Yes, by nature of playing long enough to level up you’re bound to get better to some degree, but I can’t help feeling that by allowing ourselves to be constrained and distracted by the constant high-calibre carrot dangling we’re shifting our gaming mindset in the wrong direction. We’re no longer thinking “How do I get better at this? What can I learn and discover and invent?”, we’re thinking “How much longer do I have to wait until the game makes me better at this?”
And that’s just screwed up.
I understand why so many games have adopted the model, of course. Publishers increasingly want buyers to keep hold of their games instead of trading them in. Level grinding is addictive, so a long-term-drip feed of smoke-and-mirrors pseudo-self-empowerment keeps those discs in loading trays and off pre-owned shelves. And the illusion of improving is a cheap way of letting weak players feel like part of the big kids’ club without actually having to make much effort. But I can’t help feeling that it’s damaging to both game design and the experience of gaming in the long-term.
If I’m going to be a cynical conspiracy-theorist about this, I could even offer the suggestion that with online progression to keep players hooked, there’s less and less incentive for designers to work at creating deep, malleable, open-ended experiences for players to really develop through their play and exploration. Why take a chance on players becoming enamoured with long-term experimentation within your game-world when you can easily just hook them with the promised dangling of trinkets and baubles if they stick at it for long enough?
It’s not healthy. It turns what should be a shared human collaborative experience into a single-minded, selfish race towards a gratifying end-goal that will never come. It takes the focus away from the game experience being its own reward, and instead turns the game into a mere tool through which to get stuff. It used to be that the sole purpose of playing a game online was to enjoy an online game. Now it feels like the game is just the bit that fills the gap while you’re waiting for your private stash of virtual gear to expand.
But I don’t expect it to change any time soon. In fact there’s an unpleasant sort of symbolism hovering around multiplayer at the moment. The most satisfyingly ‘pure’ new MP experience of late has come from XCOM, a game with its roots in the old-school PC gaming of the ‘90s. And now Halo, long the consoles’ bastion of freeform, player-driven sandbox enjoyment for enjoyment’s sake, is taking more cues from Call of Duty’s ‘multiplayer career’ approach than ever before.
Let’s round off by considering chess for a moment. Because it has a lot more in common with Street Fighter than you might think. Chess has lasted for over 1500 years because of a few basic fundamentals.
It’s (relatively) easy to grasp the basics of. It gives its players a perfectly level playing field. It contains immense depth for those willing to properly explore it. It’s fuelled entirely by pure and direct human interaction. Now imagine if a chess game wasn’t won by the most tactical thinker, or the player who could most effectively play mind-games with his or her opponent. Imagine if it was instead won by the person who’d been grinding away for long enough to unlock a bunch of special pieces that can move in ways the others couldn’t. It wouldn’t be chess. It would lose everything that made chess great.
And we certainly wouldn’t still be playing it now.
Quake III though? That's still going strong, 12 years after its release. Just saying…
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