How Not to Update a Game

Illustration for article titled How Not to Update a Game

This summer, Oculus Studios and Sanzaru Games released Marvel: Powers United VR for the Oculus Rift. I wrote a post with my conflicted initial impressions, but after writing the article and spending more time with the game learning some of the characters more, I found that despite its repetitive nature it was a very fun game that kept me engaged for weeks due to its relatively laid back nature. However, over time the game was updated three times, and each subsequent release has found the game transformed for better or worse...but mostly worse.

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Initial Release - Easy, but Fun

To briefly explain how the game works, you are a team of four Marvel heroes protecting a series of relays from waves of enemies. After a few rounds, a shield generator appears which you must balance between protecting and gathering energy cells to power it. Power up the generator and you win. Lose the generator or have all four heroes go down at the same time and you lose the match.

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In the initial release of the game, this was almost impossible: You could lose any number of relays before the shield generator spawns making the rounds leading up to it entirely about making sure everybody survives. This was a relatively easy task as players can either be revived by a teammate or automatically respawn after 10 seconds of being down, so as long as all four players don’t die within 10 seconds of each other it’s not a problem. Bosses spawn in one of the rounds leading up to the generator round and in the generator round itself, but their main attacks did little damage to the objectives and their large ultimate attacks did no damage to the objectives at all.

The reason I didn’t regard this as too big of a problem is it seemed more designed around getting a high score: keep killing enemies and your combo multiplier increases. Stop killing enemies for too long and the combo meter resets. Thus, as you had to stop and collect power cells to power the generator, you had to balance killing enemies with rushing cells to keep your combo going. In other words, the challenge of the game was not beating the match, but winning the competition among your team.

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However, a large number of players found the easy difficulty to be a turn off, and it was announced that the game’s first patch would increase the difficulty.

Patch 1 - So Close, and Yet So Far

Well, increase the difficulty they did! You could now lose the match by losing 3 relays in the rounds leading up to the shield generator. Each boss ultimate attack could now damage the objectives you need to protect, requiring the player to attack the boss to divert their attention and drag them away from the objectives. Finally, each character now has slightly less health.

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The difficulty of the match would also balance based initially on how many stars a player has for each character which you earn by completing challenges with that character, and then balances during the match based on how quickly you take out enemies. Since the game was previously easy, I had no trouble leveling up every character, so each game started off fairly challenging and generally increased over the course of the match.

This all sounds correct on paper and in practice it actually was way more fun than the original incarnation...as long as you had a good team that worked together. Unfortunately, this is where everything begins to fall apart. In my time playing the game, the matchmaking player base seemed comprised of about 50% little kids who just want to smash things as the Hulk, 35% people trying VR for the first time and don’t know the controls (the game is now bundled with new Oculus Rifts), and 15% experienced players. Since I was always a 4 star character and was generally good at the game, this meant in order to win matches, I basically had to carry 85% of players. Boss ult attacks did serious damage to the generators and relays and unless your whole team know to keep them away from the objective, you were in for a rough time. Some maps made doing this a chore even with an experienced team. Still, in the end, I’d say I won about 60-70% of matches, but it felt less like fun and more like trying to run a marathon with weights attacked to your legs.

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This patch also changed how entering matchmaking works which seemed to decrease the player base as it gave users the impression they were searching for games when they weren’t which further degraded the experience.

All in all, the game went from a nice laid back experience to constant stress. I respected the increased difficulty and with the right team, it did make the game feel 10 times more rewarding, but the right team came along so rarely that I found the game more frustrating than fun. Patch 2 was said to rework the difficulty again.

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Patch 2 - Heart Breaker

Patch 2 actually ended up overhauling the entire match setup. Previously, there were 4 or 5 rounds of relay protecting prior to the shield generator phase. Now, however, the game simply required you to protect 2 to 4 relays total before triggering the shield generator phase. This meant you could easily trigger the final phase of the match as early as round 3. Given that match times were previously 12-15 minutes, the shortened game length was appreciated.

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However, that was about all that was appreciated.

In an attempt to mix things up, two new enemy types were added. New flying drone enemies would sit above the objectives for a few seconds before ramming into it requiring you to work fast. New turrets would constantly shoot at you or the objective if either were in range. While a new enemy type should break up the monotony, these new enemies had far too much health which basically requires the player immediately focus their attention on it and use their most damaging attack on them. Since these enemies frequently appeared and often times a character’s most damaging attack requires charging it, this means I find myself just using that attack over and over rather than constantly switching to whatever I feel like.

