Multiplayer games, both competitive and cooperative, have existed for as long video games. This makes sense seeing as early game prototypes were digitized versions of sports that are, by their very nature, competitions of skill, either pitting players directly against one another or scoring them based on their performance in the same activity. Pong may have been a major simplification of tennis but the simple controls and obvious win conditions make it an accessible and enjoyable diversion, even to this day.
I still have fond memories of shuffling my character awkwardly around a court in Tennis on the NES, trying to time my shot based on the weird perspective shifts of the pixelated ball and growing shadow beneath it. The Sega Genesis mustered in the era of fighting games for me, I invested hundreds of hours into the Mortal Kombat trilogy, each character presenting a whole new set of moves to master (I’ve still got an official strategy guide for MK3 stashed away). I continued playing fighting games during the PlayStation 1 and 2 era but also added racing games and sports titles to the mix. Once again, many hours were spent mastering controls, memorizing tracks, and perfecting strategies. During the same period, I was also getting exposed to first-person shooters on PC, pouring a lot of time into Unreal Tournament and Quake III.
If there is one thing I miss most about these classic games when I’m trying my hand at modern competitive games - games that have become incredibly popular - it’s balance. This is something that has recently, in the name of rewarding players with a sense of progression, been sacrificed and turned far too many competitive titles into grind-heavy treadmills that leave players struggling to remain competitive, not through skill, but rather based on RNG luck (often modified based on your willingness/capacity to spend). Loot boxes are the most egregious manifestation of this system – playing the same thrill of anticipation paired with gamblers odds – but even transparent, unmonetised systems can impact the experience.
Progression systems + cooperative multiplayer = good.
That said, not every multiplayer game is affected to an equal degree. Cooperative games, even those in which the rewards are based on RNG, can thrive with progression systems. These mechanics still allow players to pursue their preferred specialities and synergise their skills.
I’ve spent hours playing horde mode in Gears of War 4 with one friend specializing in building defences and wielding a shotgun, allowing him to stay close to the front lines. Another friend has taken to the heavy class, raining down explosives on clustered enemies and bosses. Myself, I’m partial to stacking sniper rifle damage bonuses and picking off enemies huddling in cover from afar. In Mass Effect Andromeda’s multiplayer, I’ve got one friend who rushes in with a robust shotgun-wielding Krogan Vanguard, whereas another covers choke points with turrets as a Human Engineer. I once again snipe from a distance as a Salarian Infiltrator but also remain on the lookout for down allies, ready to cloak and rush in for the revive. A progression system that allows each player to enhance their own playstyle is a great addition.
Overwatch, yet another of Blizzard’s incredible multiplayer successes, has a few issues with character balancing – D.Va and her damn self-destructing mech annoy me no end – but they limit the progression system to pure cosmetics. Sure, it’s attempting to replicate real-world fashion dynamics with clothing and gestures rewarded randomly from loot boxes (that you can also buy with real-world money), but this progression system does not provide a gameplay advantage. A new player who opens fire on a veteran player will still inflict and receive the same damage. The veteran player is more likely to be victorious, however, that’s likely due to skill developed over time, a knowledge of the map and potential strategies within it.
Progression systems (especially monetised) + competitive multiplayer = bad.
Unfortunately, there are many popular competitive multiplayer titles that have progression systems directly affecting game balance. EA is probably the biggest culprit but they’re unlikely to care as these issues haven’t stopped the gaming community from buying millions of copies while they complain in forums.
Star Wars Battlefront II is almost too easy a target given the stick the game has already received but it remains a great example of broken systems, yet massive sales (that I’ve complained about it before). A lot of gamers raised hell after the beta, complaining about the randomness of unlocking skills - locked behind loot crates that take forever to unlock using in-game currency (and, of course, real-world currency soon) – and the exorbitant cost of unlocking iconic hero units. However, I would argue the biggest problem is the impact these systems have on the gameplay itself, not the inefficient solution they offer to keep you ahead of the levelling curve. Much like real-world sports, the challenge and enjoyment come from outperforming your fellow gamers through training and skill, not the random luck of a loot box or hours spent grinding for credits to purchase them.
