The Mercy Rule: A proposal to fix unbalanced FPS matches.

It’s no secret that I play a lot of competitive first-person shooter games. While I vary in skill from an absolute noob to top of the leaderboards depending on the game and match I play, I do play a fair share of competitive games. Often times these become my podcast games, where I just mindlessly shoot things while hearing about video games, history, or forgotten TV shows. And yet, I seem to do okay most of the time with not that much focus.

However, there’s one particular quirk about these kind of games that bothers me. One that’s been set in stone since the early days of online deathmatching with Doom and Quake almost 30 years ago. Something that has become more of a problem in recent years: Unbalanced teams.

We’ve all likely had those kind of experiences, the ones where you realize the other team is just too good, and there’s no way in hell a victory is on the horizon. You get fragged frequently, oftentimes by people with reflexes so sharp that you’d swear they’re hopped up on amphetamines. You may get a lucky frag or two, get a “comeback” medal, but it’s not enough. The game ends with an outright blowout: 100-48.

Nothing more demoralizing than something like this, from a match of Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War.

Sometimes when players see the writing on the wall, they’ll bounce out of the game mid-match, forfeiting an XP bonus for staying with the match, ending up with a game that ends up being 6 vs 3, making it more lopsided and unbalanced, even as new players join in to make it balanced again. Back in the day you’d see players swapped over to the other team to try to balance things, but not anymore. Once a team’s in a game, that team’s set in stone until the game ends.

For some, it’s discouraging. It feels like one’s skills are inadequate enough to play these games. It demoralizes the player, so they may not give their best. Thus when the odds are stacked against your team, and they know the other team’s filled with the kind of player that’s likely doing sick YouTube frag videos, it just stops being a fun experience.

Granted, some games like Call of Duty have made it so if you joined a losing game in progress that it doesn’t count as a loss against you, but it’s a patchwork solution to a bigger problem. Even recent elements like Skill-Based Matchmaking, which has become sort of a bane to some high-level players, can only do so much to help out games that are clearly favoring one team.

Even being on the winning side of a crushing battle, from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (2019), doesn’t feel fun to me.

I’ve thought about this problem for a while. While I am not a game designer – I tried that in community college and it went over my head so much that one of our team members, a person with Actual Gamedev Skills and is likely in the industry nowadays, had to bail us out of our final class project – I am familiar with some of the tenets of game design that I think I can make an idea to resolve this. I’ve called it the “Mercy Rule.” It’s not a catchy title, but I think it works in theory.

How does the “Mercy Rule” work? Well, if there’s a large score discrepancy between two teams, the game ends early, regardless of time or frag limit. The winner is immediately decided, XP is rewarded, and everyone’s moved back to the lobby. A fairly simple rule that I think could make a slight difference in terms of multiplayer gaming. Letting games end early with this new Mercy Rule could make a difference when it comes to gameplay. It means matches don’t drag along to the finish line, games finish quicker, and there’s more incentive to stick around rather than ragequit, especially if there’s some extra incentive like bonus XP or something.

As for the score difference, I think it depends on the game and the mode. I’ll use Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War as an example, since I’ve been playing that a bunch lately. An average match on Team Deathmatch is either first team to 100 frags or whichever team has the highest frag count after 10 minutes. With this Mercy Rule, let’s say that Team A has a 30+ frag lead over Team B. The game ends, Team A wins, and Team B gets a bit of extra XP since they got outplayed. Now, the game wouldn’t be immediately over if they hit that Mercy Rule limit. If the other team can somehow close the gap, then the Mercy Rule is out of play until either they hit that limit again, or hit the regular score or time limits.

I know that all I’ve mentioned about this Mercy Rule are frag-focused game modes like Team Deathmatch, but I think this can also apply to other game modes as well. Domination or Hardpoint game going 120-0? Mercy Rule comes into effect. Someone on Free-For-All kicking everyone’s ass so hard that they’re 20 frags ahead of the second place player? Mercy Rule. This would require a bit of tinkering to figure out, but I feel this is a fairly easy thing that could fix the elephant in the room when it comes to competitive multiplayer.

This match shouldn’t have gone all the way like it did, from Quake Champions.

Now, I know that there might be people out there who would balk at such an idea. Either because some people just get an absolute thrill out of dominating teams this way, or they likely think I’m an outsider to the video games world and trying to ruin the sanctity of multiplayer gaming or something dumb like that. I have a response to those people: “No Mercy.”

No Mercy puts it so the rules are what they are now: Games will end once the fraglimit or timelimit is reached. You wanna be the sweaty tryhard and get those high-kill runs with quickscoping sniper rifles and such? No Mercy still gives you that, for those who want that challenge. For those who don’t, and just want to have fun, the Mercy Rule is there for those players. Best of both worlds, as far as I’m concerned. And if you’re not on board with this and don’t mind being on the receiving end of an ass-whupping, No Mercy is there for you.

This may sound like a new wild idea, but there have been games that have similar modes in place. Ground War in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (2019) has it so a Tactical Nuke will commence if a team captures all five points, giving the losing team 45 seconds to capture any point and stop the nuke. Quake Champions, a game I used to play religiously for a few years, added a Mercy Rule for Capture the Flag, after the initial release of the mode had no score limit, leading to games that ended like this:

Back before Quake Champions added a mercy rule for Capture the Flag, this is how matches sometimes went. In another, we lost 0-20.

Eventually in an update they added if a team was 8 flag captures ahead of the other team, the game automatically ends. They even call it a Mercy Rule, so it’s not like the idea is unprecedented!

So why am I proposing this? Because as someone who enjoys action games, I 100% get the thrill and fun of playing these games and winning. I get that high as much as those high skill players do, even if I’m not as experienced as they are. But I also feel disappointed when I get beaten by really good players and there wasn’t much I could do besides stick it out or ragequit. I look at the Mercy Rule as a way to bring fairness and fun to these games, but also potentially to give a quicker turnaround for matches, thus maybe keeping people playing these games just a bit longer.

And I know I’ve only mentioned multiplayer shooter games, as that’s the crux of this article. There may be similar rules set in place for things like RTS games or MOBAs where they can accept an early defeat in-game without like, ragequitting. So if you have similar Mercy Rule ideas that could work in other genres, or even other examples of people doing this, please let me know.

But as someone who mainly plays and writes about shooters, I can only write about stuff I know. Thus I write about how I don’t like losing a match of Call of Duty 100 to 48, and wish there were ways to fix that. I hope this gets some attention from game developers, because I bet this is one thing that hasn’t been thought much about in game design.

Apologies for this being more of a rambling rant than about something cool like some obscure game or something. I’ve been struggling as of late to try anything new or to find proper article material, so I hope this is sufficient enough until I write the next article.

beverly jane

I'm the creator and writer of You Found a Secret Area. Fascinated by obscure pop culture and wanting a place to write about curated stuff, I created the blog in 2012 and have been running it ever since. Also on other places. (Pronouns: she/her, they/them)

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