The other day, a colleague mentioned that she felt like there was something off about Halo 4's multiplayer. She was getting destroyed by other players, eventually feeling like she didn't have much of a chance when up against people with advanced abilities or gear gained from Spartan point unlocks.
This seemed like a marked difference from earlier Halo titles, where it was possible to drop in with your starting gear and have a reasonable shot at being competitive—even against people who totally out-leveled you.
I told her what most people might: that the game starts out that way, but then it peters off. After spending a few hours grinding enough XP to unlock what you want, you'll be able to perform better. After spending a bit of time with the game, you'll be able to tailor your loadout to make yourself a formidable Spartan.
Others, I imagine, might've been less courteous about their suggestions—a common response to this type of complaint is that you're being ridiculous if you whine about starting weapons and abilities because of course the starting loadouts are great! If you're good enough, right? I mean, look at how easily I own everyone with the starting weapons. You on the other hand must suck if you're not doing okay at the start, clearly.
But then I thought about it, and it hit me: why in the world do I act as if this is okay? Simply because unlocks are so common now, and just because you eventually reach a point where you have everything you need to be competitive, doesn't erase the fact that the game starts out unbalanced.
Not ridiculously so of course; developers wouldn't be able to get away with that. The starting gear in Halo 4 is reasonably good, but the stuff you get to unlock later, after putting some time in, still gives you the capacity to be even better. And I can't recall the last game with non-cosmetic unlocks that didn't have me feeling a tad frustrated at the start of my stint with the multiplayer.
Kotaku's own Tina Amini puts it well when she says this about Halo 4:
Getting the fanciest weapons requires real dedication, so it feels like it could be representative of how adept a player you are.
This situation is a constant; the latest game that evoked this annoyance was Black Ops II. To quote myself on that:
Point blank, I hated starting out in the Core playlists because it was immediately obvious that the game was not balanced. It can't be. Whoever has the better gear will invariably win in a duel, and the starting guns suck. Every bit and bob you can customize-attachments, abilities (ie, perks) and extra gear makes a huge difference in how effective you can be on the battlefield.
There's no sign that this will let up—not with RPG elements becoming so pervasive in our shooters, not with how popular multiplayer is. Sure, both Halo and Call of Duty have special playlists where unlocks aren't allowed, but you're not playing with the general populace and that doesn't change that unlocks suck.
The irritation is especially present if I hop onto a game a few months after release, when the community has dwindled to the more hardcore players. Then, the disadvantage of not having the same gear becomes pronounced: I'm being outplayed and outgunned.
In that case, people know the ins and outs of the maps, the tricks necessary to optimize play, and they've had time to figure out the popular strategies used in a game. You, meanwhile, might still be trying to figure out how to use your sub-par gun. I've had to resort to buying games at release if I'm thinking of playing the multiplayer, and that's not something I'm happy about.
Eventually, after I play enough, I'll forget about all of this. It's because the amount of time I play with the appropriate gear will vastly outnumber the hours I spent trying to become properly outfitted.
Beyond forgetting about it, I feel as if there's this weird community thing where it's like "Well, if we have to bear it, so can you." Isn't that a bad sign? When you have to tolerate something? Or like it's a rite of passage, a tradition. You need to grit your teeth because everyone else does it, and if everyone has to do it, what's the big deal?
It's one thing to play on single player and have a sense of progression, feel like you've earned the right to be powerful. It works there. It lends itself to games that feature progression not only narratively, but mechanically: and that's important.
But I shouldn't have to earn the right to play at what would normally be my most competitive in a mode where the entire point is to be competitive. Non-cosmetic unlocks work against the very point of multiplayer, they get in the way of embracing why you're there in the first place.
Always having something new to work toward works wonderfully as a motivational tool to keep playing, and that's why unlocks shine. You're always looking forward to what you might get next—which then sort of becomes what you "deserve." You worked for that ability/armor/gun. That other guy with the inferior gun? Welp, they haven't put their time in. Sorry, thems the breaks. Pile that on with "earning" the right to get killstreaks or ordnance drops for doing well, and things get a little messier still.
For the hardcore, this will make no difference: they're going to play the game long enough that any imbalances at the start are but a short, passing memory.
For everyone else, here's a question: after you unlock everything—then what? You'll have to play the game on, gasp, its own intrinsic merits? I've noticed that many games that rely on this progression model don't hold up so well, despite how unfair the system might be.
Worryingly, it doesn't look like multiplayer games are going to let up with these types of unlocks. Halo didn't used to be like this, after all.
Personally, the game I've poured the most hours into is a game that didn't have unlocks that affected the game itself. That game would be Gears of War 2. The thing about Gears of War is that you know exactly what you're getting from the get-go. And if what a game lays out in front of you is engaging, if that hooks you? You'll keep playing. You'll keep playing for a long, long time. Out of embarrassment, I won't tell you how many hours I've logged onto Gears 2.
The problem is that developers are invested in keeping you playing no matter what, and unlocks are an easy way to do that—even though it means we'll play for (arguably) the wrong reasons.
Normally I wouldn't say there's anything wrong with giving players reasons to keep playing. We want value from what we buy, we want to get as much out of our purchases as we can. But unless we continue to play because of the game itself—without these added layers of bullshit—what's the point?
Maybe the truth is that most games don't work so well in the long term without pulling tricks like these to keep someone playing. And maybe we're so fervent about getting the most 'value' out of our games, we're willing to overlook what a game does to keep you playing. For a developer that might be interested in keeping you engrossed because it means you're more likely to invest in new maps, modes and so on, that reality is perfect.
That's not nearly as gross as realizing that developers are aware of what's happening. Game academic Dylan Holmes noted that Battlefield 3 tells its users that they'd be able to "level the playing field" no problem... if they're willing to pay.
"Tired of fighting an uphill battle against Battlefield veterans?" it continued. "The Ultimate Shortcut Bundle unlocks 119 weapons, gear and vehicle upgrades." At which point it directed me to a link where I could pay Electronic Arts a mere $40 for said "shortcut."
It's worse when you consider what Dylan says next.
The point of unlocks in Battlefield 3 isn't to increase the fun I'm having; it's to encourage me to play more than I would otherwise. Take away the unlocks and the typical play experience remains unchanged.
Ultimately, in a world where we believe that time = money, the transaction that DICE proposes isn't a surprising one. We readily equate the two so, sure, we'll be willing to shell out the money for it. Some people even believe that paying for every piece of a game a la carte should be what games do next. But still, it's ridiculous to think that a developer wants to sell you fairness. What in the world?
Two things jump out about this to me though. First, that the people who this poses the most value to are either those who want to get to the meat of the game, or those who lack the necessary time to invest in the game. But both of these situations don't have to exist in the first place. The person who wants to get to the "point" of the game could just be given everything they need from the start. The person without time could also just be given what they need right away so that they can enjoy the game.
But immediately giving people what they need would inconvenience that whole ‘monetization' thing now wouldn't it?