The Illusion of Progress

After the first night of playing Heroes of the Storm, I texted a close friend and told him that the game is dangerous. He understood immediately, as he responded that it’s a game designed to ruin your life. It is designed to keep you coming back, day after day, hitting all those sweet reward centers of your brain, constantly showing you progress, if not on a character, then on your overall level. There are musical cues, dialogue from NPCS, and visual cues that all tell you you’re doing a great job, keep it up, and you’ll get more rewards, more stimulus. Heroes isn’t the first game to do it, but Blizzard has done an excellent job at implementing what has been a continuing trend in gaming.

Almost all games now have RPG elements somewhere in there design, simply because it is a simple way to incentivize players to keep coming back, to keep unlocking new abilities, new skins, new weapons, new something. Dying Light, Shadow of Mordor, Far Cry 4, Call of Duty multiplayer, none RPGs, yet all of them have leveling systems. It’s gotten to the point where I can clearly see the carrot, know that it’s been put there only to get me to come back, and yet I still continue. It’s not as insidious in paid games, but in free to play games likes Heroes (with Marvel Puzzle Quest being the other freemium game that has lured me in) it can be downright destructive, because you’re basically paying to play the game by playing the game. It’s almost like a system of labor built into playing the game. It’s bizarre cognitive dissonance, when I’m really enjoying playing the game, and at the same time are completely aware of the systems in place. “I need to keep playing so that I can play it more!”

How do you react to games like this? I try and temper my enthusiasm for a game by limiting my time with it, knowing that I shouldn’t put too much time towards it, but it’s hard for me to resist that siren’s call completely. I find myself constantly asking myself if I’m really enjoying my time with the game, or if the game’s just tricking me. The strangest is when it’s hard to tell the difference. “Am I having fun?” shouldn’t be a hard question to answer, but at times I’m not sure. I find it interesting because it really delves down into what is fun about playing videogames. Is it that sense of progression, of growth and experience that usually isn’t easy to come by in real life but comes so quickly in a game? If a game is rewarding you with that, is that enough?

Retreat Isn’t Sexy: Starting Out in Heroes of the Storm

I am 6 days in on playing Heroes of the Storm, Blizzard’s first foray into the MOBA, the genre dominated by League of Legend and DOTA2, which spawned from a Blizzard game in the first place, Warcraft 3. It’s 5×5 team combat, with each player controlling a hero, leveling it up throughout the match, eventually trying to topple the opponent’s base, with the use of special abilities, strategy, and teamwork. I was always interested in MOBAs, finding the depth of strategy and mixing of characters really interesting, but getting into DOTA2 or League seemed very intimidating. Heroes, however, has me hooked.

After the tutorial, I started playing as Tychus, even though he’s rated a “hard” character. After dabbling with a few different melee characters among the launch week’s free characters, I feel much more comfortable as a ranged character. I’ve ranked him up to 8 at the moment, and bought him today after the free characters rotated. I’ve already ranked up Sylvana to 5, and I really enjoy playing with her as well. However, I’m having trouble keeping her alive, which is what I really want to talk about, what I kind of think is the essence of the game, namely, when to run away.

As a gamer, I’ve been trained not to run away, even going back to Mario. You keep going right, because there is no left, no retreat available. That through line has continued through most of video games. You either win, or you die, and start over. You don’t go back, you don’t run away. Running away doesn’t make any sense in most games. Retreat is seldom treated as a tactical option, and even when it is, it’s seldom worth it. Retreat isn’t sexy, isn’t fun, and so it’s not included in most game design. You die, and reload, or respawn. You don’t regret not retreating. You regret dying. However, death is an inevitability in Heroes, and playing with retreat in mind as changed my perspective on other games as well.

With the announcement of Fallout 4, I’ve been revisiting Fallout:New Vegas, a game I played, beat, and sold when it came out, enjoying it far less than Fallout 3. Revisiting it, I’m enjoying it more. With Heroes fresh in my mind however, it’s made me notice how it seldom let’s you escape combat. There are several areas close to where you start that are extremely dangerous for a low level character, and if spotted by one of the monsters there, you’re probably going to die. You’re too slow to run away. Your problem is that you got into combat in the first place. The shift in dynamics between the two has made me wish for a more viable option to retreat, to gather forces, to come back.

As a strategy, it’s also evident in RTSs to an extent, although you’re not nearly as focused on one character as you are in Heroes. It also explains why I was never very good at RTSs. However, I’m finding my footing in Heroes, leveling up and playing different characters. I’ve done well so far, and am really enjoying playing with my friends. I’ll end with what ends many encounters…RUN AWAY!