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When reward doesn't necessarily reflect risk
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Author name #1
Member since Nov 2007 · 121 posts
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Subject: A plague of unlockables

Yesterday, Super Smash Bros Brawl (Wii) turned up. You already know where this is going, to a degree.
Last night I decided to have a quick go at it. Classic one-player mode, fight my way through some nasties to see an ending and probably grab a trophy for it, like Super Smash Bros Melée (Gamecube). Before I'd even started, I went through my usual process of checking the options menu and it had already thrown two free items at me, a Wriggler trophy and some sticker or other, possibly because certain games are in my wii's internal memory, or perhaps they were unlocked by successfully removing the cellophane from the box.
I failed to beat the game, died after about 9 rounds, didn't bother to continue as I was going to bed and it threw four more things at me including two new game modes.
To sum up, I was given 6 new items of varying significance for achieving absolutely nothing.

It got me thinking about the following:
1) How much effort should be put into receiving a reward?
2) How much importance should be placed on the proportion of reward to time and/or effort invested?
3) How much is too much, before it becomes a case of playing for the sake of unlocking trinkets instead of playing to enjoy?

Soul Calibur (Dreamcast) is a prime example of a strong view I have with regard to character unlocking. If characters need to be unlocked for subsequent use in a significantly different single player campaign, their own story mode for example, I think that's ok, but I'm of the mind that everyone (possibly excluding boss character which are almost universally broken or game-breaking) should be unlocked for the separate multiplayer versus game. 
Soul Calibur became a few hours of blasting through the single player game on very easy difficulty in order to unlock everyone so that we could have some real fun with the multi-player game. The classic single player mode was never played again. If it's that easy to unlock all the characters, why should we have to in the first place? In a game where the meat of the experience and majority of time invested is in two-player competition, why are components that are integral to the experience, the characters, locked away until a few hours is wasted playing through the single-player nonsense beforehand?

While I'm on the subject of fighting games, it brings to mind the arcade version of Street Fighter Alpha 3. Certain characters and modes can only be unlocked once the game has been switched on for a certain length of time, be it days or weeks. Even then, a code needs to be entered before you can use the chartacters or modes as they're not readily apparent on the screen. Shouldn't it be either/or? Why should both conditions need to be fulfilled? Isn't it pandering needlessly to the tiny group of elite players who live near an arcade and have done their research, barring entry to a casual player who may put more money in or purchase a home version if they'd known these extras were available?

Burnout 3 (Xbox) is another game that I dip in and out of as it's fairly accessible. You can put half an hour into one challenge to get the gold medal and be rewarded with one or two more things to play with, be they extra cars or another track or challenge. The game constantly sets you new goals with a slightly higher bar than previously, encouraging you to make progress within the laws of the game, rather than making you do the same thing with slightly different textures 20 times to unlock a picture. It also always tells you what you need to do to achieve the next unlock, something that numerous games are guilty of not doing. Much of game is samey, but as far as accessible racing games go, I think the difficulty and spreading of unlockable items is pitched just right.

Wario Ware (GBA) is an example of the same thing 20 times problem. To make Pyoro 2 available, you have to first see all the games in the main game mode, then beat each points target in the grid for each game. However, while this is the last bastion of unlockable items in the entire game, many of the mini-games follow the same pattern of pressing a single direction at the right time or simply mashing the A button as many times as possible within a time limit until the game goes too fast for a human being to beat. Not only is this not much fun after you've seen your 4th or 5th version of the same game, the reward isn't anything particularly special either.

Project Gotham Racing 2 (Xbox) is an example of where a (nigh-on impossible) challenge was destroyed by the ability to pay money. To unlock the TVR Cerbera Speed 12 in the real world, you had to beat the game at Platinum level. This is far too much for anyone with a wife, kids, life, responsibilities to achieve. However, you could always just pay a small amount of money to unlock it via the Paris Booster Pack. This provides the option to drive the car to people who don't have the time or ability to unlock the car via the offline method, but essentially destroys the achievement for anyone who wanted to do it the hard way, only resulting in a shiny medal on a screen for all the hard work.

