Last week I uninstalled Hideo Kojima’s last entry into the Metal Gear franchise, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. In it, you play as mercenary Venom Snake, who, in the pursuit of revenge, builds up a private military contractor company, Diamond Dogs.
While Metal Gear has always been about espionage, infiltration, and intrigue, recent entries to the series have introduced more basebuilding and management aspects. You’ll acquire staff, develop projects, and build a stronghold for yourself — here, it’s Mother Base, an offshore platform in the Indian Ocean.
By the end of the story, both yourself and Diamond Dogs are a force to be reckoned with, owing to your leadership and business sense for the industry of war. Early on in the story, you get a method to capture just about anything in the battlefield: staff, weapon emplacements, vehicles, and resources. This leads to a pretty robust metagame: with enough resources, you can develop new equipment and tools to feed back into your efforts for revenge.
This loop becomes a background web that takes place while you’re roaming the open world: get staff to make things develop faster, and use things in order to get more highly-skilled staff. However, the loop also involves online play in the form of FOBs (Forward Operating Bases), which are secondary pieces of property that other players can invade. Once there, they can steal your hard-earned resources, but not without a fight: you can set up defenses on your own, and thwart their efforts.
It’s worth saying that none of this happens in real time. Invasions happen without you present, leaving it to be a single player experience in service of a multiplayer environment. You get notifications, and things happen; it’s one more thing to deal with in terms of balancing your burgeoning micronation.
Because of this mechanic, there’s a feeling of distance between you and other players. There isn’t a typical behavior of joining a lobby, competing in a match, then exiting: it’s an always-living environment that doesn’t turn off when you leave the game. This games-as-a-service model is obviously pretty popular in the industry these days, but how much it affects the player experience is pretty crucial to how well it’s received.
When it comes to FOBs, you’re given one for free, and can develop it similarly to how you would your main base: resources build more platforms, and more platforms mean more effective teams (R&D, security, medical, etc) because more staff can be assigned. More FOBs can be purchased for real money, effecting the rate at which the player progresses.
This leads to why it ultimately ended up exhausting me: to encourage the usage of FOBs, many technologies and equipment are gated behind a wait. For instance, to upgrade a pistol, you may need a certain amount of resources, money, and anywhere between 15 minutes to multiple days of real-world time.
Since better teams produce these items faster, you’re encouraged to play the base-building metagame, which FOBs supplement. However, the ongoing need to maintain your staff, protect them against raids, find more staff in the field and upgrade your platforms meant it quickly became tiring.
Metal Gear Solid V is not a typical GaaS title in the sense that your efforts in multiplayer are mostly to service a solitary experience in the main game. Because gameplay is in a mission-based structure, people looking to play the story and not 100% MGSV may find that the time investment is not worth it. I did not feel the need to S-Rank every mission, nor complete harder variants with stricter rules.
I found myself asking “just how long am I planning to play this game?”, mostly because I wasn’t really interested in the multiple day wait for a rocket launcher development to finish, or a mission to be completed by my military team.
To justify the metagame, the balance of these waits far outstripped the what benefit I would be getting from them; the systems didn’t seem designed for each other. I didn’t feel like defending my base, and I felt punished for not engaging with it by losing staff to other players. When presented with the option of just finishing the story and uninstalling, I took it: the idea of continuing to manage my micronation didn’t seem to have many positives.
I like the idea of calling this type of system a “player web”, mostly because it continues to exist in the background and can affect the way how people choose to affect the game world. This fits in well with Hideo Kojima’s next title, Death Stranding; as I played Metal Gear Solid V, I couldn’t help but compare it as a prototype in both gameplay and concept.
During the detail-starved period before Death Stranding‘s launch, Kojima referred to it as a “strand game”, leaving a lot of people scratching their heads. At face value, the naming of a new genre didn’t give us much clarity in terms of what we’d be doing, or how we’d be doing it.
My interpretation of a strand game is that it involves that player web: it is a multiplayer experience driven by social interactions with other players in an atypical way. Instead of a direct connection, where one player might join another’s and act alongside them, a strand game involves a player influencing another player’s world without meeting them. This both creates a bigger focus on the social impact of the interaction, which arguably is more controllable by the developer, rather than voice, text or action.
