Online multiplayer has always been about core gamers. In this day and age, when over 40 million individuals play Call of Duty every month, developers have a big incentive to court casual gamers as well. This is part 3 of my "casual encounters" series. Part 1 tried to establish that catering multiplayer to casual gamers is still far from us, and part 2 tried to tackle the basics of how to get there.
If you're looking to alienate casual gamers, over-emphasis on streaks, perks and level unlocks is the way to go. I've abandoned too many good games because their efforts of extending playability have simply become too much of a bother.
By definition, casual gamers are not looking to dive too deeply into any multiplayer universe. Making you jump through too many hoops until you actually get to the fun part is a sure way to lose this crowd. This may be easier to grasp with an analogy. Try to look at the typical casual gamer as the notorious modern male: immature, seeking instant gratification and terribly afraid of commitment. You are probably not going to get a meaningful, long-lasting, loving relationship from someone who just occasionally wants to have some fun.
I get the idea behind level unlocks, I really do. There's a science behind starting you off with a fairly limited character and letting you unlock more skills, abilities and weapons as you progress. This is an excellent method to prolong an otherwise quickly tiresome game and squeeze several hours more from your average player. Unlocking is extremely gratifying, and as experience shows, the best way to feed an addiction is giving it time to grow. Throw too much at a junkie at once, and they are very likely to overdose.
Progression-based unlocking has become one of the basic building blocks of gaming. I can't think of a single classic campaign where you start off at the same level you finish with. I agree that in a single player campaign, this is a must. In multiplayer though, the story is completely different.
So why is there such a great difference between single player and multiplayer. For starters, playing through an entire campaign (and progressing your character to its single play-through maximum) usually takes 5-10 hours. I've yet to see a game where you can max your multiplayer character in 5 hours. Gamers tend to play multiplayer for far longer than single player, and progression is stretched accordingly. In addition, single player difficulty is made proportional to your level of progression. As your character becomes stronger, you start meeting tougher new enemies. It wouldn't make too much sense if you were butchered by the final game boss when you've barely unlocked anything. This ridiculous behavior often happens with multiplayer though. A day old player, armed with nothing but the basic barely functional gun is matched against an army of level 70 veterans who make the final game boss look like a stroll in the park.
Casual gamers are low on investment time. It makes sense to expect them to invest a total of 5-10 hours in a single player campaign and reward them with a maxed-out character at the end. It gets problematic when you expect them to invest 100 hours to get the same thing in multiplayer. This is made far worse when their competition often does have access to higher levels. Being butchered for a 100 hours makes sense if I know that one day I will do this butchering myself to young players. When I'm perfectly aware that this loving relationship will not last over 50 hours... it simply doesn't.
So what should developers do? Dropping progression-based unlocking altogether in multiplayer loses too many points with core gamers, so you obviously can't do that. What you can do is offer a few gaming modes where everything is unlocked by default to everybody. Call of Duty Blacks Ops 2 tried to do just that with League Play. What did they get wrong? League play offers zero control over which game modes you participate in (free for all/team deathmatch/capture the flag). Some modes (like the party modes or combat training) don't even appear there, making the overall experience for a gamer never looking to unlock anything quite limited and repetitive. In addition, the entire concept of a league and competitive ranked play is pretty much the opposite of what a casual gamer is looking for.
Streaks and Perks
It has become quite mandatory for a multiplayer game to offer some sort of perking mechanism to reward good players with successful streaks. The mechanic is pretty straight forward. Kill a bunch of players in a row without dying (or complete other objectives if this isn't plain deathmatch), and we will reward you with a perk that is otherwise very hard to come by. This perk can be a special powerful weapon that nobody else has, a devastating attack that rains fire over half the map or any other treat that makes your life easier on the expense of others.
If all gamers were created equal, this mechanic would make sense to me. It's a competition and we should reward the best. Giving them medals and high scores is boring... letting them humiliate their competition further is much more fun. For them at least. Earning these streaks is a big part of what makes the game exciting for experienced players. If you had the living s**t kicked out of you, just practice practice practice... be the next one that earns a streak and have your sweet revenge.
Now let's examine this mechanic from the perspective of a casual gamer. If I'm a casual gamer, chances are that I'm already not as skilled as veteran players. Practice makes perfect + I'm not willing to put the hours in = I'm already getting my ass kicked. Earning a streak?! Hell, I'm just trying to stay alive between consecutive kills. Arrgg.. Stop killing me! Why does his bullets hit and mine miss all the time?! I gotta take some time and learn this map, they keep creeping up on me! Oh I see this guy! I'm finally going to have my revenge on killing me 5 times in a row! WTF?! Where did this nuclear bomb come from???
Casual gamers are not aiming for streaks. Even if we score them, we rarely bother going into the full details of the perk combinations and what they do. If it's not part of the basic gameplay, don't bother us with it.
Canceling streaks and perks is probably out of the question, since competitive core gamers live for that stuff. So what can developers do? Well, one option is the magic solution of having a separate game mode where streaks and perks are disabled. Uncharted 3 tried to do just that with a mode eliminating medal kickbacks and boosters. What did they get wrong? They named it "Hardcode" and made sure it's crawling with the best of the veterans... This was actually harder to play than usual. Another obvious solution is improving skill-based matchmaking. If all players are of the same skill level, streaks will not be so one sided and frustrating. Another idea is sharing the perks with the entire team (noobs included). So if one player on the team scored the streak, someone else from his buddies may get the chance to drive the nuclear bomb.
It's pretty clear that casual gamers and core gamers are two different breeds. They are quite difficult to mix, and if you make this mistake, both sides will end up complaining. Our conclusion from this part? Making the separation should not only be done during matchmaking, it should also be done during setting of the rules which govern gameplay itself.
I've been playing CoD BLOPS 2 for the past few days. Dear Mr. Vonderhaar, I've got a post planned just for you. Anyways, the next part of this series will be about creative solutions to core-casual inbreeding. Stay tuned, things may get quite bizarre.