Saturday, February 13, 2010

“Character” Advancement in Games of Skill

First, Global Agenda institutes an annoying leveling treadmill that turns an otherwise very fun tactical shooter into a timesink and unnecessarily punishes new players in a game where skill deficits are already a huge issue. Now Command and Conquer 4 is committing the same sin in the RTS genre. (Read Bilsybub’s impressions.)

Rewarding people for playing a game longer when the game consists of repeatedly playing matches that are supposedly skill-based? This accomplishes a few things, none of them are particularly good for players or game balance.

  1. Punishing newbies.
  2. Supplementing the power increase of player skill improvement, leading to a further advantage to players who should be better at the game anyway.
  3. Introducing a timesink that the player cannot get around.

Learning to play the game is enough of a timesink—why augment that with an advancement system that is guaranteed to progress slower than your pace of learning? It will only handicap newbies and make their matches less fun.

The people who really benefits from this nonsense? Whoever sells the game. Now you must play for 20 hours in order to even have access to a competitive set of abilities, units, weapons, or whatever.

Gating aspects of a competitive game of skill may prove to be a profitable business decision, but it’s a painful game design decision and can only erode player patience among competitive players. This takes the most soul-sucking part of themepark MMOs and shoves it into games that could not be further from the themepark design philosophy. These games will probably see much financial success because of the addictive quality of vertical character growth—this pattern will spread to more and more titles and continue to bother me and other supporters of skill-based games.

Now the same business vs game design conflict that has brutalized the design of themepark MMOs has come to roost in skill-based games. The future seems to be turning a skill-based game into an MMO by adding some “impact” PvP and vertical growth timesinks. This is bad for skill-based game design—but who cares about game design? Everyone’s in it to make money who has enough money to make such a game, so we’ll see this frustrating trend continue.


Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

I think the main problem here is that "MMO = character advancement" to many people. The persistence of the character is what sets an MMO apart from other games, and what makes it (usually) worth paying a monthly fee (or being invested enough to buy items).

What are the alternatives? What system could Global Agenda have implemented to keep people playing the game and perhaps even eager to throw down a subscription?

Logan said...

Brian is right... there really aren't a lot of other options... if you take out the character advancement then you basically have TF2 with jetpacks... but who in their right mind is going to pay a monthly fee for TF2 with jetpacks?.. let alone buy the game in the first place. the character advancement is a big selling point, and helps GA stand out from the crowd... you take that out and now there is no reason whatsoever (other than jetpacks) to leave TF2 and give GA a try.

if you want a game of skill, with no character advancement, there's always QuakeLive... and it's free!

evizaer said...

You both have missed the point. I'm not arguing that GA should be an MMO and is doing it wrong, I'm arguing that GA shouldn't be an MMO considering the way its gameplay is structured (highly instanced 10v10 PvP and PvE, no open world, no "quests" or exploration whatsoever). GA is set up as a game of skill, not as an MMO, then they tacked on "MMO elements" and are now selling it as an MMO.

Changing GA into a real MMOFPS ala Planetside is not tenable considering the form the game takes now. They'd have to basically rewrite the majority of the game and do some serious class redesign.

I would suggest that GA just pull back from its MMO pretensions and make the game a great futuristic tactical team-based shooter. The MMO stuff is primarily a distraction--and a poor one at that.

GA isn't work even $5/month as it stands. I'd rather them pull back and do what they clearly can do well instead of shoehorning an MMO into their game unnecessarily.

Anonymous said...

I agree that having a player basicly waste time doing stuff that is obviously repetitive and hauling out time for no good reason. Such would imo be the worst kind of pacing in a game.

My example, is Mass Effect 2. Sure flying around the planets seem to have a purpose, in so far as you collect minerals, but it seem obvious to me that despite the little function of planet probing, it is all a waste of time. What is the fun of this? The challenge? Hardly. Looking at the planetary textures? Nope.

There is the thing with planets where you pick up transmissions on rare occasions, but as a player I found the whole travel-to-planets thing a great distraction and a fake way of pacing the game. And I do believe that this silly space-travel-functionality work as hauling out time. A fisher Price variant of RPG's.

Bilsybub said...

I should clarify that I'm actually fine with Command and Conquer's levelling set up.

I think there are two paths advancement can take. One is the WoW path, where higher levels means you're strictly better. Not only do you have acess to a larger array of abilities, but every possible stat will be higher at higher levels (generally).

The other path is the path Modern Warfare, Command and Conquer, and Shattered Galaxy (to a different extent) take, which is to allow levels to expand the versatility of the player, without increasing their power relative to the population as a whole.

For instance, in Modern Warfare, you really can do just fine with many of the starter weapons (this is mostly in an ideal sense, certain weapons can be and are imbalanced, but that's not a fault of the levelling so much as it is of the design team).

In Command and Conquer, everyone starts with bread and butter units that you will use the rest of the game. Rather rapidly, you will gain access to a few important supplementary units that round out your arsenal. Everything beyond that is simply choice addition; nothing has seemed to be out-and-out better in all situations than the starter units.

Shattered Galaxy offered something similar, though it did so by forcing players to specialize in any one battle and then having hard counters to everything. Your AA may be crappier than a high-level AA, but even a max-level player will pull their Air to Ground out when your ships sail in, because you'll still kill them pretty darned rapidly.

It sounds, however, like GA didn't do it quite like that, which is a shame. Modern Warfare really did demonstrate how to effectively have character persistence without killing the balance between low and high level players. GA probably should have looked more to that.

Logan said...

so without the character advancement, would you ever have picked up the game?

also i'd like to reiterate what Brian said, MMO does NOT mean character advancement... just because a game has character advancement doesn't mean that it's trying to be an MMO... it seems like you looked at the game's features, saw character advancement, and immediately thought "well this is an MMO"... it's not.. and Hi-Rez has always said that "it's not your typical MMO"... i think the problem most people has is that their expectations don't line up with what the game is actually trying to achieve... some would blame Hi-Rez for this disconnect, but honestly i don't know how they could have done it much differently without screwing themselves out of a lot of money.

basically the world doesn't need another TF2 clone, so Hi-Rez had to do something to set their game apart... i think what they did is very reasonable, and if there wasn't any character advancement i don't think the game would have done nearly as well as it has.

going total skill based like Quake or TF2 would have limited their player base a lot... going total MMO based like Planetside would also have limited their player base... so they compromised with somewhere in the middle... and i think it's worked fairly well... i won't personally be paying $12 a month for it, but it's still a solid game that i'm sure myself and many others will be playing for quite some time.

Void said...

They could do horizontal expansion instead of vertical. Like Bilsybub mentioned, they could go the Modern Warfare 2 route and slowly give you access to more items but not increase player power. That would help even the playing field.

I would even say that they should implement more specialized classes which you don't have access to until later. That way you can balance the classes and still give the player a sense of progression.

I also think they could simply have the MMO aspect be the worldwide conquest mode. Let skill determine who wins, but give everyone the chance to carve out their own little part of a giant hex grid. I think they need to open up the hex grid to individuals as well as guilds or add a few main factions for non guild minded players to join.

This ties into a post I made about length of time it takes before hitting endgame.