Planned to Fail

The specimen creep up in tight bunches in Killing Floor 2, lurching into dedicated fire. The onslaught of bullets ambushes them in doorways and windows. The group of soldiers, misfits, and manics defending their ground work with the precision of an oiled machine, with supporting fire during reloads and heals coming as quick as the damage. Everyone moves in synchronicity, as a single mass of gunfire and grenade.

A well-coordinated, well-equipped team is a nearly impossible challenge to surmount. A good plan, solid teamwork, and the right tools often makes the difference between success with no losses, and total abject failure with 100% casualty rate.

The larger zeds are much more threatening, charging through the bullets and blasts alike to tear into the mercenaries, scattering the ranks. Eventually, the hulking creature goes down, but the scattered team has to punch through the zeds that have surged in through the wake of the massive slabs of muscle and rage.

Once the coordination crumbles, the casualty rate starts to climb. Concentrated fire will fell most zeds as a matter of course, but as the players scatter, the fire becomes less dedicated. Without the layers of teamwork, each zed individually represents a more significant threat to the separated players. When the organization is lost, getting back to a stable team structure is its own nightmare scenario of blades, bullets, and blood.

An old adage in strategy is that plans never survive the first shot, but the concept is never illustrated more clearly than when tested. Especially in the chaotic combat. As little details start to come apart, and teamwork starts to crumble, any semblance of a plan crumbles at the seams. At least, in theory.

A good plan and a better team can see through wave after wave of almost anything, conquering conflicts almost by reflex, holding formation throughout. These are the sorts of teams for whom intricate plans are made. They can execute complex objectives, their communication is clear, and their tactical doctrine is cleverly executed. Watching such a team is something of a marvel, it’s striking to stand opposite a group so learned and capable that their sheer presence is itself a force of will. They are the kinds of groups the idea of morale was built upon.

I’ve never been in such a team. I’ve played around them, I’ve even been a member of their party as they run missions, but their unspoken and unstoppable synergy was something that remained foreign to me. Their plans, no matter how precise the expectation was, could always be met with respectable measures of success. Even when I personally failed, the additional objective of recovering from the fatal flaws I created with my bumbling was as smooth and effortless as the rest of their actions. It is a constantly humbling experience to be in such company.

When it comes to making plans, I’m as much an asset as anyone else. I have a mind for systems and structures, generally as much as any seasoned gamer, and my ability to formulate reasonable and respectable plans has never been an issue. Planning is something that I can reliably do.

Once it comes time to execute a plan, the pieces unravel. I train myself to be a steady hand with aim, to suppress panic when I’m faced with mortal danger, and to survive as best I can in a wide range of circumstances. This is true in survival horror, this is true in first-person shooting, and it’s likewise true in strategy games. No matter the situation, I’ll outfit myself to survive as best I can come hell or high water. Unfortunately, it also makes me a horrible teammate.

Teams are about trust and communication more than personal ability, and that is a metric that I will fail almost religiously. I have difficulty explaining abstract concepts succinctly, and that results in making me bad at communicating in panic situations. When I’m expected to swarm around my teammates during large encounters, I’ll instinctively navigate to the most open position, poised to flee at a moment’s notice. For my own survival, that’s a perfectly viable strategy, but for my team’s survival, that might mean putting the entirety of the enemies between us. If given the option of a high-risk rescue, or no-risk escape, I will unconsciously favor no-risk every time. Even when it means probably getting my team killed.

To me, the concept of a plan is an ideal: a theoretical perfection that rarely survives the first spanner in the gears. When the first things start to go awry, my reflex is to reposition, reconsider, and survive. I am a great survivalist, but I will invariably get everyone around me killed. For a plan, the various players must be as unlike me as possible. Plans may hardly survive the first shot, but even the best plan can’t survive players like me.

That said, I like plans. I like to consider, strategize, and contemplate how to best achieve success against unrelenting opposition. Plans are amazing to organize, and entirely magical to be a success.

They’ll always be alien to me, though. I’ve spent many, many hours training myself to be a solid survivalist, handy and capable even in dire straits. A good plan requires good teamwork in order to work the way it should. A plan accounts for variables by relying on the combined strength of everyone involved, I account for variables by putting myself in positions of least weakness. It seems we’re on opposite sides of the coin, I can’t help but feel like plans and I have never, nor will ever, see eye to eye.

