Is Level Select The Next Anti-Frustration Feature?

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Treyarch’s decision to make every mission of the Call of Duty: Black Ops III campaign playable from the beginning brings up an old question that sometimes comes up regarding game difficulty and consumer frustration. I actually don’t think Treyarch made a bad decision here, and its comparison to Netflix is apt, but it obviously wouldn’t work with every type of game. It’s also interesting to speculate where this could take things in the future if it becomes a trend.

I think this question was most famously brought up by a British comedian (whose name my Google-fu is unable to acquire) some years ago who joked about his ineptitude at the first Gears of War game, pointing out that video games are the one medium that will lock out content to people who buy them based on skill. Treyarch compared what they’re doing to how Netflix releases entire seasons of shows at once. When you think about it, it’s also comparable to a book, where all the pages are technically readable at any time, or a movie, in which every scene is watchable from the start. In these cases the desire to start the story from the beginning and consume all of it is still there, and the same will probably be true with Black Ops III.

That same comedian also referenced Rock Band (it may have been Guitar Hero), complaining about how it forces you unlock songs. With this kind of game I actually agree that perhaps things shouldn’t be locked behind some kind of progression system. One big reason video games have systems of progression in the first place is to extend play time (read: extend the time before someone trades the game in to GameStop). Developers even deliberately draw this out today by putting RPG systems in basically every game, especially multiplayer. Recently I’ve actually felt a yearning for old-style multiplayer where you get nothing but the maps, a set selection of weapons, and your own mastery of the game. I haven’t played Rock Band or Guitar Hero, but I think I can understand if people have the same feelings towards them.

The comedian said he started up the game just so he could play one song he liked, but had to go through a lot of other crap to get there. This indicates that a lot of people see music games as basically karaoke machines but with instruments. It’s why a lot of people wondered why Rock Band and Guitar Hero even needed sequels. Perhaps they would have been better suited to the current era of free-to-play games in a system where you just download a base client and then buy songs or albums for it.

A big difference between video games and other media though is that they usually have a progression of difficulty. Whenever my nephew tries to play Mario he often begs me to complete levels he’s stuck on, and I try to get him to understand that later levels will only give him an even harder time if he doesn’t learn the skills needed to beat earlier ones. In that sense video games are kind of like school courses in how they teach players, at least well-designed video games anyway. I understand there are games out there with unfair difficulty spikes you wish you could just skip, but taking blanket solutions to problems like that is how we got to our current era of game design.

Making the whole story available from the start is really just another anti-frustration system that has emerged from developers’ fear of players getting too frustrated and quitting games (and publishers’ fear of customers getting frustrated and quickly trading games in). They see the metrics telling them that less than half their players actually see the ending they worked so hard to make. We dumped health packs for regenerating health because some games had badly-balanced health systems. We dumped save points for frequent automatic checkpoints because some games had badly-paced save points. We limited people to two weapons because some games had badly balanced weapon selection systems. Now developers might almost universally start making all missions available from the start because some games have bad difficulty curves. A lot of these things were also done because it’s easier to balance encounters when a designer knows the what state the player will be in at a particular time.

What if having the whole story available from the beginning eventually encourages developers to toss difficulty curves out the window? I could just as easily see developers make all levels available from the start and then just clearly label them based on difficulty (like music games). It’s why we have difficulty levels in the first place and it’s probably why tutorials are explicitly labeled.

One thing I’m worried about though is how this might affect the sense of discovery that some games derive from locking out content until players find it themselves. If you can see all of a game’s secrets as soon as you buy it, there’s little left to make the game exciting except for its fundamental mechanics. That gameplay foundation has to be extremely good to stand on its own. Back in the day I used to input the level select cheat for Sonic 2 every time I played it, but still spent many hours on the game because its basic systems are still very fun. This was apparent in older multiplayer games that didn’t have progression systems to extend people’s time with them.

And some games based on discovery quite simply couldn’t unlock everything at the start, particularly open-world games or RPGs. Sure some of these games can have the entire map technically available from the beginning, but any kind of character progressions system inherently requires a certain amount of gameplay time to unlock mechanics or content. Again, this is why developers and publishers have made them so common today, but some games really do need them in order to function. Technically I guess Konami could have Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain have all 50 main missions and all 157 side missions available from the beginning, but the mechanics with managing Mother Base and unlocking weapons makes that unfeasible, or at least complicates the difficulty balance.

Go down this road long enough, not just the road of level selection but of all anti-frustration systems, and you have to ask the question, “why make video games with any difficulty at all?” This is partly why we have things like walking simulators or visual novels — things that are less “video games” and more interactive fiction. There’s a growing space for that, and people who want interactive fiction should definitely be able to have it. I think too many stories are shoehorned into the tropes of action games and might be better if they were just conveyed as interactive fiction. I haven’t played it yet, but doesn’t the original System Shock let you separately dial down the difficulty for combat and puzzles, letting players completely tailor whether it’s an action game or adventure game?

I think implementing level select from the beginning of a game is a perfectly valid thing to do, just like regenerating health or checkpoints. It solves certain problems some people have with video games. But like those other things I also don’t want to see it universally implemented. I don’t want to see it added to the pile of console game homogeneity.

BULLETS:

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