Friday, June 20, 2014

Thoughts on game design and the nerf arms race

In my last post, I changed things up from my usual focus on the equipment, and discussed gameplay for once. I ended up getting into closed field games versus "everything else" (such as more open games, CQB games, and for lack of a better term, anything tactical), and how I had a bit of a distaste for the former for a variety of reasons. That got me thinking a little more on the concept of field games, their inherent weaknesses, and the age-old debate surrounding equipment performance in this hobby.

What I have come to realize, is that the field-based game is inherently quite vulnerable to the effects of escalating gear specifications. It is this, that I believe is the source of much of the concern, and much of the antagonism, toward the evolution of gear in this sport that I have long failed to understand myself. I have long been a competitor in the arms race, and a very hard-driving player of my gametypes with regards to gear, and while that may offer some bias it also gives me perspective.

Let's go back to a phrase I had used: foam speedball. When you take a 100' or 150' square arena and throw a dozen stock class players into it, you get a ROF-dominated game. SC has a lot of common gear that can create insane and sustained volumes of fire. Due to the limited cover and physical layout of the fight, it partially becomes a matter of who can get the greatest number of darts downrange. For instance, at a casual campus war I found the most effective loadout for me was my old SAW and a secondary Rayven. My strategy? Simple. Stay on the trigger until all bad guys were dead. I sprayed the whole field and kept them pinned, and our lighter guys ran in and bunkered them or nabbed them as they dodged my shots. Real straightforward, not really demanding of any real tactics. What did it require? A hundred rounds up in smoke in a one-minute match, which is not exaggerated, plus what my teammates furiously spammed. Similarly, nowadays I would run a game like this with my Rapidstrike, and play smarter and with more trigger restraint, but it is still a matter of darts on tap.

Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily, spamfest games can be fun, in their own way (not saying I prefer them...) but it does illustrate a fundamental flaw, or at least weakness, of the field game.

Now, let's talk about NIC nerf. Specifically, why the Proper NIC has a longstanding opposition to improving the equipment in great and fundamental ways past the modern day field ruled by manual springers and manually pumped airguns.

Of course, the safety aspect of the above is surmountable, for example by the use of a chronograph and enforced standards of safe design for pneumatic launchers, and due to the fact that some of the concerns such as a catastrophic and random high-velocity shot from actual setups are myths and not truths or likelihoods. However, one aspect remains that cannot be addressed by science and that is the desire to avoid "generalized effectiveness" or ROF escalating out of control, because that would be much more of harm to NIC than to us (i.e., stock class nerf) where it is already a factor.

You see, aside from the fundamental differences in the origins and approach of NIC versus stock class nerf that render stock class much more progressive and objective and much more favorable to friendly competition and hardcore wargaming whereas NIC strives to be a silly extension of Nerf guns as a toy, there is a mechanical difference at work here. The muzzle energy of NIC guns, which shoot approximately one-gram darts at 200-300fps, is much higher than stock class which typically has 130fps as a safety limit for public games. That complicates the task of building something wieldy that can spit out those shots at 6+ per second.

In stock class, we have (and have been working toward for years, example being the Stampede system as far back as 2010) numerous ways to shoot darts at "full" velocity with extreme rapidity and convenience. I have been, for years, a primarily full-auto player, and I shoot about as hard as I am allowed to shoot and get as much range and punch as I can at any given game, and I am doing this with mostly converted toy-grade stuff, bought from stores and fitted with upgrades. That is not the case with NIC nerf. Boosting the rate of fire and using stored energy in NIC would increase costs - think HPA tanks, regulators, fittings, air refills... It would spell the end of playing with plumbing and usher in a new era of buying a collection of parts and assembling a rather expensive primary, such as a QEV/DCV semi-auto. It would also create an environment for very, very nice and awesome gear to be created - like a mag-fed selective fire airgun based on paintball technology, perhaps.

I would welcome this as the evolution of the hobby, especially because frankly, the crude nature of a lot of NIC gear and its low ROF is what puts me off from doing anything but plinking targets with it. I like dakka and assault rifles, and playing stock class with Rapidstrikes gives me that, whereas I don't play pump very well. Plus I want to see high-spec and non-cheesie nerf gear meant specifically for us. But enough of that tangent...

Given what NIC wants to be, it is understandable in light of the above why NIC is so antagonistic and closed-minded toward stored energy devices on the field. It would reduce the accessibility of the game to newcomers and casuals in a time when we are all (SC included) still pre-critical mass and short on players.

But what is the REAL problem?

Not the weapons... Not the players and their arms race...

It is the field game!

There is no other way to play that is so especially vulnerable to being damaged or reshaped by what people do with or to their equipment, particularly centered around rate of fire. Yet, that appears to be all the proper NIC ever plays. No wonder.

