I played about fifteen hours of Wolfenstein: Youngblood before network issues grew unsustainable. It’s a game that I actually generally enjoy, but it’s caught a lot of flak for its advancement mechanics and I have to say that as a game designer there are some obvious flaws with how the whole thing is set up that should never have made it through playtesting.
Agility in Character Advancement
Before I talk further, I want to explain what the terms I’m using mean.
In games, you can have agile character advancement, balanced character advancement, and contra-agile character advancement.
Agile advancement means that a player always has the ability to develop their character in a way that they want to. This may be through the use of a variety of different advancement systems which are each independent (e.g. Skyrim, where using a particular skill causes it to grow), or it may be accomplished by letting players “respec” and change the decisions they previously made.
Agile advancement is good when you want players to feel unpressured. It can be really good in long open-world games like Skyrim, where players can master one path in character advancement without running out of content, and then choose either to continue with what they’ve been doing and sacrifice some potential or go down a new path to achieve optimal mastery.
I’m generally not a fan of respec systems, since they cheapen the process of character development, but it is often used as a way to boost agility within a non-agile system, which can help to mitigate some of the negatives of those contra-agile systems like increased player pressure and sunk cost problems.
Agile advancement has its downsides. Choices by the player can feel cheapened because they are designed with the notion that characters might change radically. There may be too many decisions for players to feel happy with, and even though there’s less pressure on any individual selection anyone trying to “optimize” for one reason or another misses out on the ability to make decisions and have them be final. It also causes problems in multiplayer, when there may not be a good reason for a player to specialize since everyone has essentially identical character outcomes.
Balanced character advancement occurs when you have a system that offers choices, but forces players to make up their mind. Borderlands (especially the second game onward) and most ARPGs are examples of balanced character advancement; they may have skill trees and other systems, and they tend to rely on the fact that there are multiple paths to the same thing to define characters.
Because they exist as a balance between two axioms, there aren’t many clearly defined qualities of balanced character advancement systems. One advantage of them is that they are better for game balance.
A good example of a balanced character advancement system can be found in the form of D&D, which has influences in many other examples of the model. Characters are assigned a class, which is a broad package of skills and abilities that would be difficult to balance and select independently, then make further decisions on a smaller scale as their character advances and grows. The contra-agile class system is paired with the agile selection of feats, skills, and other assorted character details. To use the example of the common ARPG formula (from games like Diablo and Borderlands) a player chooses a character type and then defines them by choosing abilities and gear that matches their type of character: a sorcerer may have damage-dealing spells and use light armor, while a paladin may be able to heal and wear heavy armor. Each then gets to choose from various defining features that match the player’s style.
Contra-agile advancement systems have their place, because when executed properly they make decisions easy for the player. if the core gameplay is not built around highlighting character advancement, then advancement may be better left contra-agile, because it means that it can potentially even happen without conscious player choice.
Wolfenstein: Youngblood tries to do this, but fails because it has too much emphasis on players making decisions without giving them a meaningful benefit for doing so. It seems to follow the footsteps of id’s Doom reboot, which did a much better job by not pretending to have choice.
Contra-agile systems are great when characters should end at a certain point and follow the course of a game. Because they’re not dependent on player skill, they can be used as a way to help balance games, and in rare cases they can even co-exist with agile or balanced systems. Dungeons & Dragons Online, an MMORPG based on the tabletop D&D ruleset, allows players to choose prebuilt paths for starter characters, an example of a contra-agile system that helps novice players.
One of the great potential benefits of contra-agile systems is that they begin and end exactly where a designer wants them to, so you have the power to choose exactly how much power to give the player. If advancement is critical to the game, this means that you can make the player’s character feel incredibly strong. If not, you can give them incremental improvements to make them capable of facing further challenges without punishing less-skilled players.
Contra-agile systems are the most difficult to do right because sophisticated players are very used to character advancement and want to have a say in it, and because they serve as a bad foundation for expanding to more agile designs. It is easy to pre-select options for a player, but difficult to add branches off of an existing path without going wrong.
And Wolfenstein: Youngblood goes off the rails very quickly.
Ruined by Design
Youngblood goes astray with the design decisions surrounding its role as a multiplayer game. Unlike Doom, where the contra-agile system works really well, Youngblood puts players into a large, dynamic world that scales with the players (ugh) instead of placing threats which can easily be objectively understood. To add icing on top, there are weird gimmicks that go on that confuse what is going on at any given point.
