A Totally Fair Progression System Is Impossible

Ranked progression systems have other, older influences too, of course. I contacted the team at Respawn Entertainment, makers of Apex Legends, for this article, hoping to understand how a similar game has tried to balance its own progression system (and which has also had to deal with accusations of unfairness). Over email, David Duong, senior director in product management at Respawn, and Aaron Rutledge, senior manager in experience design, responded that their “influences come from the tried and tested fundamentals of competition, both in gaming and outside of games.”

“There are definitely some universally established languages for competitive progression systems,” say Rutledge and Duong. “For example, the concept of precious metals and gemstones representing prestige dates back to the original Olympic Games and you can see that same Bronze, Silver, Gold, etc. system across a variety of games and genres.”

Fairness, of course, is a critical component of competition; it’s often been pointed out that video games, which guarantee reward for our achievements, are fair in a way that life often isn’t. Yet developers are still stuck with the fact that “fairness” means different things to different people. This can’t be reduced to a simple algorithm. Is it fair, for instance, that a student might be able to put in eight hours a day, while another person has to work a job and look after their kids? In what ways might fairness conflict with fun? You can get philosophical about this: What is equality of opportunity, and how do we realize that condition? Or specific: How much experience should you get for a killing spree? Fairness, say Rutledge and Duong, is a never-ending negotiation between developer and community.

“In terms of how we measure it, ‘fairness’ is almost impossible to measure accurately,” say Duong and Rutledge. “So we do our best by looking at the inputs we have available to us with player and playtest feedback, a healthy dose of qualitative and quantitative research data, and a bit of internal intuition to try and get the right system out the door for our players.”

Nevertheless, over time, developers have been able to discern certain principles. Loot boxes, randomized virtual items, have been criticized for their similarities to gambling, and players hate systems they identify as “pay to win”: the idea that in any game that has paying and non-paying players, the player who pays more is at a competitive advantage. “The days of being 100 percent explicit, as in ‘here’s the best weapon in the game, give us your credit card number, and you’ll get it,’ those days are gone,” says Bycer. “Consumers have gotten wise to that, and so have developers: it’s become a lot more subtle.”

Respawn’s Rutledge and Duong say that one of the ways that they create a fair system for players is by understanding that players play at different rates. Players may log in daily, weekly, or monthly; consequently, players need short-term, mid-term, and long-term goals to work toward. Play must be paced out, which breaks down into daily challenges and quests, with weekly challenges to cap off after they’ve knocked out the daily challenges. And once they complete the weekly challenges, they can still earn XP for their overall account level. “Weekly Challenges drive most of your progress in the Battle Pass. These weekly Battle Pass challenges stack versus resetting every week to give players that play less frequently the ability to still make meaningful and rewarding progress throughout the season,” say Rutledge and Duong.