The thought first occurred to me in Battlefield 2 as I felt the impact of a long-range headshot while sliding down a zip line in the middle of a fire fight. It may be the most efficient way to travel in a playground, but in the battlefield it leaves you unable to return fire for the duration of the slide. You're effectively hung out in the open like a slab of raw meat before a pack of hungry dogs. Making it across unscathed would have been more shocking than what befell me. So why'd I keep doing it?
As I completed my tenth zip line run, up popped a little icon accompanied by a military fanfare, and suddenly I knew the answer: because I was weak.
It hadn't always been like this. There was a time where I was happy to focus my attention only on eliminating the opposition, stealing their flag or planting the bomb. Quake 3 was my first real addiction. Hours better spent studying were whiled away rocket jumping, gibbing and dominating, made even better with the knowledge that it was a contest between real people involving real skill.
Counter-Strike eventually offered something new beyond the standard team deathmatch. My first few hundred games were a disaster; coming late to the party is never fun, particularly when the other guests are crouched beneath the tables with Desert Eagles aimed at your chest. Eventually, though, it clicked, and the change of pace illuminated my gaming world with new possibilities. When I was at my best, I was a member of a team, with a clear role and motive. I celebrated every success with others who shared my ambitions.
I felt a real sense of progress on a personal level. With (too many) hours of practice, map layouts fell in to place, tactics became subconscious decisions and I was able to assess multiple actions and outcomes in quick succession. There was an intangible feeling of getting better, but it was only demonstrable in the game. With nothing to go back to, nothing to egg me on, Counter-Strike became stale. Oh, look, it's de_dust again.
PlanetSide was my first taste of something better: a persistent world. With kills came experience; with experience came greater ranks; and with greater ranks came weapon unlocks. At the time, the ability to swap a different set of skills every 24 hours meant you could always be valuable to your faction. On attack? Be a flyboy. On defense? Switch to an engineer. It was never that simple, of course, but it worked. Away from the game, I could view kill counts, kill/death ratios and global performance. It was loose and simple, but it went beyond simply measuring twitch reflexes: It made me more emotionally invested in the game. Switching sides after I realized there were benefits to playing as another faction was never an option; this was me, my persona, my experiences woven into the game world itself.
Some of these advances were trappings of the MMO genre that PlanetSide awkwardly inhabited. In the more traditional FPS arena, unfortunately, developers paid little attention to PlanetSide's innovations. Then Battlefield 2 came along and changed everything. It showed me how weak I was.
Pre-release, EA DICE announced the addition of badges and ranks to the series, and that attaining in-game promotions would unlock new weapons. This led to a mild uproar in online forums about how it would hopelessly unbalance the game for those who didn't have a billion hours to plough into it. In my head, however, I immediately thought: ace!