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Asymmetrical Balance: The Spider and the Scout


The Spider is the most recent addition to the garage in Mechwarrior Online.

And people hate it.

"It's useless. It sucks. Every other mech is better, pls buff it noa."

Balance is a tricky thing in multiplayer games. All the more so in this age of DLC, regular content updates, and expansions. How do you keep the old stuff relevant while making the new stuff worthwhile? How do you avoid the power-creep of bigger and bigger numbers, or the homogenization of a bunch of indistinguishable clones?

While the Spider might be hated by the MWO community (and make no mistake, it is a gimped unit) it represents a very real way of combating meaningless content-sprawl, and if examined in the right way is an excellent opportunity for the MWO devs to improve their entire game.

I want to take a look at the Spider and TF2's Scout to explain what PGI was attempting, and what can be learned.

- The Spider, presumably mere moments before coming to an explosive demise.

The Spider is a lightweight scout mech with a very limited load-out. While it has similar armour values and a roughly equivalent top-speed of the other light mechs, it carries fewer weapons, just a few lasers or dinky machine guns. It's special quirk that is supposed to set it apart is its fantastic array of jump-jets. The Spider can fly further and higher than any other mech in the game.

The problem is that this jumping ability isn't considered a worthwhile trade.

For one, you don't move faster or have great evasion ability while flying, you just kind of float in a lazy arc. The preponderance of guided weapons on the field means trying to doge fire by flying results in getting smacked out of the air and dying in a more spectacular fashion than the other scouts. I don't think that's the kind of "perk" Spider pilots were hoping for.

This problem is compounded by the fact that the Spider is the only lightweight unable to mount any kind of guided weapon of its own. So when it ends up in a fight with other scouts, it often faces an opponent it can't outrun, can't outdodge, and is stuck aiming its puny little lasers like a chode while the other guy slings heat-seeking rockets at him that hit every time (and usually has more lasers too, just to rub it in.) The Spider is completely outgunned and even a great deal of pilot skill can't compensate for the imbalance.

I don't consider this a failure of the Spider's design, I consider it a failure of game design.

What makes the Spider weak isn't that the other lightweight mechs mop the floor with it, or that it can't do a ton of damage to the big guys. It's that the map design and game modes lack any kind of imagination.

The thing is, the Spider's jump jets represent a noble attempt at what should actually be an effective balancing tool. They are a piece of equipment available only to a few mechs, and the Spider is capable of substantially greater jumps by any of them. I like to think of this as asymmetrical balancing. Making a unit or character valuable by offering something unique and different, not necessarily of equivalent power or utility to what is currently available.

The Spider's impressive flight should give it a lot more options on the field. While most other mechs are stuck on the ground and the few that can jump might be capable of short hops up on top of a building, the Spider can soar in the air to...

Well, nothing.

The maps in MWO are generally flat, filled with wide-open areas, and offer a limited number of routes to the enemies capture point. While there are a few subtle shortcuts and sniping points that the Spider's jump-jets let it take advantage of, they are few and far between. What's more, the other less specialized mechs with fewer jump-jets and more guns can take advantage of the same spots! Maybe with a little less finesse or wiggle room for a poorly planned jump, but really the Spider's extra jets that it gives up so much for don't offer it any other meaningful options over the other guys.

The tragedy is when you see a glimmer of what the Spider could be. In the few places where a clever pilot is able to ascend up a sheer cliff-wall no one else can to shake a perusing mech, or when an aerial ambush takes a lumbering assault mech by surprise and the Spider is able to fly off behind a building before it can retaliate - it's pretty freaking cool! Sure the Spider has crappy weapons, but in the right circumstances it can be a slippery little bastard, able to hop around and harass the other team.

The Spider's value in the game would increase exponentially if the maps in MWO included more variety and imagination.

