Late to the Game

My recent return to the game of Counter Strike was not as smooth an experience as I anticipated. Anyone who knows me is probably aware of my gaming talent that allows me such pleasures as playing a game (such as Halo 2) once a week and still do better than almost everyone including many who play the game religiously. However, even raw talent isn't enough to make for the following.

When Halo 2 came out, no one knew how to play it. Certainly, we'd all played the original Halo, but Halo 2 had been tweaked and changed and there was a lot to learn. It was a level playing field, for the first five minutes. Quick learners such as myself were speedy in gaining skill with dual wielding, sword lunging and many other aspects of gameplay while most were still struggling with navigating the new levels. I was quickly banned from playing any match with the only weaponry being swords because I consitantly was seventeen kills ahead of the person in second in matches that were only to twenty-five.

Time passed and eventually the lack of owning my own Xbox and copy of Halo 2 began to show. People who were more fortunate than I began to play the game online for hours and hours, and the more skilled of these people were now of greater skill than I, though I still would win often.

The semester ended, and though I was given an opportunity to borrow a friend's Xbox and copy for Halo 2 for the summer (as well as his Xbox Live subscription), I declined it for the sake of my brother (who still has schoolwork to do). This, along with the loss of my Time Splitters 2 savefile, left a large hole for any deserving FPS game to enter.

That's where Counter Strike came in.

Back in freshmen year, Counter Strike was the game of the floor. We played Counter Strike all the time (although I'd sometimes get left out due to my not having my own computer to play on). After struggling at first with having to be careful not to just continuously fire my weapon, I eventually became quite good. I certainly wasn't the best, but I wasn't bad at all. I'd usually have more kills than deaths, though not always.

Fast forward to my return home, and it's been two years since I last played Counter Strike. Upon foraying into the online realm and matching myself up with people on a newbie server to remember what I'd certainly forgotten, I found out something that shocked me quite a bit.

I sucked.

This wasn't just a matter of unfamiliarity. It took me two rounds to remember everything pertaining to movement, weapon purchasing, level layouts etc. What I encountered upon actually fighting was that I was less a highly trained marine fighting terrorism and more some drunk nut the army had given a water pistol to act a a target for malevolent terrorists. Something I never thought would happen to the likes of me happened.

I got kicked off of a newbie server, for sucking.

While in retrospect, the number of true newbies on that server was probably two, me and another guy, it was a sobering experience. In playing on other servers, I found that quite often I'll only have half as many kills as deaths, and only rarely break even in that regard.

What I'd discovered here was something I'll refer to as the gaming equivalent of "hitting the wall". The use of this term from marathons is not the same, there it refers to the point where your body simply can't go on at all. Here I'm referring to the intense feeling of futility when playing with not just a few, but hoards of people who are far more skilled than you are.

It literally feels like a wall. You're on one side (the suck side) and most everyone else is on the other side (the rocking side). You might dent the wall a little, but the wall remains and you're stuck on your side while everyone else is having a party.

After some careful thought, I realized something important. Sucking is a very relative measure in most cases. A friend back at college played Super Smash Bros. Melee a lot, continually practicing her skill while waiting for my roommate to get his act together and be ready for some quality time with her. Despite being far better than a great many people I know, she continually referenced how she "sucked". Despite my constant reassurances to her that she most certainly didn't suck, I could never convince her otherwise. Looking back on conversations with her, I realized that she "sucked" because John and I, who had played the game far too much the previous year and even before that, were better than here by quite a bit. It didn't matter that just about anybody else we played could have had the tar beat out of them by her, her principle opponents were John and I.

In a similar way, I sucked. It wasn't that I had lost heaps of my skill in the long years (though I certianly lost some), it was that while I was off doing other things the rest of the Counter Strike playing world had continued to hone their skills. I'm about as good as I ever was, but in my absence the game went on without me.

I then remembered that such a thing had happened to me before. I had bought WarCraft III the day it came out, and had begun playing right off the bat. Both my brother and I did well when we played. Despite having less time to play, I was still up there with my online friends in terms of ranking, although there were many who were certainly my supirior.

Then, the disconnect hack came out, and after going from 27-3 to 31-21 because of it, I left the game in disgust for a month. When I returned, I "hit the wall". The disconnect hack had been fixed after about a week (which I knew), but most people had returned to the game then. I had needed time to rest from my bad experience, but in doing so I let the game move on without me. In my attempts to play the game again, I found simply that everyone had more than surpassed me, and that my skills were now woefully inadaquate compared to the average Joe.

I then remembered an identical situation happened with StarCraft as well.

The problem here is that anyone returning to a game, or coming to a game fresh hits this wall. They encounter a realm of gamers who have mastered aspects of the game that aren't even comprehendable yet. The result is extremely frustrating and forbidding. While WarCraft III attempts to match you up with those of equal skill, Counter Strike came long before that. It is not impossible to catch up, but it requires a level of patience and perseverence that the casual gamer quite simply doesn't have.

There are only two places to go in such a situation. Find a bunch of friends who haven't played the game at all or much and play with them, or try your hand against a world of people who probably can't comprehend how you don't know how to navigate the levels.

It's been a lesson in patience for me to play Counter Strike at such a disadvantage. I've actually taken a break from playing against people and have done some practice against AI controlled players so that I can return having learned how to aim better. At the same time, the experience has made me interested in trying to play WarCraft III competitively again.

In any case, this wall is something I'll have to take into account when I make my own games. The only game I can think of where this wall is avoided almost entirely is Gunbound, which has special servers for Newbies which prevent skilled players from joining. While eventually players who still haven't quite got the knack for everything may be ousted from the servers too soon, they at least had some time to acclimate before facing off against some of the uber-skilled out there,

I'll keep playing Counter Strike. I've always said I like it when I play a game where it's a challenge to win. :D

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