I Miss Couch Co-op

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I grew up with games like Halo 3, Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2, and Star Wars Battlefront. I would spend entire nights with my friends eating junk food and playing games together on the couch. I loved being able to hang out with my friends and family and all get to play a game together on the same screen. I have played hours of Little Big Planet, Towerfall, and Rock Band with my family. This new generation of consoles has seen a departure from local multiplayer, and a complete focus on online multiplayer, and I think it’s a shame.

Some of my favorite memories from my teens were of playing Zombies in Halo 3 and battling for the sniper roost on the Rust map of Modern Warfare 2. It was great to get together in person, lock ourselves in a basement and stay up all night eating pizza and gaming. As I’ve grown older, I still enjoy getting together with my friends and gaming all night occasionally, but now if we want to play together, each person has to bring their own PS4 and screen. While still fun, it’s inconvenient and a lot more work. It also loses a little sense of intimacy, it feels more like we’re playing next to each other and not together.

Don’t get me wrong. I love online multiplayer too. I have lots of friends who now live all over the country, and it’s fantastic to be able to get on discord and play with my friends all over the country. I’ve also met several great people in Overwatch and Fortnite chat that I enjoy playing with. I also understand that local multiplayer isn’t important to many people because they don’t have friends locally or they don’t have the time to organize a larger get together. It’s just easier to play with everyone online. I do understand this, but I also think that there is something more that you can get by having in person contact, drinking and eating together. It’s, at least, important to me.

Ideally, games would have both local and online multiplayer. All of the games I mentioned before have that feature. I could play Battlefront with my friends or online, or the single player. I want every player to be able to play the way that they want. It’s such a shame that Halo, once the pinnacle of local multiplayer, has abandoned it entirely. I know that this is more of a personal nostalgic complaint, and that this isn’t an issue for everyone, but I do care about it and that’s enough for me.

The Art of Absurdity

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When it comes to storytelling, in any medium, it is important to keep a tonal balance. In film and television, if the tone is always dark and gritty, it can get wearing and even break the immersion, becoming melodramatic. At the same time, if there are too many moments of levity or humor, the experience becomes more casual and harder to get invested. The same sort of thing can happen in games. It’s important to keep a balance of realism and absurdity, not just in story, but also in game mechanics.

Realism can add a lot to a game. I, personally, appreciate when games add elements like limb damage, stamina, and bullet drop (depending on the game, of course), but sometimes it’s taken too far. In Shenmue II, the ending of the game includes a hiking sequence, with little interaction, that takes 2 hours in real time. In DayZ, you have to consider sore feet, rain making you cold, staying fed, ingesting bacteria from dirty water, etc. DayZ, obviously appeals to some people, and I’m glad that it exists for them, but I think there is a line where realism turns from strategic considerations to frustrating or boring tedium. These games can be interesting, but will rarely have a lasting playerbase.

On the other side, there are some games that are too absurd. I think that absurdity is a highly underrated feature in games. Absurdity can create some of the most fun moments. In Wolfenstein New Order, you impersonate a scientist to sneak into a Nazi research base on the moon. Killing Nazis on the moon while dual wielding sniper rifles that can transform into laser guns is an incredible amount of fun. In Fortnite Battle Royale, you can build ridiculous, physics-defying structures to outmaneuver opponents while dressed as a bush and then fire a rocket at a teammates feet to pick them up and send them flying across the map while surfing on a rocket. It is absurd and amazing and incredibly fun. Some games, however, are built around absurdity, and while entertaining, have very little staying power. A perfect example of this is Goat Simulator. Flying around a map as a murderous, glitched out goat, constantly knocking things over and causing mass destruction is fun and gimmicky, but only for an hour or two before it gets old. Octodad and the Just Cause series are the same way.

