When it comes to competitive multiplayer shooters, the concept of game balance is incredibly important. This past generation, however, games with tightly tuned competitive balance became a bit of a rarity. It all began with Call of Duty 4, which popularized the leveling and loadout system that most shooters now use. This “carrot on a stick” unlock system is certainly great at incentivizing players to stick with the game long term, but it can also undermine the moment to moment competitive balance. Some games manage to blend progression and balance well, while others give players that spend more time playing a distinct advantage.
One of the most frustrating situations in any competitive game is feeling like you have no chance to win, not because the other player is better, but because they have simply played more of the game than you. It’s this reason that I am a bit worried about how the competitive multiplayer will be handled in Bungie’s upcoming Destiny. Bungie is of course known best for the Halo series, which is one of the prime examples of competitive balance done tremendously well. The Bungie developed Halo games feature competitive balance in its purest form, with no player ever starting a match with an advantage but instead having the opportunity to earn it through skillful play, knowledge of the maps, and smart tactics and teamwork.
Despite this great track record of fun and well balanced competitive multiplayer, I still find myself worried about the competitive play in Destiny. The reason for this concern is primarily due to the way the game is implementing RPG mechanics, specifically loot. Based on the information Bungie has revealed thus far, the game looks to be on almost Borderlands levels of loot, which obviously makes competitive balance a big challenge. It’s one thing for a game like Halo, with a handful of carefully designed and tuned weapons, to be balanced for competitive play, but it’s something else entirely when you get loot involved.
Rather than everyone starting a match with the same weapons and having more powerful ones placed at very specific points on the map like Halo, every player in Destiny will be entering competitive play with the weapons they’ve found in the world during their solo or cooperative adventures. This obviously presents some major problems in terms of competitive balance, the most obvious being that players won’t be starting a match on even footing. A player that has played the game for hundreds of hours will more than likely have had an opportunity to find more rare and powerful weapons than someone that has just started. Even if the matchmaking system prioritizes matching players of similar level together, there is every possibility that some players have just found better gear than others, even with a similar time investment.
Of course, given Bungie’s history of emphasizing balance, even when the other popular shooters of the time were going in the other direction, there is every possibility they have some clever solutions to these inherent balance issues. They haven’t had their big competitive multiplayer information blowout yet, though we can certainly expect it before the beta launches this summer. What little info they have shared about competitive multiplayer has given some insight into their thought process regarding balance. They have confirmed that you’ll be able to take all your earned gear into competitive play, but it won’t be as powerful as it is in the PvE content. For one, they have said that players will start matches with no ammo for their heavy weapon, which must be earned through play. It also seems likely that damage values will be tweaked for competitive play, though that also has the potential to go in the other direction and trivialize high tier weapons.
If I’m being honest, why I’m worried about this at all is because I’m just incredibly excited for Destiny. Halo 2 and Halo 3 and among my favorite multiplayer games of all time, and one of the main reasons for that is the focus those games put on skillful play and smart tactics rather than a progression system that rewards commitment. With the post-Bungie Halo 4 basically tossing that perfect balance out the window in favor of killstreaks, perks, and custom loadouts, I sort of view Destiny as the best hope for an upcoming multiplayer shooter that emphasizes skill over time investment. The RPG elements certainly present a potential roadblock to real competitive balance, but if anyone can pull it off, it’s Bungie.