Nintendo has a tradition of including unlockables in their games, and I have somehow taken it for granted. The Super Smash Bros. and Mario Kart franchises have tons of unlockables. I admit that’s an obvious statement, but it didn’t occur to me that this was significant until after I broke out my PlayStation 2 and got into some older games from developers who weren’t Nintendo.
After bumbling my way through a song in Dance Dance Revolution Extreme 2, a message popped up telling me I had unlocked a new song. I played the song, and that unlocked a character. “Oh yeah,” I thought. “This used to be a thing.” And damn it, it’s a thing I miss. I know that part of it was an attempt to prolong the life of a game, but such unlocks have always been one of the more engaging reward systems I’ve encountered in gaming.
The tradition seems to have given way to other, less satisfying ways of attaining content. I don’t mean to disparage downloadable content in general, because I am of the belief that post market content can change a game in exciting ways. But some of this DLC doesn’t feel satisfying. Microtransactions, in particular, are a problem. It’s addictive, and it’s expensive.
You remember the feeling I’m talking about, right? You would look up a game on a site like, well, this one. Then, you would discover that your favorite game was filled with all sorts of secrets. Some of us wanted to unlock characters, maps, or other content as a point of pride. Others wanted to reveal the mystery inside, so they could see what was behind the veil. For those who weren’t up to the task, there were cheat codes! These were a currency in and of themselves, back before the internet was easily accessible.
A memory card full of hard-earned rewards that could be transported to a friend’s house felt significant. The unlockables were trophies that could give bragging rights to accomplished gamers. Now what do we have? Achievements and trophies in an online profile? They ask players to accomplish similar tasks, but only provide points to be added to the top of their other points. There is no tangible reward. If I’m being honest, who really gives a damn?
It's not that I don’t get it. Video games are a business, and there are certain practices that work best. If unlockable content is removed, then the game isn’t any less complete in the eyes of the players. How could they miss something that they didn’t know was there in the first place? But that also means that there is less for them to experience in the game, which means that they might be done with the game faster. If a publisher can then sell them extra content or costumes for an extra few bucks, they’re going to do it. If they can get away with hiding this content in loot boxes, they are going to try. That is, unless gamers fight back. Extra content right out of the gate can be a signal to a gamers that they need to spend a bit extra to get the very best experience from their game.
It seems that the only real unlockables in games are gated behind in-game currencies that are an absolute grind to get. They’re hardly even challenging grinds—they’re merely matters of endurance. That endurance can usually be overcome by purchasing the currency from an online store. I know I’m probably being a nostalgia snob, but I miss the days where secrets and bonuses were commonly expected within the games. Now they’re just products on a digital storefront, and that’s a pretty big bummer.