One of my favorite games is The Last of Us. It is a masterpiece of pacing, storytelling, and character growth. It does really well with balancing its tone as well. The setting and story are very dark and serious, but there are beautiful moments where the characters and the players take a moment to release some of the tension. The giraffe encounter in Salt Lake City was incredibly moving because it was a perfect counter balance to the depression and trauma created by the encounter with David. Ellie’s teasing of Bill helped distract both the player and Joel from Tess’ death. Mechanically there is realism in the arrows breaking based on how the corpse falls and the noise created by starting up a generator, but there are also considerations for the sake of enjoyable gameplay, such as being able to listen carefully and see through walls or being able to stick several hand guns, a bow, shotgun, rifle, a brick, several nail bombs, lit molotov cocktails, shivs, ammo, and many more things in a single backpack. Wolfenstein is another good example of a game that has a good balance.

I should clarify that I understand that games like DayZ and Goat Simulator have people that they directly appeal to, but for the general gamer audience, it’s different. Like so many things, games are best as a collection of elements from both sides in moderation. Realism and absurdity are both valuable qualities in games, as long as there is some of both.

Loadouts in Multiplayer Games

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Until around a year ago, I wasn’t much of an online multiplayer person. I played some here and there. Uncharted 2, Call of Duty Black Ops, classic Star Wars Battlefront and Battlefront 2. I did love local multiplayer. Modern Warfare 2, Battlefront, and Halo 3 I would play for hours on split screen with my friends. I also played some Warcraft 3 and Starcraft online as well. In the spring of 2016, a friend of mine sat me down and made me play Overwatch for a few hours. I almost instantly fell in love with it. The art style, the eccentric characters, the gun play all felt amazing. I was converted to multiplayer games and bought Overwatch for myself the next day. Since then, I have put some time into several games I never would have touched before: Lawbreakers and Ghost in the Shell betas, Paladins, Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds, and Fortnite Battle Royale.

I found that I preferred the games where everyone enters the battlefield equal. I liked Uncharted 2 multiplayer more than Call of Duty partially because Call of Duty had loadouts and Uncharted did not. In CoD, each player selects which guns, attachments, explosives, etc their character would start the match with. In Uncharted 2, every player would start with an AK47 and a grenade, but better weapons would spawn in specific locations around each map. The beginning of the game was a rush to get to the weapon you wanted before anyone else. It was simple, but equal. The only things that distinguished one player from another were skill and map awareness. In CoD, I never knew what kind of loadout a player I would encounter would have. Maybe they had been grinding for hours and have unlocked amazing weapons and would have an advantage over me in gear. I would gladly sacrifice gear customization for balance.

I do want to quickly mention how much I appreciate Modern Warfare 2 and its merit based progression. Instead of earning credits to buy gun upgrades and such, you have to play with a gun and accomplish tasks to earn the right to upgrade it. I just would prefer it to be in a single player game(Wolfenstein does this well) rather than a competitive multiplayer game.

One of my absolute favorite things about Overwatch is that every Genji is the same. I know exactly how much health he has, how much damage I can risk from him, what his abilities and cool downs are. There is no advantage one Genji might have over another except skill. I feel similarly about Fortnite BR and PUBG. Every player starts off equal and only skill, map awareness and luck will lead to victory.

I quite liked Paladins, and will talk about it more at a later time, but I don’t like the loadout system, especially because you have to get the loadout items in loot boxes. I think the mid-match upgrades you can purchase are interesting, but it makes it difficult to know what I’m going up against when I see a Kinessa. She could have different health, damage, etc than a Kinessa in a different game.

I understand that this is a matter of personal opinion and it’s a pretty minor issue, but I like to analyze the games I play. I know that many people like loadouts because they are a clear representation of game progression, but the only progression in multiplayer games that I care about is personal skill.

Loot Boxes: Gambling or Nah?

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Similarly to the Battlefront 2 situation, the subject of the ethics of loot boxes has been discussed a lot lately. Are they gambling, should you be able to buy them with money, what contents should they contain, what kind of games should be allowed to have them, etc. My view on this is mixed.

Simple Answer? Yes, loot boxes are gambling. You are expending a resource for the chance to gain something of greater personal value. Some people argue that in cases where you can earn loot boxes without buying them invalidates the gambling argument. I disagree. I think that time is also a valuable resource. “Time is money” as the saying goes. If I spend time grinding a game to earn loot boxes or the credits to purchase loot boxes, I am taking time out of other activities to earn the chance to gain something I want. I am gambling time for in game items.