Picture a rugged badlands split with a fatally deep canyon, traversable only at perilous bridges and choke-points except to the Spider who could jet across with ease letting him attack and fade at will. Or a densely packed dystopic city, a layer-cake of highway ramps, sky-scrappers, and platforms. Where heavy assault mechs trudge through the wider streets while jump capable scouts pop in and out of the urban jungle. Heck, even a deep body of water or a few more cliffs in the existing maps would spice things up, anything that would provide actual obstacles worth avoiding with jets. Not only would larger and more varied maps help the Spider, it would deepen the tactical consideration the Mechwarrior licenced shooter aspires to.

It's important to remember that this doesn't just help the Spider. The more mechs that are viable tactical choices, the deeper and more engaging the game is for everybody. Games quickly grow stale when the meta-game belongs to only a few units or characters.

Of course, it would help the Spider if objective based gameplay wasn't so undervalued in MWO.

-Battle plan? Who am I kidding. I'm just glad when most of the team moves in the same general direction.

While the lightweight mechs of the game are supposed to excel at recon and objective acquisition (and as the most mobile light, the Spider should be the best pure scout), the reality is they are most often used as run-of-the-mill brawlers due to some peculiar design choices. Kills, assists, and high amounts of damage reward a player with wealth and pilot XP at the end of the match. Capturing the objective only gives you a warm sensation and a few spare space coins.

In the capture-the-base Assault game-mode, a victory by capping is generally met with groans from both teams. The lack of reward for a cap win and the long periods of down-time between games means most players see capping as a trolling tactic rather than a viable goal - a way to waste people's time. When the capture timer is ticking down, it isn't uncommon for a team to heckle it's own "offending" player. Any dreams of using the Spider as a high-speed objective focused ninja-capper are met with the crushing disappointment of failure and stigma.

The Spider isn't a bad mech just because it has tissue paper armour and little pea-shooters, it's a bad mech because the game's greater design nullifies and even punishes its few advantages. It never gets a chance to shine.

It is the exact opposite of Team Fortress 2's Scout, a game brimming with imagination that knows how to make asymmetrical advantages work.

-Yup, he sure is

I remember the very early days of TF2 on the Xbox. It might be hard to imagine now, but back then, people HATED the Scout. Not as the OP bastard we know him as today, but because they thought he was useless.

Fragile as a carton of eggs, armed with a scattergun that couldn't hurt a fly if it was more than three feet away, and eaten alive by sentry guns what was the point? Any other combat class could do more damage, do it easier, and no other character suffered such a tremendously lopsided counter-pick as the dreaded Engie Vs Scout match-up. Picking the Scout was a guaranteed way to hear a litany of verbal scorn from your teammates "encouraging" you to pick a better class.

Now he's a staple of every competitive team and considered one of the best characters in the game. So what changed?

Well, a few things, but not much about the Scout himself.

First, people got better at the game. I remember how popular the engineer was when TF2 first dropped; and why not, he was a character who could kill entire teams just by whacking his wrench while the sentry gun did all the work. It wasn't rare to see three or four Texans on every team. But pretty soon people got smart and learned how to take sentries down Uber rushes, indirect sticky bombings, coordinated Spy sabotage attacks and the devilish "Stab-n-Sap." The once invulnerable kingdoms of sentry guns started to collapse left and right, and frustrated Engies left the class in droves.

The thinning of the Engie herd was the Scout's first step towards greatness and was a result of shifts in the overall meta-game, not any change to the Scout himself.

Secondly, people started to learn the maps. TF2 features brilliant map design with battlefields that are very simple to understand and navigate while still providing fantastic depth and options. The Scout's speed and double-jump ability only became more appreciated when players started catching on to all the little shortcuts, ledges, and trick jumps he was capable of.

The more people that played the Scout, the more people realized what a beast he could be. While the scattergun is indeed useless at any sort of range, a point blank meatshot with it is one of the single most damaging attacks in TF2. Using his speed and mobility to get close enough to make his damage shine could make a skilled Scout a real terror.

Generally, maps in TF2 have grown larger and more nuanced. As the designers get more and more practice, they've become better and better at providing interesting alternative routes and tricky gaps that favour the Scout's (and other classes) unique talents.

