Modern player retention systems in shooters operate on a variety of levels. The most popular system is persistent player progression, which works by making each match feel like you’ve accomplished something, win or lose. On top of that often lies a per-weapon or per-class progression system, such as Halo’s commendations. These two systems try to improve player retention over the long term, usually indicated by their scopes – full completion takes a very, very long time with some smaller milestones to make the journey there less of a daunting idea. But how do you get players to come back day after day in the short term, instead of just once a week? How do you try to influence their behavior towards the desired result or teach them something new without constructing a long progression for it? This is where challenges come in. Developers are able to track a variety of player actions and accomplishments, and use that data to reward players. When designing those challenges, though, there are things that are okay to encourage and things that should not be. In the same way that a parent or teacher shouldn’t laugh when a child says something obscene, developers shouldn’t give virtual candy to players that act against the best interests of their team.
So what are some guidelines for good challenges?
- Be consistent with your expectations and rewards.
- Be reasonable with your challenge parameters.
- Don’t encourage your players to be jerks.
- Avoid repetition of specific challenges.
- Make the rewards worth working for.
On the first point: Consistency is incredibly important when you’re dealing with a hardcore audience of smart, attentive people. When you ask your players for 150 headshots and promise them 10,000 space bux, you can’t ask the same of them a month later and only promise them 5,000. Players, like consumers, are fickle. In the same way that companies can’t raise the price of a high-end product after lowering it without risking outrage (this is why console price cuts are meaningful and scarce), developers shouldn’t be surprised to read sardonic remarks when players see diminishing returns for their efforts. That isn’t to say there needs to needs to be a linear scale of payouts, though. That is a judgment call that requires playing it by ear and responding to your playerbase, which is something that I think is very important – as the challenge designers, you have to not only be responsive, but respond quickly. It only takes a few repeated mistakes for it to become a community in-joke and for your systems to not be taken as seriously as it should be.
Secondly, you need to understand what your playerbase is and isn’t capable of accomplishing within the bounds of normal play. Asking for 25 kills in a single multiplayer game when the score limit is 60 isn’t reasonable – a player would need to be lucky by virtue of being unlucky and be placed on a team incompetent enough to allow for one player scoring nearly half of the allotted kills. Realize what elements are most popular with your playerbase and design challenges that facilitate the use of that. When I see challenges that require heavy automatic weapon usage, I just ignore it because it runs entirely counter to my style of play and actually requires less effective tactics to complete. This is why making designing challenges with very broad requirements is such a good idea – a “Kill 30 enemy Spartans today” challenge allows for a much broader range of player tactics than the aforementioned automatic weapon challenge or the headshot challenge. Having said that, of those two evils the headshot challenge is more acceptable. Why is that? Simply put, it encourages more effective player tactics than the automatic weapon challenge does. A player using a precision rifle contributes more to their team than a guy packing a Storm Rifle in a vast majority of situations, which dovetails nicely into the next point…
Don’t encourage your players to be jerks. Halo is a team game in most instances. You never, ever, ever want to design a challenge that causes your players to behave in a way that goes against the good of the team. Both Bungie and 343 made serious mistakes in this regard. Assassination challenges, sticky grenade challenges, the list goes on. They drive players to very specific behaviors that do not come up naturally many times during the course of a normal match, and so players tend to camp or rush in order to maximize their chances. On days with assassination challenge, I have personally seen randoms rush for assassinations instead of shooting players, behavior that resulted in their death, which doesn’t benefit the team as a whole. Halo 4 has introduced one of the worst challenges to date, though…
That’s just perfect. I’m a good Halo player, I’m not afraid to say that. Over the course of the last five and a half years, I have fourteen Perfection medals logged. In the last three months, this challenge has appeared four times. This is something that requires conscious effort and a sizable amount of skill to complete legitimately, which most players frankly just don’t have. Instead, they play an objective gametype and camp in the base trying to get kills, which doesn’t help the team. When those days or weeks coincide with an automatic weapon challenge, prepare for a carnival of stupidity as matchmaking randoms fumble around in the Adrift bases crouching with their ARs at the ready.
I suppose we’re lucky that challenge has only appeared four times, given the repetitious nature of Halo 4 challenges.
Editor’s Note: So, I kind of lost steam here back in January 2013. I spent an excruciating amount of time tallying up the number of repetitions for several common challenges per mode, but since there was no official archive of those anywhere (and no GOOD community archive, like Reach had with HBO’s secret challenge database), I gave up. Getting data to back up the points, which I still believe to be fully valid, was just too time-intensive and frustrating to continue. Since then, I’ve basically completely ended my time with Halo 4, and I don’t see myself going back with Destiny around the corner. I just remembered today that this draft was sitting here, so I thought it might be good to go ahead and publish it as-is.
I’d love to continue writing about games and design, but I don’t have any particular topics to write about. So if you enjoy this dumb thing, feel free to send me topics. Writing has really helped me to flesh out the reasoning behind the gut feelings I have, and has made me a better critical thinker in the process, so I’d like to keep at it if I had something worth writing about.