Understanding TTK and why it was important for BFV to revert its changes
Tweaking Time to Kill (TTK) values has bigger implications than simply shifting the slider higher or lower, so DICE recently learnt with Battlefield V.
Time to Kill (TTK) is a shorthand reference to the amount of time it takes to frag another player in a game. Think of two games: Divekick and Street Fighter. In Divekick, one hit from your opponent will kill you. In Street Fighter, dozens of hits might only reduce you to half health. The difference between these two dramatically separates how you play each.
TTK is a big deal in shooters.
Just look at the Tom Clancy game universe for evidence of this. Clancy games have long featured a realistic high lethality – a low TTK – but that trend was broken with The Division. While not technically based on a Tom Clancy story, at launch, Ubisoft had to fight an uphill battle of Clancyverse low-TTK expectations vs the RPG-over-shooter design logic of The Division.
The d/l on TTK for FPS
TTK is particularly important for competitive shooters. Both Counter-Strike and Rainbow Six Siege are high-lethality shooters that reward speedy reactions coupled with William Tell-like accuracy. Because of this, strategy and, more specifically, positioning plays the biggest part in low-TTK shooters such as these high-lethality competitors.
Put simply, the best firefight you can hope for in CS or Siege is one the enemy player isn’t aware they’re in. Get the drop on an enemy and, short of potato aim, you’re almost guaranteed the frag. On the other end of the spectrum, though, you’ve got the likes of Overwatch and Halo, though admittedly, the latter drastically lowered its TTK in Breakout mode for Halo 5.
For the core Halo multiplayer and Overwatch experience, though, a longer TTK – especially stacked next to the likes of CS and Siege – means both survivability and escapability are emphasised. For the most part, the first to engage isn’t guaranteed a frag in the same way as low-TTK games, which means a greater chance for breaking line of sight, repositioning and, more satisfyingly, retaliation. This allows for more reactive, on-the-fly tactics and, generally, the option to more brazenly face-check an area for threats.
Conversely, lower-TTK games reward planning, albeit with the proviso that new intel – sound cues, visual clues, or team chatter – can lead to frantic adjustments.
The grey of TTK
TTK isn’t a binary thing, though. It’s a slider, and the more moderate-TTK games offer an interesting balance of lethality and survivability. Call of Duty used to be a high-lethality, low-TTK series, but that changed with Black Ops 4 and the inclusion of armour. It now has a mid-range TTK which, while odd in contrast to the traditions of the series, is a welcome change, at the very least for Blackout.
CoD’s big competitor, Battlefield, has done a similar thing, albeit over the course of multiple games. What started in Battlefield 1 – most notably in terms of fixed class weapon loadouts and defined weapon ranges – has continued in Battlefield V. At launch, Battlefield V’s TTK felt great.
Conversely, Battlefield V had – and still continues to have – problems with its time to death (TTD). You might think that TTK and TTD are identical, and they should be, but that isn’t the case in Battlefield V. The big problem is single-frame deaths: wherein all damage from an enemy player is received at once, most notably from guns that aren’t renowned for fast frags. Take this example from Reddit User /u/MartianGeneral.
This netcode phenomenon is commonly called “super bullets”, but it’s usually reserved for online shooters with lower tick rates. Battlefield V, however, has a 60Hz tick rate, which is more or less the competitive standard these days. In lay terms, tick rate translates to updates per second, specifically from the dedicated game server to each individual player.
Basically, the higher the tick rate, the more updates players receive every second, and the more an online shooter feels like an offline one in terms of input responsiveness and all-important damage feedback. For Battlefield V, it feels like a mix of netcode woes and inadequate client-side damage feedback that lead players to believe they are dying faster than they’re fragging with the same weapons. This means the TTD problem is a player perception problem, albeit one curable by DICE.
DICE acknowledged the TTD/TTK disconnect and pledged to fix it. And that’s when things got weird.
A dirty band-aid solution
DICE’s solution to the TTD problem was to increase the TTK. Huh? In what can only be described as a clear case of false equivalency, DICE felt the churn rate – the rate at which players were leaving Battlefield V, particularly newer ones – was directly related to how quickly they were dying.
