I joined a game of Loadout this weekend. Two of the other players and I were equipped with healing weapons in a mode where you need to kill enemies and pick up their items. Needless to say, we lost. We lost bad. Against bots. I wish I could have easily swapped out my healing beam for something more battle-ready, like an assault riffle, but I couldn't. I wasn't level 5 yet.
If you ask me to name my least-favorite thing in most competitive online games I won't say lag, bad balance, or micro-transactions. It's the friggn' unlock systems.
I know I'm not alone on this one. But let's take a step back and ignore balance issues. Let's take a look and see why exactly these systems themselves are crappy and why on earth developers keep putting them in games.
I got a question for you, dear beautiful reader. What's the difference between a game that has a bunch of cool items and weapons and a game where fight to earn points that then raise a meter that then unlocks a bunch of cool items and weapons that you can buy? Answer: 10 hours. No, really think about it. Let's say I got into a game and think I would like to try playing with an invisibility skill and rocket launcher combo. The only thing stopping me in a modern multiplayer system is putting in the time to fill that meter or earn those points to unlock it. Other than that it's the same stuff so...why do I have to jump through all these hoops to get at it again?
I like to imagine that it was the work of an extremely insecure and/or evil developer. "Oh no," he said to himself, "What if players aren't interested in this game? What if they move on after a couple dozen matches? How can I ensure that they'll stick around?" A light bulb appeared above his head. "I know! I'll lock away all the good stuff so they'll have to play a long time to get to it! Kids like leveling, so I'll make it so they feel compelled to play for hours on end! I'll make it so they have to slowly grind Unlock Points™ to buy the best items!"
Then some crazed half-naked guy from marketing busted through the wall and yelled "MICROTRANSACTIONS!" and ran out of the room screaming. Why is he half-naked? Look, this is my fantasy ok? I don't have to explain anything.
These types of unlock systems are really more hurtful than anything, especially for new players. Not only do they have to figure out the rules of the game (Including the "unwritten" rules. You know, the "don't go battle-medic, ya noob" rules.) but they also have to contend with limited options of play. Is there a play-style you really enjoy or excel at? Well, you better hope it's available at the beginning or else it's gonna be a real drag until you unlock it.
Here's an idea, why not just limit unlocks to cosmetic items? Why not let those people who have played for a long time or who have high skill actually show off in a way that can be seen by others? It's a cool way to reward players for playing a long time without arbitrarily limiting them on play-styles. I'm not really opposed to the idea of unlocks so long as they don't get in the way of the actual game part. This system seems to work well for DOTA 2, and last time I checked it was one of -if not the- most played game in the world.
Look guys, there's no need to lock everything away in a lame attempt to get people to play longer. That's just manipulative. If you just make a good game, people will stick around. You don't need to limit your players.
Quick-Quack is a series of short articles by Zachary D Long AKA InvadingDuck. If you want, you can follow him on Twitter @InvadingDuck. And as much as it pains me to say this, yes Awesomenauts has a terrible leveling system too. Any newbies thinking about picking up this game (and you should pick up this game) should play as Lonestar for the first few matches. Just trust me on this one.