Friday, February 15, 2013

Leveling in Online Play and the Microtransaction Gaming Model: A Case Study

Although I'm about 11 months late, I have finally entered the modern age and started playing Mass Effect 3.  I dove straight into the multiplayer last weekend and was greeted with near-PTSD severity flashbacks.

The multiplayer itself isn't bad.  You and up to three other players fight to survive increasingly powerful waves of opponents, using many of the powers and abilities available in the single player campaign.  Even with a few powers at your disposal, it doesn't really feel worthy of the “Mass Effect” name (the overall vibe feels much more fitting for a Call of Duty title), but there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the basic structure.

What caused my initial impression to be generally bad was likely overreaction, but it came about because this multiplayer experience combines two questionable trends in the modern gaming world.  Each trend has the potential to add something spectacular to an online game, but it must be handled carefully to avoid obliterating the experience.

Leveling in Multiplayer
The most obvious instantiation of one of these trends is the existence of multiplayer levels.  In each match that you play, you gain some experience towards unlocking more potent powers.  It makes sense in the context of Mass Effect, where a character’s innate skills grow more powerful with experience, but in other games, it doesn't fit with the narrative quite as well (assuming there is one).

What really frustrates me about multiplayer levels is the fact that, in many cases, a low level player simply can’t compete against a high level player.  This issue is particularly relevant for competitive multiplayer games (Call of Duty again comes to mind), where a level disparity translates to better weapons and perks for others to use to kill you.  It gives new players a bigger barrier to overcome to enjoy the game; not only do they have to overcome the experience gap, but they must also deal with fewer in-game benefits.

What’s worse is that these leveling systems tend not to reward skillful play, at least not in the long run.  While it’s true that you will get more experience points for better performance, many of these games will give you points just for completing a match.  During the first few days and weeks after a game’s release, these levels may accurately reflect a player’s success in-game, but they quickly become a measure of how much time a player has dedicated to online play.  Contrast that with the ladder system in a game like Starcraft 2 – when you lose a match, you lose points, which can drop your ranking.  After a brief stabilizing period at the start of each season, those ranks are pretty accurate representations of players’ relative skill levels.

These issues become less damning in a cooperative game, like Mass Effect 3, but they may still deter newer players.  When I started, I had a tough time killing any enemies or even surviving their onslaught, but I would see my teammates trotting around the stage destroying enemies with ease.  It was definitely a frustrating experience, but not nearly as frustrating as if I had been facing off against those trotting masters of destruction.

But, then again, Mass Effect 3 does some things to implement this system well.  First and most excitingly, the points you gain towards a new level are shared among all members of the team.  You don’t have to worry about kill-stealing or trying to outperform your allies.  Instead, the game rewards a successful team, so that barrier for new players gets smaller at a much faster rate.

Mass Effect 3 also does something impressive in terms of the unlockables that you earn while leveling up.  The biggest problem with in-game advantages based on player level comes from the fact that, in many of these games, you must reach level 37 before you can use this awesome weapon or ability.  On the one hand, it may motivate some players because they want to melt faces in the same way, but on the other hand, it can be downright degrading.

Ideally, I’d say that level-based unlockables shouldn't have effects on the game itself.  Superficial unlocks like new weapon skins or new character models would allow players to show off their high level without also crushing low-level players even more easily.  The next best thing would give players points to unlock items or perks of their choosing as they level up (last summer’s Hybrid is an example).  That way a player can tailor their unlocks to their particular play style; if you like using shotguns, unlock all the shotguns by level 10 and be set for life.  This sort of system gives high-level players an advantage because they have more options, but it doesn’t force low-level players to conform to the developer’s whims.  Mass Effect 3 uses this system, following the course of the series’ campaigns, as you get skill points for each level and can allocate them however you want.  That small bit of control over your unlockable skills makes a huge difference in the overall feel of the leveling system.

To this point, I haven’t mentioned the weapon system in Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer.  There are, of course, a number of guns with different statistics available, but you don’t unlock them as you gain levels.  Instead, you use the other recent gaming trend…

An increasingly common tactic in the development of online games is the use of microtransactions to allow players to purchase in-game items for small sums of real-life cash.  In many cases, the game itself will be free-to-play, but you can buy new gear or abilities to give you an edge.  Perhaps the most infamous example is the free-to-play MMORPG MapleStory, but the more recent MOBA genre has followed suit (League of Legends is likely the most popular, and Happy Wars is the most recent).

This trend terrifies me, as it allows players to bypass a large chunk of the game for a price.  It’s like buying cheat codes, which is fine by me if players want to affect their single-player experiences, but giving an advantage to the player willing to drop the most money on a multiplayer game is disturbing.

There are obviously varying degrees of in-game impact.  Some of these cash items are purely superficial, like special hats or color schemes, and I have no problem with those.  Some allow you to unlock items earlier than you might ordinarily earn by playing the game (by gaining levels, for instance); my distaste for this system is directly proportional to the difficulty of obtaining the items through “normal” play.  Occasionally a game will even give you otherwise unobtainable buffs (Happy Wars does some of that).  I’d say that one is universally terrible.

Mass Effect 3 uses one of the tamer microtransaction methods out there.  The in-game mechanic uses credits; you earn credits for completing missions, and then you can spend those credits to buy item boxes.  These item boxes contain random items, including consumables (like medkits) and new weapons and characters, with more expensive boxes containing rarer goodies.

If you’d like, however, you can bypass the credits altogether and shell out a dollar or two to get one of these boxes.  It’s not terribly offensive because you can earn enough credits for the most expensive box within a couple hours, and it would cost you $3 to buy it, so it’s not skipping too much game time to get this bonus now.  It’s also not a sure thing; you’re gambling, just as if you spent credits, so buying the boxes doesn't afford a huge advantage.  Of course, that’s not to say that I like the system as it is (I think the boxes should have been a little easier to come by in the game, or they should have had a slightly better selection of loot), but the microtransaction part of the deal isn't egregious.

Basically, Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer component does some things that initially make me cringe, but it does them about as well as is possible.  Many other games take these trends to silly levels, and I fear for the day that games take leveling and microtransactions to their extremes (“pay $5 to reach level 2!”), but with some clever design, I think developers can use these systems to enhance players’ experiences all around (or at least not to affect their experiences).  As with many things, though, it’s easy to screw it up.  Here’s hoping the easy cash-ins and high-level-preferred competition don’t become the industry standard.

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