This post is a 'spiritual sequel' of sorts to my previous post on this sub, Black Ops: Cold War's trailer is out, and we should really discuss something about it.
This really doesn't tie into that previous post at all, it's just another Call of Duty post I wanted to make as the series gears up for yet another yearly title release.
In addition, I just wanted to say something. In the previous post I noticed a significant amount of comments which basically went 'you're wrong, and you're overreacting, and you're wrong', or a noticeable subsection of people who either didn't read the post finish or just plain ignored the point of the post before commenting. Considering that the third rule of this community is the rule of Constructive Discussion, I think it's better if you and I don't waste each other's time with this kind of talk. Hm?
There's a running joke in the Call of Duty community. If you're part of it, you've probably already narrowed it down to like one of about 3 - we're not particularly creative. 'Everyone hates the current Call of Duty until the new one comes out'. In a way, it's true - the most public of Call of Duty communities, Reddit, etc., are inextricably filled with vitriol for the supposed 'disappointment' of the new game every single year.
Roughly one day ago at the time of this post's writing, the Black Ops: Cold War Alpha went live. As I speak blackopscoldwar
is going nuts with accusations of 'strong SBMM' and general trash-talking that has become the personality of the Call of Duty community. But I'm not really here to just talk about these issues. I will touch on them, but more important than that is this issue that every franchise will someday encounter. That if you're part of a long-running fandom, you've probably already found.
Community and Call of Duty
Call of Duty is infamous for its gatekeeping. It is, after all, the fandom who lists among its proudest boasts the proliferation of racial slurs in public lobbies during earlier titles in the series; 'you wouldn't survive a BO2/MW2 lobby (depending on whether or not they currently believe Treyarch or Infinity Ward to be the 'worst dev')' being one of the weirdest and most common things you might end up hearing.
When writing this, I have to be honest... I don't exactly know where to start. I could start, for example, with how the Call of Duty community is fervent about its opposition to just about... uh... anything
. Literally anything. In Black Ops 4: confusion about roman numerals (thank you Jacob Geller), a large point of public criticism was how simple and uninteresting the vast majority of the multiplayer-maps were. Proceedingly, in Modern Warfare (2019) the largest point of criticism was how the multiplayer maps were too
complicated and too
facilitating of passive play.
Now, we must be clear here: there are, of course, justifiable reasons behind this kind of anger. Having a game whose design is so clearly flawed as to create a game which fails to deliver on its own goals is rightfully something which deserves criticism. As I criticise the community discourse regarding skill-based matchmaking, camping, map design, and more, please don't mistake this (unless otherwise specified) for a wholesale endorsement of the games' designs. I personally feel that in recent years many Call of Duty titles have had their core gameplay elements compromised significantly, but this point I'll leave for later.
And let's be clear: 'community discourse' often is just a shouting match. It's not really a 'discourse' as much as it is an implicit insistence that the opinion held by the commenter is already right, and that if you're wrong, you're some kind of a insane person. A really good example of this is how this community reacted to Infinite Warfare, a game whose reputation has been done to death by now. Infinite Warfare is arguably the most divisive Call of Duty title ever (despite, as some have pointed out, having an incredibly safe design and one of the most campy campaigns and zombies modes ever made). Its defenders cannot wait even a second to post the next 'I can't see how this game is bad' on the game's still-surviving subreddit, Infinitewarfare
, while its detractors (when they were active) view anyone who likes the game as some variant of an ableist slur.
There's a wonderful quote on this kind of polarisation. 'Extremism is not precipitated by an inherently logical understanding of a situation, but rather, an instinctual view of a threat to one's safety.' A lot of the time these conversations don't really continue past the surface-level 'I think this mechanic is bad because it makes xxx playstyle harder' and instead devolve into name-calling. 'You only like this because you have no life! You have no determination or skill and you sit in your momma's basement all day playing video games, unlike me!' Let's not harass the coarse-speaking gentlemen part of a community that plays so much Call of Duty that by 2014 more hours of Call of Duty had been collectively played than hours that humanity had existed on the planet Earth, of course. This discourse isn't motivated by some kind of intellectual understanding of the game's design, it's motivated by a reaction to a dislike of the experience someone has with a game.
Immersion and Feedback
Okay, let's step back a bit and qualify that statement. What I mean by that is simple. Nobody really likes a game itself. Sure, you may enjoy it, it may have a special place in your heart, but that's not because of the game itself. It's because of how the game inherently interacts with you, at that point in time, right then, to create an experience. Video games are unique in this regard because their immersive nature means that the human mind often wants to integrate that experience into some kind of identity, some part of your identity; hence why we have self-identified 'GAMERS'. Of course that doesn't mean this phenomenon isn't observable anywhere else, any weebs here can certainly testify to that.
