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The pros and cons of unlockable content

posted on September 28th, 2006 by christian

Congratualtions! You unlocked a new article. This one is on, you guessed it, unlockables and extras in games. They’ve been around for a while, but nowadays it seems that very few genres do not include some sort of rewards for the player to earn. Many gamers have respond kindly to this, so much so that a lack of bonus content may actually hurt a game in a review.

However, not everyone considers them rewards. There is a strong group of gamers who seem to greatly dislike unlockables, citing that a person who has spent hard earned money on a brand new game should have access to all its content without jumping through hoops. I’ve seen the debate rage on many times, but I’ve never been able to determine which side is right. Quite frankly, they’re both right. Ultimately, the problem with unlockable content is that there’s never a standard for what it should be and how it should be implemented. It can be a blessing or a bane, an enjoyable venture or an absolute chore to earn. If I were more of a New Games Journalist, I would probably make a fancy matrix out of these parameters. Instead, let’s look at some games and see just how they deal with extra content. Also, for the sake of clarification, let’s consider “unlockables” to not only be bonuses that are literally unlocked, but also any secret goodies or upgrades that one may find in game.

No one ever suspects the giant chicken.

Grand Theft Auto: GTA games always have a ton of secret content that comes in a variety of forms. Completing them can grant you access to cars, weapons, money and more. The game rarely makes mention of these extras, instead leaving it up to the player to find and complete them at their leisure. The fact that they are also spread out over so many different minigames and activities means that very few people are going to bother finding them all before completing the game. In fact, certain bonuses can’t actually be acquired until you have earned 100% completion (meaning you have beaten the story missions).

I think the message here is clear; go ahead and have fun with the extra content, but you don’t have to go crazy, since it will never be necessary in order for you to enjoy the game. If there is a car or gun you need, you can find it through other means, and the missions are often designed to allow various kinds of strategies, something you can’t find hidden away in the game. GTA wants focus on the missions and exploration, and the player’s own skills take top priority. The bonus content is usually just for convenience’s sake, and very rarely will missing out on it damage the overall experience.

Most RPGs: In this case, we’ve got a case that is opposite of GTA. Completing most sidequests in the typical RPG (both eastern and western) will often grant boatloads of experience, or very powerful items. Completing all of them can drastically change the difficulty and nature of the experience. I think this is a problem of sorts. Most RPGs are based on numbers at least as much as strategy.

I’d probably rather die than try to get another golden chocobo.

Thus there may be instances where the player is facing, say, a tough late game boss. They can win the fight, but the challenge is quite high. Should they wish to lessen it, their only choices are to a) level grind, or b) complete the sidequests and raise your characters to ridiculous levels of strength. Neither option is generally a good one, since some of the most useful sidequests in a game (ie. FF7 Chocobo breeding, Dragon Quest 8’s casino) rely on luck more than anything else, while others are generally just plain tedious. The same things have happened to me in GTA, but in those instances I just give up, because I know I’ll never need whatever it is I’m shooting for. I just cobble up another strategy and go from there. The fact that so many RPGs force you to jump through hoops in order to make the game easier, rather than relying on the player’s own level of skill is something that is frustrating to no end.

Of course, this assumes that you can actually find the sidequests, since often times they are devilishly hard to find. For instance, reading about some characters in an FAQ for Planescape: Torment, I discovered that I had missed out on a massive amount of sidequests that could have net me huge amounts of experience? The reason why? Because I never considered initiating talk with zombie NPCs, or because the entrance to a certain area looks nonexistant unless your mouse is on just the right spot. It is one thing to make our extra quests tough to beat. But why try to hide them in such a way that the player has no idea that they may even exist? Don’t you want the players to experience what you created? This is hard to do when they don’t know it exists, and especially frustrating when they are trying to experience a fine game to its very fullest.

