Editor’s note: Christopher makes a case against
unlockable content. He notes in particular the disparities that it can create in online play. This one of his two “pro” and “con” arguments for
Michael Rousseau’s On the Contrary community writing challenge. If you
like, you can find out about how to participate here. -James


For
those who are short for time, gaming can be a frustrating experience —
particularly when games exclude the player from content that they have
paid for. Some might even go so far as making the claim that unlockables
punish people for being casual gamers.

A while back, DICE tentatively promised exclusive access to
certain weapons in Battlefield: Bad Company for gamers who had
completed a series of challenges (one of which was to pre-order the
game at participating stores). This incensed the community: Did it mean
that those who did not pay some cash up front would never have access
to the content? Would these players be at a disadvantage on day one?
And what were they really paying for?

But it’s not just competitive online games. Players brought a
similar grievance to the attention of the team at Harmonix. Some gamers
couldn’t understand why they had to play all of Rock Band in order to
unlock all the complete playlist. What happened to plug and play? What
happened to fun games for all?

Unlockable content places an indirect handicap on those bereft of a
ton of free time — particularly with regard to online gaming.

 

Many
first-person shooters have a standard built in leveling system. The
player is rewarded with better equipment, perks, and weapons as they
progress. Ideally, a match-making system arranges games that pit
players of same level together, but more often than not, a big divide
between those who have had the time to level up and those who have not
emerges.

Players may often find themselves playing
with gamers who have exceptionally powerful weapons. Modern Warfare is
a classic example of indirectly creating this unfair gaming arena.
This, of course, leads to completely lopsided scores.

Perks are much the same. They undoubtedly give veterans an edge, and
those who buy the game many months after release may find themselves
re-spawning more than they would like.

In the end, such reward systems forever punish those who do not have
the time to hone their skills. And this is on top of the fact that the
advantage always tips toward higher level users anyway. They have more
time to commit a game and thus, more time to practice manipulating its
interface.

And that is where the issue lies: Should a game be completely
accessible only for those who have the time to play it for hours on end?

Would it be a fruitful experiment to create a game mode that allowed
online players in any game — particularly FPSes — access to all the
options from day one? 

Which brings us to the question — why have unlockable content in the first place?

Sports games are a classic example of a design that creates a fair
playing field. With most of these games, the skill of the player is the
sole determinant of the outcome of the match — not the unlockable
content. Because of this, sports games have a high replay value (until
the next season, which is another topic altogther) which lies in the
drive to perfect the control mechanics. The enjoyment doesn’t come from
some silly quest to unlock everything hidden in the game.