Red Faction Guerrilla: On Multi-Player

After the recent last article I actually have something more I say about Red Faction: Guerrilla before letting the game go. I have actually spent a lot of time with the game. Most of it playing multi-player. For once because I wanted to once get in such an on-line gaming community. So far I’ve been playing multi-player only very briefly. So I was never quite able to fully understand the cultural idiosyncrasies of communities like the one around Halo multi-player. I wanted to find out what the fuzz is about. The other reason was that I’m a shameless achievement whore.

Red Faction Ostrich

I have spent a significant portion of my lifetime grinding this game and all I got was this silly ostrich…

It was interesting. I gained a few insights which I would like to share with you. Generally I think there is a lot wrong with how the multi-player in that game works. The basic blocks are in place, they are just not fully thought-trough. They expose fundamental problems with how game designers approach multi-player today.


I’m slowly realizing that many game developers don’t really seem to know a lot about interface design. I think most of them do everything by guts. One proof of that theory would be the small revelation a most basic book like “The Design of Everyday Things” caused at last year’s 2009 GDC. I was stunned back then. The book is excellent but shouldn’t everyone know it by now?

Game developers still can make good games in spite of poor understanding of interface design. The reason for this is because in games, the inadequacies of interaction can become the challenges of the game. So for example, if something isn’t communicated clearly, you may regard is as a “secret” you need to find out, rather than just flawed information design. In practical interface design, you don’t have that kind of leeway. But even in game design, the gaps of knowledge start to show when it comes to the practical interfaces in a game.

Multi-player is a typical example. Multi-player often comes with a hefty portion of various commands and functions required just for pure maintenance and management. Red Faction is no exception. Throughout the game the interface has the typical crop of small, annoying mistakes but nothing as serious as Mass Effect. On the other hand, there is not much interface there anyway. Just a map and a couple of screens. But in Multi-player you suddenly need to track stats, customize and monitor your character profile, set up game lobbies in different modes with buddies and strangers together. It was inevitable that the experience would be hampered by sloppy interface design.

Here is one thing I’ve seen in other games too and that bugs me every time: the game developers NEVER give players anything to do in multi-player lobbies. The only game that broke that combo was Modern Warfare – you could check out your stats and customize your character while you wait. Ironically, Modern Warfare is so popular that you never actually have to wait for a long time in a lobby anyway. Red Faction was heavily inspired by Modern Warfare, but apparently they missed that part. So you can customize your profile and you can check out pages of fascinating stats about how hard you have been pwned. You just can’t do that when you wait in a lobby. Because in the lobby you need time to concentrate on being bored to death. And the game is much less popular than Modern Warfare so you will spend a great deal of time in the lobby.

Red Faction Stats

In Red Faction, checking out stats and waiting in the lobby are two separate activities. They need to be kept separate. Like the Romeo and Juliet of interface design.

But there is more. Like in Modern Warfare, the multi-player is spiced up by adding in-game achievements. However, the their poor implementation really doesn’t do the game any favor. First of all, they are “hidden” which means you don’t have a clue what to do in order to get then until you fulfilled 50% of the requirements. I’m generally confused about the idea of hidden achievements. This is not the 90ies when we used to get excited about hidden warp zones in Nintendo Power. If one can figure it out eventually, it’s probably a Google away. So for a game designer, hiding something like an achievement only takes away your only chance to properly explain and introduce a cool feature to the players.

But then even the players finally figure out what they are working towards, the progress is never shown very well. They have to get in the stats to find that one table with the hidden challenges. And then they don’t even get a percentage bar but only the raw numbers. It’s a sloppy solution that is the easiest to program but that ignores the player’s needs.

Red Faction Hidden Challenges

Hidden Challenges: Grind in order to find out that you need to grind even more. I guess “spoiler” or something.

But here is what bugs me: the developers actually took the time to create custom icons for each of the challenges. If you get one of the achievements, the icon is actually displayed on the main page of your profile. But it’s still completely cryptic! It doesn’t tell the name of the challenge, what the requirements were, etc. It doesn’t show progress with the challenges you still need to do either. They were so close! They just needed the players to be able to highlight the icons and display a tool-tip box with some additional information. But no, you need to exit that screen, go to another screen and then flip through pages filled with numbers. And even then – the challenges in the the stats page are displayed as text-only, not as icons like on the profile page. So there is no way of telling what icon represents what challenge. It’s just a half-hearted mess, which is the worst kind of mess.

Red Faction Challenges

Hidden Challenges in the main profile page. I’ve spent some serious time in the game and I can’t tell what they mean. But I got them all. Yay (kill me).

And finally it’s the little things. When playing Modern Warfare I can tell acoustically if I hit somebody. I can also tell visually if I was able to kill somebody. A huge, ugly, yellow number flashes in the middle of the screen telling me how many points I’ve scored. It’s crude and ugly, but it’s incredibly effective. In Red Faction hits don’t give any feedback so you never know if you’re doing it rong. Actual kills are listed among other kills in the corners of the screen in tiny font. This has repercussions even down to actual gameplay. I sometimes was killed by enemies I mistakenly assumed dead. I just couldn’t tell.

