Game, Set and Math: Levelling and Customisation Systems in Shooters

A guest article by Richard Horsefield

Game, Set and Math

I just finished the Halo: Reach campaign for the third time. But, why? I don’t find the story particularly engaging; the characters are memorable, but I’ve no burning desire to see them again; and on Legendary difficulty, the action can be more than a little frustrating.

Truth be told, it’s the “credits” (or points). I got achievements, yeah, but more importantly, I was getting credits towards my next rank, and that means new armour unlocks. That carrot-on-a-stick was too much to resist. It was a weekly challenge to be completed.

Let me explain. I set out to complete my second play-through on Legendary, partly to see if I could do it, partly because I’d not played Reach for a while, and partly because I thought there’d be a nice big credit bonus in it for me for finishing it on a harder difficulty.

Only once I finished, there was no bonus. I still got the achievements and a sense of satisfaction (a minor miracle considering I suck at Halo), but I can honestly say I felt a little disappointed about the lack of points.

Then the in-game challenges changed, with one of the weeklies tasking players to finish nine campaign missions on Heroic difficulty. “I could blitz that!”, I thought. Heck – I was more likely to do this than get any of the multiplayer challenges done.

So I blitzed it.

Then, as my precious credits came rolling in, I paused for thought. Yeah, I get a new rank. Yeah, I can get some snazzier armour. But will it change the way the game plays? No. Will I get the love and admiration of my peers? Hell no. All the unlocks are cosmetic, so what we’re talking about here is essentially me going through the campaign twice in quick succession, whiling away several hours, to make my digital Spaceman Barbie of Death look slightly prettier.

Modern Warfare 2 has set a new standard for shooter levelling, for better or worse.

So where did this obsession come from?

Obsessive-Compulsive

I got addicted to the multiplayer modes of Modern Warfare, its sequel and Battlefield: Bad Company 2 because of their RPG-like approach to progression. Kill stuff, get points, unlock stuff to kill stuff better, get points quicker, lather, rinse, repeat. There’s that ‘one more game’ urge if you’re close to levelling up. I’ll not lie: I’ve never been one to grind in RPGs unless I have to. But put it in the context of the sort of game I’ve been playing since GoldenEye, and it feels more like some kind of ‘development’, like I’m growing or improving. To me, it feels a bit more personal than an RPG grind.

The point is, there have been game stories that I’ve vastly preferred to Halo’s. Some, like Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2, I’ll play to death (I’m on my fourth or fifth run now. Also, breaking stuff is fun. Sue me.). Some, I’ll almost definitely never replay because the sheer experience of playing through it when it was shiny and new was brilliant, and I’ll not be able to replicate it ever again. I’m thinking of things like Red Dead Redemption and Fallout 3 here. Dangle the promise of ranks and unlockables in front of me, though…

Indeed, Fallout 3 is another one I’ve never felt the desire to storm up the ranks in, despite it being a shooter-fied RPG. In fact, Red Dead’s multiplayer ranks, too, have never really gripped me like FPS ranks have, nor has the ranking system in Ultimate Alliance 2.

Rankings are everywhere now, but nine times out of ten there’ll be some gameplay rewards behind them, like better gear or powers. In Reach, it’s almost like it’s there for the hell of it

So why did I get so addicted?

I think its Bungie’s challenges. The levelling system I’d become so hooked on in multiplayer was suddenly persistent across all game modes; that, and they change on a daily/weekly basis from a pool of potential challenges. It helps add longevity to single-player, where usually multiplayer would be the go-to option for long-term kicks. Modern Warfare 2? Seven hours single-player, seven days online. I’m simply not used to FPS story modes/campaigns having this kind of replay without using cheats, bots, survival or challenge options.

It’s one thing having this kind of approach to multiplayer, but across all game modes, I wonder if we start to lose focus, particularly if the rewards aren’t that great. If developers are going to employ methods like this to ensnare easily led action game junkie idiots like me, then it’s nice if we have something to show for it.

It’s like giving a baby a toy, then taking it away. If other games hadn’t implemented these systems with more tangible rewards, there’d be no issue. But now, the bar’s been set. It will be interesting to see how things evolve once Modern Warfare 3 and Call of Duty Elite land, given the series’ history of, as I say, tangible rewards and the new, more persistent stat tracking/ranking, even if they did ‘borrow’ bits of it from Bungie’s fantastic community approach.

Must...customise...Spaceman Barbie of Death...

Rehab

I wonder if I was investing all that time in Reach’s campaign for the wrong reasons. I mean, I’ve not sat here writing about actually being able to finish it on Legendary or chasing a high score (which, in Reach’s defence and given the options available, I could be). No – I’m writing about replaying for points. Not fun. Or enjoyment. It was all for personal gain in a virtual universe. The emphasis is all wrong.

I worry for this kind of carrot-on-a-stick gameplay, and not because it’s dumbing things down, or detracting from the quality of the final product; heck, I think Infinity Ward circa Modern Warfare 1 and 2 and Bungie should be applauded for implementing these systems so well into a genre RPG-like progression hasn’t usually played too well with.

No, I worry because I only realised my addiction as credits rolled for the third time. Not when I realised the time I’d spent on Modern Warfare 2 online. Nor when I unlocked everything in Bad Company 2. No, it’s when I finished a story I wasn’t even a terribly huge fan of. Again. On my own. In the dark. Jaw hurting from clenched teeth and hands like a vice on the controller.

Just for another points fix.

So is point- and credit-gathering a good reason to replay a game? What about if there’s no real gameplay-changing reason to gather them? Is it okay to feel cheated if there’s potential for a reward for completing another playthrough and that reward doesn’t come? Are the systems enabling a ‘what’s in it for me’ attitude to gaming detracting from more noble pursuits of gaming greatness, like bragging rights or the sheer satisfaction of being good at something (or at least better than your friends)?

Share your thoughts: Is levelling and point-driven customisation a novel feature or the sole force behind shooter longevity? Let us know what you think in the comments section.  Also, make sure to check out former BnB writer Michael Enger’s similar article on “carrot-on-a-stick” progression in MMORPGs.


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