Unlocking Content

There is an article over on Kotaku that really touched a nerve with me. You should go and read it first and then come back.

Welcome back. You didn't read it? Well, I'll try to catch you up.

Simply put, they believe that all content in games should be available from the start. It's a follow on from the news that the new Call of Duty will allow the players to experience the campaign in any order they like as the traditional system of unlocking content as you go is archaic and, as a paying customer, you get to dictate how the content is delivered.

Here is a slightly rambling response to said article, based in large on the replies to my subsequent Facebook post about it.

UPDATE: Added another bit at the bottom about unlocking as reward, inspired by this other article.

Sweeping Generalisation


My biggest problem with the article is that they open with the word 'All'.

Straight off the bat, it's a bold claim and, like 'all' sweeping generalisations, it's wrong.

Certainly, some games would benefit from this approach. The oft-cited example is Rock Band. Linked in to that article is a bit of Dara O'Briain stand up that, curiously enough, I always bring up when I'm talking about what makes games special.
When all you want to do is rock, not unlock

In the early Rock Band and Guitar Hero games, the fiction was that you were a band member and had to build your way up through the game, using the standard game technique of ordering songs in terms of difficulty. This makes sense from a pure gameplay point of view - you don't want to overwhelm a player with too hard a song because they won't enjoy it and will, most likely, give up on the game.

But songs are such an emotive topic - people pick up those games because of the individual tracks that appeal to them. Those are the songs they want to play and they don't want to have to wade through tracks they haven't heard of and aren't interested in to get there. Subsequent versions of Rock Band and Guitar Hero have realised that this is the case and that, semantically, they're not so much games as toys. To this end, the newer version have done away with traditional game trappings such as failure and progression and the experience has been improved because of it.

Likewise, driving games. Once you try to step away from the young-driver-working-his-way-through-the-forumlae, er... formula, you see that again, cars are an emotive thing. People have specific cars or tracks they want to race and don't want to have to jump through arbitrary hoops to get there. If FIFA or Pro Evo's only mode forced you to start out at Dagenham and Redbridge or Accrington Stanley, they would rapidly lose their user base and Little Big Planet's decision to lockout editor content based on progression was a little frustrating to say the least.

The key thing is that this doesn't apply to every game out there. Narrative games, in particular, would suffer enormously if you could just hop to the end. Your experience would suffer as a direct result of that. You don't start watching, say The Usual Suspects or The Sixth Sense with the punchline. By the same token, you wouldn't want to drop into Bioshock halfway through.

Games in which the narrative is incidental could definitely pull this off. Call of Duty is actually a pretty good example of this - assuming they aren't dropping any more (nuclear) bombs and are just getting down to the nitty gritty of blowing up whoever the US currently regard as the Bad Guys.

Semantics


It's a tired old subject, but I do belive better descriptions of games and their mechanics would be beneficial here.

If your game doesn't have a fail state or a presented narrative then I would suggest what you have is a Toy and a Toy should be able to be played with any way the user desires. This means no unlocks and everything available at the start.

If your game has failure, progression and rewards then it should probably have some kind of structure to it. Not always, by any means, but these are all things that a decent designer can use to enhance the player experience.

It's worth pointing out that neither of these things is quantifiably better than the other. It's also worth noting that both can exist within the same base game. For an example of this, look no further than Minecraft. The creative mode is enjoyed by so many people and used to make so many awesome things. There are precious few restrictions - not even gravity - more on that in a bit. Then you can add a couple of restrictions and have survival mode which puts a totally different spin on things.

Even if you don't want to deal with the semantics of things or you think I'm being picky, surely you can see the benefit of having subcategories - if only so that the use of the pronoun 'all' becomes a little more relevant.

All 'Toys' should have their content unlocked and available from the start to be played in any order. Even if it isn't perfect, it's something I can get behind a lot more than any 'All games should...' statement simply because of my own definition of 'Toy'.

Of course, you can do away with semantics altogether and just refer to these things as Games. But then I'd argue that you lose the right to use the word 'all', because it just doesn't apply across the board.

Restrictions


And this is where I can throw out my own generalisation.

Gameplay only exists through the introduction of restrictions.

Think about that for a moment. If you are blocked from doing something you want to do - score a goal, reach the alien space ship, rescue the princess - but there's something else you can do to lift the block - beat the keeper, shoot the alien hordes, work your way up to the highest platform - then that's where the gameplay (and challenge) lies.

If you could just place the ball in the back of the net whenever you want or press a button to make all of the aliens disappear or teleport to that highest platform, the gameplay vanishes along with the fun.

The metagame can (and some would argue, should) still be a game. It doesn't have to make the same choices as the main game as it can be an entirely different entity. Mix and match. Do what you want. It doesn't even have to be black and white - linear or open. You can blend the two approaches as much as you want. Have linear bits then let open it out for sections or make players choose paths or anything in between.

Here's another argument - a literary one, no less, that applies just as well in this situation:

A hero is only as strong as the villain he defeats.


Progression


Stepping away from the narrative, one of the main gameplay reasons to restrict access to certain levels is if your game contains any form of persistent progression. By that I mean your character levels up or something similar. If each level allows the player to bring in things of a given level, it makes a degree of sense to lock out levels for which the player doesn't possess the item / skills / resources to complete.

A lot of territories to balance
One of the biggest problems we had with Syndicate was that the metagame was almost entirely open. Save for the geographical constraint of only being able to select neighbouring territories, the player could pick whichever mission he wanted in whatever order he wanted. This made balancing a nightmare as you could never count on a player reaching a certain point with a certain weapon.

The issue with this kind of approach is that it is likely that the player will end up in a situation that they cannot handle. When that happens, you're banking on the good nature and perseverance of said player to have them not just throw in the towel and go play something else. With the attention span and patience of the modern playerbase at an all-time low, this is definitely a problem.

Of course there are exceptions. Wonderful, glorious exceptions but I'm going to try and get through an entire blog post without mentioning Dark So... d'oh!

Reward


Done well, unlocking new content is a very established reward structure - a little thank you to the player for playing the game and a little motivation for them to continue with something that they enjoy. It's not the only reward by any means but merely another weapon in the designer's arsenal.

In a narrative or linear game, the reward is the continuation of the story, but that's by no means the only reason.

Consider the puzzle space on mobile - a hellish melange of unimaginative 1,2 and 3 star levels, unlocked in sequence. Some break the mould and let you play boards in any order. Others snake you through a linear map, only gating progression as part of their monetisation strategy.

As an aside, that latter approach is probably what's feeding this argument. Players are frustrated at their lack of progress and being unable to see all of the content. Yet it's that very frustration that developers are relying on them to get players to pay up. It's a whole other can of (regularly opened) worms.

But, if you remove monetisation from the equation (ha ha ha ha ha), you can return to something where locked content is an impetus to do better. You could have pages of levels that the player can tackle in any order - even moving on to other pages whenever they feel like. Then, if they manage to complete a full page, bonus levels open up.

Annoyingly, my main takeaway is, again, a semantic one. Do we need something to differentiate between 'unlock' as part of gameplay and 'unlock' as part of monetisation?

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