The case against unlocks

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.

Comments closed
    • spiritwalker2222
    • 9 years ago

    Damn, Forza Motorsport 3 looks pretty good. But it’s only for the XBox 360 ๐Ÿ™

    Wish it would come to the PC.

      • Anomymous Gerbil
      • 9 years ago

      iRacing!

      Although it’s a serious sim (not a game), and it’s subscrition based.

    • indeego
    • 9 years ago

    It was amusing that the day I finally got sick of Borderlands (for much the same reason, tired of grinding) they came out with achievements for it. It missed most of the achievements I had already completed. I just chuckled and uninstalled the gameg{<.<}g

    • cheapFreeAgent
    • 9 years ago

    After reading this article, now I miss my hours-and-hours (maybe weeks) playing 1990/1991 NBA Live, Rick Dangerous 1, and Prince of Persia. It was so enjoyable and I’m kind of proud of myself to the fact that I finished those games. I even would write it on my CV, if that will help my chance for an interview. lol

    • DrCR
    • 9 years ago

    l[

    • WaltC
    • 9 years ago

    I think “unlocks” inside of games are really stupid and gimmicky. If you look at the console world, for instance, you’ll see the word “achievement” plastered everywhere as a “game element.” It’s no more than a gimmick used by developers who think gamers are mindless peons with only one redeeming feature: their pocketbooks. How many people have I offed? It’s an achievement. How many head shots? Wow, what an achievement!

    Game developers with little in the way of imagination conclude that “achievements” and “unlocks” greatly enhance the “feeling of accomplishment” gamers receive by having to work for content that they were under the impression they’d already paid for…;) Why don’t they understand that people buy games to play games, not to go to work? What’s so hard about figuring that out?

    Of course, maybe there are some gaming dimwits out there who actually enjoy “earning” what they’ve already paid for. To that end I forward this suggestion to game developers: include the /[

    • scribly
    • 9 years ago

    This is one of the reasons why there are cheat tools that allow you to make it easier to get those unlocks (assuming they are unlocks you can get in single player mode)

    • Trident Troll
    • 9 years ago

    Considering the nature of this article, I strongly recommend you trade away Far Cry 2 and don’t attempt to play any more of it.
    I’m at the 70% completion mark, and I figure I’ve only played maybe 1 hour of actual ‘game time’ out of more than a dozen hours of total play time. The rest of it is all travel time. It gets much worse once you reach the bottom map.
    Some of the missions are ok, and I like the corrupt nature of your character, but too much of the game is just a waste of time.

      • ImSpartacus
      • 9 years ago

      One word:

      Bus.

        • Trident Troll
        • 9 years ago

        Which requires an additional long journey to reach.

      • DrCR
      • 9 years ago

      I put 40hrs into FC2 the week it came out. You couldn’t pay me to touch it now. It became the epitome of unrewarding time waster. Nowadays I prefer shorter, more serious games, like chess and IDPA/IPSC.

    • ronch
    • 9 years ago

    Unlocking levels or items can be fun if the game pulls it off properly (Castlevania Symphony of the Night comes to mind). Problem is, many games demand you to play better so you can unlock certain items. After a certain point of trying and trying, it becomes tiring, which defeats the main purpose of the game, which is to provide fun and relaxation after a hard day’s work.

    • sydbot
    • 9 years ago

    Thats why unlock codes exist, right? Lord knows I’d never unlock Guitar Hero 28 by myself, but the code gives me all the songs!

    And for Forza, you need to jump back into one of those hot 4 cylinder cars and run either Almafi Coast or Fujimi Kaido. Almafi works great with small, slow cars as the streets are fairly narrow and the runs numerous! I’ve had much more fun running that track in a GTI than a Ferrari.

    • Bensam123
    • 9 years ago

    Surprised you didn’t connect your argument to DLC that is included with the game or already planned out from the beginning.

    I remember playing Tom Clancy’s Ravenshield for the first time and awwwing at all the guns I got to play around with and tweak. Then the unlocks started making their way around and instead of offering a balanced play experience, you needed the unlocks to gain the edge.

    IMO unlocks are stupid, achievements are equally stupid, but offer a bit more in terms of logic. A lot of people need a tangible reason to keep playing or a goal. I personally try to better myself everytime I play something, but a lot of people lack intrinsic motivation, so they need extrinsic motivation to do so.

    In essence it’s to keep people addicted and it’s part of the MMO formula Blizzard has almost perfected with WoW. It’s sad that people can’t just make ‘good’ new games and instead need carrots to dangle infront of people to keep them playing.

    Toping the boards and working for personal achievements are infinitely more satisfying then unlocks and a achievements. Game developers can foster it through well developed games, sadly motivation isn’t the biggest concern when they can’t even make something fun.

