Posted in Video Games

Journal of the Plague Year: Surviving Tom Clancy’s The Division

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It started well, if nothing else. At launch in March, Tom Clancy’s The Division was a sales prodigy, generating more than $330 million worldwide in its first five days – a record for a new gaming IP. But while the game sold like hotcakes, it wasn’t long before things went the way of the soufflé. By June, thanks in part to failings both unintended (glitches, bugs) and intended (an ungenerous endgame, a Dark Zone friendly to griefers), The Division’s playerbase on Steam had declined by more than ninety per cent. A game set in the aftermath of a smallpox pandemic was itself being tested for vital signs.

For my part, the downward spiral was especially depressing because, for the first month or two after release, I loved The Division. A little too much, if anything. The game hooked me like a talon, refusing to relax its grip. The graphics, the loot, yes, even the infamous Dark Zone – I was bonkers for all of it. I counted the day lost that was not spent in the streets of post-apocalyptic Manhattan, an alternative reality where numbers came out of people’s heads and time’s passing went unnoticed. Remarkably for such a social phobic, my favourite activity in the game was matchmaking with random players to complete the story missions. Playing solo was enjoyable too, but there was nothing quite like the esprit de corps of teamwork, of flanking enemies tactically or rushing in like a white knight to pull off clutch revives. Even impossible-seeming missions where the whole squad wiped multiple times (hello Hudson Refugee Camp) weren’t frustrating, but fun.

Most lapsed Division players can pinpoint the date when, for them, the fun stopped. For me it was with the release of patch 1.1 in April. Never mind the much-hated nerf to the crafting system, my main gripe was the arrival of ‘gear score,’ a crude power rating that could be viewed by all other players. Suddenly matchmaking wasn’t so simple: now you could get kicked from groups for the crime of having too low a score (below 190 or some other arbitrary sum). The result for me: a status anxiety I assumed I left behind when I logged on. The result for the game: a generalised prejudice against newer, lower-geared players.

Two more patches followed, but neither helped. Among The Division’s long-suffering community, one opinion is aired so often it’s become a truism: the game is best from levels 1-30. Ask someone mired in the unforgiving endgame about their 1-30 experience and watch them go into ecstasies of nostalgia as if recalling a golden age: when loot was plentiful, progress was meaningful and enemies could be killed without first spraying them with every bullet in your backpack. All this changes – how it changes! – once you hit level 30. Up goes the difficulty of the missions, down goes the quantity of build-improving loot: it’s almost as if developers Massive forgot what made the base game so great and determined to wipe the experience clean of every trace of fun. Like A Christmas Carol told in reverse, the game starts out generous and ends up as a miser, universally resented. The Division: the loot shooter that isn’t.

By the endgame, the stinginess really is bottomless. While it was at least possible, if laborious, to gear up as a solo player in patch 1.0 – using Phoenix Credits, high-end blueprints and crafting materials – it wasn’t from 1.1 onwards. To get the best gear, you needed to beat the hardest content. And to beat the hardest content, you needed the best gear. To square this impossible circle, we were encouraged – nay compelled – to group up with other, stronger players. But here’s the kicker: if your gear score wasn’t high enough, there was a good chance those stronger players wouldn’t let you in their group in the first place.

It was never clear, at least to this gamer, what The Division’s endgame has against the casuals (‘filthy casuals,’ if you will). The developers’ unsparing sternness seems to fly in the face of established videogame psychology, to reject that well-worn feedback loop where players are rewarded for successes – small and large – and thereby compelled to play on. I say this to Massive: we are happy to grind for our rewards. All we ask is a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work. Ploughing through a metric ton of bullet-sponge enemies on the vanishingly slim chance that RNGesus might favour us with a useable drop – if The Division was a job, it would violate every employment law on the statute book. Is it any wonder that most of the playerbase, their patience spent, have gone on long-term strike?

But a change is coming. The tide is on the turn. Massive, the architects of so much torment for so many, have decided to listen. Or perhaps their Ubisoft overlords, in despair at the game’s haemorrhaging playerbase, went and bashed a few heads together. Either way, in September Massive hosted an ‘Elite Task Force’ in Malmö, Sweden, composed of prominent YouTubers, Twitch streamers and other names to reckon with in the community. The brief of the invitees: to diagnose the game’s failings and workshop the solutions (no pressure, then). Shortly after, Massive let it be known that a Public Test Server – or ‘PTS’ – would be released on PC, allowing us to playtest the new 1.4 patch before release. For beleaguered players like me, this was the first cold proof that they might actually be serious about putting The Division the right way up.

The PTS went live on September 26th, stained with the tears of Massive’s contrition, but I didn’t play it straight away. Five months had passed since I weaned myself from The Division’s teat, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to start suckling again just yet. After all, could a game this fucked ever be fixed? But curiosity eventually getting the better of my cynicism, I started playing. And I have to admit, I loved it. My sneer didn’t make it past the loading screen. Immediately it was clear that loot drops and difficulty levels had been rewired out of recognition. A new ‘world tier’ system let the player select a universal enemy level appropriate to their gear score, and conferred a palpable sense of endgame progress. But here was the best thing. To the general stupefaction of the playerbase, loot actually dropped. My eyebrows shot up and stayed there when I saw a teal gearset item – once so vanishingly rare – drop from a random mob. Lord god! This was unprecedentedly amazing.

More good news: the game was accessible to the casual player again. Challenge mode, once best tackled with a full squad and a stiff drink, was solo-able if you had decent gear. Some dissenting voices said that Massive had made the game too easy, had turned the loot taps on too full. Opinion divides sharply on this issue. Obviously the game has to get easier: this is a patch aimed at the lapsed, not the faithful. But if enemies are too squishy and loot too liberal, the playerbase will soon be all geared up with nowhere to go. There was a squeal from the community when the difficulty pendulum swung back the other way, but I think we’ve finally landed in the sweet spot.

Apparently, 1.4 will go live in October (most likely the 25th). For hardcore agents who’ve hung onto the game like grim death, as well as lapsed casuals (raises hand) who gave up a month after release, these are exciting times: a Year Zero for the game we love, or at any rate want to love. Of course, there’s a chance it’s all too little, too late – especially with Battlefield 1 and Titanfall 2 and Civilization 6 and even Watch Dogs 2 all competing for our thumbs. But I’m inclined to be optimistic. The Division may be in a downed state right now, but I think Massive have got the skill power to perform a revive.

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