Contract With the Devil

Dispute the validity of ‘gaming addiction’ all you want, but designers are definitely try to tap into gaming compulsions to engineer games that keep you playing. To this end, Treyarch’s latest foray into the Call of Duty franchise implements a couple of interesting features: contracts and wager matches.

Contracts are essentially challenges the player must complete in a given time frame in exchange for CoD points or XP. Of course, we’ve already seen a system similar to this earlier in the year in Bungie’s Halo: Reach–aptly named ‘challenges,’ no less. In a way these contracts function like achievements do, enticing a player with rewards to perform acts they might not otherwise. Wagers on the other hand see players betting that they can finish a match standing in the top three, all for a smaller buy-in price. Points that players win in normal matches or contracts may be used to wage bets.

Couple these new features with additional benchmark challenges (say, for example, reaching X number of kills with Y weapon), and you’ve got yourself a full-fledged rewards system that functions in tandem with the actual game. The more money and experience you earn, the more you can buy/equip for your loadout, the better you might perform in a match.

Contracts may take advantage of compulsions to show mastery over a given system–almost like a dare–but they also have the ability to reward players for trying something different. For example, you’ve got things like contracts to knife someone in the back, to getting 5 kills with a flamethrower attachment. Normally I wouldn’t give the flamethrower attachment a second glance: sure, it might be cool and flashy, but it’s probably not as effective as a grenade attachment or a shotgun underbarrel. With contracts in effect, however, I’m constantly weighing in if a change in my loadout or playstyle is worth a few extra credits.

Thus I recognize the value that contracts provide: they pepper a game which might otherwise become dull and repetitive (after all, it’s only a matter of time before a dedicated player settles in on a loadout, a playing style, a particular route) with a little spice to keep things interesting. There’s nothing like a good ‘ol fashioned risk vs reward scenario to keep players engaged, right?

Nonetheless for every interesting contract or challenge, you’ve got a dozen uninspired and monotonous challenges that plague both CODBlops and Reach. The potential for creating a novel experience is there, it’s just a matter of putting a little effort into making the contracts. It’ll be interesting to see these systems implemented elsewhere, too: imagine, for a second, a Battlefield challenge to snipe a helicopter’s pilot? Unfortunately it’s probably easier to make implement randomized “Kill X number of enemies with Y weapon” than it is to come up with interesting challenges, and that’s a shame. I want designers to impress me with challenges that explore nuisance, challenges that make me explore the game in an ingenious way, challenges that keep me engaged. Otherwise, the “addictive” system becomes a missed opportunity.

Moreover, implementing weirder challenges or challenges that are very difficult to do have the possibility of alienating certain players, and the idea is to keep people engaged in the long-term. I recognize that a hypothetical challenge of sniping an Apache pilot would be incredibly difficult, but I also don’t think all challenges should be general enough that anybody can complete them without working for it. The issue is finding the right balance in terms of risk vs reward, deciding how inclusive challenges should be, and recognizing what sorts of challenges operate within intended gameplay systems.

Where contracts disappoint, wager matches succeed: wager matches are all about the novel experience. Modes include one in the chamber (where you only have one bullet), gun game (where every kill lands you a new weapon), sticks and stones (crossbows, ballistic knives and tomahawks only) and sharpshooter (weapons cycle randomly ever 45 seconds). Intense, ridiculous and crazy, wager matches are a definite must-play, even for players completely disinterested in winning CoD points. I would not be surprised if players who partake in wager matches experience long-term engagement with the modes, since everything about them is novel and quirky.

Still, I can’t help but wonder if the ultimate purpose of contracts and challenges isn’t so much to keep things interesting for players, but rather to involve players extensively as a means of keeping a market continually open. This means more players will hang on to their games and play longer, and that means more players will be interested in buying a 15 dollar map pack or the long-rumored subscription models. The contracts and wagers are devilish and genius, really.

With these systems in place, I would not be surprised to find Activision’s desire for a year-round revenue stream from CoD coming true soon. And if the numbers for the map pack are any indication, we’ll welcome it with open hands: we’ll be too engrossed in their game not to.

Is that a bad thing? I can’t say.


  1. David

    We’ve already has some of this discussion elsewhere, but I agree that the wager match modes are some really innovative stuff. My main problem is that I know I won’t ever be top 3 in a CoD match (BC2, yes, but not CoD), so I don’t want to “lose” my virtual money.

    Put the gun game stuff in a regular playlist too–similar to some of the wackier stuff that got into Halo 3’s social playlists, particularly the “Action Sack” hopper.

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