Wednesday, March 4, 2009

A time for skill

It's one of the things that inevitably comes up every time I talk about playing games:I have a lack of time in which to play them. But I still try and play as often as I can and as great a variety of games as I can. Which naturally leads to my time being spread a little thinly amongst them all. Directly related to this is my hate for unnecessary padding and the usual grind and dissatisfaction it incurs.

These issues are perfectly addressed by many games, which offer skills based gaming. That is, a gameplay experience which rewards skill rather than time. It's one of the reasons I've been enjoying Skate 2 so much. Right from the very start you have available to you every trick and the ability to do it, your skater will never level up, or unlock new abilities. It is purely up to you as a player to make it work.

This means that when I fail a challenge I know that it is on me. I failed because I couldn't find the right line, or fucked up in some way. Not because I haven't levelled up my skater enough and need to go and play for another few hours to get the points to unlock a new level of skills or get a better board. That way, when I do finally nail a trick, kill a spot or win a competition, there is a real sense of achievement to it. I know that I got that outcome because of my skills or because I figured out where a better line was. Sure, there is some time aspect to it - as time goes on I've learnt more and more little tricks to get better and better at the game. The fact remains though, that the game is not artificially limiting me because I haven't spent enough time with it yet.

Where I've encountered the most issues to do with this split between games that reward time vs skill is in unlockable stuff - why do I have to play through story mode in a fighting game 20 goddamn times to fully unlock the main roster of characters when I've already bought the game? Why do I have to put 20 hours into Call of Duty 4 or World at War to unlock all the weapons and perks. Certainly I have no problem with having bonus characters and special items as unlockables in fighting games. In the CoD games - having some unlockables is fine but can we please speed up the advancement curve or give me a better selection to begin with?

I've recently gotten back into Team Fortress 2 (a by-product of finally having a gaming PC again) and it has become very apparent to me that I am far behind the curve there. Previously, I had been able to drop in occasionally and enjoy the game - but now, because I'm not playing every night and whoring achievements every time a new release is made, I'm feeling left behind. I don't have a lot of the alternate weapons and items which most players seem to be using and that certainly seem to be just plain better than the basic stuff. What was a skills based game has now been tainted for me by the inclusion of such unlockable items.

If I am already behind the curve on a game where time spent is not the core mechanic, as I am in Team Fortress 2, then I am already naturally disadvantaged as I am not familiar with many class and map related tactics. To increase the gap between casual players like myself and the dedicated players by then adding unlockable items seems more like punishment for not playing often, rather than an incentive to keep playing. This isn't World of Warcraft where at a glance I can see that the player over there is way above me in levels and likely to be able to eliminate me with a single strike and is pimped to the max with items. Frequently the first you know of an alternate item being used in play is when you get killed and it shows you the special stats on what killed you.

Perhaps my problem here isn't so much that there are unlockables - but that the requirements to unlock them are so high. It is patently ridiculous to expect a casual player (or even anyone who doesn't fall into the hopelessly addicted category) to obtain some of those achievements which are critical to unlocking items. I can see myself slowly inching towards these unlocks, but the fact is that I know I will never actually get there. I might get the first tier for one or two classes, but that's it.

I will credit EA's intentions, but not their implementation of the "Time is Money" DLC for Skate 2. I didn't purchase it, because Skate 2 isn't the kind of game where unlocks are critical to my enjoyment. But if Valve offered me the chance to pay $5 in Steam to unlock all the new items - then I would do so without a moments hesitation as it would drastically improve my game experience.

There are certain games and genres in which I avoid in their entirety due to the central gameplay mechanic being "Spend time playing to advance". Hence, JRPGs and MMORPGs are off the table for me. Sure, every game requires a commitment of time, but for me at least, being the cranky gamer-with-a-job that I am, any game that rewards time played over skill or thinking is not worth my time to start with.

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