Hi there. Today I’m going to talk a little bit about the idea of an ‘head start’ in games.
I’m going to start this article by telling a little story.
Recently I was having a discussion about Star Citizen, in Discord, and a few complaints were made about the way CIG are funding its development. Complaints about how it’s unfair that some people will be able to start with larger, better ships; complaints that there would be a ‘head start’.
During the discussion, more of an argument, really, I mentioned the ‘joy’ of starting a new MMO, where everyone in the world is playing as a level 1; zones are crowded, people steal kills, the works. Of note, the ‘joy’ is meant sarcastically. It’s not very fun, at least I personally have never enjoyed it.
But then I gave it some more thought, and I realized there are bigger issues at work here.
And I’m not even talking about microtransactions in general, which are a whole ‘nother ball game (though they too can be seen as making a game ‘unbalanced’).
Instead, I’m going to talk about anything that can give a perceived ‘head start’ in games.
Lots of the time, especially in MMO’s, this comes in the form of some sort of pre-order bonus. A ring that gives an extra 5% experience earned. A mount to start, rather than having to wait for level twenty.
Pre-order Overwatch, from Blizzard, and get early access to a special character in Blizzard’s ‘Heroes of the Storm’.
In other cases, games such as Battlefield or Call of Duty, for example, a pre-order will often net you an experience boost, access to a high-level weapon early, unique maps, or all of the above.
Personally, I’m not much a fan of this kind of pre-order. The perceived value of the pre-order is good at first, but in effect you’re pre-ordering nothing more than the time you will spend on the game anyway. I much prefer what Rise of the Tomb Raider did recently (a pre-order got you a copy of the first Tomb Raider game), or what Quantum Break just announced it’s doing (which is downright impressive).
For a game like Star Citizen, in Alpha as it is, any purchase can be considered a pre-order. On the one hand, you can pre-order just the ‘base game’, buying a simple Aurora or Mustang, giving no perceived advantage. On the other hand, you can pre-order any number of other, more expensive ships, all of which will give you some form of ‘head start’ in the ‘Verse.
Now, you might notice that to this point, I’m talking a fair bit about pre-orders. A lot of folks love them, a lot of folks hate them, I’m not here to judge on that. Not now anyway. But we’re talking about a ‘head start’ in games, so that’s where I’m starting with. Pre-orders that give bonuses, be they extra XP, better ships, stronger guns, more characters, etc… those all seemingly throw off the idea of an ‘even start’.
This effect doesn’t only happen with pre-orders. Many games will sell advancement packs, XP bonuses, special weapons, etc…, but for the purpose of this article, those are all microtransactions, and don’t really count in the ‘head start’ category. We don’t really care, for now, about Battlefield selling unlock packs for gear, or Blizzard selling in-game characters, or Star Citizen eventually selling in-game currency (of note: Star Citizen will not sell ‘better’ ships once the game is live; they are available in pre-order and in-game only).
Now, let’s characterize ‘types’ of games. I’m going to say that there are three types of games, when it comes to head starts: Impossible games, Uneven games, and Irrelevant games.
Just as we don’t care about games with microtransactions, we also don’t really care, for the purposes of this article, about games that have no possibility of a ‘head start’. Tomb Raider, and other single-player games, even if they offer gold or experience purchases, don’t count as getting a ‘head start’. And in games like League of Legends, Rocket League, or Overwatch, where all purchases are simply for cosmetic items, the items provide no ‘head start’, and therefore don’t matter. They are our first category of game. Games where an uneven start is impossible. They are the impossible games.
Next, let’s talk about the ‘uneven’ games. These games are, by nature, Player vs. Player oriented. Shooters, like the Battlefield or Call of Duty series’; MOBA’s like Heroes of the Storm, where characters are given early to pre-orders. In games like Battlefield and Call of Duty, the ‘head start’ often comes in the form of late-game weapons accessible early on. Those guns being better in most ways than the early weapon, it gives players with them a genuine advantage; a more powerful arsenal than everyone else starting the game. It’s not that they’ve played the game more and are better, or that they’ve played the game longer and have more skills, equipment, and experience. It’s that, day one, they start with better weapons than everyone else starting anew. A head start.
Now, you might ask why I don’t include things like ships in Star Citizen, or mounts etc… in other MMO’s here. And that’s because they are in the third category; the Irrelevant games.
Now, I don’t mean that they, as games, are irrelevant, because they’re not. They’re pretty awesome. What I mean, and what I believe makes the difference between a game’s ‘head start’ mattering and not, is that in lots of games, it simply doesn’t matter if there’s a head start. MMO’s like World of Warcraft, Star Citizen, etc… they are mostly Player vs. Environment, at least until higher levels. And if the game is PvE, then it doesn’t really matter where you start, as long as everyone can get to the same place in the end.
Now, some people may say that being able to move faster from quest to quest with an early mount in an MMO is an uneven start. And they have a point. It does give an advantage; having that better mount early on, or getting that extra amount of experience, does mean you can level yourself faster; get to the end-game that little bit quicker. But that journey, that grind, it’s against the game, not other players, and I think it’d be a tough sell to argue that a head-start against the game itself is unfair.
So really, when it comes down to it, the long and short of the whole concept of a ‘head start’ in games, to me at least, depends entirely on whether the game is PvP-only or not. If it’s not only PvP, or not mainly PvP at any rate, then a pre-order bonus, be it XP, items, or even ships, doesn’t count as a head start.
Articles like this require conclusions, most of the time anyway, and while I’ve looked at what might constitute a ‘head start’, and the different kinds of head starts in games, I haven’t really talked at all about whether it’s a good or bad thing. Because really, that depends on where you sit. Personally, even in ‘uneven’ games, the ones that are straight PVP and the ‘head start’ gives a genuine advantage, I see someone else getting a ‘head start’ more as a challenge to myself than a detriment to the game. Someone in Battlefield has a better weapon than me? I’d better kill them, and take their weapon from them.
But the other side makes sense too. Lots of people want games to be even; want everyone to have the same advantages, the same chances.
What do you think?
So, that’s all nice and neat and tidy, and it would be an excellent place to end this article, save for one last issue.
Slowly but surely, the environment around pre-orders is changing, and will inevitably change the state of a ‘head start’ as well.
As fans around the world boycott the entire idea of a pre-order, and as Developers (or really publisher’s Marketing arms), set up horribly received pre-order schemes that get panned, boycotted, and then cancelled, a-la Deus Ex ‘Augment’ pre-order scheme, gamers’ sensibilities are changing and evolving. And it seems, at least initially, as if these changing sensibilities may hopefully, someday, do away with the very idea of a ‘head start’ in games, period.
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