This is where he really gained dominance. When the game shifted away from the tight hallways of Two-Fort and towards more complicated and open maps like Badlands, Freight, and Badwatter Basin. Maps where the ability to take a short-cut wasn't an amusing curiosity, but a vital strategic advantage. His speed and jumping ability provides him with flexibility and options no other class has, and that makes him legitimately scary - even if he has a glass jaw and needs to be in spitting distance to fight.

TF2 is the poster child for expanded content. Not only have they released tens of new maps, every character has received a slew of new weapons and equipment over the years. The vast majority of them providing unique and viable options.

The added items for the Scout have included a double-barrelled shotgun that could propel him in the air with it's kickback, ways to stun and harass the enemy for more ambushing, an item that trades health for a third jump, one that makes him deal and receive critical hits for a short period, and so on.

Notice that none of the things that people said made the Scout weak were ever changed. He never got a long ranged weapon, never gained a way to defeat Sentry guns (one item would allow him to situationally pass by one, but never take it out or invalidate it.) Valve, in their wisdom, were absolutely fine with letting the Scout have a hard counter and certain limitations.

Instead of caving to player demands, they doubled down on the things that made him unique more movement, more jumping, even more burst damage at the cost of low staying power. What made the Scout a great class was his ability to capitalize on those unique advantages to mitigate his short comings (even when taken to extremes), and that came from strong imaginative map design.

It helps that TF2 is a game that highly prioritizes objective based gameplay over a pure kill count.

TF2 rewards teams that pursue the objective. Holding more of the capture points on a Control map results in shorter respawn times and forward spawn rooms (all the better to keep the momentum up.) Capturing the intel/flag in CTF gives the entire team a critical-hit bonus that generally results in the bloody slaughter of the other team. Going to Sudden-Death is met with boos and cat-calls, and there are no "tie" games - if nobody wins, everybody loses. The Scout's ability to reach objectives faster and cap at double speed makes him a fantastic assets in the war against embarrassing defeat.

TF2 also features multiple asymmetrical game-modes. The Assault/Defence and Cart Push modes where one team is on the aggressive while the other focuses on defence and lock-down give all the classes a chance to shine, even without coordinated organization. Where a team might have to have a group huddle to decide their strategy in a symmetrical game mode like MWO's Assault, players take the natural course of action in TF2 when the situation calls for it.

Picking a Spider is a huge risk in MWO since you have no idea if your random team will be interested in capping or taking advantage of flanking distractions. You could be the lone lightweight on a team of assault mechs that just want to hunker down and out-camp the enemy. But in TF2, players naturally gravitate to classes and tactics suited for the job.

-See, innovative solutions to problems are all around us

One of the best parts of basing a game in a fantastic setting, be it the cartoon reality of TF2 or the futuristic Robot Knights of Mechwarrior is the freedom to let the imagination run wild. I can understand the plight of a designer trying to balance the weapons in a modern war game. Adjusting decimal points worth of damage values, shaving micro-seconds off a reload animation, desperately trying to make 20 functionally identical assault rifles feel like meaningful options, without making any single one better than the rest. That guy has it rough.

But when creating for a fantastic world filled with giant stompy robots or cartoon psychopaths, there is no excuse for laziness! It would be easy to "balance" the Spider with a few changes. Add some weapons, or some speed, twiddle the armour values and such. But I think that would be a shame. When an asymmetrical advantage isn't working on a character or class, it isn't time to buff that unit towards homogenization, it's time to look at what's broken in the game that makes that unit suck. Look at the maps, is there anything that could be added or changed to give players more options? What lessons should be learned for future maps? Could there be adjustments in the way rewards are dolled out? What other game modes could promote imaginative play and strategies?

The failure of the Spider isn't a chance to buff that unit, it is a opportunity to examine the game and make it better for every class and every player.
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About Nic Rowenone of us since 7:50 PM on 05.05.2010

Nic (formerly known as Wrenchfarm) has been an active member of the Dtoid community since 2010. After toiling away in the Cblog mines and Recap Team workhouse for years, he made the jump and became a staff member in 2014. He likes robots, coffee, and pictures of robots enjoying coffee.

Xbox LIVE:Wrenchfarm
Steam ID:http://steamcommunity.com/profil


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