The case against unlocks


— 11:22 PM on August 5, 2010

Getting old is rough. My body used to be incredibly resilient, but things now creak when I crawl out of bed in the morning. Grey hairs have sprouted at my temples, and more are setting up camp in my ears. I've even become alarmingly concerned with the state of my lawn—and the rapscallions who won't get off it. Oh, and I've started using words like rapscallion.

The biggest adjustment has been accommodating the additional responsibilities that seem to pile up with each passing year. Ear hair must be plucked. The lawn must be watered and mowed. Kids must be chased off said lawn. It all adds up, and I have much less time for gaming as a result.

A decade ago, I was a pretty hardcore gamer. One might even have called me obsessive for the few weeks following a hot new title's release. There are no longer enough hours in the day for that kind of commitment, though. I've gone from being a hardcore gamer to one who indulges regularly at best and only occasionally during the summer months, when the lawn requires more attention.

Although my gaming time has waned in recent years, I wouldn't count myself among the so-called casual ranks. Sure, I'll dip into little games like AudioSurf, Geometry Wars, and Darwinia here and there, but I'm still very much drawn to the latest AAA titles. I just get to play them less often and rarely to completion.


Oh, look, the whole game at my fingertips!

Modern Warfare 2 was the last single-player campaign I finished on the PC, which isn't saying much considering it took less than six hours. I actually sank considerably more time into Borderlands, only to grow tired of the endless grinding at around level 32, well short of the game's conclusion. My trip through the latest iteration in the Left 4 Dead series remains unconquered, too. Unlike with Borderlands, however, I've already sampled the bulk of Left 4 Dead 2 thanks to the fact that the game lets users jump into any one of its levels right from the very beginning. I did try to play through the campaigns in order at first, but the freedom to skip ahead has been liberating when I've only had a few moments to dedicate to mowing down zombies and wanted something new.

Forza Motorsport 3 has become my favorite driving game of all time because it has a very similar approach. The genre has a history of making players earn new tracks and cars by winning races and amassing in-game currency. Not Forza, though. Virtually all of the game's vehicles are available to drive from the outset, as is the full complement of tracks. There's no need to pay your dues lapping short circuits in four-cylinder Hondas before taking a Lamborghini out for an epic lap around the Nürburgring. Sure, there's a traditional career mode that makes players earn cars that can then be customized out the wazoo. But that mode is presented alongside an arcade option that lets players drop right into whatever sort of action they'd like. For a game that bills itself as a driving simulator, giving even first-time users unfettered access to the core experience certainly has its benefits. I can snack on Forza in ways I can't indulge in other games, and I've logged more time behind the wheel as a result, even if it's been in shorter spurts.


Why make me punt around in a hatchback before I can step into a supercar?

Of course, there are times that I do want something more substantial than a quick bite. I'm OK with letting games slowly unfurl their content through a well-told narrative. I'm even fine with a tightly scripted linear experience, as long as it's a fun ride with a rewarding conclusion. Modern Warfare 2 has nearly the right balance. In addition to a story driven single-player campaign, the game offers a selection of special-ops missions that dish out violence in small doses and without the burden of cinematics or a storyline. Except that you only have access to 20% of these missions to start. The rest must be unlocked, and although that's not a particular arduous task, it takes some slogging.

Some games have good reason to hold back the bulk of their content to start. But there are also times when the decision to wall off entire sections of a game seems to be an arbitrary one made more out of habit than thoughtful consideration. Why must paying customers be denied tracks, arenas, vehicles, characters, and other in-game goodness until they've logged sufficient hours with a single-player campaign or career mode? It's not like laying out games in their entirety presents some sort of choking hazard. An arcade mode that provided access to all of DiRT 2's various vehicles and race modes from the beginning might blow my mind, but in a good way. Besides, arcade modes can complement traditional career campaigns rather than replace them.


Most of Modern Warfare's bite-sized morsels must be earned

Maybe developers think gamers have loads of time on their hands. But I don't, and given the increasing number of titles that get released each year, I suspect that even the hardcores are struggling to keep up. Just think of all the time we're already wasting in sandbox games that require players to traverse huge stretches of geography to proceed from one mission to the next. I love exploring open worlds as much as the next guy, but trekking across them can be quite a commute. It didn't take long before I tired of endlessly weaving through traffic in the last Grand Theft Auto game, and I've barely scratched the surface of Far Cry 2 and Red Dead Redemption for much the same reason. In all three cases, I've been unable to shake the feeling that my time is being wasted—and for no good reason other than the inexplicable absence of a warp-to-next-mission option.

But I digress.

I do concede that slowly unlocking restricted content can be a very good way to reward players as they progress through a game. However, it strikes me as odd that content I've supposedly paid for is treated as some sort of prize that I must work to earn. Achievements seem to be the new currency of in-game process, and they're granted for even the most mundane accomplishments, as if we're all grade-schoolers who need constant, positive reinforcement to shelter our fragile self esteem. Surely, these virtual trophies are sufficient to commemorate our in-game efforts. In fact, they're even better for broadcasting one's exploits to the world, and what better way to reward those who have methodically explored every nook and cranny of the games they've played?

Some of us don't have the time to grind. Or the patience. Or the desire to jump through hoops that seem increasingly arbitrary just to unlock content that could have just as easily been available from the beginning. We've already paid for the cow, after all. The milk should be free.

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