Modern Warfare Feedback

In-game feedback done well – big ugly numbers telling you how awesome you are when you happen to be awesome. Unfortunately, this isn’t Red Faction, this is Modern Warfare.

The bottom line is that multi-player introduces elements of interface to the game that are not an means to themselves but tools to do other things. They have to be accustomed to the user’s needs and goals but rarely are. Because that requires game designers to put on a very different hat on then what they are used to.

Multi-player achievements

Interface nitpicks may seem like not that big of a deal. However, inconspicuous symptoms can have serious causes. In this case it’s the fact that the entire multi-player part is not really thought of as a complete experience. It’s very different than the single-player part. In the single-player a team of designers considered how players get into the game, and how they progress. They also designed an end-game – thought about how they can leave the games with a sense of closure. The entire experience is carefully constructed, especially when it comes to difficulty and time.

Multi-player is different. It’s a bunch of “cool” ideas with an infinite loop wrapped around it. There is no entry-point, no exit point, no dramaturgy. Just a uniform, endless world of repetitive combat. The problem is that in case of Red Faction, the game’s developers not only stood by as “innocent bystanders” but actually encouraged that idea.

Which brings me to the subject of multi-player achievements. I’ve mentioned them briefly in a yet unreleased episode of our podcast. I believe they should be banned or at least categorized differently so they don’t get mixed up with other achievements. The disparity between the designed experience of single-player and hands-off approach in the design of multi-player is evident in them. Adding achievements to multi-player suddenly poses questions to game designers that can only be answered if the game is regarded as an experience. When does the experience begin? What part of the experience do we want to highlight? What are important milestones? When is the experience over? That’s OK for single-player because game designers can answer these questions for this part of the game. Single-player achievements are difficult but there almost always is an idea behind them. But when it comes to multi-player, things get batshit crazy. Because game designers didn’t think of multi-player as an experience, they have no clue what to do with them. I presume it goes like this: “When is the multi-player over? I don’t know it never really is, I guess. Let’s put a very high number in to reward the most hardcore fans. What is high? I don’t know. What do the server stats say?”. So what you end up with are achievements like “Win 250 matchmaking Games”. With each game taking 10 minutes, it takes 40 hours to get this presuming there is no waiting time in lobbies and you win every game. A more realistic estimate would be well over 100 hours. This is about 5 times the length of the single-player campaign. In order for this experience to be at the same level of quality as the rest of the game, it would require 5 times more work than was invested into the single-player. But judging from the glaring interface design omissions, I didn’t receive even a fifth of it.

Red Faction Achievements

Most of the multiplayer Red Faction achievements have been unlocked by only 2% of the players. Compared to that around 44% finished the single-player mode. And this is not even the most insane multiplayer achievement I’ve seen, oh no.

That’s why I find multi-player achievements a bad idea. The current state of design quality in multi-player just doesn’t rationalize them. They are often used to define an arbitrary threshold that puts players through dull, poorly thought-out experiences. The few players they “reward” probably enjoy the game regardless of any achievements.

Of course I acknowledge that multi-player is a dynamic system with lots of participants. It’s difficult to design that. I also understand that this dynamic is what introduces variation into multi-player. So it isn’t quite as repetitive as it may sound. But this is neither and excuse nor is it a substitute for actual design. Multi-player is difficult to design properly but not impossible. It just requires a lot if work. There are precious few examples of companies that were able to pull it off. Again, Modern Warfare comes to mind. And you know what their solution to multi-player achievements is? They have none.


Which brings us to the community. As you know, games contain rules that shape the player’s actions. In the case of multi-player they inevitably also shape the overall culture around the game – the community. This is an enormous responsibility. And if you have been following this article you might guess where this is going.

A community built around a game where you are supposed to kill each other over and over again creates a rather depressing climate at first sight, especially if the entire experience is not designed properly. So no wonder you will see players develop such habits as teabagging, bad language, griefing and whatnot. Even in team-based modes, players will rarely cooperate with each other.

This kind of climate is not very pleasant. So what experienced players do in order to improve the game is that they will often team up in X-Box Live parties. These parties will roam the Red Guerilla multi-player lobbies, pwning everything in sight. It’s a very nice experience when you manage to get in one of those parties. You will meet lots of new people. People dynamically enter and leave the party. Everybody is generally very nice to each other. They will give each other advices and have lots of fun. Also, you are almost guaranteed to win. The party members cooperate more with each other and the players have all above-average skill. Because winning is much less of a problem, the game becomes more relaxed and you will get a lot opportunities to goof around and experiment. However, the parties are only fun if you are part of them. As a random player, playing against one of such parties is a devastating and depressing experience. You will quickly learn to avoid them which makes finding a fair match-up even more problematic.

Red Faction Party

Not even a party but two experienced player (Black/Red) are about to join forces in order to pwn some n00bs. Good for them. Not so hot for the n00bs.

