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I can't say goodbye to yesterday, my friend. Which means I also can't stop hating Metal Gear Online, even after a year of not playing it. I wrote an article back in March '09 in an attempt to get this hate out of my system, but the feeling hasn't diminished. In fact, with every update to Team Fortress 2 it becomes stronger and stronger. So here is the new, in-depth look at MGO's design philosophy when contrasted against the design philosophy driving TF2.

This article will be updated in the future:

1. Getting In - 2. The Game Experience - 3. Visual Style - 4. Business Model - 5. The Community


1. Getting In

 The ability to seamlessly access, enjoy and leave a digital experience can be almost as important as the experience itself. This is especially true for multiplayer games, in which real people who have real schedules converge at the same time to create a group experience. There was a time when only technology experts known as "nerds" could figure out how to play videogames online, but nowadays we expect an easy ride! This section looks at the user-friendliness of the games' menus, options, and pre-game experience.

Metal Gear Online

Have you ever paid attention to how long it takes to join an actual game in MGO? After you've updated the game to its latest edition, created both of your unique (non-PSN) ID profiles, and your uniquely-customized avatar known as your "Character", here's a detailed list of the obstacles that will stand between you and actual gameplay the next time you start up Metal Gear Solid 4; let's assume you want to do a simple Automatch session for the sake of this example, not a clan, tournament or a self-created game:

1. The "Do not turn off the console..." prompt Press x
2. Loading screen Wait
3. Konami logo screen Wait
4. Kojima Productions screen Wait
5. Dolby Surround screen Skippable (Start)
6. Slow-panning title screen Press Start
7. Main menu (select "Metal Gear Online") Press up three times, then x
8. Loading screen Wait
9. Mature rating ESRB screen Wait
10. Metal Gear Online title screen Press Start
11. MGO title screen menu (select "Start Game") Press x
12. Loading screen Wait
13. Agreement screen ("no" by default) Press left, then x

*Heavy breathing* Are we there yet? How much longer until we can play something? Oh no...

14. ID Menu (select "Enter GAME ID and Log In") Press x
15. Log In screen Fill field(s), press Start
16. "Logging in"/"Adjusting Port Settings" screen Wait
17. Start Menu (select "Start Game") Press x
18. Character Select menu Press x
19. Main Menu (select "Lobby Select", "Automatching") Press x twice
20. Auto Matching menu (select "Start Auto Matching") Press x
21. Rules menu (select "----") Press x
22. Searching For Opponents screen Wait
23. Rules/Map screen Press x
24. Team Select menu (select team) Press x
25. Weapon select/BGM screen (select default) Press x three times

Whew! That's a lot of faffing about, as the British say.

As you can see, the number of things standing between you and a typical game of MGO is ridiculously high. A special title menu where you have to choose between "Start Game" and "Metal Gear Solid 4"? What, were they worried that a significant portion of players would accidentally choose "Metal Gear Online", and then change their minds at the title screen? Also, when we only have one "Character" to choose from, why doesn't it assume that we want to play as him and skip that step? Or when I've agreed to the user agreement once, shouldn't it remember it next time and not ask? Not enough memory to store that important information? The Game Data Utility file for MGS4 already takes up a whopping 6.77 Gigabytes, while the System Data file is 67 kb, and each saved game is 148 kb.

I know that Metal Gear Online was essentially developed as a separate game from Metal Gear Solid 4, (and was even sold separately in Japan) but that doesn't explain why it needs to be treated like a separate game in America and elsewhere, when its already included on the same disc. Unlike many games It doesn't feel like a cheap add-on that was thrown in at the last second, but instead it feels like its guarding itself from being accessed, as if it were a nuclear test site. In order to enter the quarantined test area you must agree to sign a health waiver, pass a short exam, go through all the preliminary checks, and then you may put on your hazard suit and enter.

To me, the obvious question is why they didn't save themselves (and everybody else) the headache of this system and simply use the PlayStation Network that's already built into the PS3. That alone would eliminate the need to register two new IDs — neither of which can be the same as your PSN account name — one of which requires eight alphanumeric digits for the name, and at least a four digit number for a password! "Excuse me," I say politely to the game, "I need to go get some paper and a pen to write down all this useless information that I will definitely forget."

