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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

A Totally Fair Progression System Is Impossible

Halo Infinite has been out since mid-November, and its reception has been polarizing in a very modern way. Upon release, players were unanimous: They were back in Big Team Battle—wrapping Spartans around warthogs, clapping sniper shots through overshields—and things were great. The gameplay was smooth and nostalgic. 343 had done it.

But the same sections of the community praising the game were highly critical of another key element. A video from Mint Blitz, a Halo YouTuber, released a few days into the game’s beta summed up the general feeling: "The progression system….is bad."

What Mint Blitz was referring to wasn't the gameplay itself but the system by which that gameplay is ranked and rewarded. For the first time in its history, Halo had become free to play. It had entered the realm of games as a service, and adopted a system now pervasive in modern games: the battle pass, where players can choose to pay to unlock a more rewarding upgrade path, or stay free to play and earn less. It's here that players have directed their ire: Armor sets and attachments are too hard to unlock, too expensive, and can't be easily mixed and matched; progress is too slow, with strong performances giving you no more experience than going 0 and 10; XP challenges demand you use certain weapons, manipulating the way you play. Simply put, the system isn't fair and it isn't fun, and it’s clear that these two feelings are related.

In The Washington Post, Gene Park pointed out that players' outrage at this system and systems like it are a generational mindset that correlates with the games they grew up enjoying. "Players who are accustomed to earning cosmetic rewards in free-to-play games feel cheated when those rewards don't come fast enough," he wrote. "That's just how multiplayer games work these days." 343 Studios, for its part, has been receptive to criticism and has changed the game accordingly, boosting XP earned from completed matches and daily challenges. Nevertheless, at the base of this criticism is a modern development, namely that a good progression system, for some, is as important as compelling gameplay. Developers know this. Yet what players consider fair and compelling will always eventually conflict with another priority: how these systems make money.

Most games have progression systems of some sort. "I've always thought of it in terms of abstract progression, or character progression," says Josh Bycer, a games writer and expert in video game design. "The idea that it is the in-game character or the in-game abilities that are growing, as opposed to the player clicking harder or moving their mouse faster, which will somehow make this character do more."

At the center of many of these systems lies the all-consuming experience point, invented by Dungeons and Dragons creator David Arneson. Expanding beyond its origins in RPGs, it has grown into the accepted measurement of quantifying progress. (Call of Duty 4, with its military ranks and gun upgrades, was the first shooter to really popularize this system.) The experience point melded with the modern trend, perfected by the Chinese publisher Tencent, of wringing money from games long after their sale through in-game purchases or micro-transactions, a trend Bycer says spread through games like Team Fortress 2 and League of Legends.

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Ranked progression systems have other, older influences too, of course. I contacted the team at Respawn Entertainment, makers of Apex Legends, for this article, hoping to understand how a similar game has tried to balance its own progression system (and which has also had to deal with accusations of unfairness). Over email, David Duong, senior director in product management at Respawn, and Aaron Rutledge, senior manager in experience design, responded that their "influences come from the tried and tested fundamentals of competition, both in gaming and outside of games.”

"There are definitely some universally established languages for competitive progression systems," say Rutledge and Duong. "For example, the concept of precious metals and gemstones representing prestige dates back to the original Olympic Games and you can see that same Bronze, Silver, Gold, etc. system across a variety of games and genres."

Fairness, of course, is a critical component of competition; it's often been pointed out that video games, which guarantee reward for our achievements, are fair in a way that life often isn't. Yet developers are still stuck with the fact that “fairness” means different things to different people. This can’t be reduced to a simple algorithm. Is it fair, for instance, that a student might be able to put in eight hours a day, while another person has to work a job and look after their kids? In what ways might fairness conflict with fun? You can get philosophical about this: What is equality of opportunity, and how do we realize that condition? Or specific: How much experience should you get for a killing spree? Fairness, say Rutledge and Duong, is a never-ending negotiation between developer and community.

