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The Manipulative Genius of Call of Duty


So, the Call of Duty franchise has enjoyed some success over the years.

It's one of those rare entities that, despite being a full-price game requiring dedicated hardware, nonetheless has cultural gravitas way beyond what we might term the 'hardcore' gaming space (leaving aside any debates on the appropriateness of the term). It's in the same pantheon of mass-market appeal as FIFA, or the Nintendo Wii.

A huge part of attaining that kind of success is about striking the right chords with a nice, ripe demographic. The Wii was able to ride its quality of life angle and (then) innovative, and frankly somewhat missold, motion controls into a whole swathe of people who had never before wanted dedicated gaming hardware (and never again would). In FIFA, football happens. This is the most exciting thing in the world to a shockingly large proportion of the British populace. 

Call of Duty certainly hit the mark on that front. Young men will never get tired of war porn, and Call of Duty has consistently hit the sweet spot for that aesthetic, packing a huge dose of military hardware and masculinity, with a chaser of topicality- enough to add some kick without ever getting too hard-edged about it.

But, more pertinently, it also pioneered a format for the multiplayer FPS that took maximal advantage of the genre's potential for fast, competitive gameplay that makes the player feel fantastic about themself. That's critical- the prototypical young male demographic to which the series so successfully caters wants their media to make them feel powerful. They are violently averse to threats to their perceived competence.Therein lies the problem that Call of Duty essentially solved. Competitive multiplayer entails both winning and losing. Player skill is (probably) normally distributed. If our interest is in making a successful product, we can, by and large, ignore the needs of the very strong and weak players. What we care about is making our mechanics appeal to as many people as we can within 1.5-2 standard deviations of the centre, or thereabouts. It's very easy to make players on the right of the curve feel good- they're going to be succeeding more than they are failing, which I'm told is an enjoyable experience. The weaker players present a challenge.

Call of Duty manages to keep players who are objectively weaker than their peers feeling empowered even when in direct competition with them. It keeps them focused on their successes whilst guiding their attention away from their failures. An unsuccessful gameplay loop is very quick- the player spawns, moves through the map until they interact with opposing players, and dies very shortly thereafter.That is a relatively easy pill to swallow. The amount of time and gameplay invested into a defeat is minimal- negligible compared to something like an RTS or racing game. The player is then given some immediately advantageous information (the kill-cam), giving them something to look at during the brief wait to respawn and reducing the chances of them suffering multiple consecutive failed runs, especially at the hands of the same opponent. In a game with such a short time-to-death, one incorrect decision, performance failure or stroke of bad luck will probably result in the player's death. That sounds unforgiving, but from a psychological perspective it's the exact opposite. The game puts the player back on their feet as quickly as it can- they are never locked into a losing position by earlier mistakes, and they will rarely suffer the frustration of losing a prolonged, closely contested engagement. That's half of the trick: minimize the experience of failure.

The other half, of course, is to maximize the feeling of success. Call of Duty's killstreaks represent some of the most brazen positive feedback loop design I've ever seen. Now, almost every game contains some mechanical element, be it systemic or overt, that grants further advantage to a player who is already winning. Call of Duty turns that dial way up, giving players extremely powerful abilities as rewards for doing well. If your gameplay loop gets off to a good start, you are very likely to be able to parlay it into further success and establish, temporarily, a dominant position. These successful gameplay loops
make up the bulk of the experience even for players who only get to enjoy them infrequently- players who are actually spending more net time engaged in unsuccessful ones. The positive feedback system means that they last a much longer time than the failed loops, and are much, much more eventful. Most of a weaker player's active decision-making is rolled into these longer units of play, leaving the impression that their gameplay choices result in success even when, on average, they do not. In other words, the game is designed such that regardless of player ability, the feeling of winning is the most impactful, and the most memorable.

That about does it for that. I hope it provided some fleeting interest- I know I always enjoy reading about what makes a certain game feel the way it does, whether that's mechanical or otherwise. Feel free to leave a comment telling me that I'm badly wrong, or informing me that association football is, in fact, the culmination of all of mankind's virtues. Or, more productively, you could talk about how another game's design is able to keep the player happy even when, by rights, they ought to be having a bad time.

Thank you for reading, and have an above average day.

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About Manbatone of us since 3:08 PM on 01.14.2015

I play a lot of games, can transform into a half-bat creature and am missing a hyphen in my name.

I am profoundly upset that there may well never be a good Castlevania game again.

Active mainly at night, because of the bat thing.