Player Empowerment

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One of the great things about gaming is that it can provide an escape from everyday life. Many gamers seek a feeling of being powerful and important. They want to feel badass and strong, often in contrast to their real life. Games often provide a power progression to give players a sense of improvement as they play. Even if the goal isn’t to provide a power fantasy for the player, having a tangible way to track progression, in the form of avatar skill, is a popular feature. Not every game uses or needs power progression (Hellblade Senua’s Sacrifice and Overwatch, specifically, come to mind), but most games do have one. There are good and bad ways to do this, though.

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A problem I often see in power progression systems is making the player so powerful in the end game that the challenge disappears and the game becomes trivial. Bethesda is pretty bad at this. I encountered this in Skyrim and Fallout, but the worst I have experienced is Prey. It is a shame, because Prey is one of my favorite games of 2017 and by far my favorite horror game. Unfortunately, the suspense and uncertainly is trivialized by how powerful the player becomes at the end. When Mimics can be detected with a spectroscope and even the most powerful of Typhon melt underneath the Q-Beam, some of the suspense is gone. The Witcher 3 does this as well. There are so many side quests and optional content that is worth completing. If you complete even half of it, you will likely be far over leveled for the end game. Also, enemies do not scale with the player’s level, so after a while, most mobs littered around the map are trivial and not even worth the time to get off of Roach to fight them.

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Conversely, I would say that Divinity Original Sin 2 handles progressive challenge really well. As you level up, there is always an area or quest that is perfectly suited to be just barely within your ability. The only real walls that block off content, are simply difficulty walls. If you want to charge into the Blackpits at level 6, the game will let you, but you will certainly die. There are encounters and areas beyond your level that, if you are clever, you can access early to get some good higher level rewards, but it also doesn’t break the game, either. If you pick up a sword far above your level, you can use it, but your accuracy is much lower. You never feel too powerful or too weak.

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The ideal system, in my opinion, is to allow players to control their own difficulty, and I don’t mean game-wide, menu difficulty levels, but rather in-game mechanics that allow players to change their own difficulty. There are several excellent examples of this. Super Giant Games do this better than anyone else I have seen. There is an incredible amount of avatar and play style customization in their games, including ways to make the game more difficult. In Transistor, for example, there are limiters that you can install into your transistor. A limiter might increase the health of enemies, decrease Red’s speed, increase the number of bad cells created from enemies, etc. There is so much replayability in these games, partially because the player can make the game as difficult or easy as they wish. Dark Souls 2 has a few good player-controlled difficulty features as well. The Covenant of Champions allows you to play the game as New Game + difficulty. There are rings that limit the number of souls you receive. You can use Bonfire Aesthetics to fight bosses again at a higher difficulty, as well as repopulate the level with enemies.

Ultimately, I want everybody to get the kind of experience they want in games. Some want to feel powerful as they clear rooms of aliens in Doom. Some want to feel desperate, fearful and in danger as they creep through Prey or Resident Evil. I think that some games benefit from players feeling over or under powered, and that most benefit from being balanced. I have a lot of respect for games that can allow the player to customize a game to their own desires. I definitely support any game that increases player choice, especially on a matter where every player would have a different preference.

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.

DLC: Good or Bad?

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DLC is an important issue in the industry that gamers tend to be very split on. Some think that new features are always a good thing, even if it costs more money and some think that DLC is anti-consumer and unacceptable in any form. Like most issues, my opinion is somewhere in the middle. Some DLC is good, some DLC is bad. I think that intent, cost, timeline, and type of game are all relevant when deciding if a piece of Downloadable Content is bad or not.

I think that the biggest problem with DLC in games is when a game is released, has a $60 price tag, and then has paid DLC a week later. When a game has extra content for sale so soon after release, it means that the content was ready and always intended to be part of the game. The devs simply released an incomplete game at full price and then offered the rest of it for more money. The complete game is not $60, but $70, $80, $100, or more, depending on how much DLC there is. Marketing an incomplete game as a finished product while holding the rest hostage under an additional pay wall is anti-consumer and unacceptable. One of my absolute favorite series is terrible about this and I have been forced to stop purchasing their products: Total War.

I have been playing the Total War games since Medieval Total War in 2002. I have hundreds of hours in Rome, Shogun II, and Empire Total War and dozens in the others. These games are incredibly fun and appeal to my strategic and gameplay sensibilities on almost every level, but a month after each game is released there’s $20-$40 of DLC. Usually a game will launch with 5 or 6 playable factions in a map of 25+ AI factions. In a couple months after release, they will often add 5 or so more. These were obviously in the works at launch, but unfinished. They were always intended to be in the game and charging more money for them as if they were simply extra features is dishonest and unethical. If the game is unfinished, they should either delay the release or publish the rest of the content for free. Creative Assembly, though amazing at creating games, has business practices that I can no longer support.

