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The 'Titanfall' Participation Trophy

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Thursday, Mar 20, 2014
Is Titanfall catering to me or just acting condescending?

I don’t play competitive first-person shooters very often. I dip into Call of Duty every once in a while, but (as ludicrous as this might sound) it’s more for the story than anything. The sad, brutal facts are that I no longer have the twitch skills nor the time to be very competitive. I have a good time, but bump my head on the skill ceiling quickly.
Metaphorical head injuries be damned: I’ve jumped into Titanfall feet-first. Part of my interest is meta: Respawn is helmed and staffed by people who are directly responsible for the state of modern first-person gaming and Titanfall was hyped as a premier next generation game. I also like knowing what the kids are into these days, even if I’m terrible at it. More specifically, I was interested to see how the game served a player base that includes people who log double digit hours every day and those who squeeze in an hour or two on the weekend. I’ve found Titanfall pleasantly accommodating and feels like a shooter that can be played both casually and seriously, but I can’t help but feel that part of admiration is being bought with participation trophies.

Titanfall provides a lot of flexibility for those that don’t fit the profile of a deathmatch champion. It’s not as strictly class based as something like Team Fortress 2, but there are plenty emergent roles that allow players of various skills and interests to contribute. There are the standard different weapons ranging from sniper rifles to shotguns, but the in-game dynamics mean that farming AI enemies to gain quicker access to Titans can be just as useful as being a dedicated PvP hunter. If you’re more interested in being a Titan killer or focusing on capturing bases, you’re able to contribute to overall winning strategy without having to practice for hours or chase the echoes of your teenage reflexes.

Even when things end up going south, Titanfall gives the fallen something more than an abrupt loss screen. Battle “epilogues” challenge you to survive until a drop ship arrives on the map and offers you a chance to escape to fight another day. It’s a satisfying dynamic that makes losing feel more like temporary setback rather than yet another kick to the gut when you’re already down. Both sides get an exciting dash to the finish, and even the losers get some bonus XP for escaping.

But it is precisely this system of points and rewards that also makes the game feel uncomfortable. Perhaps it’s just a sign of the times, but Titanfall gives you points for pretty much everything. Walk around enough? Points. Walk around in a Titan? Points. Simply picking a gun and starting a match? You’ll eventually get points for that too, even if you just stare at a wall for the entire match. And what does it all get you? You’ll unlock some new weapons, but it’s largely just the satisfying feeling of seeing those bars fill and hearing that satisfying level up noise. After all, why bother allowing players to restart at level one once they max out?

In all fairness, the challenges can be good reminders to try out new weapons or tactics. Even if I’m only interested in chasing these fairly pointless points, the chase itself forces me to explore a wide breadth of content. Still, the fact that many of the challenges are unapologetically focused on rewarding you for simply playing the game makes the whole thing ethically questionable. Would the game mechanics stand on their own if they didn’t live inside this larger Skinner box?  What does being at a high level mean when the means to get there often involve taking the most basic in-game actions rather than perfecting your skills?  Am I so cheap that I can be bought off with a handful of points gained through easy tasks?

Games like Dota 2 or Spelunky inhabit the other end of the spectrum. Improving your skills is your one and only reward, as your progress is only measured by your survival. There is plenty of winning and losing in Titanfall, but everything is made a bit fuzzier by the fact that there is a litany of other short-term goals and rewards to be gained for simply following your own path or chasing down obscure challenges. After more than 10 hours of playtime, I’m not sure whether I like the game itself or whether it simply feels good to achieve some of the peripheral challenges and gain points that cater to my skills.

Time will tell: the rush of taking out several AI grunts at once or unlocking the next XP level could fade, leaving only the core of the game’s shoot-or-be-shot action. If at that point I stay, it will because I have truly found long-term enjoyment in the game’s systems. If I leave, it will be with a handful of trophies I received for showing up.

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