Remember that CTF game I discussed? How about HvZ, have you ever played or seen it played? These are examples of situations where the arms race escalation is inherently secondary to tactics by means of the game mechanics and setting. So in short, my opinion on the arms race issue: Fix the game to make it more playable, don't nerf the players to make it work. Banning equipment should be done only for safety purposes, IMO. Banning for playability is not addressing the root problem and it makes the game less appealing to the players that get their gear - or their ideas - targeted.

Furthermore, a regulatory approach that aims to limit field effectiveness and control non-safety parameters like rate of fire and energy source, and indeed the concept of leveling the playing field to such an extent, is more consistent with a sport than a game. Do we want to play a sport? I don't. As an example of the effects, note the proliferation of all these 1.25" bore, circa 7" stroke, springers with a "K26"-like spring rate, a pump grip, and a hopper. I was building a one-off design of my own, but I realized that there are far too many SomethingBowPumps out there already, and as Kane described in his NH post, the format is more or less self-limiting - so gather dust the parts will. I can improve the "hoppered SomethingBowPump" format in some minor way, but really, it can be practically improved just as much as tournament paintball guns can be improved, which is not much at all. And that is not cool.



  1. What I find the most interesting here is the distinction that you draw between games and sports. Restrictions on what blasters may be used is not the only way in which NIC wars are sportlike whereas, on the other hand, HvZ is not. A game of HvZ is asymmetrical with one side that will virtually inevitably win, players switch teams (sometimes voluntarily), and players sometimes deliberately challenge themselves by using substandard equipment. All of these things are unheard of in sports.

    This does not change the fact that open-field combat needs to be fixed, because it is broken as both a game and as a sport. Team sports always involve strategy and tactics - even dodgeball has strong tactical/teamwork element!

    However, this may go some way towards explaining the hostility in the NIC towards innovation in blaster design, if they apply a concept of fairness associated with sports (i.e. equal chance of winning) rather than with games (i.e. fun for everyone).

    On the subject of promoting innovation in blaster design and allowing for fair blaster vs blaster play, fixing open-field combat would certainly be necessary, but I doubt that it would be sufficient, because there are certain differences between NIC wars and HvZ or stock class other than battlefield design which ensure fairness in those cases. In stock class, expensive equipment physically cannot be much better than reasonably modified kids toys. For HvZ, there are several reasons, but I think it mostly comes down to the fact that the game is a fundamentally cooperative endeavor for humans, so seeing a fellow human player bring an extremely effective blaster to the field can only ever be good news - and, if you are ever on the receiving end of that blaster, you will have unlimited respawns and an ever-growing horde of companions.

    In an NIC war, on the other hand, expensive blasters can be meaningfully more effective and seeing another player with one can be bad news. Even if the battlefield is constructed in such a way that equipment is really less relevant than strategy, tactics, teamwork, endurance, etc. there will still be a perception of unfairness.

  2. Agreed about ROF dominating the closed field. I have taken my old 2s 180 RS to some of my indoor games, typically in gymnasiums with boxes as obstacles and short "speedball" games to get player turnover going (I try to get as many players over the course of a 2hr session as possible!) and provided I can keep it fed with darts it can consistently wreck the other team, to the point at which even I got bored. Everytime anyone popped their head up, I could keep them pinned with 3 shot bursts whilst someone else blind sided them. At one point I took 3 players with 3 tags each out in one clip. This is fun for nobody!
    Outside, different story. At 3s it's still fun, but terrain features, like real cover, dead ground, wind etc can all change the game. This is why we have been working on the immersive day game, with some back story like LARP but retaining the simplicity and diverse objectives of nerf games. As every game we play currently has a 130fps cap and you can't get most of the plumbing parts for homemades here we don't have any NIC 300fps stuff. Why bother making it when there are only 2 or 3 in the whole country and you can't use them at most wars?
    Our "field" type round based games are almost always in mixed terrain anyway. Thus we are pretty much entirely a Super Stock community. Blood Angels blaster sounds like our kind of thing. We are looking at an open source universal modular design blaster as a thing anyone in any country can get made for similar price to a mid level paint marker.

  3. One of my biggest problems with speedball type games is that you can usually see the entire field from any position, meaning it's really easy to keep track of everyone and hard to pull off surprise flanking attacks and other maneuvers. The place where I usually play is an airsoft field, and for nerf games we usually use the village section, which is smallish but is packed with little buildings. We've found it to be a perfect balance of big enough that modding your guns to add range is very much worth it, but small enough that somebody with a bone-stock gun, or at least an Elite one, is perfectly capable of being a huge threat as long as they can work the buildings. The lack of visibility makes good tactics and situational awareness far more important than how far or fast your gun can fire.

