Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Reviewing the Reviewers 5: The Protean Man - Reviewing Multiplayer Online Games

Now, for the most part a review for an online game isn’t going to be much different from that of a what I’m going to dub a “static” game. Games such as Team Fortress 2, World of Warcraft, Eve Online and even games like online Chess and Scrabble can still be judged by a variety of quantifiable degrees.

But with online games, we often run into cases where the game can change significantly in a short period of time. Expansions whether they come in huge instalments like the WoW ones, or are doled out over shorter periods of time like those of Team Fortress 2, Killing Floor and their ilk. These changes can mean anything from graphical improvements, to massive innovations to gameplay via new classes, weapons, and changes to previously existing examples of such.

In a strange paradox, gameplay for online games is both infinite and at the same time not infinite. There is no standard hard ending to an online game, and even if there were, such as say, defeating the Lich King in WoW, the next update will involve some new looming threat. And even if a party kills the Lich King, he’s sitting there waiting for the next group to try their luck. Nothing in the in game world really changes aside from those who are victorious perhaps getting some achievements and some decent gear. If you really wanted to you could go an beat up the “end boss” of any online game - assuming that there even is one - as often as the game allows you to, which in some cases is often as you’d like. Likewise, you don’t “win” in TF2 beyond winning an individual match or round. You’ll keep coming back.

Until you get bored.

This, in a sense, is why games must release new content when they are marketed as online primary. Especially games like WoW which are pay-to-play. If your players have seen and done it all, they start losing some of that incentive to login and play, and eventually if nothing new is on the horizon, you lose the fan base and thus your financial base as well. Games like TF2 and Killing Floor don’t quite operate on the same level, but by releasing new content on a constant basis they help establish brand loyalty, thus getting more people to buy their game via word of mouth and positive press, as well as media coverage for whatever upcoming additions are in store for players.

These innovations though, can be a double edged sword. Although I don’t play WoW I’ve heard of the difficulties, the pains and pleasures, of each new patch or gameplay overhaul. People complaining that staple classes have gotten nerfed or that the improvements intended to get people to play the less used races have now completely overpowered and thus ruined the game’s balance. Likewise, in Team Fortress 2 these days you can hardly tell if you’re going to run into a Demoman that’s equipped to only use melee, or a Soldier firing lasers instead of rockets. Each new change brings as much derision as it does praise, sometimes much more derision.

So, how does one judge these releases? In some cases, like with WoW, it is easy to judge each expansion in terms of what it adds to the base game. But for games like TF2, the decision is significantly harder. Is TF2 the same game that it was at release. Well, yes and no. At its core it still is a class based multiplayer online shooter, but the assortment of weapons and accessories has changed it from the game that it started out as, and it’s even fair to say that the game may be massively different even a year from now, with each class getting new tricks and the release of more gameplay styles and maps.

This is the difficulty with being the Protean Man: trying to hold significance without losing what has drawn people to you to begin with. It’s a hard and delicate balance to strike, and it’s not the only problem either.

Despite all the innovation that can occur, another major, uncontrollable factor to online play is, of course, the people that you play with.

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