    Geoff if you’re starting to question this, you should look into motivation in psychology. Game developers could learn a lot if they stopped looking at sales charts.

    • shank15217
    • 9 years ago

    I think slow unlocks are useful for many reasons if done right. Starcraft II campaign slowly unlocks units, making it a lot easier to learn the intricacies of the game.

      • Bensam123
      • 9 years ago

      Didn’t place this in the right spot.

    • TaBoVilla
    • 9 years ago

    Great intro Geoff, I had to google rapscallion though.

    I regard unlocks as the way developers handle 2 things in games:

    1. Learning curve: delivering the basics, whether its mechanics or content, unlocks follow progression in the game and generally improvement in ability to handle elements. For example, picture being able to acquire incendiary ammo and all available plasmids from the second you arrive at Rapture in Bioshock, it would have been a mess, and driven attention from gamers to the ground, instead of building up, which brings me to the 2nd part:

    2. Sense of achievement: is the driving force that keeps gamers wanting to accomplish more in the game, in order to “go higher” in the ladder; without being able to get there any other way than sacrifice road. My guess is games like World of Warcraft would have lasted 6 months if the character creation menu had a dial to select the level you wanted to start in. All people starting at lvl1 would have been considered douches, as well as people starting on levels 60, 70 or 80, complete fuzz.

    I totally get your point on time and dedication needed to unlock content you have already paid for, but also what you get is a sense of how developers want the gaming community to identify their games: effortless, pick any car you want, track, weapon, to fight any boss any chapter, sandbox type games, OR sweat your way to the big leagues.

    The thing is, would you sweat your way to the big leagues if you knew you could play it anyway? attention spawn would be zero, and that is what studios don’t want. They want to build up community, because they want you to purchase their sequel. You won’t if you spent 20 minutes on the game, because the Ferrari was 2 menu clicks away. Developers have no choice but to lock stuff up, sadly too much.

      • Squeazle
      • 9 years ago

      Did you read the article? He said he spent *[

        • ImSpartacus
        • 9 years ago

        Geoff is one person. He is not an entire market.

        I agree that unlocks give the average player a sense of achievement.

        When I play a game, I try to get the most of it. I have emptied over 500 hours of my life into TF2. That’s a massive amount for an FPS.

        I understand I am not a good representation of the western video game market either.

        Many players are a happy medium between the playing style of Geoff and I.

          • Squeazle
          • 9 years ago

          Yes. Which is what I was getting at with the whole, games catering to gamers.

            • ImSpartacus
            • 9 years ago

            I understand.

            I apologize. I was not disagreeing with you as much as simply providing my opinion.

    • ShadowTiger
    • 9 years ago

    If a company releases a game with locked content… it makes me really want to find a way to unlock the content… without paying if possible.

    • paulWTAMU
    • 9 years ago

    I agree. I actually am pretty pissed at the unlocking system for MW2’s special ops though. They’re not exactly part of a narrative so why have them locked?
    In a story-driven game it makes some sense to have levels/sections locked and accessed in order, at least the first time. In things like fighting games and racers, and similar games, or even in stand alone “extras” it doesn’t make as much sense and I wonder why they do it.

    • wira020
    • 9 years ago

    You guys do a good job scaring us, young people, of aging… seriously, there’s many blog/article here that have something bad (or nice depending on your own perspective) about aging in the intro… makes me feel like i want to stop aging..

    On topic, most games just have like a quarter of the time filled with fun parts, the rest are just repetitive and time wasting stuff…

    I think all games should have some easter eggs, unlockable weapon/armor, super duper hard secret boss, secret chat option, extra level maybe.. these thing keeps me playing.. I remember playing Metro 2033 for a few day and then had never gone back to playing it again.. a good example to me is Final Fantasy X… the leveling system is a bit tedious but there were plenty of unlocks… and I feel that Just Cause 2 is fun until the main quest finished.. it has a lot of unlocks that is too repetitive, boring and not very rewarding…

    P/s: almost forgot, the perfect example of a good game with Unlocks should be Fallout 3… i finished everything and I still crave for more… that is a very very good game…

    • PenGun
    • 9 years ago

    I’ve been at it since Doom came out. Most of what’s available these days is pretty bad. I have the Just Cause demo and it’s awful. The flying is cool the rest ridiculous.

    I did play Metro 2033 for a few hours. Beat it and played most of the way through again it was so short.

    I just play Stalker. All three all the time. My entire Metro time was about 17 hours. I play that long in Stalker just for fun.

    I’m 64 soon and my most recent record was 19 hours playing Clear Sky. You guys are wimps.

