There's nothing wrong with digital vanity

Doom won't be the last game to launch with a massive cosmetic progression system

If you haven't heard, the new Doom has multiplayer progression.

Yes, that's right. You earn new gear and new visual customization options by playing Doom's multiplayer. There are even challenges to complete and player levels to earn. It's a very post-Modern Warfare design; the multiplayer shooter as a long-term game.

Naturally, this wasn't received particularly well. During the open multiplayer beta, players endlessly compared Doom to Call of Duty and Halo in a riot of negative Steam reviews, complained about changes to the Doom formula, and generally threw a temper tantrum. This anger wasn’t rooted in a genuine or reasonable response to the game, but was rather a bit of performance art, a way to score brownie points with the nominally hardcore by complaining that a new game isn’t exactly like an old game. Doom is very much trying to be its own game, which means designing for modern sensibilities, and that means including mechanics such as multiplayer progression.

The vast majority of content you unlock in the new Doom's multiplayer is based on this level progression. New camos, new colors, new armor pieces, new emotes; you name it, it probably unlocks at some point. You are constantly encouraged to dress up your character, and your weapons, in cosmetics you just earned. As far as game-changing items go, you do unlock new guns and demons by leveling up, but (as evidenced by the beta) it's very possible for you to do perfectly fine without having a custom loadout or using "hack modules" (Doom's version of Titanfall's burn cards).

The irony of this is that these progression systems are the mechanics which keep the very same people who complain about them playing games beyond their natural lifespans. The same people wringing their hands about progression systems in the beta’s Steam reviews will probably buy, and enjoy, Doom. As illustrated by the relatively famous boycottcod.jpg, players love to complain about changes to a successful formula, only to buy and become addicted to the next iteration anyway.

But why did Bethesda add a progression system to Doom in the first place? Isn’t it enough to just replicate the original Doom’s multiplayer and call it done? Well, no. Not for a modern FPS. To understand why, we first have to understand the motivations of the average multiplayer FPS player.

Multiplayer first-person shooter players generally fall into one of three categories:

  • Casual players, who play the game to get better or just because they can.
  • Hardcore players, who play the game because they are good at it and want to show off.
  • Professional players, who play the game to be the best.

Casual players and professional players both have pretty simple long-term goals: get better at the game. Casual players want to stop getting dunked on, and professional players want to be as good as they can possibly be. But hardcore players are a little more complicated. They are good enough to regularly steamroll casual matches, but aren't interested in "going professional." They hit the skill ceiling and are comfortable relaxing there.

The problem with this mindset is that it leaves you without many long-term goals. When you're doing quite well every single match, but you have no desire to enter professional spaces, you're left without a sense of direction. Unlocks and progression provide that sense of direction, and they also give hardcore players little mini-challenges to complete, like learning a new weapon or doing well with a specific loadout. It's not a replacement for well-designed mechanics and levels, obviously, but it can keep players interested when normally they would seek the next big game.

Usually, games incorporate progression like this in two different ways. The first focuses on mechanics: you earn access to different weapons as you level up, which widen your options during a match. Many modern shooters - such as Battlefield, Halo 5, Call of Duty, Far Cry, and more - favor this kind of progression. However, most unlocks are side-grades, not upgrades, which avoids the problem of high-level players stomping low-level players with better gear.

The second type of progression is cosmetic: you earn camos, dyes, taunts, and other bits of fluff to show off how cool you are. Most games gate this content behind challenges rather than straight level unlocks, so players stick around, do the challenges, and extend the game’s lifespan.

These models of progression are intended to appeal to a certain sense of vanity. They show players a rare or prestigious cosmetic or weapon – say, a golden gun camo or unique assault rifle – and then lock it behind a progression wall. Do well and you’ll earn it; do poorly and you’ll have to try again. Those that bother to get the camos are considered skilled players, since they went through the slog. Those who didn’t must continue to prove themselves until they have their own badge of honor.

PC gamers often sneer upon these progression systems as dumbing down the genre, thanks to their introduction in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare – the first really popular first-person shooter with such a progression system. Add them to your game, and it’s a fair bet that it will inevitably be derisively compared to a shooter popular on console, such as Call of Duty or Halo. This only really happens in user reviews on PC, so its impact is thankfully limited, but it ends up polluting the potential discussion of a game.

The implication of this comparison is that console-based shooters are a blight upon the genre, and the people who play them are tasteless swine. It's rooted in a very PC-centric classism – that those who can only afford a console are peasants unfit to experience real games - which gave us that Nazi-reminiscent phrase "PC master race". It doesn't matter how the game plays (the new Doom plays nothing like either Halo or Call of Duty), it only matters if it's perceived as dumbing down the genre. It only matters that the Proper Order is maintained.

Despite rampant complaints in user reviews that Doom is just Halo by another name because it has a progression system, the multiplayer has a surprising amount of unique nuance. Each weapon controls differing amounts of map space, which makes your weapon choices very important and impactful. No map-based weapons means you can't lock down the map effortlessly, which forces more fights between teams. The demon spawning can cause a good team to completely change tactics and sneak around to avoid getting blasted to pieces. It's more thoughtful than you would expect of yet another first-person shooter.

Doom's progression does look clunky, mind. And there are legitimate issues to be had with progression systems in general, and the way they potentially stratify players. But these are nuanced discussions that the people who wrote negative reviews on the beta don’t really care about. The issue for them isn't really that Doom has progression. It's that slamming on console-based games on a PC platform will give them all the positive attention they want.

So let's drop the classism and nostalgia-pandering and embrace our inner vanity. There's nothing wrong with wanting to preen yourself in a virtual world.