I thought I would compile my thoughts on the lessons learned/outcomes of the MSO event:
Largest Arma2 Event
First, UO is capable of marshaling more players together than any other Arma 2 community. Although we peaked with about 80 players on the server, we had a week sustained of peak 40 players (evenings US), and our alternative server, which was ranked about 200 jumped into the top 20 pretty much instantly. This also says nothing about the sheer number of signups we had:
- 125 people registered NEW forum accounts to play MSO. In a sense, the event went viral.
- 159 people signed up for the event BEFORE the PRO (Public Relations Office) decided to stop requiring sign ups or updating their records - more than 200 signed up in total.
Another point is that people were willing to do relatively boring tasks for long periods of time and in practice enjoyed the persistent world effect. This was a surprise to me, and as there is a minority of players who like to malign WACs as "walking simulators" did not rear their ugly head during the MSO event, while the latter takes waiting, walking and periods of prolonged idleness to an extreme. I believe that this relative lack of action was accentuated by small periods of intense gameplay which served as a carrot on a stick and created an immersive, palpable game environment. The ongoing "meta game" (AARs, reports and orders) going on in the forums also enriched the game play experience to offset temporary lapses in action. What we should take away from this is that players like realistic play environments and a realistic rhythm of combat environments. They also enjoy interactive action in a persistent, changing world.
Making The Mission
Now for an evaluation of MSO as a mission. The version of MSO we played was modified by Beta and myself. Neither of us had any experience with MSO and found it difficult to comprehend the poorly organized, un-commented code. We had no point of reference by which to analyze MSO, and we also were given the task of making it playable at the last second, with only 3 days of notice before the event was to start. We worked 10-12 hour days until it was in a playable state. We had no idea what was working as intended and what was broken. The initial version of MSO given to us by the PRO was completely unplayable. Enemies only spawned in one convoy location, and the convoy did not move - the gameplay was virtually non-existent. The slots were not complete and no one had gear, descriptions - players all respawned at the airbase. We had to manually map where enemies would spawn, manually fix the civilian spawns so that vehicles did not spawn inside buildings or the FOB, and fundamentally edit or remove a number of MSO's scripts. We tried to make the mission realistic, we tried to avoid catering to gameplay like Domination, but rather deliberate COIN operations. We wanted to make "our own MSO" out of frustration but did not have enough time given the time frame.
Our philosophy was, let's get this into a playable state, and if it's broken we will have to fix it on the fly using the debug console, which was a box availed to us which allows us to run code while the mission is running (this is how we later moved the respawn to camp branca and also spawned in vehicles which mysteriously vanished). That is the best we could do given the time frame, and is another reason why the Mission Making Office is so important at UO. A gameplay concept should be evaluated before a launch date is provided. A mission should be extensively tested, and obviously be complete, before an event. Beta and I had no time to test it ,and no one in the PRO seemed interested in organizing a playtest when I informed them that one was needed, so the event was launched without one. It is a miracle that everything worked out of the box - especially considering Beta and I were in "1000 yard stare" coder burnout mode for most of the time we were working on the mission.
I think what the event showed is that MSO as a mission is not good, at all. The gameplay was pretty stale and all the towns were secure by the 2nd day - and we had a temporary population drop because of it. None of MSO's scripts really functioned properly, a number of serious technical issues popped up that had to be fixed on the fly. The thing that really saved the event, and revealed future prospects for a follow-up event or fundamental new gameplay style was the "game mastering" following the 2nd day.
Game Mastering? What is this, Everquest?
Had a conversation with Beta, it went something like this. Hey Beta, MSO sucks and there is rarely any contact going on, can we fix that on the fly? Don't think so. Well, remember how we talked about awhile back making a game master slot for that persistent campaign? Yeah. Well, why don't we just do that on the fly using the debug console? Hrm. Yeah I will just spawn some shit in and try to make a mission on the fly.
The next day, I wake up and there's 25 people on the server. Rubbing my hands together evilly, I log on, make myself invisible, invincible, and neutral to AI. I open up a bunch of old missions, the arma2 comref, arma2 class names list, and a bunch of other resources. I see the players are clearing a town west of Camp Branca. Well, I conceptualize a mission for them. In my head, I think, the Taliban would be infiltrating Ovallstan and ambushing civilian convoys which are now trying to pass through after the area was secure. Spawn in a convoy, blow them up, strewn around with some contractor and civilian bodies. Transmit a briefing from a notional battalion command to the players that a convoy was just ambushed by Taliban infiltrators, make a marker indicating the convoy position, and suggest they should make a QRF to the site. Put a sniper in a building, other Taliban groups in the buildings and a few technicals. Little do the players know, this is a distraction while I set up another encounter. Militant organizes a convoy and they roll to attack the city. As they do, I introduce new enemy and threats, continually creating a dangerous, unpredictable combat environment. Meanwhile I am minimized and writing code for the next encounter, a huge attack on Camp Branca. I want it to be like Battle of Wanat, except slightly smaller, as a prelude to an operation in the hills south of Branca, Operation Rock Avalanche style.