Of course, some of this could be due to my lack of skill at RPGs, but let’s see a show of hands of everyone who has found every sidequest on the first play through an RPG. Unfortunately, I don’t think this problem will be fixed any time soon, since fans of the genre seem to enjoy this kind of structure. Personally, I don’t really like the idea of having to play a game with an FAQ on my knee, lest I miss something important.

Warrior Within’s secret ending reveals the Prince to be none other than Michael Flatley, the Lord of the Dance.

Prince of Persia: Warrior Within. Like Sands of Time, Warrior Within contains secret areas where you can increase the Prince’s max health. This time, however, they are much, much harder to find. That’s not too much of a problem; they’re hard, but not impossible to locate if you keep a sharp eye. The issue here is that the game has two different endings, and the only way to get the best one is to find all the upgrades. Should you fail, you’ll either have to backtrack through the game’s difficult puzzles once again, or just start playing from scratch. This probably isn’t the best way to do things.

The whole idea of multiple endings is generally a crock of shit, since one little screw up can often affect your results, and very few games that use the trick seem worthy of multiple plays. It is good to make the health upgrades a bit tougher to find, but don’t tie them into such a crucial component of the game. If multiple endings (or other unlockables) are something you want to put in the game, use another criteria for earning them. A good example of how to do it right are the Resident Evil games, in which most bonuses are determined based on time of completion (or simple puzzles/battles near the end of the game). Since the games are fairly short, the player can actually get better and memorize the levels without much hassle. Or just follow Eternal Darkness and make it based on the number of replays, regardless of how well the player does each time.

The King of Fighters 2006: The newest 3D KOF is proving to be a solid game. It is also
a textbook case in unlockables. Its first offense can also be found in games such as Burnout 3; throw a ton of content onto the disc, and lock the vast majority of it up. Then just make it so that the player unlocks something new whenever they do just about anything in the game. Win a race in Burnout? Here’re five cars. Beat story mode in KOF? Here’s a new character. And a new costume. And maybe a stage or some music.

This kind of design brings up the debate of whether the content you paid for should be locked away so tightly. Things like cars/tracks/characters can be crucial to the enjoyment of the game, thus they probably shouldn’t be locked away at all, or at least not too tightly. Just because a player isn’t good doesn’t mean they should miss out on a sizeable chunk of the game. Again, that’s just jumping through hoops, and I doubt that is what most people put their hard earned money towards.

Finally, an outfit that let’s Terry display both his patriotisim and homosexuality.

On the other hand, there is a definite psychological effect that comes from this kind of unlock system, or unlocking in general. It gives you something to play for. It sounds terribly spoiled compared to the 8 bit days, but beating a game and getting nothing more beyond the ending is often not enough for many players. By constantly throwing new stuff at them (especially in fighters/racers, which are mostly based on competition and thus have no clear ending to them), it acts as a motivation to keep playing. If everything in KOF was given to me at the start, I don’t think I’d give it more than a week’s play, since I have no good opponents to face off against. These unlockables give me something to strive for on my own.

Which brings us to the game’s second issue; how the content is earned. You can get all the characters just by playing Story Mode on easy. Repetitive, but not impossible. However, if you wish to earn all the outfits, stages and music, you’ll have to clear the game’s Extra Missions. The Extra Missions are just one of many instances of the Mission Mode design popularized by Soul Calibur being twisted into something hideous. KOF2006 has over 100 missions for you to complete, some of them being incredibly difficult to overcome (ex. stripping you of super moves, blocking and combos while giving your opponent 200% damage). Missions of all difficulties also all unlock the same things.

Soul Calibur’s missions were enjoyable because they had some context to them, and there were a manageable number of them to complete. Ever since then, the concept has gotten way out of hand, and making the player do a hundred little tasks for a hundred little things is just too much like busy work. Even if you’re good at them, that’s a lot of time spent on something you may not want to do.

Final Verdict: Unlockables aren’t going to go away. That’s probably not a bad thing, since it seems that they can be used to give the player a much better sense of progression and accomplishment. However, there will still be debate as to their worth, and I believe that a few simple guidelines can go a long way towards making them palatable for all.

