I've been playing a lot of multiplayer games lately. From "Battlefield: Bad Company 2" to "Worms: Reloaded" to "Killzone 3" to "Tetris" - Yeah, there's multiplayer in that now too. :)
The thing I've found myself acutely reminded of as a result is how much the people you're playing with dictate the sort of experience you're going to have and how it's often necessary to either adjust your expectations and play style or seek out a different group of people to play with to attain and prolong positive experiences no matter how well crafted the games themselves might be.
This really hit home for me the other day while playing the "Warzone" mode in "Killzone 3." For those unfamiliar with it, "Warzone" consists of a random set of game modes that flow into one another during an overall match between two teams representing the game's two factions. You might for example play a team-deathmatch style mode for five minutes where the only objective is to kill more members of the opposing team than they kill of yours. As soon as that mode ends, you might be tasked with defending a spot on the map for five minutes while the enemy team tries to plant explosives there, or assassinating a particular player on the other team while they try to protect them for a time.
It's a very fluid style of play as you're never sure what the next objective is going to be and spots on the various maps that are ideal for particular scenarios are completely worthless in others. Good players are constantly assessing the in-game situation and adjusting their play accordingly, but when that doesn't happen, your team is likely to get steamrolled.
Case in point, I played two "Warzone" matches the other day. In the first, my team could not have been more coordinated. People were moving in groups, playing their respective roles and utterly dominating the other team as a result. The next match I played was the polar opposite, with players lone-wolfing, going to parts of the map that weren't relevant to the objectives and using the game's voice chat to insult each other rather than offering any useful information or feedback.
The difference in the two rounds was so striking that it literally gave me pause as I pondered how and why the pendulum could swing so radically from match to match, but the answers came to me pretty easily given a little consideration.
The simple answer is that who you're playing with matters much more than what you're playing. Do they understand the mechanics of the game? Do they know the levels/environments the game is being played in? Are they high on meth? Do they understand basic principles of strategy and tactics? Are they assholes? Are they easy or difficult to communicate and coordinate with and do you have a relationship or rapport with them outside of the game?
When you stop and think about it, there are a lot of great reasons why random groups of people playing objective-based games together online shouldn't ever succeed, but clearly they do at least 50% of the time because one team always wins. Of course, that discounts the possibility of clan play, which is made very easy in modern games like "Killzone 3," but I'm talking about encounters where both teams are comprised of people randomly grouped together by an automated matchmaking system. In those cases, something happens that makes one team "better" than the other, and given how carefully balanced most multiplayer games are these days, it would seem to come down to the individual players on each side and how they work with or against each other.
As someone who typically plays a support class in these sorts of games; the guy who stands behind the guy up front and helps them succeed by keeping them alive or providing additional fire on their targets, I like to think that a big part of all this comes down to what I like to call "difference makers" - people who play in a way that's more concerned with benefiting their team than their own personal score. It's tempting to ascribe some sort of subconscious, psychological significance to it; perhaps assuming that the way people play games online is a reflection of the way they are in real life and that there's somehow a general lack of people willing to put the good of those around them ahead of their own personal gain such that when a few people who are willing to do that show up on one team or another it's enough to turn the tide. That could well be true but I've found it's not that cut and dry. Quite often, people's online personas and actions are very different from their "real life" behaviors or vary based on mood, so I don't think it's something that cam be simply generalized, but it seems clear that, regardless of the catalyst, a significant number of players on a given team choosing to play as a team makes a difference.
I guess the bottom line to all this is that it's made me appreciate even more the value of playing games with friends. Simply sharing those experiences with them make them better in very meaningful and measurable ways. There's another level of synergy that groups of friends have that translates very well into the realm of most game worlds. As long as the game doesn't do anything to get in the way of it, it just happens.
Perhaps that too is the difference between a great gaming clan and those based on random collections of internet strangers; that personal connection that makes people try a little bit harder or give a bit more thought to their actions. I think it's much the same as what makes a great sports team or professional organization.
Not exactly revolutionary thinking I know, but something that I think is worth considering and remembering from time to time. If nothing else, it makes it a lot easier to tolerate bad random groups and a lot easier to appreciate it when things go right. And if you do find yourself in one of those bad groups, pro tip, use the opportunity to try out new and unorthodox in-game strategies. You might end up making some lemonade.