I'm approaching Prestige in Modern Warfare 3. It's been coming for a while, but a couple more sessions should push me over the line. Like most people I will relinquish the weapons and load-outs that I've accrued so far in favour of a little badge that says to other gamers; I've played enough to reach this level, and I'm also comfortable enough with my skills to abandon the tools that have served me thus far.
Getting Prestige is an achievement, but one that, by and large, goes uncelebrated by the traditional method of reward: Trophies and Gamer Points. Whilst these little acknowledgements help us gauge how we are doing in a game, how far through its content we are and, from time to time, when we've done something that's pretty cool, they just don't hold the same gravitas as receiving Prestige (often more than once) or an Onyx ranking.
Whilst most games do attach some Achievements/Trophies to their multiplayer, when considering the big multiplayer titles, these achievements aren't the reason we keep coming back for more. Receiving an achievement is a fleeting satisfaction, whereas gaining prestige on CoD or hitting a level 50 on Halo 3 provides a badge that can be worn out front and centre. I couldn't give the tiniest iota of a shit if you've got a double kill from the grave in Halo: Reach, but if you're an Inheritor, or have an Arena rank of Gold or Onyx, then I'm probably going to sit up and take notice. If you're on my team I'm reassured that you probably know what you're doing, and if you're against me then I know that it might be worth keeping an eye on you during the match.
During an online Halo: Reach game I played recently, I overheard someone commenting that "rank means nothing on Reach". He was a good player, and was more skilled than several of the higher ranked players he was up against. Whilst there might have been a kernel of truth in what he had to say; rank earned in Reach is reflective of time spent with the game, and has very little to do with competency, I would argue that rank in Reach does mean something. It means something to the player who earned it.
Even if the only thing accurately depicted by your Reach rank is time spent playing the game, you try telling a Nova or a Forerunner that their rank means nothing. Sure, to get a true measure of a players skill you need to look at their kill/death spread and Arena rank (mine's Gold, for the record), but skill isn't everything, dedication is. Linking the publicly visible score to games played, rather than to kill/death spreads or Trueskill rankings, makes it a more enjoyable experience for less skillful players.
Less skillful players make up the majority, and whilst doing away with the old Halo 3 ranking system irked some of the more hardcore players, now a larger percentage of players can be rewarded for their investment of time and energy. This is a good thing, because gaming is a hobby for most people, and some kind of reward for their efforts goes along way to encouraging further engagement. It's also nice to get something tangible for your contribution, even if it is just a new helmet for your avatar, or a new gun, or a new logo for your profile.
The hunt for these often elusive bonus items and rewards can often be reason enough for gamers to keep plugging away at a title. Even more so with rare and difficult to earn items. Envy can be a massive incentive; seeing a skilled opponent wearing a funky piece of armour, or carrying a kick-ass weapon, can inspire gamers to put in the extra hours so they can get it themselves.
Over the next few days I'll be playing Halo: Reach and Modern Warfare 3 quite a bit. My proximity to Prestige is too tantalising to ignore, and all the recent talk of Halo 4 has got me in the mood for some Spartan-esque combat. Whilst I'm sitting in the menu screens looking at my opponents ranks and armour load-outs, waiting for matches to start, I'll be comparing stats and making assumptions based on what I can deduce from other players profiles. What I wont be doing is checking through their achievements and to see if they've killed three players with one blast of a Spartan Laser, or whether or not they've completed all the Spec Ops in MW3.
Achievements and Trophies are a great way of rewarding a player embarking on a long and difficult single-player campaign, but they don't matter one little bit when it comes to playing competitive online games. Whilst I appreciate being rewarded for my sole adventuring, I don't think I'm alone in taking much more pride in in my online achievements. Perhaps it is fitting then the rewards for excelling in the most popular multiplayer games aren't simply Achievements or Trophies that get added to your profile, but come in the form of recognition from the games designers in a currency more readily accepted by your peers. Prestige/ranking, kill/death spreads and customisation options allow gamers to get a measure of each other (and often they also give us something to aspire to) much more accurately than the generic reward schemes now implemented by the major platforms, and I don't think that should be underestimated when we consider the reasons why these games are so enduringly popular.