Activision has mastered addictive online multiplayer – but that's not necessarily a good thing
Though reviews tend to focus on Call of Duty's story mode, it's the online multiplayer that accounts for the vast majority of the three million years sunk into the series by players since 2003. The most dedicated fans rack up hundreds or even thousands of hours annually. What explains their devotion to a multiplayer formula that stopped feeling fresh ages ago? The truth is that the folks at Activision have spent 13 years learning how to build a multiplayer shooter that is addictive above all else, and the enduring popularity of the series proves that they have gotten very, very good at it.
Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, 2016's addition to the series is colorful. It's loud. It's hectic and blood-spattered and unruly – and yet it's meticulously calculated, polished to a shrieking gleam. It's a machine fine-tuned to maximize slow-drip pleasure, engineered to keep you playing (and purchasing downloadable content) as long as it possibly can. In that way, Infinite Warfare has less in common with old-school titles like Doom than it does with the gambling machines that crowd casino floors. It is the pinnacle of the slot machine shooter.
In one of my first Infinite Warfare matches, I come face-to-face with an enemy in a clinical white corridor. I panic, unload my weapon, and manage to land exactly one bullet before the other player fires a rocket launcher at the floor and kills us both. My screen explodes with commendations. "Assisted Suicide," reads one medal. The others fly past too quickly for me to comprehend. Then I level up, prompting a congratulatory message and a burst of triumphant music. The game has rewarded me handsomely for doing nothing at all. It's a far cry from 2007's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, where the sole reward for a hard-earned kill was the subtle clickety-click of hit-markers followed by a yellow "+5."
The interface isn't all that's changed. On Modern Warfare's sprawling maps, it was possible to spend an entire match battling for control of a specific landmark, like the infamous three-story building on Crash (everyone's favorite Modern Warfare map). These battles were slow and cerebral, waged across multiple lives. They required learning the opponent's tendencies – the corners they preferred to hide in, the angles they liked to cover. The contemplative, deliberate confrontations were my favorite part of Modern Warfare. In Infinite Warfare, similarly strategic battles are impossible. There are no landmarks worth claiming, no static positions to defend. The maps are cramped and circular, riddled with crossfire angles and blind corners. Between wall-running, jet packs, and numerous speed-based perks, movement is downright hyperkinetic. Weapons are so lethal that killing an opponent feels almost trivial – and dying feels unavoidable. You spawn, rush immediately into combat, kill, die, and spawn again, all within seconds. The ceaseless bloodshed is engaging, but it's also vapid, a rapidfire splurge of meaningless whirligig slaughter.
Interestingly, Call of Duty's nine-year progression from "slow and functional" to "fast and flashy" mirrors the evolution of gambling machines, as detailed by Natasha Dow Schüll in Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas. Just as Modern Warfare's simple yellow kill indicators transformed into grand celebrations of quotidian feats, gambling machines' visual and aural stimuli grew ever-more intricate and frequent during the 90s and early 2000s. "In the span of a single decade," writes Schüll, "sound engineers have gone from using as few as 15 sounds per game to an average of 400 unique ‘sound events,' each calibrated to encourage play while remaining in the background." And just as Call of Duty's speed increased over time, such that Infinite Warfare makes the original Modern Warfare look positively sluggish, each generation of gambling machines enabled faster play. Schüll notes that modern machines boast average game-lengths as short as three and a half seconds. Far from being coincidental, these similarities reflect a goal that Call of Duty and gambling machines share: maximally addictive design.In video games, as in gambling machines, the key to addictive design is creating a trancelike state of flow. One of the gamblers Schüll interviews in her book describes the sensation like this: "it's like being in the eye of a storm … your vision is clear on the machine in front of you, but the whole world is spinning around you, and you can't really hear anything. You aren't really there – you're with the machine." This is exactly what Infinite Warfare feels like when you're "in the zone." Rapid and repetitive actions, like combat events in Infinite Warfare or three-second gambling games, lull players into a state of focus and calm. Likewise a steady drip of positive feedback. What's interesting about addictive design is that "fun" has little to do with it. Flow, whether achieved via multiplayer shooter or slot machine, detaches the player from conscious thought. The detachment itself, not "fun", is what the gambler or the serious Call of Duty player seeks.
There are important differences, of course. While gambling machines serve one player at a time, maximally addictive multiplayer shooters must provide a state of flow to many participants simultaneously, a task complicated by the fact that one player's soothing success (getting a kill) means another player's flow-disrupting failure (dying). Just as slot machines offset losses with wins to keep players hooked, shooters must balance deaths with kills, even when certain players are hopelessly outmatched.
That's another reason for Infinite Warfare's rabbit-warren maps, crazy-lethal rifles, and superweapons that essentially aim themselves (available twice per match). These factors reduce the differentiating power of skill, bringing the competition closer to a coin flip, a game of who-sees-who-first. Everyone gets a chance to shoot a few opponents in the back. This improves Infinite Warfare's ability to provide a state of flow to inexperienced players. But it also makes the pursuit of high-level skill less alluring, since no amount of skill can prevent you from dying repeatedly to threats you don't see coming.
This is the paradox that Call of Duty's developers face. The harder they try to provide low-level players with the kills necessary to sustain a state of flow, thus maximizing addictive (i.e. revenue-generating) potential, the more they must flatten the skill curve. But the more they reduce the impact of skill, the less interesting the game becomes for high-level players, and the lower the allure of becoming high-level in the first place. Put another way: it's hard to appeal to hardcore and casual players simultaneously.
Infinite Warfare is the product of this pressure. Like the last several games in the series, it attempts to broaden its appeal through crisper graphics and nominally deeper customization. If it feels a bit stale, feature-bloated, and over-engineered, that's because it is. It's still perfectly capable of taking your average Call of Duty fan to the land of slot machine-style flow. But, like gambling, it's an empty, anodyne kind of pleasure, more the absence of negative feelings than the presence of positive ones. You won't remember your innumerable deaths, but neither will you remember your innumerable kills. You won't remember the outcome of your matches. You won't remember the accolades you receive. By November 2017, when the next Call of Duty game inevitably drops, you may not remember Infinite Warfare at all.