Recently the ESRB ruled that loot boxes are not gambling because you are guaranteed something, even if it’s not what you want, unlike a slot machine where you may come away with nothing. I also think this is a bad argument because if you take it to its logical conclusion, I could create a slot machine that guarantees at least a penny every time you insert a token and place them in locations where gambling is illegal. This is obviously ridiculous.

I also want to briefly mention some similarities between something like a slot machine and a loot box. Every loot box system I have seen is colorful, has exciting sound effects, shiny color coding, etc. You press the button, the box shakes for a moment then explodes into a pile of loot. Often, they don’t even show you what you have immediately until you click on each item to reveal it. When you pull a lever on a slot machine, it plays exciting sound effects as the moving parts spin and flash. They reveal one by one so the anticipation builds with each revelation. Each of these elements come together to trigger dopamine centers and can easily be addicting.

If you agree with me so far, what is the solution? Should randomized reward systems be outlawed in games? Personally, I don’t think that is necessarily the only solution. I think the real problem is that most people don’t see loot boxes as gambling and so don’t know what they’re getting into with them. At the least, any game that has a system like this should declare it on the cover inside the ESRB rating. For example: T for Teen, Violence, Language, Gambling. Then people should be aware of what they are getting. Especially parents who might not want their kids to be engaging in a gambling system.

Some argue that because people can get addicted and self destructive, the system should not be allowed in any game. I can understand this, but I also believe in personal responsibility. As long as an individual knows what they are getting, they should be trusted to make their own decisions. Developers shouldn’t have to treat every member of their audience like a child that needs protecting.

The next question is whether players should be able purchase loot boxes with money or just through in-game actions. This also ties into the question of the loot box contents. In my opinion, purchasable loot boxes can only contain cosmetic items without becoming pay-to-win. If loot boxes can only be earned through in game actions, then it is tolerable that they contain gameplay-altering items, though I, personally, believe that gameplay advantages should only be awarded based on merit and nothing else. I have said before that gaming should be the ultimate meritocracy where every player enters equal and only skill can give you victory.

I think that an important thing to consider when looking at microtransactions in games is why a game might include them. I will use three games to illustrate my view of this: Overwatch, Battlefront 2, and Fortnite Battle Royale.

Fortnite BR is free to play, doesn’t contain advertisements, and all new content that has been added has been free. In late October, Epic Games added a microtransaction system where you purchase V-bucks and use V-bucks to purchase cosmetics. At the moment, this is the only way the game can make money. While it is true that this system is not a loot box system, but instead paying money for currency to buy items directly. It should also be noted that you can earn V-bucks by grinding in the paid PvE mode Save the World, but most players only have the free Battle Royale mode.  I think this system is fine because the microtransactions can only lead to cosmetic items and I believe that developers should be able to profit from games they make.

Battlefront 2 is more complicated at the moment since the future of their microtransaction system is uncertain. Currently it is not enabled, so players can only get loot boxes through in game actions. This was not originally true. Previously players could purchase crystals which can be spent for loot boxes. Furthermore, loot boxes in Battlefront 2 contain not just cosmetics, but also gameplay-affecting items. The system, as it was before, was not tolerable. Since players could purchase loot boxes with money which contain gameplay progression items, it was a pay-to-win system on top of a fully priced AAA game.

Overwatch is one of my favorite games, so I will try to be as objective as possible. Overwatch is $60 on Console and $40 on PC. The game includes a loot box system that you can either earn in game or by buying them with money. The boxes only contain cosmetic items but some consider having a microtransaction system in a pay-to-play AAA game is unnecessary and greedy. I can understand that, but since the Overwatch devs are consistently adding content every few months which is free for everyone. I would prefer cosmetic loot boxes that people spend money on to paying for new maps and heroes. Ultimately, I am fine with this system as long as Blizzard continues to support the game.

My thoughts boil down to pay-to-win is never acceptable, but cosmetic purchases are tolerable in games that are either free or are continually supported without paid dlc.