Very quickly the design team does three things that you don’t want to do with contra-agile advancement.
If there’s one flaw I had to pick from all others, it would be the weird complexity of the system, it has a lot of player choices and complexity. This sacrifices the ease of use that is possible with a contra-agile system. The idea behind this is that a player can choose between a front-line combat role and a stealth role.
This is something that previous Wolfenstein games have done well, but a mixture of iffy networking and the challenge of coordinating two players makes stealth difficult; the trailers definitely don’t match the experience in play, which is that the players want to keep their characters physically near each other to benefit from all their abilities and level designs are rarely designed to permit any sort of stealth or long-distance combat to serve as a counterpart to the more Doom-esque direct assault playstyle.
One of the downsides of the contra-agile advancement method is that it increases player anxiety about the choices they get. That playing in line with certain styles of play seems less fruitful than others makes these false choices more telling. Youngblood excels as an action game, with the two protagonists serving as a powerful force that can hammer and assail enemies. Both players need to be on the same page to make stealth particularly effective, and even then it’s not guaranteed to work due to weird AI and a lack of meaningful stealth advances other than an active camo ability, which I found to be spotty at best when network conditions were less than perfect.
There are two ways to deliberately upgrade your character: spending silver coins on weapon upgrades and using skill points to advance in trees. The decisions that you make are not immediately clear, and some of the choices are tied together in ways that run contrary to the player’s desires. For instance, if you wanted to have powerful single-shot weapons, something with a lot of utility for stealth characters, you need to go for the power tree, and the tree that gives silencers for firearms is a low-damage tree.
I think the intention was to draw a stealth/balance/assault specialization set for each weapon, but the addition of set bonuses and the fact that choosing, say, a better sight makes the weapon objectively worse by certain character goals, stresses the fact that the advancement is just poorly designed when taken in light of how it was intended. Throw in the fact that a bunch of weapons are just clearly not intended to have a stealthy option, and you’ve got a head-scratcher.
One of the advertised ways of play got left behind!
The skill points further anxiety as much as customization. They’re a finite quantity of improvements to a broad range of abilities; many of the abilities reflect increases to health, armor, or ammunition that could be as easily given as a consequence of leveling up or just left out of the game entirely because they’re not meaningful except as a math function.
Each level does give a bonus as well; a small increase to damage across the board. Using weapons persistently gives a mastery bonus for that specific weapon, as well. The problem with this is that there’s so many different things that might go into a particular element that it’s basically impossible for a player to just glance at their character’s progress and know what exactly has changed from the start of the game to the present.
Sunk Costs and A Race Against Time
One of the worst parts of Youngblood is that leveling up filled me with a little anxiety. All the enemies in the world (even in replayed missions) scale with the players, and the result is a confusion about what players should be doing.
Tied with a complicated system, it’s hard to know what you need to do to make a character competitive. There were definite spikes in difficulty when new enemies were introduced or became mainstream after previously being rare, and while it seemed to be manageable on the regular difficulty that I was playing on it was something that both myself and my co-op partner experienced.
The weapon mastery mechanic, which seems intended to be a boost to give players a bonus with their preferred weapons, actually creates a sunk cost fiasco. I used the pistol almost exclusively through the first half of my play-time, and then picked up heavy weapons skills (when I gave up on stealth entirely).
My pistol had something like +20% damage (how it scaled with other damage boosts is unclear, since the game doesn’t seem to communicate this) and as a result anything I was switching to had to be at least 120% better than the pistol, and overcome the fringe benefits of the pistol like common ammunition and a silencer.
By the time you sink silver into further upgrading a weapon, it becomes really difficult to switch away. If the pistol’s doing ~150 damage, which is enough to one-shot an easy enemy, and has well over a hundred rounds of ammunition it’s hard to justify investing in the laser rifle which only carries ten shots of ammo at a time and does 500 damage.
Skills impact your play-style, and if there’s a respec option I didn’t see it. This means that whenever you play with another person you’re going to either need to start over or figure out how your skill selections synergize (generally, they don’t really do that much, since the focus is on dealing damage).
Contra-agile advancement systems have their role, but one of the issues with Wolfenstein: Youngblood is that it feels like the system evolved from a contra-agile system without really thinking about what it did well. It doesn’t help players choose a path, it forces them to compromise on potential.