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How Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is using casino psychology to keep you playing

Understandably, Activision and Sledgehammer Games want you to play Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. But not just a little bit. They want you to play it, and play it, and play it. But why leave the realisation of that dream to such ambiguous factors as 'how good it is'? Advanced Warfare has been aggressively designed to keep you playing--my words, not theirs, I hasten to add. But the presentation at Gamescom made it pretty clear to me that player retention is a major consideration and Sledgehammer is turning to a very interesting tactic for keeping you hooked: casino psychology.

I appreciate that sounds sensational, but hear me out. There's a new supply drop reward system in Advanced Warfare, which furnishes additional reinforcements (one-off use items like scorestreaks, etc.) and character gear. XP still allows you to level up as usual, but the supply system itself isn't based on XP or indeed skill of any kind. It's purely based on time. The longer you play, the more of these rewards you'll unlock.

While reward distribution is essentially random, the gear is split into three classes of rarity: Enlisted, Professional and Elite. Keep playing long enough and you can unlock any of them by chance.

Yep 'by chance'. It is gambling, is it not? Instead of money, you're figuratively inserting your time into the game in the hope that you'll hit the jackpot and win something rare. And just as casinos do their best to keep you playing until all your money is gone, so too CoD wants you to keep playing as much as possible… until you die. OK, I've gone too far there. Just seeing if you're still awake.

Naturally, rare gear is no good if nobody knows you've got it. So there's even provision for you to brag about your cool stuff, with the new 'virtual lobby' showing off a close-up of your fully-equipped character before each match. Win something rare, get the good feels by waving it in people's faces, then start seeking the next item. Sounds like an MMO, doesn't it?

Ah, MMOs. They're famous for vacuuming up massive amounts of players' time, so it's little wonder elements are seeping through into other games. World of Warcraft perfected the formula (though my personal distaste at the immediate withdrawal symptoms experienced after only my first go concerned me enough to write this editorial about it), but I freely admit, if the rewards are good enough, loot-hunting really can add worthwhile longevity to a game. It's why playing through Borderlands 2 a second or even third time is arguably more fun than the first.

But even so, I'm not a subscriber to the thinking that people need to perpetually unlock stuff or invest hundreds of hours in order to feel like they're getting value from a game. Making them believe that's what they want has obvious benefits. Like the constant, unspoken recommendation of always playing one game when people look at their friends list. 

I look back at the classic games of (dons monocle and top hat) 'yesteryear' (takes them off again) and see many of gaming's most timeless classics doing the polar opposite. The most obvious and relevant example is Quake 3 Arena's multiplayer, which gives each player potential access to all the weapons, right from the start. And people are still playing it almost 15 years later. Why? Because it's simply a great game that will always be brilliantly playable, whether it's the first or 10,000th time you play it. The only 'retention' tactic was to covertly place a little voice in your head that says: "Oh, you're not playing Quake 3. Dude, shouldn't you be playing Quake 3?" 

Advanced Warfare could have allowed everything to be selectable from the start, especially with its 'Pick 13' system. This limits a player's loadout capacity by allowing free(ish) selection of 10 weapons/grenades/perks, with the addition of three new slots for scorestreaks (which can be sacrificed for more regular perks). That would work in the 'everything unlocked' Quake style of weapon availability. But even with this clever restriction system fully functional and ready to keep the gameplay unpredictable, you still need to invest more time to unlock gear to pick from.

Speaking of the scorestreaks, they're another example of how the game is being made easier to spend time in. More reward and less fustration. One problem that led to some players putting down the pad in previous games was how only the best players got killstreaks regularly and therefore had the most fun. But now you don't even need to be particularly good at shooting to enjoy the big rewards. The scorestreak system is designed to reward players who aren't skilled enough to achieve several kills in a row--something as mundane as helping to capture an objective in domination, for instance, now accumulates score until the scorestreak is activated. 

So, amazingly, you no longer have to be particularly good at CoD to enjoy the perks and gear. Sledgehammer wants everyone to have a good time, which is an admirable notion. And by removing skill as a major roadblock, the design again ensures that time is all you need to experience the best of what Advanced Warfare has to offer.

None of the above is happening by chance. With so much financial importance riding on Call of Duty, I don't doubt there are psychologists and data analysts at work at Activision, checking to see which conditions are most likely to see a gamer stop playing and then working with the developers to reduce the chances of that happening. The changes do seem to benefit the player, which is a very good thing. It will be interesting to see how the players react to timed unlocks and whether the series ever moves away from them now they're in. Personally, I wouldn't bet on it.

11 comments

  • nintendo365 - August 24, 2014 3:39 p.m.

