Last week, I wrote about how Black Ops 2 is set to bring some major changes to the Call of Duty franchise and, in turn, to shooters in general. The game could potentially going be the biggest selling video game of all time (Amazon's early pre-order numbers are certainly impressive), and the franchise as a whole pulls a remarkable amount of weight in the game industry. I mean, just look at the way the original Modern Warfare shaped the landscape of the modern first-person shooter.
But there's another game that's potentially changing the landscape of shooters, though, and that's what I want to talk about this week. That game, of course, is Starhawk, and the "changing the landscape" bit is actually literal. You see, Starhawk lets you call down various structures—bunkers, sniper towers, walls, garages, etc.—mid-battle. While the terrain doesn't change, the manmade elements thereon will vary from match to match based on the players' overall strategy. Or lack thereof. (Read more about the specifics of the game in my Starhawk review.)
Last year, I expressed my hopes to see more games offer their own unique takes on some of Minecraft's creative features. Building a battlefield in a shooter game, for example—digging foxholes to take cover in and raising cliffs for snipers to camp out on. LucasArts' Fracture actually played with the idea of deformable terrain a while back, and that's sort of the genesis of I was talking about. Only I'd like to see it show up in some triple-A console games. Starhawk brings us one step closer to that.
But can Starhawk maintain a large enough player base to truly shape the way modern gamers think about shooters? I'm not sure. I mean, the creators are very committed to the idea of keeping the player base unsegregated, which is pretty incredible. You see, one of the problems with shooters in this day and age is that whenever a new DLC map pack comes out, the player base is divided between those who have the map pack and those who don't. Obviously, if you want to play on one of the new maps, you can't play with someone who hasn't purchased the pack yet, meaning the pool of players who you can compete against shrinks. This problem is compounded when multiple map packs are released, creating several different subsections of the game's users.
With a game as big as Call of Duty, this isn't much of a problem, as no matter which maps you buy, you'll have millions of people who have the exact same pool of maps to play with. But in games that don't have the words "Call of Duty" stamped on their cases, this segregation can be a serious problem that completely destroys the online community. And when a multiplayer game's online community dies, the game dies with it.
Developers (and marketing people) have come up with some interesting solutions to this dilemma in recent times. For example, Gears of War 3 allows players to duke it out on DLC maps as long as the host has purchased the map pack. The people who didn't purchase the pack would still be able to play on them; they just weren't allowed to host games using those maps. This means that people who bought the maps could still play with those who didn't closing the gap between those groups of players.
Also, by selling a Season Pass, Gears of War 3 allowed people to have access to all the map packs as soon as they came out. This ensured that more players would have access to these maps on day one, keeping the pool of available players to compete with larger. Uncharted did the same thing with its Fortune Hunters' Club, and Call of Duty has begun doing this with their ELITE Premium service.
But Starhawk is taking a different approach. Instead of trying to ensure that the largest possible portion of their player base picks up any particular map pack, they are giving out all their map pack content for free. That's right, whenever a new map pack drops, the entire player base has access to it for free right away. This means that everyone who plays Starhawk will always have the same maps as everyone else, keeping the player base from being segregated at all. And the team at LightBox Interactive is already hard at work on the first of these content drops, dubbed Cypress and featuring an abandoned Rift research facility.
This is a brilliant plan. However, I have a hard time being optimistic about other developers adopting this sort of model. There's just too much money to be made off map pack DLC. But I can dream, right? I mean, it's nice to imagine a future where shooters will support their communities long-term with free content drops. I just don't see that actually happening any time soon.
My prediction: As great as Starhawk's Build and Battle features are, perhaps the most exciting innovation—at least in terms of how it could shape the future of the industry—is the decision to give players map packs for free. It's a nice gesture, for sure, but I'm not sure Starhawk has the pull it needs to in order to change any minds in the industry.
Here's hoping for a new future for the game industry anyhow, one in which our favorite games' online communities will be kept alive long-term by developers that care enough about these communities to continue supporting them—even if that means giving out some free goodies once in a while.
Editor / News Director
Date: May 10, 2012
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*