There used to be jokes aimed at Team Fortress 2 for including hats in the game back in 2009. What seemed like a simple addition to the game has turned into a goldmine for both Valve and item makers. While people laughed at the so-called ‘hat simulator’, the top item makers were earning $500k a year for selling their own hats. Developers learnt from this example and began implementing systems of their own to sell cosmetic items. Nowadays, it is rare to play a multiplayer game without some form of cosmetic store.

Cosmetic items have become another stream of income in addition to the sales of map packs/season passes. This is increasingly becoming a problem in many multiplayer games as map packs splinter the already dwindling player base. A recent example of this is Star Wars: Battlefront on PC. As of 31/1, Star Wars: Battlefront has 5,763 players online with its peak within the last twenty-four hours being 11,520. In contrast to this, Battlefield 4 (released in October 2013) has 17,008 people online with its peak being 35,280. Of course, there are many reasons as to why players have abandoned Battlefront, however, one of the reasons I think has not been considered enough is the number of unlockables.

Battlefront has continued the weapons/perks unlockables trend that the Call of Duty series popularised with Modern Warfare back in 2007. The Call of Duty series manages to pull this off with thorough balance patches to assure players who have just started won’t be at a disadvantage. Battlefront struggles to keep new players from turning into cannon fodder as they set off ill-equipped into battle.int1

To begin levelling the playing field, new players must get to Rank 13 where they will unlock the Homing Shot and the Jump Pack. The Homing Shot allows players to fire a missile at enemies without having to aim directly at them. These missiles are extremely powerful. If you manage to catch an enemy in the middle of a fight with one of your teammates, a homing shot will ensure their death. Traversing the battlefield without the Jump Pack is incredibly slow and frustrating, especially when the experienced players begin targeting you with homing shots. These two Star Cards are essential when playing any of the maps that hold more than twenty people. Being without these two cards severely limits your options and forces you to pick between two grenades, a pistol and a sniper rifle (assuming the player is Rank 10 and below). To add insult to injury, not only do experienced players have all these advantages through their cards, these cards can also be upgraded to have less of a cool down. The players with the most experience in the game do not need to have another advantage over brand new players.

Some may see this as an incentive to continue to play. I understand people may want something to work towards, but grinding just to level the playing field isn’t fun at all. The idea of a levelling system works well when the game is designed with unlockables in mind. Call of Duty gets around any awkward starting phase by providing players with five starter classes. These classes each have a specific purpose, for example Modern Warfare allowed you to pick from a Sniper to a Heavy Gunner. This gives some choice to the player before they get the opportunity to create their own class. Battlefront forces brand new players to use what the game offers a Rank 1 player (which isn’t a lot) or they have the option to use their partner’s hand (their choice of cards). The ability to copy your partner’s hand is great, however, it assumes you are partnering with a friend who happens to have played the game before. If you are starting the game with a friend, more than likely you will progress at the same pace making this option rather pointless.

Some games purposely keep certain things away from players until they’ve put enough time into the game. This approach is also understandable, but it comes at the cost of treating your player base like children. In fear of overwhelming the player with every option at their disposal, players are limited in what they can do until they sink a certain amount of time into the game. A game like Battlefront doesn’t work well with a system like this. The amount of choices available are not indicative of what is truly viable in the game. Players have the option to pick several hundred variety of cards, but they’ll never want to select more than the five or six options that everyone else chooses.int3

Did DICE shoehorn a levelling system into Battlefront at the expense of the game? From a cynical perspective, it may not be all that surprising if unlockables were in the game as a way of creating another stream of income. The Deluxe Edition of Star Wars: Battlefront contains the following extras:

  • Made famous by Han Solo, the DL-44 is the blaster of choice for scoundrels across the universe.
  • Inflict more damage on enemy vehicles with the Ion Grenade.
  • The Ion Torpedo locks on to and delivers extra damage to your opponents’ vehicles.
  • Get electrified with the Ion Shock emote, available exclusively in the Deluxe Edition.
  • Celebrate your win in style and pump your fist in the air with the exclusive Victory emote.

Three out of five of these are in-game advantages that immediately create a divide between the regular players and the ‘deluxe’ players. These advantages can be purchased for an extra $10 over the regular version of the game.

If DICE did intentionally shoehorn in the levelling system, it would not be the first time a developer has included unlockables as a way of artificially inflating the length of the game.

Street Fighter IV was the first game in the entire series to feature character unlocks through completing the story mode. This feature was subsequently removed from the next instalment of the game. The Super Smash Bros. series has always forced players to complete a specific number of matches before unlocking characters. In Super Smash Bros. Melee, it took one thousand matches to unlock every character in the game. In the Wii U instalment, Super Smash Bros. 4, players could unlock every character by playing one hundred and twenty matches. Nintendo understood players enjoyed playing games to unlock hidden characters, however they did not want to spend hundreds of hours doing so.

Rainbow Six: Siege focuses on the competitive aspect of the game. int2

The post-launch operators (the game’s term for player classes) are the only in-game advantage that players can pay to acquire early, and even those advantages may not be worthwhile as each operator is designed to have a specific counter against it. Rainbow Six: Siege goes out of its way to make things as convenient for its players as possible.

“From the very inception of Rainbow Six Siege, the development team at Ubisoft Montreal knew we wanted to do something different and unexpected for an Ubisoft title”

It’s fantastic that Ubisoft are providing this type of support for their game, though it’s slightly disheartening to see that this type of support is “different” and “unexpected”. This isn’t a novel concept at all. Games like Counter-Strike and Starcraft have been providing this type of support for years.

DOTA 2, arguably the most popular game in the world right now, takes the opposite approach to Battlefront. Where DICE are afraid to overwhelm the player, Valve let new players have absolutely everything the game has to offer. If you are like me, you may not know that DOTA 2 has one hundred and seven different heroes (the playable characters in the game), each with their own different abilities. How can a game that offers over one hundred different characters not be daunting to new players? The answer is simple: the game itself is incredibly fun. The fact that DOTA 2 is extremely daunting only leads players to truly appreciate how good the game design is. Battlefront hides behind unlockables. It forces you to invest time to see what the game has to offer, only to find that there isn’t as much depth as you might think.

Unlockables in games can be handled well, depending on the game. League of Legends and the Call of Duty series have no problem keeping their audience entertained despite the vast number of unlocks available One of Battlefront’s issues comes down to the lack of focus on teamwork. Speaking primarily as a new player, Battlefront does not feel welcoming to someone who needs to grind their way to the useful Star Cards. New players cannot play the game properly without having access to the same things has experienced players. If the unlockables were shifted around slightly to give new players some of the better cards, maybe those players could start to focus on how to win instead of avoiding death.

One of the biggest criticisms of Battlefront is that EA catered to a casual audience. While this may have been the case at launch, it certainly isn’t the case now (not on PC anyway). The only people left playing the game are the same ones that have been playing since the game came out, leaving new players to struggle until the reach the level cap. It may not take more than a few days to obtain all the Star Cards you need to be on an equal footing with everyone else, but that is a few days most people will not waste their time on.

The unlockable items ended up hurting Battlefront in the long run. There are things that could have been done to fix the issues of unlockables (changing the order of the unlocks, balancing the overpowered Star Cards), but these issues have yet to be addressed. Sadly, it may be too late to save the game as the player base continues to fall. Unless something drastic happens with the season pass, it is almost safe to say that Star Wars: Battlefront will not have an active player base by the end of the year.