Penny Arcade's post today stirred some thoughts on the whole concept of "unlocking" in games.
It’s pretty standard practice these days. Not all of the content of the game is available at the beginning and you have to do something to make it available. In some situations that’s totally natural. In a sense the whole RPG game mechanic is based around unlocking content. But when the content isn’t naturally tied into game balance it does raise some questions.
The source of this recent round of discussion has been around Guitar Hero II. When you pop in the game, only a handful of songs are available and you have to beat them to unlock more. And you really have to crank up the difficulty if you want to be able to unlock everything. This isn’t anything new – the first Guitar Hero was this way and so are many other rhythm/singing games. But is this cheating you out of content that you should be able to access right out of the box?
I have mixed feelings about this. From a singleplayer perspective I enjoy the challenge of having to work through a progression of harder and harder content. I like that it took some work to get my reward (as long it was fun, not work). But from a multiplayer perspective I find it extremely annoying when I can’t just jump into the action with my friends right out of the box. Warioware, for example, requires that you essentially clear the entire singleplayer experience before being able to do any multiplayer at all.
So essentially I feel that unlocking is a nice incentive for personal growth, but should never get in the way of social gaming. And when you think about those personal milestones, we already have a system to reward those: Xbox 360 achievements. So in the modern world of account-based gaming is the whole concept of unlocking irrelevant? I think partially yes, but not completely. In my recent run through Saints Row I liked the fact that completing activities netted me both acheivement points and new outfits, cars, weapons, and whatever. But in this case the bonus content is the minority, not the majority. So I think there's still a place for unlockable content, but only on the periphery. Solve those whole personal milestones with non-gameplay currency (i.e. achievement points).