Post Script

Tur­tle Rock is no mas­ter of un­lock­ing


Fair­ness in mul­ti­player games is mostly il­lu­sory. Per­fect bal­ance is a myth. Only when the toolsets of­fered to both play­ers are ex­actly equal, when the map is to­tally sym­met­ri­cal and no other par­ties are in­volved can all forms of mild ad­van­tage be nul­li­fied. But per­fect bal­ance is also dull. The true goal of many de­sign­ers is to cre­ate sys­tems with lively in­ter­play that still feel fair and of­fer no sig­nif­i­cant ad­van­tage to any one strat­egy, pre­vent­ing their game from turn­ing into a race for the bot­tom. When all you have on your maps is camp­ing snipers, you’ve gone wrong.

The now-ubiq­ui­tous pro­gres­sion sys­tem – iron­i­cally made to de­lay grat­i­fi­ca­tion – only adds com­plex­ity to that del­i­cate struc­ture. Un­less you dis­re­gard the feel­ing of fair­ness en­tirely, the chal­lenge then be­comes to craft a pa­rade of new kit that of­fers just enough of an in­cre­men­tal boost to seem ad­van­ta­geous with­out rend­ing an in­sur­mount­able gulf be­tween maxed-out play­ers and new ones.

So many games get this wrong, but the sys­tems persist for pre­cisely one rea­son: they do what they’re meant to. Un­lock trees aren’t only there to make games more fun; they lengthen en­gage­ment times and, off the back of that, sell the se­quel or a boat­load of DLC. In their own way, they are as in­tel­lec­tu­ally in­sid­i­ous as on-disc DLC: con­tent you have paid for is barred from you un­til you in­vest yet more re­sources in the game.

And yet we don’t mind them, be­cause the hu­man brain loves to think it’s be­ing given some­thing. It’s the rea­son your wal­let can barely be closed for re­ward cards. It’s the rea­son you un­wrap a new game down­load on 3DS from a golden par­cel tied with a red bow.

It’s hard-wired into the brain, too: ev­ery new gun that drops in Bat­tle­field comes with its lit­tle rush of dopamine; ev­ery new ros­ter un­lock in Smash Bros de­liv­ers a fizzing pop of chem­i­cals that briefly sat­is­fies our urge for nov­elty. And you’ll keep com­ing back for more, as­so­ci­at­ing th­ese ra­tioned bits of the game with hav­ing had a good time.

Which is why Evolve hav­ing pre­order in­cen­tives to cir­cum­vent its ridicu­lously slow un­lock tree – and, not coin­ci­den­tally, re­views of the game – by un­lock­ing sets of hun­ters straight away is a ter­ri­ble idea. It’s not only a grubby way to boost those day-one sales fig­ures, it’s also re­mark­ably short­sighted for a game be­ing po­si­tioned as a foun­da­tion on which to re­lease a sea­son pass’s worth of DLC char­ac­ters and to hawk pricey skin packs.

So in­stead of of­fer­ing play­ers a regular treat for con­tin­u­ing to spend their time with Evolve, its ‘pro­gres­sion’ feels a lot more like ra­tioning. It has traded away the illusion of fair­ness by of­fer­ing a cer­tain class of player a short­cut through all the grind­ing, and taken the sen­sa­tion of un­locks as gifts along with it. Per­haps this was en­vi­sioned as the gam­ing equiv­a­lent of the VIP lounge, but that’s a wonky model to ap­ply to boxed re­leases – when you’ve paid full whack for a game, re­gard­less of when you do it, you don’t ex­pect to be treated like a sec­ond-class cit­i­zen.

That alone will send a few copies to the pre­owned rack, but the im­ple­men­ta­tion is bad enough to have longterm im­pli­ca­tions for the com­mu­nity. Un­lock­ing the next char­ac­ter means fill­ing three progress bars based on the cur­rent one’s abil­i­ties, and yet fo­cus­ing on them can be di­rectly con­tra­dic­tory to good play. No one wants to be paired with a Medic who’d rather be pump­ing tran­quil­liser darts into a Wraith than heal­ing the team, af­ter all.

Given how quickly play­ers can mi­grate from one mul­ti­player pur­suit to an­other nowa­days – just ask Respawn – it’s un­der­stand­able that pub­lish­ers are ex­plor­ing meth­ods that will ex­tend en­gage­ment. But Evolve’s in­cen­tives to get play­ers through the door may see them leav­ing un­com­monly quickly too, deny­ing 2K quite as much DLC lu­cre. Still, es­tab­lish­ing a plat­form is harder if you will in­sist on kick­ing at the game’s legs.

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