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 (opens in new tab). 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 (opens in new tab) 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.

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