So when the specimen close in, and the mercenaries scramble for footing against increasingly dangerous masses, I’ll start backing further away. My teammates have turned into distractions, I start calculating: who can I save without putting myself at risk, what can I do to keep my favorable position. The last thing on my mind is what the plan says I should do. My teammates crumble over crushing waves of teeth, then the hungry eyes turn to me with predatory expressions.

So I do the only thing I can think of. I turn and run.

Written for Critical Distance's Blogs of the Round Table under the "Plans" theme. If this is up your alley, go give the other pieces a read.

Taylor Hidalgo never fails to plan, but almost always plans to fail. You can find more of his work here and his words on Twitter.

7 responses to “Planned to Fail

  1. Yeah i always play with the same group of friends and we have an unwritten rule that if over 50% of the team is us we are gonna lose, playing with strangers seems to make you want to be better, whereas with close friends you are more comfortable with failing, hell the plan was probably borked to start with.

  2. Pingback: Worth Reading: If You're On My Team, You're Probably Gonna Die | Kotaku Australia·

  3. Very well written and interesting piece.

    “I start calculating: who can I save without putting myself at risk, what can I do to keep my favorable position”

    Sometimes I think a certain degree of that philosophy should be a part of The Plan. I’m guilty of often diving into impossible circumstances in an effort to rescue a fellow teammate at any cost. The situation can quickly go from bad to worse when two players are downed instead of just one. Regardless of what may have otherwise been, I have directly caused my team to lose by making this mistake on more than one occasion in both video games and board games.

    I guess it’s a gamble either way. The most you can do is try gauging the likelihood of a successful rescue as well as the likelihood of victory or defeat with the loss of the teammate in question. That’s much easier said than done though…if I was a robot I might try to turn that into a mathematical equation.

    • We are already robotic in that way. The human mind does most of its business in pattern recognition, and any time it’s running calculations, it’s bouncing the situation onto every single pattern it thinks is applicable, and returning speculation about potential outcomes. The mental math of survival like that is automatically looking for memories and knowledge that fits the pattern. Often, when calculations are very wrong, it’s mostly that the brain just didn’t know whatever equation fit that situation.

      But yeah, good plans have contengency for things like that, but should also be aware of the situation. Games like L4D do kind of encourage leaving the lost behind, because they’ll respawn at the next safe room. Games like Killing Floor don’t always, because the later waves will have multiple waves of Fleshpounds/Scrakes/etc. Every surviving member exponentially increases the chances of survival against those frantic moments, even if it means taking big risks against the one or two of them that appear early in the wave. So, different speeds for situations as needed.

      But yeah, it’s always a gamble. With a good team, taking risks to help others is always productive. In a bad team, taking risks means getting abandoned or getting stuck in an awful position. In a team of nothing but me, it would always be the latter.

  4. I am totally on board with you. I like the idea of my team having a solid plan in place, with everyone having their sectors to cover and support responsibilities to tend to, but I’m the first one to bail on the plan when all goes to Hell. I suppose my thinking is the same that airlines use–put your mask on before assisting others, because how can you help if you’re about to pass out–but I know in reality that it’s pure, base, selfish not wanting to die.

    I wonder if a lifetime of playing single-player and competitive games has programmed us to think this way. In the grand scheme of thing, cooperative video games are relatively new and still in the minority. Does the self-preservation we experience in single-player games and the desire to be the last one standing in competitive multiplayer carry over?

    • I don’t really think it’s an aspect of single player games, but also a product of how people tend to play. Any time I get a game, in groups of friends or otherwise, I personally will find time to solo in the game for a little while so I can try to wrap myself around the mechanics to see what techniques stick, what works, what doesn’t, and what weapons/strategies/costumes work for me. While I’m doing this, I’m also steadily earning myself a new set of reflexes and instincts for surviving harder challenges while I’m out there by myself. Then, once it’s time to go back to team play, I’m suddenly met with a significant better understanding of the mechanics than the last group outings, but also a survival instinct in which my panic moments are relatively calm, but also reflexively soloist in nature.

      It’s not the case in all games, I’m ridiculously clingy in Payday 2, for example, but any game in which I’m comfortable from my solo experiences will earn me some isolationist reflexes for team play.Most of which I don’t intend.

Thoughts?