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Current-gen's obsession with online progression is wrecking multiplayer (and making you a worse gamer)

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I was playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown the other day. This should come as no surprise, as playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown is basically all I do these days. But this time was a bit different. Having recognised that the game is clearly ruining my life, I’d decided to claw back a bit of the social interaction that Firaxis’ compulsive beauty has been robbing me of lately. So I was trying out the multiplayer.

XCOM’s multiplayer is brilliant, by the way. It’s a terrifying, tense tactical sandbox in which you’re never quite sure what you’re going up against but are always fully aware that what you’re going up against could be anything. With a limited pool of points to spend on any unit in the game – human or alien - opposing teams can contain any powerful, off-kilter combination of combatants you can think of. Everything is available from the start, so although daunting at first there are fathoms of depth to be had in terms of tactical experimentation.

Read back the first eleven syllables of that last sentence again. “Everything is available from the start”. Refreshing, no? And the more I played XCOM’s multiplayer, the more I realised something quite serious. I miss ‘proper’ multiplayer games. Ones which aren’t built around levelling up and unlocking stuff. Because for me, MMOs excempt, that model is ruining the fun of multiplayer by turning it into something else entirely. Something it really should not be.

Let’s use Street Fighter as an example of what I’m talking about. It’s by no means the only example, but its workings are a great microcosm for explaining what I see as the real joys of competitive gaming. In short, the game mechanics are a conduit for human interaction. Conversation, even, albeit one spoken with pixel-fists instead of words. Particularly if playing with regular opponents you know well, and using long-standing main characters, the game becomes a constant to-and-fro of self-improvement and one-upmanship.

Someone learns a new tactic or a new element of their character’s game that they didn’t know. The other player spends a few matches trying to find a way around it. They eventually succeed, and find out some new things for themselves. The process begins again, and goes back and forth all night until both participants have learned so much about the game and that they're playing a totally different, newly discovered game to the one they started. And every decision made along the way, every adaptation and interaction, is fuelled through and through by the personalities of the players and their off-screen relationship.

The free exploration of organic, open-ended multiplayer is certainly not just a fighting game thing. I also remember those long nights in the early ‘00s spent trying to attain the unreachable goal of mastering Quake III Arena. Q3A, if you haven’t played it, is the daddy of online shooters, and the realm of some of the absolute best, most visually impressive, most experimental high-level play you’ll see in any game. The standard weapon set and speedy, high-flying physics are an utter joy in themselves, but when its players started monkeying around with those physics, bending their rules and manipulating the limits of their interactions with the game world, they came up with some staggering moves and techniques that completely transformed the game. It’s an enthralling environment in which to develop your own play style.

I remember the first time I ever landed a decent scoreboard place by getting good at mid-air sniping on the space maps. That was cool. I remember when I took a step up and became (relatively) skilled at launching myself around with rocket-jumps. That was awesome. And the day I kicked off the inside wall of a spiral staircase with a rocket-jump, hurtled out of the top at approximately the speed of sound, and then nailed a guy with a reactionary railgun shot before landing? You can keep your Prestige, thanks. I’d rather have an achievement I actually achieved in the real world.

Because that’s the thing with online progression. You level up in the game, not in your real life gaming skills. Games that use multiplayer levelling distract the player with a sparking procession of new logos and outfits and weapons and gadgets in order to create the illusion of in-game progress. But you’re not really getting better. You’re not really progressing as a person, as a player. You’re being given the surface trappings of development and improvement without necessarily achieving any of the real substance of knowledge, insight and understanding that's supposed to go along with that. There’s just no real ownership of your new abilities. It's total bull.

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67 comments

  • BaraChat - November 9, 2012 4:14 a.m.

    Very interesting article, I really enjoyed it. Couldn't there be a game mechanic that would reward "skilled" players over "just playing for a long time" players? You'd only get "XP" at the end of the match, and you wouldn't get any if your performance was bad. Take Battlefield 3, you'd get rewarded only if you armed more M-Coms than other players, protected the most areas on Conquest, or had the most revives/heals, or had the best kill/death ratio, or having the most suppression kills, etc. This is not a perfect example by any means, but I'm sure there's something to be done there with rewarding "skills" only.
  • VagueRaconteur - November 8, 2012 7:52 p.m.

    This is why despite playing both, I have infinitely more love for DotA than LoL. DotA delivers absolutely everything, straight away, with the only purpose of levels being a help for average level of experience and a custom appearance item reward when you go up one. In LoL, playing with a high level friend means not only do the opponents you face have experience on you, they have extra masteries giving them an advantage, and runes capable of giving them another 10-20% more than you'd ever be able to do without them. It's a really disappointing feature in games, and I hope it gets removed one day, but until then, I'll just love those that don't make grinding a necessity.
  • dwighty - November 8, 2012 6:50 p.m.

    My last pay check was $9500 working 12 hours a week online. My sisters friend has been averaging 15k for months now and she works about 20 hours a week. I can't believe how easy it was once I tried it out. This is what I do, Fox92.com
  • Youngtree - November 8, 2012 6:47 p.m.

    Very good article. Thanks for that insight! I completely agree also - The "needs more jetpacks" attitude that games have these days makes them burn out quicker and quicker. The Yearly releases of COD are going down in price much quicker per year also - another (behind the curtains) sign that consumers are getting tired of the evolution of multiplayer games. Something inventive and new needs to come and replace the void thats been created by the mindless Online Level-up's and unlocks! Even my beloved battlefield has gone the way of COD with it's unlocks and close quarters combat etc. Is nothing sacred?
  • Javv - November 8, 2012 10:37 a.m.

