This is a lightly revised version of a feature originally run at Nightmare Mode.
“LEVEL THE PLAYING FIELD INSTANTLY!”
I blinked. I had just launched Battlefield 3, and for some reason there a pop-up promising me…fairness?
“Tired of fighting an uphill battle against Battlefield veterans?” it continued. “The Ultimate Shortcut Bundle unlocks 119 weapons, gear and vehicle upgrades.” At which point it directed me to a link where I could pay Electronic Arts a mere $40 for said “shortcut.”
The marketing hit close to home. After getting a new job in November, my Battlefield 3 play tailed off. When I resumed regular play in March, I was amused to find that every Tom, Dick and Harry was some sort of general within the games’ “persistent rank” system. The surrealism of a bunch of top commanders duking it out in infantry combat was made less entertaining by the fact that I was a measly sergeant, and was thus outclassed not just in experience, but in the equipment available to me.
Like every contemporary online action game, Battlefield 3 makes use of “unlocks,” which takes the form of additional weapons, accessories, devices, and abilities for the player. Unlocks are, in theory, earned by merit: players who accomplish more earn more points, which in turn unlock more equipment and tactical options.
But six months after release, Battlefield 3’s unlock system had eaten its own tail; every gun I looted was some cutting-edge bullpup rifle tricked out with laser sights and oversized scopes, while I was running around with the assault rifle equivalent of a BB gun. It seemed that I couldn’t level the playing field except by defeating my overqualified opponents; it would have been hard enough to match such experienced foes WITHOUT them having an outright mechanical advantage. I later learned that Battlefield 3's new guns were relatively balanced against the starting weapons, though players still needed to unlock weapon accessories to stay competitive (something, it's worth noting, that the Ultimate Shortcut pack doesn't do). But this was almost beside the point; so many of it peers had used overtly unbalanced unlock systems that new players assumed this was the case here, and the feelings of inferiority were just as real. Now EA was spinning DICE's carefully balanced system as a great divide between the haves and have-nots, and without doing detailed research on the weapon statistics I had no way of knowing how disingenuous they were being. I wanted those unlocks, and all I all had to do was give EA some cash. Even with such a ridiculous price tag, there was some part of me that was tempted.
Then I realized that this was utterly insane. EA had designed a game with a serious problem: new users, already at a disadvantage against their more experienced peers, had the deck further stacked against them through the use of unlocks. EA’s marketing for the Ultimate Unlock Pack explicitly acknowledge the problem they had created, but rather than come up with a creative attempt to solve it they seemed content to monetize it.
It was the inevitable result of a design that placed more emphasis on the unlock process than on winning the game’s fictional battles. Battlefield 3 was already awash in “high ticket” servers that extended the number of lives each side had, allowing for near-endless matches. The only reason I can think of for such servers is that many players viewed the end of a match, and the accompanying scoreboards and loading times, as an unwelcome interrupting of the points flow. It seemed as though the unlocks had become the chief focus, an additional “game layer” on top of the game that was designed to tap into player’s compulsive tendencies and drive them to play longer than they otherwise would.
But I had no one to blame but myself. I was there when unlocks first started to appear, welcomed them with open arms, and supported them every step of the way. Alongside millions of other gamers, I created a monster; a monster that could trace its lineage all the way back to the origin of RPGs.
The Origin of Unlocks
As with most things in gaming, unlocks have their roots in Dungeons & Dragons. When we talk about unlocks, what we’re really talking about is persistence; the idea that your decisions and accomplishments carry long-term weight, that you can develop and character over many play sessions. This idea was present in almost all of the early video games, from having your points and lives carry over between levels in shooters and platformers to having a dedicated inventory or set of developing abilities, as in early adventure and role-playing game. In fact, the only games that didn’t have this sort of persistence were those designed for competitive arcade play, like Street Fighter II; the matches were short to keep the quarters coming, and there was no point in having persistence because the players were constantly rotating in and out. There was also something to be said for keeping things static, so that players could develop mastery over the system rather than having to constantly learn changes; in this way fighting games were closer to sports or board games than traditional single-player video games.
It was this design that seems to have been the basis for the early online first-person shooters, namely Maze War (the 1973 originator of the genre) and 1993’s Doom, which invented the term “deathmatch” while popularizing the free-for-all shootfest. While the player could get new items during a match, there were no lasting consequences; once the level changed, everyone’s score was reset to zero and they were once again spawning with the starter weapons and racing to find a shotgun or rocket launcher.
