An increasing trend in shooters lately is this idea of persistent progression and unlocks. A reward system of sorts, intended to make your experience feel more personal, lasting and meaningful. As you play you gain new skins, abilities, weapons or even advantages over your opponents, all the while chasing that next delicious carrot on a stick. While this mechanic is by no means a new idea in the industry, it’s frequency among shooters has definitely risen in recent years to the point where a game without it could be looked on as lacking by some. Whether you’ve just unlocked the defibrillator for the Assault kit in Battlefield 3, an ACOG scope for your UMP .45 in Modern Warfare 3, or even that Mark VI Mjolnir helmet for your Halo Reach spartan, you have experienced this trend in some form or another.

Call of Duty is probably the best example of this mentality. I’m not going to jump on the Modern Warfare 3 hate train that lots of gamers seem to be riding – its an enjoyable game that gets plenty of its design decisions right. I enjoy CoD for what it is: uncaring, bombastic fun. One of the mechanics that help make it so fun is the reward system, a system much lauded way back in ’07 with the advent of Call of Duty 4 Modern Warfare. Ever since Modern Warfare 2 in ’09 it’s been difficult to get through a single multiplayer match in a CoD game without earning some kind of reward. From Killstreaks to medals, the player is constantly encouraged to keep playing through positive feedback for his or her efforts.

This feedback feeds into the persistent progression system in the form of unlocks and ranks. Your awesome performance suddenly has a tangible meaning in the game beyond the match you just played in. If you kick enough ass, not only will you win the game: you’ll eventually be given a bigger gun that lets you kick even more ass in the future. And you know what? That bigger gun will get even bigger as you use it through the wonder of unlockable attachments. Additional perks allow you to further tailor your experience, letting you play the game the way you want to play.

It’s easy to see why the system is popular yet at the same time the drawbacks are readily apparent. Lets say you start playing a generic shooter using an unlock system with John. Now, you’re new to the game. John has spent 18 hours every day for the last year playing it. Simply put, John has a much, MUCH bigger gun than you. You get absolutely destroyed until you can get a gun as big as his. What’s more, the particular combination of unlocks John is using is very much over powered – say cluster grenades and a giant explosive radius upgrade, or x-ray goggles and the ability to shoot through walls.

While this is an extreme example it serves to illustrate my point: balance can be an issue. How do you give someone a bigger gun without making the ones that came before it feel redundant. You also have to somehow make sure the player feels rewarded when he unlocks something and thus give it some tangible advantage over the ones that came before. Furthermore, all these possible unlocks have to be designed with one another in mind, lest a game breaking, reputation ruining combination surfaces. They also have to be careful not to make the differences between unlocks too arbitrary.

Lets look at Battlefield 3. It’s fair to say that game has its fair share of unlockables, from weapons to attachments to gadgets. Working in a similar carrot-on-a-stick way to Call of Duty, you have various merits and rewards thrown at you on a game to game basis. But whereas CoD has weapons that are clearly better than others, BF3 generally does a good job of keeping the infantry stuff balanced. The weapons have subtle differences in handling or firing modes, and each always has a place or role it’s suited for. Map design usually encourages a focus on all classes and, for the most part, essential gadgets are available from the get go. The gadgets focus more on offering new ways to play like the mortar for support or the EOD bot for the engineer, rather than outright improving your character. The perks that do improve the player are generally passive ones such as sprint faster or additional ammunition.

So did Battlefield nail the balance between rewards and gameplay perfectly? Well no. Vehicle unlocks are another story completely. Ground vehicles like tanks aren’t too bad, although a naked tank will have a challenging time taking down a fully kitted out tank. Jets are quite ridiculous, with a fresh pilot starting out with nothing but a gatling gun and and some faith in god. Taking down enemy jets without heat seeking missiles is very difficult for a beginner pilot (which everyone was at some stage), and evading missiles without flares is damn near impossible with no experience.

Battlefield and Call of Duty are just two examples of games that use this kind of persistent progression and together they’re probably the biggest shooters this year. They’re not the only ones though. Splinter Cell Conviction and Rainbow Six Vegas had and unlock systems that actually spanned all modes in the game, both single player and multiplayer. Halo Reach does it as well, though from a purely aesthetic perspective. Team Fortress 2 continues to be a completely different game every time I play it thanks to the plethora of tradeable items made available from weapons to hats.

So is persistent progression a good thing for gaming? More importantly is it a necessary feature for multiplayer shooters? Would you be put off if a game didn’t have it? Games like Quake and Unreal Tournament did just fine back in the day. They got by on their solid gameplay and fun factor, with things like balance being far less of an issue than it is today thanks to players generally starting with the same weapons and the strategic placement of power weapons around the map. Counter Strike had a progression system but it was on a game by game basis. It may be nostalgia, but I kind of miss the old ways of doing things. The experience felt more pure and skill based, rather than “oh, you had better gear than me”.

That said, it would be hard to imagine a Battlefield or Call of Duty game without persistent progression. Would the multiplayer be as fun without that beautiful carrot being dangled on a stick in front of me? I know I spent many a night in Battlefield 3 instead of my bed, saying “just one more unlock” after my sixth or seventh unlock that hour. I get hooked on these things and at the end of the day isn’t that what developers want?