The Dirty Bomb pig has been rolling around in closed beta mud for a number of weeks now, slathering itself in a thick and nutrient-rich sludge that most would find irresistable. It’s a team-based, objective-oriented, exploded-London shooter from Splash Damage, they of Enemy Territory infamy.
I wrote about my wholly positive experiences with the pig/videogame right here. Now I’ve spoken to lead writer Ed Stern and executive producer Steve Gaffney about Dirty Bomb: its future, its present, its fine tuned matchmaking and its misty and unknowable future.
It’s an interview! For you! To read.
PCGN: So this is the second time I’ve played Dirty Bomb…
Ed Stern:I’m so sorry. You’re just plumb fuck out of luck aren’t you?
PCGN: And I did a lot better this time around…
PCGN: So that got me thinking about matchmaking, and how players of different skill levels are being brought together in Dirty Bomb.
Steve Gaffney:So I did notice that in the first game you were playing, you were wrecking everyone – you and your team – and then we found a different group of people for you to play against, and it was much harder and I think everyone enjoyed themselves more…
ES:Ha, yes! You were less good! Ha ha!
SG:But that’s kind of the key thing for us. Matchmaking and making sure you’re able to play against similarly skilled players when playing a competitive game, because that’s the thing that’s been missing from our gametype for a really long time. So we didn’t have it in Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory, we didn’t have it in Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, and we really could have done with it.
ES:Yes! Because it meant that people’s first hour in the game was sometimes just really… like a vertical difficulty curve. That’s not fun apparently!
SG:No, and what actually happens is you end up with someone who’s played the game for a hundred hours playing against someone who’s played the game for ten minutes, and there’s clearly going to be differences in skill.
ES:Or… I guess it’s slightly different because obviously it’s “games as service” but – quite often I don’t buy a game the moment it comes out. So when I start playing it, and everyone’s already level 20 – I’m just getting battered around like a squash ball – that’s not doing anyone any good.
So yeah, matchmaking is something we’ve got better at – we’ve been doing stress test weekends on Steam for our closed beta and we have learned a lot from that, and also how long we let players play before we assess them, I think that’s something that’s improved.
For a while, we were matching them before they’d played enough games, so they get one good game and the algorithm goes “oh, these guys are brilliant, we’ll put them up against this amazing team” – and then their second game will just be an atrocity.
SG:Yeah, there’s a couple of different algorithms we use on the back-end to determine the skill level…
[Ed Stern genuinely laughs upon hearing the word “back-end”]
SG:…and the interesting thing is that we’re actually fully in control of that for the first time in any product, because we have our own matchmaking service – FireTeam, which is our online services division. So we’re finally able to tweak it and improve it over time. I think it’s just going to be awesome for players.
PCGN: So I played Dirty Bomb at preview events with journalists who had varying degrees of experience with the game, and it seemed as if having just a single player on your team who knew what they were doing created an insurmountable advantage. Can the game’s matchmaking account for massive disparities in experience between players?
[Disclaimer: I’ve rewritten the above question since asking it, to more closely reflect what I was getting at, which is: how will you make Dirty Bomb fun for people who are really crap at competitive shooters like me?]
ES:Ultimately the players do a better job at self-selecting themselves than we can balance them… if you try and balance the gameplay for unusually good players, you just end up just ruining it for everyone. The key is to get all of those good players together – and the longer they play the more accurately you can pick them out and stick them together. It’s managing that first half-hour; because this is a hardcore game for hardcore players made by hardcore people in a hardcore room drinking hardcore drinks and dressed in a very hardcore fashion.
SG:Are you in that room?
ES:No. I’ve been near it, it’s nice! It smells a bit…
SG:Of beef and cheese.
ES:But I had a point, and I feel very strongly about it, and that’s that we want this game to be really challenging. We want it to have no detectable skill-ceiling. We’re very much not making this game for everyone, we’re not marketing it to everyone and we’re not targeting it at everyone. If you’re up to speed with this stuff, we think you’ll find it incredibly rewarding, because for every game where you think “okay, we just got owned there” there will be one that you win.
If you are really good and are playing with your friends and there’s three of you and you’re doing well, we’re going to pretty quickly put you up a similar group of players. No wait, upagainst. We’re not going to put you up some similar players.
SG:It’s not a dissimilar problem to League of Legends and DOTA. Those game modes are incredibly popular but incredibly difficult, and incredibly complex. And the existence of those games and their popularity kind of gave us permission to try that with the shooter.
PCGN: Can I ask about the crate drops? Myself and a number of other players on my team became addicted to opening crates quite quickly. Have you done any research into the psychology of the addictive nature of snapping open those crates for loadout cards?
SG:Not really. I think what we wanted to do was just reward players for playing the game, and that’s why the crates exist. So as you pointed out, it’s quite a hard game, it’s a multiplayer game so you lose 50% of the time. But if we do matchmaking correctly, you’re going to lose half your games and you’re going to win half of your games, so we don’t want players to feel like they’re getting kicked in and they don’t get anything out of it at the end of it.
We don’t want a standard progression system where you get to level 60 and you reset and do it again, we wanted something to be a little bit more persistent and a little bit more meaningful, so the crates… cases, I should say, are really there as like a reward mechanism.