This was the status quo for the next decade. While some games – namely the Team Fortress mods and the Tribes series – allowed increasing character customization through character classes or a customizable inventory system, there was no real persistence in online gaming. At least, not in shooters.
RPG designers couldn’t ignore the fact that internet gaming was growing exponentially more popular with each passing year, and a a few years after Doom started developing online games in the RPG mold. While there had always been multi-user dungeons, or “MUDs” for decades (text-based online worlds that players navigated with a text parser) it wasn’t until the 1997 release of Ultima Online that an online role-playing game achieved mass success. Ultima Online allowed the player to develop a character, learn new skills, participate in a player-driven economy, and even own a home. In short, all the things you couldn’t do in online first person shooters. The massive success of Everquest two years later only further demonstrated the demand for these features.
The two genres would merge for the first time in 2003’s Planetside, which featured three factions waging a massive combined-arms war across ten continents. Apart from a persistent world where different factions could capture and hold bases and, eventually, entire continents, Planetside also featured “Battle Ranks,” the equivalent of levels. As a pure FPS, the game had no player attributes to change; instead, additional battle ranks allowed the player to complete additional “certifications,” which were needed to operate the game’s vehicles and wield a variety of specialized weaponry. It was here that unlocks, in their modern form, were born.
While the game’s massive battles and sophisticated squad system led to some truly novel movements – perhaps best exemplified by Quintin Smith’s “Planetside: The 1%” – it was the persistent elements that kept me playing. Networking technology was simply not ready for Planetside’s ambitious design, and as a result the gunplay was mediocre at best, with barely-there physics and rectangular hitboxes making it feel like an FPS stripped down to its base elements. But the constant possibility of new things on the horizon kept me playing. I saw a gunship, and I wanted to fly it. I was killed by the gunship, and I wanted to train in anti-air capabilities.
But the Planetside developers made the conscious decision to not lock the player into their certifications. When a player leveled up, she would get a “certification point” that could be used towards a new certification. But this was not a binding decision; there was a 24 hour cooldown timer on my decision, after which I could swap any chosen certification for one other certification; say, abandon my rocket-launcher training to learn how to use sniper rifles. The cooldown prevented players from constantly juggling roles and made gaining additional certification points actually meaningful, but the choice to swap allowed the player to sample all the game had to offer and not feel “locked out” of any aspect of the game. I eventually tried every certification, and lacking a dedicated clan and being continually underwhelmed by the actual combat, I left; there was nothing more for me to see.
Unlocks would see their first release in a traditional, match-based FPS with 2005’s Battlefield 2, the first true sequel to my favorite online game. As with its predecessor, Battlefield 2 featured a number of different character classes; but it also had an array of stat-tracking features, and even awarded player’s medals and ribbons for continuing accomplishments. After enough progress, the player would be allowed to unlock the “special weapon” for one of the game’s seven character classes; and, unlike in Planetside, the decision was binding.
In 2012, it must seem quaint to imagine a game where each class had only a single unlock, but at the time it was positively exciting. It didn’t even matter what the gun was; just the idea that I was making progress even in games I was losing badly really enhanced the experience. I wanted my decisions to matter; and while I didn’t enjoy the base game quite as much as I had Battlefield 1942, I became hooked on this constant sense of growth, and looked forward to it appearing in more games.
Just over a year later, EA and DICE released Battlefield 2142, and other than the sci-fi setting the biggest change was the massive expansion of unlocks. Battlefield 2’s seven classes were cut down to four, but this was more than made up for by having complex skill trees for weapons and abilities within each class that not only allowed for greater powers but a fair amount of tailoring; the Recon Class could fill more of a “sniper” or “commando” role, depending on how the player upgraded it.
In theory, it was a brave new front in online gaming, and was in some ways even closer to a true RPG progression system than Planetside’s certifications. But there was a dark side to these unlocks. What had once been basic abilities in each class now had to be unlocked in play; and until a player did, they would be at a real disadvantage against the more experienced players. Graham Swann’s review of the game at Eurogamer offered one of the first critiques of this model. “It’s bad enough in a multiplayer shooter when you find yourself being outplayed,” he wrote, “[but] introducing a mechanic where someone else is just better in absolute terms seems like a betrayal of the genre, which is based around competition of skill not persistence. Just because World of Warcraft has seven million people playing it doesn’t mean that every game should become World of Warcraft.”
But such concerns were not enough to stop Infinity Ward from doing the same thing (minus the class system) in a little game called Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. After its smash success, and the record-breaking sales of its successors, there was no turning back.
