This week sees the beginning of several new columns here at Heave Media, including Bit Slap, in which Joe Anderson discusses whatever video game-related topic tickles his fancy. This week, he looks at the enduring phenomenon of Modern Warfare.
Over the holiday, I had the stark realization that my cousin has become a swearing adolescent on Xbox Live. I don’t fault him for it. Much like being a teenager, being vulgar to strangers is an ugly but otherwise important step in the life cycle of any gamer. They grow up fast. It’s a surprisingly short distance between First Communion and having a gaming handle that articulates how one feels about fat chicks (spoiler: he’s not a fan).
And, like everyone and their dog, he plays Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Here at Heave, editor and renowned masturbator Dominick Mayer posed me an interesting question, one he no doubt came up with between furious bouts of self-pleasure: What about Modern Warfare has allowed it to take off the way it has? I mean, everyone plays it. Modern Warfare has replaced Halo as the definitive bro game of choice.
Modern Warfare employs what I call a dangling carrot system. A gamer’s playtime is rewarded with XP that unlocks guns and perks, which, in turn, fuels an incentive to keep playing. This is becoming increasingly common in modern games, and it’s not necessarily a bad system. Players feel a correlation between work and reward and it makes sure the game continues to feel like a good use of one’s time.
Granted, a dangling carrot is not a substitute for actual substance in a game. For something like Zynga’s Farmville, the dangling carrot is the game. You can’t really get better at Farmville; you can only invest more time and accumulate more resources until your farm is way better than your other Facebook friends’ farms save for your one spinster aunt, because let’s not kid ourselves here: she doesn’t have anything else going for her.
But Modern Warfare has substance and isn’t merely a grind fest. It has a pretty expansive level-up and customization system integrated into a mechanically sound shooter. Although I’m not a huge fan of the Modern Warfare series, it does a great job of accommodating new players while at the same time allowing skilled players opportunities to succeed. Unlocking new weapons and perks aside, skilled players’ kill streaks are rewarded with UAV sweeps, helicopter support and air strikes, that sort of thing.
At the same time, new players who end up being target practice for the whole match are still rewarded with XP for simply playing. This helps offset the frustration of being knifed by XxSmokeBlunts6969xX. The dangling carrot system lets new players work towards goals even if they find themselves ineffective in game from time to time.
The livelihood of any online game’s community hinges on two things: the acquiring of new players and ensuring existing players stay dedicated. One without the other can make a game’s population unstable. Even gamers who have invested insane amounts of time into a single game will, eventually, move on to something else. Which is why there needs to be a steady stream of new players getting their feet wet. These new players, in turn, become similarly invested and invest time into the game.
Last year, I bought Unreal Tournament 2004 on Steam. I bought it when it originally came out but had since lost the disk. I had been pretty good at the UT series and was feeling nostalgic. As the game’s name indicates, it’s an older game and I was concerned no one would still be playing it.
Well, people were still playing. Long story short, I was everybody’s bitch.
I quickly realized the only people still playing UT2004 were good. Like, it was their job. I changed servers quite a few times, in an attempt to find other players closer to my skill level. But no. Any game I joined underwent a dramatic shift. The other players stopped going punch for punch with each other and instead raced to see who could find and kill me the fastest.
What’s even funnier is that there was no trash talking. Everyone’s discussion continued unabated as topics ranged from players’ personal lives to Christina Hendricks’ boobs. Even though I always have much to say on the latter subject, I was focused on not dying. I don’t know how they found time to type as they were killing me.
After about six hours of a concentrated effort to get better, I came to terms that I spent money to get kicked in my e-penis. I haven’t touched the game since, but I assume the online situation is the same: a small group of highly-skilled and dedicated players in an environment that is not accommodating for new players.
And don’t take this as me complaining because I scraped my knee when I tried to play with the big kids down the street. What’s worth noting is that there are plenty of people that good at Modern Warfare 3 but there is no shortage of new/newish players willing to have a handful of less than heroic games if it means unlocking that next gun. And, on top of the dangling carrot, entries in the Modern Warfare series come out so quickly that players don’t even get a chance to get bored before the next one hits stores.