People have a hard enough time coming up with one username online, now suddenly it's three? Using the PSN would eliminate the need to log in altogether. Accessing your regular friends list would be logical, but instead we have to make new buddies. I wonder why are friends lists are attached to our "Characters" and not the "Game ID" anyway? How many people want to juggle separate lists of friends? The list of reasons go on and on. People expect an efficient experience nowadays, even if it means less functionality.

Not that there's any reason to sacrifice functionality for the sake of user-friendliness. Consider for a moment if, rather than partitioning the online half of the game off from the single player, players were asked to simply log in on the MGS4 main menu itself. What if everything — private messages, friends lists, preferences, characters, and so on — were tied to a single account with extra accounts available for a small fee, rather than selling new "Characters" for $4.99? If you imagine designing a multiplayer system yourself, I'm sure you could come up with a much better one, so why didn't they?

The whole thing is designed with a philosophy of master control, not user control. It's aimed at that hard-headed, "hardcore" slice of gamers who will jump through any hoops and accept any bloated interface if it means they can pwn n00bs, rather than the majority of semi-casual multiplayers who, in all honesty, don't think it's worth the effort. Especially not over a long period of time, with hundreds of sessions of play.

Hell, for those who actually bought Metal Gear Solid 4, how many even noticed the "Metal Gear Online" option? While writing this article I mentioned Metal Gear Online to a friend of mine who bought MGS4 as a casual fan; he he didn't know it even had multiplayer, or what it's name was. It sounded to him like the name of the official website. Just calling it "Multiplayer", and locating it near the top of the main menu like in other games, would have been wise.

But that's the arrogance of Metal Gear Solid 4, not just Metal Gear Online. It has a big vision, but it ends up putting too many obstacles in the way to be enjoyable. It's a hard game to please. It's as if we should beg for the privelege of playing their game. That's the sense I get as a customer, especially in light of better online experiences elsewhere.


Team Fortress 2

Team Fortress 2

Let's make a fair comparison and see how many obstacles Team Fortress 2 has, after all the first-time setup is finished, including patching and preferences, from the moment you boot the program to the moment you are actually controlling a character:

1. Valve screen / Source engine screen Skippable (Spacebar)
2. Loading screen Wait
3. Main Menu (select "Start Playing") Click
4. Server menu (select preferred server) Double-click
5. Loading/map preview screen Wait
6. Welcome to server screen (select "Continue") Click
7. Map screen (select "Continue") Click
8. Team Select screen Click
9. Class Select screen Click


And off we go. Running and shooting and enjoying ourselves.

Look at how simple that is. There's no need to warn a player to not accidentally turn off their computer while something is loading; that would be stupid. There's no need to make company logos unskippable; we're not impressed. There's no need to warn you about what ESRB rating the game has, or throw a user agreement in your face. Those things are punishingly stupid. Legally, technologically, and functionally, there are no reasons for making such a hassle out of getting into the game.

Simple, effective and straight to the point.

After you skip the logos in TF2, this is what you get. Why doesn't Team Fortress 2 force me to choose the weapons of my class every time I start playing, and every time I die? Because it remembers it from last time, assumes you picked what you wanted before, and even has a default setting for those who don't care. That's just common sense, it's not even one of those brilliant ideas. Why doesn't it ask me about my "Game ID" and "Character" profile before letting me pick a server? Because it's all taken care of through Steam and the game remembers me. Kojima Productions created their own proprietary system for logging in, so they could have made it as simple as they wanted. Hell, they could have allowed players to install Metal Gear Online directly onto the hard drive and skip the whole process of navigating through the main game! Japan got a separate release, so why was there no option in the West? These are reasonable questions.

If you think there's some vast difference between a PC game and a console game when it comes to multiplayer, you are only half right. The console has limitations, but that's all the more reason to treat it like a console game and avoid, for example, using the PS3's agonizingly slow browser to go shopping! Tailor it to the platform.

I commend anyone who loves MGO so much that they continue to play it regularly. That's an impressive feat. Every time I try to log in and play it feels wrong to me, like I'm being challenged by something that should be trying to help me. If you're a diehard MGO fan, however, then you've obviously learned to justify any such hassle by focussing on the "good" part, which is the gameplay itself. You're also stupid, but we can skip that.

In our next part we'll take a look at how Metal Gear Online stacks up as a multiplayer experience compared to Team Fortress 2, so we can see what all this work is really for!



Part 2: The Game Experience

Back to Metal Gear Solid 4



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