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August 22, 2004

The Dynamics of Spawn Camping

The most happening game on XBox Live these days is the latest installment of Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six, known as Black Arrow.

I started playing Black Arrow last week. For those of you unfamiliar with the series, it's basically the most popular combat simulator online. If you have absolutely no interest in squad-based first person shooters, this may seem tedious but it's actually rather interesting, especially if you worry about how the socialization of your sons is progressing. If you have no son, it's still a fascinating foray into game theory.

XBox Live
What goes on here? Well, it works a little something like this. Your son has his XBox hooked up to a large anonymous network of several thousands of others people's sons. He drops in a game disc, which is essentially a $50 DVD that almost nobody tries to bootleg, and all the other gamers that are online at the same time appear. Now your son has a list of 40 or 50 (up to a hundred) other gamers on his 'friends list'. Most of these friends will be people he has, and will never meet in person. They could be from Alabama, Alberta or Allemagne. He just knows them by their 'gamertag', their alias, and perhaps by their voice if they've played enough. Voice? Yes, that's what that silly Bobby Brown My Prerogative headset is for. He can hear what all the other players in his room are saying, and of course he can talk back to them.

For generations people have been shouting back at sports players on the television. Your son may be stupid, but at least he knows that the people on the other side of the screen can actually hear him.

The Room
So boy turns on the game, enters a PIN through his handheld controller and now there are several thousand other gamers playing Black Arrow with which he may cooperate or compete. He chooses which kind of game he wants to play, say 'Total Conquest' (that would be compete via cooperation), and all of the hosts who are hosting that kind of game show up on the screen after a quick search. Not their faces, just their gamertags in a list. He can then enter any hosted game of any particular host and get started gaming. He can't start playing a game until he gets into a room. No matter what time of day or night, there's always a room with plenty of English speakers.

The Host
I mentioned hosting a room. Who is a host? Anybody who wants to be a host is a host. Your son might be a host. Maybe he's even a good host. So there is a choice your son makes. Maybe he wants to host a room, maybe he wants to join somebody else's room, maybe he wants to join a room wherever his friends are. Let's say he chooses to be a host and serve up his own room. He then configures up his room depending on how he wants to play. He will allow 16 people to play, two opposing teams of 8 each. He will allow friendly fire and he will ban grenade launchers. The game will be Total Conquest.

The Clan
In addition to having a large set of friends which are visible across games other than Black Arrow. You may join an identifyable clan within the context of the Black Arrow world. These clans can arrange to compete exclusively against each other in tournaments, but most of the action has unaffiliated individuals mixed with clanners.

Ready Up
One more thing. Your son and everyone on his squad has to decide which compliment of weapons they are going to employ. They do this in the lobby before the game starts. There are assault rifles, chain guns, pistols, sniper rifles and a variety of explosives. Take your pick.

Total Conquest
Now here's where it gets very interesting. The game itself places your team and the opposing team on opposite ends of a map. It might be a subway in London, a castle in Milan, a ferry in the middle of some sea, or a hotel in Cannes (or several other locales). Your goal is to capture three satellite uplinks on the map and defend them for 20 seconds. Sounds simple in theory, except that the other team is trying to do the same thing. They'll be using their weapons against you, rushing, sniping, tossing grenades, setting traps. But there's one particularly nasty tactic that has the entire world of Black Arrow in an uproar.

Spawn Camping
It's practically impossible to survive more than aabout 90 seconds in one of the battlefields. So you die. But after a few moments, you come back to life back at your insertion point, aka your Spawn at one corner of the map. But imagine that your enemy has crossed the map and is now holed up in a sniper position. As soon as you pop back to life, he kills you on the spot. This is spawn camping.

Most Black Arrow players hate spawn camping. It violates the spirit of the game, which is to conquer territory and employ various tactics in the field to get and hold all three uplinks. However the Black Arrow points system only rewards players for the number of kills they make, and it is 'legal' from the point of view that the game allows it. So you can appear to be a superior player by having a lot of kill points even though you are doing little more than shooting fish in a barrell.

During a game, if someone starts camping out at the enemy spawn point, almost everyone immediately knows. The cursing and shouting really starts. There are several tactics to counter the spawn camper(s). One is to fight fire with fire and camp at the other team's spawn point. Another is to allow all of your team to be killed and spawn simultaneously, making too many targets. A third is to leave a man to guard the spawn point at the expense of capturing territory or hunting down the enemy. But most of these tactics fail. If an individual player gets close enough to their opponent's spawn point, it almost irrevocably tips the advantage in the game to that player's team. This brings us back to the host. The host can boot anyone out of his room for any arbitrary reason. Sometimes the boot spawn campers, sometimes they do nothing.

Adult Gaming Enthusiasts are organizing to evade immaturity and unethical behavior across the board.
On August 13 Ubisoft, the game's publisher, has announced a patch to fix spawn camping by changing the rules of the game. This will probably be automated in a mandatory download, but when it will be available is anybody's guess. In the meantime, the ethics of the game are entirely in the hands of the players.

However spawn camping isn't unique to Black Arrow. Other games, like Castle Wolfenstein have seen similar problems. Not everybody agrees that it's a problem. Some argue that it is a form of ambush and that game programmers are right to allow it. But I'd argue that it depends upon the game, and certainly for Total Conquest in Black Arrow, it's a real game breaker.


Posted by mbowen at August 22, 2004 02:03 AM

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Similar thing happened in Netrek. When you died you popped back up in a spot others could hit. They got around it.

Netrek. Man I'm getting old...

Posted by: Chap at August 23, 2004 05:04 PM