Experienced Points

Experienced Points
The Unbelievable Nature of the Next Unreal Tournament

Shamus Young | 20 May 2014 15:00
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Unreal Tournament 1999 310x

I'm not a fan of the newer breed of games, but I think sales have made it pretty clear what the market really wants. The Unreal Tournament of 1999 was a brutal thing. Powerups favored people with map control, making strong players even stronger. Health pickups let you recover quickly, allowing players to keep fighting instead of getting whittled down by many encounters. The extreme speed and complex map design favored the experienced and gave them even more of an edge over the hapless newcomer, and the occasional trap only made it easier for the newbie to accidentally kill themselves. All of this exaggerated the delta between players, creating a game where a newcomer would have almost no hope of scoring a single point in a 10-minute match. In fact, since perishing in a trap subtracted a point, it was common to see new players end a match with negative scores.

These newer games even the playing field a bit. Skilled players have an advantage, but they still die sometimes and it's always possible for a struggling newcomer to get lucky. The RPG leveling gives you a way to get stronger over time, so you can get some positive feedback right away while you wait for your skill level to catch up.

Back in the day, the hardcore players sneered at the more even playing field, but it's pretty clear which idea won out. Call of Duty has a massive audience, far larger than anything Unreal Tournament ever achieved. The Unreal Tournament model turns out to be really unfriendly to newbies, which makes for an insular and stagnant community. I preferred the UT gameplay (I always enjoyed the ridiculous running speed of '90s shooters) but I'll admit the Call of Duty model just makes good business sense, while making the game fun for as many people as possible. And no, this doesn't mean the game is "dumbed down". Just because newbies can score a point once in a while doesn't mean they can win. It's not trying to negate skill, it's just trying to make skill a little less humiliating to acquire.

Epic Games 2x2 Logo

Which brings me back to my initial question: What kind of "competitive FPS" are they going to build? Are they going for the madcap cartoon action of UT 1999? Or are they aiming for the more deliberate pace of UT 2003? Or are they going for something more modern and tactical? If you're a developer, you probably want wide appeal. If you're a hardcore '90s FPS fan, you probably don't. The developers and community might be fundamentally at odds right from the start, before the first line of code is written. Note that this collaboration is taking place with PC developers, who are probably going to lean away from the console-focused controls of modern titles.

Epic is planning on releasing the game for free, but then (as far as I can tell) allowing the community to make and sell their own add-on content. Epic would then take a cut of these sales. It's like Bethesda releasing Skyrim for free, but then allowing users to sell their mods. What do we call this? Crowdsourced DLC? Official fan-made expansions?

Note that this can only work on the PC. Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo haven't really opened up their platforms to modders and have either forbidden or discouraged the kind of continuous patching common to this sort of setup. It's pretty rare for a big publisher like Epic to be willing to go PC exclusive these days.

I don't know what's going to happen. Nobody has ever done anything quite like this before. It's daring. It's bold. It sounds kind of crazy. Good or bad, I can't wait to see how it turns out.

Shamus Young is the guy behind Twenty Sided, Spoiler Warning, and How I Learned.

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