As i'm writing code in notepad ++ the players are clearing Ovallstan of my distraction convoy attack. When I think I am about ready I start shelling Camp Branca with mortars, and send a report from overflying brigade level predators that foot mobile Taliban, tubes and vehicles are converging on Camp Branca and to expect imminent attack. This is all being done on the fly, none of this planned. I hear Militant on the radio yelling for everyone to exfil from the town and come back to Branca to defend it, as he rallies his small company HQ for a defense. This is complicated by the fact that a stryker which was sent into Ovallstan was immobilized by enemy fire. Militant orders the vehicle abandoned so Branca can be defended. While this is going on, im spawning in enemy around Branca, heavy machine guns, a mortar position and a few ZU-23 trucks. As the players regroup in Branca, I intensify the mortar barrage, send a "firefinder" counter-battery report from battalion and begin the assault. Now there's over 40 players on.
This is a small look inside the game mastering aspect of the MSO event, and it's what really made it, in my mind, memorable and worthwhile. I do not think that MSO could have sustained good gameplay for the rest of the event. And as I now had control over the enemy's movements, a narrative and storyline began to emerge, through enemy actions, briefings from notional high command and elements I introduced. I thank my 15 years of D&D experience for this natural ability to do that on the fly - it's also what provided me with the tools to make each following day of operations a unique experience from the last, with differing enemy tactics, terrain and pacing. I believe, as I have heard others say, that the game mastered gameplay which lasted from the middle to the end of the MSO event was some of the best, if not the best, Arma2 gameplay they have experienced.
Running the Event
Some lessons about administering such an event. Clearly this event was very experimental in scope - so a few of these are simply the result of trial and error. I think it was a bad idea, and logically absurd, to slot in players to individual slots and then expect them to be online 24/7. In the future a common pool of pilots will be much better than defined slots. The same goes for FOs/JTACs. The highest leadership should remain static, platoon leaders and company commanders, company HQ staff, and platoon HQ staff perhaps, but everything else should have been slotted in the same fashion as other UO missions. This was half-assed after the 1st day of the event, when the server had to be reset and a new mission could be uploaded. Beta and I disabled Nomad, the persistent slot system of MSO. Still, the fact that you COULD reslot was very poorly communicated. While I was not an event organizer, I was the one who communicated that to the player base, and my thread saying you could reslot as never pinned, so it got buried in the MSO sub-forum. I think sign-ups for individual slots only really makes sense in a day event, not an ongoing thing where people have their own personal lives and can't dedicate every waking hour to a task.
I also think in the future serious care must be given to selecting the company HQ staff. Militant was a fucking powerhouse - he was basically online the entire time and made the event so successful. That being said, other than the 1st day, the company HQ staff (with the exception of Jake) was completely absent. In the future we should not saddle all of our burdens on one man - the XO/1sg should take over the company from time to time. Militant had amazing powers at organizing the players, but there was a distinct lack of secondary leadership. With this is another administrative issue with slotting. Incompetent pilots cost the event a ton of downed assets which I respawned ahead of schedule to ensure the event play was possible. Serious attention should be given in the future to slotting good pilots, although the event did show who really has chops (Upchuck, Deathstrike, Verox, Gamer etc), and who doesn't. Ultimately the success of the event as fun gameplay was dependent on air assets being used correctly - the terrain made it impossible not to do frequent air mobile insertions and air assaults. Due to the specific slot designation, there was also times when we needed a transport pilot while there was 30 or more players on the server.
Summing It Up and the Future
- Persistent environments should be the focus of future developments
- Game mastering is greatly enjoyed by players, if done in a responsible fashion
- Players are willing and eager to operate in realistic simulations of combat environments
- IF we do an event of this nature in the future, we should not use MSO or heavily modify it so as to be unrecognizable
- More "meta" content should be created
- More open communication between all offices of UO and between organizers and command leadership of the mission
- The event, although very experimental, was a stunning success.
I believe we should hold weekly missions in this style - it would not be pre-scripted but game mastered on the fly. Saving and loading will avoid the issue of missing personnel in important positions.
Best Of Gameplay Examples