But the problem with that is that a lot of the time, players don't exactly give... empirical feedback. In recent years developers have turned, due to constant skimping out on pay for Q&A (which is an abhorrent practice that harms everyone's experiences), to asking players to give feedback. This puts the player into the position of having to give feedback on the game, often with large, encompassing changes. The problem with that is that players don't engage with the developers on the same conceptual level. Developers have much greater access to the core design elements and decisions and the reasoning behind them. Players? They often just have access to the experience the developer has provided them.
When you combine these two things together, players confuse their personal experiences with the actual physical game itself. Again, this is one of the big issues with critique. Games, like art, are not just the physical product themselves or the mechanical behaviour of a certain piece of software. They're inherently the experience that you have while perusing them. And when you combine it with a community as... toxic, as CoD's, you get the Skill-Based Matchmaking debate.
The Call of Duty SBMM debate is... surprisingly old at this point. I'm not particularly sure exactly when it popped up, I first noticed discourse on the topic in 2017's Call of Duty: WWII. It's really surprising because skill-based matchmaking isn't inherently new, it's part of the many mechanisms that developers have always implemented into server searching algorithms, especially with the loss of dedicated server browsers.
What is particularly interesting about the SBMM debate is because of its topic. Matchmaking is a large part of how we experience a game - because it propositions the power dynamics of a match via how it balances players in a match, or how long it takes it to load, etc. It goes without saying that the SBMM debate in CoD is thus ferocious and unforgiving - even for the CoD community.
And there is, as I said earlier, justifable reason to be outraged. YouTubers Drift0r and TheExclusiveAce attempted to run checks on how SBMM worked in Modern Warfare (2019), and concluded that due to the structure of the matchmaking in that game, what limited information they had received suggested that overall improving or regressing in your motor skills and raw performance would have no impact on how you experienced the game, and that instead this matchmaking was entirely reliant on your recent, relative performance. That is indeed a justifiable issue to be worried about, and I wish there could be more openness on the subject from CoD developers and publishers. Of course, let's also not forget that these were tests run backwards-up so they would have no way of knowing how this occurred, and in general, skewing of results, especially when these results are so limited in number, is inevitable. (That said, I'm going to link the video by Drift0r at the end of this post, it's actually worth a watch in my opinion.)
But what players, who have lives and work and what not to get to, see when they hear the overall conclusion that what they do has no impact... that breaks how people experience a game. Part of an experience is how you personally interact with a game, and every game, based on its premise, and audience expectation, and more, will generally set a few 'terms', for how you're supposed to experience it. When part of those terms ends up being 'do whatever', in a community that's infamously competitive even in casual play... that isn't a good mix. The CoD community between 2019 and this year have erupted into various balls of flame regarding the SBMM debate, which personally, I have given up on participating in. My personal opinion stands that as empirical data is practically impossible to discover, the debate is really just a series of vaguely-sourced opinions about how they want their experience of the game to be.
And I think that's the thing here. Part of this debate, not just SBMM but in general, with things like map design, etc., is how you personally view the structure of a game to affect your experience. And part of that, is how you view other players.
'Fucking Noob Gamer'
When you have a bad match in Call of Duty - or at least, Call of Duty 2019 - the instinctual desire you gain is to be ridiculously angry. Call of Duty's game design almost always heavily engages your mental capacity to concentrate and losing, or in the worst case getting absolutely trounced because that troglodyte with a M4 won't leave his hole in the Laundromat in Grazna Raid you FUCKING-
Okay. Let it out.
...look, I never claimed to be immune.
The desire you end up getting looks for answers. Well, not really answers. Rage isn't a very good place to get answers. But you do look for something to blame, something to let out your frustrations with. I, like much of the Call of Duty community, like to blame campers.
No matter what game in the series it is the accusation of a camper will always exist. A camper really doesn't have a strict, objective definition - after all, it's literally a derogatory term used to let out your frustrations - but generally, it refers to when someone appears to be mostly stationary and appears to be being rewarded for stationary play. This inherently goes against what most Call of Duty players think the point of the game is about. A lot of people go into CoD with the expectation of fast-paced rapid-fire fun, and having someone who... isn't running around, jump-shotting, murdering everyone like you are? That's frustrating, because it breaks the gameplay loop and fundamentally interrupts your experience.