In shooter games like Call of Duty, the devs will release new map packs as paid DLC. Fighting games like Injustice will also do this with new playable characters. I don’t see this as quite as awful as the Total War system, but it’s still not great either. While the extra content is not necessary to play or enjoy the full product, but it splits the player base. Since only some people will be able to play on all of the maps or as all of the characters, matchmaking becomes more complicated, separating players into those who can play with the extra content and those who can’t. This becomes worse and worse with every added piece of DLC. Companies try to solve this by offering a Season Pass, which guarantees access to future DLC for a one time price. This concept, while seemingly practical and will probably save you money, is not a good idea as a consumer. You are paying for content that doesn’t exist yet. There is no guarantee that future DLC will be of acceptable quality or that there even will be more DLC. It is the same issue as pre-orders, which I will get into in more detail another time.

I think that a game that does this well is Overwatch. The game is a one-time purchase, $40 for PC and $60 for Console, and you get access to all current and future content. Every new character, map, balance fix, event skin, etc is available to you. You never have to spend another cent. The way that Blizzard can do this and continually create new content for the game is through the optional loot box purchases. The loot box system is one that is controversial and some see it as anti-consumer. I covered this topic in my post about loot boxes. Essentially, as long as the contents of the loot box are only cosmetic, I am fine with the system existing and I much prefer it to being charged for each new character or map.

Another situation that is worth considering is free-to-play games. While I don’t like a system where parts of the game are locked behind a pay wall, but as long as the game isn’t pay-to-win, I suppose it is acceptable. I think that a good middle ground here is a game like League of Legends or Paladins, where most of the characters are unavailable initially. You have to either purchase them or unlock them eventually by playing the game. Each week, there is a rotation of characters that are playable for free, that week. The game is free, it is all unlockable by playing the game, and there is a way to experience all of the content if you play long enough.

Now on to examples of DLC that I think is specifically done well. First, I want to talk about From Software and the Soulsborne Series. Every game, other than Demons’ Souls, has had at least one piece of DLC. Every single one, in my opinion, has been an excellent addition to the game. They usually release the base game with plans to add DLC later, but the content in the DLC never feels like it should have been included in the base game. They all are clearly additions to the world and story and each one has added several hours of content. Bloodborne’s The Old Hunters expansion included my favorite boss fight in the series. For a paid DLC on a fully priced base game to be acceptable, I think that the added content needs to be high quality, solid quantity, and should feel transformative or at least additive to the base game.

Firaxis, the makers of Civilization and XCOM, is an interesting case. I find that each game they release is excellent on launch and feels complete. Their major expansions have all be amazing and worth every penny, but they sometimes have smaller DLC packs which, while not necessary for the game, don’t merit their own price tag. XCOM 2 had a collection of additional soldier customization options called Anarchy’s Children. This should have either been included in one of the later DLC’s or added for free. Civilization VI adds new playable civilizations to the already plentiful list every few months. I think that these are often over priced. They are always good, but should be priced reasonably. On the other hand, XCOM Enemy Within improved on Enemy Unknown exponentially. It completely transformed the game and added tons of new content. Civilization V Gods and Kings, Brave New World, etc were all massive overhauls of the game, adding new features and changing mechanics. XCOM 2 War of the Chosen could have been marketed as a separate game. It completely changed how the game is played and added hours of new content. Overall, Firaxis has a few lackluster but not terrible DLC’s and arguably some of the best DLC ever made.

The last example I want to mention is The Witcher 3. The Witcher 3 is often held up as an amazing example of DLC done right. I just want to add my voice to this. Hearts of Stone, as an expansion was excellent. The story, new characters, new monsters, new part of the map to explore, new crafting mechanics were all excellent. The missions for Von Everic were quite different and very fun. I also loved how well it fit into the post game of Witcher 3. You didn’t need to start an entirely new playthrough of this massive game to play the new content at a satisfying level. I was blown away by Hearts of Stone and it was probably my favorite DLC in any game…until Blood and Wine. Blood and Wine was bigger and more saturated than most other AAA games. If I had to pick my least favorite thing about the base game of Witcher 3, it was that many of the Witcher Contracts and side missions felt pretty similar to each other. This was not a problem at all in Blood and Wine. Every mission, was unique, hilarious, evocative and fun. Posing for a painting with a dead griffin, winning a grand tourney, helping a love struck knight woo a cursed woman, enduring the bureaucracy of Beauclaire banking, and my favorite quest in the whole game: entering a land of corrupted fairy tales. When people say that DLC is unacceptable, I can understand that, but then I point to Blood and Wine and realize that DLC can sometimes be amazing and absolutely worth it.

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.