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How Call of Duty and Overwatch use different strategies to keep you hooked

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Two very different approaches to the same goal

Blizzard Entertainment

The Call of Duty series popularized many features of multiplayer online progression systems more than 10 years ago with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, and subsequent versions of Call of Duty have refined the concept.

The games give you a series of goals to accomplish on top of whatever your objective is in a particular match. Performing well in these challenges gives you experience, which contributes to leveling up and unlocking weapons and abilities. You unlock more options for designing your character’s loadout too.

This is a tested and effective mechanism to keep gameplay compelling and rewarding, leading to players who stick with the game for a longer amount of time than they would otherwise.

But an alternative version of the competitive multiplayer shooter, exemplified by Overwatch, has become extremely influential. These games include a progression system that reflects very different values.

Similarities and differences

In Call of Duty, players earn points by playing until they reach the maximum level — 55 in Black Ops 4 — unlocking guns, attachments, killstreaks and other options to use in the Create-a-Class system.

They’re given an option to “prestige” once they hit the maximum level. This kicks the player back to level one, locks all the guns again, and the player repeats the journey. There are incentives for doing this, however. You get a special prestige rank and cosmetic calling card for your profile in Black Ops 4, as well as an extra slot for another Create-a-Class loadout, and a permanent unlock token that allows you to choose an item that will always remain unlocked when you prestige.

Overwatch doesn’t have game-impacting unlocks. Each character has a non-customizable kit. However, the game still has an experience and leveling system.

Overwatch hero Ashe
New heroes are free in Overwatch, and progression isn’t tied to performance
Blizzard Entertainment

You gain a level each time you earn 20,000 experience points once you pass level 22. You go back to level one after you reach level 100, and doing so adds a star to your character portrait. You can have up to five stars in your portrait.

You also get a silver border for your portrait instead of a bronze one after 600 levels, or running the loop six times. You unlock a gold border after 1,200 levels and a platinum border after 1,800 levels. It sounds complicated, but you don’t have to do much to manage it or even think about it if you’d rather not.

More importantly, you also earn a free loot box with cosmetic items every level, in lieu of unlocking new guns or gear.

These are both systems that are designed to allow you to play for hundreds or thousands of hours while continuously earning rewards. But the big difference comes in how you earn those experience points.

In Call of Duty, you earn experience points for the stuff you do throughout a match, such as capturing objectives, getting kills and assists, and using your equipment successfully. This means that you get a lot more experience than the other players if you earn more kills and medals during a match.

According to an Activision support article, Call of Duty’s matchmaking sorts players to try to get the lowest possible latency, and makes sure everyone in a lobby has access to the same DLC maps. But Call of Duty matchmaking historically has not considered skill, rank or experience at all, and Activision and Treyarch have not announced any significant changes to matchmaking for Black Ops 4. This means multiple-prestige veterans are sometimes matched with total newbies, resulting in significant skill gaps among players in a match.

The top performers will often have many more kills than their lowest-scoring teammates, and will earn several times as much experience for the same match. Prestiging requires a lot of experience, and since experience gains are a function of skill, it’s very likely that a player who has prestiged more than once is pretty good; weak players generally can’t earn enough experience to reach those heights.

In Overwatch, however, experience gains are largely a function of time spent playing; you get about 211 points per minute in the game. Performance awards are limited: You get 500 points for winning a game, and you can get some extra points by winning medals.

You only get the experience points for a single medal if you earn more than per round. If you play a 12-minute game, win and earn a gold medal, you’ll get about 2,500 points for playing, 500 for the win and 150 for your medal. Performance is worth less than a quarter of your experience gains. It’s a system designed to reward you for the amount of time you’ve played much more than for raw skill.

Overwatch isn’t a casual game. In fact, it is arguably more competitive and hardcore than Call of Duty. The skill cap is very high, the ranked mode uses fairly tight skill-based matchmaking, and the top tiers of the Overwatch ranking system are exclusive and difficult to reach. The game has a very competitive and widely watched professional league. The most recent Call of Duty games have included ranked modes, and the game has a burgeoning pro scene, but the unranked modes are where most players spend the most of their time.

Should time played be rewarded more than performance?

Call of Duty’s leveling system feels great when you’re kicking ass, but it is a lot less great when you’re the ass that is getting kicked, and you barely make any progress for spending 20 minutes getting stomped.