    Keep in mind though that we usually have a fairly small group of players, and if we had too many the village would get a bit crowded. Of course, we do have the entire rest of the field at our disposal if we ever get enough of a playerbase for big games, and we've run a few HvZ-ish LARPs where the action was spread around at various parts of the field, although most of the time the whole playerbase was concentrated in one general area as the zombie group attacked the human group. We've never tried to run a full-field Nerf game on the scale of the airsoft games they run because we just don't have the playerbase yet.

  4. I think that the arms race needs progress before we can attract the number of players needed to have a thriving community. I envision a safe alternative to airsoft. We need higher quality gear before people will consider it an adult hobby. Mainly AEG quality weapons with more metal parts and factory made stephan darts and double stack magazines. OMW is looking like it's going in the right direction but still sticking with cheap plastic that is holding the foam revolution back. I say we all ban together and find an airsoft manufacturer to create a better foam weapon system.

  5. It's funny that you say that the NiC is an extension of nerf as toys and stock class is not as I have usually felt the opposite.

    This seems very player oriented, which is great, but I'm curious do you think that being an organizer changes some of the details in making these decisions? We play indoors, so probably more tactical than HvZ, but certainly a hell of a lot better terrain then open field. Half of our group is into modding to various degrees where the other half is content to be casual and use stock blasters. My concern becomes at what point to the mods represent an unfair advantage? Granted everyone has the chance to mod their own blasters to equal footing, but as the head of the group I want as many people as I can get and for them to be happy playing. So the answer must lay somewhere in the middle.

    Personally I've come close to banning 180's just for fairness sake (as well as getting tagged from those at less than 15ft stings more than a little.) I haven't yet, just come close. I hate to discourage anyone by limiting their favorite blaster, but there are other players to be concerned about as well. In the end, not really asking advice, just more your opinion of if being in charge of the group would change your perspective of this matter.

    1. The origins and approach of stock class nerf, and that velocity/"mod-ness" paradox many people get hung up on, is something I have been meaning to do a dedicated post about but I can't get my thoughts in order. More or less though, that is my experience and observation as a player. At least locally (and heavily based on an HvZ demographic) the stock class world takes the role of "airsoft anywhere". On the internet I see that strongly mirrored. It's a primarily 18+ (or adult in terms of conduct) demographic that wants to meet up and play games using nerf guns as a practical projectile tagging device satisfying relevant requirements, and their actions on the internet are in line with that.

      I think it is plainly observable that NIC nerf however is the current iteration of the original nerf internet community from the 1990s and early 2000s. The founding attitude of Old Nerf is still alive and driving the direction of that branch today. See:

      (...which I almost COMPLETELY disagree with excepting the aspect of sportsmanship, and making the competition a friendly one free from actual bad blood between players, see which is very much in line with my thoughts on the matter).

      So that aside, yes this is from a player perspective, but also from the perspective of a fly on the wall during an event. My opinion is that within the safety bounds of stock class nerf velocity limits and the practical carriage of ammunition for magfed guns combined with a "tactical" style of gameplay, you really can't have anything become truly broken nor can you have anything but the least competitive gear (stock Recon) become anything resembling unplayable. Gear is a minor part of playing such a game, you can take out a 120fps full auto with a Reflex or a sock if you can move and dodge and use cover and work the field. Back at UF there is a member of the squad who has always been, and continues to be, deadly with a stock Raider and now Rampage. It is true that there is a fractional advantage to be had but I doubt it worth worrying about unless you are playing a sport.

      And if there is a balance problem, there has to be a certain consensus of where the bar will be and not end up with a dumbed down version of the game with low performance and low impact in order to cater to the supercasuals that ends up losing some of the elements that make it fun for a lot of players. If Stock Recon Guy is a good player he will play, still have fun even if he gets shot a lot, and then go upgrade his gear to at least be modern for about $20, and do well from then on. I don't think there is anything unreasonable about these kind of natural performance standards in a game unless the field's average performance bar becomes that of pure high-end upgrades which is improbable.

      If I was an org, I would be concerned about new casuals having a frustrating or even painful first experience against the experienced players, but I would also recognize the importance of playing a hardcore enough game that people take it seriously enough to be dedicated and loyal to it, as well as not frustrating higher-end players by forcing them to use gear they don't like. In the end I would favor a higher than average performance bar, but help out casuals all I can with decent loaner guns and pump-only rounds and the like, if necessary.

      Don't ban 180 motors, man. For one thing, see above, but for another, that is the type of ban I really dislike: Not defined by objective performance, but by a specific technology or design. If you are going to restrict players, do it in terms of velocity and rate of fire, for example.