You spend time or energy, you gotta get something out of it. Self-improvement. Money, maybe. Experience, at least. This simple idea is so powerful and pervasive that of course games have modelled it — experience points, levels, and skill trees (otherwise known as role-playing game elements) are things that have been around for a while. But it wasn't until this generation when the ideas overtook nearly every genre.
Including, of course, when we shoot each other in the face online. In fact, were it not for the huge popularity of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare this generation — which adopted a class-based system where players could customise their loadouts as well as earn experience points — one can't help but wonder if we'd be at a stage where even our workout apps have RPG progression systems. That's just how big RPG elements have gotten in the last generation.
But I digress. While it's true that RPG elements have had a pronounced influence on the design of a great number of things this generation, the place where that influence is the most apparent has got to be the shooter. "The future of shooters is RPGs," Cliff Bleszinski, one of the minds behind Gears of War, once said. To wit: nearly every shooter you can think of, from Borderlands to Halo and even Gears of War itself incorporates RPG elements to some degree.
When it comes to multiplayer shooters, there's a good reason for including RPG elements. Typically, you might get bored of a game right away... but what if you had extra incentive layered on top of the main game? More levels to reach? And what if those levels held goodies behind them — better gear, better abilities, more customisation options? You'll keep playing, of course, and that's particularly good news when so many games launch with downloadable content plans. You're not going to buy more maps or extra content for a game down the line if you've stopped playing, right? In this way, RPG systems provide an easy hook not only for players to keep pulling the trigger, but also for developers to keep including said systems. It's not just about selling more content; thanks to the design of RPG elements in shooters we even have situations where developers will charge for the ability to unlock things without needing to grind for them — Battlefield is a culprit here.
In a sense, RPG progression systems in multiplayer games this generation has kind of felt like a ploy, something superficial to keep you going and possibly paying more. It's especially fishy when you look at how many multiplayer games that adopt the system, like Halo, don't necessarily feel balanced from the get-go — the level playing field only comes after everyone has access to all the same gears and abilities, and that situation is only possible if you've reached a certain level. Prior to the proliferation of RPG elements and progression systems in online shooters, that wasn't the case: you won not because you had the slightly better gun and sufficient skill, but simply because you had the skill (which could then lead to the better gun mid-match).
RPG elements have created a world of online haves and have nots. Perhaps this wouldn't be a bad thing if meritocracy wasn't such a huge myth. You don't have to be good at a game to reach an outlandish level and unlock the awesome gun, after all. You just gotta spend enough time, amass enough points, grind. Anything can be yours, with patience (or with the right XP multiplier event).
Ah, but this sounds so cynical, doesn't it? It's not like I didn't eat it all up, too. It's not like I didn't spend a ridiculous amount of time trying to get prestige, or even unlock all the guns, in the Call of Duty games (as one example). It doesn't help that we might be prone to place value on hours spent in the game, even if, big-picture wise, the shooters of today aren't more engaging or complex than the shooters of last gen — when it comes to the actual shooting parts of the game, I mean.
So, sure. RPG elements have proven addictive, proven lucrative, and perhaps even kept us happily playing into the night this generation. That would make them a last-gen hero...except I'm just not sure if all the added 'complexity' we associate with RPG progression systems in shooters is actually there, or if the designs are good at giving us the illusion that that's the case.
This article I wrote last year looks at some of the biggest shooters this generation and their levelling systems — ultimately finding that RPG elements have made some things really suck this gen.
Last-Gen Heroes is Kotaku's look back at the seventh generation of console gaming. In the weeks leading up to the launch of the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One, we'll be celebrating the Heroes — and the Zeroes — of the last eight years of console video gaming. More details can be found here; follow along with the series here.