Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Call of Duty 4: Punishing Newbies Sells Boxes (Once)

When I first started playing CoD4 multiplayer, I absolutely loved it. I loved the advancement options and the persistent rewards that made me feel like I was accomplishing something by doing the same kind of standard FPS play over and over. It’s nice to see your name rise on the scoreboard, and it’s certainly fun to gain skill at a game, but to know that a new weapon is just around the corner makes me load up one more round of the game instead of calling it a night. The game becomes intensely addictive as you level up. Gaining skill and gaining abilities was a delight the first time around. I had the best multiplayer FPS experiences I’ve had in my entire life, and I didn’t need to be an elite player to enjoy the game.

I loaded CoD4 onto the gaming rig that I built a couple of months ago. I started a new profile for online play.

I was rusty, yes. My knowledge of the game had dissipated from disuse. But I was so disheartened by being stuck with a level 1 account again that I almost gave up the game entirely. I had a max level account that I played a significant amount within a few months of release—without the options granted by higher levels available to me, the game become artificially difficult and extremely frustrating. I’m stuck with iron sights, for instance. Iron sights are terrible and seriously hinder aiming. I have to suffer through many awkward matches to get to the point where I can use the red dot sight, which is the only sight for assault rifles that I find tolerable.

The game is punishing me for being new. Why is it doing this? At first blush, I thought it did this to limit the options new players have so that they will not get overwhelmed. Then I realized that it doesn’t matter if I have twice the options if those options actually let me have significantly more fun with the game. Why don’t they give me all the sights for the starting weapons? Why do I have to use crap sights for fifty or more kills just to get a sight that is a direct improvement? This is a skill-focused game, not an MMORPG. I’m motivated to play so I can get better sights, but that motivation is counteracted by the frustration I’m experiencing now.

Call of Duty 4 makes it more difficult for new players to have success. This is a bad design decision. You are forced to play uncomfortably for a while before you are permitted to enjoy the full fun of the game. I don’t understand this approach—vertical progression in an FPS betrays the purpose of FPS games. FPSes succeed based solely on player skill growth and challenge being motivating factors; reducing challenge while skill grows is counterproductive! This kind of positive feedback mechanic is damaging to the spirit of the game when you examine it with some objectivity.

So why, then, is Call of Duty 4 so wildly successful? Because the game mechanics are great. They nailed the FPS. There are a number of varied and useful weapons and there are rewards for using them well. Gluing multiplayer matches together with a progression system is a great idea, an idea so good that it pushed aside the counterproductive tendency of the system with its sheer innovativeness and the polish that made that innovation a pleasure to play (the first time through).

One game has had great success by punishing newbies. I sincerely hope that this does not become a trend. I see people asking for unlockables in the fascinating District 8 (which is now in open beta—I suggest checking it out) and I cringe internally at the possibility of having to bludgeon my way through crippled weapons and suboptimal choices until I prove to a skill-based game that I can be a warm body in enough matches to brute force 150 kills.


Melf_Himself said...

See Guild Wars for an example on how to do this properly. More time with the game should open up different ability combinations, not more power.

motstandet said...

Properly constructed sidegrades are better than linear upgrades. In TF2 the unlockable weapons are not required and mostly support certain play styles. If I had to start over in TF2, I wouldn't mind all that much; there isn't any progression test I need to undergo to prove to Valve that I know what I'm doing. It's all player skill.

You are starting to sound like me... ;)