Overwatch’s system is much friendlier to casual players, but neither does it feel great to play well and carry your team only to get the same amount of experience as players who contributed less. Call of Duty ranks are also a better proxy for skill than Overwatch ranks, due to the fact that skill is such a significant component of experience in Call of Duty. Overwatch players with golden portraits may not be good, they might just be determined. A Black Ops 4 player who has already prestiged a few times is sure to be highly skilled.

So a skill-based leveling system rewards commitment and good play, and results in levels that convey something meaningful about the player. The only drawback is that it sucks to suck at Call of Duty.

So what’s the argument for replacing skill-based reward systems with time based reward systems?

Call of Duty: Black Ops - soldier firing as tank gunner fires in the background
Progression in Call of Duty is tightly linked to your personal skill level
Image: Treyarch/Activision

In less than three years, Overwatch has become extremely influential in terms of how multiplayer games are designed. Blizzard deemphasized some things that were previously given primacy in multiplayer games, such as ratios of kills to deaths. These stats, and their public visibility, have historically been a source of anxiety for players; it’s embarrassing to play poorly and then have everyone know exactly, with mathematical detail, how poorly you played.

Overwatch shows you detailed stats about your own play, but it doesn’t show you anyone else’s numbers. It also rolls assists and kills into a single stat, so that kill-to-death ratios don’t look quite so dismal for weaker players. This is all by design.

Other multiplayer shooters, including Call of Duty, have adopted some of Overwatch’s changes; Black Ops 4 includes assists in its kills-to-deaths ratio, and, while it provides the player with a detailed scorecard of their individual performance, the team scoreboard isn’t as detailed, and doesn’t tell your teammates how many times you died.

These are good practices. It’s good for a UI to encourage players to focus on their own play rather than on the shortcomings of their teammates. And rewarding players for the time they put into the game, regardless of performance, helps to avoid a culture that is incentivized to dunk on newer or weaker players.

But here’s another take on the Overwatch experience system: Overwatch sells loot boxes, and it wants you to buy loot boxes.

Loot boxes are a psychological tool that encourage you to spend more money on a game, and everything connected to loot boxes should be eyed with suspicion. Some systems are more fair than others, but the goal is always to keep you playing and spending.

So maybe Overwatch’s flat progression system gives everybody free loot boxes at a rate that is calibrated to encourage bad players and good players alike to buy more loot boxes. It won’t let you earn them too fast by playing well, because then you’d feel less need to buy them. But it also doesn’t want to dole them out too rarely, because it wants to constantly remind everybody about the loot boxes, and it doesn’t want anyone to pass a play session without visiting the loot box screen.

When seen through this lens, the experience system isn’t about fairness or about making competitive games friendlier for players who struggle to compete — it’s about feeding the loot beast.

Which view you take depends on how sinister you perceive Overwatch’s monetization to be. But Call of Duty’s prestige system doesn’t need to be viewed with suspicion because it isn’t tied into monetization.

Call of Duty tried loot boxes in the past, but has ditched them this year in favor of Black Market system that is similar to a Fortnite-style season pass that allows players to earn cosmetic unlocks.

Black Ops 4 recently added microtransactions to let players to skip over the Black Market tiers without grinding to progress through them, and buying a whole season of cosmetics costs over $150, so this game is now a hole that players with a lot of money or addiction issues can throw hundreds of dollars into. However, level-ups in the prestige system are independent from Black Market progression, not balanced around microtransactions. Treyarch and Activision don’t seem to have a good idea about what the economy should be, and are trying a few different ideas to see what sticks.

Both the Overwatch and Call of Duty progression systems have helped to make these games addictive, for better or worse, and keep players pushing for the next milestone. But both games also help dull the pain of losing an individual round. In Overwatch, you’ll always get experience for your time spent playing, and in Call of Duty, you can earn large amounts of experience points by doing well as an individual.

As a result, losing is less disappointing in both games than it might be in those where progression is conditioned on winning.

How bad should it feel to play poorly?

I think a competitive environment where skill-based matchmaking delivers close, intense matches is probably an ideal gaming experience. However, I’m not immune to the appeal of jumping into an unranked mode with loose matchmaking in a game I’m pretty good at. It’s fun to throw up disgusting numbers while repeatedly dunking on weak players, but the game itself doesn’t need to rub their faces in the dirt.

Skill at a competitive multiplayer game exists relative to other players. A successful game needs to maintain a sizable, casual group of players. If all the players who are worse than you leave, you become the scrub, and the game becomes less fun. You’re unlikely to stick around.

Both of these games have clearly managed to maintain their broad appeal, and they’ve done that by tuning their progression systems in different ways to keep players of all skill levels engaged.