But the most freaky and advanced level of cooperation is called achievement boosting. Because both, the in-game and the X-Box Live achievements of Red Faction have a very high of a threshold, players team up and cooperate to get them. I got into this community via People meet up on-line, get into private games, cooperate to get kills with specific guns and in very specific ways to get the elusive achievements. The game suddenly becomes very different. It is no longer about pwning. It becomes very much about the logistics of most efficiently satisfying the goals of all participants. Communication becomes a very central part of the game. Basically, by cheating the system, the players turned a highly competitive, aggressive game into a highly cooperative and communicative one. Two evils cancel each other out.

Which is basically the common theme of all these observations. By default the Red Faction multi-player is a very bleak and depressing environment. It is a world of playing the same levels over and over again to kill most mostly to get killed. But players developed strategies to cope with it. Using external tools (X-Box Live Parties, they re-defined how the multi-player works. They put their own rules on top of the existing ones.

So what does it say about the design of the multi-player part of Red Faction? If players modify the experience, does it mean that the underlying system is faulty? On the other hand, does fact that players care at all could suggest that the game has some merits after all? As always, I think it is a combination of both. Which is why I find the game so interesting and why I think we can learn so much from games like this.

In this case it seems like what players are looking for is more focus on cooperation than competition. Players also seek out more tightly designed experiences with clearer and more varied goals. If the game’s system fail to provide these, players will seek out to circumvent them. Game designers should realize that simply repeating what has been done before is not enough. Multi-player need to be designed as a complete experience. One that that takes into consideration the player’s needs and expectations.

It has been a couple of fascinating weeks with Red Faction. I’m looking forward to trying more multi-player games. More on that in the following reviews. Until then, I’m curious to hear on what other multi-player games you’ve played and if you had similar or contrary observations. As always, I encourage you to share with us your thoughts.

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

3 responses to “Red Faction Guerrilla: On Multi-Player”

  1. Xelas

    Really interesting stuff about how game developers perceive multiplayer and I’d agree that the open ended nature of multiplayer is reflected in some quite horrible achievements.

    However the kind of achievement that rewards players for playing how the developers anticipated can have its advantages. For example developers can emphasise the role of medics by offering an achievement like “Revive 100 team mates”. In TF2 Valve used the achievement “Medical Fraud (Steal 1000 health in one life)” to alert players to the fact that disguised spy’s could be healed by the enemy medics and dispensers. Of course, if the achievements were arbitrarily hard like revive 1000000 team mates then that would just be a cheap and pointless way to encourage players to keep playing.

    These kind of achievements have their place when done well however personally I prefer the sort that encourage players to deviate from their normal playstyle. These when done well can be like fun challenges, such as one in TF2 where as a medic the player must achieve 5 (might have been reduced to 3) kills while having an ubercharge (temporary invincibility for him and whoever he’s healing) ready but undeployed. Now there’s almost no scenario where risking the loss of your uber by actively hunting down more offensively capable enemies would be a good idea, it’s just a fun diversion.

    So yeah, I believe multiplayer achievements when done well can act to improve a newbies knowledge of the game and extend the game’s multiplayer longevity in a way that’s deeper than just “kill a billion people”.

    1. Krystian Majewski

      Good point! I agree that achievements can be an effective tool to shape the on-line experience. That is why I would argue for implementing them as in-game achievements – only visible within the game. Much like it has been done in Call of Duty. This way, they can be more closely tied to game mechanics and appear less mandatory.

  2. Shorlan

    From your description of the game’s multiplayer, I would agree that it seems poorly tossed together to satisfy a requirement for multiplayer without understanding why the playerbase would find the feature fun or worthwhile.

    Alternatively, take a game like World of Warcraft which was built with multiplayer interactions and cooperation in mind. Higher quality items are impossible to obtain without at least a few people trying to work in the same direction.

    There were plenty of difficult achievements there, nothing stellarly impossible, since the aim of the entire achievement system was to provide accumulating and intermittent rewards as the player progressed, and later was presented as a means for defining difficult, rare, or simply time-consuming goals that were available for the player to pursue.

    In fact, with an MMORPG like WoW where new content is cycled in every few months and gear quickly becomes obsolete for the next higher level, it’s only the flavorful items and achievements, received from both rare and server-firsts which actually stick along with the player as a badge of honor due to some achievements becoming unobtainable once the gear/content bar has been raised.

    While I hate to admit it, I think WoW adapted a very addictive rewarding system to keep the community involved and reaching higher when most MMOs on a similar timetable would have stagnated much sooner. The current situation of the MMO market has been to label anything as the next WoW-killer only to have expectations fall reasonably quickly on new title releases..

    Compare a multiplayer system like WoW where interaction and cooperation is useful and quite necessary for progression compared to a single-player game ported over to multiplayer scene in what seems to be – from your opinion – more of an afterthought than a serious draw for the playerbase.

    Very informative post, and quite enjoyable. I’ve never played Red Faction: Guerilla game myself, but you painted a pretty clear picture on the state of its multiplayer implementation.


Game Design Reviews is a Blog used by a group of game designers from Germany to publish and discuss their thoughts on various games. The blog consists entirely of reviews of games. Each review focuses on the important game design ideas and concepts of that particular game. We also run a second, more informal Blog called Game Design Scrapbook.


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