Of course, since you heard me refer to it as an 'accusation' you probably already know part of my position on this. Camping in the common idea of someone literally just sitting in one place doing nothing really doesn't exist anymore in Call of Duty (with notable exceptions), because the core gameplay mechanics of CoD have introduced lots and lots of ways to punish being stationary - although knowing some players, it will never be enough.
A good example is the Miami map on Black Ops: Cold War; there's a single room in the Blackwoods Resort on the second floor which holds a strong vantage point over most of the map, and a decent player can hold their own while gunning down everyone they see. But even then, you could just avoid having to come directly into that player's view - taking a route along the beach, or along the far side of the map, and then throw a grenade into the room, and in the worst case jump in and gun them down. These are the considerations that developers often make in map design - you don't really have one-way alleyways where you're practically invincible because of magically excessive levels of total incompetence; developers, while making these maps, often consider the ease of access and difficulty when it comes to how players will interact with these locations.
The problem is, developers aren't the players - and they often can't always tell how that will pan out experience-wise. In Call of Duty, a game notable for its high-octane gameplay, having to pause that essentially mindless process to slow down and pursue an alternative gameplay style throws players out of whack, especially when often, these strategies do not immediately prove to be successful. It's why in Domination you still have that idiot of a teammate who sits in a corner with a sniper trying to avoid getting killed. It's why in Kill Confirmed you have legions to players who avoid getting the damn tags. Your conscious mind knows that that's the point - but your subconscious is telling you otherwise.
And this brings me to the other part of what I think about camping. Calling a player a camper is just an excuse for when the game doesn't pan out according to your expectations. Or, in the case of the recent SBMM debates, increasingly vitriolic character assassination the type which I expect more in U.S Congress than video games. It addresses a large part of community. We often view communities, especially large, all-encompassing ones, as a way to appeal to our own personal cliques and groups rather than reaching out to others for various reasons or another. For this reason blackopscoldwar
has become a nightmare mess where threads about the Alpha's allegedly strong SBMM descend into insults about how some players are just 'not good', or that you only like SBMM because you're a bad player, or that you're a fucking asshole you little SHIT!
The inherent elitism ascribed to certain playstyles in Call of Duty by the franchise's history helps to make this even worse. Call of Duty's 'golden years' were as rag-tag fast-paced shooters where everyone was meant to go out and never stop moving, a trend which continued into the pseudo-futuristic age and has only really been interrupted with entries like Modern Warfare. The problem then, is that developers are trying to develop unique games with different experiences for an audience which, at least vocally, primarily wants one single kind of experience and will do anything to claim every other experience is bad. Think about it for a second: why else is it that the most common derogatory term in Call of Duty is the one associated with slower gameplay?
This gets to my core point that developers end up compromising their core experiences to appeal to an ever-widening audience of old fans and new gamers more open or even more happy to play different experiences. Modern Warfare (2019) claims it's tactical and rewards teamplay while implementing by default the scorestreak system that tells you that teamplay can go and fuck itself and you should really just go for kills. Black Ops 4 claimed that it was a different, more specialised experience while quietly nerfing much of the equipment and skills that initially made it less predictable and thus a more complicated game, bringing it closer to the normal Call of Duty experience.
In order to maintain their profit margin Call of Duty's developers actively make indecisive and thus less satisfying games that can't decide what they want to be. I told you earlier that games introduce you to a set of terms that you're supposed to expect them to abide by. Call of Duty's terms are like if the U.S constitution contained only the Three-Fifths Compromise and the Twenty-Sixth Amendment. What... what're you supposed to do
In 2019, Kotaku released an article called The Human Cost of Call of Duty. It's an excellent journalistic piece that chronicles how abusive and often exploitative the game development process is in order to maintain profits for its largest shareholders. It's horrifying how games, despite being a thing that brings joy to the lives of millions, often cause abject tragedy in their making.
Games - specifically in this post, Call of Duty, are now mass market material. To make sure they turn ever-larger profits the core parts of what make games and their communities tick are actively and happily perverted to make sure that even if it makes people actively angry, even if it makes for less complete and more compromised experiences, some guy will be rolling in millions.
There are many solutions to the problems with game design and community elitism I outlined above. Most of them involve taking severe profitability hits. Dedicated servers, and modding, and community outreach; better QA, reducing crunch and increasing time to develop games. So much could be done to bridge the gap and make this better. For everyone involved.
But until then, I'll be stuck buying games which are mostly design-wise stagnant and with an ever-increasing price tag, putting on my headphones and leaning in slightly, to hear the nasally yell, of 'CAMPER'.
Thank you for your time.
Links to the aforementioned things: The aforementioned analysis of MW19's SBMM The Human Cost of Call of Duty - Kotaku