Let’s take a look at the end game.
I had originally titled this “End Game Sucks” but figured everyone would mistake it for an Avengers review and accuse me of being a click-baity douche. (Granted, it would be a fair complaint).
I enjoy video games and have lately had a little time to jump back into them. Oddly, I have been playing two Ubisoft titles: Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and The Division 2. I gave The Division 2 an overall positive review—minus the horrid story and lack of ambition on a narrative level. The levels are mostly interesting, and the gameplay works. Now, I am in the end game of both games—and I hate it.
Both of these games sold well (The Division 2 is the highest selling game of 2019 so far according to Ubisoft on units sold) and received positive feedback. However, a new trend in gaming is to have players stay with the game until the end of time (or until the next installment comes out). Everyone wants to be king of the hill and wants the player to dedicate time equivalent to a part time job to these games. A steady stream of updates, changes, and additional stuff are designed to keep us engaged. My problem here is that a lot of this additional content sucks.
Sooner or later most video games become a sort of treadmill in this market. What’s the best way to get players to keep going? Offer rewards. How Odyssey and Division do this is by increasing level cap or world tier (basically a type of level) so you as the player have to continue playing to keep upgrading your gear. I went back to Odyssey after about a four months off and found my maxed boat was no longer maxed—nor was my spear. Further, the level cap has now increased beyond (the already increased) 70, so I get to upgrade all of my gear. Upgrading now takes a punitive amount of resources, which means I will have to play twice as much to get the same reward. All of this in a game that basically devolves to go here—stab this person—come back here gameplay loop.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Odyssey and have put too many hours into it. However, there was a moment of clarity in seeing how far the goalpost moved. I will finish the Atlantis DLC and put the game away at this point. The forced effort to get me to play more turned me off, which is the exact opposite of the intended effect.
Division 2 is perhaps a worse offender in that you can’t upgrade your gear in a traditional way. That nice 450 score gear set just has to be reacquired at the new 500 gear score—yay. Crafting in Division 2 is so broken I am surprised it stayed in at launch. The entire premise is built on catering only to those who are willing to grind and grind. People who just want to maintain the gear they like are left in the cold.
Coming back to The Division after a couple months off felt like visiting an abandoned city. Lobbying for PVP never worked and the occupied dark zone (a stupid idea, but my friends wanted the achievements) sure wasn’t occupied. We were in the zone for nearly an hour before even seeing another person. For being the best-selling game of the year (according to Ubisoft) it sure seems empty.
Attempts to extend the life cycle of both of these games hasn’t been deployed well by the publishers. Odyssey began featuring player made quests (a great way to outsource content creation), but now is banning players for creating easy farming quests for experience and resources. Sorry Ubisoft, the first mod people on most games download is “faster levelling.” If after eighty hours, in a single player game, I want to boost a character to max for the hell of it, who cares? Ah, but here’s the rub. Ubisoft sells experience and resource boosts for cash money, so they don’t want you taking money out of their pocket. I am not going to go into the honestly startling amount of microtransactions in both games here (maybe in another rant) but do keep in mind everything these companies are doing isn’t so much for player retention as it is for microtransaction sustainability.
The Division has taken a multifaceted approach to annoying players. First, news came out yesterday that they are hiring an elite team to save the end game from its own banality. They know there is an issue and are going to scramble to get players back. I do wonder if that ship has sailed though.
More annoyingly, the game introduced an eight-person raid that is unfairly difficult on console. I don’t know eight people who have an XBOX One, let alone eight who would buy The Division 2. You’d think matchmaking would solve this, and it would, but for reasons Ubisoft decided not to allow this feature. I don’t think every piece of content needs to be accessible to every player (hell, the souls games are my favorite and those are anything but accessible), but this seems like poor design. Every other activity needs four people at most. By doubling the normal requirement, they threw a wrench in their own balancing. They even scoffed at the idea of changing the difficulty (in an insulting way) and said there would be no matchmaking.
However, they changed their minds. Now there is a lower difficulty and matchmaking. Which I imagine is going to piss people off more. If they were willing to do this than they should have once the difficulty curve seemed skewed against console players. By going back on their word, they look more like jackasses who have to be browbeaten into changing anything than a company actually interested in player satisfaction.
That previous statement may seem harsh but given the abundance of horrific bugs (bugs they know about) ignored I have no idea what they are thinking. Audio crashes, framerate dips, textures popping, enemies dying standing up, damage glitches, bad enemy AI, stupid enemy movement, and flat out crashes have plagued this game from day one. Every update seems to make the game worse. I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised when they are more desperate to keep people on the treadmill than have a quality experience.
What I truly hate about these live services (I know Odyssey might not technically be one, but it is close enough) is that they want you to play the game until you hate it. There is no sense of accomplishment here. Even if we chose to grind up to the new world tier, I am certain another one is releasing in the next month or so. I truly believe the longer people saturate in these games the more they notice the flaws. Another issue is that the game rarely resembles what it began as. I have no idea what we are even doing in Division anymore. Who the Black Tusk are and how they keep retaking the same areas (meaning we have to do the same missions) is something I neither know nor care about. I guess the point is that D.C. will be a forever warzone? The stabilization of the areas, helping people find resources, and pushing out the gangs seems to be a pointless exercise when a new super army keeps moving back in.
Making a game a service will always hurt the narrative arc. The ending of games that don’t have an endless end game planned should serve as a cathartic moment for players that they have accomplished the goal. With these games, it starts to feel more like a phone game where you play out of a sense of habit and duty rather than the desire to explore.
The success of God of War and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice show that single player games can still sell well. Let’s just hope the publishers are willing to change course or we’ll be stuck with endless grinding forever. I do worry about the industry. This year at E3 there wasn’t a single game that stood out to me. Sure, Borderlands 3 could be awesome, but with the addition of loot boxes and microtransactions I have to wonder if the game is going to be a broken cash grab mess.