    I get what you say, Im not against leveling up and giving your character dumb stuff like a golden gun, or some different threads, as a thank you for playing 24 hours online on my game. But giving new weapons and tactical equipment sucks. Thats not a prize, its a punishment for the guy that just begun playing online. Practice is the only way to get good at anything you do, and playing 24 hours online gives you a nice practice on the game. But if after 24 hours of playing, you get the equipment you want to, then you only begin practicing, and thats just dumb. Also, games where you need different profiles to play on the same console are the most stupid shit ive ever seen.
  • ParagonT - November 8, 2012 9:48 p.m.

    They remedy that by pairing you with players near your rank.
  • Rowdie - November 8, 2012 8:24 a.m.

    100% spot on! I call it nerfing the noobs. Games that nerf noobs should have a "Shut up and play" mode where everything that affects game balance is available from the beginning.
  • Vittles05 - November 8, 2012 6:46 a.m.

    Fantastic article, although I have to admit that I'm a sucker for the "unlock everything" aspect that online play has been going for lately. It's probably the only reason I'm still playing Mass Effect 3's multiplayer.
  • Virtute - November 8, 2012 6:32 a.m.

    This is an excellent article - I miss Halo 2's days of being able to lose level if you weren't playing up to the standards of that particular level. All the hours I put into getting to level 40+, only to be kicked back down by facing teams who were hands down better than the people I played with was a great experience - my carrot was then having to up my personal game as a team player, work with my friends at call-outs and assisting each other until we could reach level 40 and continue progressing, fighting closer and more focused battles as we progressed in skill. To the hardcore, it shouldn't be about the number you reach or the badge beside your name - it's about continually being tested and growing in skill within that games mechanic. Prestige and level now doesn't drop if you aren't pulling your weight, consecutive kills without dying aren't their own reward on most current-gen FPS, thanks to point streaks. Games should be able to reward those that grind for hours with cosmetic upgrades. But when it comes to mechanics and eqipment, everyone should be on an equal ground. The real reward should be being able to play in higher skill rooms.
  • samstreet101 - November 8, 2012 4:17 a.m.

    David, What an absolutely first rate article. I totally sympathise with what you feel on this one. It's why I found Counter Strike: GO such a refreshing experience, took me right back to the days when I would play CS 1.6 and CS:S for hours and I would get better at it by learning, because if I didn't I'd get my ass handed to me. We need more multiplayer that takes this now seemingly 'hard-line' approach
  • xx_CaPTiiN_SpAiiN_zz - November 8, 2012 1:54 a.m.

    wow congratulation on makeing yourself look like an asshole david.
  • winner2 - November 8, 2012 5:39 a.m.

    I think you're in the minority here on this debate, so you lose. And I know you're pissed because he ripped on your beloved CoD series. I recommend going and playing multiplayer on said series. It's comfortably mind-numbing.
  • xx_CaPTiiN_SpAiiN_zz - November 8, 2012 3:37 p.m.

    thank You, leonardo da vinci was in the minority so I guess you feel a little stupid know huh :)
  • brazmanoqk - November 7, 2012 10:24 p.m.

    I do hate when you use the word "is" like that.
  • xx_CaPTiiN_SpAiiN_zz - November 8, 2012 3:38 p.m.

    yeah i agree it is just his subjective opinion so he should say 'in my opinion'
  • Gavo - November 7, 2012 9:23 p.m.

    I feel that if ranking up doesn't give you an actual advantage, I love it. Thinks like skins, new armor, banners, you name it. It gives me things to look forward to, plus, leveling up in of itself is addicting. P.S.I just wanted to say thank you to the staff for writing actual articles like this, they're a joy to read. Top 10 lists are fun, but this is real video game journalism. Keep it up.
  • rocketfuel - November 7, 2012 8:42 p.m.

    I immediately thought of StarCraft (Brood War and 2) when I clicked on the article. I'd 100% rather beat somebody on an even playing field rather than beating them because I've "leveled" up more. Leave lvling to the rpgs please. Great article.
  • Jacko415 - November 7, 2012 7:30 p.m.

    EXACTLY! THANK YOU. Ever since CoD4 i felt like every gamer stopped playing as a team and went only for their own glory. This is extremly highlighted in Newer BF games, especially when it comes to unlockables. I'll more often than not, get into a server where most people are trying to have the best K/D in the game, completely ignoring the objectives. That's cool, You're top of the leaderboard, and we're very impressed, but you spent all your time in a corner instead of helping your team, so we all lost, douche bag. But good for him because he unlocked a shiny new trophy. It also leads to extreme balancing issues. Just got the game? well good luck learning to fly or anything because everyone has flares and you dont, so dont bother, you're a lemming at that point. That whole mentality ruins the battlefield experience, you should get a rewarding experience when your team succesfully works together, applies good tactics, and pulls off a win. But nope, that doesnt matter, you get rewarded for being the most selfish, unhelpful douche you can possibly be. I blame CoD, and idiot publishers trying to make everything like CoD.
  • Jacko415 - November 7, 2012 7:37 p.m.

    I Mean, whats the point of making you're whole games focus be on teamwork, communication, tactics, and huge ares if, in the end, you add a mechanic that sidesteps that whole experience and commends the selfish and lazy?
  • SpookMeister - November 7, 2012 4:50 p.m.

    This is the exact reason why I became a huge Gears fan not too long ago when I noticed that I never really evolved skill-wise in games where level progression is key. As of now Gears of War is also one of the last remnants of pure competitive games... Hoping that Judgment doesn't change that

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