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Sunday, January 29, 2012

Level Up!: Online Progression And What It Means To Gamers

Back in the day, when most people my age were little more than twinkles in our parents eyes, the phrase “level up” was only heard in a specific venue; namely, a group of young men (and sometimes women) gathered around a table, rolling dice and scratching out stats on paper, pencils in hands as they slew imaginary dragons, orcs, and goblins.  Some called these sorts of folks strange, others called them weird, and many dubbed them with the title of “nerd” or “geek”, but I doubt anyone ever referred to them as “pioneers” or “revolutionaries” which is a shame because that’s exactly what they turned out to be.
While classic forms of gaming progression such as D&D and other pen and paper systems structured around an RPG framework still exist today, the progression aspects of these systems have taken a life of their own.  Springing forth from their pencil, paper, and dice roots, the concepts of RPG progressing and “leveling up” have taken a very prominent role in the video game community.  Naturally many gamers will probably think of the various RPG video game licenses and series such as The Elder Scrolls or Final Fantasy or even World of Warcraft but the sort of progression I speak of isn’t confined solely to RPG’s. 
The ability to earn achievements and trophies for completing in-game tasks and feats has become almost second nature to gamers after its integration with the coming of the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3.  This same concept has also been ported over to more handheld systems such as the upcoming Playstation Vita and is even sometimes found in more creative presentations such as the stamps, stickers, and trophies players can collect and unlock in Super Smash Bros. Brawl for the Wii or the collectable floating orbs that help gamers advance their characters in the Crackdown series from Ruffian Games. 
It would also seem that any modern shooter isn’t complete without some form of XP progression for its online multiplayer component.  From more recognizable names like Call of Duty, Battlefield, Halo, and Gears of War, to more niche (yet still popular) titles like Bioshock, F.E.A.R., Assassin’s Creed, and Dead Space, garnering XP, “ranking up”, and unlocking the rewards that follow can extend the life of a game tenfold thanks not only to the addictive nature of progressing and unlocking new rewards and features, but also to the time and dedication it often takes to reach the loftiest perches of progression these games offer.

Measuring Worth
So what exactly is the appeal of online progression?  I ask not as an objective observer but as a gamer who himself has become sort of “addicted” to seeing those XP totals rack up at the end of a successful team deathmatch round or that small “achievement unlocked” or “trophy earned” symbol flash on my screen when I manage to do something cool.  I remember in my younger years, when the N64 was the big thing to have, that going ten games in Goldeneye or Starfox or Perfect Dark with my siblings and friends was all the fun I needed.  There was no XP to be earned, no new perks to be unlocked, and online play was beyond our adolescent comprehension.
 Back then, the only form of “progression” was the measure of skill by which I, my brothers, and my friends compared each other.  We weren’t known for how much XP we’d accumulated or which perks we’d unlocked, we were known for how many kills we could rack up with a rocket launcher or who was better at navigating Sector X in an Arwing.  With this in mind, it could be said that the more modern iterations of progression are just a more complex way of stacking our worth against fellow gamers.  Those of a lower rank are naturally inclined to be in awe of their higher-ranked peers simply because a higher rank implies a higher dedication to the game as well as a higher skill-level.
When before it was bragging to our friends about how many headshots we got with a pistol or how many times we sniped them from across the map, now we have stats, achievements, ranks, and rewards to tell others all they need to know of our prowess.  “Progression” has come to mean so much more than XP and “leveling up”, it has evolved into an intricate web of information that displays to the world just how skilled we are.  Just as old-school D&D players used to take pride in their +3 Vorpal Longswords and their Rings of Levitation, so we modern gamers take pride in our “Most Headshots” badges and our “Deathmatch Master” achievements.

The Road Less Traveled….
Further examination of the phenomenon of online progression reveals a new, even more recent divide: that between cooperative and competitive playing.  It stands to reason that when matched up against every other player in a region or country, one is bound to go up against those who are a bit more skilled than themselves.  For some, online progression can become a slow, tedious, even frustrating process not through any fault of their own but because they are simply matched up against superior players.  To curb the frustration and tedium some online players potentially face, some games have started integrating more cooperative modes such as the widely popular “Horde” mode in Gears of War or the more recent “Spec-Ops” mode in Call of Duty.
Adding co-op based features to a game not only offers alternative avenues for advancement and progression, they also appeal to a wider crowd as some gamers (myself included) much prefer the casual-friendly atmosphere of working with fellow players, where our skills can be put to use in trying to reach a common goal, as opposed to the nasty, fierce, and sometimes cruel behavior that tends to stem from competitive play.  I don’t mean to denounce the worth of competitive multiplayer as even I can’t argue with its popularity, but I do appreciate the same companies are trying to reach out to a less bloodthirsty audience as well.

With Friends Like These
With the evolution of the video game industry come new and exciting innovations for gamers.  The terms “multiplayer” and “progression” have already grown so much from their roots set in dice and dragons.  Considering how big the online multiplayer community has become in just a few short years, it stands to reason that online multiplayer’s presence in both new and existing game licenses will continue to take on new dynamics in an effort to both appeal to a wide audience and keep the appeal fresh for existing ones.  Some gamers may take for granted or may not even care about the stats they set or the XP they earn, but few can deny that, just like its single-player counterpart, online multiplayer’s impact on the gaming community will continue to grow.

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