Unlockable Content

Until recently I’ve always been mostly indifferent to the idea of unlockable content. Something to add replayability, to entice the player, to give the player a sense of accomplishment and progress, to please the publisher and their marketing team. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of those points, but I’ve started to feel that perhaps unlockable content isn’t only one of the more cheaper ways to achieve those goals, but could even hinder those goals.

First, a little setup:
The first reason to have me question unlockable content was the death of my PS3. Console failure is a relatively new experience for me. The replacement had the harddrive wiped, all the work spent unlocking everything in about a dozen PS2 and a few PS3 games was gone. My first thought was, “I sure wish these games had some ‘unlock everything’ code.” I keep most games I’ve played for various reasons. Either nostalgia, to show off to friends (like Shadow of the Colossus), for a quick fun play session (like Katamari Damacy), to review for art or gameplay direction (like Odin Sphere or God Hand), and just because I’m a bit of a pack rat. With having lost my access to all their content beyond their first levels, my desire to replay through all those games (when I still have new games I haven’t finished) has been greatly diminished, though I’m sure I’ll find the time eventually. It drives home the inherent unfairness of denying access to content a user has paid for.

The second reason revolves around Force Unleashed and its demo. Despite most reviews and consumer comments, I really enjoyed the Force Unleashed demo. I’m a fan of brawlers and very interested in combat schemes. Not necessarily complex ones, but ones that elicit a strong emotional response, from Ico to No More Heroes to Devil May Cry. With the Force Unleashed demo, I enjoyed trying out, mixing up, and discovering different combos. Upon buying the game I was sorely disappointed to see that you start out with practically no combos (far fewer than those in the demo, at least). Having played the demo, being forced to begin in a more crippled state highlighted how artificial and unnecessary the reward process of unlocking new fighting moves is. In some cases, in relation to the story or some other mechanic, it makes sense to have moves not yet available, and that’s fine. But if my character can use a lightsaber, then I feel I should be able to perform all basic lightsaber combos. Having complete access to, but allowing (or requiring) me to discover the combos and determine their usefulness in various situations would be much more rewarding than simply spending points to unlock one more move in a narrative vacuum.

The third reason I’ve become disenchanted with unlockable content is Little Big Planet. I really want to create some custom levels. I really want to have all assets contained in the game at my fingertips. I really don’t want to have to spend weeks mastering the gameplay in order to unlock every single item, though. I also really don’t want to have to play through the entire game over again if my PS3 dies.

Personally, as I continue my career in design, I’ll consider the use of unlockable content as a last resort. There aren’t many games that simply give the player everything at the beginning. I need to get my hands on Alone in the Dark, it’s chapter skipping feature is even more interesting to me now. Ico didn’t really have a level structure, but as far as combat and platforming go that’s all basically available from the start. Then again, on the other hand, you have Metroidvania type games which are fundamentally designed around gradually unlocking new abilities. Perhaps there’s a niche for unlockable content centered games, but perhaps the merits of such design could use further review and improvement.

My final thoughts are that unlockable content is quick and cheap and provides incentive and reward for that first playthrough. But to really retain the fan following there has to be something much more substantial, much more ingrained into the gameplay experience, that encourages the player forward and rewards their efforts.

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