Multiplayer progression should be about rewards, not roadblocks

The Star Wars Battlefront beta just wrapped up a few days ago, and fans of a galaxy far, far away finally got a chance to check out the latest version of a modern multiplayer classic. For the most part, it was a genuinely fun, arcadey approach to shooters filled with Star Wars sensory overload - well, when the asinine progression system wasn't getting in the way, that is.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare may not have been the first game to introduce a persistent multiplayer progression system - where you unlock additional gear and other goodies as you continue to play - but it was certainly the one that popularized it. There's no denying that by providing a continuous drip feed of unlockables, developers are able to give more incentive to players to keep coming back to their game - and, let's be real here, maybe sell a few experience point-boosting microtransactions as well. Every multiplayer game seems to have something along these lines nowadays, but many of them seem to implement these arbitrary gating systems without really understanding why it worked so well for Call of Duty in the first place.

Let's look at two of the recent big offenders: the Star Wars Battlefront beta and Metal Gear Online. Both have similar progression systems in place to reward fans for continued play, but both games are actually incredibly limiting in what they allow players to do unless they've put in dozens of hours.

The whole point of playing Star Wars Battlefront is to relive your favorite moments from the movies within the context of a mulitplayer shooter, and the beta shows a lot of promise in that regard. But in order to be remotely competitive fighting off rebels or Stormtroopers on the ice planet of Hoth, the game encourages you to play simpler, far less memorable battles on Sullust to level up a bit first. Sure, you could hop right in and try to take down AT-ATs with your dinky blaster, but you won't even be able to throw grenades, let alone have access to the ion cannons and other special attacks you need to stand a chance. All of these upgrades are tied your level, which requires you to grind for experience points, and even then, you can only equip them once you earn enough credits to purchase them.

Granted, this is a beta, and it's possible that all of this could change between now and the game’s release in November. And it's clear that Battlefront is going for mainstream appeal. It wants to make sure its players have taken the time to learn its systems before being flung into a Sarlacc Pit. But it might be holding players' hands a bit too tightly, rather than letting them gorge on a smorgasbord of Star Wars-themed battles and weapons right at the start.

Metal Gear Online has similar issues, but at least you have access to a basic loadout and a couple of skills when you start. One problem: you can only choose between a lethal or non-lethal preset loadout until you hit level four. This is a problem because a core pillar of MGO's gameplay requires you to knock out your opponents and strap a Fulton balloon to their person, thus giving your team more points and potentially more lives added to your team's pool. But if you choose a non-lethal loadout, you have no means to properly defend yourself when things get hairy - which they inevitably do. Oh, and everyone with a higher level than you is probably running circles around you with stealth camo, so have fun with that.

I've played MGO for a good four hours or so and I have yet to win a single match. That's not very encouraging. The game just assumes that you'll be willing to spend hours to get to a point where you have enough gear and customizability options to have a feasible chance of winning, but instead, it demoralizes all but the most die-hard players from sticking with it.

That's why many of these progression systems feel like arbitrary roadblocks than legitimate rewards. They get the Skinner box bit right, where you get something shiny and new every few matches, but they rely on it too heavily, putting too many essential tools behind this wall you have to continuously beat your head against until you start to make a dent. It's one thing to covet the gear you don't have, but it's another when the time-to-reward ratio is poorly skewed, and it just ends up frustrating more than it entices. And it's made even more obvious by the currency bundles publishers sell for real-world money to bypass them - as if these roadblocks are specifically meant to encourage players to shell out cash rather than reward player loyalty.

Contrast that with something like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Sure, someone who has a higher level than you is going to have access to more weapons and more perks, but it's still entirely possible for a level one player to be competitive. You have access to decent weaponry at the start - including grenades - and every additional unlock is designed to give you more choice and customization options, rather than slowly unveiling significant, game-changing additions.

I'm not inherently against the idea of these multiplayer progression systems - Lord knows I love watching that little XP bar climb and climb and finally reset when it hits the top, finding myself awash in a sea of new weapons and upgrades to try out. But those systems shouldn't be used to punish casual players or late-comers by throwing them into a mosh pit of combatants way more powerful than they are simply because they haven't spent hundreds of hours unlocking everything.