2018 has been a busy year for me, with two-thirds spent making two games, 3D models, and essays, and the last third burying myself in thesis research. Unfortunately, this meant I didn’t get to play many of the exciting 2018 game releases. However, thanks to many late nights in November I was able to make space for one, at last: Assassin’s Creed, which has become a bit of a yearly Christmas break tradition. Last year was Bayek, desert rides and Egyptian tombs. This year it would be Kassandra, iconic helmets, and a handful of philosophers. So, 84 hours later: was it all worth it?
One consequence of not playing games on release is that I watch the world play them – and criticise them – before I do. While I try to avoid spoilers and very detailed reviews, for fear of ruining the fun of discovery, some bigger controversies are harder to ignore. And so it was with a little bit of apprehension that I read about Odyssey’s perceived issues with levelling-up and grinding. Some critics said that the game did not allow players to level-up quickly enough when pursuing the main quest, and thereby forced them to grind to get by. Identikit forts were mentioned, as well as a paid-only option to level up quicker.
I started the game too enchanted with Kassandra (and the ability to *finally* play something!) to worry too much. I did what I always do in open world games, and which never fails to amuse my more “action-driven” friends: not much. Not much at all. Pick-up a quest. Get side-tracked too many times to count (and finish the quest a week later). Help a couple of farmers. Read up about the world, or even Google a character who really existed. Pick a point in the distance and go there just for the hell of it. Infiltrate a fort and get way too much enjoyment from hiding in bushes and sniping guards at a distance. Get noticed and run away, only to stumble on another quest. Rinse and repeat. Odyssey is a huge world, and, inevitably, these side activities do get too much after a while. The first time I reached that point, the criticism I had read came back to me: would the grind start now? Was this it? Except it wasn’t, and I realised that the main quests’ level requirement had levelled-up with me… a good 6 or 7 times.
*** Warning: spoilers start here!***
Because I can’t resist the appeal of a fun side-quest, a cool statue in the distance, or a well-guarded fort, this was my experience for the whole of the game. I watched the main quest level with me, and, when I needed a change of pace and more family time, breezed through the next main story mission with no problem whatsoever. The level-matching system did a great job at keeping things fresh for me, but it meant I never really faced a challenge – the opportunity to punch above my weight/level was lost long, long ago. The level-matching system also revealed its limits in unexpected but fun ways. As I unveiled Alexios as a key member of the Cultists, his portrait appeared in the Cult of Kosmos family tree, showing a big, bad, scary level 35… a whole 20 levels under mine. The map, capping at level 50, also started a feel a little unambitious for my powerhouse level 65 Kassandra.
There was a major discrepancy between my experience and the one highlighted by some reviewers (and some whom I very much like and respect). But why?
My personal interpretation is that this is due to players – more specifically, to player types. The study of player types is forever growing, but this great Gamasutra article by Bart Stewart discusses several interesting models. Of particular interest is Bartle’s model:
At the time of writing, Odyssey is single-player only, so leaving the “Players” axis aside, let’s examine the “World” axis:
- Explorer, interested in world interactions
- Achiever, interested in world actions
An important point to be made here is that there is no right or wrong type – this is simply a reflection of players’ personalities and preferences, and one is not better than the other. Neither are they exclusive: one person can be several types and can change types over time and even from game to game. However, this chart is an interesting basis to argue that some games favour specific types, or, perhaps, create a smoother, more consistent experience for specific types.
The above player types make me wonder if Odyssey is not a game that caters primarily to Explorers – in other words, players like… me. Players who like to get lost in the world, do small tasks, even repetitive ones, and who are not necessarily (or at least primarily) driven by the main quest. As an Explorer, this is how I tend to play games – often the bulk of my game time is taken by what some other players consider menial, or repetitive tasks. And I don’t mind as long as I can, once in a while, go back to a meatier main quest. As an Odyssey player, this play style levelled me up me plenty – perhaps too much, even.
While I don’t usually enjoy this myself, there is also nothing wrong in going after the main quest first and foremost. However, this is seemingly where Odyssey frustrates the Achievers, which in this case I would consider to be the players who want action and main quest beats quickly. These players may not be happy to be forced to “grind” (and, paradoxically, do tasks that Explorers might consider enjoyable) and find the level requirements unnecessary. This is not helped by the fact that there is a solution for them, but that it is gated behind a pay-wall (level-boost micro-transaction)
As a designer, I always try and ask myself: how could this be addressed? What would I do if I had a similar issue happening in my (much, much, much smaller) games? In this case, I would love to see an intelligent game system that would work out the player type, and adjust the levelling-up experience accordingly. This would hit limitations as players might want to change their pace however, so perhaps it could be a player-driven option somewhere – are you playing for the main quest? Or do you want to explore the world? Explorers could be given different rewards in compensation for lower levelling-up speeds: more lore, more locations, more loot perhaps.
There is no easy or universal solution to this issue, but one thing is for sure: it was worth it. And Kassandra is amazing – anyone who disagrees is a maláka!
Bartle, R. (nd) Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit MUDS. Available at: https://mud.co.uk/richard/hcds.htm (Accessed: 6 January 2019).
Stewart, B (2011) Personality And Play Styles: A Unified Model. Available at: https://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/134842/personality_and_play_styles_a_.php (Accessed: 6 January 2019).
Ubisoft Québec (2018) Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey. Ubisoft.
All screenshots my own.