Post Script

Why end­lessly re­ward­ing play­ers is not end­lessly re­ward­ing


Shoot­ers are the ul­ti­mate videogame power fan­tasy: a man and a gun fight­ing through a string of lifeor-death en­coun­ters with the heart-in-mouth ten­sion of war but none of the risk. Yet the on­line FPS’s sparse tra­di­tional frame­work – a win­ner, a loser and a score­board – nat­u­rally lim­its its own longevity. The ob­ject of the game never changes, its sys­tems stay fixed in place, and you’re as pow­er­ful when you set foot on the bat­tle­field as when you leave it. The thrill wears off.

In­fin­ity Ward of­fered two so­lu­tions to that prob­lem in Call Of Duty 4: Mod­ern War­fare. Its per­sis­tent lev­el­ling sys­tem, which en­sures play­ers are al­ways work­ing to­wards some­thing new, might be its great­est gift to the in­dus­try as a whole. What it gave to the FPS power fan­tasy, how­ever, was the kill­streak, which doles out re­wards of in­creas­ing bom­bast to play­ers who can rack up kills with­out get­ting caught in the crossfire.

We vividly re­mem­ber ly­ing prone un­der the stair­way in the big house on the hill in Mod­ern War­fare 2’ s Es­tate map, our sights trained on the front door, wait­ing anx­iously for our streak of ten kills to be­come 11. It felt like the whole en­emy team must’ve known we were there, and a well-placed frag grenade, sniper round or shot­gun shell would re­duce all our good work to noth­ing. Af­ter what we imag­ined were sev­eral min­utes, but was prob­a­bly only a hand­ful of sec­onds, an en­emy walked in and made the fa­tal mis­take of check­ing his cor­ners be­fore look­ing un­der the stairs. Two ri­fle bursts and he was gone, a mes­sage on­screen telling us a new kill­streak was ours. We found a quiet cor­ner, pressed right on the D-pad and were warped high into the sky to take the con­trols of an AC-130 gun­ship. Eleven kills quickly be­came 12, then 15, then 20. We’d earned our re­ward, and the pay­off was enor­mous.

Pri­mar­ily be­cause it was so rare, though. Only the very best could start ev­ery game con­fi­dent they’d reach the high-end kill­streaks – the Chop­per Gun­ner, AC-130 and match-end­ing Tac­ti­cal Nuke – with­out the per­fect storm of a cool head, steady aim and hefty dose of luck on which we mere mor­tals had to rely. A rum­mage in the toy­box was a rare oc­cur­rence in­deed, which just made it all the sweeter when it came.

Ti­tan­fall is the work of a stu­dio that con­sid­ers such un­cer­tainty a prob­lem rather than a strength, and that sees the spawn-sprint-die loop of the down­time be­tween streaks as some­thing to be fixed. Respawn wants ev­ery sin­gle player to feel pow­er­ful. It’s why the Pi­lots have the Smart Pis­tol, their dou­ble jumps and wall runs, and can rodeo a gi­ant ro­bot to death. It’s why the maps are pop­u­lated with a steady stream of weak, wit­less AI can­non fod­der. Above all, it’s why the tit­u­lar Ti­tan­falls aren’t solely the pre­serve of the very best play­ers, but guar­an­teed to all of them in time.

As you get bet­ter, you get your hands on the toys quicker, but none ever re­ally boosts your chances of win­ning

It’s cer­tainly ef­fec­tive. In your very first mul­ti­player match, you’ll wall run and dou­ble jump and cut down a dozen grunts be­fore call­ing a mas­sive ro­bot from or­bit, jump­ing into the cock­pit and watch­ing the sparks and bod­ies fly. You might end up on the los­ing side with an abysmal kill/death ra­tio, but you’ll have wreaked a good deal of de­struc­tion while do­ing so, mak­ing a few wid­ows and de­stroy­ing a few bil­lion dol­lars’ worth of ma­chin­ery. You’ll feel pretty good about yourself.

Yet this sup­posed so­lu­tion also cre­ates new prob­lems. What you get in the first round is what you get in ev­ery match you play, and while un­locks, load­outs and Burn Cards of­fer flex­i­bil­ity and em­power dif­fer­ent playstyles, they don’t af­ford any tan­gi­ble in­crease in power. As you get bet­ter, you get your hands on the toys quicker, but none ever re­ally boosts your chances of win­ning. Mod­ern War­fare 2’ s AC-130 could turn a match on its head and the Nuke sim­ply won the day, but while there is a clear ad­van­tage in be­ing the first to call in a Ti­tan, it’s short-lived and no guar­an­tee of vic­tory.

It’s symp­to­matic of a game that goes out of its way to con­stantly re­ward play­ers. The perk-like Burn Cards are given out al­most as quickly as you can use them. Many of the game’s chal­lenges merely ask that you keep play­ing – spend­ing an hour with a cer­tain gun; trav­el­ling so many kilo­me­tres on foot – and re­ward you with a hefty dol­lop of XP just for ex­ist­ing. Keep tak­ing any kind of drug and tol­er­ance builds up, the buzz wear­ing off un­less you take pro­gres­sively big­ger doses. In Ti­tan­fall, what should be a dopamine rush in re­ward for a job well done is the de­fault set­ting.

For­tu­nately, the scope of the tools at your dis­posal means you’re able to cre­ate your own fun. You can stop mid-wall run, cloak and pick off passers-by; you can leap out of a sec­ond-storey win­dow, re­turn with your dou­ble jump and shoot your pur­suer in the back; you can swing a gi­gan­tic ro­bot fist and em­bed an en­emy Pi­lot in the ground. In Ti­tan­fall, you’re free to toy with ideas that are new to the genre and avail­able from the word go. This is so much more than a man and a gun.

De­vel­op­ers have been tin­ker­ing with the kill­streak ever since it was in­vented. In re­cent CODs, there has been a clear at­tempt to cater for the lesser skilled, with toys split into mul­ti­ple classes. One car­ries over your streak af­ter death, the trade-off be­ing that the re­wards sup­port your team rather than de­stroy the other. None of these so­lu­tions has quite worked as in­tended, but more will fol­low. Clearly, Respawn will tinker with Ti­tan­fall’s frame­work in the in­evitable sequels to come. As it does, it would do well to re­mind it­self why the mul­ti­player FPS ex­ists. When power is per­ma­nent, the fan­tasy rather loses its shine.

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