Mid Only, Capture Points, and Cognitive Load in PvP

I’m a bit burned out on the TI3 stuff and too many people have been around this week to get any new scripting done, so instead I’m going to do one of those self-indulgent game design philosophy posts.  Next week we’ll get back to the topics you actually care about.

Anyway, one of the biggest trends in the Dotalike genre has been the rise of the all-mid mode.  I don’t know the order of inception off-hand, but both League of Legends and Heroes of Newerth introduced All-Random, All Mid and Mid Wars respectively and given them their own separate matchmaking queue.  Dota 2 has also recently introduced Mid Only as a game mode in private lobbies.

The other trend is an emphasis on capture points, largely driven by League of Legends’ Dominion mode, which in turn was pretty influenced by World of Warcraft’s Arathi Basin.  Many of the genre newcomers have adopted capture points under the perception that this mechanic allows them to remove (or at least de-emphasize) the laning stage.  The hope here is that by making the game more about action and less about last hitting, capture point maps will have a greater appeal to the more casual demographic of the genre.

When it comes to making a low-investment, “casual” game, Mid Only modes have been incredibly successful and capture point maps have not.  This is driven by the fact that while both options simplify the game compared to the standard 3-lane map, Mid Only modes effectively reduce the complexity of the strategic thought necessary to participate in the game, which reduces the cognitive load for a newer player.  Capture point maps simply replace the broad collection of strategic decisions in a 3-lane map with one constant and actually rather complex strategic decision.  As a result,  capture point games are also simpler but not actually less cognitively taxing.

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Before getting into the details, I’d like to point out that the evolution of a streamlined, linear map design is actually a much broader phenomena that shows up in a lot of competitive genres.  One of the biggest examples is Alterac Valley in World of Warcraft.  Back in vanilla, AV was the most mindless, Zerg vs Zerg form of PvP possible, with individual games going on for over 24 hours with no actual victor and virtually none of the original players remaining in the game.  And yet, AV was by far the most popular PvP map in the game (at least in part due to the honor mechanics).  Also of note here is that one other popular form of vanilla world PvP, the emergent Hillsbrad war between Tarren Mill and Southshore also resembles the tug-of-war that you see in Alterac Valley.

The other big example that comes to mind is 2fort in Team Fortress 2.  Go into the server listing and you’ll find no end of 24/7 2fort servers with entirely too many people for either side to successfully capture the intelligence in a reasonable amount of time.  Instead, you have just a constant flow of aggression into the two main choke points of the map.  It’s effectively old school Alterac Valley recreated in an FPS.  On top of that, the basic concept of the standard Payload Map is the same sort of linear push refined into a more standard attack/defend game mode.

Part of what drives these modes is the absolute chaos created by putting too many people into too little space.  I personally hate these modes and find them both pointless and mindless, but I think a lot of people like the chaos because it turns PvP into a relative safe space.  As long as you’re spamming your abilities, you’ll eventually get kills; if you die, you can rationalize it as being impossible to avoid, and given the environment, you’ll probably be right; and finally, if your team loses it’s impossible for it to be your fault, and in many cases either team losing is effectively impossible.  It can be a reasonably nice environment to learn about the mechanics of PvP without being overwhelmed.  Of course, it can also be an environment that players go to exclusively so that they never actually have to learn about PvP.  But with dotalikes and All Mid, we’re not really talking quite so much about the overcrowded aspects of linear, streamlined PvP modes, so let’s put this aside for now.

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What I want to focus on the most basic decision a player has to make in a PvP game: “Where do I go?”  It’s actually a pretty complicated question in general.  3-lane maps have evolved this basic expectation of 2-1-2 that then gets altered by higher level concepts like jungling and trilanes.  But the expectation of splitting up relatively evenly is established by the importance of finding farm, which simplifies the initial strategic decision of where you’re ‘supposed’ to be.  Eventually one team brings 5 people somewhere, and then the other brings 5 and you get teamfights.  Weaker players get confused about the part between the laning and the teamfights.  This is why if you watch lower level games you’ll either see a ton of people wandering around aimlessly in a single lane for way too long waiting for a teamfight that will never come.  Alternatively, you’ll see a bunch of static laning for way too long instead of ever attempting to gank anything or even jungle.  Strategically, both laning and teamfights are pretty easy; it’s the stuff in-between that requires complicated decision making.