"In terms of how we measure it, ‘fairness’ is almost impossible to measure accurately," say Duong and Rutledge. "So we do our best by looking at the inputs we have available to us with player and playtest feedback, a healthy dose of qualitative and quantitative research data, and a bit of internal intuition to try and get the right system out the door for our players.”

Nevertheless, over time, developers have been able to discern certain principles. Loot boxes, randomized virtual items, have been criticized for their similarities to gambling, and players hate systems they identify as “pay to win”: the idea that in any game that has paying and non-paying players, the player who pays more is at a competitive advantage. "The days of being 100 percent explicit, as in 'here's the best weapon in the game, give us your credit card number, and you'll get it,' those days are gone," says Bycer. "Consumers have gotten wise to that, and so have developers: it's become a lot more subtle."

Respawn’s Rutledge and Duong say that one of the ways that they create a fair system for players is by understanding that players play at different rates. Players may log in daily, weekly, or monthly; consequently, players need short-term, mid-term, and long-term goals to work toward. Play must be paced out, which breaks down into daily challenges and quests, with weekly challenges to cap off after they've knocked out the daily challenges. And once they complete the weekly challenges, they can still earn XP for their overall account level. "Weekly Challenges drive most of your progress in the Battle Pass. These weekly Battle Pass challenges stack versus resetting every week to give players that play less frequently the ability to still make meaningful and rewarding progress throughout the season," say Rutledge and Duong.

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When we begin to talk about progress in this way, in terms of long term goals and rewards, it’s easy to compare what we're doing to work. This isn't new, of course: critics often say that if you’re not actually having fun grinding in a video game, you should stop, and that there isn’t much difference between playing some video games and having a second job.

Progression systems supercharge this grind: Even if some players enjoy it, and even if they are considered fair, you can see how these systems can crush fun. And unlike your job, progression in games must be fun. One way to get around this is to give players a reasonable amount of time to finish challenges, so progression doesn't become a chore, say Rutledge and Duong. Another way to alleviate grind is to tinker with progression systems to encourage players to discover new ways to play and check out new content in-game and play differently, like using different weapons or characters.

Tinker too much, however, and you'll be accused of restricting the way certain players want to play, an ongoing criticism of Halo Infinite. Respawn frames this like how a teacher might encourage a challenging student. "We're not necessarily trying to force people to play a particular way, but we wanted to find a way to encourage players to explore and try new things every so often," say Rutledge and Duong. "It's kind of like trying new food … you might be averse to trying something new because it's strange to you, but after taking the plunge, you might realize that it's not so bad."

When thinking about fairness and reward, some dodge the employment paradigm entirely, homing in on the word service: Players are consumers, with rights to a certain level of progression that are often violated. One study, published in the journal Computers and Human Behavior, proposes that some in-gaming purchasing options could violate consumer protections, tracking behavior, manipulating prices and preying on vulnerable players. In this formulation, we're no longer the Amazon worker, toiling in a virtual warehouse, but the Amazon customer, exploited in an entirely different way: manipulated by medals, points, and loot boxes.

Modern games structure our time in a way that older games did not. We have to clock in, as we do with work, for events and seasons, to play on command or else miss the rewards available for that period of time. Bycer suggests that this is a problem inherent to games with a daily play system, which punish you for not logging in. (He was kicked out of a guild on Marvel Strike Force because he couldn't commit to playing two hours every other day.) "It's fine when the game is so good that we can’t put it down, like watching a good movie or reading a book," he says. "It's another story when the game basically says to you: We need you to keep playing this, we need you to keep coming back, or we punish you for not playing, this is where things start to get into the malicious or unethical side."

At some level, one that runs far deeper than video games, making money and being fair become incompatible; certain monetized game systems are just far fairer than others. Modern players are, at least, aware of the power they hold over developers and publishers. After changes to Halo Infinite's progression system, Mint Blitz praised the community for their relentless feedback. "That's the best way for us to get change," he said in a video. Players understand that they gain power when they organize in groups, and that collective action can force a developer to reconsider its definition of "fair."


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