Crossplay and aim-assist, a never ending feud?

Crossplay and aim-assist are two heavily debated subjects in multiplayer games. Let's go through the arguments and see if we can find a reasonable solution.

There are many terms for it, cross-compatible play, cross-platform play, crossplay or cross-play. The bottom line is that players across two or more different platform can participate in the same multi-player experience, usually alongside one another (in a team) or against one another (opposing one another).

There are many diverging ideas on which game was first to support this feature. There have been several text-based multi-user games dating back as far back as 1979 (MUD1), but what we tend to associate with the term "crossplay" are games such as Fortnite, Overwatch, or Halo Infinite.

The biggest debate surrounding all three games has everything to do with balancing different input systems. (In)famously the developers of Halo tried having crossplay back in the day, but ran into the issue of M&K-players always completely wiping the floor with gamepad players. Even a relatively inexperienced M&K player would fare better than an above average gamepad player. The idea of ever allowing these two in the same match was scrapped.

Different input systems versus one another

As Fortnite was released in 2017, the philosophy of the devs was to create a game which can be played in crossplay regardless of platform or input system. PC, Mac, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, heck even some Android systems can run and play Fortnite. This of course meant that any input system could be used in games, and that mouse and keyboard could wreak havoc.

The strengths and advantages of Mouse and Keyboard for anything that has to do with first or third person precision aiming simply cannot be understated. Not only that, but using a scroll wheel, switching weapons with binds and all the possibility to customize binds to different mouse buttons make it quite advantageous to use versus other input systems.

Balancing input differences

Back in 2019 there were some rumors being spread that suggested that gamepad players in Fortnite had much lower recoil than Mouse & Keyboard, even with Aim Assist enabled. The fact that aim assist was something that gamepad users had to have to be able to compete with the accuracy of M&K was clearly proven in the competitive scene at the time as PC players were dominating in terms of platform versus platform at the time. There wasn't even a discussion about mobile controls at the time, as everyone agreed that those were pretty bad.

The problem with balancing two vastly different input systems comes from how different they work. A gamepad even with a skilled player behind the joycons just cannot pin-point target something to the degree that a skilled mouse user can, and to combat that difference aim-assist, and (potentially) recoil differences were added. The fact that the devices are built different make the difference in performance. Data gathered on these two input systems show it over and over again, gamepad users generally have less precision and their input responds more slowly.

This is also the main reason behind why aim-assist became a thing in the first place when crossplay in third-person shooters and first-person shooters were a reality.

There have been multiple voices criticising aim-assist for gamepad from players that use Mouse & Keyboard. Including Bugha (Fortnite player) saying that controller (gamepad) users no longer need to worry about their aim, as the aim-assist does it for them (paraphrasing). The debate in Fortnite was simply that "aim-assist is cheating" and that it "seems unfair in competitive gaming".

Does he have a point?

The trouble with anything competitive is that there is this expectation that everyone who participates does so under fair circumstances. No one can have a distinct advantage.

As time went on, the data for Fortnite showed that with the adjustments to aim-assist, gamepad players started gaining ground, there are even arguments that the winning percentages are to the advantage of controller players. If that's the case, then the whole foundation of "fair circumstances" are out the window. Right?

Well, there have been multiple balance passes to adjust aim-assist for most games (including Halo and Overwatch) to try to even the odds, but it seems difficult. A game that has aim-assist in the first is quite hard to "make fair", simply because it gives even the newest of players the aiming speed and precision of someone far more skillful than they are. By that account alone, this input system is not "fair" if we're comparing this aspect alone. Right?

Well, yes and no. It depends on how strong the aim-assist is set. In a game like Bloodhunt for example, which has a community reputation to have some of the most "over-tweaked" aim-assist of all, the best gamepad players (whether they use PC or PS5) are still not performing better when compared versus the best Mouse users overall.

But it's not that easy

Aim-assist has several tweakable aspects. Tracking, precision, speed to name three. All of which have impact on its usefulness in different circumstances. Devs might have set great tracking for example, but "decent" precision, which makes it incredibly useful in close quarters with an automatic weapon. But much less so at longer ranges, particularly with a precision weapon.

Situations like these create a reality where many players who face mostly other players using a fully-automatic weapon in close-to-mid range in a world of trouble, and with no way to know if they're facing a gamepad player with aim-assist, it's close to impossible to adjust the tactics to this fact. Which makes for a troublesome experience, unless you start to engage with ALL players at a range where Mouse has an advantage, at which point a bit of agency is removed from the player, and "fairness" goes out the window again. Because now the gamepad user is at a disadvantage every time.

Even though the overall stats show one way or the other, different input systems are so fundamentally technologically different, that even if you make adjustments to balance the overall data, the player perception of them will still judge them to be unfair, and that judgment is sound - because it is true. Automation in an input system will create advantages in the same way that the incredibly exact precision of another input system will create advantages. And trying to make them perceptually "balanced" versus one another is impossible.

My conclusion is that crossplay has no place in competitive

Because of this, I think that, for competitive, we should simply separate players based on their respective input system. This is the only sure way of having a perceptually and factually balanced "fair" foundation. The distinct differences between the two simply cannot be made "fair" through software adjustments. You might get relatively even "end results" but this will always occur at the cost of the players experience, as the aim-assist features will be of immense benefit to an "overpowered" extent in certain situations, and Mouse and Keyboard input will be of immense benefit to an "overpowered" extent in certain others.

As the number of these situations occur dynamically, it is not possible to adjust accordingly with software tweaks, which means that any "balancing" will be to the overall detriment of everyone involved. Gamepad players might be more open to accept this reality, because more multiplayer crossplay games come with aim-assist, and work on balancing usually occurs for their benefit and "handicap" (again, overall stats).

But the end result is still that to get to there, a feature needs to be implemented that automates part of that input system. This factor simply cannot be avoided, and it's a vital necessity in "balancing" the input systems.

What about non-competitive play?

Most players aren't competing to win tournaments or to gain world renown and sponsorships, so can we avoid this discussion outside of competitive?

Well, yes and no.

The debate will always exist in a PvP game where two different input systems are facing one another. The more severe the consequences of losing in that game, the more significant the impact of the "balancing" done by the developers. Simply put: If you have a very high-stakes game, where the players loses a lot when dying, the more pronounced the advantage in how they died from the "balancing" in that particular circumstance, the stronger the negativity will come from the player who lost their stuff.

In a PvP-game where you don't really lose much, the player is more prone to accept that there might have been "unfair" elements involved in the fight (this also applies to other factors that affected the death) and is less likely to respond negatively. Especially if they had influence over facing an opponent using a different input system (can turn off crossplay).

The bottom line is that developers who want to appease players desiring to be able to play with friends also have to accept the consequences of such a decision.

Enabling crossplay in a multiplayer game with PvP elements will inevitably lead to discussions of fairness and player agency. It will not be easy to appease these players due to the aforementioned nuances, and if the desired outcome is to please as many players as possible, the illusion of "fairness" at least has to be well maintained through multiple "balance passes", because the majority of the multiplayer player base will want full crossplay in their games, and those who do not will want the option to disable it.

- Tobias Solem Posted on: 2024-04-05 23:42:50


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