By: George Weidman
Game or Platform?
In their review disclaimer, Polygon points out that the game industry often refers to its products as “platforms.” With so many games nowadays being designed as a way to push derivative products out later, it’s no wonder that people are getting a bit confused. In the midst of this confusion is Hawken, a game verily conceived to not stand on its own.
What do you do when you see a game already become a platform this early in its lifespan? Hawken isn’t out of beta yet and won’t be for a very long time, but it’s already become a mothership of planned subsidiary media that crawl from pre-paid DLC packages to TV shows.
With that in mind, don’t consider this article a review. It shouldn’t even be considered a preview. Instead, consider it an open letter of beta feedback with a bit of research and opinion thrown in.
In sum, Hawken is a free game that shouldn’t be a free game. The free-to-play sales model has neutered the potential of a few other promising shooters in the past, but it’s sad to see it happen to a project with as much polish and production values put into it as Hawken. There’s no denying the game’s visual brilliance. No other game I’ve played manages to capture the fantasy of lumbering, bulky mech combat with the same fidelity and animated brilliance as Hawken.
The problem lies with how players access Hawken’s content. The game’s all locked up.
As delivery “platforms,” most free-to-play MMOs rely on a good deal more complexity than an arena shooter like Hawken can offer. Despite an utterly satisfying layer of presentation, the basic combat mechanics behind Hawken can be deconstructed down to Quake levels of simplicity.
Players move and shoot in small arenas and don’t do much of anything else. There’s a basic capture-the-flag variant and a siege mode outside of the usual deathmatches, but the overwhelming majority of Hawken’s competitiveness pitches each players’ map memorization, twitch aiming skills and split-second decisions against one-another. It’s a deathmatch game, and such a competitive and limited genre relies on carefully balanced mechanics.
Hawken’s offense is that it nerfs cheaper players’ performance in comparison to those shelling out for the paid upgrades. The pilotable mechs stand-in as the classes from Team Fortress and Battlefield. But unlike those games, unlocking each class in Hawken costs a pretty penny. As I bombastically exclaim in this week’s video (check out our YouTube channel,) it could take upwards of 60 hours to be able to freely play as someone other than the basic machine gun guy Hawken starts you out as.
As part of the third closed beta event, players get enough free “Meteor credits” (the buyable currency that unlocks in-game content with out-of-game currency,) to unlock four other mech classes and a brief trial run with “The Rocketeer.” “Hawken credits” are the currency you earn in-game, and the rate at which you accumulate them is slower than uphill erosion. It might be safe to assume that once the game goes public in Decemeber, Hawken won’t be throwing out as many freebies as it is during beta. If players get stuck trying to unlock content with only “Hawken credits,” then good luck. That time would be better spent elsewhere.
I’ve seen this problem in so many other free-to-play games: APB Reloaded, Battlefield Play4Free, and CrimeCraft. Their developers deliberatly slowed (a very menu-driven and asbtract) unlocking process in order to tempt buyers into paying to speed it up. But it’s even worse than that: unlocking stuff is required to stay competitive. Players with the higher-tier goodies are mathetmatically superior than those without them. It’s an imbalance that makes a bit of sense in stat-based RPG combat, but throws fairness out the window in twitchy FPS games.
Without unlocking multiple classess, there’s no variety. No new weapons, gadgets or strategies. Just the same basic machine gun guy for 60 hours. Pay the fee to skip the 60 hours, and you’ve got mech upgrades, XP boosts and new varieties of playstyles. You’ve also got no balance whatsoever. Hawken isn’t a good clean fight– it’s cutthroat capitalism. Where’s the fun in that?
I get the point. Unlocking stuff adds a sense of accomplishment. It also adds a thickly-veield tutorial, requiring players to master game mechanics one-at-a-time before being introduced to new ones. Neither point is a good one, and both waste my time. I remember the first few hours of Bad Company 2 being the worst simply because the game decided that my medic wasn’t ready to use the goddamn medkit yet. It also hurts that these unlocks are arranged in a very linear fashion. The unlockables aren’t situational or cosmetic items—they’re simply upgrades in the most literal sense of the word.
During my time with the Hawken beta, I restricted myself from spending any of the free credits that were gifted to us early players. I stuck with the default “assault” class and the trial “rocketeer.” Unfortunately when using the rocketeer, my name was usually on a very different (read: higher) place on the scoreboard. It’s still possible to play effectively as assault, but it’s trickier and the learning curve is steeper. You’ve got a machine gun and two explosives that are rarely useful. Kills rely more on clever movements and defensive hit-and-run tactics. It’s engrossing fun and a bit cerebral until you load up the Rocketeer and perform just as well by mindlessly click-spamming rockets everywhere. That’s when the fun dies.
Note that Hawken found a publisher in Meteor Entertainment (not to be confused with Meteor Games,) and those are the folks who put the “Meteor” in “Meteor Credits.” Khang Le, Hawken’s founder, has bluntly stated that he was inspired by the free-to-play success of League of Legends. A good chunk of the $15 million that Meteor raised during Hawken’s development came from Kongzhong, a Chinese investment group that plans to liscense the game and distribute it in China. They’re attempting to recreating their success with exporting World of Tanks. And of course, that $15 million isn’t solely going into the game. Hawken already has licensed out a feature film, live-action video series, action figure line and a trilogy of sweeping story arcs to carry across future releases.
It’s inspiring to see a small team’s free work end up getting this much of a return, but they forgot about balancing their game at some point in the process. League of Legends worked because its paid products didn’t break the game’s fairness. Quake Live is a fine example of a free-to-play that elegantly put all players on even footing.
There’s a real complete, balanced and varied class-based FPS game somewhere in Hawken. But as it stands right now, it would either take untold hours of repetitive play or an unreasonable monetary investment to unlock that game. I’d rather just pay $30 or something for the whole package and play against people with the same odds.
All things considered, I’d rather have a game than a platform.