After talking about the gameplay customization systems in three games I quite enjoy, I suppose it is time to talk about my thoughts on the subject in general.
Firstly, it struck me that all of them feature a system which requires you to unlock new weapons/cards/parts/whatever. I personally don’t think it is entirely because of microtransactions, although I am pretty sure that contributes to it. Why I say that is because of this:
Even in Alien Swarm and its fan-made expansion Alien Swarm: Reactive Drop features such a mechanic, and those games are completely free with no microtransactions at all. But then, they are primarily PvE games, just like Orcs Must Die and its sequel, which also features a similar customization system. And frankly speaking, for PvP games, the only ones I’m familiar with that feature a customizable loadout system are the three mentioned in the previous articles.
Aside from that, the only other PvP multiplayer game featuring a loadout system that I played before was Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. I remembered gunning for the shotgun and claymore whenever I played it with my friends, since my aim was abysmal. Me and iron sights, we don’t get along. I forgot she exists and she’s rather mum about her own existence. Even in CoD:MW2, you need to be of a certain level before you can unlock some of the weapons.
My guess is, giving players a sense that they are getting better in more tangible ways (like having more unlocks) give players more satisfaction, as well as a way for them to gauge how far they’ve come. Aside from that, it’s always more fulfilling to earn what you have rather than having it handed to you.
But then, here’s the next part of the question: how much is too much?
Paladins was embroiled in the Essence controversy when that system was first launched, because the way the Essence system was implemented means that players either have to grind like crazy or cough up cash to get what they need. But suppose we have a PvP game here, with zero microtransactions and a loadout system where we need to unlock new items to build new loadouts, is there a way to properly tell how much grinding is too much? Or how often should random drops arrive?
However, the fact that games have microtransactions that allows you to bypass grinding means that the business side of the game must be taken into consideration when talking about gameplay. How much do we need to let the players grind, and how much grind should paying a certain amount of cash allow them to bypass? If you make the grind too hard, the playerbase will feel like they’re getting milked for cash and leave in droves. If you make the grind too easy, there will be no point in having the microtransaction system, and you might as well change the “Store” button into a “Donate” button, hoping enough players are willing to give cash. Game devs need money to feed themselves, after all, but players also have the right to not get nickle-and-dime’d every five seconds.
Of course, there is also the option of limiting microtransactions to skins only, thereby removing any possible impression of the game being pay to win. However, there will be some people who will request for means to get around grinding with cash, and that is where the initial question of “is there a way to properly tell how much grinding is too much” I asked two paragraphs ago comes back to haunt us. Is it necessary to consider the requests of those who want to pay for unlocks? Does the game provide enough means for most players to get what they want at a comfortable pace?
I suppose we can just give out all the unlocks at once and only limit grind to cosmetics. The problem with that is that giving new players all the possible choices at once might overwhelm them, and forcing them to work with what they have and get new unlocks a few at a time might actually make for a better gameplay experience. Since they only have a few things to focus on at a time, they can better appreciate the unlocks they have. There is a value, after all, to the unlocking system, as it provides a sort of structure for new players to slowly get used to the mechanics in the game. It just boils down to one simple question: how much is too much?
And next up, it’s about the unlocks themselves. For a loadout system to have any form of meaningful customization options, the unlocks will have to be sidegrades and not direct upgrades. Otherwise, everyone will just go straight for the guns with the best stats. and the customization option is just there for show. There will be no “design a loadout to go with your playstyle” aspect to go with the customization options, just “get the best gun you unlocked”.
And it is inevitable that an unlock will have really good synergy with some other unlocks. In fact, most of the time such synergy was designed to be part of said unlock from the get go. This muddies the issue of whether an item can be considered a sidegrade or an upgrade. For example, the Bushwacka on its own is somewhat mediocre. But if you pair it with the Jarate it actually becomes a somewhat decent weapon. Balancing is always hell to do, but the presence of unlocks make it even harder, since there may be ridiculously powerful combos that even the devs can’t foresee. And even slightly buffing or nerfing a single item may have unexpectedly large consequences because of this.
Still, the presence of a customizable loadout, especially if it is a good one with a decent amount of depth, is to be celebrated. As mentioned above, it is a rather large can of worms to open up, since extra consideration is now needed for balancing the amount of grind required and balancing the unlocks themselves. For games with microtransactions, this means that their business model is now under extra scrutiny, and any slight increase in grinding may be perceived as the devs trying to milk the players bone-dry.
Adding a good customizable loadout for players means that the game now has a lot more avenues for exploration and experimentation. It gives the players more things to think about, fiddle with, and mess around with. Most importantly, it gives players something they can call their own. My Pyro is a dedicated Pybro. His Pyro is a combo maniac. Her Pyro specializes in ambushing. Your Pyro has a loadout specifically for environments with a lot of water. That person’s Pyro loadout is centered around the Phlogistinator and we all hate him. What I am driving at is this: letting players customize their own loadouts give them a greater sense of agency, and every kill feels more satisfying since to them, the loadout they designed gives them that kill. Not to mention, it also makes thing personal for them. Their loadout is what they came up with, or what they found from some searches. And that loadout fits them. And in that sense, that loadout is theirs.
Not to mention, getting a new unlock is a bit like opening a very small Christmas present. Multiple times in a year.