Call of Duty Progression (2020)

TL;DR - New player experience and overall design would benefit from unlocking all abilities, weapons, and equipment from the start.

I've been re-invested in Call of Duty (CoD) online multiplayer (MP) since the release of Modern Warfare (MW, 2019). The only time prior was the first 3/4 of release of CoD: Ghosts (2013-2014). I participated in the PC open beta for CoD Black Ops: Cold War (CW) in October 2020. I have a few things to say about the new player experience for these titles.

For those who don't know, CoD is a first-person shooter (FPS). Player power level, or the overall effectiveness of how the player can move their avatar and complete objectives, is determined by a system of abilities, weapons, and equipment (AWE). A new player starts with a selection of pre-made classes, or curated introductory templates containing set AWE loadouts. As the player engages with the game, they score points that level up their account and unlock new AWE. The more effectively a player scores kills and objectives, the faster this happens.

Every aspect of every higher tier of AWE makes the game objectively easier for a player. Some key examples are:

At present, there is no matchmaking (MM) system in place that considers the player's AWE level. This is the first major problem with the new player experience. The longer a new player waits to join a new entry in the CoD franchise, the further ahead the general player population gets on the power curve. This is irrespective of the skill curve, as a player's basic skill with an FPS is not dependent on any individual game. Some players bring decades of experience into a new CoD. Couple that with the likelihood that those players will most quickly advance along the game's power curve, it's not long before any given MP lobby will have at least a handful of very strong players. These players will then proceed to humiliate and destroy any newcomers to the game.

There are two ways to fix this issue:

  1. Incorporate player AWE level into the MM.
  2. Remove AWE progression entirely, unlocking everything for all players from the start.

The problem with the first method is that as the game ages, there will be fewer and fewer new player lobbies. This punishes anyone who comes in late. This is likely not a concern for Activision, the publisher of CoD, as they rely on a 1B USD launch spike and the bulk of their sales occur on day 1 or with pre-orders. This would explain why this method has never been investigated or introduced. A further solution would be to populate new player lobbies with AI-driven opponents (bots) until players achieve a suitable level to compete with the player base, but that also comes with its own set of development costs and concerns.

The second method is the easiest to implement, and I believe the reason that it has never been done in a CoD is that it would reduce the time it takes to produce a "meta". While CoD offers players unprecedented levels of choice when it comes to which abilities they use and how their guns perform, many of the abilities and attachments (and even the guns themselves) underperform in the actual game. This highlights the difficulty in developing a balanced competitive FPS. While having a nearly unlimited number of AWE combinations is fine for a single-player (SP) experience, in MP a player generally wants what works.

Yet a meta will form regardless of the speed of AWE unlocks. So why not just give all the players everything from the get-go? This would flatten the power curve and then whatever in-built MM system is in play can more accurately produce "fair" matches. More importantly, it would allow new players who come to the game at any point in its lifecycle to have a fighting chance.

If Activision is worried about player retention, then they can more strongly tie progression to a system of cosmetic enhancements to players and weapons. At present there are no cosmetic enhancements linked to abilities or equipment. Giving a player a different look to showcase what loadout they're running would be a huge plus. These cosmetics could be earned via gameplay (get X number of kills while running Y ability) or sold separately through in-game purchases.

There's one element to the current AWE system that we haven't yet discussed, and that's the pleasure of the grind. Many players have become conditioned by these systems to actually enjoy the slow process of unlocking a weapon part here, an ability there over the course of many months of play. In MW 2019 and likely to continue in CW are the "camo" unlocks. Some players have taken the entire year of playing MW 2019 to unlock the final tier of camos for their guns. I believe that system can remain in play, as they provide limited game-altering effects. Sure, some of the higher level camos offer visibility advantages to the player, but that's a whole different discussion.

In conclusion, I believe that allowing a new player full access to the meta in a CoD would increase new player retention. I don't believe that it would have any negative effects on the overall state of the game. I further believe that it would motivate the designers to come up with more balanced and useful attachments and abilities for the player. It would also provide more comprehensive telemetry that developers could use to further balance the game after launch. Unfortunately, it seems as though CW is going to double down on AWE progression systems by introducing a "weapon prestige system", whereby players grind the attachments of individual weapons to their maximum tier, and then reset back to zero to do it over again. I'm left wondering what portion of the player base actually enjoys doing this, and if there isn't an alternative for players who do not.