Free-to-Play – Always Online, Always in Control

Hand in hand with video games becoming more service oriented has been the rise of the perpetual beta. It is simple enough to work out: why would a developer pay people to test a game when there are people more than willing to do it for free. Or even pay for the privilege. Release a half-finished game early, set up a cash shop and some sort of “Founder’s pack” (Which can cost hundreds of dollars.)  for early access, and suddenly the testers themselves are helping to offset development costs, or maybe the game will even start turning a profit before it gets released.

There is an expectation now with free-to-play games. The developers can’t keep depending on new customers to make money. They need to keep adding things for their regulars to buy, turning free-to-play games into sharks that must forever move forward or risk drowning. Constantly adding new content means constantly patching the game, which means that even if it was available to play offline (and most are not), players still have to connect to the store every time there is a content or balance update–and notice that every free non-critical balance and bug fix patch is sure to come alongside some new things to buy.

Before I start to sound too sinister and paranoid, there are definitely good things about this sort of always online model. Getting new gameplay content is nice, and getting bug fixes is even better, even if priorities are sometimes questionable. (Speaking as someone who endured a game-crippling crash bug in DotA 2 for the better part of a year before it was even acknowledged by Valve, let alone fixed, yet every time there was an error with the cash shop there would be a patch withing 24 hours.)

But there is also danger, especially when vocal minorities, who also may be paying the bills, are constantly up in arms about perceived balance slights.

Religion and Philosophy

I once heard religion described as crystallized philosophy. I have come to see the traditional approach to competitive balance the same way. Before the prevalence of online patching there was very little two-way traffic between developers and players, especially in fighting games, where there were already gulfs of time and space to consider. A game was delivered from on high, final and immutable. The players would flock to it, forming cult-like groups, even down to the layers of unique nomenclature that helped insiders recognize each other. Everything they knew was set in stone, though occasionally there would be a new technique or set of rules unearthed that might form a schism. And, like a religion, progress was always the greatest enemy. With no way of altering sacred texts, it is hard to manage attrition when there are always new, more attractive and progressive, games to play.

That is a long-winded way of saying that old games had very little room for growth, and their mechanics and interfaces, though cherished by the faithful, are clunky mysteries for new generations. The influx of new blood can never match those that leave (Religions have the benefit of parents raising their kids to believe in them.), so the games die, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. Look at fighting games from the late ’90s and into the 2000s, especially Capcom fighting games, for examples.

On the other extreme are the fastest moving games, receiving constant balance patches that only make it harder for players to grasp the axioms that should be the bedrock of their beliefs. The advantages religion has over philosophy are certainty and absolute faith in authority figures. When someone has a question, they know that not only will there be an answer, but there will be someone with credentials who can provide it. When a game is being updated too often it becomes harder and harder to keep up. The developers are occupied in their ivory towers, and are liable to issue new, ever more obtuse, edicts at any moment. Without the education needed to work things out for themselves, players are tempted to adopt a wait-and-see attitude until the game becomes stable. When it was first released, Mortal Kombat 9 was getting balance patches on seemingly a weekly basis. I remember going to gatherings and finding that the combos and setups I had been practising the day before weren’t working because there had been a patch put out in the meantime. Character changes were made and then undone before anyone could actually adapt, and there were many players asking for NetherRealm to leave the game be for a while so that players could work it out for themselves.

Developers are not competitive players. Truth be told, most of them are actually pretty bad at their games, in the grand scheme. Even if they had the talent and inclination needed, their job is not to get good at their game, and they lack the competition needed to excel. No matter how hard they try, the developers are unable to anticipate how badly their game will be broken a week after the public gets their hands on it, but they are also unable to anticipate how much of that is pure gimmicks, which would eventually solve themselves. The idea that, “he who governs least governs best,” no matter who actually said it, may be impractical in the real world, but it is the second half of the quotation, “because the people discipline themselves,” that makes it applicable to balancing. Given the opportunity, players will come up with solutions to most problems.

