(This is a cross-post from my personal blog, located at http://www.sonictempest.net)
I wonder when it was that developers stopped listening to good players?
Yes, I’m aware that’s a generalization – not all developers do this. However, the developers of the games that I play most often seem to, and that’s not a good thing at all.
Gaming has become a lot more popular than it was when I was a kid – everyone and his mom seems to have an Xbox, whether to play the latest iteration of Madden or the FPS flavour of the month. The immediate effect of this is that pretty much every developer has been wondering how to appeal to this newly-expanded gaming demographic. The more insidious effect has been that they’ve started dumbing down their games to appeal to this demographic.
As an example, let’s take a look at Team Fortress 2, a game I play a fair bit. Simply put, they removed tons of stuff that had been present in TFC in order to simplify the game and make it appeal to Joe Gamer whose only experience with FPSes up to that point was probably Halo. This included several advanced techniques like concussion jumping, several weapons (super shotguns, railguns, nailguns, all the grenades), as well as weapon-specific ammunition and armor. Even some of the seemingly innocent changes caused the game to be dumbed down – for instance, the fact that friendly fire is off and you don’t collide with your teammates makes it easier to spy check and thus severely limits the Spy’s usefulness. And let’s not forget the obvious – critical hits and random damage spread.
The result is that the game sort of works if you’re playing it casually, but as soon as you try to get better at it you start to run into problems. High level play in TF2 involves class limits out of necessity and only uses a small set of maps since most of the game modes aren’t particularly suited to it. The end result is that TF2’s high level scene is markedly smaller than that of other games like CS and Quake.
Not enough? Let’s look at another recent Valve game, Left 4 Dead. This game was sold primarily as a co-op game, and in that respect it works decently, although the weapon balance is rather poor. However, Valve also saw fit to add a Versus mode, which was plainly not designed with high-level play in mind, much like TF2. The survivors are blatantly overpowered, with all sorts of abilities at their disposal – this is in addition to the poorly balanced weapons. A team of skilled survivors all wielding autoshotguns is pretty much guaranteed to make it to the safe room most of the time. This situation didn’t really improve in the sequel – while the infected did get buffed a little, the survivors gained several more abilities, such as defibrillators to bring dead teammates back to life, bile grenades to distract hordes, grenade launchers and high-damage melee weapons.
The effect of this on high level play is that various player-developed mods need to be used to achieve any semblance of balance at all. And these mods basically remove several item types from the game and reduce the influence of the AI director in order to achieve this goal.
Now you might ask, “but SonicTempest, aren’t games supposed to be fun? Why are you treating them like SERIOUS BUSINESS?” To which I would reply: “What do you mean by fun?” What someone finds fun isn’t going to be fun for everyone else. Some people have fun messing around in 32-player low-gravity mario_kart servers in TF2, whereas others have fun learning the ins and outs of a game and mastering its nuances of its ruleset. Note also that someone’s perception of fun changes over time – at one point I enjoyed playing Pyro on 32-player instaspawn Dustbowl as much as any casual player out there. However, after 300 or so hours of playtime, about half of which have been spent playing Soldier almost exclusively and trying to learn the class as best as I can, my definition of fun has changed, based on the simple fact that my skill level has increased. This change has also led me to realise that playing TF2 in pubs is becoming less and less fun for me, simply because of all the things built into this game that hinder high level play.
The conclusion, therefore, is that developers need to design their games with high level play in mind first and foremost for them to remain interesting. Most people’s response to this approach is that it ‘alienates new players’ – which is a premise with which I disagree quite strongly. Look at games like Starcraft and Quake. These games have very high skill ceilings which is the main reason their high level play scenes continue to thrive even today (keep in mind that these games came out ten years ago!) Yet is either game any less fun at low levels of play? I played Quake and Quake III Arena deathmatch back when the games were new, and I was by no means a good player, yet I still had fun with both games. Similarly, I was terrible at Starcraft, but this didn’t diminish my enjoyment of my weekly matches with my high school friends one bit. And these games are still great fun to play, even today – I played Starcraft with my fellow interns while I was in India back in 2006, and even though I still sucked at it, it was every bit as entertaining as it was back in 1998.
Will I be able to say the same about TF2 or L4D ten years from now? I doubt it.
PS: I spent most of this post talking about FPSes, but this is something that’s becoming prevalent across all genres. A little game called “King of Fighters XII” comes to mind…and some might even say that Street Fighter IV falls into this category.