Posted by: seanmalstrom | August 14, 2015

Email: Unlocks and other hamster wheels

I have been wanting to write this for months, it’s about the pervasiveness of unlocks and other hamster wheels in games. In short: fuck them, I don’t have time for that. What we are seeing with Mario Maker is just the logical next step to what has been going on for years.

Let’s take FTL as an example. FTL is essentially an RPG and the different ships are the character classes. When you start out the game you have only one ship to choose, and it’s the boring standard ship. To get the other mores interesting ships you have to play with the boring one first, and the rate at which you unlock new ships depends on random events, so it could literally be hours before you get another ship. Half the fun of roguelike-style games is trying something new after you die, but you can’t when you’re stuck with only one ship.

This is like the game developer wiggling his finger at you saying “you don’t get your candy until you have finished your vegetables first”. What are you, my mother? I think racing games are the worst in that regard, they put all those cool cars on the front, but all you get to drive is the lame car your dad goes to work with. All the cool (and more importantly fast) cars need to be unlocked.

I can understand that in a single player campaign mode where it is meant to give you some sense of progression. For examples a racing game could have a career mode where you win races to earn the respect of other street racers before you get to challenge them. Sounds reasonable to me. But if I just want to play a quick race, alone or with a friend, I shouldn’t be limited to only the cars I unlocked in single player.

Strategy games have been doing this since forever: in the single player campaign you start out with very few things you can build and ever consecutive map unlocks more buildings and units. But outside of the campaign you have access to everything, every building, every unit, every technology. Imagine playing an RTS where you have to win X number of matches first before you can build more than the most basic foot troops.

Or, following the FTL example, imagine an RPG where you can only choose the fighter class and you have to beat the game as a fighter first before you can play the game as a mage. One argument I hear often about FTL is that some of the ships are better than others and easier to play, but so what? Clerics in AD&D were better than other classes, but you could still play as a cleric in Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale. Did anyone ever say “boy, I really wish they wouldn’t have let me pick this class”? Of course not, to the contrary, it made the game richer.

Another common argument is “if the game gave me everything I wouldn’t have any motivation to play”. This one is really baffling me, you are essentially admitting that you just play the game because it keeps giving you useless shiny stickers. And in the end what do you have, a savegame you don’t want to delete.

OK, enough of the rant, let’s get serious. Games are meant to be fun, they take us away from work and the tedium of everyday life. Some games are slow and meant to be played over a longer period and some games are meant to give a quick burst. But all these different games have one ultimate goal: to entertain us. When a game forces me to do some repeated action just for the prospect of a reward it is no longer fun, it is work. Playing the game should be the reward in itself. Unless you are a pro gamer who earns his living playing games, the moment that playing a game is not fun is when you should stop.

Unlocks are a way of stretching a game. If we look at FTL, it doesn’t really take that long to try out all ships when you have them. The developers made the mistake to think that once we have seen all the ships we are no longer interested in the game, so they artificially stretched the time it takes to try out all ships. This is the false idea that we play games for the *surprise*. But that’s not true, I have used a cheat tool to unlock all the ships and despite having played them all I keep coming back. It is the act of playing the game, making decisions, the keeps me interested. Having more ships just means that I have more decisions I can make, i.e. more content.

I can see several reasons why game developers adopt unlocks and other forms of hamster wheels in the games:

It makes the game feel longer
I think this might have been the motivation in earlier times before the internet was widespread. It is similar to making a game very hard, if it takes the player longer to get everything he will feel like there is more content in the game. Adventure games like Zelda or RPGs could easily be stretched by some collectible nonsense like finding all the heart pieces, but more arcade like games couldn’t. So unlocking all the cars became the equivalent of finding all the heart pieces.

The player is too stupid
This was obviously the motivation in Mario Maker. Unlocking hard mode would be another frequent example. This is very patronizing, like the game developer knows what’s good for us. We can’t have little Timmy lose at a video games or it will hurt his feelings.

Delaying used sales
What do you do with a game when it is no longer fun? Stash it in your shelf for all eternity? No, you sell it. Hamster wheels make you feel like you have been investing time and effort into something, so you don’t want to just throw it all out of the window. You cling on to that one savegame that took you a hundred hours to get to.

Keep you away from other games
This would be the primary reason for online games. If it takes you a significant amount of time to get somewhere you don’ want to just abandon it all. Especially if starting another game means you have to start all over from beginning again. It’s like sticking to a career you hate because you don’t want to start at the bottom in another company. Arcade games were not like this, you literally had just to take a step to the left or right to play the competitor’s game, but in the world of slow computer games the developers will keep you glued to their game.

Keep you playing to sell you more stuff
In the age of DLC it is more important than ever to keep players interested in a game. If you stopped playing a game you won’t care about the new DLC, but if all the cool kids have it as well and you want to play with the cool kids you should better get it.

Everyone else does it
If none of the above reasons apply you can bet it was done because of herd mentality. Every game has unlocks, therefore our game needs unlocks as well, hurr durr.

None of these reasons are really made with gamers in mind, it’s all about the business model. One of my favourite games in recent years is Unreal Tournament (both 99 and 2004), exactly because there is nothing to unlock. There is a single player mode that gradually introduces you to the game modes, but it’s just a glorified tutorial. Outside of that you can play any mode and any map. If I install the game on a new PC I don’t have to keep dragging my savegames with me for all eternity. Sure, my records will be gone, but who cares. I bet the new Unreal Tournament will be full of unlocks and hamster wheels now that it is free.

Hamster wheels are not fun, they are work that is designed into tricking you to think you are having fun. I really wish we could just go back to where when you bought a game you got the whole package, instead of buying a business model. And quite frankly, I have neither the time nor patience for these hamster wheels anymore; when I was a kid I would do things like find all the heart pieces in Zelda, but as I got older I came to see that it’s just designed to waste your time. That’s why I don’t bother with online games, especially the free-to-play ones. Apparently there are enough people who will get tricked by a carrot on a stick, so I don’t see the attitude changing anytime soon. Oh well, I’ll stick to my 80s and 90s games then.

 I’m not sure if FTL is the best example since it is intended to be a rogue game.I do really like Rogue Legacy’s system as that is very skill based. If you have the skill and understanding of the game, you can beat the game with around six children.

With Zelda, I see it in the same way as computer RPGs. In computer RPGs, you had levels. If you were stuck in a point in the game, you could just keep leveling and break your way through it. Zelda awards diligent exploration with heart pieces, but it is not required. The game becomes easier when you find them though.

Look, the earlier games were arcade based and very difficult. Super Mario Brothers was not locked in content. In fact, you could use a warp zone to reach anywhere. Yet, the game is challenging. It may take 5 minutes to beat the game, but it takes a good while to understand the game. The NES era games’ difficulty was a value since it took a while to beat them. Beating games was all the rage and kids got playground boasts if they could ‘beat’ a hard NES game.

Since all games are easy now, they throttle the content.

One of the things I talked about in one of my earlier articles was how the media the game developers consumed (and the gamers too) largely shaped gaming. If developers loved board games, then those mechanics would find their way into games. One thing gamers and developers did quite often was read books. Today, no one reads books. It is why the ‘story’ and ‘universe’ of games is as terrible as a comic book today. No one reads books today.

Oh man, I think I’m turning into that old man who yells at kids walking on his lawn. In many ways, games are getting better. However, the value of them keeps falling. Perhaps as electronics keeps spreading in our lives, gaming loses its luster. It is not longer a rage to connect a machine to a TV to play PONG. Gaming is losing its magic.


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