As a fan of the specialist class, my introductory games were a torrid affair but, at first, I wrote these off as a lack of familiarity with the gunplay and level layout. Several frustrating hours later, only made tolerable thanks to the company of equally underperforming friends, I unlocked the third-tier sniper rifle, capable of headshots at a considerable range. It worked wonders on other low-level players just starting out but as soon as I encountered veteran players, it was about effective as the starting blaster. During one memorable encounter, I sniped an officer, barely visible on the other side of the map, with a perfect headshot that did approximately a quarter damage and I was instantly counter-sniped by the same player, who wielded a pistol. What is the point of the class system and incentivizing class-specific tactics if the progression system negates both advantages and disadvantages? Is the expectation that I (and every other player) will simply keep grinding for the hundreds of hours required to unlock every max-level skill and gear, finally earning a balanced and enjoyable competition of skill?
We’ve not even delved into the hero unlocks, usually a reward for the leading player, providing an overpowered character that allows them to rack up a massive number of battle points, allowing them to be the most likely player to unlock a hero unit again, resulting in an endless cycle that sees the leaderboard dominated by the same player/s that started out strongly, leaving everyone else behind. This pattern is replicated across dozens of games and making progress in Star Wars Battlefront II (or the first one), Battlefront 1, Need for Speed Payback or Grand Theft Auto Online often feel like smashing your head into a brick wall and hoping it’ll eventually crumble (and then you’ll find another brick wall behind it).
Well, I guess I can only be on an upwards trajectory from here.
Now I don’t want to pretend classic competitive games were easy to get into – I still remember players who could headshot you with a sniper rifle across Unreal Tournament’s “Facing Worlds” map in heartbeat and Quake III players that developed routes around maps to hoover up mega-health and quad-damage power-ups with unnerving frequency. However, if I scored a headshot on a top player in Unreal Tournament, they’d die just as easy as I did; if I hit a pro Quake III player with a rail gun and quad damage, they’d still explode into a cloud of gibs, not shrug off the damage thanks to their pre-unlocked mega-health boost before turning around to gun me down with an pre-upgraded pistol that did more damage than my rail gun. Skill – encompassing aiming, moving, dodging, map knowledge, and the correct weapon choice – was the deciding factor, not an unbalanced progression system. Certainly not a progression system in which the bulk of upgrades dropped randomly from loot boxes, often reduced to a pay-to-win mechanic for those who can afford it (or preying on those who can’t afford it but can’t stop control the impulse).
Overall, my feelings are mixed with modern progression systems. I’m not a fan of the random nature of many in-game rewards, nor the monetized gambling-like thrill attached to them, however, the rise of progression systems certainly has its place in cooperative games in which they don’t directly affect player-vs-player balance. The ability to customize your character and specialize in your own preferred playstyle greatly enhances shared PVE experiences. For competitive player-vs-player multiplayer games, however, these system needs to be removed or limited to cosmetic changes, such as seen in Overwatch. The creation of an artificially unbalanced environment, designed to push players into spending additional money to simply achieve a sense of progression, is a blight upon many recent games, driven purely by the urge to make money and clearly not as part of an attempt to craft enjoyable gameplay.
Sadly, brand recognition and the lure of heavily populated multiplayer lobbies all but ensures these games still make an incredible number of sales – hell, even I bought Star Wars Battlefront II (on sale) contributing to the issue – and I’ve no doubt there’s plenty of willing loot box buyers amongst such a huge player base. Mercifully, I spend the bulk of my time playing cooperative games but I can only hope that more players recognize the artificially unbalanced nature of many modern titles and continue to raise their voice against such practices. I just wish they’d spend more time pointing out the root cause, rather than demanding more efficient ways to grind out success.
Enjoys games with awesome stories and characters, along with new and interesting hardware. Dislikes day-one patches and driver updates.
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