Friday, September 26, 2008

Unlocking the Fun in Games

An anecdote: a group of friends were at Jorge's house. After a movie and a few beers, Jorge casually mentioned that he had picked up Rock Band 2, and the group immediately scurried to the living room. We fired up the console and geared up with our plastic accouterments, but our moods sank when we took a look at the set list. "Where are all the cool songs?" one of us moaned. "I was promised 'Ramblin' Man'!" cried another.

A short trip to the Internet and a consultation with the Oracle of Google soon yielded a surprisingly old-school solution: a cheat code that immediately unlocked all the tracks. The rocking commenced, and a fun time was had by all.

The release of Rock Band 2 and my recent acquisition of Mario Kart Wii and Super Smash Brothers Brawl has me thinking about the practice of "unlocking" features in games. I find myself resenting the fact that it is taking days to unlock Snake on SSBB, yet I am fine with sinking dozens of hours into leveling up RPG or action characters in order to unlock special abilities.

What is behind this ambiguous feeling towards unlockables? For me, I think it comes down to story.

When I begin a game like Zelda, I do not view my modest kokiri sword and barren map as shackles. The game is a journey, over which Link and the player grow by discovering new lands and learning advanced skills. The Master Sword, heart containers, and Death Mountain are all "unlockables" in the sense that the player cannot simply access them from the beginning. However, these limits are not simply obstacles; they are plot points, storytelling devices, and symbols that give the game its basic structure.

Games like Rock Band and SSMB are not story driven, regardless of what anyone might say about "Tour Mode" or "Subspace Emissary." These are essentially arcade games: pick your player and press go. I am not suggesting that these games lack depth or strategy, nor am a criticizing the absence of a narrative. On the contrary: I am praising them for cutting away all the fat in favor of providing an unadulterated gaming experience. A player is quickly able to immerse themselves in what the game has to offer. Unfortunately for me, these offerings are often locked behind hours of play that feel more like obligations than challenges.

I have played games for such a long time and enjoy them so much, I rarely need any motivation to keep playing a game I like. Locking a character or a stage is pointless: I will eventually play the game enough to unlock it, and so I would rather simply have it from the beginning. That way, I would be able to maximize my time and enjoyment on all parts of the game. Of course there are several valid counter-arguments to this philosophy.

After sharing my frustration concerning my still Sonic-less SSBB, Hanah described to me her experience playing Mario Kart Wii. She came into Mario Kart completely uninitiated: having never even driven a single lap, she found herself struggling to master the game. Falling into the lava and being chomped by piranha plants sometimes got old, but she kept playing because she knew if she continued to improve, she would unlock new characters and tracks. Thus what I perceived as limits acted for her as motivation, motivation that (as I have described) has paid off. Although it is counter-intuitive to me, locked features may actually make a game more accessible for newcomers by enforcing a learning curve.

Another argument for unlocking content lies in showing respect for what the developer created and how they intended the player to experience it. By skipping over the world tour mode in Rock Band, I assume that I am completely ignoring a feature that the developer wanted me to utilize. Why else would they have included it in the game? Approached from this angle, unlocking content functions similarly to the way an adventure or RPG uses achievements. New content is meant to represent milestones and give the player a sense of progression while simultaneously ensuring the player is exposed to the care and hard work that went into creating the game.

These counter arguments stop me from declaring all-out war against unlockable achievements. Anything that helps ease newcomers into gaming or that allows us to appreciate the dedication that goes into producing games cannot be all bad. And while I find them annoying at times, I enjoy unlockables in certain contexts. Unlocking the bonus stages in God of War was extremely satisfying, and my mirror tracks in Mario Kart 64 are badges of honor.

Instead of abandoning unlockable content, I simply wish developers would give me a choice. Perhaps something on the options screen that reads something like "Progression Mode (unlockables enforced) or Free Play (all features unlocked)?" I understand the motivation behind locked content, but to players like me, those who would play every aspect of the game regardless of when it became accessible, would benefit from being able to make this choice.

In my view, the fact that I want to experience all aspects of a game with as little delay as possible is the ultimate complement to the game's creators.


  1. I think this is the first of many comments I will post as a reader as well as contributor to EXP.

    I'm sure you didn't notice when playing Rockband 2 that night, but Harmonix actually got rid of the straight unlockable track list by incorporating unlockables into the tour mode. By doing so they address exactly the sentiment you bring up in your post. Also, once you put in the "unlock-all" code, the feature is easily toggled on and off from the extras tab, essentially giving you the freedom of unlocking all songs if you just want to play some riffs with your friends.

    Regardless, I played through some of the tour mode initially because of unlockables. I really wanted to recreate my character from the first rockband, which means I needed to buy her set of clothes all over again. (They should have let me import my RB1 band.) By drawing me in with unlockables in the tour mode, the interest in the success of my band grew. I might not have had that experience without unlockables.

  2. Good points all around. I miss my Xbox so hard.

  3. First, I agree with both of you that sometimes, especially when there are a bunch of people playing, you just want to get to the fun stuff (the songs you want to play). Other times, it's very important to have a driving force. When Heather and I first started playing Guitar Hero two summers ago, we had such a wealth of time on our hands that there really wasn't a point to unlocking everything with a code, since that would negate countless hours of entertaining frustration. Sure, after trying to get past the opening intro of "Crazy on You" on expert mode for the tenth time, we wanted to throw the guitar against the wall. But that made it so much more satisfying when we finally accomplished it, and now it isn't even that hard to do. The second thing I wanted to say was I wish I could have been there to drink and rock out.

  4. I think you are missing the part where I get to call Scott a nub for not unlocking Sonic. There is peer pressure in unlockables. When I think of all the time wasted on Subspace Emissary I cringe. But if you want to get Sonic, you better suffer like I did. JK. You guys are right.