Given the TTD problem is a player perception problem (as mentioned above), this logic is a long bow to draw. By increasing the TTK values on the core Conquest servers – not to be confused with the launch TTK values on the Conquest Core servers – DICE effectively neutered the vast majority of weapons. Shotguns and bolt-action rifles were left unchanged, but almost everything else felt limper.
This was most notably problematic for Medics, whose sole submachine gun weapon class is ineffective beyond close quarters (even for the slower-firing varieties whose stats suggest mid-range accuracy and control). The TTK change gave more power to corner camping, shotgun-wielding Support players and tent-pitched snipers, both of which, at least as far as public servers are concerned, are player archetypes that aren’t usually associated with playing the objective.
This flies in the face of DICE’s push towards incentivising squad, team and objective play, but it also meant that the other classes favoured faster-firing weapons in an attempt to mitigate the noticeably sluggish TTK. Muscle memory that previously told you when you could switch targets or reload was thrown to the wind.
In gameplay terms, about the only positive of the temporarily lifted TTK was the increased survivability, but that’s mostly specific to Medics who, armed with fast reactions, could get to cover and heal before being killed… and then advance to spray their prey. The thing is, that’s hardly a fix for the already existing problems of Medic SMGs not having a fighting chance on the larger maps.
Worse still, this change wasn't coupled with fixes to the TTD problem, which meant super bullets still occurred and were now exacerbated. Not only were new players less able to kill enemies, they were still sometimes dying instantly, with no feedback as to why.
The implication of correlation
A lot of things can change when comparing a launch product to a version that’s patched months or even years later. But TTK is the one that, out of the gate, defines the experience. Just look at Siege. It’s changed drastically – for the better – since its disastrous launch three years ago, but the TTK hasn’t changed. One bullet to the noggin still kills, as it should.
Balancing weapons to boost their effectiveness or reduce their overpowered lethality is one thing, but making blanket changes to TTK impacts the experience for all players. Considering the aforementioned Medic SMG problem, the blanket TTK increase further screwed an entire – and, arguably, the most essential – class in Battlefield V.
Telemetry data should absolutely be used to tweak and refine the core experience. But when DICE says it made TTK “changes based on extensive data and deliberation”, it doesn’t add up. Correlation does not imply causation. Surely DICE deliberated – you’d hope so – but these hasty changes, at best, reek of a misinterpretation of data and, at worst, have the scent of a knee-jerk reaction to new players moving on.
DICE continues to have the same problem with Battlefield that it’s always had: onboarding. Battlefield veterans already understand the core mechanics of a Battlefield game, and so are in a better position to learn (and master) the new ones. Battlefield greenhorns are thrown into matches with these veterans and face a far steeper learning curve.
DICE’s current solution is a mix of static in-game videos and more active achievements, particularly in the ongoing Tides of War challenges, to train people on the intricacies of Battlefield V. There’s also the newly added Practice Range, but that’s nowhere near as intuitive as it could be, favouring guided training over free-form practice.
If DICE feels new players are leaving because they’re dying too quickly, it should focus on fixing the TTD issues before making blanket changes to TTK. All TTK changes do is ostracise the dedicated Battlefield player base, split the community with ‘old TTK’ and ‘test TTK’ servers, and offers a short-term anti-solution to a bigger problem.
There are also other options, like recommending new players use matchmaking – assuming DICE’s matchmaking ranking takes skill into account – instead of server browsers or incentivising the core Battlefield V community to work with newbies by way of shiny rewards.
The TTK switch-up was a failed experiment in Battlefield V, and one that DICE quickly amended. Whatever telemetry data DICE took from that short period of the TTK SNAFU will hopefully help address the inevitable TTD changes that will be implemented into Battlefield V’s live-service model. Despite a host of new and unfortunately familiar bugs in Battlefield V, there’s a dedicated community diving into its now nine-map roster, and I’d wager a big part of that is the launch TTK.
Ultimately, the cure to player onboarding should be handled differently as making changes that inspire an exodus among Battlefield V fans, temporarily or permanently, is the fastest TTK on a game’s community.