As someone who enjoys playing games online but who also doesn’t normally care for purely competitive online environments, I’ve long struggled to understand why competitive multiplayer almost always tends to frustrate and aggravate me more than other types of gameplay. While I would never in a million years consider myself an “expert” or “pro” competitive player, I wouldn’t consider myself a “bad” competitive player either. It wasn’t until recently that I realized the problem may not be with me, it may be with the inherent formula of most competitive games.

What do I mean by “inherent formula” exactly? Well, let’s think about it; these days, online multiplayer and performance-based “RPG-esque” progression have become virtually synonymous concepts. Boot up any modern shooter or action game with an online component and you’ll find yourself earning XP and unlocking new perks, guns, and playable characters in no time. This type of progression has been proven to be a great way to keep players engaged and motivated as they strive towards that next desired unlock or push themselves to gain just one more rank or level.

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However, the downside of such a system is that it tends to hobble both new players and latecomers of any given game. Granting better equipment, better guns, and better perks and skills to those who put more time and effort in may help to keep established players motivated, but it also further widens the gap between new and experienced players and I don’t think I need to explain to any dedicated multiplayer fans how frustrating it can be to get repeatedly stomped by a better-equipped and more skilled player when you’re still trying to learn a specific game’s ropes.

So what can be done to combat such a mentality? One thing that some games, such as Battlefield 3 or Assassin’s Creed III, have tried is allowing players to skip the whole “unlocking process” and simply pay a fee for immediate access to all of the game’s multiplayer weapons, perks, skins, etc. While such a solution can help to even the playing field, it also completely removes the added motivation to unlock new goodies through playing which, for many players, is the main (and sometimes only) motivation that drives them. It also means tacking on another unnecessarily high cost onto the game since such “unlock packages” tend to run anywhere between $20 to $40.

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Other games have tried implementing purely cosmetic unlocks (Gears of War 3) or simply removing progression entirely (Team Fortress 2, Counter Strike: Global Offensive) but such strategies carry with them their own risks; namely, gameplay that never really evolves past its initial concept. While these strategies can, again, help to offer both new and experienced players a level competitive environment, the lack of substantial growth that comes with the trickling of new weapons, equipment, and skills can quickly make a game’s online environment feel stale and repetitive.

Another solution, and one which I feel is a much better one, is a two-pronged approach that involves keeping both cosmetic and non-cosmetic unlocks but also giving players greater control over what they unlock and when they can do so. Games like Gotham City Imposters and the recently released Call of Duty: Ghosts both offer cosmetic and non-cosmetic unlocks but, unlike most other online shooters, they don’t tie in specific rewards with specific level or rank milestones, instead granting universal “keys” or “upgrade points” which can in turn be redeemed for any reward the player desires. Such a system not only helps to foster a more balanced competitive environment (since gaining the best equipment doesn’t require grinding to the highest attainable ranks), it also allows players to more quickly and easily unlock and access the kinds of playstyles they want to play which is another powerful motivator all on its own.

Such a simple and minor tweak may not seem so powerful at first, especially for more hardcore players who don’t mind grinding through hundreds of levels or ranks, but when you consider the fact that it boils down to either letting players make choices for themselves right away or restricting them from making such choices unless they put up with hours of aggravation and tedium, which sounds more appealing to you? It shouldn’t come as a shock then to hear that Gotham City Imposters is the first purely competitive online shooter that I’ve not only stuck with for a few weeks now, but that I actually enjoy and look forward to playing (though to be fair, the game’s zany chuckle-inducing tone also helps out quite a bit).

If developers insist on keeping competitive play as the focal point of online multiplayer, they need to understand that restricting player agency in the hopes that players will “put up with the grind” is a bad strategy. Allow us to work towards the rewards we want to work towards, and we’ll happily frag each other in online battlefields for hours on end. We’ll also be more inclined to stick with those games even after we’ve earned all that we wanted to earn if only to show off our prowess using our shiny new rewards.

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As someone who once loathed competitive multiplayer with a bitter passion, I’m here to tell you that such a system can work; I’m living proof of that. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I gotta go take down some Jokerz in Gotham City Imposters using my new Falcon Blade katana while dressed up as a Batman-inspired ninja-wrestler.

Special thanks to Kotaku’s Patricia Hernandez for her article This Year’s Biggest Shooters Remind Me Why Multiplayer Unlocks Suck which inspired me to write this opinion piece.

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