Saturday, December 12, 2015

Tipping the Scale of Id

Last month, Prime World introduced a new hero, Tu'rehu (and kudos on delving into mythology obscure enough that nerds like me aren't completely bored by it yet) as per the core business model of current, dumbed-down, DotA-knock-off "MOBAs" which relies entirely on microtransactions. Its all about pumping out endless streams of playable characters and skins, each for the low-low price of... whatever.

Trust me, you're gonna wanna pay that low-low price. You're guaranteed an endless string of wins against anyone who doesn't have that latest gimmick. This is also part of the business model: selling wins. Tu'Rehu, at release, out-damaged, out-healed and out-ran everything in the game... and I do mean everything and not just anything, as in, he could take out an enemy team 1v5. Despite this being blatantly obvious it took some conspicuous weeks for even a slight nerf to be patched in.

Of course, that's just an isolated accident. Ooopsie, the developers placate the masses on their forums, our bad. Hey, game design isn't a precise science, right? It's not like the previous hero, the Desperado was.... exactly the same story, or anything, for weeks on end beforehand, standing in the middle of your base, mowing you down while endlessly regenerating.
Prime World isn't even one of the worst offenders when it comes to this sort of stupidity, and though their constant updates make it more obvious, DotA knockoffs like League of Legends or Smite are only the tip of the iceberg. This sort of routine long ago became intrinsic to the idiotic pay-to-win microtransactions system shoehorned into every single game genre over the past decade. Even ignoring that, ample reasons to err on the side of "overpowered" upon releasing a new element predated our current crop of online cheatfests. If game design is such an imprecise science, I'm amazed at how precisely this pattern plays out, every time in every game. Somehow, by random chance, almost every balance error favors making the game easier for the group it most immediately affects, and not more difficult. It's like one of those old medieval images of Saint Peter or some archangel weighing souls for entry into Heaven or Hell... with a sneaky devil always tipping the "Hell" scale.

Quite a few devils hang off game developer's balances, dragging their judgment into the shadowy realm of legitimized cheating. As a very standard observation, if something is overplayed in a multiplayer game, it's probably overpowered. The corollary also holds true: if you make something more powerful, it will get played more. Hey, who wants to pay for in-house testing, amirite folks? Cuts into the bottom line. Easier to release every new feature as a candy-coated lure to every single min-maxing cretin looking to be handed undeserved wins, and the hordes of mouthbreathers will do your testing for you.

However, at an even more basic level, human beings simply do not want equality. With the eternal optimism of our monkey brains always swinging for the ripest fruit, the truism of power-lust upon which capitalism is built, each individual, no matter how unlikely to benefit from an unjust system, will wholeheartedly support injustice in the conviction of someday being at the top of the pyramid and pissing on everyone else around. Some of the most successful games reflect this.
Counterstrike always kept the idiotically overpowered AWP as a standby for anyone who got tired of actually playing the game and just wanted to grief others.
DotA was based on fighter heroes completely trouncing spellcasters.
Blizzard Entertainment, even before World of Warcraft, never even attempted true balance. Instead, it relied on sequential imbalance, giving each race or class from Starcraft to Warcraft 3 to WoW its fifteen minutes of fame, relying on selective memory to retain customers who keep hoping that next month it'll be their turn to get free wins over everyone else by abusing the latest gimmie. This is arguably how the blatantly game-breaking "zerg rush" came about.
Planetside 2 hands players more ways to one-shot each other at no personal risk than they even care to use. Sure, your bomber airfoil can fly upside-down and one-shot the fighter craft which should logically counter it, but who wants to go to the hassle of finding a gunner and flying around when you can just sit back, completely invisible, and snipe players from a mile away?
The rogue / assassin archetype has been ludicrously overpowered in every single PvP game to feature it, yet nonetheless it's constantly handed out as the "griefer special" contributing nothing to a team but sure to make some little snot feel big about himself for one-shotting players who can't even see him, keep the mindless petty sadists coming back for more of that endorphin boost.

Customers are more likely to remember a moment of glory, however undeserved, than a hundred complex, nail-biting, photo-finish pitched battles. Most human beings are morons, and we want most of the money now don't we? All we have to surrender are those outmoded old notions of challenge, personal choice or fairness. You know, what used to be called games, sports and contests. It's all about the cardboard medals now.

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