    Unlocks need to be fought … hard.

      • wira020
      • 9 years ago

      Lol, if you’re really 64, I’d have a lot of respect for you, mister…I totally agree with your games example… I remember spending about a month playing Stalker 3 to get every artifact, lots and lots of money, all weapons and everything else before finishing the main story… One more thing I like is the fact that the game JUST WORKS!.. like Apple!.. no bugs, no glitch, no patch.. it’s hard to find a game that would play perfectly after installing..

    • smackrabbit
    • 9 years ago

    I’m also in the same boat here. A decade ago, when I was still in college, I could play 8+ hours of Diablo II a day trying to level faster, or play NFL 2K seasons over and over again as I watched draft picks mature over 15 years, but now I don’t have that time anymore. Kids, work, having a house to take care of, and everything else leaves with me a few spare hours a month to do other hobbies.

    I bought Guitar Hero and used an unlock so I could play those songs I really wanted to play, as I didn’t want to spend 10 hours working my way up to unlock everything, I just wanted to play. I loved Gran Turismo, but there’s no way I could find the time to do that now and unlock everything. If they want to reward the people with the time to do that with something (online trophies or something similar), then that’s great, but those of us that want to sit down and play a game for 30-45 minutes at a time and don’t want to have to spend that time unlocking the content we really want should be able to enjoy their limited time.

    • ModernPrimitive
    • 9 years ago

    I rarely game at all anymore. The unlocks and perks got to be annoying for me also. It was a bit pointless to jump into a game of CoD MW to get mowed down by a helicopter every couple of minutes by someone who can spend hours a day online. Not blaming the pros or saying they shouldn’t hone their skills further, it just wasn’t as enjoyable for me. It would be nice to be able to group people with similar skills etc.

    on a tangent, it would probably help if I knew a few people personally that played.

    • kamikaziechameleon
    • 9 years ago

    Games without and story driven campaign have always suffered the worse from this, racers, fighters, etc. I totally agree. I was ever so happy to see Super street fighter 4 comes with every character unlocked, what a relief.

    • anotherengineer
    • 9 years ago

    “A decade ago, I was a pretty hardcore gamer”

    Back then the super nes was rocking, there was good games like Chrono Trigger and many others, I miss those days.

    Time to fire up the emulator for some Megaman X, FF2,3 , Chrono Trigger, Zelda, Metroid and whatever else yummy I can find.

      • Meadows
      • 9 years ago

      No, back then the PlayStation 2 was rocking (okay, 10 years exactly is a bit tight, but you get the idea).

      SNES? When are you thinking, the early 90’s?

        • anotherengineer
        • 9 years ago

        LOL my bad, thats almost 2 decades ago, man time fly’s, ;(

        But I do have to admit logging some serious hours on the ps2, baldurs gate, and gauntlet legends ๐Ÿ˜€ which was closer to a decade ago I guess.

        and #1 “I wouldn’t call myself a hardcore gamer, but I do want a challenge in my games. Meaning, I want the hardest the game can throw at me.”

        if you want a challenge check out this messed nes game
        ยง[<http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fj6r4lff0-o<]ยง crazy crap

    • floodo1
    • 9 years ago

    this is like arguing for chocolate milk preference. Seriously, you don’t have time and want everything right away, and someone else wants the challenge of having to unlock everything and earn that 100% achievement.

    Personally I find MW2’s system abhorrent, because it’s an unlock system where people with more unlocks are at an advantage to people without them (think about something like claymores).

    They should just make both….one mode with everything, and one mode with unlocks

    • BooTs
    • 9 years ago

    I am no longer the hardcore gamer I once was. Unlocks have always been more annoying than motivating, but when I was a kid we used to have cheat codes we could use when we took the game to a friends house or something.

    • cegras
    • 9 years ago

    I really don’t see the point of ‘open worlds’ and ‘sandbox’ games like FC2 or even the original Crysis, or even Just Cause 2. I’m playing a game to kill baddies, engage in all sorts of supernormal feats, and to indulge in a complex storyline.

    If I want to explore foliage I’ll go and do that outside.

    Unlocks and level progression is what turned global agenda from an OK game to something I don’t touch. I feel that I got ripped off, paying the $50 for it.

      • RickyTick
      • 9 years ago

      Crysis is not “open world”. It’s quite linear, but you could wonder around the long way if you wanted to. Very well defined objectives, as I remember.

      Far Cry 2 is much different. I shelved it after a couple of hours.

      • Skrying
      • 9 years ago

      I find it a bit odd you lump Just Cause 2 in there. You really don’t do much exploring in that game unless you want to. You *unlock* a jet very early and that allows you to zoom across the map. Plus JC2 has some of the most crazy abilities you can do in a game. It’s not realistic in the least and that’s the best part.

