The Death of Tribes

Published November 25, 2012

I'm just about done with Tribes Ascend. I'm level 39. I'll probably never reach level 40. What has kept me playing for the last few months (sporadically) is the occasional brilliant game that reminds me of T2. But most games are not like this. Most games are awful. And this is a problem with clear roots.

The pub community is dire now. The proportion of competitive players is too high to enjoy the game, not because there are a lot of competitive players, but because we're at the stage of the game where they're the only ones sticking around. One has to question why that is. For a while, it used to be that in a pub game you'd have a smattering of high level non-competitive players. Now it seems like most of these have quit, and what you end up with is a polarity; at the one end there are a tonne of silvers (newish players) and at the other there are four or five level 40-50 clan members who absolutely dominate the game.

Unfortunately, Ascend's mechanics and weapon/class balance is broken. Automatic weapons and sniper rifles are fairly hard to use for inexperienced players and ridiculously effective for high level players. Two high level snipers on a single team will shut down a 16v16 game and turn it into a turtle-fest where nobody really wants to leave their own base. Competitive players are notorious for this. It seems like one in three high level clan players will play as a sniper. This will be what hammers the final nail in Ascend's coffin: it's simply not fun for 9/10ths of the server to play against this. And if it's not fun, you've got no players. And if you've got no players, you've got no revenue, and then the plug gets pulled (the London and Singapore servers have already gone) and the hardcore comp community is left wondering what happened (they'll probably blame the nitron nerf or something else few pub players have ever heard of, though).

The reason things are as they are is to patch competitive play. Snipers and autos are sort of necessary because chasing is impossible against a good capper, one who can spend 90 seconds building up his speed to 350km/h, grab the flag, and be home in 8 seconds. You can't chase that. You can't accelerate fast enough. Therefore a sniper is necessary to pick off the capper as he's fleeing, and autos have a chance of knocking a few hitpoints off him from afar. But the big caveat of both autos and snipers is that they're boring to get killed by, and psychologically, you don't feel your opponent deserved it. This is a problem if you want people to play your game.

In pubs, however, the only cappers so dedicated (and so dull) that they take the time to build up so much speed *are* comp players! Sure, the game is broken by its physics, but it's broken even more by adding in another broken element (overpowered snipers). Now there are two problems, which most of the time, in non-serious play, won't even themselves out. They will in the organised and planned area of competitive play, but not in pubs.

What a lot of people don't appear to understand is that comp is not some ethereal higher level of play to which everyone aspires. Most people don't care about comp. It's an irrelevance. And doubly so in a free-to-play game, where health is measured in terms of in-game transactions, which aren't going to be significant from a niche section of the playerbase (who are probably more happy to grind for items rather than buy them anyway). Unfortunately, many of the most vocal players are comp players and formulate pervasive arguments starting from "every good player wants to be a comp player", or "non-comp players don't understand the game" and try to use these assertions to give their own opinions more weight.

And yet, comp players often aren't very good at playing outside of the comp domain. One of the few rewarding games I've had lately had a certain highly ranked EU clan stacking the teams on Permafrost, playing against a team largely consisting of silvers and a handful of golds (and me). Permafrost used to be great because it had an indoor flag stand, and 400km/h grabs weren't possible. But Hi-Rez bowed to pressure and changed the layout of the flag stand and allowed the same old broken mechanics to prevail again. This clan between the four of them had two cappers and (IIRC) a HO/JUG and a raider, all level 45-50 (higher than anyone we had). I was playing Brute HOF, and after starting the game, looking at the teams, and thinking "*sigh*, another clan stack", they spent most of the game slamming into me or my discs at 400km/h. They lost 5-0. They were rubbish. They tried to work together to clear the stand before a capper shot through and they still couldn't get a single cap.

Are these really the people who know the most about the game? Who have its best interests at heart? No. They have two things going against them: 1) They might understand comp, but they certainly didn't understand the game. 2) They *tried* to teamstack; they *tried* to use ludicrous speed cap routes. On paper, as they well knew, they should have found the game a total walkover. The fact they didn't succeed is immaterial; their intention was to play the game in such a way as to be as frustrating as possible for the 28 other people on the server. This is not a set of people who are interested in the game's health; this is a set of people who will kill the game for the sake of their ego. Not all competitive players are like this, but plenty are.

Hi-Rez unfortunately made the decision to market Ascend as an "esport", largely (apparently) on the basis that T2 was a hugely complex and highly skilled game. Ascend isn't complex or highly skilled; it strips out complexity from T2's design and adds in easier alternatives to the things that required skill. Not just the disc vs auto discussion, but tactics, teamplay, challenging flag stands, epic maps where one capper just wasn't enough, etc. Regardless, Hi-Rez and catered far too much to the comp community's grievances. Compare this to TF2. TF2 seems to be the gold standard on an F2P FPS; it's hugely successful, it has a huge playerbase, and it rakes in money hand over fist. It's also really fun and well designed. Comp TF2 players whine all the time that Valve doesn't support them, and what does Valve do? Valve completely ignores them, because Valve understands that the comp players are, at best, orthogonal to the game's success, but more likely would actively harm it. And, amusingly, TF2's comp scene is far healthier than TA's, even before you consider it's a 5 year old game (the reason for which is that it's a good game, comp or no).

Sustainable revenue in a F2P game implies keeping the general populace happy, and this appears either incompatible with or unaffected by appeasing competitive players. The players whose opinions matter the most are the players who are the least likely to voice them, especially if voicing them involves being exposed to a rabid community. I think Hi-Rez figured this out, but far too late.