Do we even need unlockables?
I'm sure we all remember the games where defeating the challenge and reaching the end was enough and once you'd done that you'd go into the options and bump up the difficulty and do it all again.
Are unlockables just a small part of the outer message from the western world, a sign of our overly-consumerist society that there always needs to be more, more, more otherwise we're not happy?
And more to the point, does the average consumer of games even care about half of these extras or, particularly in the case of Smash Bros, is it purely fan service taken to the nth degree for a tiny niche of people who have far too much time on their hands?

Nintendo particularly have often attempted to prosecute manufacturers of cheat cartridges under the insistence that they destroy the original experience, but if we're paying anywhere between £20 and £60 for a product, why can't we have everything available to us? You don't have to watch the normal version of a DVD in order to unlock the directors cut, or watch at the equivalent of a higher difficult (in a foreign language, say) to be able to see the ending. While games aren't entirely analogous to movies, and they never should be, why should considerable amounts of content be hidden away behind barriers that only the most dedicated/unattached/unemployed/school-aged person will ever have the most important factor, time, available to discover?

"...either stop and think or fuck right off" (TheOutrider)
Author name (Administrator) #2
Member since May 2011 · 2485 posts · Location: Brisbane
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I hate unlockables.  Too often they're simply a way to extend a game's lifespan, as if a 'secret character' makes a shitty game all the better simply by existing.

It's annoyed the shit out of me for a while.  I paid for this game, goddammit.  As a designer your ability to control how I play with this should end with the mechanics.  Forcing me to jump through arbitrary hoops to unlock the full value of what I have paid for is only marginally better than EA selling better weapons to players with more real-world cash.  I mean, fuck that.

There are obviously cases where it's not a bad idea - unlocking new tracks and cars as you progress through a racing game is neither a bad thing nor a tremendous hardship.  But what happens when I lose my saved game?  Having to unlock the good stuff again is not a sure way to a longer gaming experience: when I'm forced to do it again I'm far more likely to shelve or sell the game than play it for another hour.

It must be a fine line to walk - you can't just hand the top-tier end-game to the player, 'cause let's face it: given the chance a lot of us will shortcut our way to the end and then go find something else to play.  This is why piracy ruins games: when it's easier to try another game than actually try harder to pass a tough bit, the overall satisfaction from playing is blown to ratshit.  By the same token, as soon as you give the player all the keys, he immediately becomes less likely to work hard and more likely to skip to the end.

What you describe with Mario Party sickens me. 

It's my game and dammit, I want to play it however I like, and I don't want to have to suffer to get what I paid for.  If I cheapen the experience by getting it all up front, well then too bad.  If you, as a designer, make a compelling game experience, then I will continue to play it even if I can skip the hard bits.  If you make a shitty game and attempt to disguise its shallow nature with unlockable content then I will eventually see through your pathetic attempts to deceive me, and I will not likely buy your game a second time.

Making games ain't easy, but fuck off with your feel-good achievements and bullshit unlockable fakery.
Author name #3
Member since Nov 2007 · 121 posts
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This post contains a minor spoiler. If you see something that you didn't want to see, that's your problem. You've been warned.

I've just remembered one that I didn't mention and I'm still not sure how I feel about it.

Upon completing Super Mario Galaxy the other week with the requisite 120 power stars, Luigi became a playable character if I want to start again using the same save file. Obviously, I don't, but it's entirely possible that in another household where the adults buy the games and the kids play them to death before moving on (I was one of those children once), this is an event that would take place.

If you beat the game with 120 power stars using Luigi, a secret 121st star becomes available in a secret level which involves you being able to run around and grab 100 purple coins in the pre-game festival area outside the castle. With my 28-going-on-50 brain now, it's not much of a reward really, but putting myself in the mind of me at 12 years old and how I really did work at seeing every single god damn byte of the games I owned and then fuck with them even more using an Action Replay cartridge, if I'd been given that opportunity in order to do that, realistically I probably would have.

For me there is a pro and a con here. While the extra effort involved to see the secret level isn't worth it from the point of view of someone who has just completed the game or indeed someone who has other things to do, Super Mario Galaxy is of high enough quality to warrant a repeat play at some point in the future, so the opportunity to play again with something else to see at the end of it is a welcome one, even if it's not for me as such.
"...either stop and think or fuck right off" (TheOutrider)
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