This post continues a series on my perspective on cooperative experiences in video gaming. If you would like to read more, type “The Friendly Search” on the search bar on the front page.
It was only a matter of time before we started commenting on the menus.
When you press the menu button, you are taken to a series of pressable tiles, each of which have no contextual relation to the other besides snapping in place. “Abilities” and “Inventory” seem obvious, though comparing them to “Progression” is a little more difficult. Taking a look at what a character is wearing is even worse, if you can imagine it. None of the boxed tiles match the location of the character’s profile, despite the fact that your avatar sits right next to you as you sift through the menus. In Destiny, menus on live service games have been taken care of: each armor type was filtered into its spot in relation to the character.
These seem like small adjustments, but they are really the difference between less time in menus and more. A lot more.
What exactly is a “skill” and how is it different from a “talent”?
And are “talents” the ones that are passive and constant, or are those “perks”?
And how can I tell whether a blue colored holster with a lower level attached to it is better than a green holster (a lower tier) that actually has a higher level?
Where on the map can I see what level this mission is so I know whether I am the right level for it?
And how can I tell the difference between a main mission, a side mission, an “event”, and a collectible?
Why on a PC monitor can I only see four guns at a time, instead of a spreadsheet that could show all of them?
Live Service Experience vs. a Video Game
I start with this description because to some extent this is what it is like to play video games with friends now. The Division is a video game about an outbreak that has ripped New York to pieces, and you are on cleanup duty. As a Division agent, you have no oversight and are given the keys to the kingdom. As you make your way through city block by city block, you’ll unlock weaponry and gear, level up your character, and take on a variety of bad guys who have set up shop in order to profit from the pandemic.
The Snowdrop engine is a beautiful work of art. Though the game offers little past the urban jungle of Manhattan, you’ll still marvel at the amount of movable objects you can run into, the houses and apartments you can loot, and all of this taking place with a dynamic day/night cycle and a series of foggy and snow laden weather effects that I have stopped in the middle of the street to gawk at. It is really a reminder of just how far video game graphics have come since the first open world games existed a mere decade ago. How do they do it? My guess is that Massive Games uses the skyscraper buildings and flat terrain to their advantage, as they only have to load in a few city blocks (known as culling) for the player. Like all other Ubisoft games, it only seems to run 400 yards in front of you, and then is whisked away by maths the minute you leave.
But in a live service game, much of the experience of the atmosphere is lost during coop. Whereas in a solo experience in the first game (and especially the second) I have enjoyed just as much (if not more) playing alone, as I have been able to slowly take in the geographic landmarks of New York and D.C. I have been able to hear gunfire in the distance, pick up and listen to the collectibles, and take in the lore. In the cooperative experience, time is money, and we oftentimes raced to each mission to complete as much as possible in the time we had together.
In each Division experience, the leveling and growing your character changes your power against opponents. For example, right now in The Division 2, my level 14 character has hit a sweet spot, and with my M1A Carbine rifle I can take down enemies in one to two hits. This feels satisfying, and allows the reality of the setting to mesh comfortably with the shooting.
But this is not always the case. At times, the games have weird hurdles either because it was not playtested heavily enough, the randomness of the gear that is dropped has not been kind to the players, or there are more players which change the difficulty, health, and numbers of the enemy.
The Division lacked the optimization of the second game, and so had to compensate by having less enemies on screen at once. This led to the only method for giving a challenge to the player to be more health for the enemies. Combine this with cooperative play, and there are moments of shooting that boggle the mind because of how difficult they are. In one scenario, my friend and I were taking on a sniper perched on an overpass who could knock us down in one shot, while my friend as a countersniper had to shoot multiple headshots just to get rid of his armor. Or take another occasion where three of my friends had to cheat our way through an encounter by starting it and then backing out into the previous set piece in order to avoid the bad guys shooting the flamethrowers.
It’s an exaggeration of a problem that has always existed with the two games, which is that the realism of the setting and its graphical fidelity of real world locations clashes with its awkward and silly shooting of boxes of bullets into bad guys. The first game infamously had this criticism, and while some claim that the problem has been fixed, even now (and in the second game), the uncanny valley still lingers…
Why Is This Game a Live Service Game?
This is sort of a thought I have had for a couple months now. We’ve had peak TV, and by all accounts we should be in “peak gaming,” but it doesn’t really feel that way. In fact, for many games I have not felt the least bit excited for larger, tent pole, big budget experiences on a console or PC. When I think of the culprit, when I think of who is to blame, I suppose several options appear at first glance.
The first is myself. I’m getting older and the appeal of competitive shooters, which used to be my bread and butter, are becoming so fast and require so much practice time to become athletic, that I no longer have any interest in playing,. Even if I were to win, it does not provide the enjoyment so much as it staves off frustration. Those are not the same thing.
But another aspect I really could not see until my friends and I started playing a wide variety of games, new and old, during the pandemic.
