Breaking the Lock
When I buy a DVD, I don't have to watch the entire movie before listening to the director's commentary track. When I buy a CD, I don't have to memorize all the lyrics before I can see the behind-the-scenes photos in the liner notes. When I buy a book, I don't have to read the foreword and acknowledgements before diving into Chapter 1.
In other media, hiding certain content from paying customers until they meet some arbitrary condition borders on the ludicrous. But with videogames, it's routine to see whole swaths of a game locked from view until the player achieves some arbitrary goal. These unlockables can range from meaningless extras (new costumes, cut scenes, art galleries, etc.) to integral parts of the gameplay (new characters, vehicles, weapons, levels, etc.), but in each case the basic principle of the unlockable is the same: You can't have this stuff until you prove yourself worthy.
As gamers we've been conditioned over the years to expect this kind of partitioning of content. I think it's about time we broke that conditioning and started expecting fuller, more unconditional access to the entirety of the games we're buying.
Is there any good reason I can't play this level on my copy of Super Mario Bros. anytime I want?
As I see it, the primary function of unlockables, from a game-design perspective, is to provide a carrot to encourage players to complete specific in-game goals. Find the hidden exit and unlock this new level. Defeat this boss and unlock the next story-expanding cut scene. Collect 10,000 golden trinkets and purchase a frilly dress for your character to wear. Each new achievement unlocks some new piece of content, which itself might lead to new goals that in turn unlock their own new content, until the obsessive-compulsive gamer reaches that elusive "100-percent complete" level and can finally put away a game that's likely become tiresome long before then.
It's a powerful psychological trick, and one that can add a lot of addictive appeal to a game. The problem, of course, comes when a player is unwilling or unable to complete the next goal and receive the next carrot in the sequence. Maybe Billy just can't seem to beat the boss on Level 5 of his game. Does that mean he doesn't deserve to see Level 6 and beyond? Maybe Jane doesn't have the dozens of hours necessary to save up enough in-game cash to buy that super-powered weapon. Does that mean she doesn't deserve to try it out?
I'm sure some readers are screaming at the screen at this point. "Of course they don't deserve these rewards!" I hear you imaginary readers yelling. "Games aren't about just handing you everything on a silver platter! Games are about overcoming adversity through time and effort -- about focusing your energy and skills on a specific goal and getting rewarded for successfully reaching that goal. If Billy and Jane want to get the cool stuff in their games, they need to put in the time and effort to earn them."
I understand this point of view, but I think it's fundamentally wrong. Games aren't about achieving goals, they're about having fun. And hiding content behind locked doors means some players -- players that paid good money for that game -- don't get to have as much fun as players that have the time and ability to unlock everything the game has to offer. How is that fair?
Why do I have to beat the game to watch this scene from Metal Gear Solid?
Don't get me wrong, I'm all for recognizing in-game accomplishments. Systems like Xbox Live's Gamerscore and the PlayStation Network's Trophies are a great way to recognize players that have shown exceptional skill. High-score tables, time-trial modes and detailed completion statistics all provide great ways to encourage players to new heights of gameplay prowess. Recognizing skill is not the issue. The issue is giving everyone who purchases a game access to everything that game has to offer.
Understand, when I say "everything a game has to offer," I do mean everything. I'm a maximalist on this matter. When I first load up a game, I want to be able to jump to any point in that game, with any weapon, any vehicle, any item and any abilities that the game could possibly provide. I want to be able to watch any cut scene, revisit any conversation tree, listen to any piece of music and wear any costume just by bringing up an in-game menu. Basically I want immediate access to everything the designers decided to put in the game, short of anything that would fundamentally break it (although, as in-game debug modes prove, breaking a game can be fun in its own right).
"Wait a second," I'm sure some readers are saying. "What you're talking about is complete anarchy! In your universe, games wouldn't have any coherent narrative. There would be no natural progression of settings, challenge and abilities to guide the player through the game. With everything available from the start, games would just be a series of disconnected playgrounds -- giant sandboxes where there are no rules, no limits, no goals and, ultimately, no larger meaning."
@@ Ah, but you are jumping to conclusions, my imaginary, argumentative reader. Of course I understand that games need some sort of coherent narrative and gameplay structure in order to be meaningful. I also understand that this structure sometimes requires temporarily locking certain parts of the game, until those parts make sense in the context of the story, for instance, or until the player has learned enough to complete the next challenge. I'm not trying to upend these basic tenets of game design. What I am trying to make sure of is that these tenets don't get in the way of players enjoying a game for all it is.
Wouldn't Ratchet & Clank be more fun if you could use the RYNO at any time?
Don't worry ... when I am supreme dictator of the world and have finally ushered in the glorious unlock-free future, you'll be able to keep the story modes and single-player campaigns that give your game structure. All I will require is that you also include some sort of easily accessible "unlock everything" mode that satisfies the conditions I outlined above. That way, game designers will have the freedom to design their games however they want and players will have the freedom to play the game however they want, in turn.
"But even including such a mode as an option can be destructive to the games we know and love," you contentious, imaginary readers are already bellowing in my head. "'Unlock everything' mode would exert an irresistible pull on gamers to take the easy way out of any passingly difficult situation in a game. Why struggle to learn the intricacies of a game's rules and strategy when you can just break those rules whenever you want and use your superpowers to blast through any situation with no strategy whatsoever?"
To this I say, give gamers some credit. We do have a modicum of self-control, after all. Just having the option to go anywhere and do anything doesn't mean a gamer will skip through the "proper game," any more than having access to the last chapter of a book means a reader will immediately jump to the ending. The difference is, a book buyer has the option of re-reading the last chapter, or showing a friend a specific passage to get them interested, or just skipping ahead if they can't take the suspense. A game player should have the same option to play around in their game world, without artificial limits on what's "locked" and what isn't.
After killing 60,000 zombies, does anyone even have the endurance to try out Dead Rising's Mega Man suit?
And besides, what's wrong with letting players occasionally use superpowers to blast tough situations if that's what they want to do? Who hasn't used the "god mode" and "all weapons" codes to turn into an omnipotent killing machine in DOOM? Who hasn't used a cheat to instantly earn millions of dollars to craft their own world in The Sims? Who hasn't tried summoning a tank out of thin air in Grand Theft Auto III, just because they could? The core structure of these games wasn't ruined by including the option to easily unlock these items and abilities. If anything, the option to break open the locks made the games more fun than they would have been otherwise.
Look, if you game designers are really worried about tempting gamers, hide the "unlock everything" mode behind an easy-to-find code, on the back page of the instruction manual or something. Put up a big warning sign in the game saying that "unlock everything" mode is "not the way the game is meant to be played" or some such. But please, have enough respect for me, as a consumer, to give me some way of accessing every inch of the game I bought, no matter what. And while you're at it, have enough respect for your game design that people will want to play it because it's inherently fun, not just because there's some reward waiting to be unlocked after the next goal.
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