As the online gaming scene has grown from a niche pastime to a massive mainstream industry, with professional players emerging as true global stars, discussions around the issue of fairness have also erupted with increased regularity.
Even if you are not interested in the esports scene, you can appreciate that even enthusiastic amateurs should be attuned to the aspects of good sportsmanship and equality when participating in their preferred multiplayer title.
With that in mind, here is a deeper dive into how fairness is achieved, and how certain systems can be subverted to unfairly tip the odds in one direction.
Exploiting legitimate strategies
First of all, it is worth pointing out that certain online games can feel unfair in-play because the people involved are using entirely legitimate strategies which are successful for them, but frustrating for other players, or even vexing for the operator of the game itself.
There are lots of examples of this; take the shady tactics such as bonus bagging in the world of online casinos, which are not strictly illegal, but could be in contravention of the terms and conditions put in place by a particular website. Here the player is finding a loophole in sign-up bonuses and, by doing so, guaranteeing themselves a profit while playing with cash they received free of charge from the site’s operator
Another common issue is that of camping, specifically in first person shooters. There is nothing stopping players from settling down with a sniper rifle, staying in one position and picking their opponents off from a safe distance. The problem is that this feels unfair and is just not enjoyable if you are on the other end of the sniper’s scope.
In some cases these strategies are dealt with directly through detection and banning, while in others an unspoken code of conduct forms, making it socially unacceptable for ‘unfair’ tactics to be used, even if they are theoretically above-board.
A level above the everyday annoyances of legitimate yet fury-inducing strategies in some online games is the deliberate use of hacks, which can seriously spoil the experience for all involved.
From wall hacks and aimbots in shooters to health hacks and other forms of disruption in online RPGs, a small but persistent subset of the gaming community seems to be willing to install malicious code alongside their game files to get an unfair upper hand without the need for any skill or practice on their part.
Anti-cheat solutions of various kinds are in place on every major online gaming platform and title, although that does not always prevent the proliferation of the latest tools for cheating. There is a whole underground economy built around the creation of these tools, so like the wider cybercrime sector it seems like this will be a never-ending battle for as long as there are online games to be manipulated.
The importance of balance & randomness
From a developer’s perspective, ensuring that an online game feels as fair as possible is obviously important in the quest to attract and retain as many players as possible.
A lot of this comes down to ensuring that games are as balanced as possible, meaning that the playing field is level and that the only thing determining whether a player wins or loses is their own skill.
Of course in many cases ‘balance’ is something of an illusion, and in reality there are all sorts of tricks being used under the surface to ensure that people of all abilities are able to enjoy playing.
A brute force approach is simply to rely on ranked matchmaking, so that players are put together with groups of others of a similar skill level. This in itself has been criticized at certain points, although it is definitely a straightforward approach from a development standpoint.
There are other ways to go about this, such as the rubberbanding used most conspicuously in racing games like the various incarnations of Mario Kart. Giving an advantage to the worst-performing players can make a game seem more ‘fair’ even if the opposite is true.
Randomness is another useful element in creating fairness. In the case of card games like Hearthstone, being able to swing a match back in the favor of a player who was otherwise facing down certain defeat thanks to hugely impactful random effects both avoids and creates frustration, while potentially creating more fairness in the long run.
The discussion over fairness in online games will continue to rage indefinitely, but just being aware of the factors at play is a good way of diminishing any frustration you feel in your own play sessions.