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Performance Enhancing F2P

As I was browsing reddit a few days ago, I found my way into a thread talking about how you can play the Star Citizen alpha for free until March 15th (or March 20th depending on the code used). This is a game that I am somewhat interested in playing, but not 22gb of files interested. Makes you wonder about what the final download size is going to end up being. The Secret World is already over 40gb and making me think deleting it would be better than keeping it around in the off-chance I feel like… Googling the answers to ridiculous in-game riddles.

In any case, I continued reading the various comments to try and glean where Star Citizen was in development. As it turns out, they’re still in the “sell $2700+ ship packages in the store like it ain’t no thing” stage.

A bargain at twice the price.

A bargain at twice the price.

The Completionist Package is actually much more expensive at $15,000, although for some reason the $2700 tier galls me a bit more than the other. I think it’s because at some point the amounts are too ridiculous to contemplate, but these smaller ones are more “reasonable.” Could you even build a gaming PC that cost $15,000 without spending money on the equivalent of Monster Cables?

Once the game officially launches, the idea is that the cash shop for ships is going to close; thereafter, the only things sold for real dollars will be customization options… and a “small” amount of in-game currency, with a daily cap. The amount is supposed to be “miniscule” and the equivalent to whatever it costs to refuel and rearm a ship. Whether that amount will just cover a normal ship maintenance cost or one of the $200+ ships you can outright purchase right now, is anyone’s guess.

What is not anyone’s guess are the fascinating arguments being made that such purchases aren’t P2W:

There is insurance on the ships, if you bought the ship early you are granted free insurance.

Insurance will be cheap though, so if you lose your ship without insurance you kinda have to blame yourself. You won’t get a huge advantage with free insurance.

And what’s the problem with buying ingame cash? If I only have 6 hours/week to play the game I should be able to spend cash so I won’t get left behind by the players sitting 6 hours/day.

This bolded sentiment simply boggles my mind. I don’t even know where to start.

Perhaps I could start with an analogy: performance enhancing drugs in sports. If you only had six hours/week to train for a competition whereas your opponent trained six hours/day, I think everyone would still say that that is fair; if you wanted to legitimately compete with this person, you would put in the necessary hours to do so. I don’t think there is anyone here that would say you should just pop some steroids so you “don’t get left behind” by the person who is clearly more committed to playing the game than you. But suppose you do believe it’s fair, and everyone should have freedom to take whatever drugs give them an edge. In such a scenario, what happens to your advantage when the 6 hours/day person just, you know, takes performance enhancing drugs themselves? You end up where you started, except now everyone with even a modicum of desire to win is taking drugs.

Meanwhile, the people selling steroids are making bank.

The other problem I have with the bolded sentiment is what it says about time spent playing the game. If you are paying dollars to skip content, that implies the content being skipped is the unfun, grindy parts of the game. Which means all the players you are bribing your way past are stuck doing content they probably don’t find fun either. Which means that the game designers have a dilemma: they can either make the unfun, grindy parts more fun for everyone (and lose money), or they can do nothing and make more money. Or, you know, make that payslope even steeper.

This is not even my final form.

This is not even my final form.

Is that a little too tinfoil hat thinking? Maybe. Maybe there are good, legitimate reasons why my Air Defense tower in Clash of Clans takes six real-world days to upgrade. Whatever those reasons are, they can’t be too important though, as I can buy my way past the timer. As I’ve mentioned before, these sort of cash shop designs immediately throws every designer action under suspicion.

The final problem I have with the bolded sentiment is difficult to put into words. It’s like, when did we start expecting to have better outcomes than other people who play a game more than us? I would agree that a design in which no one can catch up to Day One veterans is bad, but I feel like there is a crazy expectation that skill should triumph over time-spent and yet the game still have character progression somehow. How would that work, exactly? And when did it become unfair for someone else to spend six/hours a day playing a game? And then fair for you to bring resources completely outside of game (i.e. cash) to make things even?

