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.