Actually, Gran Turismo would be awesome if you started with this car.

1) Don’t make unlockables something that is critical to the enjoyment of the game. If you make a racing game, make sure they have enough different kinds of cars to race. It is fine if you don’t want to just give away the very best ones, but don’t force a guy to start Gran Turismo with a Honda Civic. If they want to race a muscle car, then why shouldn’t they? If not, they just may miss out on a critical part of your game, and their opinion on it will be much different than if you were to meet them halfway and show them what it is your game is trying to accomplish.

2) Try not to make the criteria based on factors such as luck or quantity. Not all of us want to log 400 versus matches in Smash Bros. in a week, and we shouldn’t have to earn Knights of the Round by squaring up against whatever random numbers the PlayStation wants to churn out. If these are going to be options, then at the very least put some alternate ones in for the rest of us (something which both games thankfully do).

3) Instead make them based as much as possible on player skill. If they practice the game, to get to know its ins and outs, or just plain kick its ass, then they should be rewarded accordingly. Otherwise a good player may get shafted because they don’t meet some other requirement. Of course, this only works if point 1) is in effect, otherwise a poor player will be screwed instead.

4) An unlockable should really feel like a good award for a job well done. Maybe it is an ultimate weapon, or an entertaining joke, or a whole slew of even tougher missions for them to sink their teeth into. If it isn’t good enough, the player won’t strive for it, and the whole thing is just a waste.

5 Comments

  1. Matt said on September 28, 2006:

    I agree with everything in this article except the gran turismo comment. If everyone had the choice of which car to use, no one would use the 150-200 horsepower cars. They’re slow, I’ll admit, but if you start out with the best cars, the biggest aspect of the gameplay will be forfeited: the sense of speed. If you never played the slow cars, you would never see any difference in the sense of speed that you acquired through unlocking faster cars. Also, the game would be much harder because the faster cars are much more unruly than the slower ones, making turns a bit of a problem. And that’s part of the reason of unlockables: to show each part of the game enough where the player is ready to go to the next step. But yeah, having a million unlockables where only 5% of them can be found without putting 200 hours into a game seems a bit arbitrary. Who are they wasting the development time making these quests for? And I can agree with you on the whole "paying for it" mentality. Burnout Legends for the PSP is horrible in this. I still have only one crash track when I’ve put in like 6 hours into the game. If they’re unlocked from something else, I have no idea what it is. And now my enjoyment of the game is seriously decreased. 

  2. Christian said on September 28, 2006:

    Fair point on GT Matt.  I guess I should have taken into account that GT is a simulation game, one that isn’t meant for every racing game fan, but for the purist who wants to learn his cars and earn them the right way.  Plus, there is still arcade mode if you want to just pick a fast car and race.  Still, an optimistic gamer trying career mode, and being screwed out of a whole garage worth of cars because they failed a license test just seems a bit silly. 

  3. Matt said on September 28, 2006:

    Yes, I will say that I hate not getting that special car from the license tests. I have actually been using my old game saves from past GT’s, so I never get a chance to even do that stuff. But I’m still annoyed that I can’t get that car. I think it’s a souped-up Honda S2000. And I don’t think they let you get it another way. So you do have a valid point.

  4. pat said on September 28, 2006:

    i have no problem with the method of unlocking used in gt or burnout.  the execution is another issue.  if done well, the unlocking system should gradually unlock more difficult content as you become more experienced and better at the game.  if done poorly, its frustrating and stupid – but thats true of any mechanic thats done poorly.  and frankly if everything was available in either of those games it would be overwhelming and probably take away from the sense of achievement you get from obtaining the zondas etc the hard way.

  5. Ryan said on January 16, 2008:

    Ive been playing Final Fantasy 7 for 60 hours and 10 of those have been used getting a Golden Chocobo and getting Knights of the Round!!!(Still worth it though:) )

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