The Game Layer on Top of the Game
In 2010, social game designer Seth Priesbatch gave a TED talk titled “The game layer on top of the world.” Much as designer Jesse Schell had done two months earlier, Priesbatch described a future in which game mechanics would expand well beyond traditional games and into every facet of society, a technique known as gamification. “We like to joke that with seven [types] of game dynamics, you can get anyone to do anything,” explained Priesbatch, before explaining a few in detail. For instance, the “appointment dynamic” – in which, to succeed, “a player has to return at a predefined time to take a predetermined action” – has long been around in the form of bar’s “happy hours.”
But while Priesbatch talks about the ways these mechanics can be applied to the larger world in order to (hopefully) drive individual to do good and have fun, his breakdown also gives us insight into the ways game developers seek to provide motivation for play. These dynamics form the basis of the emerging “games as a service” model, which seeks to shift games from self-contained “box products” to ongoing gaming experiences hosted on the internet and funded through subscriptions or continued microtransactions from the player; in essence, the video game equivalent of “cloud computing.”
For instance, the “appointment dynamic” is used as the basis for the enormously successful Farmville, in which players have limited windows in which to water and harvest crops, and has been introduced to FPS games in the form of “double experience weekends.” Speaking of Farmville, Priesbatch explained the dynamic’s incredible power. “When [developer Zynga] tweak their stats, when they say your crops wilt after six hours or after eight hours or after 24 hours, it changes the life cycle of some 70 million people during the day. They will return, like clockwork, at different times.”
Unlocks combine numerous game dynamics to achieve their effect. The rank systems of Battlefield and Modern Warfare use the “influence and status” dynamic – the desire to achieve equity with and even exceed one’s peers in social standing – to drive players to constantly play the game, lest they “fall behind.” But even more integral is the “progression dynamic” – the visceral feeling of pleasure and accomplishment players feel when “success is granuarly displayed and measured through the process of completing itemized tasks.” Sound familiar?
The problem comes when these dynamics are applied, not as an integral part of the game design, but as a ancillary layer whose sole point is provide added motivation for continued play – and nothing else. The point of unlocks in Battlefield 3 isn’t to increase the fun I’m having; it’s to encourage me to play more than I would otherwise. Take away the unlocks and the typical play experience remains unchanged. The only thing that would be lost would be the ability to customize my character, but even that isn’t inherently tied to the progression system. The developers could have all of the additional weapons and abilities available to the player from day one, or – if that was too overwhelming – unlock them in significant chunks after just a few hours of gameplay.
No, unlocks are merely here to keep me playing Battlefield 3 eternally. And it seems to be working; based on how quickly many players achieved top rank combined with the fact that it takes hundreds of hours of play to do so, we can only assume that either they’re playing few games other than Battlefield 3 or have an unusual abundance of free time with which to play it. Which is exactly how EA wants it. And if they can get some of the less-devoted players to give them $40 to “level the playing field,” then all the better. I fear a world in which the likes of the satirical Progress Quest – an RPG that plays itself, and merely consists of various bars and stats tracking your progress towards wealth and power – will actually be a serious commercial product.
In just a few short years the unlock-free online FPS has been entirely wiped out. I’m to blame as much as anyone; I vote with my dollar, and I bought Battlefield 3 when it came out, knowing full well the unlocks it contained. And at first, I even enjoyed them. But the more I played, the more frustrated I was at the artificial constraints placed on my success, and the artificial goals that were dictated to me by the developers.
Fortunately, EA and Activision don’t have a monopoly on game development. The recent wave of “outdated” game designs being funded on Kickstarter has shown that there is an audience for the games of the ‘90s, and I won’t be surprised if someone ends up making a new online FPS that has more in common with Quake than Call of Duty. But I’m not ready to be an old fogey yet; the past was not perfect, and the excitement I felt at developing my Planetside character over many battles was very real. The developers of Planetside 2 are promising that all unlocks will be “sidegrades” that merely give additional tactical options rather than outright advantages; and while it’s a difficult act to pull off, I have faith in their good intentions. Other games are focusing solely on the “status” aspect, rewarding cosmetic and social enhancements that do not directly affect power in the world. And there are other, untried solutions. There could be an FPS with a “multi-directional” unlock model that gave new players certain abilities that they lose as they gain experience, giving them a fighting chance against the more experienced players. As the “unlock” model continues to spread hand-in-hand with free-to-play and games as a service, more and more developers will take a stab at fixing the inherent balance problems while keeping the sense of satisfaction and accomplishment that I value. I can only hope that, eventually, someone will get it right.