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However, the real major addition and pain of this patch was a new jammer event. In this scenario, jammers appear around the map which prevent players from using their own ultimates and prevents teammates from being revived when down. Given how important having everybody alive and ultimates are for taking down bosses, taking these out asap is essential.

The problems here are numerous: first, the bosses still weren’t balanced to do that much less damage than in the previous patch so you still have to lure them away. Second, your UI doesn’t tell you where the jammers are which makes logical sense but due to the way some maps are designed makes finding them take way too long. Third, bosses now shoot more projectiles than ever making dying easier than ever, and as more players die, less players can protect the generator by luring bosses.

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Under this patch, every single match I played went exactly the same way: the first few rounds would be decently challenging due to the 4 star difficulty balancing mentioned earlier, but not too difficult. The game would recognize we were doing well and increased the difficulty for the generator phase resulting in multiple bosses appearing at the same time as a set of jammers. The bosses destroy the generator within 1 minute while everybody either goes down or gets lost trying to find jammers. Game over. Over the course of 2 patches, my success rate went from 100% to 70-ish% to a whopping 0%. Again, I had played this game for 55 hours by this point. I should be able to win at least one match. I legitimately don’t know how anybody was supposed to beat this outside of assembling a team of hyper experienced friends.

This patch did, however, add beginner mode where losing relays could not cause you to fail the mission much like the original game, and enemies seemed to do reduced damage to objectives. This was at least possible to win fairly easily, but the simple fact is the new additions to the game just weren’t fun. You still had to spend minutes running around a map looking for jammers tucked away from the action and still had to just keep spamming your best attack. Also, beginner mode requires the room host to activate it, and given matchmaking randomly assigns a host and the game defaults to it being off, it was generally never played.

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As a whole, this patch all but killed the game for me as matchmaking was effectively unwinnable. I don’t need to always win in order to have fun, but I need to feel like I’m not just banging my head against a wall. Given each match was nothing but overwhelming success for 2 rounds followed by immediate overwhelming failure, I didn’t feel like I was learning any lessons about how to win, and worse yet I didn’t feel like it was worth learning those lessons.

Patch 3 - Is it too late to get my Money back?

Patch 3 introduces a new objective type. Rather than just having a bunch of relays until the generator round, now there’s a chance you’ll have multiple cannons appear which you must quickly place two power cells each into before time runs out. This was a much better addition than the jammers round, but at least when I played no enemies spawned during this round which made it seem a bit strange (although this may be because I was in beginner mode: more on that in a bit). There were also supposedly more balance adjustments.

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After the disaster of a last patch, I didn’t even bother hopping into matchmaking immediately and instead went into solo beginner mode. Everything went about as fine as the last patch’s beginner mode for the first few rounds: the suicide drones were still annoying, the turrets were still annoying, but everything was certainly easy enough. Having to power up cannons to destroy frigates above the battlefield was neat although clearly an afterthought given one of the cannons was placed inside a building.

Then we got to the shield generator phase. Just like the last patch, two bosses appeared halfway through the round although jammers did not. In the first 20 seconds of trying to lure one boss away, suddenly, I got a message.

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SHIELD GENERATOR DESTROYED.

In 20 seconds.

ON BEGINNER MODE.

I didn’t even have time to see what caused it to blow up because it had 75% health 20 seconds earlier and I was too busy trying to lure another boss away. 55 hours in the game, every character maxed out, and I can no longer even beat beginner mode by myself. Other players reported multiple matches in which the game stops spawning power cells during the generator round making the game unwinnable. The game has completely fallen apart.

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The game is now just 50GB of frustration sitting on my SSD, and honestly, I’m thinking about asking for a refund. I usually don’t encourage doing things like that after so much time has passed and in the end probably won’t go through with it (not that it would be successful anyways), but I’ve also never had a game get so mangled so badly after launch. It’s effectively not the game I originally bought and played that much - I’d surely have returned it immediately in its current incarnation. I also don’t want to stick it out for the next patch only to see how much more badly they’ll screw it up.

In the end, the whole experience has served as a horrible reminder that with patches, updates, and games as a service, the games we buy aren’t necessarily the games we’re going to get to keep. Even single player games or modes will inevitably be changed over time, for better or worse.

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Oh, and the fucking game still doesn’t have Iron Man.

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