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Engaging Players in Hunt: Showdown

Thoughts on how system design can negatively impact player experience.

Introduction

Alright, so let me start off with what this isn't about. This article is not going to explore the core gameplay of Hunt: Showdown. The gameplay is the main draw of the game and definitely has seen the most polish. Instead, we're going to be talking mostly about what's going on before and after players enter a match.

For those who aren't familiar, Hunt: Showdown is Crytek’s competitive first-person bounty hunting game that pits up to twelve players against each other, and their killer environment, in teams of one, two, and/or three. It strives to stuff the thrill and tension of a survival game into a match-based format. This is a game about watching, waiting, and listening above all else, because dying means to lose everything you brought into a match, including the hunter you play as. While most would probably describe this game as a hardcore shooter, Crytek doesn't mention the word shooter once in the game's description. There are many, many ways to play here, but everything about this game screams feast or famine.


Player Motivations

Before we take a look at anything, we need to talk about one thing: what motivates players. Pleasure seeking is typically the primary motivator for most individuals playing a game. We’re all just trying to appease the monkey inside our brain pulling all the levers, right? Let's assume that all individuals have preferences for certain desires, and we don’t just want one but several kinds. Games that simultaneously fulfill all of these desires are going to attract players with similar tastes for varying reasons and to different degrees. Here's what those motivations might look like in Hunt:

  • Players enjoy anticipating and planning for both surprises and new challenges.

  • Players enjoy developing and exercising their skill and intelligence, as well as expressing themselves with their own unique play style. 

  • Players enjoy achievements, milestones, and any other metrics that provide the player with a sense of progress or validation. This is often tied directly to aesthetics, such as skins.

  • Players enjoy interacting with the world, especially since game knowledge and communication are important factors in the gameplay of Hunt: Showdown.

  • Players enjoy struggle, triumph over adversity, and victory.


 The Before

During this phase, players are choosing what hunter to bring, their traits, and buying any necessary equipment for the hunt. They're also looking at challenges, contracts, and probably their personal statistics. All of these things are heavily influenced by one of the few player resources available: money.  What can I afford to bring, and am I willing to lose it and my hunter? Will I finder better gear during the hunt? Would I be better off with this weapon, that tool, or a niche piece of equipment? What's my plan here? These questions are important, since they dictate how the hunt will play. Typically, players are able to begin forming a plan with the help of the contract.

Contracts

Contracts are how bounties get assigned in Hunt: Showdown. Players get to choose which bounty they hunt, but if player counts are too low, everyone plays the same bounty. This normally wouldn’t be a problem, except for that it’s almost always random!  Strategies arise out of these contracts, because contracts detail what bounty or bounties a player is dealing with, the time of day, and where a player is starting on the map. For example, a player might be inclined to take light-based tools and consumables that are only useful in the dark, or they might take an antidote shot if they knew they were hunting the Spider, a poison based bounty. Likewise, a player might be inclined to purchase a specific kind of weapon or trait into certain bounties. The Butcher is notoriously weak to shotguns. Lawson Delta has a lot of high places and very little water. Now with that kind of knowledge, what would players want to bring in anticipation of their opponents? What would players bring in response to their teammates' strategies?

These kinds of anticipatory mind games add a layer of depth and tension to the game, and this informs the core gameplay and theme. Not allowing players to know what contract they are choosing removes that depth and tension, which is what the game is about. It adds a sense of triviality surrounding this stage of the game, and so it matters less to players. This kind of randomness makes it difficult for players to anticipate what challenges they might face, as well as nullifies much of the surprise in a match when they have come to expect for their choices to matter less. In short, randomness works against anticipatory gameplay, exercising skill and intelligence, and expressive gameplay in this particular instance.

Money, Equipment, and Hunters

We briefly mentioned money, but what we're really going to be talking about is the game's subtle economy. Players receive money in Hunt by extracting with bounty, as well as through progression. Being that there are only one, maybe two bounties in a match, this creates the major conflict of the game since there are a maximum of twelve players. Money is the other major conflict. Players can spend money only on equipment and hunters, and even get both of these for free at a slight disadvantage as well as keeping the ones they don't use at the end of a hunt. However, this tends to seem a little trivial, as even cheap equipment and hunters are rather effective in comparison to expensive ones. Even if a player finds themselves to be a little strapped on cash, players can prestige and receive money from Hunt's progression system, which is called the Bloodline. A lot of equipment is also easily found during a hunt. These kinds of negative feedback loops are aimed at keeping players playing, even if they go on a losing streak.  It is incredibly easy to play effectively and also operate at a net positive, even if players aren’t winning most of the time. The availability of good equipment, hunters, and money only subtract from what motivates players, as well as the core theme of attrition and tension.

