No End In Sight: A Brief Meditation on Endless Games

The recent news that Fallout 4 will have “no level cap” initially terrified me, especially as a reviewer. But the more I think about it, the more I have to admit that I’m actually in favor of this, so long as enemies scale to your level and the game remains balanced despite giving dedicated players the opportunity to theoretically upgrade every ability. I imagine that’ll be a nightmare, especially when building the inevitable expansions to this title, but when you consider a single-player game, there’s really no reason not let players tackle it on their own terms, ad infinitum. Elder Scrolls Online, by contrast, and other multiplayer games (especially massively multiplayer ones with PvP) can’t operate this way: it hard caps characters so as to prevent initial adopters and those with ridiculous amounts of spare time from being overpowered to the point at which they actually dissuade other players from sinking time and energy into the end-game. But when you think about it, that’s how the real world actually operates, and hard caps are nothing but a socialist mechanic that keep everyone on the same playing field, forcing them to instead grind for item or character levels (ala Destiny, which has decided to rethink its whole leveling system with the upcoming “The Taken King” expansion), or to do the same to upgrade weaponry that will ultimately become obsolete with the next tier of upper-level patches.

To wit, then: if infinite levels don’t unbalance or break the game so as to make it less fun to play (not that there aren’t people who enjoy breaking a game; I grew up with friends who would use a Turbo Controller to grind the raft sequence in Final Fantasy VI so as to max-level their characters before the end of the first act), and creating a God Emperor of the Bostonian Wasteland has no impact on the hundreds of thousands of other users who are attempting to do the same thing, then more power to them. In fact, we should be going further, as Bloodborne does with its procedural Chalice dungeons, and ensuring that players can’t actually explore the entirety of the world–there must always be another challenge, always something else to see. We so-called casual players can still complete the story and basic exploration of Fallout 4 until we lose interest; any FOMO-related anxiety generated from walking away should be balanced by the fact that these other players will be missing out on just about every other release.

To give another example, No Man’s Sky isn’t going to force any player to see the entire universe (in fact, short of immortality, I believe that’d be impossible). If anything, the game’ll be stronger because players will be able to share their own unique spoiler-free moments. Reviews, incidentally, will continue to be exactly what they’ve always been: insight into a single player’s experience of a game at a given point in time. I only have one qualm: how this might affect the addict who is compelled to keep playing until they’ve done everything, even if they can’t. But I’ll leave medical diagnoses to the experts; given that we can almost always just reset and play all over again from the beginning, a game might as well just go on forever.

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