The problem then with capture point maps is that they’re entirely take space in that strategic grey area.  An effective Dominion or Arathi Basin team is effective because they divide their forces intelligently.  They read the map and can make a good estimation of the minimum number of forces they need to send to capture a new point or safely delay the enemy’s attempts.  But the average teams playing these games are not effective.  They’re a group of strangers with weak to non-existent communication.  As an individual, your movement decisions are basically gambles on not only the positioning of the enemy team, but also on where the rest of your team will choose to go.    You could hypothetically be in a situation where your group has a choice between two options and either option will work so long as everyone in the group makes the same decision, and then when you fail because you split up, both side will blame the other for not going with their plan.  But if you never split up your team is guaranteed to lose.

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So coming back to the idea of cognitive load, basically it’s the theory that when learning a new subject you can only handle so much incoming information at once.  As you grow more familiar, you develop schemas that free up your memory for other uses.  To take the idea to Dota, a new player doesn’t know anything about heroes or items, but eventually they develop schemas like “Queen of Pain is a mid hero that ganks heavily between 7-11,” or “Mekansm is an item I should build on anything that’s not a hard carry if my team doesn’t have one.”  When you have this heuristic understanding on what different heroes need, what they can accomplish at any given time, and what item build you need to go, you then can spend more time thinking about other more complicated strategic or tactical decisions.

And if we follow this line of thought, the most successful introductory modes would be the ones that reduce cognitive load while having a structural similarity to the more complicated game.  Capture Point modes fail this test because outside of the initial move of the game, there’s never a moment where the decision on where to go is simple and straightforward.  Conversely, in all mid games the decision on where to go is always simple and straightforward in that you can only go in one direction and you will eventually run into the single fight on the map.  So if I’m a new player unfamiliar with Dota or LoL or HoN I can just get into an all mid game and learn about the heroes and items in relative isolation.  Capture Point maps do not provide this environment.

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I think eventually Dota 2 should look into some kind of a mid only queue, possibly with a relatively limited hero pool and all random.  In some ways it competes for attention with the main mode, but I think it serves as a better casual gateway into real Dota than, say, Easy Mode which just provides instant gratification for the worst strategic tendencies of the typical player.  A well designed mid only mode would do a much better job of emphasizing clever play using supports and semicarries, which could honestly make the main queue more enjoyable if it has enough influence.

And the takeaway from all this for any of these new games trying to evolve away from the basic 3-lane construct is that you really need to step back and evaluate the strategic decisions a player needs to make to play your game successfully.  Most importantly, you should:

  1. give players a limited number of objectives at the start of the game that split the players’ attentions in a relatively predictable way
  2. gradually expand these objectives as the game goes on in a way that will shake up the players’ behavior
  3. add incentives to the later portion of the game that periodically focus both sides on a particular objective in order to provoke large teamfights before one team has a large advantage

This lets you create a game that has strategic depth without ever feeling overwhelming.  The initial decisions are simple and straightforward, and the later decisions are bounded in a certain way so that they’re punctuated (and to some degree telegraphed) events that eventually culminate to a climactic fight.

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7 Responses to Mid Only, Capture Points, and Cognitive Load in PvP

  1. See also: BF3, Operation Metro, Conquest, never-ending battle of the escalators at Bravo. Same linear, static grindfest. Most popular map in BF3 … ugh.

    • phantasmal says:

      Yeah, it’s actually pretty startling how pervasive the trend is when you start to look at it. It’s also definitely the case that these maps have the potential to become an invasive weed that strangles the life out of other, more interesting maps.

      • asdfasdf says:

        EG/ Valve’s update of TFC’s ctf_badlands to TF2’s cp_badlands. The former was a spamfest over the bridge, and an impenetrable sentry gun nest around the flag. The latter is a brilliant map with many avenues of attack and enormous room for contribution from every class.

        Sadly the latter would probably see just about as much play as 2fort if it was an official port.

      • asdfasdf says:

        *former (last sentence)

  2. arteezy says:

    noob casual get better LOL

  3. xdv says:

    I actually had the opposite thought, since I love the Dominion mode to death (it’s the only thing I play in LOL), I would actually want Valve to create their own version of Dominion with an asymmetrical map rather than the boring 5 pointed star map that LOL has.. The Diretide event is actually what came closest to it – having positional-based objectives rather than attrition type gameplay that is regular DOTA / LOL. I think a lot of people enjoyed the extra layer of strategy that went with it.

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