    It sounds like they tried to copy Battlepacks from BF4 and did too much. I dont need mofos getting streaks just because they played more than I did. The XP boosts, weapons and customization I'm good with though. Honestly, they ought to just copy Battlepacks entirely and make it XP based with the option to use IN-GAME currency to buy extras (That would also mean the return of BO1's COD Points, which I fucking loved or BO2's Unlock Tokens, which I was cool with too).
  • Brumbek - August 20, 2014 5:04 p.m.

    TF2 and CS:GO both use a timed-unlock system, so this article is a little incomplete. Valve pioneered this system way back in 2008 or so and have kept at it, adding more and more artificial reasons to keep playing. And ironically, Valve's approach is much more anti-consumer: you get loot crates in TF2 but they *cannot* be opened unless you pay real money for a key. Yet Valve is beloved...despite such nonsense. So at least CoD:AW hasn't announced you have to pay real money to open these loot crates...yet.
  • combatwars - August 20, 2014 9:07 p.m.

    Not necessarily true. In CSGO, there are no timed drops for weapons but there are drops for weapon SKINS. CSGO has all the weapons unlocked for you from the start and you are put on an even footing with everyone else when you join a game. In TF2, there are regular weapon drops all the time. Crate unlocks are only for "Strange" or "Unusual" items which brings no benefit to the game other than your increasing your ego. It's like Black Ops 2 with all the personalization dlcs for your guns; it's there to tell people you had money to buy it but it doesn't change anything drastic about your gun.
  • Brumbek - August 21, 2014 9:31 a.m.

    Well, TF2 has regular drops for all sorts of weapons and items that definitely change gameplay and give you an advantage. And those drops are free to use, so TF2 and CoD:AW are very similar in that regard. CS:GO only has skins as you say. So CS:GO is less eggregious than TF2. My biggest issue with TF2's real money crates is not what is inside them, but that they drop for all players and create this horrible anti-reward. It is a dirty psychological trick wherein you give someone a reward but then say they can't actually enjoy without doing something else (paying real money). People by nature will want the reward and are more prone to make ill-advised buying decisions (buying TF2 crate keys only to find rubbish in them). I have no problem with CoD:AW giving supply crates to add a fun extra thing to the game...so long as they never charge real money...and so long as the guns don't unbalance the gameplay. It remains to be seen if adding "elite" guns to a competitive game is wise (it probably isn't).
  • crazygamer92 - August 23, 2014 8:35 a.m.

    You dont have to pay real money for TF2 though its free to play so they obviously need some way to make money, i still have a great time without spending a penny. this new COD is gunna cost atleast 40 pounds so id be pretty pissed if they wanted you to pay for these drops.
  • Alex Blake - August 20, 2014 12:21 p.m.

    I once read a similar sort of piece on Cracked (http://www.cracked.com/article_18461_5-creepy-ways-video-games-are-trying-to-get-you-addicted.html). Scary, annoying (who likes being manipulated?), but not exactly surprising. Interestingly, the author of that Cracked article says CoD games aren't in the trying-to-get-you-addicted camp. Then again, it was written a couple of years ago.
  • marck_s5 - August 21, 2014 10:31 a.m.

    Coming from a developer here, I can testify to CoD's long time history of such tactics. They've just added an iteration. When was the last time you played CoD and thought about grinding through a few more matches for the next perk? And let's not forget the customization features. The closing in your linked article hits the nail on the head; we're only getting better at what we do.
  • Darree - August 20, 2014 12:11 p.m.

    For the average player, the gameplay of low-health and quick deaths may itself act on the idea of Intermittent reinforcement, being positively rewarded only sometimes when you act, which, at least in pigeons has been shown to be more addictive than always being positively reinforced for an action. Its seems likely that humans experience the same feelings based on the popularity of gambling. Really, for the average player, COD is probably like a slot machine. Win a little, lose a little, win a little, lose a little, go on a hot streak and bam rewarded with awesome cool noises and lights, then lose a bunch as you try to get that fix again because you are soooo close...
  • universaltofu - August 20, 2014 11:33 a.m.

    One time a man from Activision came to my house and smashed all the clocks with a hammer, it all makes sense now!
  • GOD - August 20, 2014 11:31 a.m.

    Aren't they also implementing some kind of supply drop mechanic where you get some bonus in a match, but you can't use it until the next match? Seems like that is further geared to make you play just one more game. Also, I'd love to see a photoshop of "Yesteryear Towell."
  • pl4y4h - August 20, 2014 9:45 a.m.

    Like tf2 I guess

Showing 1-11 of 11 comments

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