Change for Change’s Sake

The other big difference with service-oriented games is change itself. Free-to-play games are always trying to keep players interested, and while they are sure to include as many token progress bars to fill as they can, sometimes they also feel the need to do a little spring cleaning and then rearrange all the furniture. League of Legends marks the beginning of each new ladder season with a sweeping overhaul of everything from in-game items and map aspects like jungle creeps, to meta-game mastery ranks and Summoner skills. This definitely refreshes the game for players, but whether that is a good or not would obviously depend on what a player liked about the previous season, and what they like about the changes made for the upcoming season.

In some ways those changes are akin to the major expansion packs modern fighting games already get, but at least, if it came down to it, a player has the option to not buy Ultra Street Fighter 4 and keep playing Arcade Edition. In a free-to-play system, where automatic updates are mandatory, that may not be the case. A League of Legends player who prefers Season 3 to Season 4 has no way of playing Season 3 anymore once Season 4 has started.

Who Owns The Gameplay

The final part of this is the most important. As I’ve gone over before, one of the things that sets fighting games apart from other competitive games is the long history of hands-off developers, and the closed-system nature of arcade machines and consoles. Until very recently it was true for nearly every genre that the community was in charge of itself, and in charge of how they played their games. That’s why the competitive Smash Bros. community exists, that’s why the Dead or Alive community plays 1v1 no-danger zone matches, that’s why characters get banned, and Brood War tournaments stopped using the snow tileset for maps (it was causing eye strain for players who had to look at bright white screens 8 hours a day), and FPS players used mods like OSP or CPMA instead of the vanilla versions of their games, and any number of other changes they decided to make from how their games actually played. Necessity was the biggest part of it, but they also had the freedom to follow through. This is no longer true with free-to-play games.

As I went over in another article, the new trend is for developers to take a much more active role in the competitive communities, and in Riot’s case to even take complete control. We’ve already seen this happen in fighting games, though it’s mostly been from sponsorship pressure rather than the developers themselves. Examples include the PDP Mortal Kombat 9 tournament in which only official PDP Mortal Kombat sticks were allowed, regardless of whether or not a had been able to practice on one, or even liked playing on sticks, and countless “launch tournaments” when a new game is released, all held by the developers or a retail chain, with absolutely zero input from the communities, and they all had similar rules in force, from playing the games on XBOX 360s with only standard XBOX pads allowed and no button checks, to having to participate in really weird tournament formats. I went to a Mortal Kombat 9 launch tournament and they didn’t even let everyone compete; people showed up, were given a random number, and only those who had their number picked got to play, while everyone else sat around and played trivia games. I wasn’t so bummed out, as I won at trivia even though I didn’t get to enter the tournament, but there were other people there who had actually played the game, but got passed over for the tournament because their number wasn’t picked. Let me tell you: watching 2 players who have never played a game before play on sticks that they had never seen before (a lot of new players had never experienced the old Mortal Kombat button layout because all the arcades closed years ago) is not very entertaining and also doesn’t make the game look good.

Those tournaments are run as publicity stunts, though, not as any kind of test of skill. Retail outlets and peripheral manufacturers have even less need to care about a competitive community than the developers do, and it shows. Of course, a week later the actual community starts hosting their own tournaments and things get better. But imagine if that didn’t get to happen. A friend of mine owns a custom pad that is basically XBOX 360 guts in a DualShock 3 case, so that he can play fighting games with a DualShock even on an XBOX, because the XBOX pad is beyond awful for fighting games, while the DualShock has been a competitive staple for over a decade. What if he wanted to play, say, the new Killer Instinct at a tournament run by Microsoft. Would they allow someone to play their game with a DualShock controller? Would a Nintendo-run Smash tournament allow the players to turn off all items and disable Final Smash, or even play Melee instead of Brawl (or whatever the latest version of the game is). As long as developers and sponsors see tournaments as not a group of players getting together to test their skills and have a good time, but as a venue for them to advertise their games and products, their priorities will not favour competitive communities.

I think we’re still far enough away from that sort of thing happening that it shouldn’t be a big concern, but with companies like Riot doing their best to change how everyone looks at competitive gaming anything could happen. Having to endure bizarre patches is bad enough (in my lifetime I have seen patches where already top-tier characters get buffs and bottom-of-the-barrel characters get nerfed, with no explanation and no way of going back), but with free-to-play there is always more incentive for developers to be involved in how their games are played, and that’s only one step away from them taking over.

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