Anyone who is mildly successful at the game can rack up a lot of money, effectively eliminating the tensions of managing your hunters and their equipment. While some might argue that this is a reward for players who perform well, players desire struggle and triumph. Managing your resources well takes forethought and skill. The system has taken away their triumph here.

Challenges

These challenges are actions that most players are going to take anyway. Collecting clues and shooting hunters are a part of the gameplay, and while they reinforce how to play the game (something most of the player base already know how to do), this type of goal isn’t challenging or engaging. There is usually no added risk, encouragement, or anything to plan for. And once a player completes a challenge, they have to wait for the timer to expire. There isn’t another challenge to choose, just a little check mark on the screen. To make matters worse, the rewards aren’t quite worth the time, effort, or risk. In most games, this is typically the system that rewards players and encourages them into the next match. This system feels like an afterthought, and usually is for most players.


The After

When players finish a match, they're presented with a mission summary detailing their progress and spoils. We can see what we did to earn bounty, money, experience and Blood Bonds, which is the game's premium currency (mostly used for cosmetics). This is probably the most appealing screen for players with their stylized score cards and borders that get flashier as players perform better. Watching the meters fill up and the numbers climb is very satisfying, because the game is telling players they did a good job. However, these accolades aren't displayable anywhere else, and the fact that most of these numbers don't mean much really subtracts from the satisfaction of having a good hunt. Even the experience that feeds into the Bloodline is fairly meaningless for most players, because it only serves as a static unlock system that acts as a barrier to equipment, hunters and their traits, and free money bumps along the way. It's going to be the exact same every time a player unlocks prestige, which can be done when players hit the maximum level cap. Unlocking prestige is a complete voluntary wipe that only rewards cosmetics and a badge that players can see in the lobby and during death screens. Once players hit the maximum level cap, experience begins to reward money.

Now, if money is a trivial resource for most players and there is no real reason to accrue experience, then these aren't real rewards. So far, the only meaningful resource that players are rewarded with is Blood Bonds (which only unlocks cosmetics) and more cosmetics. However, players are rewarded with one other thing: lore! If we reference the motivations we outlined earlier, players do enjoy interacting with the world. Lore is rewarded alongside Blood Bonds for completing generic activities with the object of their interest. This is a passively accrued reward that players have to actively seek out, as it isn't directly shown to a player in a summary or menu. I wouldn't be surprised if most players didn't know it was there. The only real reward besides lore and cosmetics is hunter experience, since this has the most immediate impact on player experience during a hunt.

Matchmaking & Rating

In most competitive games, there is both a way to group players based on skill and a way for players to see their skill and show it to their friends. While Hunt does operate its matchmaking under an Elo system, there's not much in the way for players to see or understand how they compare to their friends. Players can directly compare their stats and skill level to other players in their lobby, players they've killed in their match summary, and players that kill them in their death summary. Skill is represented by vague arrows pointing in the direction of a player's skill. Now, even though there is an Elo rating that is hidden from players, there is also a global leader board. The statistics that determines who is placed at the top of the board varies based on what they're leading in, such as kills, how many times a player has "won" in a row, and kill death ratio. In a recent news post, Crytek explained how their matchmaking system worked and it does not take into account just about any of that when pairing players. The game actually uses a simple rating system where players lose and gain points if they kill or are killed themselves, losing and gaining more or less based on their rating comparative to their opponents, and then getting paired accordingly.

But wait, wasn't this a game about bounty hunting? Why doesn't the rating system take into account how often a player actually succeeds at the game's main goal? There are some matches where players are able to complete the main objective without doing anything that changes their rating. Even if the leader boards were a reflection of a player's Elo, it would still matter just as little because the system's rating doesn't take into account the game's main objective. Is this a bounty hunting game, or is the bounty hunting mechanic just a dress up for a turn of century hardcore shooter? Would the game play much differently if players knew they were being rated on actually completing the game's main objective, and not just kills? This kind of dissonance is really frustrating for players that just want the game to properly engage with them.


Conclusion

While Hunt is a very unique and compelling game, the amount of dissonance really muddies the waters. It would appear that there's a lack of cohesive direction within the game, considering the game's description, the way the game plays, and how the systems function with it. For most of the population, the gameplay is probably enough that this goes unnoticed. However, I think it probably grates more than just me.

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