slower pace. You can't get the points you need to unlock stuff in a reasonable time frame, because your opponents are doing so much more damage than you.
It's a beast of a Catch-22 for developers, I'd imagine. The point is to reward early adopters, launch-day purchasers, and loyal players for their patronage, but by doing so, they unintentionally place a ceiling on the size of their multiplayer community. Eventually, the price of entry in terms of time and frustration for potential new players becomes too high, and people other than the established players who are fully levelled give up on the experience. I myself gave up on BFBC2 for this very reason.
I don't mind a game being hard, but if it's harder for me than for someone else just because they have weapons or perks that I don't, that's a major point of contention for me. I shouldn't be penalized as a player because others have been playing for longer. My $60 spends just as well as theirs, regardless of when I shell it out, so I should have a level playing field where the only advantage that playing for longer gives you is a better understanding of the strategy in the game.
People complained ad infinitum about having to wait forever for FFXIII to finally get good, yet many of the aforementioned gripers gloss over the fact that picking up games like BFBC2 today means playing for many hours before the game really becomes fun to participate in. The design flaw of the gameplay rewards for early adoption is as alive and well today as it was when VGA graphics made gamers' jaws drop.
Don't worry, little bullet sponge. You'll get a real gun someday.
Competitive online multiplayer doesn't have to be like this, with each generation doomed to perpetually inherit the sins of their fathers. Developers can choose to reward consistent play and early adoption in other ways that don't radically change gameplay for newer players. Free DLC for those who buy new/pre-order is easily the lesser of two evils when compared to making the making the game artificially unfun for latecomers, and there are plenty of win/win ways to incentivize continued play while still enticing growth in your player base.
As the complexity of procedural generation grows, and developers become more adroit at applying it to game design, I imagine a shooter in the not too distant future where spawn points for weapons and items change dynamically and meaningfully from match to match, or even during a round. This would ensure that players couldn't approach each session as a race for whatever that game's BFG3000 happens to be. It would bring so much more thought into a game. (i.e. Do we divide our forces and look for the game-changing weapon and risk getting picked off, or do we stick together and trust in strength in numbers to pull us through?)
Take that a step further and imagine a shooter where the map itself could be effectively generated anew every round via procedural generation. Players would receive a truly fresh experience each game, and skill and strategy would really be the primary defining factors for victory. I don't believe it's very far off, but in the meantime, it's important to keep these concerns at the forefront -- those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it.
As for the profanity-spewing, ignorant, racist, pre-pubescent ignoramuses one must sometimes deal with while enjoying competitive multi? I'm afraid that until technology advances to the point where we can begin installing the behavioral inhibitor chips, we'll either have to grin and bear it, or just exercise our right to mute.