While I’m not the Valve-only gamer I was a few years ago, I do seem to always find myself coming back to Valve’s pre-eminent titles. No matter how many times I grow tired of their old games and branch out in the hopes of finding similar but fresh content, I always eventually come crawling back for more Left 4 Dead, Team Fortress or Counter-Strike. Recently I took a bit of time to try and puzzle out just what exactly Valve had done to continually attract me so. And I think I’ve figured it out.
The single best thing about Valve games in my opinion is the complete lack of level-up systems, or “nondiagetic character advancement” if you want the fancy terminology. By which I mean there is no system whereby one improves their character through ways not tied to the current online session. In Counter-Strike, the weapons and money you’ve earned during a multiplayer skirmish are completely gone and you’re back to starting weapons the next time you log in. In Left 4 Dead all four players spawn into the map with a pistol regardless of how many years of experience each has put into the game. Dota 2 and Team Fortress 2 allow you to customize your weapon/character loadouts before you begin playing, but your weapons are no better than anyone else’s and care has been put into keeping all options balanced and easily affordable by even casual players. I consider it a testament to the incredible core design of these games that they can offer endless replayability and very lofty skill ceilings despite having no visible goals for the player to strive towards to mark experience. What is inspiring a Counter-Strike player to improve at the game without an XP meter? How can you tell some Left 4 Dead teammates are better than others without stats to check?
Obviously these questions are slightly rhetorical, and its partially because shooters have always been about skills and not stats anyway. The core of a shooter game is being handed a gun and learning to kill people with said gun, and it soon becomes apparent that certain players have more proficiency as you see them equip sensible loadouts, perform their optimal team role and use their equipment to the best of its utility. But this is no different from games that also include a level-up system like Payday 2. In fact, Payday 2 is openly cut from the same cloth as Left 4 Dead, with the two primary additions being an available stealth element and an expansive experience system where you earn upgradable gameplay perks, higher health meters, and passive upgrades for your proficiency with classes of weapons. And it is this experience system that I dislike the most about Payday 2. My first experience with Payday 2 came after hundreds of hours of Left 4 Dead 2 when a friend showed me how similar they were. I jumped into a match and as I expected, was not as proficient as my teammates were. This is to be expected, but I quickly started realizing that my optimal playstyle was to sit back and let my teammates do everything, because they literally could do most things faster than me. Whereas I had to stare at a loading bar for almost ten seconds to revive a nearby teammate, they could do so from afar by shouting. Whereas I opened safety deposit boxes at a snail’s pace, one of them tore through entire rooms with a portable saw I wasn’t allowed to equip. They were harder, faster, better and stronger than me for reasons that were out of my control.
And why do I consider this a bad thing? After all, they’ve played the game more than I have. Even with those bonuses a new player would almost certainly perform more poorly than veterans do. But I feel that the player’s individual level of competency is watered down by granting them gameplay bonuses dependent on an extracurricular experience system. When a fellow heister converted a SWAT member onto our side I didn’t think “Damn, that’s some skill,” like I did when someone in Left 4 Dead 2 crept up behind a witch and eliminated her with a single shotgun blast to the back of the head. Left 4 Dead 2 is possibly the greatest example of a multiplayer game with a diagetic skill system that is dependent entirely on player ability. As mentioned before, everybody starts a new campaign with a lone pistol, and from there they are granted all the same options and inventory choices as they proceed through the level. So how does the game reward veterans? Through knowledge. The Molotov on the ground is the same for everyone, but the seasoned player knows that she should probably save it for a Tank. She knows when to use pain pills as opposed to health kits. She knows to shove between every swipe of her melee weapon and which weapons work best with laser sights. Her experience is rewarding her by helping her win the game and it didn’t have to rely on RPG elements to do it.
This is the skill advancement system that I repeatedly hope new multiplayer FPSes follow. The last time I tried to branch out from TF2 was into Loadout, an arena-based shooter with a mild experience system that I could mostly ignore. But then they went and recently decided to go balls out crazy on an expansive level-up system with MMO-style weapon drops, health bonuses every level, and level requirements before you can use high-quality items… and I really don’t want to see the trends of the genre embrace that path. I’m asking for a level of game design that ensures default characters are masterable at multiple degrees and that proficiency is adequately rewarded at a stock level without requiring stat bonuses to become more effective. That’s not easy to do, but the benefits of trying will strengthen a game and its community for the entirety of its lifespan.
This article is part of my “On Shooters” series, where I compare multiple games by focusing on a specific game mechanic or developer objective. To read the rest, click here!