Sometimes I feel like we’re all just lost in the woods here.

Star Citizen and “Realism”

I have not really been following the development of Star Citizen beyond knowing that it had a pretty successful Kickstarter campaign. I mean, I know the premise and everything, but the name Chris Roberts holds about as much cachet with me as Raph Koster – both supposedly important dudes who made games I never played. Have they done anything lately? No? Okay then.

One thing that did catch my eye the other day though, was a short Massively article talking about Star Citizen’s “realistic” health and wound system. Feel free to read the source material itself. The basic idea is that the designers wanted to further the immersion by making a “fun” limb-based damage system. Take a lot of damage to an arm, and your arm gets blown off and/or ruined. There are a total of 10 specific areas to damage, with eight of them being arms or legs. The “Damaged” state is between 50% and 1% health, and… let me just quote it:

Damaged – Damaged limbs are useless and the player cannot use them unless they get them patched up in the field or taken to a mobile trauma system (see: Healing). This is the state right after the hurt phase, where the pain is so severe to the player, that no matter what limb is damaged, they will have a hard time being mobile. If one of their legs are damaged, they fall to the ground and crawl.

Now, there is something to be said about how the CoD/Battlefield-style run-and-gun regenerating health paradigm removes a lot of the weight of battle.¹ Take some damage, hide behind a wall, and ~15 seconds later you are good to go. Or perhaps rush into that occupied room with a shotgun and hope you get lucky, knowing you’ll get back to the fight faster than any of the other guys.

On the hand… Jesus Christ, can you imagine the grief potential? Enormous. I don’t care under what circumstances we have come to blows, I’m telling you now: I’m shooting your legs. I’m shooting your legs and then, whether or not I survive, you are spending the remaining time crawling pathetically across the floor to get anywhere. I am doing that because it is the most annoying thing I can possibly imagine. Screw headshots, if you want to invade my ship, you will spend the next 15 minutes crawling your way to the command chair over my dead body.

If you want to find me, I’ll be flying the most handicap inaccessible ship I can find. One with stairs!

That post about limb damage mentioned permadeath, which was the first I heard about it in Star Citizen, so I read that article too. The short version is that permadeath exists for lore reasons, but doesn’t actually matter. Taking a cue from Rogue Legacy, any time your character permanently dies, you simply start playing as whomever you marked as your next-of-kin. Since there are no RPG elements apparently (i.e. Skill Points), the most you lose is some reputation standing and whatever emotional attachment you’ve developed for a character in a permadeath-enabled game. Considering that the limb-damage system specifically talks about how difficult it will be to instantly die – a Ruined head might be jaw or eye damage instead of missing skull – it sounds like this might not be entirely relevant anyway.

I do not want to give the impression that I am not looking forward to Star Citizen, at least as much as anyone can about a game that could radically change at any moment. Space sims are not a genre I spend a lot of time thinking about, but I absolutely loved them in the past. I played Colony Wars for the PS1 way back in the day for an inordinate amount of time. The Zone of Enders series might not technically count as a space sim, but it is the first thing I think about whenever I see videos of Star Citizen dogfighting. I would seriously consider buying EVE: Valkyrie on Day 1, even though I’m not particularly impressed with CCP’s other spinoffs.

But if/when I do pick up Star Citizen, it will be in spite of mechanics such as limb-based damage and permadeath. I do not actually see such things adding anything of value to the game that would not have otherwise already been there. Instead, I foresee a future in which there will be a lot of people crawling around on the floor, hoping that Chris Roberts included a method to commit suicide and still wake up back at their spawn point.

¹ I don’t actually believe that much, if any, weight is removed in these games (or at least in Battlefield). Dying is already a miserable experience even with instant respawns, let alone in the context of not being able to capture an objective or prevent the capturing of your own. Attempts to penalize them further just makes the game harder, but not in a particularly fun way. Otherwise death penalties would all be “invalidate your CD key and force you to repurchase the game.”