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The Curious Case of The Division’s Dark Zone

In this post I examine the curious case of The Division's Dark Zone not firing off properly after release.

Stanislav Costiuc, Blogger

March 16, 2016

4 Min Read

This is a repost from my personal blog.

The Division is an open-world third-person shooter/RPG set in mid-crisis Manhattan, with a focus on co-op and multiplayer. One of the main multiplayer features is the so called Dark Zone. It’s an area of the city where you can find the most powerful NPCs with the best loot, but also the only area where you can kill other players and take their things. And you can’t just leave the Dark Zone and save your progress, you got to call an extraction which will draw attention of NPCs and players alike. In the end, gameplay in the zone is based on trust (or lack of thereof) and shaky alliances. It’s chaotic, intense, you never know what to expect and provides layers upon layers of player interactions… except all that doesn’t work as planned.

In an attempt to create intense gameplay based on, essentially, players’ neverending desire to troll (and get amazing loot doing that, of course!), somehow the opposite happened. Players don’t tend to fight with each other. They team up, fend off NPCs, and help each other out, mostly without thinking to turn on one another. Now, the detailed reasons why this currently happens can be found all over the Internet, but in short: the risk of going Rogue (which is what happens when you turn on another player) and rewards for surviving a manhunt are not worth it. And the penalties of dying if you go Rogue can be just too high. Not to mention that you can get loot just as good, if not better, if you just kill NPCs with other people. So players don’t attack each other, and this goes against the whole meta layer of the Dark Zone that was supposed to be there.

What’s curious to me the most, though, is that after release this is a glaringly obvious problem, but the game had several Beta periods, surely this would’ve been identified? Well… not necessarily, actually. I remember reading all kinds of online feedback of the Dark Zone based on pre-release tests, and there were hints of something like this happening, but ultimately, from what I’ve read at least, the Dark Zone gameplay was achieving its goals: players were teaming up, backstabbing, unsure if they could trust somebody or not but sometimes forced to, etc. This is one of the things that had me interested in the concept of the Dark Zone in the first place, being a fan of games like Mafia (the social kind, though console/PC game with the same name is awesome too) and Battlestar Galactica board game where the concept of trust and mistrust is very important. So what happened?

Well, the biggest difference between now and then is that progress wasn’t saving. Players would go into beta, knowing that everything they do will be wiped out. So they had the most important condition they needed to have for this kind of mode to work most efficiently: they had nothing to lose. Everything you acquire gets removed anyway, so what does it matter if you go Rogue and then don’t survive the manhunt? This probably has skewed the picture and overall perception of the mode’s success. But as soon as permanent penalties got into place, the behavior has changed. It turns out, that with the system currently in place, players don’t want to risk hours of progress for a bonus that’s just not worth it.

I’m sure Massive is fully aware of this and is planning how to improve player engagement with the Dark Zone. But the curious fact is, this problem of balance wasn’t properly identified (I presume, I doubt we’d have this discussion in the first place otherwise) even in an open beta with 6 million players. I think one learning that we can all take away from this is that no test can ever fully prepare you for potential problems in the live environment, or how ultimately players will behave themselves. It’s undoubtedly a very useful and important tool, but it also is likely to have important bits missing from the whole picture, that can kinda bite you in the ass.

So thank you for reading this little piece, I wish you all to take care, and if you’re having any kinds of playtests now, just, you know, take a second look at some of them to make sure as much as possible that they’re showing what you think they’re showing. I’ll see you next time! Cheers!

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