PCGN: And that’s where the monetisation comes in?
ES:You can buy the cases, yeah, or you can just play the game. I mean, the cliché is you’ve either got the time or the money, but no-one has both, so there’s nothing in the game that you can’t unlock just by playing the game. Even if you do get it, it’s never-ever pay-to-win. It’s just, we’d just be cutting our own throats by doing that. It doesn’t make sense.
SG:And it kind of fucks the balance of the game if we make it pay-to-win. We are very passionate about keeping the game balance, and we have technology, we record stats from all the games to keep the game balanced. We don’t want any kind of monetisation system to make players feel like it’s unbalancing the game or it’s unfair in any way. We can’t let that happen.
ES:We’ll have free Mercs on rotation too. So without paying any money at all, you will be able to play every Merc in the game and gain their special ability. But inevitably, just because players are different, there’s going to be some Mercs they favour more than others.
So if you unlock a loadout card for a Merc you don’t use very much, we’re going to let you trade that in for one that you do like – that just makes sense. It’s interesting watching the combinations that people go for. I think quite often there are some very obvious and slightly spectacular loadouts where some of their uses are apparent right from the start. Some I’ve really struggled with, and not just because of my skill level.
SG:It is just because of that.
ES:Really? We’ve just been humouring me this whole time?
SG:Yes. Have I destroyed your point?
ES:So this whole game has basically been an intervention by my colleagues.
SG:I think Ed’s point though is that there are many ways to be good at this game. It’s a game about moving and shooting – which is different from most FPSes out there at the moment, because most games kind of separate those two actions from each other.
But the other thing you can be good at in this game is using your ability at exactly the right time, which is something I think…
ES:Which is a classic MOBA thing, really.
ES:And to some extent, World of Warcraft as well – clock timers and area of affectability. I mean, when we started making games twelve years ago that just wasn’t a thing. It was all about Quake 3 Arena, super-twitch, huge mobility and rail-guns between the eyes.
So some loadouts are more subtle, more strategic, but there’s always a basic version of each one. So for example there’s a fairly standard Medic who’s got med-packs and revives and that’s what he does. Then there’s a variant one where they don’t actually have med-packs but they have a healing station that’s area of effect and it’s got a timer. Great.
And then there’s a third one which we’ve kind of called the “Arsehole Medic”. (I should make it clear that that’s a Medic who’s an arsehole, not like a proctologist, because that would be of limited use on the battlefield. I’m never making that mistake again, and I don’t want any players to have to make that as well).
He can self revive, but he’s also got a healing pulse, and it took me a while to learn how to use that – it’s really powerful if you choose your moment right. The Arsehole Medic. The Bum Doctor.
PCGN: Okay, well just to wrap it up…
[Ed Stern begins beatboxing and is inexplicably weird for about 45 seconds]
ES:Can we not just talk? Can we not just use prose?
PCGN: Well you can keep going if you want.
SG:You mentioned the Bum Doctor and Ed started breaking beats?
PCGN: I think it was because I said “wrap it up”…
SG:Oh, it was a joke?
PCGN: Yeah, I triggered him.
ES:With “Bum Doctor.”
PCGN: There was a lovely big slide at the beginning of the presentation that listed all the exciting things you guys are going to do post launch…
ES [plaintively]:Bum Doctor.
PCGN: I don’t think Bum Doctor was there…
ES:You’re not rising to that?
PCGN: What was the most exciting thing on that list of…
ES [affirmatively]:Bum Doctor.
PCGN: …upcoming features?
SG:I think the big thing for us is… ahem… yeah, supporting the game post launch is like an absolute commitment on our part. So we’ve got a number of features that we’re going to ship, the order of which is probably going to change as soon as we ship the game and start reacting to what people are saying.
ES:I think that’s it, that it’s not just “right, it’s all set up, here’s our schedule, out they go.”Once the game’s out in the wild, it’s having the systems to collect the data and then to act on it. To go “oh, actually here’s the most pressing thing we need to be doing” – to react to the player feedback and demand, and if it turns out players want loads more of a thing, we can switch to do more of that, rather than us going “sorry, we have our schedule set in stone, that’s all we’re going to do.”
SG:Yeah, I think we’re going to play around with some game modes as well, I’m interested in that because what we kind of realised is that our Mercs actually change different FPS game modes as well. Your traditional FPS game modes actually end up playing out quite differently depending on which Mercs are in play. We’re going to ship a couple of prototypes in the coming months, to see what people think of them. So I think I’m most excited about that, actually.
PCGN: I assume you mean you’ve got unrevealed Mercs that change how Dirty Bomb works?
PCGN: Can you give me examples of that? Not that I’m prying. Well, I am.
ES:Cock Doctor! …Cocktor!
SG:I mean, if you think about game modes that are popular in other FPSes – like we’ve prototyped a couple of similar modes and put our Mercs in there, and they’ve been really interesting, so we’re going to try those out without really fully committing to them, just to see what people think of them, and then see where we go from there.
ES:And the jewel in the crown is still our objective-mode.
SG:Stopwatch. That competitive Stopwatch mode is still our prime mode for the game, and probably always will be, but these other things are quite interesting.
Dirty Bomb is currently in closed beta.