November 19, 2008

Get on the Boat! Lessons from Team Fortress 2

So, I found myself munching on hardtack and playing Team Fortress 2 last night.

For those of you unfamiliar with hardtack, it's a simple, near-flavorless, tough biscuit that used to be a staple of travelers and war-fighters for its durability and ability to remain reasonably edible for long periods of time. G.H. Bent, A company in Milton, MA, still makes 'em, and my sister was nice enough to get me some so I could try them. That was last year, and they still taste the same, as far as I can tell. I was eating them because Maggie cleaned off part of my desk, which is where I was keeping them, and suddenly they were in reach and visible.

For those of you unfamiliar with Team Fortress 2, it's a multi-player on-line action game. Basically, it's a shoot-'em-up with different classes of characters and an element of teamwork (sometimes). Oh, and really cartoony-looking art.

I have a scheduled game going, where the same people play. But I also play now and again to try to increase my marginal skills so that I might be an asset to a team, rather than a liability.

There are different game scenarios, with various goals, most of which are variations of "capture the flag." But one unique map offers what they call a "Balloon Race." And playing the Balloon Race got me thinking. But I need to briefly explain "Balloon Race."

In "Balloon Race" the object is to be the first team to move a balloon-suspended boat around a course and return to your base, which is right next to the enemy base. When the game begins, combatants stream out of the bases and onto the boat. Standing at the bow of the boat propels the balloon forward. You have to basically be right on top of the helm, which causes the boat to grudgingly gain speed. If you leave the helm, the boat will slow to a stop. This happens, for example, when the guy at the helm is shot repeatedly with a chain gun. The boat driver(s) are horribly exposed.

In the back of the boat is a protective cabin, within which you can heal and refuel. If you're out on the helm and run out of ammo, a quick trip to the cabin is needed. You can also snipe from the relative protection of the cabin.

If you are killed, you will soon "re-spawn" back at the base, and teleporters can send you back to the boat. So the consequences of dying are basically a 10 second cooling off period.

If you have 24 people playing, then each team has 12 people. It's very easy to get a few people to drive the boat at any given time, and the boat will quickly reach max speed. But things are different with teams of 3 or 4 people each.

I want to preface my next comments by explaining that I don't care if I win or lose balloon race. I like to win, but a close race is just as much fun. What's not a good time? If your boat is not moving and you cannot engage the enemy at all, that sucks.

So, here's something I've noticed. I teleported onto a boat the other day and saw two of my three teammates hiding in the cabin (they were snipers) trying to shoot at the rapidly disappearing enemy boat.

As I struggled to stay at the helm, and keep the boat going at a paltry 2/5 speed, getting picked off by enemy snipers because I was the only target, I had lots of time to think about the situation. I had type to type "Please -- someone take the helm!" while I was waiting to re-spawn, watching the boat slow to a crawl and stop.

Some people are more "mavericky" than others. These players say "I'm good at X, so I'm going to help the team out by doing X as well as I can!" This has a better chance of working within a large group where the basics are already covered and a stand-out player can put a team over the edge. But in smaller groups, the bases are harder to cover. You need a lot more cooperation, and people who ask "What does the team need right now, and is it something I can provide?" I think that this question shoes better team behavior.

The two questions are about taking initiative, but they're very different in the type of initiative.

A Team Fortress 2 team represents how teams work together in a very light management environment. Unless an unofficial leader takes control, each fighter is acting on his own with a common goal, but not strict assignments. Real life teams can sometimes be like this, especially if a manager is overburdened.

You're more valuable to a team if you ask what the team needs, in lieu of any guidance from management, and then try to fill that role, whether it fits your skill-set or not. If you have absolutely horrible management, you might get your hand slapped for taking initiative; but all but the worst management will find your efforts useful. Even if you suck at the role, identifying a need is something managers benefit from. If you just don't have that sort of leeway in your job, you can use your judgment to work within your boundaries. Your initiative might be to plan as if you were going to do this needed job, and then take your plan to the manager. This is an approach that works better in a strict management environment, but I imagine any manager reacts better if you come to him with "I have a solution for a problem I noticed" rather than the "We have a problem."

If I'm going to spend time playing Team Fortress 2, I figure I had better try to get life lessons out of it.

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Posted by James at November 19, 2008 1:28 PM
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I noticed they had Vermont Common Crackers at Shaw's yesterday. (I neglected to notice where they came from or who made them.) As I recall, the common crackers were almost as hard and tasteless as the hard tack.

Posted by: Julie at November 19, 2008 2:01 PM

Sorry I couldn't make the games Sunday or last night...I'll try in the future, I promise!

You highlight good things - the desirable way to win balloon race is the "Navy" way. You only have so many (or so FEW) people, and a ship requires more jobs to be done than you have people. So everyone has to double and triple up. Postal Clerks have to be good firefighters, and engineering officers need to know how to navigate.

I promise I'll have your back...if I ever get to play!

Posted by: Bull at November 19, 2008 3:44 PM

By my lights, the whole crew is supposed to "hand, reef, and steer."
Except for the specialists, whom we call "idlers."
For obvious reasons.

Posted by: PJ at November 19, 2008 4:37 PM

I love TF2. I suck at it, but it's fun. Too bad we are three hours apart. Might be fun to meet on a server sometime.

Posted by: briwei at November 19, 2008 4:53 PM

I own Team Fortress 2 as well but I've never tried it. I'd be up for a server game.

Posted by: Mike at November 21, 2008 8:12 AM

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