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How positive reinforcement changed Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Phantoms

Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Phantoms was released last week after an extended beta that changed the game significantly.

Beyond the technical details like improved lighting and new character models that Ubisoft touted when it announced the tactical third-person shooter's release date in March, the game underwent many other, subtler changes, in part because some of the development team's original plans just didn't work.

At PAX East 2014, Polygon spoke with Simon Davis, design manager at Ubisoft Singapore, about the what the developers did to foster cooperation in the free-to-play game.

Phantoms is a team-based multiplayer game that needs players to cooperate. Victory is about coordination, as teams sneak, shoot and hold positions to score points and win matches.

The problem during the game's long beta was that players weren't cooperating.

When Davis joined the development team, he knew things needed to change. But how do you convince lone wolves to rely on their teammates? You give then incentives.

"We primarily do it through positive reinforcement," he said. "All the scoring is geared towards doing things that help your team. The game rewards you for kills and that kind of thing, but you get the most points for capturing the objective. Your team only wins if they've capture the most objectives through the whole match."

Each of Phantoms' three classes have devices they can equip, which can, for example, scan the battlefield to locate enemies and add them to the team's mini-map.

"If you scan the position of the enemy, and they get killed within a certain timeframe, you get points," he said. "The players who use their devices to benefit their teammates get a lot of assists and capture points always do the best."

The developers also added a five-tier ranking system that ranges from Lieutenant to General. It's based on performance, and the way that developers define players' performance is weighted toward team-assisting criteria.

"If you want to effectively move up the ranks, you've got to help your team," he said. Yes, it's still possible for a lone wolf to brute force his way up the leaderboards, Davis said, but "he has to be very, very, very good. He has to be so good that he's just helping his team by killing all the opposition."

Ubisoft Singapore also lobotomized the beta's weapon tiers. Matchmaking is based on rank, and players can upgrade their weapons based on their earnings as they play. Developers discovered that players with high-level guns were being matched with players with the game's beginning weapons. The solution: get rid of the original two beginning tiers. The weapons that players begin with now in Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Phantoms used to be the game's mid-tier weapons.

"All the guns now are quite viable," he said. "We built the ranking and the matchmaking in such a way that you'd never encounter someone that's got a much better gun than you — or you shouldn't, unless you're really, really good and they're crap and they have a good gun. Hopefully, that doesn't feel quite as unfair."

Though Davis couldn't get into specifics, he said that continuing to introduce systems that incentivize positive reinforcement is "a big focus for the year ahead" for the Windows PC game.

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