Outer Wilds is a game with hardly any menus (besides the Log on the spaceship), and it also has no powerups, or unlockables, or experience points. In fact, the only upgrade you get is the ability to meditate, which allows you to restart the loop. Besides that, you are playing the game. You are exploring. You are discovering planets and secrets and ideas and a story told so unbelievably well in a video game that you cannot imagine it in any other medium.
Hitman front loads you with menus, and you are welcome to look at the map layout and some challenges that pause the game if you would like, but for the most part you are responding, interacting, innovating and (when things get hairy) improvising.
Much older games do not dwell too much on menus either. With some exceptions (like the 3D Zelda games on the N64), they tend to keep the menus as far back as possible. And even with Zelda, Nintendo found smart workarounds in their technology to keep the menus as far away as possible. For example, the dual screen DS and Wii U allowed the menu to sit at all times underneath so it was easily accessible.
I keep bringing up menus. The reason I do this is because in the Division it is the cornerstone to ask the question: why is this game a live service game? Why did it have to be a role playing game? Why couldn’t it have been like the old Mercenaries games? In those games, you are dropped into a demilitarized zone, same as these games, and have to work to bring peace back to the country by taking out leaders. There are no experience points, nothing to upgrade. It is simply a “playground of destruction” much like The Division.
If you gain a level in The Division, it may be important to pause the game and look at your abilities. If you pick up a specific type of armor, you should pause to see if the gear is better. If you find a new weapon, you need to pause the game, unequip the modifications you made for your old gun, modify your new gun, and then equip it. Given the spikes in difficulty I talked about earlier, are you really going to go into the next action scene without your best gear? All this menu swapping all the time drags on the experience. It has to. And all that epic scenery, all the work done by amazing level designers, it fades into the background as the game becomes the worst version of itself. Players do not notice the finer details of the world, because the space between the points on the map are no longer relevant. All the external rewards systems preys on behavioral modification to the point where we do not even see the city blocks. All we see are upgrade points, crafting materials, and bad guys. The game becomes mindless. It becomes a hobby.
Games Over Hobbies
I Hate Everything on YouTube has taken to calling Destiny a version of crochet, and that to me is still the best way to describe live service games. Instead of making a compelling action experience, live service games have enough modular parts that can be tweaked (because of the numbers involved in RPGs) to simply make it the least bad experience. When there is an outcry by the community about specific elements of the game, or when an element of the game is overused, the developers have no problem changing their vision. And live service games have so many spinning plates that can be monetized that it creates a veritable feast of money spending if the consumer is willing to spend. Fasionable items, trinkets, weapons and armor, and sometimes full missions can be unlocked by spending more money. The game is sliced up so much into something like a trading card game. I hope trading cards were despised back then by parents, because here I am despising the same philosophy in my video games now.
Games like The Division actively suffer for being turned into a live service hobby.
Who are these people I murdered in the underground tunnels? It doesn’t matter.
Each gun has to feel different to each other, but each M60 machine gun feels the exact same with some number changes. If that was the case, where realism and progression clash so forcibly, why have levels at all?
How come an ACOG scope looks the exact same when looking through it despite the fact that one is a level 14 and has “better stats” than a scope that is level 2 and hardly has any stats at all?
Why am I told that I am special when I can see hundreds of us in every safe house? As my friend so eloquently stated, when you start to loot apartment complexes and murder people on the streets, and everywhere you turn there are Division agents everywhere, you start to seem less like a hero and more like a capitalist taking advantage of the situation like every other bad guy. And the game is plagued with a silent protagonist who makes little difference to the story, despite the fact that you are making a huge difference to the structure of the game by upgrading the Base of Operations.
And I haven’t even gone over the aspect of actually fighting with friends. Despite the fluid cover system and the strength of the AI you are fighting in these games (and they are actually quite good), the game offers little in terms of strategy or problem solving to make them feel satisfying. As I’ve said before, strategy is often used to fight off frustration, rather than take advantage of a situation. And the game too often changes the dynamic to make pre-fighting strategies almost worthless. In almost every encounter, as you fight off the enemies in front of you, something happens to make more appear.
In other PvE experiences, scoping out the enemy and seeing their movements allows you to assess and react. There is no assessing in Ubisoft games: there is only reacting. While the games take pains to remind you how highly-trained you are, no amount of that is usable before the action occurs. The most you can do is plan a first strike effectively. After that…who knows what happens.
Live service games at their best are hobbies more than they are deliberate, challenging, and provocative gaming experiences. At their worst, they are crutches for every mistake in design, and they are monetized art factories. The Division is an example of the latter: it’s the type of game that, in this context, simply does not work unless it is a live service game. It is a stark reminder that, sure, you can play cooperative with your friends in this game. But afterwards, what do you have to show for it? At least in Minecraft you have a building. At least in Deep Rock Galactic you have a story. There is no story here, unless it happens by accident.