        • wira020
        • 9 years ago

        Like having the rope gun thingy out of the butt? ( watch the zero punctuation review of the game).. it felt like cheating when i can jump out of a moving aircraft and not use parachute to land safely.. simply grappling to land will make the landing safe… good game tho, there’s just too many repetitive stuff with not much of a reward whatsoever… i think it’s a real bad example of games using unlocks..

        • cegras
        • 9 years ago

        Well, for me doing things without aim gets pointless really quickly. That’s why I can never get into this ‘build your own world!’ games or ‘explore the world!’ games and all that.

    • demani
    • 9 years ago

    Yeah- GT was one that always killed me- I wanted to drive something fun dammit, and when I wanted to get my wife to play with me we wanted to have a wider range to pick from. Locking crap up is just insane- sure linear gameplay progression has its place, but there’s a difference between ramping the difficulty and complexity, and just keeping me from doing stuff (GH was a great example of that-rhythm games in particular are horrible, since its not like you can just check a guide to see the best path).

    The game market keeps saying games are for adults and meant for more mature audiences- but we are the people with full-time jobs, kids and other responsibilities- we don’t have time for four-hour grind sessions.

    • flip-mode
    • 9 years ago

    I can see Geoff’s point.

    I am not and have never been a hardcore gamer. I’m currently making my second pass through Borderlands. I just picked the game up during Steam’s summer sale. I must say, I love that game.

    I don’t have a problem with the concept of leveling, and in fact it is a little bit of a motivator when done right. Borderlands does it right, mostly. It gets frustrating, though, to try to get through the game without focusing on leveling up. You can get farther through the game than is good for you at a certain level and before you know it you pick up a gun with a level 22 requirement to use but you’re only at level 17. That’s a bit frustrating! Meanwhile, you’re getting sawed in half by the gun you level 22 enemy is using.

      • odizzido
      • 9 years ago

      I hate level restrictions so much, especially in that game. It seems like half the stuff you get that you would actually use is 8 levels higher than you. So lame.

        • Meadows
        • 9 years ago

        You could get the same in Diablo 2 if you were powerful, even if you did do every task in your way. Then when your sorceress is in Act V at level 25, you start to go back and farm Act III or something because you couldn’t even reach Shenk past the normal enemies. </cane shake>

          • dashbarron
          • 9 years ago

          Diablo 2 was a tricky beast though. While you could easily skip half the quests and rush to end, at level 18, your characters were always lacking to kill the mobs. While the game has serious…”balance issues,” I found on a game like Diablo 2, if I went through and completed every quest and cleared a substantial amount of mobs, I would be a lot higher at the end than say Meadows n00b sorc.

          It depends on rather you think you should be able to skip past a lot of quests and mobs and the game should supplement you if you do, or if you are given the option in an open world like Diablo 2, rather you should be made to suffer like his sorc. – Fun game, but aye it has some issues.

    • TheEmrys
    • 9 years ago

    I love my lawn, too. And the smug feeling I get when the neighbor is jealous.

    • Krogoth
    • 9 years ago

    I don’t mind unlocks for “easter eggs” and “extra features”.

    For everything else, it is bloody lame.

    • Voldenuit
    • 9 years ago

    Geoff, you haven’t played L4D and L4D2 until you’ve unlocked What Are You Trying to Prove?, Still Something to Prove and The Real Deal. ๐Ÿ˜›

    Although the good thing is you don’t have to complete stuff to unlock content.

    • Darkmage
    • 9 years ago

    The one that gets me are the unlocks in games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero. These are games I take with me to friend’s houses and it sucks that when I pop my disc into their machine, only 70% of the songs are available.

    We had a morale event at work last year and we set up Rock Band for the Wii during lunch. Song selection on the Wii was bad enough, but the really fun stuff was still locked. Sigh.

      • cygnus1
      • 9 years ago

      Most of those games have codes that will unlock all the tracks. I know rock band does. Since that game pretty much only gets played at parties, I have the code stuck on the game case and put it in every time.

    • Ryhadar
    • 9 years ago

    I’m in the same boat as you; I don’t get to play many games anymore and I know what you’re saying. Unlocks can be enjoyable, no question, but one example that annoys me to no end is unlocking a harder difficulty.

    Really?

    I wouldn’t call myself a hardcore gamer, but I do want a challenge in my games. Meaning, I want the hardest the game can throw at me. I shouldn’t have to earn the privilege.

      • travbrad
      • 9 years ago

      Yeah that’s really annoying. Way too many games do that, and usually it’s the games that are way too easy to begin with.

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