In Death Stranding, you play a courier in a post-apocalyptic America. You hold a key to spreading a future-Internet to different cut-off outposts in the game world, and part of your goal is to connect them again.
The first time you travel to a new destination, it’s you against the barren world — you have access to a 3D printer, which can produce vehicles, tools like ladders, and equipment like climbing boots or exoskeletons. Your preparation influences how you do deliveries: again, like Metal Gear, you’re graded on how fast you get to your destination or how damaged your cargo is when you arrive.
While you can use other peoples’ structures, equipment or vehicles, you won’t see them in-game until you bring a destination onto the network. This means that at first, the player needs to navigate a new, unfamiliar place alone, which doesn’t ruin the balance of the game entirely. Newer players also don’t come into a world where everything is already solved.
By doing deliveries well, you increase a reputation meter with a destination. At certain milestones, you unlock new gear or tools; this is a replacement for a time-based research unlock, like Metal Gear Solid had, and the rest of the gameplay does a great job of feeding back into this.
In Metal Gear Solid V, the currency of online interactions is time: the time spent getting skilled staff (or replacing lost ones), the time spent setting up a base, or the time spent earning money or developing new gear. This makes interactions feel risky, and time spent not engaging with them weighs on the back of your mind. If you’re avoiding FOBs, are you going to lose staff, and sacrifice progress?
In Death Stranding, the currency of online interactions is Likes, which are generated by people using your objects. These Likes are useless, and cannot be spent; however, you can see how many Likes you’ve given to someone else, and how many they’ve given you. Likes aren’t also consistent: you can click the button once, or you can click it many times/hold it down to make that number skyrocket.
Because there’s no way to spend it, it becomes more about the conscious action. If you see a couple thousand Likes come your way, you know that someone really must’ve appreciated your work. You’re allowed to imagine the situation that they must’ve found themselves in, or get satisfaction knowing that you’re helping someone progress.
Destinations in Death Stranding don’t “complete” as soon as they are brought onto the network. Instead, they serve as hubs from which to take on deliveries, which in turn raise reputation. By making routes to and from hubs more efficient — through your own means or by using other players’ stuff — you unlock more fun tools and get a sense of completion.
Another important factor is the balance of collecting resources. Because in Metal Gear Solid V you needed to rely on timed missions for larger quantities of materials (again, influenced by your staff’s level, which meant working with the FOB system), your alternate options were a time-consuming, lengthy grinding process of commandeering shipping containers or small boxes in the game world.
While the shipping containers had much larger quantities, they needed to be processed by one of your base’s platforms: again, this was influenced and balanced around the staffing system, and the need for higher staff levels.
In Death Stranding, resources can be found in the game world (in the form of lost cargo) but also recycled from your own equipment. This means it’s a lot more plentiful, or part of the gameplay loop becomes moving large quantities from one hub to another. Everything they’re needed for (mostly building roads or structures) feels attainable by the average player alone, in contrast with a lot of the later-game Metal Gear Solid V unlocks needing a ton of grinding.
I’ve come to appreciate that my success never felt because of what other players did or didn’t do; things that helped me always felt like pleasant surprises, rather than things I absolutely needed. Getting positive feedback encouraged me to keep participating: I found myself imagining the circumstances that led someone to using my structure or ladder, and that kind of social connection is probably what Kojima wanted.
Again, this player web is a living, breathing ecosystem, and it lends to the feeling that all players are striving towards the same goal. All it took was a small tweak from competition to altruism, and the concept of a strand game felt much more well-implemented. We all feel connected, and we’re all helping each other get there.
I’m not sure if I’ll ever go back to Metal Gear Solid V, but I know that I’m totally fine with going back to Death Stranding to do a couple missions, raise a reputation level for somewhere I never focused on, or just see if my structures are getting used. If they aren’t, or if they’ve decayed, that’s all fine because I haven’t lost anything in the process that would require work to regain, like ignoring my FOB or staff.
Ironically, this is the kind of “always on, not forgotten” behavior Konami likely wanted with Metal Gear Solid V. Whether we see the Strand game genre or not — someone does seem to be developing one — remains to be seen, but I’m fine with the journey these two took me on.
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