Friday, July 15, 2016

Is Call of Duty's Narrow Skill-Gap Ruining Multiplayer Gaming?

I've heard it said that games like Call of Duty just don't require enough skill to be considered ''hardcore,'' mostly due to their very narrow skill gap, and that developers need to stop pandering to ''casual'' players so that they'll learn how to play more complex games. Just the other day I watched a Youtube video in which a gamer decried the fact that Call of Duty has killstreaks, a ranking system, customizable loadouts, random spawn points, and gadgets that kill instantly, which - in his very popular opinion - allow unskillful players to have a better chance at beating skillful ones, thus destroying a balanced gameplay experience. It is also hypothesized that the reason Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare's trailer stands at almost three million dislikes compared a few hundred thousand likes is also due to this pandering to ''filthy casuals'' and neglecting Call of Duty's hardcore roots, which are steeped in a more grounded and realistic archetype.

Even game developers have come out and protested against Call of Duty's domination of the FPS market. They say that because Activision is in charge of the #1 FPS franchise, they have the power to dictate gamers' expectations; and as long as Infinity Ward and Treyarch continue to make these chaotic, unrealistic, unstructured Call of Duty games, it'll be a long time before a truly hardcore FPS franchise can gain a major following because gamers have become spoiled. Call of Duty just doesn't have enough complexity to require that players go through a learning phase and master the game's mechanics. Instead, according to developers and gamers alike, Call of Duty just has too much randomness and too many unnecessary variables involved that narrow the skill gap.

Now, if I were to ask most Call of Duty players if they think the game requires skill, I think they would say it absolutely does - at least a little bit. Call of Duty's gameplay mechanics primarily revolve around quick reflexes; it definitely takes skill to manage your movement, aim, and observation of the environment during battles that last literally one to two seconds. Truth be told, just about every modern FPS functions in this frenzied manner. As soon as one player sees another, they either have the physical prowess to dispatch their opponent in an instant, or they're probably dead. So what makes a game like Battlefield strategically superior to Call of Duty? ''It's the killstreaks and ridiculous weapon loadouts that make Call of Duty cheap, and also the random spawn points.'' Ah yes, in this area Battlefield is far superior to Call of Duty....

...Except it isn't, because Battlefield also has customizable loadouts. It may be a more structured loadout system due to the basic classes, but killing enemies is just as frantic and instantaneous, regardless of which weapon you're using. And aren't vehicles like tanks, jets, and helicopters the same as killstreak rewards? Actually, isn't Call of Duty even more skill-based because it requires that players actually prove themselves worthy of an attack chopper or airstrike, whereas Battlefield randomly plops these items around the map? Come to think of it, Battlefield also drops .50 caliber sniper rifles and rocket-launcher emplacements around each map for anyone lucky enough to grab them first. How is this more skill-based than Call of Duty?

To be fair, the primary complaint regarding random spawn points in Call of Duty is that players appear right in the midst of unsuspecting enemies, and are able to get kills without anyone even being aware of their presence. This is a very fair complaint; I've experienced it firsthand on numerous occasions. The thing is, Battlefield has a much worse problem (and no, I'm not just referring to these same random spawns). Because the maps are so large, players are prone to sneak up on each other very easily, simply because no one can keep track of such a large environment at all times. And if you're not being sneaked up on, you're being sniped from someone on a tower five miles away. Be honest, Battlefield is even more cheap than Call of Duty at times.

But I've just got to address this fabled ''skill gap'' that everyone says has been narrowed by Call of Duty. Firstly, even developers will admit that a certain amount of randomness in their games is necessary to maintain balance; otherwise, more experienced players (in regards to both knowledge of the game and also physical prowess) would always dominate less-experienced players. Luck, they say, also helps curb the problem of games simply becoming mathematically-solvable equations, rather than varied, strategically-engaging experiences.

Secondly, rewarding skillful players with more weapons, gadgets, and abilities through leveling up doesn't narrow the skill gap; it widens it. Getting three kills in a row and then being rewarded with yet another useful asset is more of an exclusive snowball effect than an all-encompassing pooling-together of players' skill. It alienates less skillful and dedicated players all the more by elevating those who have succeeded even higher above the rest.

Thirdly, the so-called skill-gap exists for two reasons: Veteran players become more knowledgeable than noobies about each map's layout and how the game works, not to mention they get to hone their reflexes and master the game's mechanics over a long period of time. But if developers simply chose to make their games revolve around pure strategy rather than physical prowess, and empowered all players with access to exhaustive knowledge about every facet of the game rather than making them learn it all themselves, games would be both perfectly balanced and also very strategically engaging for everyone involved. We wouldn't have to have ''veterans'' versus ''noobs,'' and we wouldn't have to narrow the skill gap through randomness and luck.

A game's complexity ultimately boils down to how much it includes players in the decision-making process of play. As long as developers keep this in mind, they won't have to worry about realism or being ''hardcore'' versus ''casual.'' We gamers simply want a gameplay experience that's fun to play on its own merits.

- Ponstory Games